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Dust and Grass

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There was chicken wire instead of a fence. It was nothing more than rusty, twisted wire caging in dust and slouching, fading headstones in the middle of nowhere. All the sparse grass stayed out, as if cast from the perfect deadness of the small cemetery. It lay at the edge of the street of what was left of Baden, Iowa, a town someone in the German branch of my mother’s family had founded some time in the early to mid-nineteenth century.

My father parked in front of a building the same color as the unpaved road. Nothing was painted, and if it had been, it had been a long time since the last touch-up. Mom walked toward the cemetery to look for relatives, and my little brother and I wandered around what looked like a movie set from a Clint Eastwood western. About a half-dozen buildings with false fronts lined both sides of the street, and every one of them seemed emptied of life years before we showed up that summer afternoon.

Although the church wasn’t padlocked, it was vacant and likely without any congregants but a few field mice. The  general store had the only open door we found, but the windows were boarded shut. An old Pepsi machine on the front porch still had working lights, and I hoped we’d be able to get a Coke or Dr. Pepper. Mom didn’t trust how long the cans had been in there, so we left the machine disappointed and walked inside. One man stood behind the counter in a warehouse of dust and junk. Broken toys and tools sat on shelves and in cracked barrels. There were horseshoes and legless ballerinas in music boxes. I wound one and watched her twirl to a lullaby on a dirty pedestal, then closed the case. Continue reading “Dust and Grass”

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Note: The last three paragraphs of this article were appended after the first posting.

My father’s pale arm hung out the window and he leaned over to dump his sunflower seed shells from the day’s damp Styrofoam cup. He saved emptied McDonald’s cups of coffee and stored them in the console until he got too tired to drive without resorting to his one physical vice. He didn’t smoke or drink: he ate sunflower seeds and listened to conservative talk radio that drove my mother nearly insane.

He told my brother and I that we still had 10 miles to go and that we’d see it very soon.

We were taking one of his budget option day trips in the middle of Iowa. One year, we’d visited Dyersville, Iowa, where Field of Dreams was filmed. We tossed some balls on the recreated field and bought a few souvenirs. I still have a baby blue comb from the barbershop on the property. That same year, we visited the Ertl toy factory to see how toy tractors were made.

Out my window, everything looked about the same. Green corn and soybeans woven and rearranged waved almost imperceptibly in the August heat. As we passed, Dad pointed out how each farm and small town had changed, the big tee-pee in Pocahontas, and the drive-in he frequented when he was 19 with a girl named Cheryl or Betsy.

When we got to town, he asked an aged darling, plump pink and platinum blonde, how to find where Buddy Holly died. The woman bore no accent save for the Minnesotan giveaway of locked teeth and barely moving lips.

“It’s about a mile or so thataway. My husband and I moved here about a year ago, so I’m not too sure what crops they have planted this year, but usually it’s this one row where they don’t plant anything. I think it’s corn on one side and soybeans on the other to make it easy.”

Dad parked on one side of the narrow highway at first. That made mom nervous of the semis that swung too close to where we’d be opening our doors. When she wouldn’t quit clutching her door handle, he chanced pulling into a dirt driveway a couple hundred yards further down.

It was exactly where the woman’s instructions said it would be. About a quarter-mile down the green funnel along the path were old gum wrappers and a few apple cores tossed to either side of the dirt trail. A ponytail holder with fuzzy blond strands still wound tightly to the metal clasp had been wrapped around a cross made of dried corn stalk.

We wouldn’t have known where to stop, but there was a small clearing with a lame excuse for a monument. Don McLean wrote of the “day the music died” in a long unbearable song. It was one of those songs like “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Caroll” or “It’s the End of the World as We Know It” that people memorized just to prove something on karaoke night. Because of that and watching Gary Busey in The Buddy Holly Story at least ten times, I thought seeing where Buddy Holly died should have been a bigger deal, but the Iowans mustered up this pathetically thin stainless steel plaque of a guitar and three grooved records.

Without wood to carve names, dates, or any obscene triumphs, students left old community college ID cards, Wrigley’s gum wrappers without anything written on them, and some hastily scrawled notes on ripped up legal pad paper and old receipts. There were earrings, small plastic Happy Meal toys mottled with dirt, and pennies green from a season of rain. Aged twine tied hung off the neck of the memorial guitar structure in half-braids. Someone left a condom. It looked like a rotting burst balloon, a crude castaway unashamedly expiring in the sun. My mom stood with her arms across her chest, not saying anything but thinking it was strange and disrespectful.

Kneeling in the clearing, I fingered the plastic daisies by the crash site. None of these mementos had anything to do with Buddy Holly or Ritchie or The Big Bopper. Although I was disgusted with the collection of garbage, I still felt like I had to leave something, but I had nothing that would stand out among trash. If I left anything, it would seem more of a dishonor than a tribute.

