By Curtis Harnack
UNIVERSITY OF IOWA PRESS
Copyright © 1993 Curtis Harnack
All right reserved.
PICTURE A HOUSE
Time once again for a visit home, to the Iowa farm forty miles northeast of Sioux City where I grew up. My ailing Uncle Jack, now in his eighties, lives there alone. For thirty or more years I've been making the pilgrimage to my past from various parts of the country, each time telling myself, probably this is the last.
A few university speaking engagements would help pay transportation costs. Therefore, instead of the usual abrupt arrival at the Sioux City or Omaha airport, I traveled slowly through Iowa, welcoming the dream-pod journey, gently making the transition from who I am now to how it once was for me.
At the bus depot in Cedar Rapids, where I changed coaches, I noticed a queer, stirred look on several faces—the atmosphere felt charged. Then I spotted what it was: a bearded, grizzled man in a blue homespun coat with no buttons, only hooks up the front; a teenage son in a similar rumpled outfit; and a bonnet-clad mother. So, a visit from our ancestors.
I headed for the men's room and discovered a second youth from that archaic family. He held up dripping red hands with a foolish, bewildered grin. "Any paper 'round here?"
"You push the button." I did, and the heated wind blew.
"Was wondering what people did."
"No, we'se Amish folk."
Not to be confused, I knew, with Amana colonists, who lived nearby.
"Goin' ter wedding up at Riceville. Me brother-in-law's people." A shy, deferential smile, for he felt like a rube in the sophisticated world of this bus station.
"Where do you come from?"
"Been on the road long'?"
Before he could answer, the old man (could he actually be only my age?) walked in, stared angrily at me, and muttered grumpily in Amish-German to his son. The two left quickly, the boy cowed. I well understood the father's concern regarding his two guileless sons loose in the world and talking to strangers. What a lot of careful consideration must have gone into preparing for the trip and for something seemingly so frivolous as a wedding.
Back in the waiting room I sat down near the Amish family and considered trying to converse with the father. His current farming methods probably resembled those I'd known in the thirties. With his billy-goat beard he looked remarkably like Grandfather, whom I dimly recall lying in his coffin in 193 1, one of my earliest memories.
I was curious to know this man's impressions of what he'd seen along the road thus far. We were both strangers in Iowa, each of us coming from a distance of time as well as miles. How to begin? I felt sure he could talk a worldly line if he had to—and did with his local banker and veterinarian. I watched him sign a traveler's check, which the ticket seller cashed for him. He was busily calculating expenses thus far incurred and probably wouldn't take kindly to an interruption.
The mother sat in majestic composure, knowing nobody would dare approach her, sturdy suitcases and a couple of nondescript parcels tucked closely around her voluminous black skirt. She drew out a small black leather box and placed it on her knees. A cosmetic case? Yet surely this woman never wore cosmetics. She had the sallow complexion of some Germans (was it diet or genes'?), halfway between suet and cooked pork. She closed the box abruptly without making use of its contents. Just checking perhaps. It might be the portable dispensary, with pills, salves, powders, or even condiments.
They carried their food with them in a leather pouch big enough for a bowling ball. Now the younger son began to feed, eating a flaky substance that looked like granola, hand to face in rapid movements, the grain dribbling onto his clothes, some of it sticking to his fuzzy chin. One seldom saw a face like his these days: animal innocence, a visage as blank as a field. The older brother also began to eat. They were like puppies or kittens and especially vulnerable now in the rites of nourishment.
Although it was sunny, both boys wore heavy rubbers, no doubt because they'd been told to. The half dozen other passengers in the depot studied these odd-looking people and seemed to allow them the freedom to be different in what I remember as a typically Iowan attitude. One lady felt so good about her broad-mindedness and understanding that she tried to engage the Amish mother in a smile. But the mother ducked behind her bonnet ruffle, cutting off spectators.
The family kept its enclosure through a language that sounded like Grandmother's Plattdeutsch, which she spoke when telling a joke—and in her last years used most of the time. The mother's wire-rim glasses reinforced her homely plainness and added to her power. She muttered briefly to her husband without a trace of deference. Beyond her orbit, no doubt, he assumed authority, dealing with difficult matters such as the bus driver or the baggage clerk. This wedding trip was probably of her doing, so she kept a tough stance with her husband in case of complaints.
The northbound bus arrived and it looked full. We lined up to have our tickets punched before boarding. The Amish hung back, peering through the depot windows as if they couldn't decide whether this was the right bus. I controlled an urge to look out for them and shepherd them onto the vehicle. What business was it of mine?
