Monday, May 31, 2004

APRIL 22, 2004, cont'd

I have been touring IEI in Emmetsburg with its president, Michael Webb. IEI makes countertops and cabinets, many of them for motorhomes made by Winnebago Industries. We are looking at a Computer Numerically Controlled router.

We got up close to the CNC router. It was cutting a piece of stock into several smaller parts. Designs are laid down on computer in the Auto-CAD program to maximize the useful pieces coming out of a single big piece of stock. The design is then translated into the language that runs the router, and the pieces get cut accordingly.

"We have 2000 particular part numbers for Winnebago alone," Michael said. IEI runs two shifts on the CNC router, one shift in most other areas of the plant. Summer hours are 6:30 a.m.-4:00 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 6:30 a.m.-11:30 a.m. on Friday. That's so employees can get an early start on their weekends, get out for an afternoon of golf, go to the lake, or whatever, Michael indicated.

Employees running the CNC router need to be comfortable in the Windows-based computer environment; they get training in understanding geometric code; plus they need "tool logic."

Those who prepare the designs need familiarity with Auto-CAD, "then we train them on Router-Sim,the program that creates the code that actually runs the router."

Pieces coming off the CNC move to various areas of the plant, depending on what needs to be done with them.

"We make a lot of our own moldings here," Michael said as he showed me the straight line rip saw. Lumber cames into the plant by semi load from lumber brokers, or from regional lumber dealers for smaller quantities. Of course you get a better price when you buy a semi load at a time.

The five-head molder first trues a piece of lumber, then the counter-rotating side heads and top/bottom heads fashion the molding exactly as the machine has been set up to do. You put a raw stick of lumber in one end, a piece of molding comes out the other end. Adjustment of the cutting heads allows a great variety of moldings to be manufactured.

Farther on stood two wide belt sanders. One usually does the rough sanding, the other does the finish sanding.

We saw some fellows fabricating dinette tables for Winnebago. These particular pieces got trimmed with a wood edge. At another station, Michael asked one of the employees making some cabinets, "For the YMCA in Ankeny?"


Cutting out the opening for a sink in a bathroom counter creates a fairly large piece of waste. "We write programs to use those pieces," Michael said. "They're large enough we can use them for some of our smaller pieces. You don't want to let too much of that pile up."

I saw a woman tapping a T-mold plastic edge piece into the face of a countertop. "That's for lower-price models," Michael said. The higher-priced models get the wood-edge trimming I'd seen earlier.

"Here let me show you," Michael said. "These tables fold and come apart for easy storage." He took a table apart for me. IEI not only cuts and finished the wood for those tables, but also puts on the hardware that allows the tables to fold up and to come apart.

Farther down the line we saw tables we an even simpler edging that was glued and screwed on, for the lowest-priced models.

We walked through the area where raw materials are stored. I was surprised that it wasn't any larger than it was. Michael said that, as needed, they do have storage at an off-site warehouse.

I'd seen as many women as men working in the plant and asked about that. There are 121 employees at IEI in both plants, about as many women as men, Michael thought. Employees come from a radius of about twenty-five miles in all directions from Emmetsburg - that includes Pochahontas, Spencer, Estherville, and Algona. Some of the women, no doubt, are farm wives from the area.

To be continued....



They have new shoes, Ben says, so they have to
Like walking barefoot in mud. Those who have

No shoes, he says, have to like it too.

Sunday, May 30, 2004

APRIL 22, 2004

Michael Webb doesn't look like he is president of IEI. It's clear he goes to work to work. It was 2:45 p.m. when I met him at the IEI plant at the east edge of Emmetsburg, along Highway 18. The plant is entirely a production facility, so I had a little difficulty finding the office end of it. The company's offices are at the other plant in Emmetsburg. As president, Michael is support by a director of manufacturing, an engineering manager, an estimating manager, a quality assurance manager, and accounting.

IEI is Institutional Equipment Inc. The company started out as the Iowa/South Dakota dealer for institutional grade cabinets and counters with a plastic laminate coating similar to "Formica" but made by LSI. They have added a wood laminate now, made by Campbell Rhey. In addition to selling these product lines, IEI now manufacturers cabinets, countertops, and doors, plus outsourcing "fixtures" to complement the products they make in Emmetsburg.

"We do a lot of component manufacturing," Michael said. "Our largest customer is Winnebago. The pieces we make for them get more sophisticated as the RVs [recreational vehicles] get more stylish. We've had a lot of growth as a result of our association with Winnebago."

I'm new to this industry, so as we talked I had to ask for more explanation than I'm used to. You'd hear Michael say "We used a lot of solid-surface Corian." Corian is the brand name for a type of acrylic filled with aluminum tri-hydrates and pigments; it is the original solid-surface product, so its name has become somewhat like "Kleenex" - you might say it is the "Formica" of the solid-surface products. "It's a very high-quality product and it's a lot of fun to work with," Michael said.

You'd hear Michael say "PVA glue cold press line," where a panel is cleaned, a layer of glue is put down, the laminate is applied, the panels are stacked and then pressed for an hour while the glue cures.

The portion of the plant closest to the meager offices at the north end of the building is devoted to "contract work." The rest of the building is given to manufacturing the parts that IEI makes.

IEI has a press to bend laminate and adhere it to the front edge, back scribe, and inside cove of a countertop. The laminate is heated to make it soft for bending. "We're the only people in the US who can make this countertop with such tight radiuses," Michael said. "Most people would have to use a contact glue and thinner laminate."

Here some fellows are working on pieces with unusual shapes. "We're retro-fitting an older room with wood-edged countertops," Michael said by way of explanation.

Specifications are communicated through a workorder. Geometric code is generated for custom shapes and the pieces are cut on the CNC (Computer Numerically Controlled).

In the distance we saw a maple door IEI is starting to manufacture for Winnebago. It'll be the door for the bathroom. "The high end units are getting more upscale all the time," Michael said.

To be continued....



your eyes at daybreak:
sometimes the rain.


MAY 29, 1998

Once the clouds cleared away, yesterday turned hot and steamy. Another thunderstorm rolled through last night and cooled things off. The sky is grey still. Our peonies are still bent with the weight of that storm's moisture.

To the north and northwest, the sky looks cold and wintry, the clouds like ice cubes.

Just south of Ripon, equipment sits on the empty lot next to the house that sold recently. A man looks over some papers, looks over the lot. Will he be digging a basement today? Is there another house going up on good farm land? Will we ever reclaim what we are losing? Does anybody care?

The radio wants to talk about pain in places all across the planet. I have to turn it off. There is enough pain right here, right now.

Saturday, May 29, 2004


by Jim Reese

Linus Cummins never learned to drive.
Never had anywhere, he said, worth going to.
He's a 69-year-old German farmer
who came back loony, some of his family claim,
from the Korean War.

He's lived in the big house
his father's father built
since he was born.
Only gone once for that call of duty
in Pusan - never married.
The rides he does get
are to and from church every Saturday night
and to a handful of family get-togethers.

"You know they were saying..."
Well, he gets that information from
the Yankton Press and Dakotan.
You can see him each early morning
through the kitchen window
thumbing the paper
and again at noon.

In between meals and chores
he sits on a feeder bucket - head over a
rusted coffee can.
In that can, he breaks up glass bottles.
In a rhythmic movement, he quarter turns
an old rusted ball hitch, grinding the bottles into
fine sand.
When the can is full, he takes the bottles' remains
and spreads them down the lane,
creating his own glass highway.

Last fall he'd made a trail with the sand
a quarter mile up the lane
before that first winter blow.
If he lived somewhere warmer, where the trail
might grow all the way to the road - I wonder:
which way would he go?


by Jim Reese

1870 - 1933. Floyd R. Knipplemeyer, Farmer - Will concluded on said date of December 13th 1930, Cedar County, Nebraska:

To son Floyd Jr., 80 acres of broke ground of his choosing - quarter horses and the 30 aught 6. East side of house. All out buildings.

Son Ronald T. 87 Head of Angus. West side of house. North forty. Outhouse squatting rights.

Daughter Florence. 1 Hereford Bull. Mother's wedding ring to do with as you choose. All household appliances, furniture and accessories except, Ronald T. and Floyd Junior's beds, kitchen table and wood stove. Said savings of $16,328 and 33 cents.

Neighbor. Floyd Sr. grants permission to finally move fence at the south end of Snake Creek. You're welcome you son of a bitch.

