One of the many residential stops my family made when I was young was to a hard-working Catholic community in the Southeastern corner of Iowa. We rented a small farmhouse on a few acres surrounded by cornfields just outside of Donnelson, a small farming town in Lee County. My brothers went to high school in West Point, and middle school in St. Paul, while I went to elementary school in Houghton. My sister was just a youngster, but eventually started kindergarten in the area. In fact, I remember that she won a coloring contest as a 5-year-old, and that I was so proud of her! We often saw our friends 6 days a week when you added in the weekly Sunday mass to the 5-day school week. My father was the community’s country veterinarian, and was known by first name to everyone within a 50-mile radius. It was quite a time for a young family of eight, making memories and just trying to get through each day, the goal being to retire every 24 hours with everyone healthy and in tact, under the same roof.
My memories are vast. Many of them cannot properly be described to my own children since the environment in which my brood is growing is so incredibly different from that of my youth. Sometimes, I wonder if I merely dreamt my childhood. The conditions through which we trudged back then would be as foreign as learning Arabic in elementary school to today’s child. But we survived, and we knew what it meant to work hard, feel discomfort, and retire truly exhausted at the end of the day.
We had two black Angus bottle calfs that grew into makeshift ponies for us young kids. They were livestock, yes. But truthfully, they were overgrown and unconventional pets. One was a skid-dish heifer named Pinky because she suffered a bout of pinkeye at some point, the first time my siblings and I had ever heard of the infection. The other was named Rosie for no reason at all that I was aware of. I think there was a third, but at this particular time, I don’t recall the name we’d laid upon her. I remember working the heifers up alongside the wire cow-paneled fence, with the help of my brothers. Then, we’d scale the fence and hop on the back of one of them. If you’ve never smelled the top of a cow’s head, you’re missing out! Despite the excrement coming from the beast, the curly tuft of hair on the top of a cow possesses a unique and wonderful smell. We’d lean down over the vast neck with our tiny bodies and draw in a whiff. It’s an odor I can’t describe, but I know my siblings can smell it today if they just close their eyes. So comfortingly sweet. Then, reaching backwards, we’d twist the top of the tail just enough to get a little rise out of our bovine vehicle, and off we’d go, on a little ride across the pen! It was a wonderful activity for us, although probably not so much for our four-legged beasts!
One Sunday afternoon in the winter, we went outside and noticed Rosie looking as large as a house! She was literally bloated, and looked like she might explode! My father, the veterinarian, came out to tend to the situation. I had just disembarked the young gal, when he’d arrived. He had a black leather bag in which he kept the most used tools of his craft, much like a homeowner might have a simple toolbox living under the sink in the kitchen. My father, upon arriving on the scene, assessed the situation in no time at all. He opened the bag which he’d placed on the frozen ground, and withdrew a large syringe needle. I don’t remember the gauge, but it wasn’t small! He asked one of my brothers to firmly hold the heifer. He then put the needle in his fist, the point sticking out of the bottom. Turning towards my brother, he asked if he had her. When my brother nodded, he took the fisted needle and began pounding down hard on the inflated abdomen while counting. When he reached the number “5”, he released the needle, puncturing the skin that was just numbed below from the previous 4 blows. Immediately, the sound and smell of escaping methane gas filled the air, and I wanted to vomit! It was a stench I’ll never forget! But after several minutes of deflation, the cow was absolutely fine and relieved. Sure, it was a trick he’d learned in vet school. But I knew my Dad was a genius right then and there! It would be just one of many miracles I’d witness in my youth at the professional hands of my father.
My memories of Iowa are so vast. I remember taking our golden retriever, Mousy, out mouse-hunting. In hindsight, it was probably not such a nice thing to do. But we were under the understanding that less mice outside meant less mice inside. So, we’d walk out across the snow-covered ground in search of rocks or leftover boards. We’d see the tracks in the snow, identifying the rodent by the footprint shapes in the newly fallen fluff. When we’d come across something that could be disengaged, we’d flip it over and watch the scurrying of the occupants dwelling on the underside that would immediately occur. It was a game the dogs adored. As an adult now, I’d never dream of such a game, and I pay my penance daily in my soul. But it was the accepted life I knew so long ago.
We had a farming neighbor that lived just a cornfield away. In the summer, I remember watching the ammonia tanks that traipsed across their field. They had an apple tree in their front yard that grew the biggest green apples I’d ever seen! We used to walk across the cornfield and pick the apples, along with their kids. I remember that that was my introduction to fruit as a fibrous phenomena…whoa! They also had a fantastic thick rope swing in their hay barn! We spent hours swinging amongst the bales of stacked hay, all with our green produce just beyond the pulleyed doors.
