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.

Monday, July 15, 2019

Sioux County Folks--Chad Hoekstra

For several semesters years ago, some of my students, the photographer Doug Burg, and I worked on a collection of stories we called Sioux County Folks, fifty portraits of ordinary people drawn from the county around us. When finally it was finished, the price tag for publication was well beyond our reach. The book, I'm very sad to say, never reached publication.

One of the students interviewed Chad Hoekstra and then wrote this story. Hoekstra, a Dordt College student at the time, became quadriplegic as a result of a childhood fall. This is the story that student wrote in 2002.

Chad Hoekstra died last week, on July 13, of complications resulting from pneumonia. By any standards, his was a heroic life. 

Everyone stares the first time they see him. Maybe he’s used to the double takes by now. It’s been 12 years. Maybe it’s no big deal. After all, it’s the machines they stare at, and machines don’t have feelings. Maybe, at first glance, nobody notices the human connected irreversibly to those machines. Too bad. He might actually be worth the second look.

“Oh, man, Jordan’s retiring again!” There’s a low whir of a motor, and Chad appears in the doorway. A basketball game is in full swing on the television behind him. His wheelchair seems to move by magic, but it is really Chad blowing and sucking on the wired straw in front of him. Years of practice have honed his driving skills to make it look effortless. He maneuvers through several doorways smoothly before stopping quickly. Gizmo, the family’s long-haired Chihuahua, stands fearlessly in his path, undaunted by wheels twice his size.

“Gizmo, move!”

Chad’s mom, Linda, rushes over from the kitchen to scoop the obstruction out of harm’s way.

“Chad, you have to watch him more carefully!” 

Gizmo barks his agreement.

He’s heard this admonition before; there are more important things to discuss. “Mom, Michael Jordan just announced this is his last season. I think he’s really gonna quit!”

“So then you’ll stop watching basketball?” she smirks.

“Of course not! But maybe with all his free time, he can write me another autograph! Oh, they’re playing again!”

Chad spins and zooms back into his room to keep up his commentary on the game. Gizmo chases him happily down the hallway amidst calls from Linda to watch out for each other.

Such a conversation is typical in this household, but when Chad was born twenty years ago, such a scene would have been unimaginable. As the healthy first born of Reverend Cliff Hoekstra and Linda, Chad was a typical Sioux County kid. He hopped on the bus to Sioux Center Christian in the morning and learned to play basketball with his dad in the evening. He squirmed though catechism on Sunday mornings and played tag with cousins at his grandparents’ after lunch. He had birthdays, he laughed, he ate cookies and grumbled about wearing boots. When he was five, he became a big brother to Keith. He dreamed about trips to Disney World and believed girls had cooties. Then he turned eight.

Chad says he doesn’t remember the day it happened, but his family will never erase the memory. He was playing on a dirt pile behind his friend’s house when he somehow slipped and fell, and in the fall actually broke his neck. 
He was rushed to the hospital, where he would spend the next six months. 

Doctors determined the break had paralyzed his body from the neck down and told his parents that the weight of their son's body would eventually crush his lungs. Cliff and Linda had to make the decision to give him a tracheotomy, an irreversible procedure to place a tube in his neck that would, for the rest of his life, tether him to a machine that would breathe for him. He would never again breathe on his own. 

But, he was alive. Chad’s father says the choice of committing his eight-year-old son to a machine for life or watching him suffocate, not really a choice at all, was still impossibly painful, as it would have been for any parent. 

Grandparents, sisters, brothers, aunts--everyone rallied behind the family for the trying months to follow. Little Keith got to know his relatives very well when his mom had to spend night after night by the hospital. The church family was there too. Cliff was the pastor at Faith Christian Reformed Church in Sioux Center when the accident happened. Donations of food and money were more than generous. Brother Keith had more than his share of lovingly donated meals throughout this period. The outpouring of love was tremendous.

The hardships did not get any easier to bear, however. When Chad was finally able to come home, his new life required huge adjustments. Without the hospital’s constant flow of nurses, Cliff and Linda were thrust into the position of total caregivers--a twenty-four hour a day job.

“Oh, they learned to cope,” Chad smiles distantly; “they just stopped sleeping.” The strain finally proved to be too much. The pastor of Faith Christian Reformed Church realized that meeting the needs of both his family and large congregation were clashing. For Reverend Hoekstra, he found himself at a crossroads. He had to say good-bye to the church.

But it wasn’t the end of the road. The exhausted parents finally found a program that would pay for in-home nursing care until Chad turned 21. Able to sleep again, Cliff was also relieved to be offered the leadership of a small church in Rock Rapids. The congregation welcomed the pastor and his family, though the Hoekstras continued to live in Sioux Center, where Chad’s medical programs were finally beginning to seem established. His teachers graciously helped him through the remainder of second grade, and he was able to join his peers for the beginning of third.

Chad mastered negotiating his wheelchair from classroom to classroom, often racing his friends down the hallways. Writing proved to be a new struggle. For a time, Chad tried to write his assignments by holding a pencil in his teeth. His teachers, wanting to read what he'd be writing, enlisted the help of a school aid.

“It was better than taking my mom to school every day,” he says, then smiles brightly at Linda. 

He claims he was the first in his class to get his own car. Affectionately referred to as the “van house,” the spacious vehicle is equipped with a stereo system, CD player, TV, and exceptionally good heaters. It doesn’t sound much different than the typical Sioux County teenagers’ dream car, "Except that the heaters are more important to me than the stereo,” Chad says with a laugh.

