Do you ever wonder how and why you developed as the person you are? Have you ever traveled back to your birthplace – physically or mentally – to see what you could discover about how your roots shaped your life? Well, this is a brief story about my journey.
The two-story frame house where I spent the first eight years of my life still looks out on Marion Street and across a small grassy field to the greenhouse where my father worked for many years growing roses. The Des Moines to Fort Dodge trolley tracks that ran by the greenhouse and fifty yards south of our acreage are still there too. We called it the Interurban. Now the only traffic on these tracks is an old steam engine pulling two well-used passenger cars full of tourists down into the Des Moines River valley and back. Smooth blacktop paving covers Marion Street these days, but in my memory, it will always be a dusty, gravel road.
Up that road and across the tracks on the left was Henry Shell’s pig farm and dairy where we bought our milk. A pungent pig odor always floated in the breeze on warm summer evenings. Henry’s farmhouse and barns are gone now, replaced by a nice bungalow.
Our old house is green instead of the white I remember and it’s almost obscured by trees and bushes on one side. Things do grow a lot in over 70 years. The old wooden barn behind the house has been replaced by a modern metal structure. The big front porch where I rode my tricycle is gone too, as are the outhouse and the chicken coops. I struggle to remember these structures, but I will never forget the woodpile where I spent so many hours playing as a child.
This accumulation of poles, logs and planks – 4 feet high, 6 feet wide and 10 feet long – was near the small cornfield that covered the southern section of our acreage. A vertical pole at each corner held everything in place. Out in the country, there weren’t many neighbors close by and my brothers were much older than me. So, I spent a lot of time with my imaginary playmates on that old pile of wood.
It was my stage when I sang to the cornstalk crowd. They were very attentive. It was my airplane as I sat in a makeshift cockpit and soared through the sky. It was a pirate ship, which I attacked with my lath sword in hand, vanquishing patched eye demons by the dozen. And yes, it was even a space ship after Mom bought me a Buck Rogers ray gun that made sparks when I pulled the trigger.
A quarter mile from our house was the two-room, country schoolhouse where I learned to read and write – actually, the same building where my Dad had started school in 1915. At the back of the property – now just a vacant lot – were two outhouses. On the right side was the well where we pumped our drinking water, along with the swings and teeter totters.
Nearby was a neighborhood where people led a hardscrabble life. There was a two-story shack that I passed on my way to school every day. The outside walls were covered with tarpaper held down by oddly angled laths. I seem to remember a goat looking out an upstairs window one time, but maybe that was just a story my brothers told me. The occupants of this house used a two-horse drawn wagon for transportation and farmed with horse drawn implements when Dad hired them to tend our few acres of corn. They were like characters out of a Snuffy Smith comic strip, with tattered, hillbilly-looking old hats and scraggly beards.
My schoolmate Larry was from another poor family. He was quite bright, but rather sickly looking and small for his age. His mother invited me for lunch one day and we kids were served some creamed corn, a dab of potatoes and a piece of bread with bacon grease on it. It wasn’t my typical meal and the siblings of the house squabbled over what was left on my plate when I had finished. Later Larry was at my house for lunch. Mother served us a glass of milk, a banana and a large meat sandwich. Larry was overjoyed. I have often wondered what became of him.
By comparison, our family was relatively well off on our rented, five-acre plot, with a cow, chickens, a big garden, an automobile and a working Dad who made $18 a week. Yet, even though we were on the high side of the local economic scale, our house had only one cold water faucet and no in-door bathroom. In the summer, we used the outhouse. During cold weather we used a chemical toilet, into which my brothers frequently threw my small stuffed panda bear. That little guy got washed a lot.
Much later in life I viewed a video talk by a University of Colorado Professor, Morris E. Massey, entitled, “What You Are Is Where You Were When.” Well, this rural Iowa setting was where I was when.
Occasionally my mind wanders back down the gravel road, seeking answers to the questions we all have, searching for character shaping events and asking, “Why?” What prepared me for the life I’ve enjoyed and the things I’ve been able to do? But the gravel road doesn’t talk to me anymore; it has long since been covered over and gone silent. Still – I can’t be sure – but perhaps it told me all I needed to know as I played on my woodpile stage and watched its dust settle on my cornstalk audience.