Life in the Land of Reasonable and Proper

U.S. Highway 34 in South Central Iowa – Curbs, But Little Enthusiasm

When our Kansas City kin traveled north for a visit, at least half of their trip involved Iowa roads. Inevitably, the experience tempted my sanguine uncle toward grumpiness. We knew what to expect within an hour of his arrival, and the question rarely varied. “So,” he’d say. “You think there’s a chance they might decide to give you something besides those concrete cow paths you call roads?”

Driving south from Minnesota, crossing the border into Iowa to do some clothes shopping or purchase the margarine that was illegal in their state, a friend’s father always asked a similar question. “Whatsa matter with these Iowa farmers? Can’t they build a road?”

Essayist Ted Landphair, reminiscing about his own journey along the Iowa highway that bisected my home town, was equally nonplussed.

[I remember] winter driving on old U.S. Route 6, then a cross-country main highway rimmed by cement curbs. A highway with curbs? Not just in town, but even out in the county?
Having seen enough wrecks of cars that slid off the road in Iowa’s fierce snowstorms, some engineer must have thought raised edges would safely direct drifting autos back into line. In my case, they served only to dislodge my Beetle’s right hubcaps and ravage the tire alignment.

In truth, we all cussed them out. A standard feature of Iowa highways throughout my childhood and youth, the curbs made criss-crossing our home territory — Knoxville, Albia, Hiteman, Monroe — a true adventure in travel.  It was an encounter with a curb on the original US 34, paved between 1928 and 1930, that taught me about tire alignment, and resulted in my father’s only known brush with the law.

We were heading west out of Albia when something — a moment of inattention, a new car with a wider wheelbase, simple bad luck — bounced us into and away from the curb. A common enough occurence, it wouldn’t have been noteworthy were it not for the strangely sibilant sound beckoning for our attention: clickety shhhhh clickety shhhhhh clicketyclickty clunk.

Stopping for a look, and finding nothing, Dad said, “Well, we’ll drive on over to Chariton and stop at a gas station to see what the problem is.” Off we went at a nice, comfortable 40 miles an hour: a pace slow enough to prevent damage to us if something decided to fall off the car.

Within minutes, the Law had pulled us over. Whether it was a sheriff, the highway patrol or local police, I can’t remember. Seemingly unconcerned, Dad rolled down the window as the officer ambled up to the car, then said, “Going a little slow there, aren’t you?” 

“I sure am,” my dad said, “but I hit the curb back there, and now the car’s sounding like I did some damage. I’m trying to get to a garage in Chariton so they can check it out.” Putting his pen back in his notebook, the officer grinned, and said, “Makes sense to me. Hope it doesn’t cost you an arm and a leg.” Then, he was gone, and we were back on the road.

Whenever I remember that experience — my dad’s explanation, and the officer’s easy acceptance — I think of the road signs that seem now to sum up a remarkable feature of earlier Iowa life.

The fact that the State assigned to motorists both the right and the responsiblity to decide the speed at which they should travel seems more than improbable in this day of governmental intrusion into every aspect of life. The journey from Reasonable-and-Proper to You’ll-Take-Our-Regulations-and-Like-Them is a long one, and the curbs being put in place are increasingly high.

In truth, reasonable-and-proper as a model for virtuous behavior extended far beyond our highways. We assumed, for example, that it was reasonable to trust people, and proper to help them out as we could.

If I needed a dress for a special occasion, I never thought twice about stopping by The Fashionette and asking the owner, Dave Aldridge, if he had something new I might like. He’d show me a few things, then put the ones I liked into a bag for me to carry home “on approval.” That evening, I’d try them on, get my parents’ opinions, and decide what I wanted to keep. The next day, I carried what I didn’t want back to the shop and paid for what I’d kept.

Taking things out on approval wasn’t a special consideration for my family. It was the way business was done. Mutual trust, mutual respect and superb customer service benefitted everyone. After selling Fashionette, Aldridge went on to careers in real estate and banking, three terms as Mayor, and appointment as Grand Marshal for our town’s 2007 Sesquicentennial Parade: he never lost the town’s trust or respect.

Still, my mother’s favorite Dave Aldridge story came from fifty years earlier. When Newton celebrated its Centennial, it was a young Dave Aldridge who gave my mother the frame she used to make my old-fashioned parasol. Where he got it, we never knew, but the parasol’s still in the closet.

Published in: on November 16, 2014 at 3:53 pm  Comments (60)  
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Intruders in the Dust

Unbidden, unwished-for, they appear: blossoms and tendrils alike awash in sunlight and rain — growing, grasping, greedily seeking to establish themselves in territory reserved for another.
Intruder, thy name is Weed.

As the eldest son of Swedish immigrant parents who met and married in this country, my father surely didn’t teach me the verse. It’s even less likely that my grandparents introduced me to it.  Perhaps I heard the bit of faux-history-in-a-ditty on a playground, or from one of the Norwegians in town who wasn’t averse to a bit of ethnic humor.

But, in truth? I probably learned it from my mother. She never criticized my grandmother — her mother-in-law — openly. Still, a certain tension flared between them occasionally, obvious enough in retrospect to make me believe that a slightly peeved daughter-in-law just might have introduced her own daughter to this bit of oblique commentary on Swedish national character.

Planet Clapton

He’d been around, of course.  I was the one not paying attention.

In those early years, as he moved from the increasingly commercialized Yardbirds to John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers, I was being introduced to Tom Paxton and Lead Belly. While I practiced my 12-string, Cream (Jack Bruce, Ginger Baker, and Clapton) came and went in just two years, disbanding a few months before Woodstock. 

After Cream, Clapton formed a new group.  Derek and the Dominos released Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs in December of 1970. A tale first told by the Persian poet Nizami, the story of Layla and Majnun became one of rock’s definitive love songs: its famously contrasting movements composed separately by Clapton and Jim Gordon. (more…)

No Time for Tricks ~ No Taste for Treats

With goblins, ghoulies, and ghosties skulking along the edge of consciousness. and with every horror movie that refuses to die — Psycho, Vertigo, Rebecca — being pulled from its grave, it must be Halloween.

While more sensitive little ones delight in dressing up as princesses or pirates, blood is dripping and body parts are piling up for the vampires, zombies, and other unspeakable creatures of the night who seek to displace chainsaw-wielding psychopaths as the epitome of evil terror. 

Apparently, there’s gold in them thar dismemberments. From neighborhood haunted houses to Universal Studios’ famous Halloween Horror Nights, everyone  is trying to take a bite out of the consumer.  Since we love to be entertained, and we love to be scared when we know it doesn’t count, the witches’ brew of  Dia De Los Muertos skeletons, decorated graves, black cats, and whacked-out pumpkins makes Halloween our perfect holiday. All those sugar highs are lagniappe.

Tree Houses, Books, and the Joys of Reflection

To my parents’ chagrin, I was a climber. Long before I walked across a room, I was climbing stairs.  I clambered over picket fences as easily as those woven from wire. After I scaled Mt. Refrigerator, on a quest to reach the chocolate chips hidden away in the highest cupboard in the house, Mother laid down the law. If I wanted to climb, I would do it outside, in the trees.

No doubt she knew the maples in our front yard were too large for me to climb, just as the crabapples were too small, and the elms too brittle. But a cherry tree in the back yard turned out to be just right, with strong lower branches, and a sandbox nearby to use as a ladder. An agreement was reached. Once the fruit had been picked, I was free to scramble up as high as I could go, until branches began to snap. Then, I promised to retreat to a more secure spot. (more…)

Published in: on October 25, 2014 at 9:01 pm  Comments (99)  
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