I found a seat near the front on the aisle and spread out in the space under the window seat with my long legs. I saw the Amish moving toward the bus at last, the father supervising the luggage loading. Quite a few suitcases, no doubt full of wedding presents. The accordion ticket the father presented was unfamiliar to the driver and a controversy ensued. Finally they all climbed in, but there were almost no seats left. This troubled the other passengers a bit but nobody moved. The mother sat a few rows behind me next to an elderly woman; the father, after some distressful barking to the boys, finally settled down in the back. I quickly moved over to the window seat and snagged the youngest Amish boy for my seatmate. Then we were off.
"Your brother said it's a marriage you're headed for?"
"Yah, we'se goin' ter wedding." Blushing, half-laughing.
"Quite a trip—from Indiana. When'd you leave?" I had to repeat it and could feel his pulsing brain waves as he translated from Amish to English.
"Yest'day mornin'!" He swung his head back and forth, looking at the busy Cedar Rapids downtown streets. Here it was much too interesting to talk.
Up close his face was adolescent-bad, with tufts of unsightly whiskers. It would take a few more years for him to muster a real Amish beard.
We halted at stop signs, lurched forward.
He pointed to the warning sign in front: DO NOT STAND IN AISLES WHILE BUS IS MOVING. Did it mean he couldn't go to the toilet in the rear if he had to'? Should there be curves up ahead, he was afraid he might be carsick. Earlier, on the hills and turns near the Mississippi River, he'd felt pretty queasy but managed not to throw UP.
I assured him he could leave his seat whenever he felt like it. "And give yourself plenty of time." I didn't want him whoopsing on me.
Next he tried to find a notice that prohibited him from something he might get into his head to do, breaking the law without knowing it. Shouldn't talk to the driver. Cigarette smoking allowed only in the last four rows. No cigars. "I'se wantin' to understand the signs here. "
How German he was! And how I was reminded of my own upbringing.
Not only had he never ridden a bus before, he'd never been in an automobile, either. I countered by telling him that I hadn't boarded a Greyhound until I was sixteen and off to take college entrance examinations at Grinnell. "That's when I left the farm—or at least that was the beginning. "
When I mentioned growing up on a homestead about a hundred miles to the west, he was neither surprised nor curious, since everyone he knew farmed. His father worked eighty acres, he said, and I guessed how: with a primitive harrow, disc, single-bottom plow, and a team of horses; handpicking the corn; gathering in the sheaves of oats and wheat in biblical fashion, by hand. He didn't think to tell me anything about this, for it all seemed too ordinary to mention. Said he hadn't slept much all night because he didn't want to miss anything—though he'd dropped off now and then, awakening when the bus rode through a town.
I watched how eagerly he studied every farm we passed, getting a sense of the layout, the number and kind of animals, the machinery. Was this good for his Amish innocence?
Now in October, combines worked the soybean and corn fields. He recognized what they were but had never examined one up close. I wondered if he craved an opportunity to operate a big machine, but didn't ask. If he were going to be corrupted and take to the modern world, I'd rather he did it on his own without my help. Then, too, the Iowa farmer's fascination with huge machinery had resulted in a lot of financial hardship in the past as land prices fell and notes came due. Field work that used to take two or three weeks could now be done in that many days; but the farmer, riding in air-conditioned comfort and removed from the heat and dust of harvest had sometimes paid too much in borrowed money for the privilege. The cost of all this sophisticated machinery was out of sync with the size of the farm being worked.
After a silence that threatened to continue, I said, "The farmers seem to be all out picking corn" and asked whether Amish cornhuskers wore gloves with an extra thumb to use when the first one wore out. As a child I'd been fascinated by those six-digit gloves-what men had hands to fit them'?
"Pullin' corn, we take a glove with a hook. That's best."
Then he pointed to an abandoned windmill, expressing concern that so many windmills weren't in use and some were half falling down.
That's because electric motors pump water now, I informed him. But some farmers kept the windmill standing for ornamentation or to use as a TV tower for better reception. "Anyhow, much of the groundwater is spoiled. Poisoned."
He turned, incredulous. "Poisoned? How?"
"Insecticides, herbicides, fertilizers—and too much runoff from feed lots. All of it got into the water supply. It's no good for drinking anymore. Can't use it for livestock and not safe for people either."
Once during a visit home, tubular plastic waterpipes were being laid below the frost line, connecting our farm to a reliable source of clean water. The new, elaborate conduit system was described to me as an enterprise similar to rural electrification in the thirties, an analogy I found disturbingly inappropriate. No more worry about your well going dry, I was told. This piped water originated in limestone rock—underground streams that also fed the Great Lakes. Since every Iowa town had a bulbous watertank on stilts, the name in six-foot letters (part of the booster spirit as well as for identification), it was good to know that local farmers could now proudly point to their watertank. But I didn't take much comfort from this view of it.
