He Would Have Been Tested For Rabies

The President of the United States violates every principle of honesty and exploits every crevice of divisiveness he can find. He trades in fear, bigotry, deception, and alternative worlds. He is a carrier of a malignant virus. If he were an animal in the Iowa of my childhood, he would have been tested for rabies.

Dwight D. Eisenhower was president, I was 13 and in civics class, second to last in the row of desks closest to the hallway door, a farmer’s daughter who had been taught your word was your bond and that we depended upon each other to bring in the harvest.

In that seat, I had an “aha” moment that Iowa was quintessentially the safest and most American state, or at least the Midwest was the most American area, and because Iowa had corn we had the edge even there. I also found it boring, which made me secretly a little ashamed of myself. How could I reject such luck to be born in Iowa?

We were at the heart of the light of freedom for the world. Each generation would have it better than the last. There was only one direction to go and that was up.

Central to this belief was the touchstone of honesty. Even our soil was honest, it showed you exactly what it was. Cows, pigs, chickens, they showed you if they were healthy or not, liked you or not. The sky was clear and endless. The wind and rains and snow were honest, taking their turns to show us exactly what they were and what their power could do and how we needed them.

And Christianity for the most part was honest in its values, though it wasn’t tested except inside one’s self. When farms were lost, some farmers shot themselves in their cellars by putting the shotgun in their mouths and pulling the trigger with their big toe. That was how I first learned women are usually better at managing crises than men. I’m not sure how much of that had to do with a woman’s Christianity or her tenacity.

I secretly found Bible stories to be fairytales but I knew the feel of good hearts and solid folks. They were my neighbors, whom I did not find boring. I found them quirky and strangely diverse, but pulled together by bonds of mutual respect and interdependence.

Christianity, however, did not discuss social issues and my civics class did not discuss minorities. There were no minorities in Iowa, so we set up our divides between Protestants and Catholics, and town folks and farm folks.

The desire to believe you are the people who are right, better, finer, closest to your sect’s chosen god is a pernicious virus.

So let’s come to the sorrowful point of now:

The President of the United States violates every principle of honesty and exploits every crevice of divisiveness that he can find. He trades in fear, bigotry, deception, and alternative worlds. He is a carrier of a malignant virus. If he were an animal in the Iowa of my youth, he would be tested for rabies.

He would have been isolated. No farmer would have worked with him because he was not to be trusted. He would not respect the farmers who rented instead of owned. He would not have paid his bills and that would be the end of that for him.

He would have been ostracized across counties. The word would have gone out among the people when the children were not listening. He would have been a fraud in a place where your word was your bond, where honesty was in the land.

They would have compared his hair with straw, but not in front of the children; they would have laughed behind the barn about his small hands.

Now, it turns out, these people voted mainly for him. Our farm was 18 miles from Mason City, the River City of “The Music Man.” The town folks were huckstered in the musical, but that at least was about trombones.

Times have changed, but that Iowa dirt is still in my heart. It demands truth, and it is not alone. It feels like one handful of loam in a field, a plain, of people rising across the United States reclaiming the heartland of who we are:

O beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain, for purple mountain majesties above the fruited plain!

America! America! God shed his grace on thee, and crown thy good with brotherhood (and sisterhood) from sea to shining sea!



Memorial Day: stories with my brother

It is Memorial Day and my brother has come roaring into my mind on his Harley. He is turning it in a small circle and parks it, grinning at me. His white beard is stubbly. He is a large man. The hair on his head is still salt and pepper. It will not turn snow white like my father’s.

He taught math to high school students, coached girls basketball, was addicted to fishing, especially ice fishing on the Mississippi, and died nearly 15 years ago. I miss him terribly today. I am mourning all the men and women who died too early.

When Mom had a heart attack 28 years ago, Les got the word at school and jumped on his Harley as the closest vehicle and tore up Interstate 35 out of Des Moines straight north to Mason City. A patrolman was just as fast but Les didn’t stop. He shouted what happened, and the patrolman went in front of him, clearing the rest of the way of the 2 hour trip. We Iowans love heroic stories. My brother was a storyteller, my father was a storyteller. I’m telling you a story.

My mother survived and lived another 27 years, dying on the penultimate day of 2013, unwilling to endure another Iowa winter. She was 96.

And so they are gone, my mother, my brother, and my father who died 26 years ago at age 82. Les was 59. A clot blocked his blood from going through his lungs.

Mom tippy-toed towards death without complaint or questions over years of lessening. Les left, in protest, in eight minutes. I was there for both of them, as I was for Dad who made up in the month gifted him from diagnosis to completion for his decades of silence during my childhood. We solved problems that stalemated for years. I seem to be the designated Guide to the Gate.

One of Les’s favorite stories was from when we were in high school and in the band. He played second clarinet. I played first flute. Our director was Ralph Drollinger. You know how you always remember your best teacher?

Each year we competed in the statewide Iowa band competition. Sheffield was the runt of the schools in our league, but we had practiced hard and had mastered our piece. Through the morning of the day of our competition, Mr. Drollinger had listened to the other bands. They were larger. They had better instruments.

Minutes before we went on stage he told us if we wanted to get a #1 rating, we could not play what we had prepared. The competition was too good, we had to play something more difficult. Then he handed out an atonal piece we had played only once in a mangled practice.

The piece had no rhythm or rhyme to it that we could figure. It had no melody for us to know when to come in. We had no familiar guidelines.