Witness. Mary A. Armkanecht. Dec. 13th 1933.

Jim Reese is a writer, photographer and editor who grew up in Omaha, Nebraska. He is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in creative writing from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he teaches in the English department and works on the editorial staff of the Prairie Schooner. He is cofounder of and Imagining Editor for Logan House Press. Reese's poetry and fiction have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies: South Dakota Review, Nebraska Life, Nebraska Territory, Morpo Review, Touchstone, Plains Song Review (University of Nebraska Press), Platte Valley Review, Poetry Motel, and in his first book, As Worthless As Tits On A Boar (Cacthouse Publishing 1995), Wedding Cake and Funeral Ham (Grizzly Press 2002), and his most recent collection, The Jive (Morpo Press, 2004).


I'm interested in considering your "poems of place" for publication in The Middlewesterner's "Saturday's Poem" feature; send two or three of your best in the body of an e-mail addressed to . Put "Saturday's Poem" in the subject line. Then be patient. I will get back to you about whether I'll use your work or not. Send along a short biographical note and information about where your books can be purchased and I'll include that when your poem runs. There's no payment involved for having your work appear in "Saturday's Poem," but the feature is seen by some high class readers. About seventeen of them, by our current count.

o Dave Bonta, "The Morning Porch" - March 13, 2004
o David Clewell, "Depot: Beaver Dam, Wisconsin" - February 21, 2004
o Susan Firer, "The Butterfly Graveyard" - May 22, 2004
o Fred First, "In Living Memory" - April 4, 2004
o Phil Hey, "Spare Tire" - March 6, 2004
o Tom Montag, "February 1, 2001" - February 14, 2004
o Mike O'Connell, "Flatlanders" and "A Farm and a Rainbow" - March 27, 2004
o Colleen Redman, "Tincture Making" - May 15, 2004
o Mark Vinz, "The Old Hometown" and "Midcontinent" - April 17, 2004

Friday, May 28, 2004

APRIL 22, 2004, cont'd

I have been talking with John Davis, plant manager at SNC in Emmetsburg, Iowa. We are at the King Street plant. John has been explaining what SNC does, and its history in Emmetsburg. Now we are ready for a tour of the plant.

We stepped out into the production area. Over there a woman was working magic at a machine. "Most things made here are made by hand," John said. "You can't mass-produce an order for forty-two pieces."

"Over here," he said, "is a toroid coil for a high frequency welder made by Miller Electric in Appleton, Wisconsin."

He said things like "That gets one hundred eighty turns of wire. This one requires exactly 48 turns." Then he was talking about "encapsulates" - varnishes and rubberized bake-on coatings.

All the employees in the department were women. John called it the "High Frequency Area." One of the women said it was more like "High Maintenance." She laughed and the other women smiled and nodded in agreement.

John and I moved into the next work area. "Our products get bigger as you move towards the back of the plant," John said.

A woman came up and introduced herself to me. I remembered her parents. She said they had hired my sisters to baby-sit her when she was little. Where did forty-some years go, I wondered to myself.

A woman at one work station was making what John called a "standard audio transformer." She said she could produce a couple hundred a day of them. If you've ever taken an old hi-fi cabinet apart, you should have seen something like what she was making.

John showed me a strand of the wire used in one piece SNC makes; it was as fine as a hair. The wire must be wrapped 6800 times to create the transformer; tolerance on this piece is plus or minus sixty-five wraps. "We have electronic counters," he said, "so we should be more accurate than that."

"This is a job shop," John said. "We have a lot of machinery working on different jobs."

Here they were making electronic brake controls for the Dings Corporation in Milwaukee, in different configurations and different voltages.

Not only do the products get bigger towards the back of the plant, the windings get bigger and some of the pieces get welded together before they're finished.

Here, a transformer for power sub-stations, made for General Electric. There, the transformer used to charge the battery on the E-Z-GO golf cart.

"E-Z-GO used to have three suppliers," John said. "They couldn't seem to get enough of the parts [a fero-resin transformer that converts AC power to DC; it works like a battery charger]. They wanted us to do a pre-production order of twenty-five, and the seemed surprised when all twenty-five of them functioned properly. Well - they were supposed to work."

"They asked us to have a hundred of the parts always in stock," John said. "When they ordered a hundred, we made a hundred more to replace what had been shipped. Over six months we shipped four hundred or five hundred of them. Then they asked 'How would you like to be a weekly supplier?' We said yes. 'Could you make twenty-five a day?' We said yes. 'You will be our #2 supplier,' they said. '#3 is gone.' A year later they asked us how many we thought we could make. They wanted three hundred a day, fifteen hundred a week. We ramped up to do it and now we are their only supplier of the part. We can make four hundred and twenty five of them a day if we need to. On an average day we'll make three hundred seventy five of them."

John pointed to a machine that is used to test parts, to make sure they work as they're supposed to. The testing machine itself isn't working today and John has been trying to get a technician in to repair it.

We got back to talking about transformers. "Now we've got another customer for a similar kind of part," John said. "Railway Equipment Company makes battery operated crossing lights for railroads. In that grey box you see by the railroad crossing lights there is a bank of batteries. They are using our transformer to charge those batteries with current coming off the power lines."

"Customers come to us by word of mouth," John said. "One satisfied customer will tell others. That's been the story of our success."

John had to get back to work. He's a hands-on plant manager and time was a-wastin'. And I was minutes away from another interview across town. I had seen SNC Plant #2, but not the Airport Plant. "Come back on another visit," John said, "and I'll show you the other plant."


MAY 25, 2001 (3)

At Five Corners the retired farmer works
his flower beds. He is sprawled there, weeding
and working the soil, he is sprawled as if
this were a Sunday picnic and he has
eaten his fill. Everything about him
shimmers. His red shirt. His baseball cap.
His cigar. The denim of his overalls.
The light which lays on him like a blessing

MAY 28, 1998

A storm this morning - long, low roar of thunder; rain. Lightning reflected off windows across our driveway. The farmers will appreciate the rain. So will the little green growing things in the farmers' fields.

Tires spit moisture from the street, leave tracks so you can see where they've been. A different song today, sung in a different key. Would the farmers take a rest, clean out their tool sheds, grease their equipment?

You can run away from home, but you can't run very far. What made you keeps you. A farmer's son is always a farmer's son. Cut yourself, Tom, do you not bleed green?

The peony blossoms are bent low with the weight of rain on them. The pond is dimpled. In places the road ahead mirrors the sky above. Grey, wet road. Grey, wet sky. Electric moisture. The clouds do not say we are at the edge of an ocean, nor even a very large lake. That takes different clouds.

Heavy rain now. At the Sina pig farm, children in slick, shiny rain coats wait for the school bus, which is not far behind me.

At Five Corners - to the southeast, white and purple flowers bloom close to the ground; to the northwest, peony blossoms on their bushes.

Despite the greyness, despite the rain, all is right with the world, or as near so as gratitude can make it.

Thursday, May 27, 2004

APRIL 22, 2004, cont'd

We have been talking with John Davis, the plant manager at the SNC in Emmetsburg, Iowa. We are at the King Street plant. John has been explaining what SNC does, and its history in Emmetsburg.

"We bought this building in 1996 from Horizons when they moved," John said, speaking of the King Street plant, or #2. The airport plant runs orders which require molding. Plant #2 is "the magnetics division."

"Orders declined over the past two years," John said. "9-11 put a kabosh on things. Right now things are picking up - we're the busiest we've been in two years."

"In twenty years we've grown phenomenally," he said.

SNC in Emmetsburg has 86 employees; in Oshkosh there are 140 employees, counting office staff, sales, and engineering. SNC also built a plant in Mexico recently.

The company has 2000 customers and manufactures parts from 20,000 different designs. Customers include three divisions of General Electric, five divisions of Rockwell, American Power Conversion, Banner Corporation, and Trombetta. SNC makes a battery charger for E-Z-GO Golf Carts, parts for Acme Corporation's mobile MRI equipment, "neutralizing transformers for the telephone industry, "and a lot of stuff for the military - we're a subcontractor for firms selling equipment to the government."

"We used to do a lot of stuff for the computer industry," John said, "but we've lost that to Taiwan." SNC used to produce 40,000 solenoid coils for hard drive devices each week.

"Parts we've made are in the scoreboards at most NFL stadiums in the country," he said. Daktronics in South Dakota makes those electronic scoreboards, including scoreboards used at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.