Our house well was forty feet deep, and even during the worst drought years of the thirties it didn't go dry. Cool draughts of water would gush out of the pump spout after I'd leapt a good deal upon the iron handle with all my weight. I remember the satisfaction of that essential resource coming forth in response to my efforts—water that was quite hard and full of minerals. Healthy water, my New York City dentist called it years later, claiming it was responsible for my excellent teeth.
Few surface wells anywhere in the region—or the Middle West—were now safe for drinking. When I first learned of this, I thought bottled water might be a solution, remembering how matter-of-factly my wife and I had ordered a spring-water service when we lived in Laguna Beach, California. But of course I was forgetting the principal use of water on a farm: for the livestock. A single milk cow might drink thirty gallons a day. Contaminated water could result in milk that wouldn't test out; the taint of residues might pass into the flesh of hogs and cattle and eventually to people. "So ... the water's bad," said the Amish boy beside me.
"And getting worse. You people are best off farming the old way, believe me."
He told me they fertilized by manuring their fields and resigned themselves to losing a percentage of the crop to corn borers, grasshoppers, and other scourges rather than apply chemicals. They cross-cultivated in order to control the weeds somewhat.
"Make more on the dairy than the crops, anyhow." They milked eight Holsteins at present. I thought of Uncle Jack's neighbor, Lorne Nilles, whose herd numbered fifty, though he felt he was a small operator.
By now the boy had lost his wary look and was talking to me as if we'd known each other for some time. "Back a while, we'se in trouble 'cause of the cans."
"The milk cans?"
He nodded. They'd been used to placing their cans on the roadside each morning for pickup. But local health authorities ruled that all milk sold commercially must be extracted from the cows by milking machines, then kept in refrigerated holding tanks. Some friend high in the Indiana bureaucracy had intervened on their behalf, however. "Otherwise, don't know what we'd a done!" Mechanical milkers ran counter to their religious beliefs.
A few miles farther on we spotted our first horse. "That one's obviously for riding," I said, adding that I'd never handled a team on our farm, though we had two nags out to pasture that were harnessed up in threshing season to pull the grain wagons.
"Treat a horse right, he'll work for years. Won't wear out like a machine." A sanctimonious smile.
Some farmers on small acreages in the East and South, I said, were using horses instead of tractors on marginal land—specially organic farmers and those concerned about ecology. He didn't know what I was talking about, though it worried him that the price for horses might be driven up because of these enthusiasts.
When we arrived in Vinton, I crawled out of my seat to fetch a road map from my bag stowed overhead.
Indiana—here; now what town did you say you're from?
He pointed, face aglow. Paoli. Not far from Louisville, Kentucky, and way south of Bloomington, Indiana. They had begun the journey from the depot at Redmond's Cafe in Paoli. He spotted the village names on the map as if recognizing old friends. All within horse-driving buggy range: French Lick, Becks Mill, Livonia, Leipsic, Orleans, Ethel, and Valeena.
Approaching Waterloo, we drove by an enormous road construction project, the concrete pylons already installed. "What's all this? Who's payin' for it?" he asked. Earth-moving vehicles had piled the rich, black, river-bottom soil into what looked like slag heaps.
"Taxpayers. It's another road. Digging up and throwing away good Iowa soil just so drivers can go a little faster."
He, too, thought it crazy that this four-laner wasn't enough—that it must be enlarged to six or eight. I ranted and raved a little. All this land for interstates, all across the country, removed from crop production; why, it was big enough when you added it all up to feed a good portion of Africa.
"People always want more, seems like. Never satisfied, what they got." Though he was. He set his mouth firmly, just like his father.
Waterloo, a few minutes later, was a rest stop, and the depot was smoky and crowded. The two boys told me they were thirsty and went to hunt for a water fountain. There was none. The ticket seller directed them to the restaurant next door. I followed because I figured they might run into trouble ordering only a glass of water.
We found the cafe full of customers. I noticed water in glasses on trays, ready to be passed around by the waitresses, so I simply handed a glass to each of the youths. Nobody paid us any attention or asked if we'd like to be seated. The boys were shocked by my bold action but pleased-stealing water! Defying the rules!
We returned to the bus, where the Amish parents remained, the only passengers not availing themselves of the rest stop. The youngsters informed their parents where water was to be found and the mother requested some, too. This time the youngest went in alone with a devilish look on his face and came back with a styrofoam cup. "They'se afraid I'd take the glass," he said to me knowingly. He handed her the water as if she were ailing-gently and reverently.
Later when everyone was again on board, I asked my seatmate if his mother was in poor health. "Oh no, she's fine. Can hardly wait to get to the weddin'."
Excerpted from The Attic by Curtis Harnack Copyright © 1993 by Curtis Harnack. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF IOWA PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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