Today, twenty-year-old Chad Hoekstra is a sophomore at Dordt College in Sioux Center. Though he isn’t able to live on campus, he doesn’t lead a dull social life. He has learned to mix business with pleasure. On a trip to Sioux Falls last week to pick up a new wheelchair battery, Chad made an impromptu visit to a friend. On his insistence, they went out to dinner – steak – and an action movie. 

Chad Hoekstra is nothing if not “all guy.” His favorite topic is basketball. He recently set up a basketball league of his own, via the internet, where he and his friends “play” each other using the statistics of actual professional players. His good-natured competitive attitude helps his friends bring him into a special place in their own world.

Chad is a new generation. He is surviving disabilities that not many years ago would have ended his within hours. Yet antibiotics and impossible engineering innovations, Chad has not only survived twelve years physically, he has fully lived them in every way. 

Still, because these advances are so new, it's no wonder we feel more comfortable dismissing them to our imagination rather than having to deal with them in real life. Being the first in a generation is never easy. 

Whether he likes it or not, Chad was chosen for that duty. At first glance, his life might look like something out of a sci-fi flick, a body kept alive by machines. But look again. His body may be proof of the wonders of technology, but his existence is proof of the wonders, the miracle, of life.

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Sunday Morning Meds--Abundance

If I’m near water, I eat fish.  Lobster in New England, crab cakes in Seattle, smoked salmon on Lake Michigan, grouper in Florida. In northern Minnesota, nothing tastes better than walleye right from the lake. Well, maybe perch.

Out East, I’m sure, one can get a really good leg of lamb; but if you want it done right, you may have to visit Australia or South Africa or New Mexico, where sheep are taken seriously.

But if you’re on the hunt for a pork chop or a chunk of filet mignon that melts in your mouth, then visit my corner of the world. I live in a red meat country whose bounty will take second place to nobody’s Angus. Our cattle are corn-fed, not half-starved in mesquite groves or pastured out so the meat is grizzled as leather chaps. We pamper our beef here in Siouxland, and our hogs grow up in confinements so climate-controlled the residents never see a cloud. My old friends in southern Wisconsin call their prime Swiss cheese Green County Gold; well, our stock in trade is glorious red marble.

But it’s just about all we do, agriculturally. There are some dairies around, but mile after endless mile of farmland where I live is perfectly lined with just two crops, corn and beans. And all that bounty—and tons of grain are produced here annually—all of that bounty goes to livestock, to cattle and hogs, to the red meat on your quarter-pounder and the sirloin you buy anywhere in America and even around the world.

I should be proud—and part of me is. But our bounty, and our success, is more and more attributable to just a few good men and women. With every passing year, farming—agriculture—agribusiness—is less and less a family affair, as fewer and fewer landowners work more and more ground. The distance between producer and customer has lengthened exponentially since the days of what was—a century ago—subsistence farming. What that means in terms of Psalm 65 is that fewer and fewer of us, even here in the heartland, really rejoice at the climactic phenomena David finds so blessed.

Across the region this year, way too much water this spring kept farmers out of now barren fields that would be otherwise ripening with corn. But just outside my window, corn that got a very late start is finally shoulder high, big and bright green. I'm guessing, in a couple of months, a couple blocks south of here the elevator will host endless boxcars waiting to haul that which isn’t fed here down the tracks to markets near and far. Even this wet, wet year, here there’ll surplus.

A friend of mine told me once that people who don’t put seed in the ground in don’t know God. That may be a hair judgmental, but I know what he means, even though I’ve never lived on a farm. Once upon a time, it's hard not to think that there were millions more farmers and gardeners than there are today. Even in “the Tall Corn State” it’s hard not to believe that fewer and fewer people delight in David’s particular species of joy: “You crown the year with your bounty, and your carts overflow with abundance.”

David's is a harvest song, and right now we're not there yet. But the blessing of Psalm 65, whether you work the land or work a desktop Dell like the one in front of me, is the inspiration one receives from David’s attribution of joy to God’s abundant blessing, the reminder his blessings—all of them-- come from the God who made the heavens and the earth around us, around all of us. 

Just one from Psalm 65 is the reminder that not a dime’s worth of our immense abundance, our joy, comes our way without the showers of God’s eternal goodness, God’s never-ending love.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Two days' pilgrimage into American history

Image result for St. Paul's Catholic Church Marty
St. Paul's, Marty, SD
Off and running this a.m., going to Sioux City to pick up fifty (count 'em--5-0) high school kids who've been working all week (and goofing off a bit, I'm sure) on "Prairie Serve," a church-related work group created and run by Dr. Jason Lief, who, all week long, has had those fifty kids doing odd jobs for the Lao-TaiDam church in Sioux City, as well as on the Winnebago Reservation in Nebraska. 

Yesterday it was terribly windy, the day before it was piping hot. I'm sure they didn't have the sweetest weather for their work, but they've been nose-to-the-grindstone for a while, and now, as usual, they get their days "off." We're not going to a theme park or a ball game or Mall of America. Instead, for several years already it's been taskmaster Jason's bright idea to take the kids out into South Dakota for some lectures in American (largely Native American) history. 

Like Lewis and Clark, we'll climb Spirit Mound, then head out to the Santee Reservation, visit a little tribal museum and the cemetery, then cross the Standing Bear Bridge back into South Dakota, follow the wide Missouri as it stepladders through the prairie/plains, visit Greenwood and its cemetery, then stop at St. Paul's Roman Catholic Church in Marty, at the heart of the Yankton Reservation.

Then it's on to the Rosebud, where we'll sleep at Lakeview Christian Reformed Church, which sits right there on the Reservation, visit St. Francis Mission on Friday morning, then head even farther out west to Pine Ridge, where we'll stop and experience Wounded Knee.

