Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Chin-strapped neighbors

Given the mess they leave on lawns, given the sheer noise they make, and given the fact that you see them all over the country, calling the river dwellers in our back yard Canadian Geese seems almost a slur against our northern neighbors. They're everywhere, including the open fields behind our house, where dozens of them gobble roots and cackle incessantly as they wander out from their bivouac on the sandpit just behind the river--greatly desirable goose real estate. 

Just now the railroad went clattering by, drowning out their endless off-key braying. Birds are supposed to sing, right? Last night a goldfinch did half an opera on our bird feeder, an aria that must have lasted a quarter hour with only occasional pauses to feed, a remarkable performance in a soprano so shrill it might have shattered windows if we didn't have Pellas all around.  

But there's nothing beautiful or moving about the song of the goose.  How's that for a title no one would buy?--The Song of the Goose.  Try Amazon.

Still, when our noisy neighbors take wing, their precision is perfectly military. They even come off the ground in formation, their massive wings toe-to-toe; and it only gets more precise and practiced as they rise. You just can't help but admire they way they land too, wings motionless from a quarter mile out, so proudly disciplined you might think they're just now returning from training a bunch of upstart 737s. 

They're huge, imposing, a force to be reckoned with. When they take wing right over the house, they put us in shadow land. As long as they don't camp out on our yard, they're great neighbors really, if you don't mind the noisy falsettos. Every night we hear them, a gaggle of rookie clarinetists.

In Celtic Christianity the goose is a symbol of the Holy Spirit. I'm serious.  Look it up. Other than the fact that they have wings, beaks, and feathers, there's little to link doves and geese. Doves coo, after all. Like saints, doves eat off the ground in their hair shirt coat of dull gray, abstaining from any possible ostentation. Do they even create fecal matter?  For pity sakes, doves even mourn almost blessedly. And they love well. You see lovebirds and you see doves, right?

A goose as the Holy Spirit? Give me a break.

Flannery O'Connor will forever be associated with peacocks, since she raised them; but Ms. O'Connor, I'm sure, would giggle at the idea of a goose as the Holy Ghost. After all, in many of her stories, the third person of the trinity takes comic disguises, from bulls to bullies, even to mass murderers. You never know exactly how he/she/it is going to show up.

But then, seriously, the Holy Spirit generally gets the really fun jobs, God almighty's comic sidekick. I once met a Japanese man who became a Christian because he'd listen to Christian radio between burglaries. Go figure. An old preacher friend once told me about a woman who became a believer simply because she'd seen an Arizona desert crowned with snow. Once upon a time on the Damascus Road, something goose-like struck a man named Saul flat-out blind.

And they hiss--geese do. They're not cuddly. In an interview on NPR last Sunday morning, an Appalachian pastor named Edwin Lacy claimed that geese make wonderful symbols of the Holy Ghost because they're wilder than doves and occasionally, if you don't behave, they'll come right up and bite your butt.  

I like that too.

Anyway, our neighbors, the ones with the big white chin straps, basically mind their own business. They just make a lot of joyful noise, really, lots of it. Where two or three are gathered, it seems, there's got to be an argument or a concert--there's little difference. Sometimes I wish they weren't such an eternal presence.

But they are.  They're always there. They're always, always there. 

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Remembering Frederick Manfred, 1912-1914 (conclusion)

A couple of years ago, I needed a picture of a country graveyard, so early one Saturday morning I headed out to Doon, where the cemetery hugs the rolling hills of the Rock River, a setting that offers a graveyard even more wordless gravitas. I can understand why Feik Feikema wanted to be buried there, looking down at his beloved Doon to the east, and across the spacious fields of corn and beans to the north, fields that, even in winter, don’t shed their spacious grandeur. 

That morning I wasn’t looking for his grave. It was cold—January—and I was looking for a photo that would feature the long shadows laid across stripes of snow and columns of stone by an early morning sun—just looking for something touching, really, trying to get something visually stunning.

That’s when I stumbled on the grave stone of a woman whose story I would know absolutely nothing of if I’d never read the novel, The Secret Place, a novel I bought four decades ago in a bookstore in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, a novel that in many ways changed my life. Here it is.

I know that good people felt used by that novel, even though the young woman buried beneath this stone probably suffered no abuse at all from Frederick Manfred, years later, when The Secret Place was published.

I met that woman, a prototype, in the pages of a book. She died at just 21 years of age, the stone says, way back in 1920. Still, that morning, it seemed to me that I knew her, or at least of her; and I couldn’t help wondering how many people on the face of the earth, even among her own descendents, had any inkling of her story.

“Till we meet again” the stone says, in mossy text.

I stood there beside that grave, sorry that she’d died so young, and sorry too that Feik Feikema caught all that rage from the town he loved when he was just trying to tell a story. On the other hand, that some people would be enraged at his using them made good sense to me. Their anger wasn't unreasonable.

That was a half-dozen years ago, at least. Eventually, that moment developed into a short story, something titled "January Thaw," a story which imagines what might have occurred at the moment when Frederick Manfred's mortal coil was returned to the earth in that same cemetery just outside of Doon, Iowa.  "January Thaw" is a story about Fred, a story about a writer, a story about what a writer chooses to tell once the stories tumble out of the imagination and how those he talks about might feel about being used. 

At the time, that story was the only one I'd ever written that was anything other than old-fashioned realism--this young woman, quite dead, taking on the venerable writer who had just been buried beside her, at a time when celebrity and magnetism and IQ, or even sheer physical power means nothing at all. She tells him she has a score to settle with the old novelist who told her story in his own way.

A year passed, or two maybe, and I started to believe there were more haunting stories in the cemetery where Fred Manfred is buried, a cemetery just up the hill from the town he loved, even if that love was greatly unrequited. Soon after the publication of The Secret Place, that very novel, vandals brought down the sign along highway 75 that once read "Doon--Home of Frederick Manfred."  

"January Thaw" will be published soon, again, in a collection of stories titled Up the Hill: A Collection of Fables (New Rivers). Feike Feikema may be gone now, up there, in the cemetery in Doon, but Fred Manfred is certainly not forgotten.

The morning I bumped into Jennie Van Engen's stone in the Doon cemetery, I couldn't help but be thankful for a story that made that very site alive with this even bigger story I’m telling, a sprawling yarn that will end only when the sun sets forever over the open spaces of a landscape Frederick Manfred loved and called Siouxland, a real tome that won’t be finished until the very last story of this broad land has finally been told.

This too is what I've learned from Fred Manfred.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Remembering Frederick Manfred, 1912-1994 (xi)

Frederick Manfred was dying, even though he didn’t believe it himself. Harold Aardema, his long-time friend from Doon, called me and asked if I’d like to ride up to Luverne with him and visit, so we did.

On the way up, Harold told me that he’d been a bit disappointed with Fred because his youngest brother, Ed, a life-long resident of Doon, a man who was as people once said, somewhat "slow," had recently died after a long illness. Harold lamented the fact that Fred hadn’t really paid significant attention to his younger brother during that time, hadn’t visited him as he should have. I could tell that Harold was hurt by what he thought was Fred’s inattention to his brother.

