Tuesday, August 31, 2004


I turn 57 years of age today. Where have the years gone? They have run away like wild horses; they do not come back when I call them.

As my sister says: "Getting old got you down? Consider the alternative."

I "retired" from a career in the printing industry at age 55 so as to give "my last ten good years" over to writing. Mary has supported me in this; she keeps us in groceries and medical insurance and sees that I get to write.

I have used up two of those ten good years already, and what have I done: I have interviewed 160 people in my twelve Vagabond focus communities; I have written upwards of 250,000 words in the Vagabond Journals. I have been wonderfully received in the communities I've visited, have met some wonderful people. Some of the material I've gathered has already been shaped to essay or profile; and the rest of it stands available, as I have the time. It is a terrific project I'm embarked on.

In the meantime, I've also been selected as one of the three finalists for the Wisconsin Poet Laureate appointment; I've been tapped to teach Writing Creative Nonfiction this fall at Lakeland College; I have given many readings, presentations of my Vagabond materials, and writing workshops. I am getting to live my dream of being a writer, a dream that had to be deferred during those years of raising and supporting a family.

Before I retired, I took naps at every opportunity; it was a joke with the family. Since I retired, I've napped maybe twice: there's so much I want to do. There's so much I want to do that in retirement I still rise every day between 4:00 and 5:00 a.m. to get started on it. Sometimes I'll still be at it at 10:00 p.m. You might say I'm a man obsessed with what he's doing.

And what am I doing? I am trying to hold on to some of what we're losing; to hold it up examination and admiration; to record it for future generations, so they might know us; to make a mark that lasts, so they might know that we were here.

Some days I feel like Don Quixote, and some days like the wisest man on the planet. A man's reach should exceed his grasp, and I think mine does, as I pass this Mile Marker #57.


June 16, 2004 - continued

I have been visiting LTM Manufacturing, four miles south of Smith Center; LTM makes components for the RV (Recreational Vehicle) market. I have been speaking with Todd Haven who manages Operations at the company. LTM was founded and developed by Mike Nebel, formerly president of Excel/Peterson Industries, but it has since been sold to Lippert Industries.

The company started in a small barn Mike Nebel owns just south of the plant. "We expanded the barn a couple of times," Todd says, "until October, 1999, when we moved into the new building."

We stand looking into the barn now. "It got pretty cold in there," Todd says. "We had only this one hanging heater for the whole place. And the place was pretty crowded for a while."

Then we enter the current manufacturing facility. It smells like a factory. That smell must be a mixture of the odors that come off new welds and fresh paint, with a little oil mixed in.

"Steel comes in one end, over there," Todd explains. "Tubing is cut to size on the band saw. Flat sheets get sheared. We buy our angle iron already angled. After it is cut down, sheet stock goes to the turret punch to get holes put in as needed, goes to a brake press to be bent. A woman is running the turret press, which is computerized and programmed to put as many as thirty-two holes in a sheet of steel, at the proper place, of the proper size.

"We program the computer," Todd says. "The operator does her own programming. Once you figure it out, it's pretty simple. You have to be able to read drawings, as all the people in the machining area do, so they can program their machines.

Pieces are welded together down the center of the building.

Todd shows me a storage tray mechanism that has been completed. It rolls out both ends, with a stop each way to keep it from going too far. The tray can handle four hundred pounds evenly distributed "and a couple hundred pounds on the end, extended."

One customer, who shot in competition, had his entire tray filled with his shot-gun shells.

Pieces get welded, Todd shows me, then spray-painted. "Some products go out for powder-coat paint," he says. "It is thicker and more durable for outdoor weather, a more expensive paint, to keep a piece from rusting."

He shows me how the slide-out LP trays works. It brings the tanks out where you can pick them up easily.
The battery tray will hold two batteries. Loaded, it slides in and out easily.

Here is a bed-slide mechanism: the bedroom will slide in and out, either electrically or hydraulically, as the customer prefers.

