Saturday, July 31, 2004


by Karla Huston

My father sometimes took us to the lake
on hot Wisconsin nights when the sun started to fall
but before the mosquitoes began their feasting.

We'd spread towels on the cooling blanket
of sand, place shoes at the corners to keep them down.
My brother and I would step carefully in the water,

staying close to the shore
while my mother tucked pin curls into a tight white cap.
My father would barrel-ass down the bank, slice

into the water like a knife, and show up
on the other side of the safety ropes, grinning.
Exactly three breast strokes later,

he would hoist himself onto the diving raft, shake
water from his yellow hair and dive again
and again, bringing up handfuls of mucky lake bottom,

laughing as worms of mud crawled down his arms.
On the way home, if we were lucky, he'd stop
for rootbeers or curly topped cones.

Later, when I'd try to fall asleep, the lake came back,
the muddy scent of water swarming my skin,
my father's face smiling, waves rocking me to sleep.


by Karla Huston

We clutched together in a screen tent,
nine of us lurching between
tent poles and gusts, watching
clouds gather up in the west,
the angry wave of them
hovered over the Mississippi River
bluffs like a black wall. The wind
huffed down the face of the limestone,
threw clay and trees onto highways
and shorelines. We shivered
and while the sky slung bullets,
the old man reared back, spit mud
and clams and weeds.
The wind made sodden debris
of tents and sleeping bags
while under the plastic canopy
we passed the bourbon--an amber torch,
the burning liquor the only thing
that quenched the quarrel outside.

"Summer Storm" appeared previously in Poet Lore and Nanny Fanny. Reprinted with permission of the poet. Karla Huston recently earned an MA in English/Creative Writing from the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. She has won the the 2003 Main Street Rag Chapbook contest and the Wisconsin Regional Writers' Association Jade Ring for both poetry and fiction. She received writing residencies from the Ragdale Foundation in both 1998 and 2002. Her poems have earned five Pushcart Prize nominations. Huston has published poetry, reviews, and interviews in many national journals including Cimarron Review, 5 A.M., Margie, North American Review, One Trick Pony, Pearl, Poet Lore, Rattle,and others. She is listed at Book That Poet. Her chapbook Flight Patterns can be ordered from Karla Huston or from The Main Street Rag Online Bookstore. About Flight Patterns, poet Denise Duhamel has said: "Karla Huston has a knack for the perfect-pitched narrative, the delicious revelation of a storyline in verse. In Flight Patterns, the heartbreak of mature and adolescent love, domestic dramas, and issues of the body stun the reader with both their universality and their particular passions. Huston wrestles with all the "what ifs," and her poems put life in a headlock at every turn. A vividly luscious debut."


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 Harriet Brown, "Speaking Midwestern" and "Where We Went" - July 10, 2004
o Robin Chapman, "By the Wisconsin River" - June 12, 2004
o Susan Firer, "The Butterfly Graveyard" - May 22, 2004
o Fred First, "In Living Memory" - April 3, 2004
o R. Chris Halla, "My Prairie Wedding" - June 5, 2004
o Loren Kleinman, "Formaggio" and "Jetsam" - July 24, 2004
o Mike O'Connell, "Flatlanders" and "A Farm and a Rainbow" - March 27, 2004
o Colleen Redman, "Tincture Making" - May 15, 2004
o Jim Reese, "Ritual" and "Willing and Ready" - May 29, 2004
o Robert Schuler, "Thaw, 2003, Stanton Township" and "The American Millenium" - June 26, 2004
o Judith Strasser, "Apostle Islands History" and "County Road" - July 17, 2004
o Marilyn Taylor, "Surveying the Damage" - June 19, 2004
o Mark Vinz, "The Old Hometown" and "Midcontinent" - April 17, 2004
o Complete index to poems here

Friday, July 30, 2004

JUNE 14, 2004 - CONTINUED  
There stands an old windmill. It is no longer pumping water. Nothing left for it to do but cry.

Here and there the occasional stand of cottonwoods shakes its leaves and wonders what went wrong. All the farmsteads, gone. All the farm families with them. Big fields. Bigger farms. The world turns. We turn with it or we resist and are broken. That's it, isn't it? Something is marching here and we keep up; we keep up or we're lost.

The wheatfields shake their heads No, No, No.

Ah - there is a field that looks as if it had to be in corn last year. Nothing has come up there yet. Here is another field worked to a fine, smooth consistency all the way to the road, but nothing has sprouted here either. These farmers must plant some fields, leave some fields fallow. Over here I see more bare fields, over there more fields with cornstalks showing.

Farmsteads gone in the country. In Athol and in Kensington, I see some houses that have been empty so long their curtains have given up holding on, have come undone thread by thread. Such houses reach a point where collapse is inevitable: no one could save them, even if someone wanted to. I saw the same thing in my hometown, Curlew, Iowa. There is a post office in Athol, and one in Kensington. Kensington has a school. There are grain elevators in both communities. There's a UPS delivery truck stopped on Main Street, Kensington, not far from the "Computer Doctor" store. These people are tough people. They don't give up. They won't give up. They hold on with their toenails.

To be continued....


JULY 30, 1998

Clothes and place - you don't usually think about it, but clothes and place, too, are related. We are the "parka belt" here across the upper midwest. If you fly to Florida out of Milwaukee and it is cold here, do you leave your coat out in the car in the parking lot for your return and hope you don't freeze by the time you reach it? Why would people from Florida come to Wisconsin in winter, but if they did, how would they ever prepare themselves for twenty below zero. They don't sell clothes in Florida that could prepare you for twenty below. Think about cowboy boots - you may see them here, but they're not "mandatory." The Sherpas along the Himalayas - think how they dress, and why, and the Islanders of the South Pacific, the indigenous peoples of the Amazon.

Partly, it's a matter of what the climate requires from clothes - warmth or coolness; and partly it's a matter of what's available. You have the Andes, you have llamas or vicunas and you use that wool to fashion warm clothes for yourself. Sometimes all you need is a skirt of leaves. In the Arctic, the Eskimos made wise use of the materials available in that harsh environment and they have survived on the edge of what's survivable.

There is enough rain to bead on the windshield, here, this morning, but it not enough to make the street wet. A grey sky. Cool. Another morning to enjoy.

I stop downtown for gasoline. Filling the tank reminds me of the cost of speed, the cost of distance. The cost is a choice. If I worked in the village, I could walk to work. I could take a horse and buggy - but that would exact a different kind of cost.

Out in the country, off to the north, blue sky. The shelf of clouds ends abruptly.

There is a large flock of seagulls set down in the newly sprouted field of beans. For what do they stay here? They are sea gulls. Is there easy pickin' in our fields?

Now I'm looking north. Now I see sunlight on the edge of clouds. I've got to say how much I love it. Celebrate!

Thursday, July 29, 2004

I couldn't be more honored. Peter at Slow Reads has put up the interview he did with me earlier this month, as well as - ahem - an insightful review of The Big Book of Ben Zen.  I didn't know, when he asked, that Peter would throw me the kind of fat pitch questions a writer loves to answer. And then let me answer them at great length. Maybe he had said something about doing a review, too, but I forgot that, I guess, in the excitement of doing the interview. I didn't know that Peter's review would teach me things I hadn't known about my own book.

The whole of it takes my breath away. I couldn't be more pleased by the results.

Thank you, Peter! I appreciate the attention. And I appreciate the care with which you've provided it.