This man we adored said, “It’s this and we make it or we fall on our faces.” Our little band of players took our places on stage. Jay Crawford on trombone, Nancy Galvin on French horn, Gene Brouillette on trumpet, Sue Foster on oboe, Walter Stover on drums, Les and Karen Davolt on clarinet, Jan Davolt and me on flute, and maybe 15 others.

We may not have known the music but we knew everything depended on how we played it. We counted out our measures to know when to come in against all intuition. I played the flute solo with meticulous passion, surprising even myself. It seemed to be in the right place.

The applause was as loud as our relief was deep when we reached the end. We received a #1. We received much more than a #1. We went up against the big boys, not sure of anything, counted our measures, played our hearts out, and we won.

Les told that story better than I did. It is a story of life where some melody lines end abruptly and where individual players can’t grasp the whole of it at any one moment, but we each have our turn, play our best, and pray it all works.

Les, I miss you. You were to be with me until the last coda. You were to be with your wife and your daughter and your friends.

And this story of loss too soon is repeated with every man and woman who fought and died too early because of human greed, cruelty, and stupidity. It is repeated with every child and innocent killed because we do not rise to do what we are called to do, to live in harmony. We have no excuses. Death will do what death will do, but we have no excuses for hastening it.


THE CHRISTMAS PAGEANT: salvation revisited

Perhaps I was 10, certainly no older, and I longed to be saved. I wanted Jesus, God, and the Holy Spirit, the entire trinity, to inhabit me – not Mary, that was the Catholics’ thing – and lift me out of Iowa’s “Lord God Almighty, the flatness does go on, doesn’t it?” landscape. I wanted to soar, to be chosen. I wanted my cells burst and my mind split in two “… or more gathered in His name.” I was ready to give my all but I needed help. I needed proof. I needed evidence.

I had been asking God to show Himself to me since before I could write anything much beyond my name. Well, I could write my own name and my brother’s name, and I knew that God was spelled “G O D.” My few words were all in caps because that’s all I knew. I was four years old.

I put a paper and a Funk’s G Hybrid pencil – my father sold their seed corn – on my night stand each night and asked God to write “G O D” on it. After a year or so, I asked Him to just make a mark on the paper. I was older now and understood He couldn’t let others know He played favorites, He couldn’t make His preference for me known, so if He could just please draw a line, or a squiggle, I would know it was Him even as He was assured I couldn’t go bragging on it to others.

By age six all I asked was that He move the pencil. I’d memorized the position. By age seven I took a break from God searching.

But the urge to be saved remained. A Bible fell open once – maybe when I was 8 or 9 – to some verse about “Oh, ye, of little faith.” It gave me a moment’s consideration, but not for very long. I didn’t need chastisement, I needed visitation.

country church, church, old church,

The West Fork Evangelical United Brethren Church in Franklin County, Iowa was 2 1/2 miles from our farm. It was wooden, white, had a steeple of sorts, a bell rung by a long rope that hung in the entry. You entered by walking up concrete steps – or a side door if you were going down to the Sunday school classes in the basement.

I would be delivered to Sunday school and picked up afterwards by my mother, though sometimes she and I stayed for Sunday services. By the time I was 13, I played the church piano for most services, and later the organ when we got a Wurlitzer. Or my brother played the piano and I played the flute. Or I played the piano or organ and my brother sang. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

My father only went to church on Christmas Eve, possibly Easter, as I remember it. We did, though, have a painting of Jesus at the last supper painted on a polished slice of wood (the bark still on it) hanging in the dining room. We never prayed, and never discussed religion.

It was I who secretly longed. Or if anyone else longed, it was an even better kept secret since no one in our house talked with anyone else.

In principle, I wasn’t asking specifically to be saved on Christmas Eve. It was such a beautiful night just as it was. Every year the men would bring in a tree so high it almost touched the ceiling. Underneath were mounds of presents, and apples and oranges and walnuts for everyone. We sang Christmas carols, lights shaped like candles were in each window, and the youngest children were angels, and shepherds, and wise men, and Joseph and Mary.

The year I was saved, I was too old for costumes. I had been given a poem to recite, a rather long one as I remember.

To prepare for this Hallmark night – it always snowed – I took a bath, rubbed my body with Lanolin Plus (a yellow viscous lotion), put on my best dress, and a pair of black Mary Jane shoes.

The moment of salvation was after my poem, about an hour into the program. I was in the third row of pews. Smaller children fidgeted around me.

Salvation crept in, tickled itself into my awareness, and grew into a crescendo of waves. My life was being transformed right then, right there! I was immobile, awe-struck. The Holy Ghost had scanned that church from somewhere near the top of that tree and selected me. God knew, I had been waiting.

My visitation lasted through the rest of the pageant and songs and prayers and the handing out of fruit and nuts – which I declined to do, feeling this was a personal quiet thing, not to be trashed by motion. Besides we were not a church of holy rollers but of quiet Germans and a few Dutch. We did not make spectacles.

When it was time to leave, I made my way to the doors trying not to touch anyone and emerged into the night and annual Christmas Eve snow that always wafted and never blew. It was not until I was in the back seat of the Chevy, riding home in the dark, that I realized salvation was starting to itch.

I went to my room, took off my cloths, and saw hives over my entire body. I waited until everyone was through in the bathroom and went in, locked the door, and soaked in the tub, silent. My mother knocked and asked if I was okay. I said, “I just wanted to take a bath.”

Lanolin has not touched my body since then so far as I know, . . . but the Holy Spirit still lingers in the vicinity.