Nancy Thompson, Office Manager, Cow Girl
Nancy Thompson was the office manager at the Ottumwa office of Iowa Legal Services back in the 70’s. Hell, I think she still may be the office manager, 41 years later, and she was the sweetest, prettiest spreader of joy in southern Iowa. She had the southern accent which is common in Ottumwa which in many ways is more like Missouri than Iowa. . She said her hobby was hanging out in bars and trolling for bull riders. She often claimed she had a tee shirt that said, “You won’t be the first, but you can be next!” Like I said, she spread joy. I learned to love country western music hanging out in her office where she would tell stories about horses, trail rides and roundin’ up cattle, and every story had a comical twist where she comes out looking foolish. This was usually just after the phrase, “and that’s when I knew this was all a big mistake.”
She had been a court reporter before she came to work for us and I will admit she spoiled me because when I had several long letters to write she would pull out her little steno machine and tuck it between her knees and I could dictate as fast as I wanted and she never missed a word or made a mistake.
I have mentioned the other Bob in the office, the lawyer who liked to push everything off to the final hour to “motivate” himself, and Nancy let him get away with it for a while even though it exhausted her to have to type up 20 pages in 15 minutes, collate and staple 5 copies, so he could get it filed courthouse before 5:00. The last time Bob tried to pull that on her he rushed into her office, “This has to be filed in 20 minutes!” Nancy just picked up her purse, took out her truck keys, and headed for the front door. “Just because you manufactured yourself into another emergency doesn’t mean I have to have an emergency, too.”
Tall, Dark, and Handsome
But my favorite Nancy story started one Monday morning when she came into my office all aglow. “Bob-bob, I met the sweetest cowboy this Friday night and we spent the whole weekend together, working with my horses and he says I am ‘pretty as a picture and handy as a pocket!’ He is coming to take me to lunch today so I want you to just be casually hanging out in the reception area so you can check him out.”
So a little before noon the entire staff is crammed into the reception area, trying to look casual and Nancy is on stage, with her back to the front door, telling a story about when her quarter horse Banner won the 10 mile cross country race in Nebraska. “We are about 8 miles into the race and Banner just refuses to give up the lead and we are galloping, and I am getting scared because I can just feel him breathing as hard as he can and I pulling back the reins as hard as I can to try and get him to slow down, but he doesn’t care and i realize he has the bit between his teeth, and I think to myself ‘This was a huge mistake, any second now his heart is going to give out and I am gonna have 1,200 pounds of quarter horse roll over me as we hit the ground together.’” So she is talking and acting it all out and we are laughing. 12:00, 12:05, 12:15, and Nancy starts to lose her animation and I finally put her out of her misery and offer to take next door for lunch at the Canteen. Over loose meat sandwiches and sweet tea Nancy shakes her head. “Dang it, Bob-bob, why I am such a sucker for a pretty face, worn boots, and a round butt?”
The next day around noon I find myself in the reception area, listening to Nancy tell a story about finding herself riding a donkey. “So after a few drinks he invites me to come over to his place Saturday morning and go for a ride and I’m game and I show up and he raises donkeys! Donkeys! I should have just turned around, but he did have a good sense of humor and pretty eyes, so I figure I’ll give it a try. And we are about one mile in to a five mile ride, on a donkey, without a saddle mind you, and that donkey’s bony spine is threatening to ruin me for life,” the door opens behind her and a cowboy steps in, takes his hat off, and closes the door. Nancy doesn’t notice and keeps on talking and shaking her head “And that donkey’s ears are slapping me in the face, left right, left right, and that’s when I start thinking that this was a big mistake.”
And behind her the cowboy says, “Nancy!”
And Nancy turns, and smiles and says, “Hello, tall, dark, and TOO LATE!” she turns on her heel, walks into her office and slams the door.
The cowboy stood there looking foolish for a bit, we didn’t say anything to let him off the hook, then he shrugged, turned and left.
Tales from circuit riding – Johnson’s big old barn.
One Saturday Jack and I were out in one of the counties around Des Moines, looking for the house of a client so we could get some papers signed and it was supposed to be a farmhouse in the middle of miles and miles of gravel roads and fields and farmhouses. We were totally lost, and we stopped at the edge of a field as a tractor was plowing its way towards us. The farmer stepped down from the tractor and we asked if he knew our client.
“Hell son, this is a small county. I could ask four people and one of them would know what she had for breakfast this morning. How can I help you?” We told him we were looking for her house. “Well, for starters, your car is pointed in the wrong direction, so turn around drive down about a mile, and turn left on the gravel road by Johnson’s big old barn. Keep on that road until you see a big old oak, and take a right at that gravel road and her house is under the next windmill.”
We thanked him, turned around a headed out, looking for the big barn and we went a mile, then another mile, turned around, sure we had gone too far, we passed a few gravel roads, made a couple turns looking for an oak tree or a windmill and eventually found ourselves so lost that we stumbled upon the same farmer’s field. He saw us parked, stopped when he finished plowing a row and walked to the fence. “You fellas look familiar,” he laughed. “More questions? Comin’ to tell me what she had for lunch?”
“We never found her, couldn’t find the Johnson’s big old barn.”
He shook his head, “Well hell son, that barn fell down 20 odd years ago. You gotta look for the stone foundation! The last Johnson left these parts back when Christ was a corporal. Turn yourself around and give her another go. I got faith in you boys!”
One of my favorite things about driving in Iowa was taking the little two-lane back roads. I had a state map and anytime I had to go somewhere I would pull out my map to see if there was a two lane I had never driven before, and if so, I would drive it looking for old barns and windmills. Once I drove down a road I marked it with yellow marker. These are a couple of my favorite old barn pictures.