Then, the climax of it all, a stop at Wall Drug for supper. 

No, you can't go along. The seats are all taken.  

It's a long, long trip for bunch of high school kids from Canada and the States, but we've done it several times before with howling success. There ain't no way those kids would ever get to the places we bring 'em, and they know it.  Sometimes the immensity of the world we're going into actually shusshes 'em. I'm not making this up.

We're off. 

Wednesday, July 10, 2019


My restoration project
Here's the way I had it figured. Taking a piece of Iowa farmland--no matter how small--and restoring it to what it once was seemed so noble, so virtuous, so benevolent, that I simply assumed Mother Nature, which is to say, the Creator of Heaven and Earth, would come around like a hired man--or woman. I expected the job would require some sweat and toil; but once the place out back would be renewed, what we'd have would be something akin to a museum. The luscious plants would keep themselves. After all, I was doing redemption, returning the ground to what it gloriously once was.

I was told different. People who'd done prairie restoration made clear that what I was up to would take some hard work. 

I listened, but I didn't hear. Know how that goes? I was renewing prairie after all, even if it was only a quarter acre. 

Wasn't that I thought I'd deserved it either, as if my good works out back should earn me some cooperation from eternal powers. I'm too much a Calvinist for that kind of cheap grace. I just expected that, once the old form returned, I'd get up in the morning, look out the window, and enjoy my own chunk of native beauty. 

For millions of years, no one had tended the garden. Nature had, on its own, produced a bountiful prairie. If I'd just tease it back to something akin to what it once was, I'd have, out back, redemption.

It's time for marestail season right now, a thin and elegant pig of a weed that will, on its own and quickly, tower over most everything out back that's actually desirable. If there weren't thousands of them, I just might like them. They're not ugly, but they grow in the kind of abundance I'd like to see in black-eyed susans or coneflowers. Marestails will joyfully take over if you let them. This time of year, turn your back for minute and six-footers banded together in warrior societies will show up wherever you look.

It's been thistles--Russian hoards. I've been picking 'em since I burned the whole restoration project down, trying to stay ahead of thousands of them, only making 'em stronger it seems. 

Who knows what it'll be next week? "I don't know if I could do it without a tractor," a neighbor told me when I asked him about restoring prairie out back of our house. He shook his head like a man who'd been accosted. "It's hard work."

Five years later, what I listened to, I'm now hearing. 

It's the story of the garden, the original. Bring land back or move it forward, some place it's never been, but the story's the same: in the heat of the day, by the sweat of the brow.

Yesterday Honeycrisps were up to $3 a pound, so I'm chewing on a Fuji this morning--much cheaper and, if you're lucky, just as sweet. This Fuji is good. I'm liking it. But what on earth must that apple have looked like anyway, that gorgeous one Eve couldn't live without, the one she and her naked sidekick chose to devour despite heavenly warnings. Must have been something--the one that bore mare'stail, waterhemp, dogweed, ragweed, cocklebur, lambsquarters, leafy spurge, and whatever else won't let my restoration alone.  

Must have been some apple. 

Tuesday, July 09, 2019

Book Report--The Comfort Bird

I don't know that I've ever read a book quite like The Comfort Bird. At times, it's a memoir. Hylke Speerstra, one of Friesland's leading writers, quotes from his own interviews with the central characters, who willingly reminisced with him about the war years. But The Comfort Bird is not memoir. 

The considerable research Speerstra does throughout the story makes the book feel, at times, like researched journalism. He deduces motivations by explaining things like doomed economic markets; he draws generalization about the characters on the basis of what entire nations were suffering. The American Dust Bowl requires background he willingly gives to his Frisian readers. At times, The Comfort Bird feels like history.

Then again, when he pulls the narration close to what is happening inside his characters' heads, when the story reveals what Speerstra could only have imagined, the book feels like fiction. But there's so much history, so much reminiscence that The Comfort Bird is certainly not a novel.

It's just a story, a very real story that concerns very real characters. It's reality television maybe, stuck between the covers of a book. The story it tells is the story he somehow discovered: two men at war who somehow discover their own familial pasts were rooted in a small town in Friesland, the Netherlands, where their grandparents were neighbors. 

One is an American, whose extraordinary war experience includes participation in just about every major step of the Allied front on the long and bloody march to Berlin--from the beach at Normandy to the frozen horrors of the Bulge to first steps into the horror of a Nazi camp full of walking dead. Nanning Hiemstra himself cannot believe that he walked away from all that death when so many did not. 

At the turn of the 20th century, before his grandmother, dirt poor, finally got her way and left the Netherlands for America with her family, before that she'd lived in a town where another hard luck family's fortunes turned in a wholly different direction. Driven just as powerfully by poverty rooted in the same cultural predicaments, Johannes Boorsma left Friesland to milk German cows. When the war begins, he sides with the Dutch Nazis, the National Socialists.

The story line is set clearly early on. These two are going to reunite. But reunite isn't the right word because they never knew each other. They became soldiers thousands of miles apart and for completely different reasons, never saw each other's face before the moment, after the war, when they met, not as friends but, in truth, as enemies. The Comfort Bird is most certainly a war story; the two of them participate in action from France to Russia. 

But even the war plays second fiddle to the moment the two come to realize who they are, children of families once upon a time so very close. Serendipity is a darling word, but not much more substantive than a word luck. Just plain happenstance. "Small world!" we say when such things happen.

There's comfort there too, isn't there? Someone sits down next to you and the two of you somehow discover that somewhere along the line your daughter and his son had the same high school teacher. Such moments make us smile by making an otherwise complex world feel manageable. 