I have driven out into the country west of Smith Center, through Athol, and I'm just south of Athol now, pulled over to the side of the road, watching a couple combines out in the wheatfields. These are two different farmers, two different fields. Both are harvesting their wheat, bringing it in. There are tractors and wagons in the fields, fellows on them waiting to take the wheat from the combine and load it into storage bins on a farmstead hereabouts, or into a semi that will take the wheat to town.
A combine harvesting wheat moves forward into a stand of the golden ripeness. The stalks of wheat get cut off somewhere above ground level, leaving stubble; the heads and stalks fall into the combine's header and get moved into the innards of the machine where the kernel of the wheat is separated from the stalk and from the chaff. The kernels go up into the combine's three-hundred bushel storage bin; the straw and chaff and a lot of wheat dust get blown out the back end of the combine, to be scattered on the ground. Wheat mounds up in the bin.
When the bin of the combine gets full, that's nearly enough to fill a wagon. One operator jumps down out of his combine as wheat unloads into a wagon parked beside his machine. He walks over to talk with a fellow at a truck near the field's edge. He lights a cigarette.
The other combine in the other field on the other farm reaches the end of the field at the road, turns around and starts the long drive in the other direction. The dust he throws out doesn't know what to do with itself so it hangs like a fog.
Some of the roads out here are a clay and gravel combination that has been baked hard as concrete. Some of the roads look like roads, some of the roads do not; some look like lanes, and some look like less than lanes. All the wheatfields look like wheatfields - either wheat that is heavy-headed and waiting to be taken, or bare stems where the combine has been. And there is the occasional field where it seems the harvest was taken last year.
The fields are great rectangles - some of them a mile wide by a mile long, maybe; some of them with windbreaks, maybe, to mark the half mile. The wheat waiting for harvest shimmers in the heat like the surface of the ocean; the wind smoothes at the waves, pushes, pulls. The trees wave their branches. The air is incredibly warm all of a sudden. The road is baked, I mean baked, and the heat rises.

I come back past the combines on my way back to Athol; I see the bin of one of them is being unloaded into the white semi I'd met coming into town as I was going out. I can see wheat heaped in the truck box already. The other combine in the other field is unloading into a wagon again.

I drive back into Athol and find a place to park in the shade. I want to make some notes and take a moment's nap; or nap and make some notes, to put first things first.
Here's a big building that says it's the "First Congregational Church," according to stonework above the door. Yet to me it looks more like a school than a church - big, square, brick, like an old public school.
Then I'm driving backroads in the country again. Some roads are just dirt with the grass scraped off, wide enough for a semi, yeah, but not much wider than that. I'm out a mile north of Athol now. The wind is playing with the wheat. The wheat is nearly at eye level where I'm sitting in the car. If I had a passenger perhaps he could reach out and grab a handful of wheat stalks. You look at the wheat waving in the breeze; it looks as if the field is saying No, No, No.

To be continued....

JULY 29, 1998

A place is not a place without time. Place exists in time - in geologic time, in the time of the year, in the time of day. Think that this place used to be at the bottom of a great inland sea. Think that there is ice and snow in winter, the great heat of summer, the color of autumn. Think of the bird chatter at sunrise, of the stillness at high noon. We cannot really know where we are, then, if we don't know when. When and where are a banded pair.
And time, I think, is linked to people. In the great universe, there is no before and after, only the great eternal NOW. For an animal - all is now. For a rock. We are the critter who insists on such distinctions as yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Guilty.
Blue sky, still pond, planes rumble overhead, winging towards Oshkosh.
The corn pack has started. The sweet stink of the canning factory has changed from peas to corn silage. If you know nothing else, your nose will tell you that the sour smell where waste water is being sprayed is almost - dare I say it - almost the smell of pigs.
It could be Iowa - the green of corn stretching for miles. This could be home. Well - no - I guess it couldn't. I know about the pea fields that were here. There were never pea fields in my Iowa.
At Five Corners, the truck driver appreciates that I've given him room to make his wide turn. He waves. A load of sweet corn bound for Fairwater's canning factory.
On Watson Street in Ripon, long shadows. A quiet morning. The woman walking to work, as she does every morning, as she has as long as I have been driving the morning. She looks a little older today, and so do I.
I suppose there are things we put up with, but we don't have to like 'em.

Wednesday, July 28, 2004

And soon enough Ivan was leading me down to the hospital so I could see Smith Center's Wellness Center.

Starr Jacobs, who was at the front desk, showed me around the facility. They've got exercise equipment available for use by hospital patients and members from the general public alike. There's a Nu-Step machine that provides low impact cardio-vascular workout and is useful in knee rehabilitation and with back problems. There's a stationary bicycle. Weight equipment. The Wellness Center has a personal trainer on staff.

"Lots of people from the community come in here to work out," Starr told me. "In fact, we have to schedule use of the therapy pool because it is so popular." The bottom of the therapy pool can be adjusted to make the pool deeper. People can swim, walk, or jog in the water against the current. You can use a tether to help you hold your place.

"When people become members, we show them what the machines are used for," Starr said.

"This machine," she said, "people either love or hate. She climbed on it to show how it operated. "You like it a little better if you set it to make you work a little harder. It feels more stable then. I know, it doesn't look like this is hard work. When I started, I couldn't do five minutes on it. Now I'm up to fifteen minutes."

Membership in the Wellness Center is a benefit offered to hospital employees.

Starr showed me the cardiac rehab unit, off in a room of its own. The "Tri-Fit" tests a person's flexibility, heart, and fat. It can be used to do an extensive health examination, to assess what your risks are, to compare your "body age" against your chronological age.

A fellow was set up in the unit for the cardiovascular test. A computer in the hospital was sending an image of the fellow's heart patterns to an expert off-site. A technician in the room was speaking with the far-off expert while the heart pattern continued to transmit. When I sign my memoir, Curlew:Home, I often make note that "Curlew is everywhere." The reverse is also more and more true these days - Everywhere is Curlew. Everywhere is Smith Center. When we wish to be freed from the confines of place, modern technology can free us. The world's experts are now available real time, on-line. The patient in Smith Center can benefit from the same expertise that the patient in Kansas City or Denver has available.

Then I met Arloa Barnes, who is, it turns out, Physical Therapy at Smith Center Hospital - the one and only Arloa, Physical Therapist. The Physical Therapy Department of the hospital used to be confined to a room about 20' by 12'.

"We started getting more and more patients," Arloa said. "We got the assistance of a grant to build this facility. The hospital board agreed to match half the cost. We included a cardiac rehab unit in the plans because that was something people were going out of town for. And we added aquatic therapy."

"Plans got approved," she said. "Work went forward. The project came in under budget."

Under budget? How did that happen?

"I spent a lot of weekends making sure that everything was right - that we had as many outlets planned for as we would need, that the space was big enough, that it allowed the privacy we would need," she said. "Change orders are what kill you."

"Half-way through the planning, a family from the community approached us and wanted to fund a Wellness Center as well. They provided $108,000 to outfit the center - equipment, tables, mirrors, etc. This gift allowed the center to be opened up to the public."

The PT Department brought three pieces of equipment to the new facility, and a table. The family's donation brought the total equipment up to ten pieces and added the weights that are available."

"When did we move in here?" Arloa asked another staff member. They chewed on the question for a bit and decided it must have been on April 1.

"We were moving and working," the other woman explained. "I've lost a month."

Arloa is married to Dr. Joe Barnes, a Smith Center family practice physician. "We moved here in 1985," Arloa said. "I've worked here off and on. I grew up in Norton, an hour west of here. So I'm a western Kansas girl." They moved here because they wanted to raise their family in a small town.
So how did the girl from western Kansas meet her doctor-husband, I wondered.

"I stalked him," Arloa said. "At the KU Medical School. I knew he had dated the student body president at Wichita State. He thought I was my sister. He was so predictable. He'd park in the same place every day, use the same door, ride the same elevator. He didn't have a chance."

Before I left the Wellness Center, Starr Jacobs and I arranged to meet at 6:00 p.m. at Smith Center's Jiffy Burger. She would be taking supper out to the field for her husband Brent, and for Brent's partner and cousin, Dan Jacobs, and she invited me to eat with them, and maybe ride for a while in the combine while the men continued their wheat harvest after supper.
To be continued....
JULY 28, 1998

The morning light has changed, distinctly. Bird song comes later. When I rise at 5:00 a.m. now, the world is quiet (briefly) where before the birds would be chatting already. Darkness will become a morning companion once again - on into another turn of the Great Wheel. Even as the summer pushes to fullness, to ripeness, you can feel the year winding down, the circle of light diminishing, the sun heading out for new parts, to touch another place. Let me enjoy what morning light remains, then let me, too, with equal vigor embrace the darkness. This is life, this is the turn of the world in this place. This is our day and night, us.

Since about noon yesterday planes have been coming over in constant supply, all of them on their way to the EAA convention in Oshkosh. Even this far away - twenty-five miles - they will be lined up three and four in a row sometimes. A community of interest, the fly-in at Oshkosh; the place has made something its very own. It's Experimental Aircraft 'R Us for a week and a half at the beginning of August each year. Travellers cannot find accommodations within ninety miles of Oshkosh as a result.

