I had this written once, but it was about meat processing, and after I finished it I didn’t like it, so here we go again. When in doubt, fall back on favorite memories.
Rewind tape . . . second take . . . and action!
Charles City, Iowa, is, was, and probably always will be a farming town. The population today, for the city on the Cedar River, is 7,700 people. It seemed bigger to me when I first saw it at age five.
Our family drove back there in the summer of 1953 to see my dad’s folks. I remember brick storefronts. I remember friendly people. And I remember corn literally as far as the eye could see, miles and miles of green stalks, reaching for the blue sky, swaying in the breeze, and farmers on tractors, big men, their faces shielded from view by John Deere caps, waving as we drove by.
By 1953 my grandparents were twenty years removed from losing most of their corn farm in the Great Depression. When I first met them, when I first arrived in Charles City, my grandparents were down to twenty acres and a weathered, two-story farmhouse, built in 1883 using wood from the forests of Minnesota, my dad said, but even those twenty acres seemed like a huge spread of land to me, and I was convinced my grandparents must be rich to live with so much property.
Chickens pecked in the yard, under a hot sun, Grandma out there daily tossing corn to them, shooing them off her porch with a broom, a couple piglets running around, not fenced in, seemingly aware of property lines, and huge oak trees with inviting limbs, providing shade, wooden chairs underneath them, family members sitting in them, drinking lemonade, neighbors stopping by to meet the relatives from the distant State of Washington.
The nights were special with lightning bugs and bullfrogs, the sky so clear, the stars so close, a warm breeze rustling the corn stalks, that rustle a constant companion into the night as sleep came, and the next day grandma on her knees, tending to her small garden, quiet in her work, most likely remembering days gone by when that small garden was much larger, and the dreams of a young couple were smashed by economic forces they did not comprehend.
My Uncle Ike came by, riding a scooter, probably a Vespa, an odd sight for 1953, probably had it shipped home after the European war, and he took me for rides, across the walking bridge spanning the Cedar, me standing in front of him, his large arms on both sides of me, smelling of Old Spice, gripping the handlebars, and I swear that man knew everyone in town, all seven-thousand of them waving at us as we passed by on our way to the A & W for an ice-cold root beer in a frosted mug, and he introduced me to friends, me feeling like royalty, and they all treated me as such, Mister Bill they called me, heady stuff for a scrawny kid from Tacoma.
There’s a point to this story if you look hard enough for it.
I’ve thought often of that Iowa town. I saw it a couple more times, but it was never as special as that first visit in 1953, the sun never again as bright, the stars never again as close. My grandparents both died within months of each other in 1962, and the town itself was leveled by a F5 tornado in 1968, an honest-to-God weather metaphor sent by the gods, the message learned by some, missed by others, and now just a footnote in Iowa history.
But I will remember . . . and I do every single time I work outside on my urban farm, and every single time I do a farmers market, and every single time I sit in the backyard and thank those same gods for a little slice of the past.