The Comfort Bird answers a human need to have our lives somehow end where they began, a loop, a circle, a whole--what Native people consider the great circle of being. We like completeness in any form, even when it's arrived at in a pattern that feels entirely serendipitous. 

My dad used to tell me, straight-faced, that Christians should never really use the word luck because there simply is no such thing in a world ruled by a sovereign God. It gave him comfort to believe that, even in the dark moments when a sovereign God seems to have given up his reign to evil.

The Comfort Bird manages to bring its own species of comfort to a reader, especially those who share much of the story it offers. I loved the book--found it confusing at times, but loved it. 

There's no end to the suffering in the war stories of these two men. The real burden of The Comfort Bird is the Second World War. But it's also much more than a war story. It's a story of a small town in hard times, of the necessary perils of immigration, of a number of social movements so compelling they can't be easily escaped. 

What drew Hylke Speerstra to research and write this story is nothing more or less than the sheer, shocking beauty of its unlikely end, when two scarred veterans, just for a moment, realized who they are and who they've been.  
The Comfort Bird was translated from the Frisian language into English by Henry Baron, emeritus professor of English at Calvin College.

Monday, July 08, 2019

Small Wonder(s)--Jedidiah Smith

Don't know whether he actually carried the Good Book through the west in those early years. The story goes he took carried a copy of the Journals of Lewis and Clark, but whether or not he lugged the scriptures along may not be all that important. What nobody doubts was that Jedidiah Smith forever carried the Good Book in his heart, which made him peculiar among fur-trappers who traveled the Great River Trail, circa 1820.

He didn't carp about religion, didn't hound people like some old parson. He just kind of lived it, selfless. Everybody knew it.

Jedidiah was born in 1799, at a place called Jericho, New York. Of his parents' fourteen kids, he was number six. Like others, Jedidiah Smith got a taste for the west, for the wilderness beyond. When he spotted a fur company ad looking to recruit men, he left Jericho for St. Louis, wild and lawless. 

If you think I'm lying, stop by the Sgt. Floyd River Boat Museum and look for a beaver hat--not coonskin, beaver. They’ve got one. Millions of Europeans went beaver hat-crazy. If you wanted to be someone, sir, you needed a beaver hat, which made the trapping beaver one of the best ways to make a life.

Jedidiah Smith joined a crew of fur trappers that came that passed this way  up the Missouri, I'm sure, on their way north and west. But this Jedidiah wasn't just another adventurer. What he pocketed went back to Jericho. His aging parents had nothing. "It is that I may be able to help those who stand in need that I face every danger," he told his brother in a letter, "--it is for this that I traverse the mountains covered with eternal snow--it is for this that I pass over sandy plains in the heart of summer. . ." Then he wrote, "Let it be the greatest pleasure that we can enjoy to smooth the pillow of [our parents] age and as much as in us lies, take from them all cause of trouble."

This Jedidiah Smith was straight-up good.

Didn't take long for myths to build. He made his reputation when he stood fast in a firestorm, a surprise attack by several hundred Rees on ninety trappers in the employ of the Great Missouri Fur Company, an attack that did not fare well for the Company.

It was Jedidah's first trip up the river. It wouldn't be his last, but it would be the trip that created an aura because he stood fast on a sandbar, protecting horses they'd traded. As everyone who survived saw with their own eyes, Jedidiah Smith was the last to leave.

What the boss understood once his boats pulled away far enough to escape the rain of bullets was that his crew would need help. He asked for a volunteer. Guess who raised his hand--a young guy who'd never been anywhere near the Missouri before.

Jedidiah had fought to the bitter, bloody end, then volunteered to chase down river and bring help. All of that didn't go unnoticed.

And then there was this. Twelve men died in that bloody fight; of the eleven more wounded, two would die soon. They'd seen one of their friends sliced up horribly. Now, the dead had to be buried. Whatever else his steadfast faith gifted him to do, he had a level of peace that went way beyond mot fighting mountain men. "Then let us come forward with faith," he wrote in his journal, "nothing doubting, and He will most unquestionably hear us."

That he would step forward at the burial of the company's dead that day makes all kinds of sense. Jedidiah Smith volunteered to stand up in front of the others, hands folded, head bowed, to offer a prayer, a prayer Hugh Glass later described with these few words: "Mr. Smith, a young man of our company made a powerful prayer which moved us all greatly."

People like to say, that funeral out in the wilds was the first act of Christian public worship anywhere near the Upper Missouri. It wasn't the end of Jedidiah Smith's fur-trapping adventures on the Missouri River, only the beginning.

Sunday, July 07, 2019

Sunday Morning Meds--Still Waters

“He leads me beside still waters” Psalm 23

I was 32 years old when someone at Bread Loaf Writers Conference called to tell me that my application for a scholarship had been accepted and they were offering me a position as a waiter. I had no idea what that meant, but I understood clearly from the conversation that the offer was a good, good thing.

The house where we lived at that time is long gone, as is the tiny kitchen where I stood, phone in hand, listening. The call had come in the middle of the day, in the middle of a meal. Our two little kids were sitting beside us.

It’s now a quarter century later, but I will never forget receiving that call because I had the distinct feeling that my being chosen for a waiter’s scholarship to the granddaddy of all writers conferences, Bread Loaf, was a signal that fame and fortune lay just down the road before me. I had just published a book, my first, with a tiny, local press; now, Bread Loaf beckoned. The New York Times Book Review was a just a few years away.

When I flew into Burlington, Vermont, for the Conference—early, because I was a waiter—I met a beautiful woman, my age, married with two children, who said she was an aspiring poet. She’d also be a waiter. Someone from the Conference picked us up, but we took the hour-long drive together into Vermont’s Green Mountains.