A smooth sky, a still pond, morning in the village - lovely.

Tom, if you have to ask why there is a roll of toilet paper unfurled on Washington Street, obviously you don't have a clue. Call me Clueless in Fairwater.

I'm downtown. A little girl drives her pick-up past the post office. Well - she looks like a little girl. Damn, I am getting old.

North along Highway E, the fields of sweet corn are at various stages of maturity. Some of it must be ready to harvest.

A brown lawn south of Five Corners reminds us that we need some rain. The world here is green, sure, but this is not an eternal green.

Overhead, as I write this in the parking lot at work, airplanes continue lining up for the approach to Oshkosh. The sky is rumbling full of them.

The Vagabond's big "Thank-You" goes to the following for their recent generous contribution to the Expedition:
#92 Bob & Mary Lane, Wisconsin.

Tuesday, July 27, 2004

JUNE 14, 2004

My first morning in town. I went down to the Second Cup Cafe for breakfast and to catch the "As the Bladder Fills" club at their 8:00 a.m. meeting. I had the large order of biscuits and gravy - $2.69; plus a cinnamon roll and coffee. And I had no sooner finished wiping the grin off my face than I heard Ivan Burgess coming in - "There's Tom Montag." He got me seated at the Club's usual table and started introducing me to the guys who were coming in too - people like Jim Fetters, the county attorney, and Linton Lull, who used to be one of Smith Center's bankers, Jack Benn and Claude Gripp, Raymond Osborn and Stan Hooper and a whole mess of other fellows whose names I didn't get written down.

When one of the fellows came in, the waitress asked him about his weekend. He said, "When you're retired, it's hard to tell when your weekend begins and ends."

Ivan thought I might go out and visit some grain elevators and told me who to talk to. "Just tell them I sent you," he said. The fellow in the next chair told me to be careful, though, because there are a couple big fellows who'll throw me out if I mention Ivan's name.

"These are the brightest minds in town," Ivan said of the fellows gathered for coffee. When I mentioned to Linton Lull that I'd seen his name in Ivan's Echo Echo, Linton confided that Ivan had been "short of material."

We saw that Jim Fetters was starting to grow a mustache. He had been fishing up in Flin Flon, Manitoba, for a week and came back with a smear of whiskers under his nose. Ivan asked him: "How come you're cultivating on your face what grows naturally around your ass?" You can see just about how nice they are to one another, this bunch.

Someone said the county is pretty solidly Republican. A fellow quoted ol' Chot Burt on the subject; Chot had said "I'd rather have a sister who works in a house of ill-repute than a third cousin who's a Democrat."

Ivan said: "We don't vote for people here, we vote against 'em. If they don't make any mistakes, we'll keep them."

They're talking about the death penalty down on that end of the table. One is for, one is against. One is saying "I can't believe that Terry Nichols didn't get the death penalty. I can't believe the people of Oklahoma did that."

Ivan has a copy of his Echo Echo opened up to a long list of names of the people running for public office. "That's an indication that the economy is bad under Bush - all those people looking for jobs."

"Did you get here last night in time to hear the storm?" someone asked. Yeah, I said, I heard the thunder but I didn't hear it rain. "That's the way it has been going," the fellow said, "we get the fireworks and someone else gets the rain."

"We're gonna get a new sheriff, a new county attorney, and a new judge," Jim Fetters is telling the fellow down at the end of the table. Fetters is not running for re-election.

Someone else is back to talking about the wheat harvest. Over at Colby to the west of here, he indicates, the harvest is so poor that "they cut their wheat in road gear. A fellow was out there driving down the road at 55 m.p.h. and the combine in the field was keeping up with him. The wheat harvest is pretty barren out there."

"I'd settle for what I got last year," the fellow next to me said. "It was the best year for wheat in Smith County history. Rain came just at the right times." He'd heard some pretty reliable sources that they'd gotten a hundred bushels to the acre last year on high, dry ground. "I didn't get anything that good, closer to seventy to eighty bushels an acre."

Down at the other end: "It's a good thing these farmers like to gamble - they do it every year."

Maybe it was Jim Fetters who said "Yeah, people are moving here by the hundreds." Someone else wanted to make sure I understood that was meant as sarcasm.

"Like Yogi Berra said," Fetters added, "if they aren't gonna come, how you gonna stop 'em?"

"You could get a pessimistic view sitting here," Linton Lull cautioned. "There are some good things happening - a new airport is being built; the Chamber of Commerce has the 'Come Home to Smith Center' promotion to get folks to return to Smith Center now that they've retired; there's the new Wellness Center; there's the library; people gave money to move water from the water treatment plant to the golf course, to water the fairways."

Then I overhear someone saying "... yeah, we're gonna make the women do without. We're gonna get all the men together and cut the women off." He's talking about sex, yes; and he adds "we'll probably have too many scabs crossing the picket line."

Linton Lull tells me about the Shrader Foundation. The community helped out Milt Shrader during the Depression when his circus was in trouble. He'd been broke and couldn't get his railroad cars home and the community took up a collection and bailed him out of a tight spot. He remembered them in his will with a million dollar bequest to the community. Some nephews had contested the will but the courts upheld it. Money has been wisely spent - the library was built and named for Shrader, the community hall was renovated. "One of the nephews came back here and was amazed that we'd built the library and named it after his uncle and had more money left than we had originally," Lull indicated. "He had a change of heart about it - we'd done all this, we'd honored his uncle, and the money hadn't been squandered."

"Most of our successful people have moved away, unfortunately," someone was lamenting. "But," he added, "they haven't forgotten us. Our graduates have all these scholarships available."

They'd like those people to come back to Smith Center when they retire. "We've got good doctors here," someone said, "we've got the golf course, great fishing, great hunting, the Wellness Center." 

To be continued....
(501 W. Third #12, Smith Center, KS 66967)  
"I heard a high school girl tell another high school girl that the Fourth of July was on the the fifth this year," Ivan said.
"At the time I'm talking about," Ivan wrote, "a couple of older fellows in town, Art Nelson and John Scott just came out to the golf course and played a couple of holes and then puttered around. One day Ivan Phetteplace said to John Scott, he said 'John, how can I improve my putting?' John said, 'Get the ball closer to the hole on your approach shot.'"
"It don't matter what part of town you live in," Ivan said, "it is not a high crime area. It don't matter what part of town you live in, you are less than twenty minutes from a doctor. It don't matter what part of town you live in, you are less than twenty minutes from a grocery store. It don't matter what part of town you live in, you are less than twenty minutes from a library that has talking books and talking CD. There are enough soap operas on TV to satisfy the most discriminating adult taste. Don't make no difference where you live in town, you are less than twenty minutes from church. And nearly all the churches have someone in their congregation who will pick you up and take you home."
"That ol Stan Smith is quick with the quip," Ivan noted. "I don't know if you know what kind of equipment that Stan, by choice, farms with. Stan walks very carefully on the conservative side. Someone asked Stan the other day, up at Paul's Cafe, how his wheat cutting was coming. Stan said he was all through cuttin' but now he had to sneak the combine back up to Pioneer Village before they missed it."
"Phyllis Tucker says her boss, Jim Fetters, keeps his office cold enough to hang meat it," Ivan said. 

"Before all the young people had cars," Ivan said, "the Old Mill and Park was a trysting place for young lovers. Vandalism was unheard of when a young swain was chewing a hickey on some nubile young creature's throat. This is not first hand information I'm giving you. I learned this from classmates bragging about their amorous conquests of the night before. I never had any success stories to tell along those lines."
"I don't know how the subject came up," Ivan said, "but it did. Last Friday morning about mid-morning the subject of getting up early in the morning came up at Paul's Cafe. Carl Stepp said he always got up at five o'clock in the morning. Bill Barretson said he did too, but his problem was he couldn't remember if he flushed or not when he got back to bed."
JULY 27, 1998

We know way too many people who have killed themselves - last week, the daughter of a friend. Before that, a friend, a couple of co-workers, a writer from Milwaukee, other acquaintances. May my grace be the gift to see the silver lining, to recognize that not every question Why? has an answer. Sometimes you have to run on sheer momentum. If you don't have that momentum built up, sometimes you cannot leap the gap.

