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 31, 2019

Morning Thanks--Walt Whitman

Image result for walt whitman
Whitman, the pose he loved

Take a deep breath. This single sentence ambles along for a decade or so.
For years past, thousands of people in New York, in Brooklyn, in Boston, in New Orleans, and latterly in Washington, have seen, even as I saw two hours ago, tallying, one might say, the streets of our American cities, and fit to have for his background and accessories their streaming populations and ample and rich fa├žades, a man of striking masculine beauty—a poet—powerful and venerable in appearance; large, calm, superbly formed; oftenest clad in the careless, rough, and always picturesque costume of the common people; resembling, and generally taken by strangers for some great mechanic or stevedore, or seaman, or grand laborer of one kind or another; and passing slowly in this guise, with nonchalant and haughty step along the pavement, with the sunlight and shadows falling around him.
Supposedly, it's from the pen of a man named William Douglas O'Connor, who is defending the American poet Walt Whitman, the character described in that book-length sentence. There lies a tale.

Whitman, who shook my timbers when I took American Literature in my sophomore year in college, was, well, "an outfit," as my mother-in-law used to say about those who wandered substantively from the norm. And Whitman did every way.
The atmosphere is not a perfume, it has no taste of the distillation, it is odorless,
It is for my mouth forever, I am in love with it,
I will go to the bank by the wood and become undisguised and naked,
I am mad for it to be in contact with me.
Dozens of such lines (from "Song of Myself") weren't standard poetic fare in 1865. Shoot, they're hardly standard today. I doubt they've ever been printed on a Hallmark Card, despite the fact that most every kid who's ever taken American Lit had to read them, as I did, at one time or another--and as I assigned them to be read for forty classroom years.

Such weird swagger was sacrilege to some--to Willa Cather, for instance, half a century later, in fact. Yet today, I'm guessing some parents would rather that Whitman be politely passed over during classroom discussion. How many people you know howl about how much he enjoys the scent of his own armpits.

It's understandable why a senator, from Iowa no less, and Mr. James Harlan, would go ballistic when he discovered that unrighteous Walt Whitman was working for the government of the United States, a low-level clerk in the Department of the Interior to be sure, but just the same--that hedonist on the government payroll? Say it ain't so, Sen. Harlan screamed. Something has to be done.

And something was. Didn't take long and Sen. James Harlan, he of the Tall Corn State, had Walt Whitman fired.

That's when William Douglas O'Connor--he of that long gracious sentence above--came to the poet's defense, both in words--
He has given his thought, his life, to this beautiful ambition, and, still young, he has grown gray in its service. He has never married; like Giordano Bruno, he has made Thought in the service of his fellow-creatures his bella donna, his best beloved, his bride. His patriotism is boundless. It is no intellectual sentiment; it is a personal passion.
--as well as in action, getting Whitman yet another low-level position in the office of the Attorney General. "The Good Gray Poet," a long essay O'Connor penned, slowly altered the view of Walt Whitman held by thousands of Americans. 

(A secret? There are those who think O'Connor never touched a pen to paper. There are those who believe the man who wrote all that puffery was named Whitman. Hey, mum's the word.)

And Whitman? --I can't imagine he changed a bit, eccentric, yet personable, outrageous yet oddly reverent about the whole idea, the promise of democracy, of America. Whether you like him or even understand him, Leaves in Grass is in every last American Lit anthology, and deservedly so.

About James Harlan I don't know much. I'll look him up. 

Give him this at least--the Senator from the Tall Corn State at least made the history books--a footnote maybe, but he's there, 150 years later, still in the wardrobe of a prune. 

Today is Whitman's birthday. 

Just sayin'.

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Small Wonder(s)--The Missouri River Trail

The Sioux City Boy Scouts were there to lead the assembly in the Pledge of Allegiance. And the school band from Central High offered some fitting selections. The Sioux City Journal claims there were 300 folks in attendance at the dedication that Sunday afternoon, a goodly crowd of citizenry in 1929.

The whole enterprise, the dedication of a brass plaque on a monument marking the old Missouri River Trail, was undertaken by the local Martha Washington Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. It was a community-wide event; everyone was welcome to celebrate the history of region, a time long before white men came north up the river or west from across the state.  Two great-granddaughters of pioneer Sioux City families had the distinguished honor of unveiling the monument.

Sioux City celebrated its own history. In 1929, the city's western hills still wore the visible memory of that ancient trail, a passage up and through tall grass prairie that ran over the river's massive shoulders, a roadway laid down there by innumerable moccasins and a countless number of travois pulled along dogs and horses.

Sioux City's old Missouri River Trail was more ancient than anything left behind by the Corps of Discovery, centuries older than Sgt. Floyd's grave. Once upon a time it was a thoroughfare for First Nations from the entire region, Omaha and Yankton, Osage and Ioway, all of whom at one time or another had moved north or south beside the Missouri.

And part of that long trail was right here. You could see it on Sunday, May 26, 1929, when people climbed the hill close to what was then War Eagle Park, and circled up around "a large granite boulder of irregular shape being six feet through at the widest part," or so that stone was described in that year's DAR minutes, a boulder that's still there today.

And now, the big story. The plaque, the stone, the celebration, and that trail, the Missouri River Trail, were completely forgotten, not by a few but by all. The whole event and what it celebrated, the ancient, storied thoroughfare through Sioux City's hills was gone from the city's collective memory until Marta Nelson, a Vice Regent of today's DAR, happened to page through the old minutes and discovered a dedicatory program dated May 26, 1929 for something called "The Missouri River Trail."

Through almost endless detective work, and with the help of the city's most dedicated historians, all of that story--save the trail itself--came slowly back into focus. The Journal had chronicled the event; and their stories were there, easily accessible. Still, no one knew anything about a six-foot wide granite rock somewhere in the neighborhood of War Eagle Monument.

The hunt began. A note went out in the paper, and just a day later someone responded. He thought he walked past that odd stone daily when he walked his dog. Didn't know for sure if it was the same stone, but it was an anomaly where it sat, up on the hill, all alone. No plaque, he said, at least nothing he'd ever seen.