Ten days later, when we boarded a plane to leave, she and I stood on the stairway to a small jet, waiting to enter the cabin. She looked at me and shook her head. “I hope this plane crashes,” she said, and she meant it.

She’d been wooed by a celebrity poet, and she’d fallen. On the dance floor at night, the two of them looked like smarmy high school lovers, which might have seemed embarrassing if it hadn’t happened to so many others. Another waiter—also married with kids, two of them—told me it was important for him to have an affair because, after all, as an artist he needed to experience everything in order to write with authority.

I am thankful to God for sending me to Bread Loaf, but it wasn’t an easy place to be, for a waiter or anyone else, I’d guess. I’d lived most of my life in small, conservative communities who prided themselves on their church-going. Adultery was real, but something of a scandal; it wasn’t commonplace.

The atmosphere in that mountaintop retreat was electric. Aspiring writers like me flirted daily with National Book Award winners, editors, agents, and publishers. Life—dawn ‘till dawn—was always on stage.

I am thankful to God for sending me to Bread Loaf because I learned a great deal about writing, but much more about life itself and my place in it. In the middle of that frenetic atmosphere, on a Sunday morning, I walked, alone, out into a meadow, away from people, where I found a green Adirondack chair and sat for an hour, meditating. I tried to imagine what the soft arm of my little boy would feel like in my fingers; at the same time I recited, over and over again, these very words. The 23rd psalm.

I remember a beautiful mountain stream, but there were no still waters at Bread Loaf Writers Conference the summer of 1980. If there were, I didn’t see them. But that Sabbath’s very personal worship, right there in the middle of the madness, brought me—body and soul—to the very place David has in mind in verse two.

In my own way, I know still waters, as all of us do at some time or another. He led me there.

Friday, July 05, 2019

Birch Coulee on the Fourth

Birch Coulee Battlefield today
I was tired. Not sure why, but I was; and even though we'd been gone for little more than a day, I was anxious to get home. Besides, it was July-hot, thick and humid. We were alone on a two-lane highway, coming back from a small-town Fourth fest. Hardly anybody else was out on the road, which made driving nice, so nice I didn't want to stop.

I had planned to. I knew the old battlefield lay there right along the highway. I could have been in and out in a quarter hour, if I wanted to; but we just drove right on by. It was hot, too--not in the car, but outside.

Besides, what happened at Birch Coulee wasn't pretty. I'm guessing no in-loop'd flags festooned the place yesterday. Whoever decided to make camp where they did 157 years ago--right beside a wooded gulch thick and wide enough to hide an army--whoever stuck up his hand and stopped the brigade, told them to make camp, was remarkably thoughtless.

And flat wrong. After all, they stopped because they were sure there were no "injuns" in the area. About that they were dead wrong.

Come to think of it, just exactly why they were there wasn't anything out of John Phillip Sousa either. Almost two weeks had passed since Dakota warriors had taken to killing just about any white folks who moved, which meant the Minnesota river valley was littered with two-week old dead bodies, men, women, and children. The recruits who camped at Birch Coulee that night were a burial detail.

There's nothing Fourth-of-July pretty about Birch Coulee. Nothing at all.

That Mrs. Krieger didn't die was a good thing. They'd found her alone, wandering pitifully, her family gone or dead, and taken her with them. When the Dakota attacked their camp, the wagon she huddled in took hundreds of bullets, but she wasn't hit, almost a miracle.

A lot of the horses went down, and when they did the company, under siege for a couple days without food and water, used their own dead mounts as barriers against Dakota bullets. It wasn't pretty.

What I'm saying is, yesterday, on the Fourth of July, we didn't stop. I had planned on stopping, but it was hot. I was tired. We both were. Besides, all of this happened 157 years ago. No one else stopped either. Why should we? Why should anybody?

When the fighting was over, there were more dead white men at Birch Coulee than those left behind on the field at any other battle during the Dakota War of 1862. Twenty-two men and ninety horses were dead, dozens more men wounded, many severely.

Want to count wins? Nobody won at Birch Coulee. While just a few Dakota warriors went down, they'd spent a couple of days doing nothing more than spilling white man's blood. When eventually, a few weeks later, the fighting ceased, as even Little Crow, chief of the Dakota said it would, the case against the rebels, the freedom fighters, was only made stronger by what happened at Birch Coulee.

Colonel Sibley, who rode at the head of the forces sent from St. Paul to end the Dakota rebellion, wasn't at all proud of what happened there, even sidestepped blame by naming the wrong man as commander--which is why, today, high up on a hill above the Minnesota River, a dozen miles from the battlefield, a huge, misplaced monument put there half a century later names the wrong commander.

There's nothing pretty about Birch Coulee. In fact, if you didn't know it was there these days, you wouldn't miss it because whoever puts out the signs along highway 71 calls it "Birch Coulee County Park," a place, supposedly, for a sweet picnic lunch.

So here's a question: what do we do with our bad stories? Do we just drive past? Yesterday, the Fourth of July, we did. With the air conditioner blasting out wonderfully cool air, we sailed right past "Birch Coulee County Park," cruise control at 68 miles per hour.

I was tired. It was hot. We wanted to get home. 

Thursday, July 04, 2019

Independence Day*

Image result for Fireworks

Don't have any firecrackers today, no sparklers, no bottle rockets. I could have. They're all over these days, now that the state has lifted the old laws. Maybe I'm just getting old.