I was out circuit riding, hopping from county to county, and I stopped in a diner for lunch, six small tables, red checkered table clothes, and as I sat down I noticed that on each table, between the salt and pepper shakers was a beautiful, leather-bound menu but when I picked it up, embossed in gold script it said “Wine List.” I am not a wine drinker by inclination, but this intrigued me, so I opened it up.
“Wine List. #1 Red, #2 White – please order by number.”
People in small towns always tickled me.
I found this story in my journal from my Iowa days and as I read through it the whole interaction came back to me. It was so delightful that I remember arriving late for my next appointment in the next county because I wanted to write down the conversation I had with this man as accurately as I could. So I sat in my VW and wrote this down as heavy snow blocked out the windows.
It was a small town with a small county courthouse and I was sitting in an office normally used by social service, but which they let me use once every two weeks to meet with clients and prospective clients who thought the had a legal case which would intrigue a legal aid lawyer. They were usually wrong, but I was happy to listen patiently to them and it was usually when we hit about the 20 or 30 minute mark in their tale and they would say, “And to make a long story short,” that I knew we were about to focus on the real issue when I could suggest an approach they might want to consider.
I had an appointment in the book that only says, “Walt” and when he arrives he must be around 70, retired farmer, dressed in overalls, heavy wool plaid jacket, John Deere hat and a most impressive pair of giant galoshes which announced his arrive three steps before he appeared in the doorway.
Walt: “I was told I was supposed to be here”.
Me: “My father always says everybody’s got to be somewhere, pull up a chair.”
Walt: “Don’t mind if I do. My names Walt Bourne. I’m a farmer.”
Me: “Have you been a farmer all your life?”
Walt: “Not yet.”
Me: “Did you want to talk to me about anything in particular?”
Walt: He shrugged. “Can’t say as I do, but I’m in no rush. He sat staring at the ceiling for a few moments. “You know, when I started farming we would hitch up a mule and work from can’t see to can’t see, and these kids now a days, they don’t know how good they got it.”
Me: “Are you having trouble with kids?”
Walt: He gave me a startled look “Why would I have trouble with kids. I like kids.”
Me: “Well the reason I ask is that people who I meet usually have a problem.”
Walt: He gave me an appraising look. “They do? What are you like a jinx or something?
Me: “Perhaps I am. Did you have any trouble finding me?”
Walt: “Here we go again, you and trouble! How could I have trouble finding you when you are in the courthouse which is plumb in the middle of the square?”
Me: “Let’s start again. Do you have any complaints?”
Walt: “Yep, it’s too damned cold. Ain’t you been outside today? It’s snowing to beat the band, which reminds me, I should be getting back to the farm while the road is still passable.”
He rose, moved to the window. “You know,” there was a long, dramatic pause. “It snowed a lot when Eisenhower was President.”
Me: “Do tell. Well, off you go then. And if you ever have any legal problems, feel free to stop by again.”
Walt He turned, looked surprised. “Why? Do you know a good lawyer?”
Me: “Well, I’m not one to brag, but as a matter of fact I happen to know several good lawyers, I’m not one myself but I am adequate at certain tasks.”
Walt: “Well, I’m be damned, but this is a coincidence! I just happened to have a letter from a loan company and people were telling me I should see a lawyer about it.”
He starts pulling things out of his coverall pockets and piling them on the desk and finally hands me a rumpled envelope. It was what lawyers call a “dunning letter” from a loan company, threatening all manner of unspecified calamities which could occur if payment was not rendered immediately. I was no consumer law expert, but Kathleen Keest who worked in our office was, and I recognized the name of the loan company as one she had recently successfully sued and put out of business, with the court canceling all their outstanding loans.
Me: “Did you borrow money from Helpful Finance?”
Walt: “Well this is a coincidence, I sure did. Did you borrow from them too?”
Me: “No, but that is the name at the top of your letter.”
Walt: He smiled and nodded, “Don’t ya just love getting mail! And I’ll tell you, Helpful Finance is the writin’est buncha fellers I ever met!”
Me: “Well, I have good news, this letter is three months old and I know for a fact they are no longer in business, so you don’t owe them any money, and you won’t be getting any more letters from them.”
Walt: H reared back in his chair. “No more letters? Well hell’s bells! They are the only people who write to me anymore. What’s the point of checking the mailbox if I know Helpful Finance isn’t gonna bother to write? No more letters? You know, what people say about you is true! You are a jinx!” He he got up and stomped out in his galoshes.
In reading this now I’m pretty sure Walt had Alzheimer’s, but back in the 1970’s people would have said he was just getting old or “teched” which, in it’s kindest interpretation meant touched by God. But I enjoyed talking to him because I have always I taken great comfort in the company of people with mental issues, or others with some form of intellectual disability because I was often seeing them at their most innocent. What I saw of Walt was his beautiful essence, and he was a happy man. Well, he was happy until he met the jinx who put the kibosh on his mail.
And finally, this
A young woman and her mother came to meet me to discuss getting unemployment for the girl because she had lost her job. If she had been fired “without cause” meaning the business was just cutting back, someone had to go and she drew the short straw, then she could get weekly payments through unemployment benefits. If she was fired “for cause” meaning she did something so bad the employer felt they had to let her go, she would not be entitled to benefits. I asked her if they gave her a reason when they fired her.
The daughter nodded. “They said I was a psychic.”
I leaned forward, “Really, this sounds intriguing!”
“Yep, every time something would go wrong, they would say, ‘Debbie is a psychic! Debbie is a psychic!’”
Her mother leaned forward and patted her arm. “Psycho, honey, they said you were a psycho.”