Our talk was interrupted by a phone call. It was an engineer from the office in Oshkosh, concerned about aspects of the manufacturing process for a new customer. The customer required a written procedure called a "process sheet" and the engineer was clarifying the changes that had been made at the manufacturing phase to make production more efficient.

John finished his business and turned back to me. "Daktronics also makes portable 'leader boards' for the PGA, so every golfer knows where he stands at any given moment."

"In 1996," John said, "we refurbished all those leader boards. It took us about two years. It required 600,000 transformers to finish that project."

Those leader boards are electro-mechanical devices, last built about 1979. The PGA intends to replace them with leader boards that are entirely electronic, but a successful prototype hadn't been developed yet when the old devices came in for refurbishing.

To be continued....



This concludes our discussion about "the construction of place," started in our post of April 28, and continued on April 29, April 30, May 10, May 11, May 13, May 14, May 16, May 17, May 18, and May 26, in response to the article "A Case Study in the Construction of Place: Boundary Management as Theme and Strategy in Canadian Art and Life" by Gaile McGregor. I have been highlighting points of interest from that article and considering them from the perspective of my Vagabond in the Middle project.

McGregor says: "The American north [Alaska] is lived in to a degree that the Canadian one isn't." The typical Canadian northern town, "is a well-serviced, highly rationalized, pre-fab imtitation of a southern community with houses tightly huddled and outer boundaries clearly marked." By contrast, its American counterpart will be "a sprawling, unbounded, fortuitous agglomeration of mismatched and often makeshift building types, where people precede services, where space and privacy are more important factors in residential site-selection than security, and where the outer edges seem to be trying to migrate into the trees."

One can look at specific Canadian towns such as Lynn Lake, Manitoba, or specific personalities such as Twelve Foot Davis as evidence contrary to McGregor's thesis; or we could look at planned communities such as Leaf Rapids, just miles from Lynn Lake, where school, grocery store, cafe, art gallery, and city offices are all found under one roof as evidence in favor. Nonetheless, I think she is essentially correct: American towns are sprawling and diffuse and unbounded; Canadian northern communities are more planned and rational. Canadian communities still seem to be encampments. The middle western communities I'm most familiar with are places settlers staked their claims and put up their buildings where they could. This was where they were going to live; it was not where they were going to live until they could go back south. My middlewesterners took possession of the land in a way that McGregor's Canadians never did. The land has become a permanent part of us; by contrast, those northern Canadian mining communities are often inhabited by miners who will leave once the mining plays out. Perhaps it's that middle westerners play for keeps in a way that McGregor's Canadians do not.


MAY 27, 1998

These mornings on this familiar ground I am as far as one can imagine from being a stranger in a strange land. And yet as much as I know about the roll and swoop of this ground, there is also much I do not know. I don't know the families who farm these fields, and the families before them, all the way back to the Indians who walked here.

Granted, it is nearly impossible to gather certain kinds of historical information. Still, how can I pretend to speak with any authority on this morning as I drive if I have little clue who these people are, who those who came before them were? Will this essential ignorance doom my effort?

In front of the garage, three peonies have opened, pink and heavy. Another bud is ready to. All of these are on the end of the peony bed that is closest to the morning sun.

I cannot go on saying how lovely the village is in morning light. There! The post mistress raises our flag in front of the post office.

The corn fields definitely need cultivating. El Nino has been kind to the weeds as well as to the crops.

Wednesday, May 26, 2004

APRIL 21, 2004, cont'd

About twelve people gathered for my presentation about my memoir, Curlew:Home and the Vagabond project at the Emmetsburg Library tonight. Most were older women and an older man, there was Nathan Clark, the librarian, and there was a boy about ten years old and his mother. You wonder how a boy is going to endure two hours of talk about all the boring stuff adults talk about. Well, he did fine, he did just fine.

There was some concern expressed during the discussion about the fact that only old people seem to get interested in family history, genealogy, and local history generally. I think it is partly that we wait to get interested until our own experiences can be seen as part of history; and I think, too, that parents raising children, working, maintaining a house, and running kids to after-school activities just don't have much time to think about history and what it means.

I come to history by default. Certainly I didn't set out to become a historian. Yet if you are going to undertake a project to understand people as I have with my Vagabond endeavor, you have to look backwards at their experiences, and backwards even farther to their grandparents and greatgrandparents, to their immigration to the United States and settling into communities across the middle west.

As soon as someone starts to tell you a story, they are drawing on a real or imagined past, they are drawing on what can be perceived as history.

I do history as a poet would do it. I don't have the skills and patience to track genealogies, for instance. The people who can do that work are angels, in my estimation, and they have my highest respect. Nor can I trace the niggling little details of history - dotting the i's and crossing the t's. I am interested in the sweep of the story, in the color of the lives, in the motion of the forces marching through time.

And I recognize I could not do my work without the genealogists and those detail-oriented folks who preserve the essential nuts and bolts of our past. I could not do my work without the efforts of all sorts of people who have recorded community histories and family histories to the best of their abilities, unsung, unrecognized, and often unappreciated.

Here's a cheer for all the people intent on preserving our memory of the past. Bless them.


APRIL 22, 2004
Employees were on break when I arrived at the SNC plant on King Street in Emmetsburg at 1:30 p.m. this afternoon, as scheduled; and no one was at the front desk. John Davis, plant manager, whom I was scheduled to meet, I found out, was in the plant dealing with a balky machine. None of them looked like Superman or Superwoman, the folks I saw outside having a smoke as I came in, and none of those I could see at tables in the break room; they looked like ordinary employees.

When break got over, a woman came up front and found me waiting. She went back into the shop right away to let John know I was here.

It was a few minutes later that John arrived. We sat down to talk in his office for a while, and then he gave me a tour of the place. I tell you what: every man in the place is a Superman; every woman Superwoman. That, or they are true magicians. How they make those little electronic parts and transformers is amazing. I was awed.

John Davis is from Oshkosh, Wisconsin. SNC's home office and plant are in Oshkosh. The satellite plant in Emmetsburg was built in 1981. SNC had been making a part in Oshkosh for Allen Bradley; production went from 250 units per week to 2000. Allen Bradley asked SNC to give them a description of their process for making the part so they could find a back-up supplier in case SNC had any problems keeping orders filled.

"Why don't we another plant as a back-up for you?" SNC suggested to Allen Bradley.

"Where?" Allen Bradley wanted to know.

"Somewhere west," SNC said.

That was about 1979.

Potential sites for the expansion were narrowed to Storm Lake, Sheldon, Estherville, and Emmetsburg - all in Iowa. "I wasn't involved in discussions at that time," John said. "I only know that they decided on Emmetsburg after negotiations with the communities."

The "airport plant," as it is called, was the original facility built and is still in operation. The building John and I sat talking in is the second plant opened in Emmetsburg.

Even before the original building in Emmetsburg was finished, demand for the part had intensified and in response SNC in Oshkosh developed more efficient methods of manufacturing it in order to keep pace. The Emmetsburg plant opened with six employees and with an Emmetsburg man to run the place. As the new plant was coming on-line, John asked his superintendent in Oshkosh, "Do you need anybody to go out there and help?" Early on, they didn't think they'd need John to go to Emmetsburg to help, but as it turned out the new plant had problems. John was asked to go west and look things over.

His report back to Oshkosh was simple: "I can't believe what I'm seeing." He made a commitment to spend six months in Emmetsburg trying to straighten things out. He promised to stay there long enough to get some new equipment installed and production flowing smoothly.

Well, soon enough the plant added a second shift. An addition was put on the facility. The workload grew and grew. New product lines were added in Emmetsburg. In the course of all this, John found himself living in Emmetsburg. His wife wasn't happy about moving from Oshkosh at first, as she was leaving family behind. "But we liked the area," John said. "The kids adjusted well in school. Things were going well at the plant. I remember saying to my wife, 'I'll bet that in the next year we'll have forty employees.' 'You're crazy,' my wife said. Now we've far outstripped that."

To be continued....



This continues our discussion about "the construction of place," started in our post of April 28, and continued on April 29, April 30, May 10, May 11, May 13, May 14, May 16, May 17, and May 18, in response to the article "A Case Study in the Construction of Place: Boundary Management as Theme and Strategy in Canadian Art and Life" by Gaile McGregor. I have been highlighting points of interest from that article and considering them from the perspective of my Vagabond in the Middle project.