Harold knew Fred as a man, not just as a lion. I remember Harold telling me how Fred had stopped at his home in Doon and wept when his marriage broke down. Fred had just picked out a burial site in the Doon Cemetery, where he wanted to be buried, “guts and all,” as he instructed his children later. That day, on our way up to Luverne, Harold, in a mission of mercy, admitted that, in not paying attention to his youngest borther, Fred had let him down.

We spent an hour or so in the hospital, Harold on one side of the bed, me on the other, and Fred loved the visit—I know he did. But when the topic of Brother Ed came up, Fred turned to me and said, “You know, Jim, I always wanted to write a story from the point of view of someone like Ed—you know, someone not totally there. To get the voice right, you know? To get that right—wouldn’t that be something?”

Freya Manfred claims that her father told her that his brother Ed’s death affected him deeply, and I have no doubt that it did. But that day, at that moment in time, with Harold sitting just across the bed, Fred’s brother’s death seemed to me to mean very little to Frederick Manfred.

Throughout his life, he taught me so many things that I don’t know that I can possibly remember them all. But that moment I’ll not forget, coming as it did in the wake of Harold Aardema’s lament. When Fred looked at me and talked to me as a writer, I couldn’t help think of what I was already coming to understand about the process of writing fiction—how it is that sometimes writers who so carefully breathe their souls into their work can begin to love the worlds of their novels more than the worlds in which they live. Storytellers—the really great ones—can and sometimes do abide more comfortably in the neighborhoods they create than they do in the here and now.

“Writing,” the essayist and historian John Milton writes in his book, Conversations with Fred Manfred, “is the absorbing purpose of Fred Manfred’s life.”

That realization made me uncomfortable, and still does. But I wonder too, whether that very passion isn’t essential to creating really great fiction, really great art.

I know another story about Fred, about his drive, his passion, something which sometimes I believe is its own species of monomania. He gave his all to his work, everything—writing was a calling/obsession. I may well be writing these words right now because it was. He was a gargantuan figure, an immense presence, a writer first of all. If he weren’t, we all might not be remembering.

A friend of his told me this story. After fielding successive rejections and suffering the resulting pain, Fred rose up in anger. “I will not be stopped,” he told this friend. “I will not be stopped.” He was fiercely angry.

Such Promethean will, admirable as it can appear from afar, feels, in the wrong place and time, like the a cousin of whatever it was that pushed along Ahab, the Captain.

Once upon a time, one of my students, young and female, an aspiring writer, took it upon herself to visit Manfred’s house on her own. I don’t know what happened between them, but she told me, brimming with anger and bitterness, that she would never go back, accompanied or unaccompanied. He was, at the time, sixty years older—or more—than she was.

Frederick Manfred taught me some things that he didn’t think of as lessons in craft. He was, without doubt, my literary father; but I’ve come to understand, for better of for worse, that I’d never give up so much of what he did to be a writer. That too is a lesson I learned from him.

Tomorrow: conclusion

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Remembering Frederick Manfred--1912-1994 (x)

At his burial service up in the cemetery on the hill above Doon, his daughter read a story that was read again, later, at a memorial party he had himself ordered up, a story that later aired on National Public Radio, albeit altered a bit. That story epitomizes the relationship Frederick Manfred maintained with the faith tradition from which he’d come.

You can read it for yourself in his daughter’s memoir, A Daughter Remembers, but I’ll summarize it quickly. When the doctors discovered a rapidly growing brain tumor, Fred was scheduled immediately for surgery. An hour before, a young female hospital chaplain, someone Freya Manfred describes as “wearing a brightly flowered dress with a white lace collar and carrying a small white Bible,” dropped by to see him. Hospital policy.

When she told Fred that she was there to see how he stood spiritually, he immediately asked her about her background. She told him she was Catholic—although only by upbringing; and he told her in no uncertain terms that Roman Catholics had a great history. Do you know it?—he asked. She didn’t. Well, you should, said Manfred, and then, characteristically, began to hold forth on Aquinas and all manner of Roman Catholic history.

When he stopped to catch a breath, she bridged the question again—“But how are you doing spiritually? Perhaps I could guide you along,” she told him, sweetly.

“Have you read much philosophy?” Fred asked her. When she shook her head, he recommended Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Schopenhauer, Plato.

No reaction.

“What about poetry?” Fred said, booming, I’m sure, and now on a roll.

She shrugged her shoulders. “Maybe I should,” she said.

Manfred created a reading list—“Chaucer, Whitman—and don’t forget Dickinson, my personal favorite,” he told her.

Once again, she tried to broker her mission into the lecture. “I came here to find out what your relationship to God might be,” she said sweetly, stroking her white Bible.

And then Manfred told her that he simply wanted someone else. “My background was Christian Reformed,” he said. “You wouldn’t have one of those Christian Reformed guys right here, would you?”

“You mean a minister?” the young lady said.

Freya quotes him like this: “’No, just anyone who’s raised Christian Reformed. Someone who’s sick here in the hospital like me. Aren’t any of your patients Christian Reformed?”

The woman told her she didn’t think she knew of any, and he told her that if she’d find one to “rustle him up.”

“Rustle him up?” she responded.

“Bring him around here so I can talk to him. I like to argue with those guys—it perks them up,” he said. “Send him over and we’ll talk. It’ll do him some good, and me too.”

That’s a story Fred himself would tell, I’m sure, even embellish a bit, if he could. I feel his own voice in it, in me, as I tell it. I know he’d approve.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Memorial Day, 2014

He was, in a way, both a large part and a small part of the Allied Invasion of Normandy, June 6, 1944--a small part because, that day, he was just one of Gen. Omar Bradley's First Army, 73,000 Americans and hundreds of thousands Allied troops to assault occupied Europe. In sheer scale of operation, his death that day was incidental, but the role he played was immense because he was one of thousands of GIs who knew that when they'd cast off from England's shore, some would not be coming back. They knew. They had to. The cost of freedom must have been written starkly on their faces that rainy morning.

They knew, but they went anyway. That's a huge role.

He was just one of thousands, but he was, nevertheless, a man with a story, just like each of them were. Family lore says he stepped off one of those landing crafts, the one to which he'd been assigned, and just like that took a Nazi bullet. I don't know that he'd served elsewhere in the war, don't know what his role was, or how long he'd been in the service--"PVT 112 ENGR," his stone says, and then, a line below, "COMBAT BN," all upper case.  Date of death: June 6, 1944.

Nor do I know what kind of horrifying impact his death had on the woman who would become my mother-in-law.  I can imagine, but I don't know. 

Three years after he was killed, two years after the war ended, she put her life back together and married my father-in-law, another vet, a man whose mechanical skills had been put to good use in the motor pool, where he repaired tanks and jeeps and armored vehicles behind the Allied front on the long liberating trek to Berlin.  

She married my father-in-law and life continued, as it does. The name Gerrit Ter Horst was rarely spoken. 

Little flags wave in the prairie wind all over the Orange City cemetery today, Memorial Day, marking the graves of veterans galore. Some stones have summaries, but most list nothing at all, only a flat American Legion medal that describes what can already be inferred from the dates carved into the granite--"World War I," "World War II," "Vietnam."