Fifteen miles west of here the corn has given up. It no longer begs for rain. Its tightly curled leaves scream for release. The wind kisses the corn and moves on. Here, we had barely enough rain during the night to wet the street. If a similar rain fell west of here, it would be only enough to tease the farmers, not enough to do any good at all on that sand country. The corn cries out to an empty sky. The wind passes on.

Blue sky and sun. Wind ruffling the surface of the pond. Another day like every other day. The grass just wet enough to look like there's dew on it, not rain. The sun is already drying the streets.

In the field where the canning factory sprays its waste water, the hay has been taken now. Stubble reaches for the sun.

A woman and her dog walk west on Watson Road, south of Sina's pig farm. She is power walking. It is a large red dog and it has no problem keeping pace.

There are soy beans, I think, coming up now in the two fields where peas had been taken. I can see rows of green receding into the distance.

Flowers at Five Corners - red, white, and purple, orange and yellow and pink. They are an exclamation point at this intersection, if you ask me.

Monday, July 26, 2004

Now I'm headed south towards Hastings, Nebraska, on the Tom Osborne Highway again. I was here last September, when I drove the western edge of the middle west. You Cornhusker fans know who Tom Osborne is, I don't have to tell you. For the rest of you, think long-time Nebraska football coach.

Where the highway crosses the Platte River here, the bridge spans sand. The river is dry. There is no water flowing right now.

Some of the corn out here is bigger than anything I've seen elsewhere today. The Iowa farm-boy hates to say that. But he knows that the corn is curled with some distress in this heat, in fields that aren't irrigated, even at Rainforth Road.

New houses out here in the country sit exposed to the Nebraska sun. No trees to protect them. Oh, there are trees, just not enough of them.

A coal train comes through Hastings, Nebraska, passes on tracks beneath us. I can see the end of the train, but I cannot see the beginning. That is typical of life, I guess.

A woman in Hastings is walking a small dog on a leash. I have see rats bigger than that dog. The woman has badly colored skin, as if an artificial tan went south on her.

6:32 p.m. Thirty-nine miles to Red Cloud. A bank of high clouds to the south, now ahead of me.

A Cadillac with Kansas plates is poking along ahead of me. Who owns the Cadillac owns the road, so some think.

I pass that Cadillac just before we cross the Little Blue River. There isn't another car for a mile in either direction. In fact, traffic is pretty sparse all along Highway 281 headed for Red Cloud.

Power-line - a big one, towers instead of poles. Red Cloud, twenty-eight miles. A smear of clouds to the south and west, blue sky overhead. Cattle take a deep wade in a mud-hole, with water half-way up their bellies. Irrigation rigs - some of them spraying, some of them not.

Gullies with trees. Or do they call them ravines? Or washes?

Entering Webster County.

Blue Hill - pop. 867. An immense sadness descends. "Welcome to Blue Hill," the sign says. I see a splash of kids in the municipal swimming pool, a life guard on duty, a couple of big girls with red blouses dangling their feet in the water. They are getting sun-burned, all of them, every single bone-white Nebraskan of them.

Across this landscape a lot of farmsteads are gone. That's not the wind you hear; it's the loneliness of the empty farmyards.

Cattle graze on some low ground. A river used to run there, broad and deep. It had to be plenty mean to cut a path. Now this is not river bottom but pasture. Like a gravel pit growing up to brome grass.

The closer I get to Red Cloud, the tougher the country looks. Were it not so green, this could be the west.

Is that winter wheat, turned for harvest already? That's what it looks like to me.

"Do Not Drive On Shoulder" the sign says, ignorant of the fact, apparently, that a farmer drives anywhere he damn well pleases.

Red Cloud. I find the Willa Cather Center along Main Street. It is open Monday-Saturday from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. and Sundays from 1:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. Tours go out at 9:30 a.m., 11:00 a.m., 1:30 p.m., and 3:00 p.m. I'll try to get back here on Saturday for the 9:30 a.m. tour.

I stop at Subway just a few doors south of the Cather center. It is so peculiar, a Subway in such a big downtown building. Fast food with history, I guess. I get myself a sandwich, a chocolate malt (yup, they've got ice cream), and a cold drink. There are five fellows in the place just shooting the bull. Talking about cars and girls, what else?

"She's got a motor just like the other one," one of the fellows says, without context to let you understand whether it's girl or car he's referring to. Except we know he wouldn't talk to the other fellows with such obvious affection for a girl.

You wonder if these guys know who Willa Cather was, or if it matters. Does it matter? We're writers, so we think it should, but does it? It's cars and girls that fuel the tromp tromp of the generations, not my notion of literature.

Then I am headed south again, peeling for Smith Center. As I cross the Republican River, I see there's not much water in it at all. I will take that as a good omen for the fall elections. Regime change begins at home.

In Kansas, I see that some of the winter wheat has been harvested.

Now there are clouds coming in, clouds going away. Some places, it looks like rain; some places, not. Maybe they'll get a sniff of it here, just north of the geographic center of the lower 48 states.

Bee hives have been set out like offerings in a field just at the edge of a stand of trees.

The hand of God is working the western sky with long fingers of light. This is a keen moment of sadness, when sunlight comes down through the clouds like grace. It doesn't signify the end of the world, but you can see the end of the world from here at the exact center. That's the paradox of our middleness - it puts us at the edge.

Sign: Lebanon, 1 mile. Smith Center, 16 miles.

It is 8:00 p.m. as I drive through Lebanon on Highway 281. Lift up my soul, O Lord. Let my sadness be lifted.

As Smith Center comes into view, light like the grace of God is shining on it, those long fingers of light down through the teasing clouds.

Just at the edge of Smith Center, a combine harvesting wheat throws out a storm of dust like darkness. It has been a long day. I am a weary wayfaring stranger.

To be continued....
JULY 23, 1998

Dew on the grass this morning, and long shadows. A cool day with bright blue sky. What will this loveliness cost us?

In the field where the canning factory sprays its waste water, the grass was cut into windrows yesterday. It will dry further in today's sun.

It cannot be long before the sweet corn is harvested. From where I am, it looks so ready.

Sunday, July 25, 2004

3:00 p.m. I'm still fifty-some miles east of Council Bluffs. The western sky has clouded. The wind finds its way even so. The day has not cooled.

I stop at a wayside and take a forty-minute nap. I hate to lose the driving time but - worse - I hate the notion of falling asleep and running off the road. So I do what I promised Mary I would do - I rest my eyes closed.

Now the clouds to the west seem to be stirring up a blow. I'm headed for whatever is coming at me.
Such a long drive as this gives you quite the cross-section of America. I am in the middle of the middle of it.

Now we cross the wide Missouri into Nebraska, "The Good Life." 4:10 p.m. "Lincoln, Left Lanes," the signs say.

I am headed towards an embankment of thunderheads. We are starting to lose the sun. It is only 4:21 p.m.

The sky to the northwest is a very dark velour.

Ha! There's the Platte River - "a mile wide and an inch deep," they've said. Out here a river can be nearly as wide as it wishes to be. This is Nebraska; what's going to stop it?

This eastern Nebraska corn stands a foot tall. The landscape between Omaha and Lincoln is as green as Iowa, as Wisconsin.

Now it looks as if the storm ahead has split - some to the north, some to the south. Dead ahead, blue sky is visible, a bank of clouds farther on. Lincoln, 22 miles.

Except that there are not near enough trees, this could be Wisconsin, yes.

Hang-down heavy blue to the north. Openness ahead. Wind. I am driving the seam of the storm, riding that spine. Lincoln next seven exists.

I can see Nebraska plates, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Iowa. We cross Salt Creek together at 80 m.p.h. And we're not the fastest drivers out here, by any means.

Lincoln sprawls like a tired whore, long-limbed and loose, spread across everything she can reach.
5:00 p.m. I am driving into sunshine. The storms have slid by me and are behind me now. There is only the green swarm of landscape, that and a few puffs of cloud.

I-80 shines like a liquid ribbon - traffic going west, coming east, the gleam of sun on glass and steel. There are a lot of semis running this stretch of highway. It is Sunday afternoon. Truck-drivers always like to get a little jump on the week ahead, so it's not surprising to see so many of them today.