That stone wasn't hard to find, and there on its northern side were four drilled holes that matched the exact size of the plaque the committee had created for the 1929 commemoration.

You can find it yourself. Just follow the little gravel road off the path to the War Eagle monument. There's a sign. In truth, it's not much to see, but the drilled holes are clearly visible.

It's in the woods, woods that wouldn't have been there 200 years ago. Prairie fires had a mean habit of burning down pretty much everything in sight. Try as I might, I couldn't see a path or trail through the trees.

But don't let that stop you. That stone is off the beaten path. Likely as not you'll be alone. Just stand there for a while and imagine. Think of processional of Native people, whole families, come up throug the trees, smiling and laughing, an occasional whinny or nicker from those horses. Maybe a dog will bark--don't mind it. A whole troop, dozens--men and women, old and young.

Just watch. Stand there at the rock marking the spot, stand there and listen.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Small Wonder(s)--the Fur-Trappers

Some call it the West's "golden age." I got to be convinced. Back then there was no Sioux City, no Iowa, no South Dakota, no Nebraska--what was here was the confluence of three rivers, one of them named after a young white adventurer who happened to die in a camp just off these hills. 

One of those river, the Missouri, was a I-29, an interstate that carried just about everybody who was anybody in our world. Those who didn't ride on water, walked or rode horseback. Few who passed here stayed back then. Those who did tried hard to get along. 

Our own original white man, Theophile Bruguier, who came all the way from Montreal, was a businessman with a penchant for language. The man picked up Sioux language as if he were born to speak it, and earned first nations' trust firmly enough to marry two of the chief's daughters, then start in to populate these river hills with--count 'em--13 kids. 

Maybe that's it. Bruguier and that host of buckskin men didn't try to convert the Natives, just tried to get along. The Great Sioux Wars was a long and bloody chapter of the story, but wasn't the whole book, the whole story of the West. Once upon a time, the Missouri River Trail, a nearly endless snaking path over the hills and through the woods was here for centuries before Sioux City, all the while carrying human traffic in all shapes and colors and sizes. Getting along too--most of the time.

Law? For the most part, there was only what those fur-trappers created by the muskets they carried. No cops, no government. If you wanted to live, you had to get along the way Theophile did. 

But then people think much about life expectancy. Surviving was enough of a challenge to keep you busy, and there was all that space around you, all those hills like an emerald island in an endless sea of grass. The West's golden age, some say. 

Just imagine. Once upon a time, a gang of mountain men walked the highway once called the Missouri River Trail--big-name celebrities, heroes of dime novels: the righteous Jedediah Smith, Mike Fink, King of the River, and a gaggle of adventurers heading up river on the hunt. There they were, up on our hill, where that statue of War Eagle guards the mouth of the Big Sioux. Imagine that--maybe twenty men buckskin and coonskin hats, some on horses, some walking, a train of pack mules behind, all of it right here in our front yard.

It's fall, sweetest time of year in Siouxland--warm days, cool nights; and they're headed north, knowing full well winter'll be on 'em soon enough. They're green, but they're not stupid. They know what's coming. They're on their way to the mouth of the Musselshell River. That they have a long way to go doesn't mean they're not home.

What did they know? Not much really. Jedediah Smith says that when they didn't find any buffalo, they got to thinking all those promised bison had gone south for the winter--snow-birds. So when they got to the Misselshell and started to build the winter camp, Jedediah took a couple of ace shots with him and, he says, "were indeed very successful, for we killed all the small game of the vicinity," mostly antelope and deer. They were well provided for a long winter. Bring it on.

And then, he says, a most amazing phenomenon. When winter set in, as if out of nowhere buffalo showed up, not a snow-bird among 'em, countless buffalo "pouring from all sides into the valley of the Missouri," crossing over the river on the ice. "We therefore had them in thousands around us and nothing more required of us than to select and kill the best for our use whenever we might choose."

Was it cold? Good night, yes--unrelenting bone-rattling cold. Were the men hungry? Not a chance. Listen to Jedediah's words. 
In our little encampment shut out from those enjoyments most valued by the world we were as happy as we could be made by leisure and opportunity for unlimited indulgence in the pleasure of the Buffalo hunt and several kinds of sport which the severity of the winter could not debar us from.
The days of the Missouri River Trail right here through Sioux City's hills, those are the days some call "the West's Golden Age." 

Maybe so. 

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Bart Starr, 1934-2019

I don't know that anyone in our house ever told me that watching television on the Sabbath was verboten, but it was simply understood if for no other reason than so few activities were--how should I say it?--allowed. Sleep was fine, but baseball and bikes?--no. 

I had just graduated from high school when I met the first real Hollander I'd ever known. I was working at a state park when a man came in on bike to register to camp, a man with a thick accent who told me he was from the Netherlands. 

"There's lots of Dutch around here," I told him, probably even pointed at my name with its distinctive double a's. 

"Your 'de kind 'vat can't ride bikes on Sunday," he told me. "Ve got rid of all of dem."

I remember thinking that he was right about us.

Then came the Green Bay Packers. If there was a team up there in Green Bay before Lombardi, that New Yorker, came to town, I don't remember. Of course, I was also coming of age in 1960, and beginning to understand what that Hollander had said--specifically, that I didn't know anything about the Green Bay Packers because, unlike most of the world, the Schaaps didn't watch TV on Sunday. 

When Lombardi came, the Packers started getting good. My friends watched them, knew their names--Hornung, McGee, Dowler. So when my parents went off to bed for their Sabbath afternoon naps, I tiptoed in front of the TV, kept the volume low, and watched--until I heard Dad's footsteps on the stairs. Sunday TV was not civil disobedience; it was sin.

Meanwhile, the Packers got really good--I mean, really, really good, so good that if you lived in Wisconsin, missing them was like refusing cheese curd. I honestly can't remember it, but there finally came a time when Dad wanted to watch the Pack as badly as I did. So, there we sat on Sunday afternoon, listening for Mom's footsteps, ready once again to hit the switch.

When she got old, Mom was all-Packers, all the time, able to talk about draft picks and off-season trades. When she made it to the Home, I don't know if she would have made it without the Packers, the Brewers, and the Bucks.