A sticky Dum Dum stick stuck to the knee of my dirtied pants.

While I was prying the stick from my jeans, my dad spoke.

“This really is out in the middle of no-where,” he said. “You really couldn’t find this without having talked to somebody.”

Then, I wished I had something yellow, something suitably sad and unremarkable. Yet I had nothing. Thumbing a large fake silver coin keepsake from the Ertl toy factory in my pocket, I considered tossing it but clamped it in my fist.

“Well, what do you think? Are you ready to go?”

He rolled up the city guide that provided a history of the fateful night. The program’s corners curled from sweat coming off his thick-chapped hands. Already a wet line was spreading in a thick shade of dark mossy green where the bill met the crown on his grimy baseball cap.

“I’m ready,” I said.

I turned around, and the waves of grain rustled behind me as I walked toward the car. We drove back through town and saw the Surf Ballroom pass by quickly and fall from sight. In the car, I tried to find a feeling, but the site was neither glamorous nor educational. Although it was intentional, it wasn’t a monument. It was where they landed.

I’ve been trying to write about the feeling of this day for years, but it’s been mixed up because now that my father is dead, I think about how he is buried 80 miles away from that obscure American remembrance. None of his children have seen his headstone in person.

Although he died in Ohio where he’d been living since 1992, he wished to be buried near his family’s farm. He died in November when the ground was too cold and hard to break, so they waited until spring when all of us had already returned to our respective parts of the world. None of us have ever returned to Iowa to lay so much as a flower on the ground where he rests next to his parents. Not one of the three women he married will ever sleep beside him either.

I remember the tiny cemetery where my grandparents were buried. Old trees separate the small plot from the corn. Some days when I remember him driving, I hear him spit into that horrible cup in the middle of a story about someone we need to visit on the way home when we pass through Moline. Tonight I walked to the table to ask him which relative that was and realized I can’t call him. I know he’s not in the middle of nowhere, but I certainly feel like it sometimes.

Scattershot Memories of My Midwest

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Every year my mother would remind my father that it was “not a vacation” to go to his family farm in Gilmore City, Iowa, but as long as they were married, she went. No matter how old my little brother got, she always seemed to worry about the baby wandering too far into the cornfields and getting lost or that we would somehow forget that we shouldn’t drink the well water.

In the quiet first two weeks of August, our large family would drive from smalltown Ohio to even-smaller-town Iowa to camp out in or around the decaying farm house that my father had inherited from his mother, the daughter of Danish immigrants.

Every trip, my father designated a fix-it project for the property. What he thought was good, wholesome fun, my mother viewed as an extension of her daily life—just magnified by more natural dangers of asbestos, unexpected critters living in house, and the inconveniences of living without running water.

While we scraped, shingled, painted, washed, or burned, however, I saw the ordeal as an adventure.

Each year the house looked more or less the same no matter what we had done the year before. Sometimes it would show less damage, but when we arrived in our overpacked Suburban with a ladder laced to the top, we would find a two-store white wooden home ordered from a Sears catalog at the turn of the 20th Century. Over the decades as my great-grandparents became more financially stable, they added onto it.

On the grounds were several animal buildings in various states of ill-repair, and by the time I could remember which was which, I knew that the roof of the pigsty had caved in entirely, its strong cement base encasing the rubble.

The largest building was the enormous stone barn. Around all these buildings was an encirclement of trees. (I learned very young that if you see a grove of trees in the middle of flat farmland, you could expect that somebody once lived there, even if the house had rotted away or been torn down.)

In our little forest, we often found rampant growth of marijuana plants someone had cultivated in our absence long ago. When we snickered at the thought of our entire family burning it in a big bonfire and getting outrageously stoned, my father assured us that he would kill it with Round-Up and Mom added that we wouldn’t get high from it anyway. Regardless, we dare not take any home to show our friends.

The house was still stocked with 1940s and 1950s appliances that would run on propane when we were there. In the old living room, divans covered in raccoon shit and peeling wallpaper slouched downward in dusty shavings. On the bookshelf, there were old Bibles published in Danish. In an old box, I found glass negatives of dead relatives—women in dresses with puffy sleeves playing guitars and men standing next to the very earliest models of tractors. There were babies in christening gowns, and a curious snapshot of the brand new telephone mounted on the wall behind the kitchen table. When I came, the same wires that connected the Christensen family line to the outside world were hanging limp and naked from the wall because, as the legend went, a family of mentally handicapped pot-smoking squatters stole it and several other family treasures when they had broken into the house some time in the 1970s.

We would spray everything with Lysol so we could eat cold cuts and Sun Chips at the table. When it was dark, and we hadn’t returned to the nearby town at my mother’s behest for an emergency motel stay at the Broadway Inn, we would light cintronella candles to keep away the mosquitoes.

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