5:12 p.m. Nothing to the west now but a faint haze, moisture hanging. Ahead of me the clouds are entirely gone.

Big irrigation rigs stand out here near the Beaver Crossing exit. Farmers, out working their fields on this now bright Sunday afternoon, raise some little dust. The only storm clouds are in my rear view mirror. Out here Nebraska is as flat as the lanes of a bowling alley. A storm can roll across it like a strike-bound ball, knock down everything in sight. Out in the open like this, the farm boys stand a fair chance of catching their girls.

I pass an ambulance from Kearney, Nebraska, which is headed towards home. The fellow in the passenger seat appears to be sleeping. A woman drives it, determined.

5:40 p.m. I have not seen the country between the York and Grand Island exits before, here along I-80. It is new territory, though the landscape is familiar - what I'm seeing, what I will see, looks a lot like what I've seen for the past forty-six miles. Nebraska has a lot of that. I am within two hours of Smith Center now, I believe, or nearly so. I am going through Red Cloud, Nebraska, on my way; perhaps I'll stop and have supper in Willa Cather's home town.

Damn, these fields of corn stretch a long way west. And fields of soybeans. This is news to the Iowa farm boy.

I have really got a lump in my throat for this part of America, for the farmers who planted these fields of corn and beans, for the women who love the farmers, for their parents and their children. The fields roll on and on. The land gets worked, gets worked again. The generations turn. We lose one, we gain another one. We gain and lose and things work out pretty much as they're supposed to. The land rolls on and on.

Some of the communities out here get exits off the interstate; some of them don't. Who plays God's hand?

How many dead raccoon have I seen today? More than thirty-five, less than fifty? How many dead deer? Twenty-five?

6:08 p.m. The shine of the moving highway in this light. Ah!
To be continued....
JULY 21, 1998

A thunderstorm rolled through last night low-down and dirty - it knocked out power about 11:30 p.m. and power is still out! What a wonderful welcome for the four "Up with People" kids staying with us for the week. One from New Hampshire; one from Moorhead, Minnesota, to whom thunderstorms should be nothing new; one from Denmark; and one from Switzerland. They have been together in the program since January; they have just had a three-week break and are back at it with one city under their belt - La Crosse - and Fond du Lac the second city on this leg of the tour. English is the universal language and is very well spoken by the red-headed Danish young lady and by the Swiss lad. It hardly seems fair that all the world must speak English to communicate - but we Americans didn't make this happen by ourselves. I'm sure the British empire went some ways towards making the world English-speaking. At least we have a lively language and - pretty much - a sufficient vocabulary - partly because we so easily steal and transmute what we don't have but need. Potlatch is one such example; to capture the concept we had to capture the word. Is canyon another?
The girl from New Hampshire asked how many people live in Fairwater. "All of them," I said. "We put the dead ones in the cemetery."

Quite a storm came through. Some large branches down at our end of the street, with a lot of leaves and other debris. You almost think the morning can repair itself - a mourning dove calls - then I see a very large tree down across the other end of Washington Street in Fairwater. The Power Company is there, cutting it up. It is the reason our power went out, having fallen across our power lines. In a yard in downtown Fairwater, another tree is uprooted.

The air clings unpleasantly. Two blackbirds harass a crow. The rye straw, I see, has been baled.

North of Fairwater, all the way to Ripon, it appears the trees did not feel the fury of our storm. The corn looks undamaged as well.

As I turn onto Watson Street in Ripon, a pretty girl smiles at me. A bright start to this day.


JULY 22, 1998
It wants to be a dark and cloudy day, wants to talk like thunder - but not very badly; in the east there is still a little blue sky.

There are enough branches at curbside along Washington Street this morning to make the village look like a war zone. There is a brown scar along the asphalt where a large tree trunk has been dragged away - taken to Hoodie's woods to decay, I presume, or someone will cut it up there.

Just outside of town I have to stop, to allow a deer to cross in front of me. It has come out of a field of soy beans, it enters the field where the canning factory sprays its waste water.

I can see now that it looks dark to the northwest and all of a sudden the east has closed itself up. The sky is gone; clouds remain, the sun a bright splotch behind them.

Either you are on auto-pilot on a day like this, grinding your way through, or you are committed to paying attention. "Sort of paying attention" is like "a little bit pregnant."

A woman walks her dog along Highway E north of Union Street. She has worked up a sweat. Sweat soaks through her T-shirt. She strides determinedly - up and down, up and down. Her dog at the end of its leash does not pay her bouncing much attention but follows its nose.

A police officer is at a home along Watson Street in Ripon, talking with a man and woman out front. They stand circled around a large lawn ornament that has been thrown over and broken.

The universe abhors a vacuum and the ruffian's mind abhors someone else's beauty. You can almost bet there was testosterone involved, or alcohol, or both.


To the following folks for their recent generous contributions to the Vagabond Expedition:

90. Anonymous #5, Minnesota.
91. Susan Czarnionka, Maine.

Saturday, July 24, 2004


by Loren Kleinman

The cheese is born: Mozzarella di Bufala,
Erborinati de Pecora, Pecorino Toscano.

A soft Robiola ripens in a leaf. A Caciocavallo Podolico
ages in the grottoes. The cheese should reflect

the diet of the animal from which it was birthed,
the sea salt rubbed on its crust, the stone grotto beside the dairy,

the hands of the women who shape it -
these signoras, how they watch the milk and rennet

heat over an open fire, how they scoop the gentle white curds
into molds and softly press out the whey with their palms.

These cheeses are alive, given an origin by the affinatore.
They are given a soul. Their lives are shaped from the beginning,

turned out of their molds, some taken from the ground,
hung from thick ropes - to break apart, grate over

broccoli rabe and orecchiette. Locals eat it as is -
no pepper, vinegar, or oil. It is a test of faith.


by Loren Kleinman

Tomorrow you will be in another country.
I do not know if the moon sleeps there,
how it will divide you between here and there,
yes and no, stay and go. How it will want to live inside of you.
Like I do. This moon. How it will hang over your body.
Keep you captive. You will want it to leave you alone
and you will want it to stay, to say your name before mine.
You will try to sleep, but you think of the place you were born,
your dead mother, your father, your uncles.
The night will show you its face, how you will remember
our faces, kept awake, whispering over and over:
I am never going to forget you. You will remember
the poems, how I read to you, how I turned to you:
this is for you, this opening.

Loren Kleinman's work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Journal of New Jersey Poets, Upstage, Poetry Motel, Promise Magazine, Split Shot: A Journal of Literary Art, Hipnosis: New Jersey's Art and Entertainment Magazine, Aspirations: The Art of Writing, The M.A.G, Sol Magazine, Conception, Karawane, In Other Words, and Destination Anywhere, as well as other journals and anthologies. She has been a featured poet at Ramapo College for Women's History Month, The Bowery Poetry Club, The Nuyorican Poets Café, and more. Kleinman was nominated for the 2000 Pushcart Prize (best of the small presses), for her manuscript, Up, Down, Sideways, and Across; and the 2003 Pushcart Prize for her poem “Cooking in Tongues.” Her book, Flamenco Sketches, was the winner of the 2002 Spire Press Poetry Prize. She is currently working on her next collection I Want No Paradise and is the Poetry/Reviews Assistant Editor for Sidereality.


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 Harriet Brown, "Speaking Midwestern" and "Where We Went" -
July 10, 2004
o Robin Chapman, "By the Wisconsin River" -
June 12, 2004
o Susan Firer, "The Butterfly Graveyard" - May 22, 2004
o Fred First, "In Living Memory" -
April 3, 2004
o R. Chris Halla, "My Prairie Wedding" -
June 5, 2004
o Mike O'Connell, "Flatlanders" and "A Farm and a Rainbow" - March 27, 2004
o Colleen Redman, "Tincture Making" -
May 15, 2004
o Jim Reese, "Ritual" and "Willing and Ready" -
May 29, 2004
o Robert Schuler, "Thaw, 2003, Stanton Township" and "The American Millenium" -
June 26, 2004
o Judith Strasser, "Apostle Islands History" and "County Road" - July 17, 2004

o Marilyn Taylor, "Surveying the Damage" - June 19, 2004
o Mark Vinz, "The Old Hometown" and "Midcontinent" -
April 17, 2004
o Complete index to poems here

Friday, July 23, 2004

JUNE 13, 2004

7:30 a.m. It's a foggy morning - fog, or another kind of hanging moisture. I think of the plains of Africa. The sun is trying to burn through, as if the sky's on fire. What water is not in the air is pooled in the low spots in the fields.
The crops will never recover entirely.