The divergence in viewpoints about wilderness (between Canadians and Americans), McGregor says, has "a lot to do with the conceptual difference between a northern and a western frontier, with one representing the limits of knowledge and the other the limits of endurance."

I'm assuming here that the northern frontier is the one that pushes the limits of knowledge and the western frontier pushes the limits of endurance. This may be precisely the difference in world view between McGregor's Canadians and my middle westerners. The land itself is neither one thing nor the other; it is our conception of it. The Canadian looking to the northern frontier imagines (images?) its unknown-ness, builds the fort in the wilderness. The middle westerner pushes on, endures, and finally finds a place that looks like home. The difference is between those who imagine the world is a place we cannot know and those who believe we can do whatever we need to do. Ultimately, pushed to its extreme, it is the difference between those who don't try and those who die trying

McGregor says: "Mind structures environment which structures mind."

My middle western sense of it is this: we shape our environment; our environment shapes us. I think I mean it in a more blood and muscle sense that McGregor does, however. It is not simply "mind" that shaped here. I think of father's hands, his fingers deformed by hard work. The shaping goes on in every part of our being, not only the mind. Further, the shaping goes on beyond the individual: place shapes the community, just as community shapes the place.


MAY 26, 1998

I saw the hawk Friday evening on my way home from work, the first time in a while I've seen it. It was circling above its grove. It was being harassed by two blackbirds. One of them was flying into its face, as if trying to peck at its eyes.

Can we speak about place without speaking of the people of the place? If we do not speak about the people of the place and their relationship to the land, then are we speaking about wilderness? There is an exchange between the land and the people on the land which tells an interesting part of the story about the place. We bend the grass and take down the trees and change the shape of the hills. The land feeds and sustains us. Isn't it wonderful that the fruit of the earth tastes good to us, nourishes us. Apples could just as easily have been bitter as sweet.

Think of the Sandhills of Nebraska, their harshness and the difficulty that Old Jules had establishing an orchard there. That piece of ground did not easily wish to give back. Old Jules wrestled with it and wrestled with it and even today, a century later, it is difficult to say man has won that struggle. It is still a bitter and harsh and lovely ground and the lives of those who choose to remain there are not easy lives.

The peonies in the back yard are opening, white. Those in front of the garage are still tight balls.

The first crop of hay has been taken already along Highway E north of town. Some rain on Sunday has helped the peas and corn and the weeds between the rows of corn.

Another baby donkey, wobbly-kneed and new, at the farm south of Five Corners. No one has worked the fields of corn stubble west and south of there.

School will soon be out. May is nearly spent, like a blossom that has dropped its petals.

Tuesday, May 25, 2004


Last night I heard that Delbert Cothern of Vandalia, Illinois, passed away about two months ago. I'd interviewed Delbert when I was in Vandalia in February, 2003, and heard him play his harmonica. In fact, Delbert gave me a tape of the songs he'd recorded on his 4-track recorder in his room at Cherrywood Nursing Home in Vandalia.

Delbert had been paralyzed when he was sixteen years old, back in the 1930s, diving into Ramsey Creek on a family outing. He and a cousin kept challenging each other to dive into the river with hands at the back of the head instead of extended in front of them as they entered the water. Once too often Delbert dove in that way and his head hit bottom, he broke his neck, he was paralyzed the rest of his life.

With effort, Delbert eventually started getting around on crutches and could move well enough that he did most of the housekeeping for his parents. Out of the money his mother paid him for keeping house, Delbert saved enough to buy two acres out in the country. His parents put a trailer house on the property. Delbert and his folks lived there for many years. Delbert kept a large garden on the acreage. Though he couldn't walk, he could stand without support. He would hoe as much as he could reach from one place, he'd use the hoe as a crutch and move forward, he'd hoe some more. Through the years, he kept the freezer and cupboards stocked with food from his garden.

Delbert came from a musical family and had taught himself mandolin as a youngster. After the accident that crippled him, Delbert could no longer play mandolin. If he were to continue playing music, he had to learn an instrument he could play with one hand. So he took up harmonica, learning fiddle tunes and traditional bluegrass, and transferring them to his new instrument.

Delbert played his harmonica at the Illinois Old Time Music Harmonica Championships, coming in as high as second. He won a national championship in 1988 at Avoca, Iowa, tearing off renditions of "Soldier's Joy" and "Silver Bells" and a waltz. He also competed at a contest in Tennessee but that championship draws a lot of great harmonica players from Nashville, Delbert said, "and they are tough to beat."

Delbert wrote songs of his own and and recorded them in his room at Cherrywood Nursing Home. He released a 13-song tape, Just an Old Man and His Old Music: Old Timey Type Music No. 1, and on it referred himself "Ol' Delbert." There's harmonica on the tape, of course, and Delbert's singing and talking and whistling. Many of the songs were his own compositions. He introduced them with his Ol' Delbert drawl.

Did Delbert think he was an inspiration to others? "Well," he said when I asked him, "I hope so, but I don't know if I am." He was not one to brag, not about his music, not about the example he set for the rest of us. He just kept on making music.

Now he's making music with the angels, on the big back porch in the sky. So long, pardner.


APRIL 21, 2004

I interviewed Lee Beem at his glass shop in the morning today and Dick and Anne Marie Nelson in the afternoon. The Nelsons farm north of Emmetsburg; their son, Bruce, who was a walk-on at the University of Iowa, is playing for the Carolina Panthers. He doesn't start yet, but he will. You read it here first.

During my interview with the Nelsons, I asked Anne Marie "What did you feed Bruce?"

"He ate a lot of potatoes," she said.

After the interview had concluded, I followed Anne Marie the half a mile north to "the Nelson cabin," a log cabin overlooking an old spring-fed gravel pit. Dick would follow behind with the pick-up, bringing materials to repair a "privacy fence" along the patio that had blown over in Sunday's sixty-mile-an-hour winds.

"Here's a saying for your book," Anne Marie said as we stepped toward the cabin door. She pointed at a rock along the waterfall; the rock had this inscription: "The earth does not belong to us, we belong to the earth."

"That's from the Indians," Anne Marie said, but you know it's also part of the Nelson's philosophy of farming.

The waterfall is man-made, of course, with water pumped from the pond and flowing back into it. "The waterfall was our 30th anniversary present to each other," Anne Marie said. The lovely gurgling of it is appreciated at the breakfast table in the corner of cabin.

We stepped behind the cabin before we entered it, and Anne Marie made a sweep of her arm from south to north along the railroad tracks. "All this is seeded, from Emmetsburg almost to Osgood," she said. Her seeding business is one of the firms involved in such restorations in the Emmetsburg area. Last year's native grasses sway in the breeze. Private landowners, the Department of Natural Resources, and the County all have restored parcels that are part of a project that has been underway for seven years.

"It takes two years to look like anything," Anne Marie said. "Before that, it looks like thistles."

After two years, it makes the best pheasant habitat you can imagine. In the few short minutes we stood surveying the grasses, I heard three pheasants call - one to the north of us, one to the west, one to the southwest. The Nelsons have restored two hundred acres to native grasses, which abutts a public hunting area that has also been restored. In addition, Anne Marie leases hunting rights on some other land nearby as well. It is no wonder that sixteen hunters from Alabama return to the Nelson cabin year and year during pheasant season.

The cabin itself won't accommodate sixteen people, so the hunters bring Winnebagoes or what-not to bed some of the fellows.

You step into the lob-cabin on a concrete floor textured to look like stone. "Poor man's tile" is what Anne Marie called it. When the floor was poured, Anne Marie made every effort to get all the twigs and leaves and debris off the soft concrete before it was covered to cure. Everywhere a leaf had remained while the concrete dried, now there is a delicate leaf pattern imprinted into the floor. Such a lovely touch, and entirely unintended.

The cabin is warmed by radiant heat coming up from the concrete floor.

The wood of the stairs to the loft and the second floor bedroom and the wood of the entertainment center in the living room is oak. He had said once that he'd tear down an old corn crib for another farmer, hoping to get a little bit of salvageable wood out of the old structure. When he got to work on it, Anne Marie told me, he found that "it was all oak in there." We were looking at some of that oak in the cabin.

There's a living room downstairs, a bedroom with three single beds and a bunk bed with upper and lower berths, a bathroom, and the kitchen area. The south wall of the cabin rises to a big window beneath the tall cathedral ceiling. Up the stairs there are three beds on the open air loft, and a sofa-rocker near the railing, positioned so you can take your first cup of coffee there and look out over the water in front of the cabin just as the sun lays morning color on it. The master bedroom off the loft has a queen-sized bed in it, its own bathroom attached.

