Bits of the Real Iowa

In Iowa over spring break last week, I pulled into a parking lot and rolled my window down while waiting to meet a friend. I heard familiar birds cackling from a small grove of evergreen trees. The sound pulled my lip into a snarl. Red-winged Blackbirds. They nested in the ditches near Mom and Dad's house when I was growing up. In the spring, they would dive-bomb us kids when we rode our bikes on the gravel road. I was sure that “The Birds” in Alfred Hitchcock’s movie must have been Red-winged Blackbirds. Their call reminded me that there are some things I do not miss about Iowa. I made a note to remember more of those on this trip... No matter the season, if you live on a country road, your vehicle is covered in dust, and you have dust lines on the back of your pants at calf-level and probably the front of your waist – from bumping legs on the car getting into it and leaning against the trunk to put items into it. These lines are telltale signs that you live on a gravel road. Will and his cousin played “Here Comes the Bride” at Mom and Dad’s 50th renewal ceremony. Will loaded his trumpet into the back of our car and leaned right up against the dusty metal. Fortunately, it was a dry day, so a few brushes with my hand knocked off the dust from his bright red polo shirt. A few days before that, it rained heavily. I thought the dust on the car would get washed away – that’s what happens at our house in the Northeast. However, the gravel on Iowa country roads is limestone. Limestone dust becomes clay-like when it gets wet. Then the sun comes out and bakes it onto the cars. A few trips down the road and the car becomes encrusted with more layers. Only a power washer can remove the build-up.

Liam was set on taming a cat at Grandpa and Grandma’s, but they are all full-grown and wild. Liam, Will, and their cousins were able to tame a kitten when we visited in June a couple years ago. It was the runt of a feral litter and it was starving. The four of them nursed it back to health with food and were able to pet him as they fed him. Skippy left the wild and went on to live at my sister’s house. Now, there are seven or eight wild cats on the farm. Their eyes are shifty; they creep up to you because they want food. They prance in and out of Mom and Dad’s feet until fed or yelled at. Any sudden movements, like a bend to pet them, send them nervously scattering. The cats navigate between farms and may disappear from Mom and Dad’s for a few hours before returning to scavenge on dinner table scraps. Liam sees them only as cats with cuddle potential; I see them only as wild animals, never to be tamed, and as a tripping threat to Mom and Dad,

One of the best parts of the day on the farm is early morning. The sunrise on a wide horizon trickles in through the bathroom blinds and pours in through the living room windows when the curtains are pulled to the side. (This is a winter shot taken outside at Mom and Dad's.)

One morning last week, the glow was dazzling. To get a full unobstructed view, I slipped sandals on and opened the back door. I caught a left hook from the smell of pig shit; it knocked the vision of the sunrise right off my horizon. Pigs are big business in Iowa. It used to be if the wind was out of the south the smell was bad. Now with more pig farmers on all sides of Mom and Dad, it’s always lingering in the air. More stringent on some days than others. That morning, I closed the door on it and went back to the living room window.

There you have it. A little piece of the Real Iowa: dive bombing Red-winged Blackbirds, gravel dust and clay on cars, freaky feral cats, and the stench of pig shit.

When we lived near Chicago, Bill and I had a favorite WGN radio segment that played late Friday afternoons: John Williams’ “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.” Looking for the bright side of these rural needles, I turned to youtube, and I found that Red-winged Blackbirds are striking and regal on a computer screen; a dust-filled rear van window can transform to a piece of artwork; a volunteer group is trying to neuter and spay 50 feral cats living in one farmer’s barn; and, as Dad might say, by God, pig shit can smell like vanilla!

Click each of these for a bit of the bright side:


With love from an Iowan.