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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Imagine a cup
rough-hewn and awkward.
Relic of an age less patterned,
its only gilt is memory,
its glaze a half-formed hope still dripping down the years.
Take the cup
and with your hand turn ’round
the shape of circumstance.
Recall the bitter wash of tides,
the lime-laden dust.
Remark sweet days blown free of darkness,
the wheeling flight of night-watch stars –
a heavens’ course secured by gods
more ancient than desire.
When dawn breaks among the olives,
silvering their still leaves,
and returning spring lies anchored fast
between cyclamen and almond,
whether we are there
or here
mornings once called common will cry for celebration.
Tip the cup!
In time, a timeless gesture
laving away centuries of civilized madness.
Lift your face
to laughter
spilling like sea-water over our limbs;
poured like sunlight into our eyes;
and tears,
the taste of ebbing time upon our lips.
                                                                              ~ Linda Leinen


Published in: on August 23, 2014 at 6:53 am  Comments (84)  
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Six Years on the Road

Even with a photograph in hand, I can’t tell you much about this car I helped to wash so many times. I never knew the make or model, and todayI’m not even certain of the color.

On the other hand, I remember the back seat perfectly well.  My world-on-wheels came furnished with a red plaid wool stadium blanket, a plastic solitaire game with red and blue pegs, and a doll suitcase filled with crayolas and colored tablets, paper dolls, and a pile of Golden Books.  Whether it was a jaunt over to the A&W for root beer floats, an evening at the drive-in movies, or a trip to my grandparents’ house, the back seat was mine.  It was my castle, my refuge, my tiny bit of homestead to do with as I pleased.

On longer trips, tiring of books and paper dolls, I’d stretch out on the seat and pretend to sleep, while the low murmurings of my mother and father tucked a conversational blanket around me. Sometimes I drifted into sleep, secure against my pillows, enjoying the sense of movement and the soft hum of tires on concrete.

Published in: on April 13, 2014 at 9:03 am  Comments (139)  
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Victor, Hugo and the Elephants

For years I’d been side-stepping Hugo without a thought. Heading north from Houston toward the east side of Kansas City, my route never varied: Lufkin, Nacogdoches and Paris in Texas, a quick slide through Oklahoma on the Indian Nation and Will Rogers turnpikes, a swing around Joplin and an easy final leg up to Blue Springs.

Tucked into a bend in the road at the southern terminus of the Indian Nation, bereft of glitzy billboards or even a retro gas station at the intersection, Hugo is all but invisible from the four-lane. If you’re just passing through with no reason to take the business route into town, you could be excused for thinking Hugo resembles other hamlets clustered along the Texas-Oklahoma border -  Powderville, Arthur City, Frogville.

I wasn’t sure what I’d find in Hugo, but I’d had my curiosity piqued and decided a visit was in order. After all, the Evergreen Cemetery in Paris may have Willet Babcock’s fancied-up tomb topped with a life-sized Jesus wearing cowboy boots, but Hugo’s Mt. Olivet boasts three world championship rodeo cowboys, the original Marlboro Man and William Edmond Ansley, one of twenty or so midgets who made a career of promoting “Buster Brown” shoes across the country. (more…)

Published in: on November 11, 2012 at 9:20 pm  Comments (56)  
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Heading Home

Given a choice, my mother preferred not to travel. She enjoyed being in new places, visiting family members and taking in the occasional entertainment, but she despised the process of getting from point A to point B. Packing for a trip was agony – so many decisions needed to be made!  Even getting the house cleaned and put in order before leaving created high anxiety, but it had to be done. What if you died on the road? Certainly you wouldn’t want strangers roaming through your bedroom, running their fingers over a dusty night stand and telling one another you were slovenly.

As for those hours in the car, there weren’t enough magazines, knitting projects or books in the world to overcome her impatience. Sometimes she seemed to be thinking, “If only I could close my eyes and discover when I opened them this misery had passed.” Other times, she put her feelings into words: “If I’d known it was going to take this long to get there, I would have stayed home.”

Now and then someone with an inclination to tease would call her “Dorothy”, and everyone understood the reference. She’d just laugh and say,  “If someone gave me a pair of ruby slippers, I’d be out of Oz in a minute. Being able to click my heels and go would make life a whole lot easier.”  (more…)

Published in: on October 11, 2011 at 3:22 am  Comments (64)  
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