"It's another home ot maintain," Anne Marie said, reflecting on the downside of all this beauty.

Dick arrived and was ready to start putting the bence back where it belonged. He added to the conversation before he started work: "This is our retreat," he said. "This is as far away as I can get when we're busy. You might say it will be our Golden Pond."



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

"There was a flat-bellied man and his wife up at Paul's Cafe last Tuesday morning," Ivan wrote. "Flat-belly said he was walking across the United States. His wife would drive thirty miles and he would try to catch her in one day. That's walking thirty miles a day. I couldn't figger out why anybody would want to walk across the United States in thirty-mile increments. I asked him how old he was and he said he was 67. I still couldn't figger out why he would want to walk thirty miles a day. I asked him what he did before he retired. He said he was a physiologist and a minister. That answered the question."

"So far the wheat plot has had worms, freeze, and drought," Ivan reported. "I hope it is a hardy plant because it has been hit with a triple whammy."

"Kendall Nichols got a telephone call that was a political poll," Ivan said. "The first question they asked was 'are you a Republican?' Kendall told him he was every morning, but sometimes by noon he was about to change."

"I see," said Ivan, "where the town of Downs has gotten a grant to make an access street to the elevator so that the grain trucks won't have to go down Main Street. Well, I love to hear the throaty growl of the diesel engines as they warn sedans and vans and sissy pick-ups to get out of the way. I love to hear the muted rumble of the loaded and in many cases overloaded grain trucks. I love to feel the ground move, the Main Street buildings echo with the sound of a bountiful harvest back and forth across Main Street. Let Downs have their snooty, exclusive path to the elevator. Let Smith Center keep the trucks rolling right down Main."

"I heard Jim Fetters say something that I have been chuckling about to myself for several days," Ivan noted. "Jim said he had been invited to a meeting. He said 'At the meeting, they will pee in your pocket and try to convince you it is raining.' That is just about the most graphic and accurate appraisal of politicians you can get."

"Melvin Post told me this story many, many years ago," Ivan recalled. "One time Melvin decided he needed a bottle of booze, so he went to Clyde, a bootlegger during those Prohibition days. Clyde told Melvin to go out east of town by the slaughter house and over the railroad tracks. Then he told Melvin to look in the grass by the first telephone pole. Melvin did. Sure enough, there was a pint of whiskey. But Melvin got to thinking - if there was one here, let's check out the other telephone poles. So he did, and picked up six pints of whiskey. Then he came back to town and told Clyde that there wasn't any whiskey there. Clyde said, 'those G-D kds,' meaning some local high school kids, 'have stolen all my whiskey.' He gave Melvin back his money and he hated kids until he left town a couple years later."

"I put $27.84 worth of gas in my car one day last week," Ivan said. "The first car I ever bought and finaced, I think the monthly payments were $27.00"

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.

Sunday, May 23, 2004


I suppose it was a benign visit, because if it wasn't I doubt they'd leave such big tracks in the sand:

Domain Name: (Military)
OrgName: The Defense Information Systems Agency
Address: Room BF655A, The Pentagon
City: Washington
StateProv: DC
PostalCode: 20301
Country: US

In a comment for his May 18 Words On the Street over at Via Negativa, I left Dave a note that "I had The Defense Information Systems Agency visit my blog-site today. What do you suppose that means?"

Dave, of course, is real reassuring. He said: "They're makin' a list, checkin' it twice, gonna find out who's naughty or nice..."

"Well, fellas," I responded, "it's been nice knowing ya."

Dave said: "Ah, don't panic yet. As my friend Fred used to say at the bottom of all his e-mails, 'You will be notified in writing when it is time to panic.'"

A little Googling reveals that "NIPRNET" is an unclassified but sensitive Internet protocol router network, what was once called the "Non-secure Internet Protocol Router Net." Owned by the Department of Defense (DOD) and created by the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA), NIPRNET is used to exchange unclassified but sensitive information between "internal" users; apparently it is also used to give Internet access to DOD employees without endangering the secure network, SIPRNET - the "S" standing for "Secret." It may have other uses as well.

One fellow with repeated visits from such an address thought at first that his web site was being examined by a robot but he ultimately decided it was a web proxy of some sort. When he inquired further at NIPRNET, the hostmaster told him: "You know all you need to know."

There may be an innocent explanation. What is it?


APRIL 20, 2004 cont'd

Fritz gave me a to the ceiling in one of the 19' lifts waiting to be rolled onto the dock and loaded for shipment. It was a smooth ride up; he drove the lift forward several feet, then put it back into place. We were up in the thin air; 19' is higher than I like to get without an airplane. He shook the platform. "See," he said, "pretty sturdy." He let the lift back down to the floor position and we climbed off it.

We moseyed over to where a couple fellows were taking pieces of the conveyor that brought painted parts out of the drying oven. What goes into the oven at five or five and a half feet per minute comes out at the same speed, except the parts of warmer. The heat cures the paint to some extent, but still the fellows taking the pieces off the chain wear rubber gloves "because it's too easy to leave marks in the paint at this point," Fritz said. "It'll take a couple hours for the pieces to cool down and for the paint to cure completely. The cool-down is as much a part of the process as heating the piece up."

Just standing near a rack of pieces taken off the line, you could feel their heat. These pieces were parts to the scissors mechanism and the bushings at each end were entirely clear of paint. I'd no more looked at them and wondered "Now how'd they do that?" when Fritz explained there had been a plastic plug in there while painting was being done. The plugs had been pulled out before the pieces got taken off the line and put on the rack.

"You need to stage a certain amount of the grey pieces, then a certain amount of the orange pieces," Fritz said, "so that everyone has the pieces they need in assembly." You can't paint all the orange pieces you'll need for the day because you'll run out of grey ones.

I looked at a piece of metal that obviously would become the floor of the platform. Circles of the steel had been cut out of it towards one end, reducing its weight where strength would not be needed. Every pound that you reduce the platform is a pound of payload the lift can put 19' in the air.

We were back at the receiving area near the front offices. I was looking at the tag on a skid of steel pieces. "That's part of our Kan Ban system," Fritz said. I looked at him like he was speaking Japanese to me.

"It's a Fax Ban," he said. "When this skid of supplies is put into production, this sheet gets turned in to the office where it is faxed to our supplier as a re-order."

It is part of the "lean manufacturing" process that Sky Jack is starting to employ. "Some of us have been through the training," Fritz said. "Now it's time to train the employees."

The Sky Jack facility consists of "several buildings cobbled together over time, with three or four additions," Fritz said. Despite the transitional nature of necessity's cobbling, product flows through the plant in quite a logical fashion, from receiving dock, through the lines in manufacturing to painting, through assembling and testing, to the loading dock.

Fritz and I stook at the front desk talking for a few minutes before I said good bye.

Fritz said: "When you have to lay people off, that's tough. That's the hardest thing I ever had to do. I don't want to do that again. It affects how you think about expanding your production capacity. I'd rather have people work some overtime. Then when things slow down, they are still working eight hours a day."


MAY 22, 1998

How long it has been since I had to scrape ice off the windshield. After these days of very warm weather, the cool breeze this morning is refreshing - almost as if one is stepping out of a cabin overlooking a far Canadian lake. A smell that is fresh, a day that is new. How do they live in the smog of their cities, those who choose to?

Blackbirds flirt and do their mating flutter at the curb on Main Street.

Far to the north, clouds blow through. They are the edge of someone else's cloudy day.

Dandelions have gone to seed. Roadside ditches need mowing. Lawns around the farm houses have been clipped close, like the farm boy's summer butch.

Is that the red of geranium in the flower beds at Five Corners? Certainly it looks so.

A pick-up comes at me pulling boat and trailer; a couple fellows are thinking about fish.

The radio tells us about the boy in Oregon who opened fire on his school mates. "Voted most likely to start World War III by his peers." The joke is not so funny now, as they clean up blood in the cafeteria. Not so funny at all.