The marker for Gerrit Ter Horst sits in a little covey of white stones, a couple of dozen other vets, including my father-in-law's brother, Charles Van Gelder, who never made it out of the States, a young man who, sometime during his military training, was a drowning victim before he ever shipped over and got near a battlefield. 

I don't know how the Ter Horst family talks about their ancestor's death, or whether they do at all.  I hope so, because there has to be more to his story than a young woman, in tears, turning a diamond ring on her finger back home, here, in Orange City, Iowa, a woman who, years later, didn't talk about his death, never mentioned it to me at all. After all, some things simply have to be put to rest.

Last night, we discovered flowers on Uncle Charles' gravestone. Someone had remembered. Someone hadn't forgotten. It was a joy to find them there.

That there was no flowers on Gerrit Ter Horst's cemetery stone doesn't mean he's been forgotten. Last night we remembered that once upon a time, June 6, 1944, a man engaged to be married to a woman very precious to us was killed on a beach in Normandy. He left a sweetheart, and died a hero for all of us, family or not.

This morning's sky seems a perfect memorial--cloudy, a soft red band out stretching across half the horizon north, an almost heavenly red badge of courage. When I stepped out just now, a light rain was falling gently, as if the whole world outside my door, a world Charles and Gerrit must have missed terribly, was remembering, a whole world that hadn't forgotten.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Sunday Morning Meds--Wrath

“Refrain from anger and turn from wrath;. . .”  Psalm 37

I once knew a guy who was a mean drunk.  There aren’t that many nights I remember from my own late teenage years, but one I do is the night that this guy just simply went off, and it took maybe three or four of us to calm him down.  Violent, he got.  He threatened everybody and everything around him for no particular reason at all, other than the fact that he was drunk, or so it seemed.  He just lost it, as they say.  I remember exactly where that happened, even where I was standing, trying to keep him from busting loose.  It was late, and it wasn’t pretty.

Not long ago I saw him again, maybe for the first time in thirty years.  He was singing in a men’s group whose claim to fame—or so it seemed to me—was sheer volume.  There’s something inspiring about men singing big, and this group’s repertoire was raising the roof with traditional hymns.  Don’t get me wrong, they sang well and I enjoyed them, but the volume was well-cranked. 
The guy was never threatened me, never laid a hand on me; but when, years later, I saw him up there on stage singing hymns, the only memory that returned to me was the night he was drunk and mean. 

Let me change gears a minute. 

Sometimes I wonder what Christians mean when they tell those who don’t believe in Jesus Christ—or have never heard of him—that they should just "read His word." I know there are saints who’ve smuggled Bibles into all kinds of countries, often under great risk.  Almost every motel room I’ve ever searched has a Gideon Bible, as if people who happen to be there overnight might just pick it up and read it leisurely, no matter what version. 
I’m not saying anything untoward if I say the Bible is no airport novel, and it’s certainly not a quick read.  If you had never seen one before, nor ever heard a thing about Christianity, just imagine what you might think if you’d open the good book to, say, the story of Jephthah’s daughter, a perfectly innocent young girl murdered by her father because of some promise that didn’t even involve his sweet child.  Bizarre.
Then again, some passages—the moral passages—might just hit home, especially if you, like my boyhood friend, were a mean drunk.  Maybe, just maybe, a Gideon Bible would be just what the doctor ordered. Besides, the Holy Spirit does some strange things--just ask Flannery O'Connor.
The truth of this single verse from Psalm 37 is weirdly evident in story of the guy who sang the bass line in a men's quartet blasting out old hymns: the vivid memory I can’t get rid of is a single night of his wrath long, long ago.

Friday night some sharpshooting kid driving a black BMW killed six college students in a mad attempt to get back other 20-year-olds for his pain, if his rants on paper and video are to be believed. He spewed hate and, finally, death from three semi-automatic handguns his parents had no idea he'd owned.
Friday night makes this single line of perfectly understandable scriptural admonition feel like horrifying understatement, but what it says is no less true than it was thousands of years ago.

On this we can all agree: wrath can make us killers.   

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Saturday morning catch--glory

Some Saturday mornings just about all I can find out here on so much flatland is a broad morning sky--which is not to say that a broad morning sky, one as multi-hued as this one, is chopped liver. This one was an immense kaleidoscopic showpiece. 

I sometimes think of landscape photography out here on the plains as if a what I record is a story. In this broad world, sky is always basically setting, like this. It's what's always there--a big, colorful dawn.

But really good stories require more than setting, right?  So what goes in front of that an immense morning sky is character. That's what I think.  That's what I look for.  Sadly, this morning I couldn't find a character, just couldn't.  

Okay, what you notice here is a single silo, no barn, no house--the morning sun is rising on something that, well, used to be.  Hey, that's both character and story.  But calling that silo a character is a stretch, isn't it? Really, all there is, here too, is setting. Glorious setting, but not much more.

Because the disappearing cloud layer just above the farmstead seems somehow to mimic what's beneath it, I thought this one might get me there.  What do you think?--is there character in this one?  I like the farmstead and the wispy fragments above it, but is it really "character"? Not really. But my word, it's a wonderful setting.

I had some hopes for this one, but last year's brome grass, a not-native species on top of it, is hardly striking. There's just not enough there there to be a character.

This morning, setting, breath-taking setting, was the whole huge story. 

I'm not beefing.  I could have done worse because conflict or not, the morning's glory was immense. The heavens declare, the psalmist says, which makes a dawn like this one into something of a preacher. 

I can live with that.  This morning, out north of Sanborn, I probably didn't create a story, but I was there in the pew for one remarkable sermon. 

Friday, May 23, 2014

Remembering Frederick Manfred--1912-1994 (ix)

To my mind, Frederick Manfred was deeply influenced by modernism, the prevalent intellectual worldview of his time and the cultural and intellectual milieu of, at least, the American Depression. After leaving college he traveled to the East coast, where the rough shod farm kid with the Calvinist pedigree walked in on the substantial political questions of the day, questions which were, during those years, sometimes answered better by socialism and communism than capitalism.

In New Jersey and later in Minnesota, he met what his own people would have called “leftists.” They were bright and they were influential and they were many. His many years of cloistered Christian and Reformed education did not stand up well against the prevailing modernist views of faith and spirituality—that Christianity was little more than a remnant primitive mysticism that would, soon enough, disappear among the masses, just as it had already disappeared among the enlightened. That never happened, and Fred died before the advent of our post-modern milieu, when spirituality, in all its manifestations, is flowering, sometimes madly.

His father, Frank Feikema, may well have prompted the most beautiful writing Fred Manfred ever did, a loving elegiac biography in Prime Fathers.

But what remained in him of the faith in which he grew was the beloved, yet searing memory of his deeply religious mother, whom he idolized, a woman named Alice Van Engen. His mother’s vibrant and gracious spirituality must have glowed like a dawn, if you listen to him. She is in his novels. Her death ends Green Earth, and offers his readers—and his people—an explanation of how he considered himself liberated from the cultural and spiritual strictures of his tribe, a tribe he never really stopped loving, strangely enough—and respecting.