Todd tells me about "toy haulers - the latest and greatest thing on the west coast. You transport your motorcycles in back, you have living quarters in front. We build a bed that raises up the ceiling. It is lowered when you are ready to sleep."

We step into the assembly area, "where whatever needs to get put together gets put together." Todd shows me a "Flex Guard," which is used to keep wires and tubes from slide-out rooms from getting cut when the room is moved. "That's one of the patents that Lippert wanted."

I'm amazed by the stabilizer jack that Mike Nebel has designed. A single motor runs both legs, and the legs create the illusion that they are working independently. They work together, with one rod threaded left-handed and the other threaded right handed. Pressure on one leg pushes down the other leg until both are on the ground and have equal pressure on them. Hence, on uneven ground, you don't have to use blocks to level your trailer. The legs find their own center and level things themselves.

Steel makes a big loop through the plant, circling clockwise, and eventually the finished piece arrives back at the shipping dock to go out where it came in. Todd and I had made the same loop through the plant, and now it was time for me to go out where I came in, too.

A little ingenuity, some steel, some paint. It's a wonder - what they're punching out, out there on the prairie.


(501 W. Third #12, Smith Center, KS 66967)

"Heard some local farmers say that the hot weather has made the milo heads pop out," Ivan wrote near the beginning of August. "I guess milo is one crop that needs hot weather."

"Gene Conaway wuz a-tellin' about how good the air conditioner was in his tractor," Ivan said. "I think he was V-Bladin' or whatever he was doing. He said he didn't even have to turn his AC on full blast to keep cool even on those hottest days. Meanwhile, less than eight blocks from where he was a-braggin about the tractor air conditioning, his wife Arleta was a-wrassling a front-end tiller in their front yard. The only protection from the heat that Arletta had was a large straw hat."

"Dennis Lambert said he had been in Red Cloud recently and one feller asked him if he knew the Old Indian," Ivan wrote. (Portions of Echo Echo appear in the Red Cloud paper with Ivan's "Old Indian" by-line.) "Dennis reluctantly admitted that he did. The guy told Dennis that I ought to put up a booth on Street Car Days so people would get to see what I looked like. Well, once years and years ago I won a Harry Bellafonte look-alike contest. Now I kinda resemble Oklahoma State basketball coach Eddie Sutton. And, fortunately, I am better looking than my picture on my driver's license."

"Justin Bingham, Idaho native who grew up somewhere between the Lolo trail and Jackpor, Nevada, will be a Smith Center citizen for a year," Ivan wrote. "Justin, his wife, and four children have rented a house on Second Street just across from Paul and Ginger Pletcher. Justin, a graduate student at Kansas University, is writing his doctoral dissertation on Plains Culture. Bet you didn't know we had culture in this part of the country."

You know we have an eleven digit telephone number," Ivan said. "When me and Momma was first married, our telephone number was 623."

"Mike Hughes was a-tellin' me about one of his old girlfriends," Ivan said. "Mike said she was so fat that when they went down to the creek she didn't go skinny dippin'. She went chunky dunkin'."

"Stan Smith has a used police car sitting on his lot," Ivan reported. "I wish he would put the thing out of sight. Every time I go by there I look at the police car and automatically step on my brakes. It's just a reflex action, because I'm not speeding."

"I still would like to get Roger Barta, Leo Tuxhorn, and Jack Benn in a moseyin' contest on Old Settlers Day," Ivan said. "I'd put those three mosey-ers up against any trio of mosey-ers in any county seat town in the state of Kansas."

"Reporter asked a 100-year-old man what he thought it was that let him live so long," Ivan said. "The man said, 'You gotta jog every day and if you keep it up long enough you live to be a hundred.'"

"I'm around old people most of the time," Ivan said. "And I hear them talking about the proposed grade school building project. They always say, in various forms, what do we need a new school house for when we are losing students all the time. Then all the rest of the old folks say 'That's right.' Then they lean back in righteous indignation. What they have said is true. We are losing students. But does that mean that the ones who are left should have inferior facilities?"