So there came a time when all three of us would sit there on Sunday afternoons and watch the Pack take on the Bears or Y. A. Tittle and New York Giants. There came a time when that particular sin simply disappeared from the notch it once held on Moses's stone tablets. 

And the quarterback, the guy running the show behind Forrest Gregg and Fuzzy Thurston, was Bart Starr, the man who engineered all those wins, Lombardi's reluctant choice to run the offense. 

Back then, through all those championships, I'm not sure my parents knew that Bart Starr was a dedicated Christian. The reason ye olde injunction against Sabbath TV lost its edge had nothing to do with the fact that Starr was born and reared in a fine Christian home. It had everything to do with the Packers' gloried successes.

On the other hand, Starr was gracious and humble, not a big-mouth like Namath. The man embodied peace and diligence. He was smart and strong and dedicated. He was, very simply, a good, good man. My parents knew that he was a fine, fine man, even if he did play ball on Sunday.

Bart Starr died last week, the man whose play-calling brought the Green Bay Packers into the our Sunday living room. If Mom and Dad were still alive, they'd be grieving; but a little perturbed that I've aired dirty laundry.

I live in Iowa now and have for many years. I'd have to drive all the way across the state to get to Dubuque and cross the swollen Mississippi to get back into America's Dairyland--300+ miles. But yesterday, Memorial Day, I'm guessing most of the state was quiet, not only because of the high cost of freedom, but also because Bart Starr was gone.

Throughout his career, he called his own plays, garnered legendary victories, and brought the Packers into every household, even our home every Sunday afternoon. 

Monday, May 27, 2019

My Dad on Memorial Day

I'm not exactly sure how my dad got into the Coast Guard. He may have been hoping to avoid anything overseas, given the fact that he'd just become a father; but there had to be more to it because he knew dozens of other fathers who went off to Europe or the South Pacific. His being "Coast Guard"meant very little anyway, because the Navy simply strong-armed the whole corps once the going got rough.

He ended up spending most of his three years in the South Pacific. He never talked much about it, not because his war-time experience was so horrifying, but because it wasn't--at least that's what I came to believe. Once he was trained, he was deployed aboard the LT-59, a tugboat, a vehicle whose very name suggests a cartoon figure. Aboard that little tug he and crew of just a few jockeyed destroyers and aircraft carriers around South Seas ports. 

The LT-59

I think he might say "pushing battleships around" sounds more glamorous than it was. He never once came anywhere close to "action," as we say, although he was always somewhere near. If he ever witnessed things he wished he hadn't, they had nothing to do with bloody death. 

His brother and his sister were both in medical units that picked up after battles. He used to tell me that Uncle Jay and Aunt Agnes saw things human beings shouldn't have. When he'd say that, he meant it. In a certain, odd way, in his own mind, his war-time service, I think, didn't measure up to what others had given, and therefore wasn't worth talking much about. 

He used to joke about being on the high seas, about dining tables that slid back and forth across the floor in fierce storms, carrying their grub them. Every time it would slide back in place, they'd hammer down the food because the next wave would slide the whole business back across the room. He did the scene himself in pantomime. We laughed because he did.

He was there at Diamond Back in Hawaii, but he got there two years and more after the attack at Pearl Harbor, even sent back a picture to his loving wife, drew in airplanes through the gap where Hirohito sent his killers.

Throughout the war, he tried to let Mom know where he was, even though that kind of info was heavily censored. One attempt at camouflage involved a church organist. "How's Anna Wieskamp lately?" he wrote my mom. "I thought of her a couple days ago already." 

Anna Wieskamp was a church organist. Mom knew very well her hubby wasn't thinking one bit about Anna Wieskamp, so she searched the South Pacific closely and found a series of islands named Eniwetok. It was a game they played, but I'm sure, for both of them, it was also a comfort. 

On board the LT-59, he was not the boss but the bursar, the one appointed to keep the books. Mostly, I suppose, he pushed paper. It was neither glamorous nor frightful. He was, I suppose, just a small cog in a huge and mighty war machine. 

Once the the fighting was over, I don't know that he ever pulled on his uniform again. He never walked in step with the American Legion come Memorial Day--what my grandmother used to call "Decoration Day"--never marched in an honor guard. I'm not sure anyone ever taught him how to shoot a rifle. I doubt he ever did. 

But both he and my father-in-law, who spent his war years in the European theater, were poised and ready for what both of them--and everyone--considered to be the bloodiest battle of them all: the battle that would be waged on the island of Japan. Both of them had orders that both of them understood.

Then came the bomb. Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There would be no Battle of Japan. World War II ended.

My dad's little brother Ward worked on the Manhattan Project, as did Roger Voskuil, his brother-in-law. Both of them were research chemists. In my mind, any discussion of the legitimacy of the dropping "Little Boy" on Hiroshima will be forever colored by all of those very personal service records. 

War is hell. Sometimes I wonder if he might simply say it that way, that war simply isn't something to remember, even though sacrifice is, as is selflessness, giving one's life for a friend. My dad never paid much attention to Memorial Day--loved it as a holiday, but had to be goaded to attend "the doings," the ritual in the town cemetery. He could chuckle at memories on board the LT-59, but once his train pulled up at the station in Milwaukee, where my mom met him, alone, just the two of them, for him the war was over.

He'd given his country three years, done it willingly, had no choice about where or how he'd served. He saw the world, lugged around instruments of battle that made football fields look like backyards. He was never far from horror. But when it was all over, he didn't pass that way again.

It's Memorial Day today, and outside my window, rain is falling. Anywhere in the region, right now American Legions are letting people know that "the doings" will be in the school gym or some church or town hall. They'll get done, even though nobody, today, will stand out in the cemetery among the myriad flags. 

In the spirit of the holiday, I'm remembering my dad and his service during the war because I've always been proud of it and him, even if he didn't think much about it when he returned. 

My dad was very much among those, back then, who served their country. 

Sunday, May 26, 2019

Sunday Morning Meds--He knows

“But the Lord knows the way of the righteous” Psalm 1

One q and a from the catechism I was raised with will stay forever in me, the first: “What is your only comfort in life and death?”