In his daughter’s memoir, Frederick Manfred: A Daughter Remembers, Freya Manfred remembers the way her father always extolled his mother’s beauty and grace. But she also remembers her father—and quotes him—admitting that his mother’s early death (he was 17 when she died) was something of a blessing: “’. . .I’d have had an awful time explaining my vision to her or going up against her,’ he said, ‘because she never yelled at me. If I did something wrong, or she thought I hadn’t been entirely honest, she’d just look at me sadly and I’d feel terrible, deep in my guts.’”

The caricature of stern Dutch Calvinism would have no currency if it weren’t, in part, true. Fred Manfred remembered and undoubtedly experienced dour religiosity, preening self-righteousness, and outright hypocricy amid the Siouxland Dutch, and Fries, from which he’d come. But it wasn’t sharp tongues that kept him wondering about God, even arguing, I believe; what never left him was, instead, the loving embrace of his Godly mother, what she was and what she represented.

His liberation comes in the final powerful pages of Green Earth, when, on her death bed, Ada (his mother) tells Free (read Feike) that she wants him to be a writer even if she’ll never see him in heaven someday. She wants him to be true to what he is.

But to know that he himself felt, in a certain way, blessed by her early death, for the reasons he gives, can’t help but make us question whether the liberation he celebrates in Green Earth is purely fiction and not memoir at all. No one will ever know. Only two characters are privy to that death bed scene—Free and Ada, son and mother.

Most critics of the work of Peter De Vries maintain that even though you could take the boy out of his boyhood Calvinism, the ambience of that world—its powerful religiosity—never really left him. The same can be said for Frederick Manfred.

Elsewhere in her memoir, Freya Manfred remembers how, close to his death, her father once asked her a question she thought strange: “What do you suppose God will have me do when he gets me into the other place?”

To which his daughter replies: “I didn’t know you thought there was another place.”

It seems, he did.

Tomorrow:  A hospital memory

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Remembering Frederick Manfred--1912-1994 (viii)

On that first visit to Dordt College, I took Fred to the Dordt College chapel, which was being built just then. Construction crews were still all around, and the dust on the stage was a half-inch thick. Everywhere you looked there was canvas drop cloths, but the place was closed up and warm, cavern-like and spacious, a work-in-progress.

Down the center aisle we walked together, this huge man looking up and around, as if the unfinished ceiling was lined with stars. Together we stood, center stage, looking out over open stretches where eventually the pews would sit, and he was astonished, almost speechless.

“If you would have told me, when I was growing up,” he said, more reverentially than I could have guessed, “—if you would have told me that someday my people would have a beautiful place like this, right here in Siouxland, I wouldn’t have believed you.”

It was the “my people” that struck me, but maybe it shouldn’t have. Through the years, I heard him, time and time again, refer to his ethnic and religious roots in very, very loving ways. 

"You won't find a bad preacher in my novels," Fred told me once upon a time. "They were good to me," he said. "They were the only ones around with libraries, and they'd lend me their books." I never did a study, but the chiselers and the crooks and the hypocrites in the Siouxland novels aren't preachers.

That night, the novelist Frederick Manfred came to the Schaap’s house for dinner, for the first time, the first of many. For several years after, I took van loads of students up to his house, just as I had gone when I was an undergraduate myself.

Fred was never happier than when he could entertain. My students found him and his passions astonishing.

Nothing pleased Fred Manfred more than similar kinds of visits to his alma mater, Calvin College, especially in the last decade of his life. He would talk about those trips for weeks ahead of time and weeks afterward. He felt lionized at Calvin, and the joy was almost too great for him to bear.

His Calvin pedigree was precious to him. He loved to tell the story of how, once when he was living in St. Paul, he’d attended a lecture at the University and asked a question of the speaker, an academic whose name or topic I don’t remember at all.

The man had immediately pointed. “You went to Calvin College. I can always tell questions that come from Calvin College alums. They ask questions nobody else asks.”

The unique shape of those Calvin questions he would have attributed, I’m sure, to Prof. Harry Jellema, the legendary professor of philosophy, a man he lionized himself.

He cherished his Calvin education, and was equally proud of the fact that he done very poorly in his freshman English class, failed it in fact, because he hadn’t written to the standards of course or the instructor, but then, neither was he particularly interested.

The Manfred oeuvre includes tales from his Calvin years. The best way to read those stories is in the trilogy Wanderlust, a fictionalized memoir (he called the form a “rume”) that includes more than his college experience. Those stories were published separately in three volumes: The Primitive (1949), The Brother (1950), and The Giant (1951). He is not a quick read.

His work flow went like this: start the morning up by reading through everything he’d written the day before, editing inflexibly, then go on for four hours or so, that’s all. He was more than happy to trumpet his skills as an editor, but then, even rebellious Calvinists can be woefully short-sighted. Almost everything he wrote was a tome.

Frederick Manfred, like another Calvin College novelist alum, Peter De Vries, was likely as much reviled as beloved by those who didn’t leave his and their ethnic and religious roots. Undoubtedly, the break he made from those he called himself “his people,” left scars. On the other hand, when Feik Feikema became Frederick Manfred, he also carried with him the longings of what was then, certainly, a clannish people for the kind of high profiled place Manfred gained in American culture, an aspiration to be truly and successfully “an American.” Lord Grizzily was much admired; for its success, Manfred was nominated for—and just about won—the Pulitzer. In his own way and in his own time, Feike Feikema “made it,” and many of his people were proud of him because of the way he step-laddered out of the ethnic ghetto.

But he came along at a time when leaving the tribe behind was neither simple nor sympathetic. Life among the Dutch Reformed, mid-20th century, was stifling to some, comforting to many—a significant force, an tribal identity one couldn’t leave without some heartache. We’re not talking simply about wooden shoes or tulips or scripture texts in the language of the old country, embroidered and framed and hung from a nail in the parlor; Frederick Manfred had those hangings, and he loved his heritage—no question. But that heritage has an undeniable faith component that Mr. Abma wondered about, as did others, even those within the clan who very much admired the novels Feik was writing.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Remembering Frederick Manfred--1912-1994 (vii)

Twenty years ago, this rich Iowa soil claimed the remnants of a giant, just as, a month or so before, it had claimed the mortal shell of another. The family of the Reverend B. J. Haan, founder and first president of Dordt College, stood in a foot or so of snow on a day that proved to be just as December-frigid as the ones we don’t forget. They huddled beneath a canvas canopy, less a shelter than a wreath around an open grave that was ready to take what was still there of the old preacher's earthly frame.

That winter, out here at the edge of the Great Plains, we put two legends down, the other was Fred Manfred, the most prolific novelist ever to graduate from local schools, a man so given to his own people that he used them unsparingly to probe and examine the human condition from his unique perspective. Frederic Manfred, born Feike Feikema in a farm house just outside of Doon, Iowa, died earlier, fall of 1994, from complications resulting from brain cancer.