Saturday, May 22, 2004


by Susan Firer

I have grown old in this city, on this lake,
on the banks of words. I've walked
its beautiful cruel chemical lawns,
given up on perfection, accepted
handseled molecularity. Entrances & exits
are always colder, nearer to doors & outside
than to ins. The earth's a greenhouse.
Here people bend under invisible knapsacks of grief,
visit butterfly graveyards with their Jeffrey Dahmers
& Father Groppis, with their corner taverns and church bells.
On hot days in Lake Michigan bodies bob & emerge
against horizon-sized ore boat backgrounds.
Ghosty empty plastic bags somersault in lake air,
wind snap catch in trees. The city
is clearer with Calatrava's wings.
Maple seeds make black roofs gold.
The lake is generous with stones
and a horizon of language, tugs, & ghostships.
Look! The lake folds over us in our sleep
drowns us in brave weeping vowels.
Before I was born, I buried people I loved.
In the morning lake a dead father's
yellow, palm-tree covered bathing trunks
a dead mother's blue petalled bathing cap.
In a story from my childhood, one brother
holds an entire sea in his mouth,
while his siblings scavenge the seafloor.
I have always lived on this lake.
It is in my breath.

"The Butterfly Graveyard" appeared in Natural Bridge. Susan Firer's fourth book, The Laugh We Make When We Fall, won the 2001 Backwaters Prize and is published by Backwaters Press (Omaha, NE). Her third book, The Lives of the Saints and Everything, won the Cleveland State University Prize and the Posner Award for the best book of poems published by a Wisconsin author in 1993. Her other books include The Underground Communion Rail (West End Press) and My Life with the Tsar and Other Poems (New Rivers Books). Her work has appeared in many anthologies and reviews, including Best American Poetry 1992, Thus Spake the Corpse: An Exquisite Corpse Reader (Black Sparrow Press), A Whole Ohter Ballgame: Women's Literature on Women's Sport (Farrar, Straus, Giroux), Ladies, Start Your Engines: Women Writers on Cars and the Road (Faber and Faber), Hummers, Knucklers, and Slow Curves (University of Illinois Press), Boomer Girls (University of Iowa Press), The Georgia Review, Ms., Chicago Review, Iowa Review, and others. She is a recipient of a Milwaukee County Artist Fellowship and a Wisconsin Arts Board Fellowship. Two poems from her most recent book were featured and archived on Verse Daily. Recent work has appeared in New American Writing, Third Coast, and Lungfull!, and is forthcoming in The Book of Irish American Poetry (U.of Notre Dame Press).


I'm interested in considering your "poems of place" for publication in The Middlewesterner's "Saturday's Poem" feature; send two or three of your best in the body of an e-mail addressed to . Put "Saturday's Poem" in the subject line. Then be patient. I will get back to you about whether I'll use your work or not. Send along a short biographical note and information about where your books can be purchased and I'll include that when your poem runs. There's no payment involved for having your work appear in "Saturday's Poem," but the feature is seen by some high class readers. About seventeen of them, by our current count.

o Dave Bonta, "The Morning Porch" - March 13, 2004
o David Clewell, "Depot: Beaver Dam, Wisconsin" - February 21, 2004
o Fred First, "In Living Memory" - April 4, 2004
o Phil Hey, "Spare Tire" - March 6, 2004
o Tom Montag, "February 1, 2001" - February 14, 2004
o Mike O'Connell, "Flatlanders" and "A Farm and a Rainbow" - March 27, 2004
o Colleen Redman, "Tincture Making" - May 15, 2004
o Mark Vinz, "The Old Hometown" and "Midcontinent" - April 17, 2004

Friday, May 21, 2004


Stop in at Brain Crayons and see the exchange between apennyforyourthoughts and NT99 that took place last Sunday, May 16. They're talking about A New Approach for dealing with the demons some of us have to wrestle. I can't speak to the efficacy of the method discussed; instead, what stands out for me is the humaneness of the exchange, the caring, the courtesy. If you want to see two people talk about issues that are difficult to speak of, and talk about them with compassion for each other, this is the post to read. If you're at all squeamish when people talk about wrestling their real demons, then this is not the post for you.


Another conversation with myself - May 18, 2004

There are days I don't think about my writing any more than I think about my breathing. I breathe. I write. I have put myself in the position where I am constantly making notes. I am never "writing." I am either making notes, or refining them, or typing them up; sometimes I have to make something of them, but that's not writing either, exactly.

Less and less I think about the act of writing. More and more I think about what I see and hear and want to record. This is a delicious place I've got myself into. I don't know if my method would work for anyone else, but it works for me.

Of course I haven't yet come face-to-face with any major blockage of my impetus to make notes. At the point I have difficulty recording what I observe, I'll have a serious problem. And I don't know how I would deal with it. I've had "dry spells" before, sometimes for years at a time. For the time being, though, I'll just thank the gods that as a writer I have a horse to ride, even if sometimes it seems like an old nag. I can't complain because I'm not such a vision of loveliness myself.

Partly, I have reached the point where I have some perspective and a sense of humor. I know I'm not going to compete with Shakespeare; doing what I do, no one will make that confusion. And I know I'm not going to make money doing it; I accept that.

If it's not art, like Shakespeare, and if there's no money in it, what's left?

What's left is to have fun. I know what I'm after and I should enjoy going after it. The journey, not the destination. The process, not the product. The vagabond trail. If you keep doing what you love, why, you'll live forever, won't you?

My habit, in making notes, is to include everything to the extent that I can. It is better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it.

Of course I have been accused sometimes of failing to see the forest for the trees. That's a risk you take. When you gobble up great parts of experience trying to understand it, it won't all get digested exactly perfect. I'm okay with that. I am a human being, ergo I fail.

But didn't we have fun on the slide down?

My intention is to write until I have stood every place there is to stand and looked everywhere there is to look. When I have seen everything, I will look at it from the other side, I will pick it up and turn it over.

I never get tired of quoting the good folks I've met along my way.

Because of what I write - other people's stories - I want to be less proprietory in where and how I tell them. The thing to remember is that what's important is telling the stories; what's not important is me. I am merely the radio through which the stories are heard.

That should be enough for me. I'm not sure it always is. Sometimes I want some recognition. Sometimes I want my work to be noticed. Sometimes I want some of the money that the better-selling authors make with their lesser stories. I want to be invited to teach at some of the conferences I only get asked to enroll in. Jealousy is a green-headed hydra, I tell you. You can laugh at it, and still it returns.

The problem with note-taking along the way is that one may have nothing to say about great swatches of one's experience. There are times when any observation you make falls leaden and dead. What do you do then, Tom, huh?

I suppose you've got to write a lot of sentences to find the really good ones, the gems. Most of what one writes is craft - sturdy and reliable and as good as you can make it. Craft prepares for and carries the art of it, I think. Your beautiful passages will be inaccessible unless they are set into decent and respectable surroundings. So that's what you strive for, even when the note-taking isn't going well.

The other thing is: the first effort is never the final draft. Capture all the important elements, even if your prose doesn't want to sing; capture the important elements now, and revise later.

I think I have nothing to write about. I am sitting parked in the rest area along Interstate 90 in Minnesota. An old man gets out of the car, walks around to the passenger-side door, and helps his wife get up and out of her seat. She is slow about it, and he is patient. He offers her hand to get hold of; when she's finally up, balanced, he offers her his arm. He smiles. The smile is genuine. They walk towards the rest rooms. She is taking very small steps, just nibbles.

As he leaves her so he can go into the men's room, her feet get away from her and it looks like she's going to drift away down the incline, a runaway out of control, headed back towards the car. Quickly he closes the distance, grabs her by the elbow, steadies her. He leads her to a newspaper rack. She puts her hand out, onto it, steadies herself there. He is still smiling. He uses the men's room. When he's finished, he leads her back to the car, helps her into it. You wouldn't think he'd have to still be smiling sweetly.

I don't know why he walked her up to the rest rooms. She didn't use the Ladies. Did she simply need to get out of the car and stretch her legs? Did they need to give me this little something that shines, when all I've been thinking are dull and leaden sentences?

The world is full of its million surprises.

Part of my success as a chronicler of my time and place is due to the fact that I'm open to what comes to me, to the extent that I'm able to resist having expectations. Insisting on what you expect to see will blind you to the gifts of serendipity. As soon as you start thinking the world is a certain way, it will be different than that.

My openness to the world must be seen by others. I don't know how it shows. My daughters call me a geek magnet because strangers feel comfortable coming up and telling me about themselves. The people I interview are comfortable enough they sometimes tell me things their spouses don't know. If I'm to be the safe receptacle for what these people tell me, I must be conveying to them somehow that I shall do them no harm. People are comfortable talking to me.

