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 (50)  
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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.

Feeding Bodies, Sustaining Souls

Many years younger, fairly well-traveled but still impressionable, I arrived in Berkeley during the 1970s: a relatively peaceful decade sandwiched between the tumultuous events of the University of California’s Free Speech Movement and the slightly less shattering Livermore earthquake.

Despite the unfortunate closures of the original Fillmore and Fillmore West prior to my arrival, there were consolations to be had. Afternoons, I lingered at Caffé Espresso, breathing in the scents of eucalyptus and French roast. Weekend trips across the Bay allowed for exploration of San Francisco’s tourist sites (Fisherman’s Wharf, North Beach, Chinatown) as well as increasingly confident forays into neighborhoods filled with fabulous architecture, tiny galleries, and expansive views.

Atop the Berkeley hills, views were as varied and compelling as anything available across the Bay. To the east lay Mt. Diablo, wheat straw dry or dusted with sunlit snow. To the west, San Francisco’s skyline shimmered by day and sparkled by night. In season, tendrils of fog twined their way around and through the Golden Gate, wrapping the Bridge in silence and the easy breath of dreams.

Reclaiming Independence

Few of us remember our first birthday, or even our second. Those celebrations were less for us than for our parents, joined perhaps by a few siblings or other relatives. Presents mattered less than the party itself, with its cake and ice cream, memories, smiles, and photos to share.

By our third or fourth birthday, we began to participate in our own celebrations. We asked questions: “What time was I born?” “Why did you give me this name, rather than that?” “Can I have strawberry cake this year?” (more…)

Fiddlesticks, Footsies and Spoons

Stern. Reserved. Strict. Perhaps even judgmental or cold.

So she appears in this photograph from an indeterminate time and an unknown place, but as she herself might have said, appearances can be relieving [sic].

To her cousins, she was a caution.  To my mother, whose great-aunt she was, Rilla was just slightly dangerous, a force to be reckoned with, a strange, self-possessed woman whose refusal of rules and wicked sense of humor made her a favorite among the children.

She returned the children’s affection, although she often scandalized more conventional relatives with her baby-sitting techniques. Confronted with a passle of bored children, she was capable of sending them to the back yard with a stack of 78 rpm records and a hammer, essentially saying, “Have at it.” From what my mother recalled of the unfolding events on one such afternoon, “It was fun.” (more…)

Published in: on January 19, 2014 at 6:25 pm  Comments (112)  
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