The Rev. B. J. Haan died of heart failure, the man who almost single-handedly raised a college on a few acres of land a whole lot of people still think is better suited for corn and pigs. B.J. never left the territory of his beloved Christian Reformed Church; he was the quintessential insider, as talented a politician among his people as you'll find anywhere.

Manfred left that same church within months of his college graduation and never returned, his literary forays, often as not, raising cane among those who found themselves and their kin far too graphically rendered on the pages of his novels. Manfred was a physical giant—6’9” tall, with a deep shock of straw-like hair and hands whose fingers seemed baling hooks. Haan looked more bookish; he was ruddy-faced, a foot shorter, but never really diminutive.

Some might claim that the only characteristics the two of them shared, in addition to growing up in the Christian Reformed Church, was the love of a region and a diploma from Calvin College. Even here--especially here--some locals likely imagine the preacher seated right now in the heavenly choir, while the tall novelist wanders painfully in the lurid, glowing darkness.

But neither of them ever forgot God, and both of them loved the precious gift of life itself. Both of them loved living. Manfred brought to his work a sense of calling as breathtaking as a stormy prairie sky, a sense of task that grew from a worldview which found joy in the smell of new-cut hay or the damp touch of just-turned soil. 

 Almost from the moment he arrived in Sioux County, Iowa, Haan's very vocation was the cause of a distinctive education for his people, Christian education, not as a reaction against public school, but as a mandate from a perspective that insisted that everything on this wide earth was subject to God's rule. Both were, for better or for worse, driven by a sense of purpose they knew to be far larger than they were.

Both giants accomplished remarkable things, but both loved to laugh. On his deathbed, Manfred was still telling the stories that delighted him. Throughout his life, Haan was always one of few human beings big enough to do self-parody, a man who could pull laughs from the dourest of the dour by little more than mimicking himself. He once told me that if he could change anything about the way he'd always done things, he'd have long ago brought more humor to the pulpit because people need to laugh much more than they do.

The use of a phrase linked them too—“our people." They both said it. I don't know that anybody uses those words anymore, in the church especially, where good Christians suppose there’s some kind of virtue in being all things to all people, even when you’re not and they’re not. The Manfred/Haan era began, really, at the end of World War I, and ended, in substance, with Vietnam. In their later years, I suppose, they were both dinosaurs in a time when deconstruction makes us distrustful of the hidden agendas of their individual passions, and multi-culturalism has become such a halo that their proud tribalism is a blushing embarrassment.

But I learned from B. J., that being as strong and profound a believer as he was didn't mean for a minute you had to shun the world; in fact, it meant the opposite. And I learned from Fred that the people both of them loved, for all their eccentricities, were worthy subjects for lifelong exploration.

Years ago, when I first asked Fred to visit the Dordt campus, he said he wanted to see B.J., so between classroom lectures we headed to Haan's office. I was shaking a little, not knowing what Fred was going to say to the man who had not that long ago pulled the work of the renegade novelist from the college's library shelves in answer to protests from one or another zealous group; nor could I guess how Haan would react to Manfred. The fact is, I don't even remember what they talked about once Fred got there. What I'll never forget, however, is the way they hugged like old friends, two powerful human beings who knew and respected each other's stature and each other.

If you take the blacktop that runs west out of town toward the state line, you'll pass an old cottonwood that leans so far over the road that even in winter its branches seem a canopy. It grows dangerously close to the highway because the farmer who lived there when the county paved the road stood in front of that cottonwood with his shotgun in his arms, defiant. He wouldn't let them fell that tree.

Out here at least, trees aren't a dime a dozen. This was a world of grasses when the first white settlers came; every last tree is an immigrant. And don't get me wrong--the open sky is a blessing, a weatherman better than any on TV. But people around here love their trees for standing as they do between earth and sky; and when they go down, we hurt because we miss them.

Still, to some of us, twenty years after the death of those two giants, the grand openness of the prairie landscape seems just a bit more barren, a bit closer to the "Great American Desert" Zebulon Pike once called the region when he marched through on his way to the Rockies. This good earth, this good Iowa ground has swallowed two of our giants.
We miss them both a great deal.
This eulogy initially appeared in the Des Moines Register.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Remembering Frederick Manfred--1912-1994 (vi)

Frederick Manfred remembered me from that second seemingly invisible visit, perhaps because he thought it was good of me to bring that beret-ed old aficionado up to meet him just months before the oxygen tank was retired. From that visit, Fred remembered me. Besides, he knew I taught literature at Dordt College.

Frederick Manfred stood 6’9”. In the late 20s, the basketball coach at Calvin saw this huge presence show up on campus and almost immediately recruited him to play ball, even though Feik had not played a quarter of high school ball at Western Academy. Back then, competitive athletics were basically aerobics for town boys. Fred wasn’t.

Aldert Venhuizen, a student manager for the basketball team in those years at Calvin, once told me that his job for half a season of practices was nothing more or less than teaching Feik Feikema to rebound, which he attempted to do by shoving him in the lower back whenever a shot would go up during scrimmage, creating a sense of timing Fred had never learned.

Tall and gaunt, his shoulders broad as a double-tree, Manfred’s sheer physical stature filled a room—and that was before he started talking. Because, in the late 70s and 80s, he knew me—and because he knew Dordt—he liked driving down highway 75 from Luverne to meet with my literature classes. With time, the sharp edges of the old scandal had dulled a bit, enough so that it didn’t seem an abomination for Feik Feikema to appear in a Dordt College classroom, at least it wasn’t as unthinkable as it might have been a decade earlier. Still, discretion advised me not to carry the news into local papers.

Mr. Abma’s questions about Fred’s soul, about his salvation, weren’t questions he alone had raised, of course; and there was that matter of sexuality—not to mention violence, loads of it in some of the "Buckskin Man Tales," Scarlet Plume, for example, buckets of blood and gore from the Indian wars. “Was that Christian writing?” people asked, rhetorically. Those books were nothing at all like the Sugar-Creek Gang.

Manfred used to tell me that there was, in the Middle Ages, Geoffrey Chaucer and John Gower, two significant English poets. Chaucer loved the miller and the wife of Bath, sinners and the saints, loved every one of them. Gower could sing praises only to God, not to life.

Fred said he wanted to be a Chaucer, chanting the tales of all the Siouxland pilgrims. He wanted to chronicle the joy of the very earth he loved between his fingers and toes. He wanted to celebrate life, not eschew it for dreamy visions of the hereafter. The good Christians of Siouxland didn’t know quite what to make of that. In a way, to their minds and souls, Manfred loved life a bit more than good Christians should. He used to say that his grandfather, an outspoken atheist, had the best answer of all to impertinent spiritual questions—“God is in me, and I’m smiling.”

I knew his grandfather’s answer would not have been what Mr. Abma was looking for, had he taken the time to ask the question he didn’t.

The first time Fred Manfred visited a class of mine I had no idea how it might go. I had spent some time having my students read passages from some of the novels and a few poems from Winter Count, and I’d promised him that his appearance wouldn’t require a thing—all he needed to do was field questions.

And those questions came. One kid raised his hand and brought up a scene in Green Earth, when, soon after his profession of faith, Free and his buddies hang out. In the novel, a couple of the guys, multi-talented, tune their expressive flatulence into music, if you can believe that—“The Star-Spangled Banner,” or so Manfred would have us believe.