But the truth is, what I'm doing right now is a far better way to celebrate "the Fourth." That I can sit down here in the semi-darkness this morning, punch keys, create sentences, and send them forth hither and yon is a striking act of independence. It can't be done these days as easily in Iran, or in China or certainly that most bizarre of places, North Korea. But here, in my basement, I can say just about anything I want, including blasphemy, vulgarity, and outright, deliberate, character-maiming falsehood.

That I can do what I'm doing is a blessing attributable to Jefferson and Franklin and the 54 other signers of the Declaration of Independence, who did so today, many years ago (you do the math). The fact is, this piece of technology in front of me has made us all more independent, more free, less restrained by corporate or media will. Today, we choose almost everything we do. And that's an absolutely beautiful thing. [Note to self: a little John Phillip Sousa would do well right here.]

Ten years ago, Speaking of Faith, a free, public radio course in ethics, morality, faith, and world religion aired a wonderful interview Krista Tippett did with Xavier Le Pichon, a French geo-physicist, who happens to be among those rarest of birds, a devout Christian and a world-class scientist, a man who lives in an intentionally-Christian community that puts those members of the community with mental and emotional illnesses at the heart of all their lives.

Le Pichon claimed that God creates us with the potential to evolve. Le Pichon is himself an evolutionist--and a devout Catholic; his argument is that we can and do learn to be better human beings by taking care of those who are not as blessed. Somewhere late in the interview he said something to this effect--what all of us require as human beings in this evolution is "an education of the heart."

An education of the heart. What a great thought. It begins at a place most Christians understand, the biblical thou-shalt of loving God with heart, soul, and mind--and the gent or lady next door just as much as we do ourselves. Le Pichon says it's actually an ethic hard-wired into us because only humans don't leave their weak somewhere behind them to die. Animals do. We don't--most of us anyway. But even though our care for the less fortunate is remarkably unusual in the animal world, it's still an attribute we've got to practice to learn, to get right.

There's some shady paradox beneath all of us this, of course, as there is beneath most truth. Today is a day to celebrate our independence our freedom, which I'm doing right now, as these odd little squiggles march up and out of nowhere across my computer screen; but it may well be that our greatest joy in life itself arises from exercising that independence by being dependent on others.

Or something like that.

Listen yourself to Le Pichon. Interesting ideas for Independence Day. 

[Okay, turn up "Stars and Stripes Forever."]

*Reprinted from July 4, 2009.

Wednesday, July 03, 2019

Morning Thanks--Strawberry Fields Forever

I didn't see the cat or I would have shooed him. Don't let him bother you. He doesn't us. He just likes to be in on things. 

And yesterday's "things" is a solidly established tradition, at least among the boy-grandchildren. Geddings Gardens are open for business, so we went in the a.m. Temps were a soupy 80 degrees or so. Two and a half inches of rain fell east of Sheldon on Monday night, four and a half here, so sweat was the order of the day.

If global warming creates more rain--warmer air holds more moisture--then northwest Iowans can simply assume this much at least: there will be bumper crops in strawberries. They were thick as thieves yesterday, so many we didn't move far up the road to get our limit. I don't remember ever finding so many soggy ones either; nearly sent me to tears not to take some of the whoppers I picked and tossed. Huge, huge crop.

Act Two begins here with the plucking. By afternoon the three of them had brewed up a strawberry souffle (for lunch), bread, muffins, jam, and soup--yes, soup, one of Sgt. Strawberry's faves (she' the one with the big grin). 

I picked, but didn't do much plucking and was the only one who celebrated the yearly ritual with a truck load of berries on ice cream. 

We wondered about our oldest. He's sixteen, drives, life guards. We thought he just might consider himself a graduate of such childish pastimes, but he was a diligent participant from field to table. Loves to cook. Took instruction yesterday from the souffle queen.

The whole works has become a ritual, but never before has filling the coffers gone so quickly--a host of hosts, bundles of beauties, a bumper crop. 

Great as they were yesterday and are yet today and will be come January, in the long--established ritual of Strawberry-Fields-Forever Day at our house, those gorgeous berries  are only a glorious dessert. 

Yes, it was a good day. Even th e cat thought it a blessing.

This morning I have much for which to be thankful.

Tuesday, July 02, 2019

The Odd Comfort of The Comfort Bird

Island of Terschelling, the Netherlands
I've been to Terschelling, a North Sea island just off the Dutch coast--well, the Frisian coast. I've biked down roads my Schaap ancestors must have traveled themselves, walked on beaches they may must have known. I have a picture of a house that family lore claims was once upon a time theirs.

But I don't know how they lived before they came to America in 1868. I know they weren't rich. I know they held exacting definitions of what the Christian faith required of themselves and others. I understand those definitions put them to the right of many of their neighbors. I'm quite sure they left "the old country" for reasons they would have noted to be, first of all, religious. But I know the were poor, and they'd lost three children.

What I know and what I don't may explain why I'm finding The Comfort Bird, by Hylke Speerstra, so fascinating--more than that, so enlightening, so moving. I'm not finished, but the outline of the story is clear: two families, one of which immigrates to America, are, strangely enough, brought together by war, the Second World War, when their children as fighting men meet somewhere, somehow, on opposite sides.

Dutch immigrants
I could, this morning, bike up the road to the township cemetery and find most of the characters' names. In a profound and even a little unsettling way, The Comfort Bird is my story. My Schaap ancestors went to South Dakota too, believing it to be the promised land . My Schaap ancestors left there too, when once again grinding poverty left them no choice. In the last twenty years, I've read a half dozen library shelves of books about 19th century life in the Upper Midwest, Giants in the Earth to Black Elk Speaks, but The Comfort Bird is something new. 

