Monday, May 24, 2004


We have had eight and a half inches of rain in the past ten days. Saturday night's storm left enough that on Sunday morning there was an angry dark torrent of water dumping over the Fairwater dam, and an even angrier, even darker, even more swollen torrent pushing downstream. By evening that torrent had moderated some, but still it is obvious you should not go wading.

Fortunately, Fairwater sits at the headwaters of the Grand River. The main stream drains only a township to the north and east of us. A couple side creeks drain patches of farmland to the northwest and the south. There is only so much run-off that we'll see. Downstream, however, as additional drainage accumulates, the river will be more fearsome. The Grand drains into the upper Fox. The upper Fox drains into Lake Winnebago. Lake Winnebago empties into the lower Fox, which empties into Green Bay and Lake Michigan, which ultimately flows over Niagara Falls and rushes past Montreal and Quebec on its way to the Atlantic. You might watch for the dark stain of our rainstorm as it comes flowing past you.

For some years the middle west has had a moisture deficit. As fiercely as this percipitation is rushing its way to the far sea, little of it is going to make its way into our ground water, little of it is going to stay in our fields. In fact, when the sun comes out and dries the fields, they may bake to a hard crust that is not friendly to green growing things.

Here in Fairwater, we were fortunate: all we got was rain. Storms across the middle west included tornadoes in several states. One of them destroyed all or nearly all the buildings in Bradgate, Iowa. Those of you who have been following my recent Vagabond adventures in Emmetsburg, Iowa, might be interested to know that Bradgate is only about twenty-five southeast of Emmetsburg and only a few miles south of West Bend, the community that has to claim my strain of the Montags. Fortunately, despite the immensity of the destruction in Bradgate, there were only a few injuries, no deaths.

Perhaps those who inhabit the urban canyons of New York and other large cities can be oblivious to the power of Mother Nature, but out here in the great flatness we are constantly humbled by the fierceness of the rushing waters, by the might of the terrible swift winds.

This morning, in the grey light, the pond down the hill from us is a quieter brown urgency. The fierceness has not been subdued, however; it has only moved downstream, as I say, to trouble others on its way to the sea.


APRIL 20, 2004, cont'd

When I pulled into the clubhouse parking lot at Emmetsburg's country club for the Chamber of Commerce Annual Banquet, I was thinking to myself: "I don't know anybody here." Ma Coincidence begged to differ, however. I parked beside a white car that had pulled in a moment before I did. Kathy Fank and her husband, Nick, got out of it. Kathy is Director of the Chamber of Commerce. I interviewed her when I was in Emmetsburg last November.

You would call it a stately old club house. Big. Square. Proud. We started at the bar, of course, for it was cocktail hour. I saw a lot of Busch products in people's hands so I had to remind people that Milwaukee still makes beer by ordering a Miller Genuine Draft. I think Miller is still in Milwaukee.

Nick and I sat down next to a fellow who takes care of Emmetsburg's parks. He was having a beer. We talked for a bit about the likelihood of a random test for drugs and alcohol when he got to work tomorrow. He has a CDL (Commercial Driver's License) so there is zero tolerance for drugs or alcohol in your system when you're on the job. Even the minutest amount left over from the night before will get something put into your file for a year. The fellow didn't bad-mouth the random testing program but he did say it that it didn't address the elemental problem that "some people are bad drivers drunk or sober."

I saw Paul and Peggy Osterman of Emmetsburg's Queen Marie Bed & Breakfast, where I'd stayed while working on my memoir, Curlew:Home. They invited me to their table where I met three other couples, including Cecilia Miller who belongs to the Emmetsburg Writers' Club and who expects to be at the meeting I'll attend on Thursday.

Among the people I sat with at supper were Dr. and Mrs. Coffey. I interviewed Dr. Coffey last November about his work preserving and restoring Emmetsburg's Five Island Lake. The fellow who declined an interview with me was also seated at the table; we greeted each other but neither of us made mention of our earlier phone conversation. I know you win people over with sweetness, so I tried to be sweet, or as sweet as an old bear can be.

The food was terrific, far superior to what you might expect at a small town middle western country club - the best Iowa beef, fried chicken, sliced ham. Potatoes mashed with the skins on, the right touch of garlic added. Potato salad, macaroni salad, one of those Cool Whip salads with miniature marshmallows that are de rigueur at Iowa picnics. Green salad with several choices of dressing. Sturdy rolls to go with the sturdy meal. And green beans. As a rule, I won't eat commercially prepared green beans because I've never had a good experience with them. So I didn't take any of the green beans. When we sat down and started to eat, the doctor's wife comment that they were very good beans.

After supper, the entertainment. Speeches by a couple Emmetsburg high school students. Before you say "Oh, God," consider the possibility that they might be entertaining speeches. Laura Hersom had been county Fair Queen last year, and she spoke as if it were her crown speaking about the experience. Talk about a surprise of expectations. In all its dreams the crown had never imagined "the perfume of livestock." Of course, by the end the crown had been a little more enlightened about county fairs in middle western from country.

Patrick Baker was an exchange student from Germany with the most charming command of the English language. He spoke as if he were the donkey of the Brementown Musicians. "I saw an old dog along the way," he said. "I, with my big donkey heart, felt sorry for him."

"The dog couldn't sing and the cat couldn't sing at all," Patrick said further on. Soon the group was "me, this great singer, and a dog and a cat and a rooster." They found a home, eventually, with a group of bandits, but "we had to promise never to sing again."

Dennis Greenfield sang five Irish songs for us, Irish "because this is a Chamber of Commerce dinner in Emmetsburg, after all." Dennis could sing.

"It seems as if Irish songs are all about war and death.," he said, "so I'll sing about war and death." And he did, in a lovely tenor, a capella.

But not before placing his Want Ad: "I've just finished my degree," he said. "I'm looking for a job in music education."

Andy Joyce, president of the Chamber, had to thank Kathy Fank for her hard work all year as Director of the organization. Kathy had to thank a list of specific people for their help, the Chamber volunteers "who do so much - I don't know what Emmetsburg would do without them." She thanked "this Chamber board - they never ask for recognition, they just do it." And she said that if you want to succeed, you can't be afraid of being ridiculed; you can't be afraid of getting laughed at.

The final moments were given to presenting the "2004 Citizen of the Year Award" to Tim Jackson of Mid-American Energy for everything he and his family had done for the community. The whole Jackson family was there, his wife, the sons, and the daughter. Some of Mid-American Energy's employees were present.

It was a Chamber of Commerce banquet like thousands of other Chamber of Commerce banquets, I suppose. The same kind of appreciation was expressed that you'd hear in other towns across the length and breadth of the middle west, I suppose. This dinner took the form of any dinner in any town, I suppose. Another spot of the glue that binds us, the adhesive that holds our communities together.

And the best part of it - it didn't go on too long. They did what they needed to do. They got that done and got out of there. Tomorrow was another day, and they knew.

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