I think partly it's because I look deeply. During interviews. In restaurants. Sitting on a bench in a shopping mall. I have to be careful with that. People can get the wrong impression.

Is that it? People see that I'm seeing deeply? If I were a crook, this would be quite an advantageous characteristic to possess. Yet if I were a crook, perhaps I could not make the unspoken agreement that I will do them no harm.

Whatever the characteristic is, it doesn't show up in photographs. I was pleased when a photographer for the L'Anse Sentinel took a picture of me interviewimg Joe Schuette last February when I was in L'Anse. I thought that when my picture ran in the paper I'd get to see what it is that I do during interviews to encourage people to talk freely. Alas, all I could see was an over-weight, grey-bearded, grumpy-looking fellow you'd wonder why anyone would talk to. So the quality is kinetic, not static; you have to see it moving, you can't stop it and get it.

I have read transcripts of my interviews looking for it, and have listened to the tapes trying to discern the characteristic in the content of the interview and the quality of the exchanges. I don't find it in either of those places.

It may be as simple as this: I listen. Perhaps I listen deeply. Or perhaps anyone who actively listens will create the same kind of comfort and be able to elicit the same kind of information.


APRIL 20, 2004, cont'd

At its peak, Sky Jack in Emmetsburg employed more than three hundred people. Then the bottom fell out of the business. "There was a realignment in the industry as a whole, a consolidation in the customer-base, and overproduction on the part of manufacturers," Fritz said by way of explanation. 9-11 worsened the slight recession we were experiencing and slowed the industry a bit too."

Ideally, Fritz thinks, the Emmetsburg plant should continue to make about the number of lifts it currently does. "We could do a couple more machines per day, but it is a seasonal industry and you want to balance your work throughout the year."

"The question is," he said, "how much market share can we get?"

When Sky Jack employed three hundred people here, the plant produced three products: about 16-18 per day of the lifts they still produce; about five aluminum lifts per day; and about 4-6 engine-driven scissors lifts. The line of aluminum lifts has been discontinued because Sky Jack wasn't selling enough of them to make the return worthwhile. Production of the engine-driven lifts has gone back to the facility in Canada.

Some companies are still making aluminum lifts, Fritz added, "but they've become such a 'commodity' it's hard to be competitive."
Five or six years ago there wer twelve different scissors lift manufacturers, Fritz indicated. "Basically, it's down to three now."

Sky Jack's biggest North American competitors are JLG and Genie. Both are larger companies, both are also in the "boom" business.

"We don't produce a boom product at this point, neither here nor in Canada," Fritz said. "That's not to say that we won't in the future. Time will tell."

We're talking about self-propelled, not truck-mounted booms. "Booms on trucks are nearly a while different industry," he said.

The different between Sky Jack's 15' model and its 19' model is an additional layer of scissors to gain the additional four feet of height. Nineteen-foot scissors lifts are the industry's biggest seller. It is the most popular model and satisfies the widest range of needs.

"Does the market want something taller?" Fritz asked rhetorically. There are taller lifts, he said. Sky Jack at Guelph makes a lift that is 46" wide in the bvase with models that reach to 20' and 26'. There is also the 9250 made at the Guelph plant - 92" wide at the base, lift to 50' in the air. What you order "all depends on what you need the machine for and what you need to lift."

The models built in Emmetsburg have the advantage of fitting through standard office doorways. They'll fit in an elevator to be taken to another floor of a building.

Fritz demonstrated how easily the bank of batteries swing out from one side of a lift's base. With another easy motion, he swung out a door on the other side that holds everything else you might need to do maintenance on. "Nobody has doors that open up and allow such easy service as ours," Fritz said. Even the reservor for the oil that lifts the scissors swing out on the door for easy checking and filling.

When the lift starts being elevated, bars on each side of the base turn 90-degrees so the flat surface becomes parallel to the floor. This will prevent the lift from tipping if the wheels on one end get driven over a drop-off. "Everyone is doing this now," Fritz said. "At one time, no one had this. As industry regulations developed, more safety standards were mandated in the ANSI specifications."

"We have input into the standards," Friz said. "All the scissors lift manufacturers have representatives at the trade organization, the Scaffolding Industry Association."

"When the scissors lift just came out," he said, "the question was: how do you classify it? Is it a crane? A boom? How do you regulate it? There have to be safety regulations in place."

"Scissors lifts are elevating platforms, aerial lifts, a whole new category of equipment developed some twenty-five years ago," he said.

After the industry shake-out of the past few years, Fritz said, "the industry has come back healthier and stronger than it was. The next four or five years look good for the industry as a whole and look good for Sky Jack specifically."

"Production has increased 30% over the past two months," Fritz indicated. "Sometimes it has been a struggle to keep all the parts flowing in as needed. If you increase production 30% in two months, your supply base has to be able to do the same thing."

"Our employees' biggest aggrevation is running out of parts," he said. "It's a disruption. You're messing with their flow."

To be continued...


MAY 21, 1998

Another lovely morning. The peonies are heading out; some are showing a little of the color. Soon the ants will come to open them. Usually this comes in June, here along the garage, but we may see it a little earlier this year.

Birds in the morning - they are as single-minded as water. All that empty sky and they must fill it with sound. They try, mightily.

The land is clearly farm country this morning - fields worked smooth, crops sprouted, sun on black soil and green plant. A field thick with peas, near the pole where sat the snowy owl. Corn four inches tall.

A few fields near Five Corners still have not been worked at all.

North of Five Corners, a skunk dead on the road. Farther on, a dead possum. The night has not been kind.

Crows are boastful fellows, even to the way they walk.

Thursday, May 20, 2004


I went to Emmetsburg to make two presentations for the Senior Fun & Wellness Day coordinated by Iowa Lakes Community College, Northwest Aging Association, and Palo Alto County Health Systems. Session #1, at 10:30 a.m., was titled "The Story of Curlew:Home." I used the opportunity to talk about how I came to write my memoir of growing up on an Iowa farm. I was speaking to an audience of twenty-four, as large an audience as I have had in front of me in quite some time. The classroom was full.

These senior citizens had just come from hearing the keynote address, a fellow billed as a "motivational speaker."

"That was too noisy," one of the women said as she entered the room. Yeah, I'd heard him at quite a distance. "I promise you I won't be that loud," I said. Although, I have to admit, people don't usually have to turn up their hearing aids when I'm speaking either.

I told my story and read swatches of my memoir. Before I read from the piece about butchering chickens, I asked them how much they wanted to hear about butchering chickens. One woman right up front answered for the whole group of them. She said, "We've all butchered chickens, you can't shock us." So I read about killing the chickens:

I was only ten or eleven years old when the task of killing the chickens fell to me. The oldest child will be your natural-born killer, loaded as he is with the most the soonest in the way of responsibility; too much too early has a way of bending you. I was, at that age, too young to empathize with the plight of chickens yet old enough that it felt real good to be important. You could have asked me to do damn near anything....

My mother's method was different, learned from her mother, as I learned it from mine. It is elegant in its simplicity. You take hold of the chicken by its legs. You put the head and neck of the chicken on the ground. You put a broom stick on the chicken's neck, behind the head. You set your right foot on the broom stick to the right side of the chicken's head and your left foot on the broom stick to the left side of the chicken's head. And then - remember you've got the chicken's legs in your hands - you pull the legs of the chicken up until its head is separated from the rest of it.

I could kill four chickens in the time it takes to tell you how to kill one.

"We castrated pigs, too," I said. "But I'm just going to read to you from the end of that essay."

We were men - or were fast becoming men - in a world we had to wrestle a living from. We were poised between the way it used to be and the way it was gonna be, doing our best, our jaws clenched tight as the world hit us again and again.

We could do what had to be done, but we didn't want to stay at castrating pigs more than a few hours. There is only so much blood and manure you can take at any one time. Only so much scream of pigs. Only so much knowledge of pain.

You can tell when you've got an audience with you. There's very little coughing, no fidgeting, everywhere you look there are eyes looking into yours. It's like the whole room is holding its breath. That's the kind of audience I had for the whole hour. When I finished - "Something had ended, something new was begun" - I got a warm round of applause. And I sold a few books.

