Many decades ago, when relatives from Kansas City traveled north to our small Iowa town for family visits, at least half of their trip involved driving on Iowa highways. The experience invariably turned my usually sanguine uncle into a grump. “What’s with your roads?” he’d say. “You ever going to get something besides those concrete cow paths?” A Minnesota friend’s father asked similar questions when her family drove south into Iowa for business or shopping. “What’s with these Iowa farmers? Can’t they build a road?”
Everyone knew there was a problem. Ted Landphair, reminiscing about the highway that bisected my home town, wrote:
[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.
Few who drove on those roads failed to cuss at them occasionally. My father surprised us with a few choice words of his own after an encounter with a curb on US 34, a highway paved between 1928 and 1930, provided a memorable lesson in tire alignment and my father’s only known brush with the law.
We were heading home from a farm sale when something — a moment of inattention or simple bad luck — bounced us into and away from the highway curb. Under normal circumstances it wouldn’t have been noteworthy, but a strangely sibilant sound claimed our attention: clickety shhhhh clickety shhhhh clicketyclickty clunk.
After stopping to check the tires, Dad said, “We’ll stop at the next town and figure out what the problem is.” So on we went, easing along at 40 miles an hour or a little more: slow enough to notice if something decided to fall off the car.
Within minutes, we’d been pulled over by law enforcement. Whether it was a sheriff, the highway patrol, or local police, I can’t say, but I certainly remember Dad rolling down the window as the officer ambled up and said, “Going a little slow there, aren’t you?”
“I am,” Dad said, “but I hit the curb back there, and the car sounds like I did some damage. I thought I’d stop at a garage in Chariton so they can check it out.” Putting his pen away, the officer grinned. “Makes sense to me,” he said. “Hope it doesn’t cost you an arm and a leg.” Then he was gone. We were back on the road, somehow the problem was solved, and eventually we made it home.
Whenever I think back on that experience — my dad’s explanation, and the officer’s easy acceptance of it — I remember the road signs that made the exchange possible. Given our circumstances, it was perfectly reasonable that we should be making way slowly, and the law was on our side.
The fact that the state assigned to motorists both the right and the responsiblity to decide the best speed for travel seems more than improbable today. 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 those early decades of my life, ‘reasonable-and-proper’ applied to far more than life on the highway. People generally assumed it was reasonable to trust others, and proper to help them as we could.
If I needed a dress for a special occasion, I’d often stop by my favorite shop on the courthouse square and ask the owner if he had something new I might like. He’d show me a few things, then put whatever appealed to me into a bag for me to carry home ‘on approval.’ After trying them on at home, consulting with my parents, and deciding what I wanted to keep, I took the other dresses back to the shop and paid for what I’d kept. Only then was a receipt written up.
Taking things out ‘on approval’ wasn’t a special consideration for my family, or a quirk of life in a very small town. It was the way business was done. When the owner of the shop became mayor of our town, the same qualities that made him a successful business owner marked his service to the community at large
Occasionally, I’d don one of those special dresses for a shopping trip to Des Moines. The highlight of those trips always was a stop at the downtown Younkers: central Iowa’s version of Macy’s or Saks. Established in 1899, the store became almost mythical before closing in 2005. After its closure, renovations were undertaken, but in March of 2014, the old building nearly was destroyed by fire.
As word of the fire spread, nostalgic Iowans the world over breathed a sigh of relief that the Tea Room had escaped the worst of it. The basement lunch counter, popular with bobby-soxers and people pressed for time, served many of the same foods as the Tea Room, but the fifth-floor Tea Room was an institution.
Even ascending to the Tea Room was an experience. Stepping into the elevator, store customers were greeted by an attendant wearing a cap and white gloves. Resting on a fold-out seat, the attendant pushing the elevator buttons announced each floor in turn. “Second floor. Millinery and ladies wear.” “Fourth floor. Gentlemen’s attire.”
Then, just when patrons thought they couldn’t endure another minute of creeping and stopping, the longed-for announcement came. “Fifth floor. Tea Room. Enjoy your lunch.”
Over time, the baroque decorations of the Tea Room’s earlier decades gave way to fresh interpretations of elegance, but at the time of my first rite-of-passage luncheon there, all the important pieces remained in place: the crystal chandelier; the white linen tablecloths and napkins; the scent of fresh flowers; and the glow of polished wood.
The service was as elegant as the setting. Not long after the 2014 fire Gail Froyen, a long-time Iowa resident, recorded memories of her time as a Tea Room waitress.
My first employment in the restaurant world was at the elegant Tea Room. The ladies lunching there were decked out in beautiful dresses, hats and gloves; gentlemen wore suits, white shirts and ties. White cloths and linen napkins graced the tables. Goblets sparkled, reflecting light from the hanging crystal chandeliers. A pianist played soft music and diners were delighted when seated at tables near the large, gracefully festooned windows.
Clad in my grey starched uniform, little white apron and pin-on hat, I reported to work 30 minutes early on my first day to be trained by a more experienced waitress. Her job was to teach me to serve “The Younkers Way.” She was excellent at her job, and intended that I should reflect that excellence.
After explaining the menu so I could ably inform the patrons how each dish was prepared, she taught me how to properly space the china and silver. I followed her for the rest of the shift, learning how to take an order, to serve from the left and remove from the right, pour water, coffee and tea. Patiently, she insisted on the correct way to be a Tea Room waitress.
What she really taught me was how to be gracious with even the most persnickety patron.
To put it another way, Gail Froyen was being taught how to respond properly to even the most unreasonable patron.
Dina Bechman, who worked as a manager at Younkers in the late 1980s and who supported restoration of the site as a way to preserve at least a portion of a building filled with so many memories, said after the fire:
To see it gone was just devastating. Try as we might to preserve history, sometimes that choice is taken away from us.
And so it is. In time, piece after piece falls away. Younkers is gone, closed because of changing times and then destroyed by fire. My favorite small town dress shop is gone as well, its kind and trusting owner laid now to rest. Even old U.S. 34 nearly has disappeared into the brush: its slabs of concrete meaningless except to those who followed its curves up and around the hills of a much-beloved land.
Yet if much is gone, much remains of the people who inhabited these buildings and traveled these roads: their trust, their graciousness, and their deep sense of gratitude for the fullness of their lives.
Willing to curb their baser impulses for the sake of safer passage, they brought stability to their communities, and a sense of foundations well-laid. Perhaps it isn’t reasonable to expect such trust, such graciousness, such gratitude, and such stability to prevail, but hoping — and working — to ensure their continuance always is proper.