And yet it isn't. 

In Friesland, when prices drop beneath the costs of production, Ytske bakes bread and takes to the streets to sell it. But she's not alone. "In one year, the number of bread peddlers has doubled. Besides, it seems as if there are only Dutch Reformed bakery goods in her basket. Her honey bread may be the best, but the Secessionists, the Mennonites, the Catholics stick to their own tastes."

Her husband sees no way out if their economic place, but Ytske is struck with the possibilities of America. When he tells her joyously that the cow will calve, Ytske tells him it's the "the golden calf" because she won't believe God wants them to stay. God wants them to go. She wakes her husband in the middle of the night with a dream:
Through Him, I was shown a moment ago the path to a world without troubles. I have to take Sibbele aside again and present my vision of this night; this time I'll get him to go as our pioneer to America, like the oldest son of King Hezekiah who was sent ahead to the other side of the ocean.
Her husband won't hear of immigration. He says he has a horrible fear of the ocean voyage. She says, "You have to trust me and Lord, Hizkia."

It's Ytske's burning desire to reach a place that offers unending possibilities that eventually wins, and the family moves to America, to South Dakota, where, once again, grinding poverty greets them. 

Just about every last newscast today will feature a version of that same story, that very same story. 

It's easy to forget--and easier not to know--that the story is my story too.
The Comfort Bird was translated from the Frisian language into English by Henry Baron. 

Monday, July 01, 2019

"Nearer, My God. . ."

Wasn't a laughing matter.

Mary C. Collins, an Iowan, wasn't sitting still for what was going on all around her, and she had good reason. She'd been a missionary among the Lakota on Standing Rock Reservation for years, and even though she'd found herself changed substantially from her first days out in the middle of nowhere, from the trip out to Ft.Yates and beyond, what she was seeing and hearing all around her was nothing she could tolerate. When she'd come out to the reservation, she'd hugged the last telegraph pole she'd seen, the last symbol of what she thought of then as "civilization." That hug had happened years and years and years ago, and in that time she'd become an advocate for the people she'd come to love.

But this "Messiah craze" was tribulation of the worst sort and sure to bring disaster--or so she thought.

So she took her case to the highest court in the land, to Sitting Bull himself, the long-time spiritual leader of the Standing Rock Miniconjou Sioux, a man who'd been to Europe and back with Buffalo Bill Cody, the man whose visions of cavalry falling from the skies had been a great boon to the cause of the thousands of warriors ready for action at Little Big Horn. Sitting Bull, who'd gone to Canada after Custer's men were slaughtered, been incarcerated at Ft. Randall, and was now in a kind of retirement back home where he was born. She knew him as well as any white man or woman, or so historians say, and she was sure the old man, revered as he was, didn't believe the fantasies of the Ghost Dance, knew all that mad dancing, as well as she did, to be a hoax.

Mary C. Collins was reared out east, for heaven's sake, and he'd been there. Did he really expect the promise some Paiute made, some guy a thousand miles away in Utah? Just dance, the mystic told the people--just dance and all the old ones will return, and with them the buffalo too, and the world will transform from a cloud of dust into a new heavens and new earth. Just dance, he told them, dance into some sweet state and heaven will come to earth.

Nonsense, she told herself, and Sitting Bull knew it.

So she talked one of her believers into pulling an organ out to the big chief's camp, then assembled a choir of maybe a half-dozen believers and right then and there, with hundreds of dancers crying and singing amid the heavy beat of the drums, she played that outdoor organ for all its worth and led the handful of Christians in one of the most amazingly silly renditions ever of "Nearer My God to Thee."

"Our converts sang the song in a wild rough way," she wrote in her memoirs, "and the music, screams, and shouting of the awful dance were mingled with our voices until you could scarcely hear anything."

Once they'd sung all the way through, Mary C. Collins walked right over to Sitting Bull's tipi and asked him to come out and talk. Twice the old chief said no. When she asked a third time, he told her to enter.

She did, in sudden darkness. He stood there with his back to her.

"Brother," she said, "you are ruining your people. You are deceiving them and you well know it. You must stop it at once and send them away."

The old man told him no. "Sister, I cannot do it," he said. "I have gone too far."

She didn't let that answer sit. "You must do it. The people are neglecting their homes and and their property. There will be great suffering. They are likely to commit violence. The soldiers will come and you will be to blame for it."

Her admonition went as limp as the verses of that old hymn. The dances did not stop. 

It wouldn't be long before Sitting Bull would be shot dead and Custer's own Seventh Cavalry would slaughter three hundred Lakota men, women, and children beneath a small hill beside a creek called Wounded Knee. She couldn't have known that, couldn't have predicted it; but what she told Sitting Bull that day wasn't wrong.

Twenty years later, her poor health sent Mary C. Collins back home to Keokuk, Iowa, where she died after 35 years as a teacher and translator and diplomat on the Standing Rock Reservation.

And I can't help but wonder how she carried that whole story to her death. Just what did she feel when she raised her voice in song once again to that famous old hymn?

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Sunday Morning Meds--The Legs of a Man

His pleasure is not in the strength of the horse, 
nor his delight in the legs of a man;. . .” Psalm 147

The athlete in me is well into the fourth quarter, clock ticking down. The game has slowed dramatically. Rarely, do we miss a day at the gym. Once the last tomatoes are out, we get our exercise inside, sadly—or else walk outside somewhere, if the wind isn’t brutal, which, these days, it often is.

Inside, I get on a couple of machines and work up a heavy sweat, the blessed livery of a gym rat at any age. I lift weights, even though “buff” is a pipe dream. Basically, that’s what’s left for an aging four-sport jock, once the high school’s “Athlete of the Year.”  Years ago, I lost the gold cuff-links that came with that great honor. 