"Did you know that the C is silent in rap music," Ivan asked.

"Had a first last Wednesday afternoon," Ivan said. "The Smith Center Country Club went to grass greens in 1975. Last Wednesday afternoon was the first time I won any money since we went to grass greens. Won two bucks."

"Linton Lull bought the coffee for the As the Bladder Fills Club last Thursday," Ivan said. "Birthday - 81st. Everybody there who knew the words to the song sang Happy Birthday to Linton."

"LaDonna Weltmer was using her considerable maintenance skills when she replaced several light bulbs in the Sale Barn Cafe last Thursday morning," Ivan wrote. "Eileen Peterson served in an onlooker capacity. She did offer several suggestions but she soon learned that LaDonna wasn't paying any attention to her. So she quit talking and just watched."

"Oh, while thinking about it - there probably won't be an Echo on Sept. 6th," Ivan said. "That's Labor Day and the union members who work in the news room are taking off."

"You know, in my lifetime I have eaten a lot of garden stuff," Ivan wrote. "Most of it I have grown tired of before the growing season was over. But I don't ever remember getting tired of vine-ripened tomatoes."

"Casey Edell had work to do when he got through drinking coffee and picking up knowledge at the As the Bladder Fills Club," Ivan said. "Casey had piannas to tune and middle C to find."

Ivan told that "Last Friday morning Arven Lyon said it was grocery shoppin' time. Arven said if he didn't eat, he wouldn't have anything to do. That's just about it for us old folks. Pulling up to the table is about the only exercise we get."

"When I was in grade school," Ivan said, "all we had to buy to get ready for the school year was a Big Chief tablet, a number two lead pencil, and a soft rubber gum eraser. Now the kids have a whole backpack full of school supplies and already medical science has proven that the backpacks are going to cause back problems when the kids get older."

"Jack Knight is having his fourth lifetime muffler installed on his Buckskin pick-up," Ivan said. "You know you are getting right up there in years when you are putting on your fourth lifetime muffler."


AUGUST 31, 1998

The observer turns 51 today.

Birthdays are reminders that one must enjoy - suck in and suck dry - every moment left. Here I am, left to enjoy this place - the village of Fairwater, the State of Wisconsin, the United States of America, Our Planet Earth, this solar system, our Milky Way. These days shall not come 'round again. I must watch, listen, soak up.

There are plenty who simply walk by the beauty of the ordinary. The observer must not dismiss the world but embrace it, so the expression of the world is part of the world. If I walk away from the assignment, I walk away from everything. Everything depends on what happens to our hawk, what happens to the lithe-limbed, raw-boned youngsters getting on the school bus, what happens to the weeds in the fenceline, to the fenceline, what happens to this piece of earth, the water moving on it, the sky above it. The sun fingering the rough bark of tree. Seed pods aching to split and spill. Leaves wishing to rehearse for the final beauty. Dried stalks that will poke up through snow, a thin shadow, barely a study in black and white.

Only if you invest greatly in the moment, in the place, in the conjunction of forces which has spun this planet to this point with me crawling upon it - only if you invest greatly will you be rewarded greatly. It has taken another birthday to remind me of this. This is birthday gift enough at 51!

Ah, bright sun. Ah, sins not yet committed. Lawns stippled with shadow, trees caught in the deepest green of summer, a drier sky that lets us see for miles and miles, the sour smell of corn.

I wonder how much lives change when harvesting changes the countryside - does the hawk find an easier supper, do the mouse and the pheasant struggle for cover? It looks like some beans are thinking about turning color; others - planted after peas were harvested - are just flowering now. All the beets have now been taken. There are a couple of fields of corn with color now around the ears, which says this is field corn.

You walk upon your piece of ground enough, it takes your soul; or perhaps the truth is, it gives you the soul you were born without.

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