Countless hours were spent playing “Sick, Dying and Dead” over the telephone wire that traipsed across our front yard. It was a simple ball game that basically allowed three indiscretions until you were eliminated. We also used the same wire marker as a halfway point, stacking feed sacks underneath it, four or five high. What came next was a three-against-three battle with ladyfingers – firecrackers launched from one side to the other. How we still all have our fingers, I’ll never know.
And let’s not forget the time my brother John decided it’d be a good idea to go down the laundry shoot from the upper floor to the basement. I remember this vividly because I was the one who was at home with him when he was properly stuck between the first floor and the basement. I was the one who had to call our very impatient and short-tempered mother with the latest development. We tried to correct the situation without parental involvement by attaching a rope to our St. Bernard, “Queenie”, then attaching it to John, in an effort to pull him free. But to no avail, John was stuck! Our Mom came home like a wild woman, flying through stop signs and traffic, and claiming that her brakes were not properly working at the time. “God dammit!” came out of her mouth, over and over and over! Once John, was finally freed, I ran! I ran to the barn and the cornfields, abandoning my brother so he could receive his proper dues. I think he’s forgiven me since then – but, hey, I was terrified of my mother!
In addition to the cattle (and sheep, too), we had goats. There was one goat in particular that was hilarious. It was a horned billy goat whose hair, for whatever weird reason, took on a strange green hue, although he was technically brown. One warm, summer night, all of the kids (all 6 of us), decided we wanted to sleep out in one of the sheds. I think I was 7 or 8. So we pulled the blankets and pillows off of our beds, and went camping. Flashlights could be seen through the decaying slats of wood as we giggled and joked, eventually drifting off to sleep one by one. When morning came, everyone, except for my brother John, woke up, roughly around the same time. We were slowly sitting up, wiping the sleep from our eyes, when suddenly, the shed door burst open. Blinded by the light, we could just make out the silhouette of the green billy goat in the entryway. He walked in, assessed us small occupants, then walked over to where my brother John was still slumbering, and proceeded to pee all over him! Of course, John woke up as the urine passed over his face, and was pissed (no pun intended). We laughed and laughed. It’s become family lore. Now, whenever my brothers and I run a road race together, we dub ourselves “Team Green Billy Goat”!
Iowa was the site of the first Christmas that I remember walking downstairs to a gold mine of gifts! I got a stuffed Oscar, the Grouch! Sadly, though, my dog chewed the leg off before nightfall on Christmas night. But I loved it for those few hours!
I was at the annual Sweet Corn Festival in West Point on the day I learned that Elvis Presley died. It was one of those “remember where you were when…” moments, and I’ll never forget it.
I also remember a community tragedy that happened just a few miles from our home. A car full of high school kids was involved in an accident one night, all of the occupants killed. I remember the front page of the local paper showed all of their senior pictures. I couldn’t stop staring at the photo. It was my first experience with a tragedy so close to home. While I didn’t know any of the teenagers that perished that night, I remember thinking as my school bus passed the scene of the accident, that life was fragile – something that was very convoluted to this third grader. My father still can’t talk about the incident, a sign that it hit a little too close to home for the father of six.
My father’s mother, the mother of an only child, moved to West Point along the way. She was an accomplished pianist, and I remember sitting on the floor while she engaged us with her talents. I remember lying on her living room floor watching a variety show featuring The Captain and Tennille singing “Muskrat Love”! I also remember watching Lawrence Welk daily! My grandmother loved music, and I remember adoring her passion. She also had one of those record players that was like a piece of furniture – the kind where you had to lift up the lid of what was like a chest in order to access it. My grandmother’s go-to meal was beanie weenies with creamed corn out of a can. I might be taller than my 5’8″ if I’d have had something a little more nourishing than that presumed “canned goodness”! But it was staple for my sister and I – Oh, well…
Just one chapter in many of my youth. My musical career began in this place with my first piano teacher. I loved the piano because everything could be visualized. Still love it! And much of life was born in this content place. The experiences we have as children directly affect our abilities of expression. At least, that’s my belief. Whether it be riding freely on the back of a fully grown calf, or reflecting on the young teenage lives taken too soon, our emotions are based in our life’s incidents. We are merely spectators in the book that is presented to us. I love that about life, and I hate it, also. But that’s what makes us real – We mustn’t forget our roots, both the thriving and the stagnant ones. Continue to expand them, because one day, you wakeup and say, “Hey. Why did that happen to me?”, and then you realize that the plan is much bigger that you could have ever imagined. Who knew life could be so incredible?!