You don't know if it's going to rain or shine. It's a roll of the die, it's luck of the draw.

I'm headed to Smith Center, Kansas, for a week. That's by design.

You have to imagine what it means, because it doesn't know. A fellow walks from his house to the corner of his lawn. His shirt seems dirty, his hair is mussed. He is not walking square to the world. He pushes and the world pushes back. I don't know why he's walking across the lawn, perhaps with a cup of coffee in his hand. It is Sunday morning; the morning lays on him like fog; he carries it; he goes on. As do we all.

The air grows heavy. Rain hits the windshield like darkness. One pushes into it. These things we do, some of them we do by choice.

The sun breaks through the haze, a temporary victory. I am going to put on 830 miles today making this drive. I could see any weather, every weather, between here and Smith Center. There were tornadoes in Iowa and Kansas yesterday. To the southwest, the sky is still dark.

Today, on this long grey drive, I'm thinking that anybody could tell these stories. I'm nothing special for trying to tell them; anybody could do it. Yet the question would be - if I don't tell them, who will? What may be special is my desire to tell them. My doggedness. It's a strange mixture - my interest, the requisite poetry in these lives, my adequate prose for the telling. One does not choose such work so much as the work chooses him.

9:10 a.m. Seventeen miles from Dodgeville, Wisconsin. A spatter of rain. A car from Kansas passes me. We are headed in the same rough direction. We move for different purposes, at different speeds. I drive not hard, but steady. I am a dogged traveler, the determined vagabond. Who else would enjoy an 830 miles trek?

The drive from Fairwater to Smith Center is a diagonal across the heart of the middle west. What I see today, that is what we are, isn't it? Now it is greenness, now greyness. Tree and ditches and fields. Haze and rain and water standing. Southwestern Wisconsin is so pretty in this light, it could be any tourist's destination.

I am not particularly interested in pretty, yet I am not put off by it. Rather, I think we learn more by observing the ordinary, the plain, the mundane. To find the story in the ordinary is to find the real story. Yet the ordinary story does not tell itself; you must seduce it. You have to tease it out as it teases you.

11:00 a.m. West of Dubuque on Highway 151. Bare sky is showing. The day has brightened. I've had another cup of coffee; I'm wired for a few hundred miles more. Heavy coffee, I call it: a cup of black coffee from a convenience store, spiked with a few spoonsful of instant coffee from the jar I keep in the glove compartment. It works its caffeine magic.

A rich odor of manure at Cascade, Iowa. There is a large pen of cattle here; they're being fattened for the slaughterhouse. This is where your steak comes from. The smell of the cattle pen is as large as the sky.

The Iowa corn is ten inches to a foot tall already.

12 Noon. I'm south of Cedar Rapids on I-380, headed for I-80, headed for Des Moines, Omaha, Lincoln. Driving the long miles west.

On I-80 a hundred and four miles east of Des Moines. Such a brimming greenness. Beans and corn, ditches and trees. Greenness on the heavy breeze.

12:30 p.m. I've passed the North English-Marengo exit. The sky is mostly blue now. A long cloud is stretched across the western sky as if something ends and begins at that place. Puffs of clouds to this side of it, to the other side.

2:00 p.m. I'm west of Des Moines. I've got less than a quarter tank of gas left. I'd like to find a little bit of something to eat. I'll stop in Van Meter, Iowa, at the convenience store. Van Meter is home of the Bob Fuller Museum. It is home of the 2003 1-A state baseball champs. The community is a mile from the interstate. The lights and bell on the railroad crossing are malfunctioning, stuck constantly on - clang, clang, clang, clang. I'm in town only long enough to fill the car with gasoline and get some orange juice and an ice cream sandwich, and already the racket has given me a headache.

It is getting hot out. The sky is absolutely blue.

About eighty miles east of Council Bluffs the land rolls about like a restless sleeper, up and down, up and down. It's like a green machine, pumping.
To be continued....

JULY 17, 1998

Last night two of our cats went through the screen on the dining room door, out onto the patio, to show a stray cat - the stray cat? - just whose place this is. Obviously, our two cats think it is theirs. The discussion, I'm told - since I was asleep - was long and loud. When it was over, my wife found the larger, male cat lounging on the front porch, surveying his kingdom. We'll have to repair the screen, but the rest of the house seems well protected. The stray is not in our driveway today.

Human beings are just as territorial of their space, their place, just as protective, aren't they? Stepping onto my property is trespass; the discussion will take place in court. Sometimes we think we are superior to the animals, when in reality the principles we find there apply to us as well. We ignore those principles at our own peril.

Is that my hawk half-hidden in the leaves of the big tree out in the middle of the field? Will my wishing make it so?

The green of all the fields shines today, really shines!

A farmer in his striped overalls and a baseball cap, an older man, walks out to the road to check his mailbox. He has a five quart plastic bucket in his hand. He is really on his way to pick berries, isn't he, in the cool of the morning.

Long shadows in Ripon - houses in their morning shade.


JULY 20, 1998
We try to make things make sense, don't we? Because we can understand, we tell ourselves that things can be understood. If only we can unlock the meaning, if only we can cipher sense into a random occurrence of events, a random smashing of molecules, then we can quiet our restless heart which wants to know "Why."

We are human because we can ask "Why." But we are foolish humans to think that every time we ask, there will or should be an answer. Sometimes we are simply the piece of straw picked up and driven into the telephone pole - there is no "meaning" in that. It just is. Not even God will tell you why that happened here, now. It makes sense on the level of simple physics; it does not seem to make sense when we look at it through the lens of the question "Why." Random shards of pottery do not make a whole pot, no matter how much we wish them to.

There was a little rain during the night, at 3:00 a.m., say. I could hear it behind the whirr of the fan pulling cool air into the house, I could see its sheen in the street light. The world refreshed itself. This is not a desert, no matter how much some of the village youngsters might think it is. They want to get the hell out of Fairwater. Someday they will want to come back and they will not be able to. I have been able to choose the village, and Mary has, and it fits us. It does not fit our daughters - one of them is working in the city now, the other is in school in Montana. We have lost at least one of them to the mountains. Isn't that the flatlander's greatest sadness, to lose a daughter to the mountains? And - having rejected the city - to lose another daughter to the city?

A mourning dove takes off from the driveway. Dew condensed on the windshield of the pick-up. Sun and blue sky. July is perfect, just perfect. Leave me here, let me be.

Perhaps that was not the hawk I saw in the tree last week. That spot of coloration is in the same place again today, exactly.

At Sina's pig farm, the smell of money, the acrid smell of pig manure cutting the blue air.

A skunk dead on the road. We could wish it were not so, but to make it not so we'd have to get rid of some of our roads, wouldn't we?

The goat at Five Corners has dug himself a fox hole. At the intersection itself, the flowers are in full dress uniform - so much beauty, unsung at a rural crossroad.

In Ripon, a woman stands at the fence in front of the motel. She is drinking her morning coffee. She must be on vacation, for she is as bright as the day, enjoying the morning, watching the traffic pass, the sun on her, the wind wrapping itself around the soft folds of her clothes, playing with her hair. She takes another sip of coffee.

And I go on, go to work. Dammit. Dammit on a fine day.

Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Upon my return, I'll start reporting my June trip to Smith Center, Kansas. In the mean-time, enjoy (below) a healthy installment from the Echo Echo by Ivan Burgess of Smith Center. Ivan is the lone Democratic voice in Smith Center's "As the Bladder Fills Club."  You'll hear more about the "As the Bladder Fills" fellows in coming weeks.
This is final part of an interview I conducted in July, 2003, with 99-year-old Pearl Mt. Castle of Lewisburg, Ohio. Pearl taught school for forty years, usually fifth grade. She taught Sunday School for sixty-four years, retiring from that when she was in her nineties. She still lives independently on the farm and in the house her parents moved into in 1913. She still takes care of herself. She still sometimes refers to herself in the third person, in the manner of old school teachers. I've been asked what Pearl looks like, and this is how I responded: "Pearl is white-headed, fairly thin, of a medium woman's height - neither short nor tall. Her face has seen some years, but her eyes still have some fire in them. She was wearing a long, dark house dress when I interviewed her, she walks with a walker, she wears a built-up shoe and brace on the foot and ankle most damaged by the polio." I found that my job during this interview was to stay out of the way and let Pearl tell her story. Pretty much I succeeded in staying out of the way; there's no question but that Pearl can tell her story. Try and keep up with us, now.
Interestingly, Pearl especially appreciates the writing of Henry David Thoreau. "He writes about nature," she said, "the things you see right out there. You know what his love was - well, that's my love, the out-of-doors. That's why I am living here. I might not really be capable of living here by myself, and yet I do. This is the loveliest place in the world. I grew up here with nature. I know every inch of this seventy-six acre farm. I've picked berries, I've shocked wheat, I've brought in the cows and milked them. There's an old song: 'I ain't got nobody, nobody cares for me. I ain't got nobody, so I'm going back to the farm, to milk the cows and feed the chickens and I don't give a good gosh darn.' That's where I am in a way, but then I also have so many people who love me and respect me and keep in touch with me all the time. That's why I'm alive."

"What would it take to move you from this place?" I asked.

"When I breathe my last," Pearl said. "I would be lost - it'd be like sitting in jail to be in a retirement home."

"What if you lived in a different house or apartment?"

"I wouldn't have the closeness of all these friends and relation, and the out-of-doors that I have here," Pearl said. "So many interesting little things happen here. Walk to the door there and hear 'bob-white.'"

I asked Pearl about the characteristics of the people of the area. She said her high school class had high expectations: "From that class, there were two nurses, two doctors, two teachers, a couple farmers. Nineteen people in my class and they went to all walks of life. A musician. A dramatist. We have a couple little grandmothers, too. And one became a specialist in candy-making; her grand-daughter right now is running her candy business. She's known for her chocolates."

"Ambition, yes," Pearl said, "and we had potential."

Pearl's mother was more forward-looking, her father more conservative, which Pearl thinks is a common split in the people of the area - some progressive, and some not so progressive.
Ninety-nine percent of the people, Pearl said, were "staunch citizens, thinking of their fellow man, working together, and have a view of community, from the mayor of the town clear down to the lowest position you could have. And they are all equal - they live together, they understand one another, they're not fighting."

"I'm a great believer in that sort of thing, living with your fellow man," Pearl added. She quoted a poem she'd learned in the sixth grade, in which a fellow's name was not written in the "golden book" as one who loved the Lord. "Then write that I love my fellow man," the fellow said to the angel with the book. And the next night when the angel appeared again, the fellow's name was in the book of those whom the Lord has blessed, and "it led all the rest." He loved his fellow man.

Then Pearl said: "I suppose I shouldn't record this. People ask, 'Pearl, why did you never marry?'"

I said: "Pearl, why did you never marry?"

Pearl said: "I never had time."

She said: "I had plenty of boyfriends. I could laugh. I had a sense of humor. Knew what was going on in the world. Liked education. Education has been my field. If there is anything left to my estate when I am gone, it's going to scholarships, to education. Education - that will put the world on top, that and taking care of your fellow man. That's my philosophy."
(501 W. Third #12, Smith Center, KS 66967)
"Do you know the three most important things for having a winning football team," Ivan asked. "Offensive line, offensive line, and offensive line."
"Someone," Ivan said, "I don't know who it was, I don't think I'd ever heard of him, but someone once said 'if you build a better mousetrap the world will beat a path to your door.' Well, don't be lookin' for anyone to be battering Jack Benn's door down. Jack has been having a coon problem down at his place on West Court Street. So Jack put on his best outdoor game face and set a trap for the coon. In the middle of the night Jack got up and went outside to run his trap line. One of the neighborhood cats was in the trap eating the coon food and the coon was up on the bird feeder stuffing himself on sunflower seeds."
"At Paul's Cafe last Monday," Ivan said, "they had twelve kinds of pie listed. If I was a waitress and someone asked me what kind of pie I had, I would tell him: we got one crust and two crust, cream and fruit. Then let him order."
"Darren Meyer got caught up in that dreaded sequence web," Ivan reported. "You know how that works. First Darren made a new sign for Lasting Impressions. He done such a good job of that, his wife insisted that he repair the front steps. And, of course, he done an outsanding job of that. Now Darren don't know it yet, but the next project is a new front door. There is only one way to avoid the dreaded sequence web - that is to do such a poor job on the first project that the wife don't ask you to do the second project. I don't know why these young married husbands never learn that."
"And another thing," Ivan said. "As expensive as lumber is, it is kind of hard to realize it grows on trees."
"Bruce Miles wondered," Ivan said, "if, when you hit a honey bee at seventy miles per hour, is that glob on the windshield honey? Fortunately Elizabeth Ohmstede, the bee lady, was there. She said part of it was honey and part of it was guts."
"When I was a kid," Ivan said, "I used to hear old people talking about the weather being 'close." That was on the days when the humidity was high. Well, last week there was a couple days that could be described as 'close.'"
"I see a driver's ed car around town." Ivan said. "So must be having a driver's ed course at the local school. My driver's ed consisted of getting in, starting the motor, and letting out the clutch. Lettin' out that clutch would cause some buckin' and jumpin' but when you got her smoothed out, you were a driver."
"Last Tuesday morning I heard three different amounts of rain," Ivan reported. "I gave each one of them my stock answer - 'that's about what I had.' It's just so much simpler to say 'that's about what I had' than to go slogging out to the rain gauge and trying to read the amount in these plastic gauges that are hard to see through."
"You can always tell when you sweet corn is ready," Ivan said. "It is ready the day after the coons have stripped all the ears off the stalk."
"By fall of the year," Ivan said, "I always lock my car so people won't be putting turnips in." [Ivan, in Wisconsin, it's zucchini. You no more than turn your back or run into the convenience store for a soda and you come out there's a bushel of zucchini in your back seat.]
"A brunch had to be invented by a woman," Ivan wrote. "You can't have breakfast because she is going to a brunch. You don't have dinner because she has been to a brunch."
"The thing I like about the Fourth of July," Ivan said, "is that it is the last holiday until September 6th. The older I get, the more that holidays screw up my entire schedule. There is nothing I like better or that is more comfortable to me than routine. I hate being forced out of my routine."
"Stay ahead of the possed," Ivan always closes.
JULY 15, 1998

The air is still so humid you can see the moisture in it. Out here, the humidity is like a wall in the distance, a blue wall that marks the edge of what we can see. It's supposed to be hot again today. Our July weather is right on schedule. 

At the corner of Highway E and Sheldon Road, the winter rye has been harvested. All that's left is straw. The only field of peas that had remained along Highway E has been harvested too.

In the field where once there had been water standing, where peas have since been taken, now there are hundreds of little white stakes set in rows. Don't ask me - I don't know.

At the Soda farm along Highway E south of Five Corners, the evidence is clear that one of the big outbuildings and a small one burned yesterday.


JULY 16, 1998
Speed and scale are interrelated. Driving sixty miles per hour, the telephone poles are closer together - it's only when you're walking that you recognize how far apart they are. A conestoga wagon headed west - the hopeful settler sees the wide open spaces reaching beyond forever. From a jet, the view of the open space of the west is reduced; we can cross in an hour or two or three what used to take a very long summer.

In car or pick-up, you do not get the same sense of the road as you do walking, when you notice every hill. You do not get to hear the plants and animals talking. Because you remove yourself from "land time" when climbing into an automobile, your senses are altered - it is the large you notice, not the small and quiet. The anger of the red-wing blackbird - you can't feel it as you travel in a fast-moving vehicle. The kreee of the hawk - can you hear it? Because we miss these things in passing, we come to think they are not there, or are not important.
When we slow to a walk, we see how much different the world becomes.

A neighbor has water spraying across his lawn. I would not do that. Having a lawn to take care of is bad enough - you don't want to encourage it.

Again this morning - a dove in the driveway. Sun on the house is blood ripe red.