The audience for Session #2 at 12:30 p.m. was considerably smaller, but just as attentive. I told them about my Vagabond project, about the talk you hear, the people you meet, including Ivan Burgess, whom you know as the inimitable writer of the ECHO ECHO, seen here on Tuesdays:

After his father died, Ivan's mother took in washing and ironing to support the large brood. To earn a little income for the family, a couple of Ivan's older brothers would go up town every morning to do whatever needed doing. One brother would clean out a farmer's chicken house for him; he'd get paid with a big container of milk that the cream had been skimmed off of; he'd bring that home and it would be milk for the children. "My mother would fix a meal," Ivan remembered, "and then she'd step back from the table while we ate. If there was anything left over when we were done, then she would eat."

"In those years we were probably the poorest people in Smith Center," Ivan said.

Their house was near the train tracks and there was a hydrant out in the yard. Hoboes got in the habit, when they got off the train, they'd come into the yard to drink from the hydrant. One day the big container of skim milk disappeared from the house. Ivan's older brother went marching off towards the Hobo Hotel farther west along the tracks, a circle of stones where the hoboes stayed when in Smith Center, where they sat and talked, cooked their meals, slept. Ivan went tagging along behind his brother. His brother marched right into the Hobo Hotel, he walked up to the jug of skim milk that was sitting there plain as sin, picked it up and headed towards home. None of the hoboes said a word. They knew they'd crossed the line. You don't take from poor people. You don't take from people what they can't afford to give.

About the time he was in the seventh grade, Ivan spent a lot of time in the Hobo Hotel with those men. "They were ordinary people looking for work," Ivan said. "In those days the train going west through town was carrying men looking for work to the west. The train going east would be carrying men looking for work to the east. I was never afraid. Those were hard times. Those were good men. A kid couldn't do that today."

"I sat with them all one evening," Ivan remembered. "When I got up to go, one of the fellows said, 'Kid, come here.' He said, 'Kid, if you are ever riding the rails and pass through Denver, help them fill the refrigerated cars with ice. It's hard work, kid, but when you get done they'll buy you the biggest breakfast you've ever had.' That fellow didn't have anything, but he gave me the best thing he had. He gave me everything he could."

At the end of the Vagabond presentation, one of the fellows in the audience asked how I could see red-tailed hawks everywhere. He was teasing me. Obviously he had read Curlew:Home, in which the red-tailed hawk becomes something of a poet's icon and an omen of good fortune; the birds grace the book with their surprising frequency. And he had noticed.

"When my wife and I are traveling," the fellow said, "one of us will say 'There's a red-tailed hawk.' The other one will know what we're talking about."

Yeah, they'd be talking about me.

I stopped briefly after that to see my friend and grade school classmate (and the one who provides room and board when I'm in Emmetsburg - puts me up and puts up with me), Sally Jordan. Sally was putting her plants back out on the patio. She had put them out once before, but had to bring them back in the house when temperatures were forecast to get below freezing. We talked, and I had some ice tea, but I couldn't stay long. I had a long drive home ahead of me, almost seven hours.


April 20, 2004, cont'd

We've been touring Sky Jack in Emmetsburg. Sky Jack makes highlifts, about twenty-three of them a day. Plant Manager Fritz Eggel is my tour guide.

Sky Jack builds 15' and 19' models in the Emmetsburg plant. The product has a "tilt sensor" that keeps it from elevating if the base is tilted more than a certain amount form side to side or front to back. The proper operation of the tilt sensor is checked too, before a machine passes inspection.

The folks doing final inspection and testing are familiar with operations throughout the plant so they know when something is not right.

At the very end of the line I saw a woman with a little paint brush in hand examining each machine that came out of the inspection tower for any dings in the paint. She touched up any imperfections she found. This, folks, is attention to detail. You want the finished machine to be perfect when it goes to the customer.

How does Sky Jack communicate a customer's expectations to workers on the floor? A shop work order follows each machine through the plant, specifying options. Some customers will want a full gate at the end of the platform, instead of a chain across the opening. Some will want a flashing light to give their lift higher visibility. Some may order hinged railings that can be folded down onto the platform to create a lower profile, as when the lift might have to be moved under low-hanging piping or ductwork.

A plug-in for a 110-volt outlet is now standard on Sky Jack machines. Some manufacturers still require that you specify this feature as an option. Equipment that requires electricity can be plugged right into the outlet on the Sky Jack platform, even when it's 19' in the air.

"Another option is special colors," Fritz said. "The cusotmer might want us to match their corporate colors."

"Our company colors are orange and grey," Fritz said. "Orange because it stands out, it's noticeable. Orange and grey have been our colors for at least twenty-five years. If you see a lift that's orange and grey, you know right away it's a Sky Jack product."

"You see Sky Jacks everywhere now," he said. "They're in shopping malls, they're in the movies. It used to be special to see one. Now it's 'Oh, there's another Sky Jack.' The people here have a sense of pride in what we build."

Sky Jack has a sales force across the country calling on cusotmers. The primary customer for their lifts is the equipment rental industry, such businesses as United Rentals and RSC, as well as independent rental shops.

Sky Jack's lifts have a reputation as a better quality product, more "robust" than some of its competitors, Fritz said. "Customers think ours are more solidly built."

They have a reputation for lasting a long time, too, he said. "The typical life time of such a lift is five years. We saw some Sky Jack machines get sent back to be reconditioned when they were thirteen years old."

Why do lifts have such short lifetimes? "Machines get beat to hell," Fritz said. "Worn out or damaged tothe point you can't repair them. Railings get bent. The machines get dented. A lot of damage gets done to them in the course of being used."

The Sky Jack lift stands on solid rubber tires. "These will wear out quicker depending on where you use them," Fritz said. "Rough concrete wears the tires down more quickly. Airport tarmacks are especially hard on them. Tires also get messed up when used for dry-walling and concrete work."

The harshest use that a Sky Jack lift has been put to, in Fritz's knowledge, "was in a steel mill, re-lining the coke ovens. It was a hot, dirty environment, tough on the wheels. When your wheels start getting cut up and they're losing chunks, you've got to replace them. The wheels are what you're resting on."

Sky Jack in Emmetsburg is in "the aerial industry." The aerial industry has replaced scaffolding, Fritz said. "There has been an evolution in the construction industry. Lifts are safer and faster than scaffolding."

Lifts are also being used in more factories. "Some industrial buildings have twenty-eight foot side walls," Fritz said. "They have huge open spans. No one wants anyone on a ladder any more."

The design of lift equipment has to meet ANSI specifications (American National Standards Institute). "You can't build a lift that doesn't meet those standards," Fritz said.

I asked how Sky Jack was able to evaluate the work of its employees doing so many parts of the job independently. "There is a supervisor and a lead-hand in assembly," Fritz said. "Work at each station should take about twenty-three minutes. Can the person do the job in twenty-three minutes? Can they do it at the level of quality that's required?"

Nobody is more important than anybody else, Fritz said. "It takes everybody to make a lift. It has to flow all the way through the plant. All the jobs have to be done for the finished machine to come off the end of the line."

Sky Jack hires for appropriate experience and provides on-the-job training. Work instructions specify how any particular part of the job needs to be done.

"If you take care of these guys, they'll take care of you," Fritz said. "People have to help each other out when they're done with their own work, and they do."

Fritz was born and raised in Canada. How did he get to Sky Jack in Emmetsburg?

"It was an opportunity, something different for me," he said. "I was in the Guelph [Ontario] plant of Sky Jack. An opportunity came up down here, I came down and took a look, I said Okay. I've been here five years, going on six."

The Guelph plant is larger, Fritz said, and runs a wider variety of products. "The narrower product range here makes it easier to focus on what we have to do."

"Culturally, Canada and the United States are so similar," he said. "The biggest adjustment was moving from a larger community to a small one."


MAY 19, 1998

A cool, blue sky this morning. It was a hot day yesterday - for May - and will be a warm one again today. El Nino? A natural cycle of some other kind? Whatever the case, I like to say: "If it's not 30 degrees below zero, you won't hear me complain too much."

I head north on Highway E. The smell of pigs is strong in the morning air. On this scale - one farmer's hog shed - it smells like money to an Iowa farm boy. From one of those hog factories, with 10,000 head under one roof, it smells like greed.

On the radio we're told government officials fear that whatever is destroying amphibians world-wide may also affect humankind. Duh.


MAY 20, 1998
Clay Pameter takes his garbage out to the curb in front of the C&D Bar. He turns and waves. One of the Stellmachers stands talking in front of the lumberyard. He and his brother were much younger men when we moved into Fairwater. So was Clay Pameter.

Another raccoon is sprawled dead on the road north of town.

Once again the horse is grazing at the north end of its pasture. I don't know what that means.

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