Years ago, I met a nice, young kid, a senior in high school, who expressed an interest in majoring in English when he gets to college next year. He was thinking about enrolling at the college where I taught, and my job was to sweet talk. Turned out his passion was basketball—that’s what he told me. English was okay for a major, but history or math would do the job too, he told me. What he really wanted was to coach.

Could have been me a half century ago. 

Great kid, sweet kid—I’d love to have him enroll, whether or not he ever pulls on a jersey or majors in English. His passion is basketball, he says, eyes ablaze.

He wanted to play ball in college, but he knew making the team would no cakewalk.  He told me a hot shot from his small, Indiana high school came here a few years ago and didn’t even make the team—so he said he was prepared. He didn’t.
I told him I’d seen guys emotionally hamstrung when suddenly they didn’t have to turn up for practice every afternoon of their lives, ex-jocks who said they felt as if bright lights had gone out of their lives without the steady rhythms of after-school practices.  I went through that myself—delirium tantrums from lugging no more gym bags. For thousands of kids every year, not making the team means losing some valuable component of identity.

He said he knew all of that.  He said he thought he was prepared.

But wow! —does he want to play. Basketball, he told me a half dozen times, is his passion.

Verse ten of Psalm 147 is a gift for highly-juiced jocks, a reminder to a million wannabee all-stars that there’s more to life than being MVP. Much more. I tried to tell him as much, but some lessons get learned only by experience.

That morning, when I left the gym myself, I spotted a lanky grade-school kid shooting free throws.  When he went after the ball, his long legs arched a bit like a pair of fine parenthesis, the sure sign of speed and wholesale athletic gifts.

But God doesn’t care. The psalmist says He takes no delight in the legs of man, whether or not they’re as sharply defined as a thoroughbred’s.

That’s good to hear, especially when my knees sometimes feel like a nest of hooks. Neither the size of our engines nor the thrust of our calves means anything at all. We’re loved, even when we’ve no more horsepower than a VW bus. 

Met a kid once who told me basketball was his passion. Someday, like all of us, this little verse will bring him comfort, as it does me, an old man who long ago lost his prized cufflinks.

It’s good to be reminded—at 18 or 71—that God doesn’t much care about all of that.  Some people might, but he doesn’t. Bless his holy name. 

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Morning Thanks--for all those years

We're on the road, so this one will have to do, all true, except for this--every 38, this morning, should be 47--and we're not "up north," but down south in Oklahoma.

Just what exactly do I remember? The church, First CRC, Orange City, Iowa, a truly Calvinist sanctuary, movie material really, galleries on both sides and in the back, stark and plain, not at all ornate but huge, a church whose very design spoke of the authority it had once upon a time, and even then, but no more. I remember well who married us, a man I still respect as highly as any human being I know.

Honestly, I remember the way my wife looked when she came down the aisle, a gorgeous woman with uncommonly dark features in a Dutch-American world. I don't remember the dress, but, as I stood in the front of that church with the rest of the wedding party and spotted her taking her father's arm, I do remember thinking I had me an absolute knock out (I know that's not nice language, but back then I was a sinner).

I remember the reception at a local college's dining hall, circles of people sitting on folding chairs, one of those circles composed of former profs at the college we'd both attended. I remember thinking it somehow nice that they'd all come--I hadn't always been their favorite student.

I remember meeting relatives of hers I didn't know and, right then, didn't care to. I remember being really anxious to be finished with all of that pomp and circumstance. I don't remember a thing about the reception--did we have some kind of program? Were there jokes? That's all gone.

I'll never forget my sabotaged orange VW squareback, shaving cream messed all over it, inside and out--plus, the little thing had been jacked up on blocks. I was going nowhere until I got it down. I was very angry--I will never forget that. The very first moment my new wife and I were together alone inside that car, she heard words that could have melted the dash of that VW. You'll have to ask her if she's ever again seen me that pissed. Eventually, we made it out of town, but I wasn't exactly in the mood for a honeymoon.

An hour up the road, all that heat had shifted focus easily.

But, sadly, the two of us were hippy-ish enough to regale traditional spendy honeymoons. No Niagara Falls, no Vegas, no San Diego or Maui for us, our first night together, man and wife, and the splendid consummation of those intimately prepared marriage vows took place in a roadside dive just outside of Worthington, Minnesota, a real dump where I hadn't even made reservations. I suppose I could have done worse, but it would have taken major effort. It's a wonder she stayed with me.

But she has, and today, amazingly, we've been married for 38 years.

38 years.

So this morning's thanks is a piece of (wedding) cake. An old friend of mine once said that he'd determined, rather unscientifically, that two out of ten marriages are really good. Three are tolerable. Those that remain are either painful or simply impossible. After all these years, I'd nominate the one that began in First CRC, Orange City 38 years ago today, our own, among the very blessed.

Honestly, to me, the detailed rituals with which we embellish our wedding days are barely there in my memory of that long-ago event. But then, the two of us had started dating only six months before--you might say we got married in a fever.

And as for that disaster of a honeymoon, I'm typing these words in a beautiful cabin on a bay of a huge lake in northern Minnesota, a cabin where, this morning, the sounds of a pipe organ are coming up softly from an FM radio across the room, the coffee is brewing, and this bride of mine is still luxuriously fast asleep a room away. Outside, it's cloudy and gray, but honestly, inside, there couldn't be more warmth, more sun.

For all of that, this Sunday morning of our 38th [make that 47th] anniversary, I'm more than thankful.