“Mr. Manfred,” one of my students said, “in that passage, are you making fun of profession of faith by having them fart the way they did?”

I don’t remember how Fred Manfred answered the question, but what I’ll never forget is the way he grabbed me, shocked, the minute the hour ended. “That kid said the word fart right in class,” he said. I’d never guessed that Frederick Manfred’s sensibilities could be so easily violated.

It was one of those moments when something happens that blows our expectations into oblivion. I thought I knew Frederick Manfred. After all, I’d read many of his novels. But the man was even bigger than I’d determined, and there was more to him than I’d guessed—which is, I’ve come to believe, true of most of us.

Tomorrow:  A visit with the President

Monday, May 19, 2014

Remembering Frederick Manfred--1912-1994 (v)

So Harry and I followed another long gravel road to the site where Fred was, once again, building a house—and there he was, expecting us. He put down the axe he had in his hands—he’d been chopping wood—and walked through the sticky topsoil, the driveway not having been graveled, straight up to the car. By that time in his life, Harry Abma could barely walk. Beside him in the front seat sat his oxygen tank.

Fred didn’t wait for us to get out of the car, although I stepped out quickly, thinking it decorous to make formal introductions. Manfred didn’t stare warily or expect genuflection. He simply walked over to the passenger side, ignoring me, swung open the door, and thrust that huge hand inside. “Well, I’ll be,” he said. “Harry Abma. I’ve read your poems for years in the Doon Press. I’m so happy to meet you.”

Abma was speechless, but only for awhile. Soon enough, the two of them were talking and chatting, using their beloved Frisian tongue to swap jokes they wouldn’t have told in Sunday School. I didn’t know Frisian so I didn’t catch the punch lines, but the chortle is a universal language.

I don’t know that, here below, Harry Abma could have been the recipient of a greater blessing late in his life than Feik Feikema knowing his name, praising his poems, and shuckin’ and jivin’ in the Frisian tongue. I’m not sure he needed the oxygen once we started back up that gravel road.

But the amplitude of the old man’s emotions was extraordinary, and we were barely out of earshot when he broke into tears. “Here in all that time that he and I talked together, I never once brought up the state of his soul,” Harry told me, sobbing. It wasn’t the first time that I tried to drag him out of despair, and I did again, with lines he would have expected—“salvation, Mr. Abma, belongs to the Lord.”

Not long after came the publication of Green Earth (1977), Manfred’s chronicle of life among the Dutch Reformed in the early decades of the 20th century. I’ll let others declare on the novel’s success, but I’ll offer this: in no other book ever written can one get as abundant an account of northwest Iowa life among the Dutch during those years. Love it or hate it, Green Earth tells a Siouxland saga; and if anyone would like to walk that ground again, it’s the first book one ought to read.

Harry Abma was gone by the time Green Earth was published, so, soon after its publication, I wrote a long review of that novel, a review Harold Aardema stuck in the Doon Press. I addressed the whole essay to Mr. Abma, without using his name, tried to convince this man in glory that Fred was doing all right, that things were okay with his soul. A paragraph or two of that review was quoted in People magazine soon thereafter, when they did a feature on this giant, small-town novelist whose chronicles celebrated the lives of people who despised him. Most-read words of my life, I believe.

Tomorrow:  Mr. Manfred visits Dordt College.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Sunday Morning Meds--Do not fret

“. . .do not fret when men succeed in their ways, 
when they carry out their wicked schemes.”

Some time ago, the college where I taught celebrated its fiftieth birthday. I was up to my ears in the celebrations, traveled the length and breadth of this continent drumming up whatever enthusiasm I could. It was great fun, but I was glad when it was over.

There would be no college here if its first President had never taken a call to serve a church in this little town where the college sits. His name was Bernard J. Haan, and he was a shaker and mover. He made national news in the late 40s by keeping a movie house out of town. The church he attended made it very clear that movies—like cards and dancing and a few other things—were what people used to call “worldly,” as in, “of this world.”

Right here behind me, I have a picture of B. J. Haan standing in front of the church, holding forth, a young man, full of hellfire. That he loved the camera is clearly illustrated by the fact that he took up such a hellfire and brimstone pose for a Time magazine reporter.

I need to come clean about my heritage. There’s a mean streak in me about movies that likely harks back several generations to grandfather clergymen—two of them—who were convinced that Hollywood was Babylon. I came along years after their opinions lost currency. I’ve seen movies my whole life; for a time, my son pursued graduate studies in film. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have a touch of my grandfathers’ DNA because sometimes I think the entire world would be better off if a bit of that California cahuna earthquake tumbles Hollywood somewhere deep in the Pacific. (Okay, that’s going a little far.)

A bunch of years ago, the summer’s box office biggie was a remake of an idiotic TV show from the 80s—the Dukes of Hazzard. It was stupid when it was on TV, but critics made its new version even more dopey—nothing but car chase silliness and thundering cleavage.

You guessed it. It made millions when it opened. The paper I read gave it ½ of a star, out of a possible five; but it also gave the flik most of a page to say all of that, and finally, as well all know, it’s ink that counts--the buzz. It’s no wonder Islamic extremists hate us.

Film is business, and we buy into it in spades. Every morning thousands of Hollywood honchos check their hearts, souls, and minds, somewhere off set before work. So I wonder if B. J. Haan was wrong about Hollywood—that’s what I’m saying. In American culture today, there aren’t many people more wicked than those who make trash.

There, I’ve vented.

This verse, however, isn’t about my righteousness or Hollywood’s corruption. The command is “do not fret,” so forgive my invective because I’m not listening closely. When the Dukes of Hazzard makes millions, I shouldn’t get in a huff—that’s what David is saying. When the wicked prosper, don’t scream or cry. Nothing but flashes and pans.

And there are great, great movies made all the time—so many I can’t list them. Tons.

Fifty years after B. J. Haan held forth, the theater in town has been operating for years, busy most of the time.

I’m not sure we’re better off, but I’ve been there myself and I don’t fret.


Saturday, May 17, 2014

Remembering Frederick Manfred -- 1912-1994 (iv)

In graduate school, in addition to everything else, I read texts that helped me identify who I was and the ethnic and religious ethos that was my birthright—Calvin’s Institutes, and the novels of Peter De Vries and Frederick Manfred. So when I returned to Siouxland in 1976 to become an instructor in English at Dordt College, I knew much more about this man Feikema, this presence, and I remembered that he lived only an hour north. But it took the dying wish of an old man to get me back to his home.

That dying man was Mr. Harry Abma, a man I’d met him in Arizona, a retired postal worker, an eccentric little man in a beret, who scooted about the Valley of the Sun in a VW bug. In Arizona churches full of retirees in the mid-70s, Harry was unique—single, literary, often very lonely, and guilt-ridden. In our quiet talks after church on Sunday mornings, sometimes he’d cry, hair-trigger, profoundly saddened, he told me, by the life he’d lived, a life that had begun in Siouxland, where he was born. I never asked much about what kind of mess had piled up in the wake of his years, but in his Arizona retirement he was very much alone; whatever family he had seemed to care very little about him or his circumstance, perhaps with good reason.

