When I moved to Iowa from the beaches of California in the late 70’s I thought I was going to be God’s gift on coolness for Iowans. Then when I arrived I found out that Iowans were the most laid back people I had ever met.
For instance, they “visited.” They would just stop by a friend’s house, help themselves to a bottle of beer from the refrigerator, plop down on the front porch swing, and chat. Or not. Silent rocking was always an option. No rushing to get some place and do something. No FOMO, because there was nothing to miss, they just enjoyed the company.
And when I lived in small town Ottumwa, the pace slowed from a walk to a stroll. And I am sure that every aspect of life in Ottumwa I loved was exactly what made young people desperate to leave, to go to the big city in Chicago where things were jumping. I had had my fill of jumping; I was just happy with ambling along.
Ottumwa had a great library. Built in 1901 as one of the Carnegie Libraries, it had an incredibly diverse collection of books, a cat that lived on the checkout counter and a librarian who aimed to please.
“Find everything you were looking for, Bob?”
“Well, I was actually hoping to find the new John D. McDonald book, Free Fall in Crimson.”
“Let me see who has that.” She shuffles though a set of small cards that are tucked into the front of the book when it is not checked out.
“Hmm. That book is overdue. Let me check on it.”
She picks up the phone and starts dialing. “Mildred, this is Hope at the library. Did you finish that John D. McDonald book? Great. I am going to send a young man over to pick it up.”
Now I am mortified. Being timid by nature, the idea of presenting myself at a stranger’s door makes my skin crawl. The librarian hands me an address written in beautiful flowing script. “Here you go dear, you can walk there from here, she is expecting you.” I walked over and got the book, profuse apologies, and a brown paper bag filled with freshly baked cookies for the inconvenience.
Another day I went to the library and a new electronic gate had been installed to prevent theft of books. I stopped dead. “Well here is something you don’t see every day!” The librarian just held up a hand and wouldn’t meet my eye. “Don’t get me started!
Two weeks later when I came to get new books the gate was gone.
“What happened to Checkpoint Charlie?” I asked.
The librarian’s hand leapt to her throat, “I just couldn’t take it. I would lie awake at night, imagining the embarrassment of having that gate lock and the buzzer blaring because someone was trying to sneak a book out. I finally marched over to the Mayor’s office and told him either the gate goes, or I go.”
The Diner – Iowa Stubborn
I loved the diner whose name escapes me, unfortunately. Every Saturday morning I would go and have a leisurely breakfast in a booth by the window as I read through the Des Moines Register. And as soon as I walked through the door the waitress would call out, “Your usual?” and I would nod and get two scrambled eggs, whole wheat toast, hash browns and coffee with cream. This familiarity flies in the face of the anonymity we seek in larger cities, allowing us to hide in plain sight so people leave us alone. There is no hiding in a small town, and this intimacy is charming, until you try and change something. As time went on, I decided to cut down on my egg consumption so when I had breakfast in other diners around the state I ordered one scrambled egg. But in this diner, my usual remained set in concrete. Until the waitress’s daughter started waiting tables. The first time I ordered from her I took a stand for independence and ordered ONE scrambled egg, whole wheat toast, hash browns and coffee with cream. And from that day forward when I came in what I had for breakfast depended on which waitress saw me first as I walked through the door. Then one Saturday morning I looked up from the paper and saw both waitresses with stern looks and their arms crossed on their chest. “What exactly is your usual?” mother waitress asked. “Depends who asks,” I replied sheepishly.
Well, mother apparently believed an intervention was in order because she and daughter had had a heated exchange back in the kitchen over what my usual was. We discussed my preferences, and how change can be hard, settled on one scrambled egg going forward. Everyone was happy to have that settled once and for all. And after that when I went in I had one scrambled egg. When the daughter waited on me. Two scrambled eggs when mother waited on me, in small towns it is just hard to break old habits.
Keeping track of folks
One of the complaints young people have about small town life is everybody is always up in your business. Mother waitress taught me that little gets missed when even less is going on in town. When Rebecka and I were living in Guatemala and doing the paperwork to adopt Elizabeth, we had to get police reports from everywhere we had lived in the past 10 years showing either a.) we were not common criminals, or b.) we were good enough at being criminals that we did not get caught. I visited San Diego and Texas, then went to Sioux City, Des Moines, and Ottumwa to present myself and request police reports. I stopped in my diner in Ottumwa to have breakfast and Mother waitress called out, “Well look what the cat dragged in! Your usual” I said yes and sat down. She brought me coffee that sat across from me in the booth.
“It’s been a spell,” she said.
“I figure it to be about 9 years this August?”
I did the calculation. “Exactly.”
We chatted a bit, she mentioned that her daughter had been to college and was now a dental hygienist in Davenport, and then she brought me hash browns, whole wheat toast, and two scrambled eggs. Iowa stubborn.
The office manager in the Ottumwa office was Nancy Thompson. 40 years later I still love Nancy Thompson dearly. To me she is the essence of what a perfect small-town woman can be. She is beautiful, smart, compassionate, and would work all night wading through the Springtime surprise of falling snow up to her knees as her cows were dropping their calves 500 yards from the barn and she had to lead the mama cows to shelter by carrying the calves into barn before they froze. Then she arrived at the office, still pretty as a picture, before falling asleep on the couch. She helped run her parents’ cattle and quarter horse operation and owned a horse named Banner who held the record as the fastest quarter horse over 10 miles cross-country in both Iowa and Nebraska.
From time to time on the weekend Nancy and her friends would get together and have their own little rodeo. They would do barrel riding and things I did not understand, but my favorite was “cowboy rescue.” The situation is supposed to be that one cowboy has fallen off their horse in front of a stampede of cattle. Another cowboy must ride as fast as they can to the rescue, pick up the fallen cowboy and ride back to safety. It is a timed event for the competitors, time begins when the rescuer crosses the start line, rides down and picks up the fallen cowboy, makes the turn around a barrel and time ends when both cowboys cross the start line again. I have to say is heart stopping because Nancy and Banner would not slow down and they would be kicking up dust as they picked up the fallen cowboy. Nancy would ride hellbent for leather toward her partner, whip around that barrel as fast as she could and her partner would reach up and grab the horn in front of the saddle and cantle in back and the momentum of Banner making the turn would sling her up and behind Nancy in a motion so smooth it looked like ballet.
And the teenagers say there is nothing to do on the weekend in Ottumwa, Iowa! Get a horse, you buncha troublemakers!
Those stories remind me of this.
Iowa license plates include the name of the county where you live and since I got my plates in Sioux City they said Woodbury County. Residents of Ottumwa had plates that said Wapello County. When I moved to Ottumwa and would park at a meter and my quarter’s time would run out, instead of getting a parking ticket I would get a little green piece of paper that said, “Howdy Stranger!” and then go on to ask that I please keep money in the meter because it was an important source of revenue for the town and it also help keep spaces available for shoppers to help local businesses.
Walter “Radar” O’Reilly is a fictional character from the movie and TV series “M*A*S*H.” Radar is the company clerk at a United States Army Mobile Army Surgical Hospital a few miles from the battle front during the Korean War (1949-52) and he mentions in several episodes that he is from Ottumwa, Iowa. Ottumwa could not be prouder of their native son and there is even a M*A*S*H memorabilia display in the Wapallo County Museum which is located in the train station.