The answer begins this way: “That I am not my own, but belong to my faithful savior. . .”

It sticks to my Teflon memory because of its texture, it’s emotional color. The word of the moment here is comfort: What is your only comfort? What makes you feel in sync? What settles your nerves? offers some peace? helps you sleep? gets you over the blues?

That I am not my own but I belong to God.

Similarly, the first psalm’s final verse begins with a phrase you can pull up to your chin on a cold winter night: God knows the way of the righteous. He knows. He’s got it down. To Him, we’re no mystery. Right and wrong and good and ill is all part of a day’s work. He knows. It’s that simple, really.

That’s comforting. Because life isn’t.

When you add up the whole works it amounts to nothing more or less than a sidewalk, eighty years long maybe, that leads to a cemetery.

My father was given a nice plaque after twenty-some faithful years at the bank where he worked. Not expensive. His employers got it from a place that turns out trophies for longest putt at company golf tournaments. On its own, that plaque wasn’t worth a dime. For years after his death, I had it in the backroom. I can’t toss it.

Then we moved. Twice. Now it’s gone. Twenty-five faithful years no one remembers.

Psalm One begins with a word that’s hard to define—blessed; and it ends with a strong hint at that what blessedness actually means. Through the warp and woof of our lives it’s sweet comfort to know that God does. The Bible tells me so.

God knows. He’s not stunned or sad at anything. He gets it.

Be assured, David says, God knows the way of the righteous. He understands. Once upon a time, he was one of us, after all.

The psalm says that to be blessed is to know, in life and in death, in sickness and in health, that God knows. He knows us, knows our needs, actually knows our lives.

That’s blessed assurance.

Friday, May 24, 2019

Ye olde citronella*

Rained here Saturday night.  My father-in-law's little gauge--the old farmer in him couldn't really live without one--registered three-quarters of an inch, a healthy rain.

In town, where we live, a good rain is nice on the lawns but a curse on two-year-olds like our grandson, who's too darn cute to spray full of "Off" and too little himself to slap the blasted mosquitoes that light on his darling, chunky arms and feast.  We don't live in real mosquito country here in Iowa.  They can get bad, but nothing at all like my Wisconsin home, where,  come June, hordes arise like a Chinese army from a solitary backyard.  Clouds form in a village park.  You can hear them, like a distant jet.  I'm serious.

It's a wonder people don't die from mosquitoes in Minnesota, where some claim them as the state bird.  Michigan, on the same northern tier as Wisconsin and Minnesota, almost has to be similarly cursed.  We love "up north," but there have been times when I felt all 270 pounds of me being carried away by winged varmints that look as much like biblical demons as anything God, in his infinite wisdom, ever created.  In fact, you wonder sometimes whether He left some factory seconds around, some "oops," you know?  What possible good are mosquitoes?

Really, I don't need the tiny bit of citronella that's still here in a ancient drugstore bottle I've had on my shelf for the last 40 years, a bottle that had to come from my grandparents, who lived in Michigan.  It was purchased on Godfrey and Burton Street, it says, Grand Rapids, where, once upon a time, a drug store named Greenwold's pedaled mosquito relief.  You can't see it probably, but typed in low on the label is the antidote--"Citronella," it says, I'm guessing, the remedy my grandparents looked to for relief.

Wikipedia says citronella is also used as a "perfumery chemical."  I don't think theDominie was making urns full of Channel Number 5, and I'm guessing his wife, a city girl, probably didn't make her own soap, which makes such uses out of the question.  My Wikipedia research also indicates that citronella was also thought to quiet barking dogs.  Who knows?  Nobody wants some yapping parsonage mutt hanging around the church.

Still, I'd guess it was for mosquitoes, although it's hard to believe that anyone in Michigan would buy a bottle this tiny.  Must have been a drought.  

It's been mine for most of my life.  Once upon a time I simply grabbed it from my parents' upstairs bathroom cabinet because it never got used and I loved the intriguing bottle.

For generations I've been Protestant and therefore anti-papist, anti-images, anti-lots of stuff; but it's not hard for me to understand the appeal of graven images, which, of course, thou shalt not have.  I mean, my grandpa the Calvinist preacher, a man I hardly knew, isn't conveniently available, genie-like, from the confines of this minuscule bottle; I can't conjure him.  I could rub all day and my grandpa wouldn't appear.  But somehow he's here.

I have to admit in some ghastly, silly way, that if I didn't guess that it somehow graced my grandparents' own bathroom cabinet a century ago, I'd have tossed it long ago, never grabbed it in the first place.  

Today, useless as it is--we've got "Off" and those tin pots of waxy stuff you light if you want to sit outside--I can't just dump this old bottle, not only because it's ancient, but also because, dang it, it's got something of my grandparents in it, long, long ago.  It is its own graven image, I confess--and, even though I don't worship the dumb thing, this one, if the rain keeps falling, will even keep the mosquitoes down.

So I'll be a jerk and leave to my kids to throw.  Someday, they'll be culling through the flotsam and jetsam of their father's life, pick up this oily old bottle--greasy little thing from some place in Michigan they've never been--and get rid of it once and for all to a landfill where--maybe, just maybe--it'll do it's own appointed work, keeping down the insect population.  

I can't just throw it.  There's nothing in it but citronella, but--I know I'm pushing it--for me at least, it's something, well, perfumery, of Grandpa and Grandma Schaap, dominieand juffvrouw

Call me silly.  Call me nuts.  Go ahead.  But it stays.
*First appeared here on May 21, 2012. If you're wondering, that little bottle is no longer on the shelves behind me. It must not have survived two moves.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

On missions

It's a job that will, I'm sure, fall to me; and it'll happen sometime soon. My father-in-law may not make it to his 100th birthday, even though that birthday is less than a month away. When death comes, I'll be assigned his obituary. It's already composing itself in my mind--how to say what needs to be said about a quiet, unassuming, wonderful man.

That's why wheelchairs have been in my mind for a couple of weeks already, wheelchairs he worked on as if repairing them were his 8 to 5 job and not just a volunteer thing. Somewhere in his room at the home, there are about a dozen metal badges that once hung from an award he received for his years of service. The award is on his wall.