I was studying Thoreau and Emerson, and he was reader—and a poet, mostly a devotional poet, but sometimes a little racy too, an untrained, Dutch Reformed John Donne maybe. Profound spirituality in the Dutch Calvinist character, at least historically, has never seemed to eradicate a sometimes profligate earthiness quite unknown to contemporary evangelicals, and that inelegant mixture was especially evidenced in farm folks I met in Siouxland—especially men, who brandished a hybrid spirituality, as much a part of this earth as it is and was a part heaven to come. Mr. Abma was a Frisian and he was a Christian: my guess is that Fred Manfred would have liked that wording.

Abma had but one-quarter of a lung, and wherever he went his oxygen tank was never far behind. He knew his life was ending, he told me, and he wanted to go home to Rock Valley, Iowa, his birthplace. He wanted to die in his native Siouxland.

Even before my wife and family moved back to Iowa, Mr. Abma did—he got a room in the Manor, showed me his letter of acceptance in fact. When, a year later, we moved to Siouxland too, he used to call me occasionally, tell me about the Bible studies he’d set up at the home, then reminisce a bit about Manfred because he’d read ‘em all, he told me, every last word of Feik’s work—life-long reader and admirer.

I knew Harry was dying. So one day I told him I’d see if the two of us could drive up to Luverne and visit the man whose work he’d always loved. Mr. Abma was older than Feike, he said, but the two of them had grown up in the same world.

Fred had some healthy years as a writer, and some wearisome droughts. Somewhere along the line, with few royalty checks coming in, he’d lost the big house he’d built into the Sioux quartzite of Blue Mound, and was then, 1977 or so, building another big-shouldered, very male, home quarters on the edge of a hill north of the Rock River, east of town.

I did some research to determine the protocol—one didn’t simply drop in on the novelist Frederick Manfred. I checked with the Doon Press editor, Harold Aardema, probably his closest friend in his home town, and Harold pointed the way, told me to stop in at the drug store in Luverne and talk to the druggist, who was, in a way, Manfred’s neighborly gate-keeper. As I remember, that drug store carried every novel Manfred had ever written, even those out of print.

All the way through my research, I got green lights when I made it clear that I wanted to bring a dying man up to meet another Frisian Siouxlander, something of a Make-a-Wish project, I suppose. That’ll be fine, the druggist said after phoning and checking with the novelist.


Tomorrow:  Harry Abma meets Feike Feikema

Friday, May 16, 2014

Remembering Frederick Manfred -- 1912-1994 (iii)

Two years later, the staff of the Dordt College Diamond drove north to Luverne, Minnesota, to meet with Mr. Manfred. I was one of them. I remember the Sioux quartzite wall of the sprawling home he’d built into the edge of Blue Mound, and I’ll never forget the cupola up above, an eagle’s nest, 360 degrees of windows and book shelves, including the very definitive collection of his own. I remember him standing there, pointing south, then telling us that on a clear night he could see the radio tower of Dordt’s station. And I remember being comforted by that gesture—somehow we still mattered.

Frederick Manfred was so huge he made me feel diminutive. I remember his immense hands, long fingers permanently crooked from some accident. And I remember his passion, as everyone who ever met Frederick Manfred will. That sheer passion for life stormed over everything and everyone. My fellow staffers had to slug their way into a conversation that wasn’t dialogic at all, but a running monologue that never once grew wearying. The man was a presence. Even those who dislike his writing will say it: Fred Manfred wasn’t so much an artist as a force, like the wind, or the Plains themselves, the world from which he’d come, their emerald edge in Siouxland, where every season’s weather comes in spades.

When we left the place he called Roundwind, we descended the curving, steep road through swaying prairie grasses all around. I’d asked no questions while we were there, and I’m sure I said little on the way home. I’d met a man, a presence, who was unlike anyone I’d ever known.

That night I’d also begun to hear stories I’d hear time and time again through the years—how he had crawled for miles through the prairie so he could feel exactly what Hugh Glass had in the legend that became Lord Grizzly. I listened to him go on and on about running to high school every day—seven miles each way, Doon to Hull, to Western Academy. I heard Calvin College stories, how he’d left Siouxland for Michigan, packing the only two books he’d ever owned—the Bible and Shakespeare.

Even more, I began to understand things about writing, about the necessity of endless research into Native ceremonial pipes and dances and buffalo—and the sheer joy of learning. I looked through notebooks scribbled full of his long-lettered handwriting, interesting names and comic and frightful anecdotes he didn’t want to forget, things he’d use someday, he told us.

I left Manfred’s home in silence that night, having met a writer.

Tomorrow:  Meeting Harry Abma

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Remembering Frederick Manfred--1912-1994 (ii)

The Secret Place was the novel that brought Manfred most dishonor among the good folks of Doon, Iowa, not only because of its graphic sexual content, but because local people winced when the story line came so close to mirroring a saga many of them remembered—how a local boy got two girls pregnant in too short a span, both out of wedlock. Local people felt what the subjects of literary work have felt for centuries—used. One of their own, Feik Feikema, had taken a story that belonged to them and spread it all over as if it was the world’s business.

Susan Cheever, in an interview about her famous father, John Cheever, says that being fictionalized, as she was in her father’s work, is “ten million times more painful” than being written about in non-fiction, “much more dangerous because much more painful for the people it may be based on.” I believe her. But, back then, I had no notion of the sensitivities of the Manfred’s neighbors, nor did I have any idea there existed some kind of prototype. I really had no idea how it was writers did what they did.

I read The Secret Place during Thanksgiving break, then returned to Dordt College and told my English instructor that I’d like to do a research paper on it, a novel she’d not read, even though she knew Frederick Manfred, at least by reputation. Not long before, President B.J. Haan had buckled under to a local church group who vowed to stop giving to the fledgling college down the road if Feikema’s books were right there in the stacks of the library, no one supervising. To Haan’s credit, he didn’t toss them, but he did put them behind the desk so students had to ask.

I don’t remember what grade I received on that research paper, but it’s still somewhere in my files I’m sure, because I studied The Secret Place in a way devoted freshman college students are still asked to study literature. I read that novel closely, outlining theme and motif, in a way I’d never read anything before. I read earnestly.

Sometimes I wonder if I wasn’t, even then, trying to save this man I’d never met, if not from the wrath of his villagers, then from the flames of hell others in the neighborhood were stoking. I admired his rebellion, his prophetic character. Somewhere in The Secret Place I wanted to find what people once called “socially redeeming value,” in spite of the racy cornfield passages that made my hormones pulse.

I may have wanted to baptize Feike Feikema, but it’s far more obvious, in retrospect, that with that novel Frederick Manfred baptized me. When I read certain passages—a couple of young fornicators meeting self-righteousness head-on in a smoke-filled consistory room, for instance—I felt a conflict that wasn’t at all new, but as familiar to my perceptions as church peppermints drawn discreetly from a black suit coat.