Sea gulls are flocking in the fields along Highway E, awaiting our plague of locusts perhaps. They've been here more than a week, I think, and the flock seems to be getting larger.

The leaves on the corn are curled tight. Does the corn wish for water? It was warm again yesterday. Today is not expected to be so hot as it has been.

There are three crows on the Ripon High School football field. They are talking a game all their own, calling plays I don't understand.

Monday, July 19, 2004

JULY 20-22
After I put up tomorrow's post, I will leave for a short trip to Curlew, Iowa, my "hometown." The folks who bought the Joe Wilson house in Curlew live and work in Atlanta, Georgia, but they spend their vacations repairing, restoring, and refurbishing the house that my childhood friend Bryan Wilson grew up in. I have fond memories of the house, as is evident in my memoir, Curlew: Home. The house, as is the case of Curlew itself, has fallen into some disrepair over the years. Bryan Wilson was killed while serving a second tour of duty in Vietnam.
The owners of the Wilson house are working on it this week and next. They had invited me to visit them during their time in Curlew, to tour the house. I've offered to spend a day helping them. So I'll drive out to Curlew tomorrow after posting here, work with them in the house on Wednesday, drive home on Thursday, and return to blogging on Friday.
I wonder what ghosts will stir up dust in the old house as I'm in it. I wonder what emotions will stir within me. Will I get the kernel of a good essay out of the experience, or at least an interesting journal entry? I don't know. There are no guarantees, but this is the sort of experience that usually bears fruit for me and I am grateful for the opportunity to visit my dead buddy's childhood home.
This is part of an interview I conducted in July, 2003, with 99-year-old Pearl Mt. Castle of Lewisburg, Ohio. Pearl taught school for forty years, usually fifth grade. She taught Sunday School for sixty-four years, retiring from that when she was in her nineties. She still lives independently on the farm and in the house her parents moved into in 1913. She still takes care of herself. She still sometimes refers to herself in the third person, in the manner of old school teachers. I've been asked what Pearl looks like, and this is how I responded: "Pearl is white-headed, fairly thin, of a medium woman's height - neither short nor tall. Her face has seen some years, but her eyes still have some fire in them. She was wearing a long, dark house dress when I interviewed her, she walks with a walker, she wears a built-up shoe and brace on the foot and ankle most damaged by the polio." I found that my job during this interview was to stay out of the way and let Pearl tell her story. Pretty much I succeeded in staying out of the way; there's no question but that Pearl can tell her story. Try and keep up with us, now.

"I didn't tell you about my 4-H work," Pearl said. "It wasn't called 4-H in Preble County back in 1919. I was 14 or 15 years old. It started with our wonderful superintendent of schools - 'We ought to have something for these children to do in the summer-time.' So we formed little clubs of one kind or another, and Lewisburg had a food club. Seven or eight girls belonged to it. One of the young teachers, who was a grand woman if there ever lived one, said she would be the sponsor of it. We met every week or so through the whole summer and studied nutrition, menus, preparation of foods, and cooking. A cooking club. Lanier Township had a cooking club, Monroe Township had a cooking club, and Lewisburg had a cooking club. There were at least sixty some girls in Preble County at that time in cooking clubs - 1919. We had a pamphlet explaining the things we studied We helped our mothers with cooking, canning, preserving, stewing, and all that, making family dinners and so on."

"At the county fair in September," she continued, "we exhibited - canned vegetables, canned fruit, jellies, and preserves, and a loaf of bread. Prizes were given for the best exhibit. The fair was during school-time but school was dismissed so the kids could go to the fair. The Mt. Castle girls wouldn't be going to the fair until the second day, so they were put out in the field picking up ears of corn that had been knocked off by the binder. When the came up to the farmyard for Dad to shovel the corn out of the wagon into the crib, the girls came to the house to get warm. While they were sitting here getting warm, waiting to go back out to the field, the telephone rang. The principal's wife was on the telephone when my mother answered. My mother said, 'Well, you can tell Pearl.'"

"So Pearl goes to the telephone," she said. "The principal had been so anxious to see what his school had as exhibits that he went over early on Thursday morning. His group of girls had several first place prizes. Pearl Mt. Castle had the prize for 'Best Cook in Preble County.' A little girl from Lanier had second place. And the third, fourth, and fifth places went to our Lewisburg club. The principal was so pleased and surprised he couldn't wait to tell it, he had to call his wife in Lewisburg and have her call to tell me I was first in Preble County. The prize was this - first and second in the county would go to Columbus - which was like going to Europe, you know - for Farmer's Week in January, entertained at Ohio State. The trip was all furnished by the county. That was like going to Europe for little country girls."

"I didn't know the Brauers from Lanier, my family didn't know them," Pearl said. "Jessie Brauer was the girl from Lanier. They lived at Isabelle Crossroad, we called it Beantown. The families got together to talk about how we'd get transported to Columbus for that week. We decided that Dad would take me by horse and buggy down to the traction line - there was a traction line from Richmond to Dayton, an inter-urban electric. I spent the night nearby. Then in the morning a fellow took us to the inter-urban line, and told them 'These little girls are going to Columbus, be sure they get off at Ludlow so they can walk to the depot.' We got on the train in Dayton that took us to Columbus. Advisers for 4-H met us at the train station and took us to the hotel where we stayed for a week. We went to the Ohio State Agricultural Building for a lot of meetings. We saw the town. We saw the Capitol building. We had three meals a day at the hotel or wherever."

Pearl said: "It was a great outing for a little girl back in 1919, 'the Best Cook in Preble County' - Pearl Mt. Castle."

"I wasn't too dull, I guess," she said.


JULY 13, 1998

Partly cloudy this morning. I can hear a woodpecker at breakfast. A squirrel noses its way down a tree in the back yard. In the distance, a mourning dove sits on a wire, tells me of its sadness.

We approach mid-July and I am caught, I think, somewhere in late May. Though how tall the corn is says it is July. How far the winter rye has turned says it is July. Still, being away from home for much of the month of June, it is almost as if my internal clock stopped while I was away. Well, I am here now, and the place fills me, here, now.

The village is very quiet this morning. What is it poised for? A new day? A new week?

It is a green land this year, a great green smear across the state. Should we be happy that every farmer prospers, or complain that the price paid for their products will drop as a result of a good harvest? Some are caught in that hard place where their happiness must sadden them.

The day lilies in the ditch north of Five Corners are orange summer sentinels, fully at attention.

In Ripon, the butt end of the weekend celebration remains. In the park, the rides and the midway are quiet, the carnies and hawkers and ride operaters Canjun'd by the constant sun and marinated in cheap bourbon - they sleep the fitful sleep of those who have no permanent home. Perhaps the women dream - a house and bed to call their own, a man to stand by, a sproutling child who will never have to live like this. The day will waken each of them, by and by, the heat will, each with his own, her own sour breath; then they'll be off down the road again, another town, another shill, another day.


JULY 14, 1998
It was blistering hot yesterday. The heat is expected to continue through the week. The humidity helps the crops, perhaps, but makes the people a little cranky. I mean "makes me a little cranky." It cooled last night somewhat and we were able to cool the house. At one point, waking during the night, I could have sworn it was even a little chilly.

People talk too much of the weather and complain too much of the heat, sometimes. Accept it, people! This is Wisconsin; this is the way it's going to be. Like complaining about it is going to change anything?

I leave early for work today. There is moisture on the windshield, on the side windows. The humidity in the cool evening air has to condense somewhere, I suppose. It is almost as if it has condensed on the morning sun as well.

The stray cat lounges in the driveway, up against the tire of a car, surveying his kingdom. This is my world, he says. Challenge me for it.

White clover shows itself in the lawn across the street, and elsewhere in Fairwater. A rabbit in the cemetery, a robin.

In the country, the humid air is so thick that groves of trees, silos, barns disappear into it a mile off or so off. It's not fog. The air is that wet. Even in the cool breeze sweat beads on my forehead. Am I talking too much of the weather, complaining? Shut up, Tom!

You can see the different maturity dates of the sweet corn, I think, looking at the color of the tassels - the paler, the later it matures.

Even the skinned lawns in Ripon - there are lots of them - soak up the dew this morning.

Two crows strut on the sidewalk in front of the bank downtown. I wonder, Do the bankers know that crows can count to ten?

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