What do you do with a thousand home-grown fixer-up talents when you're a retired farmer whose machine shed is back on the acreage some young family now calls home? How do you keep your hands occupied once you're too old to climb ladders to roof houses? What do you do with hands that can't stop working, even though there's not much left to do?

For him, the wheelchair business was a God-sent. It kept his hands busy and his mind sharp. It gave him a place to go, buddies to work with, and coffee and day-old donuts that never tasted quite as good.

Fixing up wheelchairs gave him a mission. Besides, there were hundreds of them. Fix 'em up and ship 'em out across the world to needy folks of all ages who, as if by miracle, found themselves miraculously blessed with mobility they'd never known before.

Rebuilding wheelchairs was no daily grind; it was a blessing, not only for him, but for the young and old whose pictures he kept in his desk drawer. The whole endeavor was--and still is--a noble ministry for old bucks like my dad. Once upon a time, he and his GI buddies followed the front from Normandy to Berlin in the motor pool, a traveling machine shed that repaired tanks and jeeps and trucks and whatever could be fixed and returned to battle.

The wheelchair business may have lacked the drama and the firepower of a shot-up Deuce-and-a-Half, but, if you think about it, those two jobs weren't much different--their end games was liberation. 

Just last Sunday, the wheelchair mission was the featured ministry for our church offerings. Before the plate was passed, a short video played up on the screen, a series of shots of recipients from around the world sitting in those wheelchairs he'd spent all that volunteer time redeeming. Thanksgiving was written all over the faces of old men and women, and a score of children who may never have taken a step under their own power. It was beautiful.

For the last few years, my education has come by way of a curriculum created by a Native American woman just as old my father-in-law--she'll be 100 in October. She too was in Europe for the war, a nurse at Battle of the Bulge. 

But by way of her life story, she has taught me a history I never learned in school. Through glimpses of a life unlike any I'd ever seen or experienced, she gave me a more expansive view of a words like justice and even love. That education has affected me, made me see things differently. It hasn't so much converted me to a new kind of faith as it has sharpened my perceptions about my history and my life.

Despite my father-in-law's decades-long gift to that wheelchair ministry, I couldn't help but feel as if the video of all those needy people gaining independence some of them never had, carried a frightful load of unintended and even insidious freight because the saviors were all--every last one of them--white folks; while the needy were all--every last one of them--people of color. 

I love the wheelchair ministry. With his hands, my father-in-law must have repaired hundreds of wheelchairs. Somewhere in his desk drawer, he has pictures of some of the very units he reconditioned. It's a wonderful mission in every way.

But it was impossible for me not to read the racial element embodied in that video because I know a whole lot of ugliness, through history, has risen from the self-righteousness of there being a "white man's burden."

"Wheelchair" is a glorious thing, really, but I can't help but think the ministry needs to look for another way to tell its own blessed story.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Wonderful Musical Magic

Last night I couldn't help thinking of an old story, something told to me long, long ago, by an organist--the organist, the very one who'd been asked to do a concert on a brand new pipe organ a country church had just proudly installed. They needed someone professional, someone who knew how to handle the instrument, they told her. It would be the new organ's inauguration, so they needed a real organist, a professor of music.

She drew up a program that must have passed muster because no one said a thing when she submitted it. I don't know what was in that recital, but real musicians love to test themselves and each other and even their instruments with stiff challenges. I'm sure what was printed on those inaugural programs was fairly standard pipe organ fare, standard, that is, for the professor.

It was fine--the whole program was a wonder and a success. You might say "she pulled out all the stops," if it weren't a third-rate pun. That brand new organ astounded them all with its range, its power, and even its delicacy. The folks in that church heard music they'd never, ever heard before, and it left them speechless.


At the very end, when she was taking her bows and giving that brand new organ a reverent sweep of the arm, as if the organ were the star, some guy in the audience just couldn't help himself. 

"Play 'Stars and Stripes Forever,'" he yelled because, dang it, it's something he was dying to hear. 

Later she could laugh about it, but when she told the story you could still note that right then-and-there she took that line like a slap in the face. 

I thought of that story last night when listening to my granddaughter's high school choir concert, her last. Every selection mounted a challenge for those kids, intricate, expressive pieces that simply to describe requires more musical knowledge than I have or can fake. Before each piece, choir members stood and talked about what they were about to sing, did so in a fashion that made those rare pieces far more accessible. "Listen for the the alto solo," some young woman would advise, creating a road map. 

Pardon my blue-collar musicianship, but I also found myself hoping they'd break into something I knew--"Beautiful Savior" maybe. It would have been nice, I told myself, my grandpa's favorite hymn. He's been gone for three-quarters of a century, but he manages to return every time we sing that one, which happens, today, quite infrequently. "Beautiful Savior" would have been nice, I whispered to myself. I didn't yell.

Don't get me wrong. I loved the music and the concert. It's a joy, a thrill, to watch and listen to kids perform at their highest level--and that's what was happening through the whole concert. It was pure musical blessing. 

But then the director, who's leaving, stepped up to the mike and announced that they were going to finish the concert with one last piece, a great favorite of hers, she said, because when she was in her high school choir her director ended every last concert with "He Is Wonderful." She said she wanted to end with that piece because her director was someone she'd admired, even loved--and he had died. They weren't going to sing it for him, nor even for her, but for Him. 

And they did, a throbbing round of seemingly unconnected musical lines that interweave and harmonize beautifully beneath a rhythm that made every knee in the place bounce bountifully.  

What that guy in that country church with the new pipe organ wanted wasn't John Phillip Sousa. He wanted something alive in himself, some old magical harmony capable of bringing back a moment, a place, a person, a memory. What he wanted was a momentary stay against confusion, a honest to goodness return a something he'd once felt in a piece of music. 

Last night we didn't sing "Beautiful Savior," and I have no historical moments with "He Is Wonderful." But what was clear was that my granddaughter's talented director certainly did. 

I didn't know her choir director, the one who's gone; but I don't doubt for a moment that all during that anthem's gorgeous frolic, his former student, the one who directed all night long so effectively, felt that man blessedly right there beside her. 