I date my own birth as a writer to that novel and that freshman English paper. Before reading The Secret Place, I had no idea my life, and the lives of those around me, was worth a story. Fred Manfred made it vividly clear to me—even though I’d never considered it before—that I didn’t have to be Jewish or urbane or sophisticated or snobbish or even particularly “literary” to write stories about real people in real time, in a landscape no more than a day’s hike away.

Fred Manfred made me want to write stories, and that may well be the most significant reason why I wanted to save him. The Secret Place, a novel also published as The Man Who Looked Like the Prince of Wales, may well be totally forgotten to everyone but me, but today that book sits in honor behind ancient glass on the Manfred shelf of our library.


Tomorrow:  Meeting Fred Manfred.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Remembering Frederick Manfred--1914-1994 (i)

It's now been twenty years since Frederick Manfred died, a "force of nature," some called him, a celebrated American novelist from Siouxland, who never really left the region of his birth.  In his honor, I'm reprinting an old essay of mine that outlines his influences on me. He was a friend.

I met Frederick Manfred in a bookstore in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, in late November of 1966. I wasn’t looking for him, but I stumbled across his name, a name I wouldn’t have recognized a couple months earlier, before my first trip to northwest Iowa, a region Manfred, a native, loved to call “Siouxland.” I don’t know what I might have been looking for that day, but it wasn’t his name or the book I found, a paperback novel titled The Secret Place. I bought it, then left the store, that book in an inconspicuous brown paper bag, its own secret place, you might say.

Just a few months earlier, I had gone to northwest Iowa and enrolled at Dordt College, in Sioux Center, primarily because I thought I wouldn’t be quick enough to make the Calvin College basketball team. At Dordt I thought I had a shot. In 1966, college choices—at least in my family—were considerably narrowed by tribal identity: Dordt, like Calvin, was one of our schools, a place where good Christian Reformed kids were encouraged to attend, sometimes even required. For me, high school classes in literature or history or foreign language had been little more than starting blocks to get to the gym or the practice field. When I left for college I had no greater aspirations than to become a coach someday—teaching, well, whatever.

In a dorm room full of rowdy guys, I heard the man’s name for the first time—“Manfred,” some guy said, sneering a bit because he claimed the name was phony. “His real name is Feikema,” alocal kid said, “Feik Feikema, and the guy writes dirty books.”

Adolescent male snickering.

“There was this sign along 75—used to say ‘Doon—home of Frederick Manfred,’” another kid said. More snickering. “Somebody cut it down. They don’t like him much.”

How come?

Shrugged shoulders. “You know—dirty books.

He’s from here? I said.

“Yeah, from Doon.”

Where’s Doon?

Thumbs up and over the left shoulder, pointing north.

I’d never heard of a writer, a novelist, actually being born and reared someplace close. Besides, writers lived in books and novels, not in dirt and harvest and the shady ambience of compost. Writers were city folks—educated. Snobs. The best ones were prophets. Writers didn’t milk cows.

Then I went home to Wisconsin, waltzed into a bookstore, and found this novel, The Secret Place. “Frederick Manfred.”

I’m sure I didn’t show my parents, who wouldn’t have understood the attraction; if they had, they wouldn’t have approved. They likely would have seconded the hostility of those upstanding, sign-dumping Doon-sters because my parents preached righteousness as fervently as they opposed dirty books. Meanwhile, their son was 19, and the Sixties were happening all around me. I had my own enthusiasms. 
Tomorrow: The Secret Place

Tuesday, May 13, 2014


We'd spotted them on our way home from ice cream, great bold blobs of white a half mile off the road, where the river cuts a gorge in a broad chunk of pasture. I turned the car around and circled back to look again, but all we could tell was that they were big and they were white and there were dozens of them maybe. It was dusk, and I wanted to believe that maybe the whole bunch was bedded down for the night.

Grandpa and grandma were hosting what our grandkids call "a sleepover," all three bedded down on the couches and floor upstairs, even though there's a perfectly good bedroom down. They wanted to be together, I guess, and, besides, who knows what kind of monster might be lurking a floor away from grandpa and grandma.

She'd told me the day before that she wanted to come along with me and shoot pictures at dawn on Saturday morning; but dawn comes terrifyingly early in May. So when the eastern sky began to glow--and it was a gorgeous dawn--I just let her sleep.

But she was the one who remembered those big white birds we'd seen on the river.  "Let's go," she said when she woke up, and I was game.  So the two of left. She's finally old enough to sit on the front seat of the Tracker. If she hadn't been, I would have broken the law.

Back we went, a couple miles south of town, following the snaking Floyd as best you can from the highway, back past the spot where we'd seen them at sundown the night before. But no one was there.

"Look," she said, and pointed to the sky. There they were, a posse of pelicans, not more than thirty feet up, wings stiff and solid as if they'd just decided on a runway and were preparing for landing.  We followed 'em, and they did.

We pulled off the highway, tried to figure out the best way to get close, and settled on a low-maintenance road just east of where we'd seen them come down, on the river, in pasture land with grass so short the whole field wore a military haircut.

I turned off the engine. She said we needed permission to walk out there, but I told her no farmer was going to care if all we were sporting was a camera; and off we went, on the hunt.  A couple hundred yards upwind, we tried our best to be stealthy and unseen, but a couple of white heads poked up above the bank just high enough to get an eye out east, and soon enough--long before we could get a really good picture--the whole bunch went up in a slow flurry. Pelicans are big birds.

That's them, up top. I'm no wildlife photographer, but when that cloud of white went up, it was something to behold and I was glad my granddaughter was seeing it.

"Can you shoot 'em?" she asked.

"Why would you want to?" I said.

"Be fun," she said.

She's 13 and she's got an air rifle we use for target practice out back of our house.  

I shouldn't have been as stunned as I was at that moment. After all, I was just a little boy when I shot my first sputzie from between the rafters of my friend's barn on the night of a sleepover of my own a half-century ago. And I remember, even younger, coming along with a neighbor on a trapline and watching him push the barrel of his .22 down on the forehead of a opposum, still alive, in a trap set in a culvert, then watching that animal frantically try to paw the bullet out from his brain before finally heaving himself over and dying. 

I remember those two moments of my boyhood more than a thousand others because they taught me something real and graphic about life and death and our hold on both of them, images I'll carry to my grave. 

Later, on our way back home, we came up on a pair of Canadian geese and their ample store of goslings, and my granddaughter grabbed this shot, sweet as anything, don't you think?

"Can you shoot 'em, grandpa?" she asked me.

"Why would you want to?" I asked.

She shrugged her shoulders.  

There are lessons in life you can't learn from a teacher or a grandpa.  Like grace.  You don't learn grace from the wisest preacher on earth. You learn grace only when it comes up and slaps you upside the head, only when you experience it first hand.

Like a lot of things.  Take it from a man who taught kids his whole life: I wish it weren't so, but there's only so much you can learn in a classroom or on a Saturday morning.

Life would be so much easier if that weren't true. There are things she's going to have to learn on her own, by herself. So says this grandpa anyway.

Oh, yeah--here's another shot she took.  Isn't it beautiful? Pardon my braying, but I'm a grandpa. 

 But then again, I'm only a grandpa.