And that too was wonderful. It was a wonderful concert, a night full of wonder.

If you click below, you'll hear it--that final hymn of praise. I checked--no ghosts, no spirits wander on stage; but that doesn't mean no one was there.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Yesterday's visit to Prairie Ridge Home

Pardon my pride, but if you look into those beautiful blues eyes, what you'll see, mostly, is a big black form. That's me. At this very moment, I am all of what she's seeing.

Not for long, of course. In a second or two, I disappeared. But right here, at this very second, the old guy with the camera--a camera pointed at her--was just about all of what she saw.

That Olivia is a beauty goes without saying, but I'll say it anyway, given the fact that I'm her grandpa, which grants me a license of bray so. Besides, I'm sure that's what the old folks thought when we brought her to see her great-grandpa yesterday. The whole bunch was getting ready for some kind of activity, sitting around tables, when I brought this darling child around, showed her off to all of them. For a moment, a brief moment, she filled their eyes the way I filled for a couple of seconds this morning.

Lois's wig comes down an awful long ways over her forehead. It's parted in the middle and sculpts her thin face, dominates it really. She is not in her room for most of the day because she needs to be watched, lest she steps out of her wheelchair. She doesn't say much, but she loves the cookies the staff serve up after chapel, sometimes helps herself to two. No one is worried about her weight.

I'm not aware of her getting visitors. She seems more alone than almost any of the residents. If she feels sorry for herself, feels the kind of lonesomeness she might feel, you really don't know it or see it or feel it. She's quiet, sort of stoic maybe. She'll smile if you address her. Like so many others in the home, she waits--sometimes patiently, sometime not--for death, mostly alone.

The smile that broke across her face when I brought this cherub around broke over her like a perfect summer dawn, like no smile I'd ever seen on her face before. For a moment or two, her eyes were filled with this adorable child. It could have been Christmas and I couldn't have given any better gift.

The only one to miss this darling little girl, it seemed, was her great-grandfather, who, in the language of the home, is failing. If you add this sweetheart's 16 months to his 99 years, the two of them would soar over a century. But yesterday she couldn't fill his eyes because he couldn't see her. 

And he couldn't hear her either. She jabbers, speaks in tongues, can fill the room with nonsense that I'm confident makes all sorts of sense to her. But her great-grandfather couldn't hear a silly syllable, even with a mike and headphones.

Someday soon, his historical record will be no more than we can say about him--an Iowa farm boy who grew up speaking Dutch, left school after eight grades, plowed and planted and harvested with a work horses, lived through the American Depression without really knowing his family was poor, spent years of his life at war in Europe, returned, fell in love, had a daughter and a farm--pigs, cows, chickens, some row crops--lots of life and love to fill his eyes and soul. Yesterday, in a way, he met a great-granddaughter from Oklahoma. Sort of.

This morning, I'm sure he won't remember. 

So many versions of what comes after this life exist that it's hard to know exactly what to believe. What I do know is that I do--believe, that is--enough to rest in the confidence that someday he'll see her again; and that someday, more quickly than he could believe, this little Livvie will fill his eyes so full he'll smile hugely, like Lois. 

Even bigger. Even more--a great-grandpa's smile. 

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Sunday Morning Meds--Forever

. . .and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever. . .”
Psalm 23
Last night I drove through the pick-up lane at a fast food restaurant in the neighborhood where we used to live and saw, once again, the upstairs window I used to look out of when putting our baby son to sleep.  The floor plan of that home will never leave me.  On the east side, upstairs, my daughter used to sleep beneath windows where dawn turned the whole world glorious.  In the room between, my wife and I shared intimacies that seem now almost furtive, between our two little kids.

Down in the basement, south east corner, on a cement floor covered with series of second-hand rugs I continuously replaced after heavy spring rains, I wrote more than a few books.  There’s a wall-sized book rack we made in the family room, and in one of my short stories there’s a description of the way the January sun used to slant through the windows of the living room.

I don’t know who lives there now, but in a spiritual sense that house is still my home. 

King David held a life-long passion for building the house of the Lord, a burning desire to create a worship space for God.  God said no.  The Lord God almighty didn’t want David’s hands on the tools.  “You are a man of war and have shed blood,” God told him.  That was incredible decision for a man who loved God as much as he did, and who was loved as deeply.

David’s passion for building that temple—and God’s rejection of him as a builder—begs to be read into this famous last line.  Finally, even the King couldn’t do what he always wanted to. 

You can feel the power of his resolution in this last verse, and it’s stronger, I believe because he has once, here on earth, been forbidden.

David’s fist comes down hard when he testifies that he’s going to live forever in the house of the Lord, something he’d wanted for so long.  

There’s an assertion in this final verse of the psalm, an assertion with attitude.  That’s where I’m going to be, says the rejected builder, and that’s where I’m going to be, praise God, for eternity.  “And I shall live in the house of the Lord forever.”

See him pointing? And he’s smiling. Forever.

What a story. What a line. What a believer.  

What a God. 

Friday, May 17, 2019

For Henry and Toni Van De Stroet (ii)

Continued from yesterday.

John Van De Stroet, his son Henry says, used to tell him there was a time when he made more money off the river bluffs than he did on land he could work. In fact, those bluffs may have saved the who;e operation. When, mid-Depression, drought meant no feed could be grown or purchased, John let his sheep graze those bluffs, where they made it through hard times by eating buck brush. When things got worse, he shooed his hogs up there too, where they munched acorns from groves of burr oak that run like a unruly mustache through the hills. When other farmers were dumping livestock, those gorgeous bluffs came through spectacularly.

After the seventh grade, Henry put his pony and buggy away and quit school because there wasn’t enough money to keep the hired man or the half-time help his father had employed when times weren’t so bad. “Well, Henry,” his father told him, “now you’ll just have to work hard as two men,” but he said it in the Dutch language, of course.

So, son Henry did. For most of his life, in fact, Henry’s shoulder has carried a callous the size of an orange from lugging feed baskets in endless repetition from the corn crib to the cattle shed to feed livestock. Today, the county social services might well call that “child abuse”; back then, Henry says, it was a matter of survival. Besides, Henry claims he always loved livestock. What’s more, amid all that lugging, his father wasn’t cracking a whip or sitting in town drinking coffee--his father was hard at work right beside him.

The hills hold the story of Henry's own great love. In the late 40s, Antonia Bronkhorst, with her family, swapped life in the Netherlands for a farm about a mile or so north of the Van De Stroet home place, up in the bluffs. He saw her in church, where she played the organ while his little brother Garrett pumped air through the bellows. When things between Henry and Toni started warming up, he’d head up to her place to pick her up, then return down the hill to his dad’s farm, the two of them aboard the horse he’d ridden up on. “Was I sore!” Toni will tell you, giggling. Not sore enough to mind.

Before they were married, John Van De Stroet bought the farm place across the road for the two of them, his eldest son and new wife. Early on the day of the wedding, January 2, 1952, the two of them went over to that house and put wood in the stove so when they’d return, on their honeymoon, so to speak, the new place would be comfy. And it was. Henry says his father used to say he didn’t put his money in the stock market because he wanted to invest in something he could walk on.

Really, it’s no wonder the Van De Stroet family hasn’t left the peninsula. Today, Henry’s siblings are as plentiful as pheasants in the place where the Big Sioux takes a wild swing east. Tillie Van De Stroet Zylstra and her husband live a mile or so south and a bit west of the home place, up top the bluff on the South Dakota side. Cora Van De Stroet Van Beek was Henry and Toni’s neighbor to the east, just a mile or so from Fairview, on the Iowa side. Albertha Van De Stroet Kampen lives just a bit south of Newton Hills (SD) State Park. Mace Van De Stroet and his family live right there on the bottomland on the corner where the river decided to bend east. Gilbert Jo Van De Stroet, the first of the family to be born in a hospital (the others were born at home), lives on the home place. Betty Van De Stroet Zomermaand lives just a mile north of Inspiration Hills. Garrett, who died several years ago, was the only sibling to leave the land.

Gilbert’s son Jerome lives on the house they made sure would be warm when they returned from their wedding. The neighborhood's filling up with a new generation of Van De Stroets putting down their own roots along the river.

And even though Henry and Toni, now retired, live in Rock Valley, they still get out there to the hills once in awhile. Every winter he’s been in town, Henry has been putting out box traps to catch what he can of Rock Valley’s burgeoning rabbit population before they terrorize too many town gardens. He catches them live, then totes them out to the bluffs, where he lets ‘em go. Midwinter, the coyotes probably need a little sport. As long as he’s out there, he stops in Canton for a cup of coffee with his buddies.

It’s quite a story really, and quite a place—hands down, the most beautiful land in the county. It’s no wonder so many Van De Stroets stayed there on that oddly shaped chunk of land someone, long ago, called Settlers Township.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

For Henry and Toni Van De Stroet

A dozen years ago, I spent a wonderful day in far western Sioux County with an elderly couple who'd lived most of their lives on land that borders the Big Sioux out there, Henry and Antonia Van De Stroet. I chose them because their land is the most beautiful land in the county; and that day we covered it most of all of it. I heard all the stories the two of them dared tell a writer. There were times in my life when I simply fell in love with subjects. That day, I left the Van De Stroets totally stricken. 

Henry died a year ago, but last week Antonia--Toni--followed her husband of 69 years. She was 90 years old, in a home in Inwood, Iowa. It's a personal thing, I suppose, their having granted me the privilege of their whole life together, a story that never saw the light of day because the project didn't get the funding it required. The two of them gave me a wonderful day.

So here's the story I wrote back then, for Henry and Toni. They're gone, but the story isn't, and neither is that gorgeous land along the river, a place I lovingly called "the Van De Stroet Peninsula." 

 When white folks came to northwest Iowa in the late 19th century, they squared the landscape with crisscrossing mud roads that turned the broad, flat land into a grid. Of the 23 townships of Sioux County, 19 are perfect squares.

But the Big Sioux River doesn’t give a hoot about straight lines, so the townships at the county’s western edge are, as a result, jagged as sin. The worst of the sinners is Settlers Township, in the far northwest corner. Four-square Sioux Township, Settlers’s immediate neighbor east, makes Settlers look like something the dog dragged up: a jagged, upside-down, barnacled fish hook of a township, whose heart was carved long ago when the Big Sioux decided to take a huge left turn.

Just a mile later, it turns west to grab an extra half section or so of what would otherwise be good South Dakota land. Then it snakes southeast, bobs and weaves a little, then, remarkably, sets a course nearly straight east for almost four miles before turning south once more, like a good river should. All of that makes Settlers Township something of a peninsula, a big thumb of rolling bluffs and river bottom people might just as well call "the Van De Stroet Peninsula."

The 1908 Sioux County Atlas doesn’t list John Van De Stroet among the property owners of Settlers Township. In fact, it doesn’t list many Dutch names at all. Hundreds of Dutch names are printed in on the flat townships farther east, where the only hills are the ones that appear, mirage-like, a long way off—get up to them and they’re gone. It makes sense that Dutch immigrants, accustomed to perfectly flat land, would have felt at home on a ripple-less landscape.

The original settlers of Settlers Township weren’t Vander Brinks; they were Swansens and Jensens, Christiansens and Thormodsgaards, who took one look at those bluffs and the river valley and saw home—Norway, Sweden.

Today’s it’s different. Take a hike up to that beautiful bluff along the Big Sioux’s left-hand turn; pick up a dandelion or a milkweed from pasture ground, and let the seeds fly hither and yon from that spot, a hundred feet above the river bottom. Even if those seeds catch a updraft, most of them will come to earth on Van De Stroet land.

In 1920, when he was sixteen years old, John Van De Stroet, with a friend, left the Netherlands for America because, as he told his son Henry, too often he ate what was in his bucket as he walked to school in the morning, not because he was as hungry as any other 13-year-old boy, but because, for him and his family, hunger was a way of life. John Van De Stroet believed America would be a place of no more hunger.

Just ten years after arriving, John was farming two places in Settlers Township--and he'd married Effie, a wife he’d found just across the section. Ask their descendants to see a picture of those handsome newlyweds. Put John in a tux, lower Effie’s neckline a bit, toss in a little mousse, and even today the two of them would hold their own in Brides magazine.

Henry, their first born, came along in 1929, at just about the time when the cattle his father raised on that beautiful land brought just six cents a pound. But John Van De Stroet knew both poverty and hard work. Mid-Depression, he bought a half section of land, a mile west and a bit north of Fairview, SD, a place the Van De Stroets now call “the home place,”--just $40 an acre. Of that half section, 140 acres was work ground, the rest bluffs and pastures, a chunk of land that was a good deal cheaper, back then, than the flat land in the middle of the county. Even today, if you stand somewhere out on that land or just pass it by, you know that in Sioux County the Van De Stroet peninsula has no rival in sheer beauty.

Up and down the county’s western boundary, the Big Sioux’s meandering long ago created hills and bluffs that suggest the buffalo commons of the Great Plains. That a farmer, even today, can make a healthy living off the flat land east of the valley is almost a given. But the fluid lines of those bluffs and hills are gracious, even feminine, like a woman lying on her side. The valley of the Big Sioux, the Van De Stroet peninsula, is like nothing else in the county. It’s simply gorgeous.

Tomorrow, Henry and Toni.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

What's left behind

This is what was left of a pork chop after Sunday dinner. 

They were barbecued, really tasty. I cooked 'em, and I was proud of the fare. Look at the meat on that bone.

When I spotted it on that dirty plate, I couldn't help feel equal doses of joy and sorrow--joy because, well, look at all that meat, almost enough for lunch, even a smile of bbq sauce. 

For a moment I was back sixty years ago in Oostburg, Wisconsin, 714 Superior Avenue, sitting at supper. We weren't rich enough to have pork chops all that often, and we weren't on a farm; but the moment I spotted the meat on this bone, I watched my dad chow down every last morsel, then suck the thing clean, telling me all the while--as he had a dozen times before--that what you get off the bone is the very best of the fare.

He didn't just tell me either--he showed me. We weren't uppity, but neither did we slobber. No matter. When it came to bones--chicken bones, too--my dad literally sucked them clean, a job you can't get done without some nasty lip-smackin'.

What hit me when I saw this one was joy and sorrow, pleasure and pain. That bone was stone cold. There it was amid the waste. I didn't grab it and clean it because my dad told me I had to--I did it because what was still there was plain wonderful. That's the pleasure.

But the old man in me felt the pain of failure in that meaty thing too. My grandkids hadn't learned to clean up their food. Leaving all that meat behind would have been unthinkable when I was a boy, not just because my dad loved the meat, but because my mother would trot out those starving Korean children to remind us how much we had. Even though I grew up in the fifties and not the thirties, tossing that much good food would have been a sin. 

Dang kids got it too good, I told myself. Wouldn't hurt a bit for them  to know a little want. You can't just leave that much meat on a bone because you don't toss good food. That's the sorrow I couldn't help feel. That's the pain, an old man's pain. "Well, when I was a kid it sure warn't that way at all. . ." You know--that kind of thing. Kids today.

So for the cause of righteousness, I cleaned that meat up good. Look for yourself.

And loved it, not just because it was right thing to do, but also because it was darn good. Dang kids. 

Last Sunday was Mother's Day, but for the time it took me to clean up the bounty left on the bone of that pork chop, I couldn't help but think of my dad doing the same darn thing. I wouldn't doubt he was cleaning up what I left behind. So much for my Sabbath self-righteousness.

I think it was nice of them both to show up for Mother's Day. They both would have loved being there at the table, and Dad would have loved the chops.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Morning Thanks--A Mother's Day Visit

The crowd on Sunday was a little thin. I'm not sure why. Most residents of the Home don't leave often, but it was a special day, Mother's Day, and lots of residents are mothers. Who knows?--they might have been gone.

As always, a local church provided the chapel service. That's the pastor up there behind the podium. I've heard him before at the Home. He does a very fine job. It wasn't a big production, just the preacher and the pianist, a rather ordinary Sunday chapel. I'm not sure he even mentioned Mother's Day.

But it was, so I couldn't help thinking of my mother, who's been gone now for several years. She would love chapels in the Home because they're very simple, and we never sing hymns nobody knows. If I had a quarter for every "Great Is Thy Faithfulness" we've sung in the last two years, I'd be well heeled.

The pianist didn't look like my mother. Mom was bigger, and I don't think my mom would have worn that gaudy pink--it's just not her style. But I couldn't help think about my mom on Sunday afternoon because that elderly lady started with a prelude she'd taken along, an old favorite of hers, I suppose. That yellow sheet music on the piano--that's what she played, one of those rather spectacular old hymn variations featuring endless arpeggios leaping all over the keyboard, a frilly masterpiece of the genre my mother loved so much that, as a boy, I heard them everyday of my life.

I didn't see a ghost on Sunday afternoon. Mom didn't mysteriously return. There isn't much drama here, but I thought of her when this elderly pianist started in on one of those pieces that makes sure to hit every key. I didn't see Mom, but I heard her, and that kind of visit, for her, would have been just fine.

In her decline, we were a day's travel apart, so I didn't see her all that often. But one of the visits I remember was the time she told me that the piano was going because her hands just didn't have it in them anymore. She couldn't control her fingers in the way she needed to, so that was it. No more piano.

She wasn't complaining that I remember, and she didn't cry or fall apart when she told me; but I remember that day because I had to struggle to think of my mother not being able to live at the piano.

And that's what I thought of when the church's pianist, the lady in the pink, started in on that glittering prelude--I remembered the time Mom told me she could no longer play the piano.

And that's what made me think of that elderly pianist as if she were my mother, who would be, had she lived, pretty much the same vintage. There Mom was, up front, her heavenly dexterity renewed, playing exactly the kind of flashy piece she would have loved had someone asked her to do the prelude at the Home on Sunday afternoon.

It was nice to be so visited on Mother's Day. 

This morning's thanks is for Sunday chapel and the elderly pink lady at the piano. I didn't get her name, but then, I suppose, I could say I already knew it.