We were here

“Kilroy was here.” It’s simple enough, a slogan that accompanies a crude drawing of a bald head and eight fingers looking over a wall. Whatever its actual origin, it was graffiti that inspired hope and humor for GI’s in World War II. If Kilroy had already been there, then it was possible to go forward. Somebody marked the way. A friend. Not unlike the trail-marker trees bent to point the correct direction for Native Americans, to guide those who followed. Or the pile of rocks at a fork on the trail, showing by sheer mass those who have taken that path. Kilroy was there. Obviously.


The middle of another Iowa summer at the downtown Des Moines Art Festival. The couple laughingly sit at the table and paint. Focused on the job at hand, they work on their designs, self-consciously aware that they aren’t supposed to be artists. But here they are.

Not far from them, a giant bird rests tilted with wings outstretched in the middle of Grand Avenue. Smaller birds are aligned on tables under a large tent. Folks are donning white gloves, dipping into the paint, and adding their marks to the large bird as they pass by.

The artist, Bounnak Thammavong, living in Swisher, Iowa, conceived of this unique idea of a large bird sculpture trailed by a group of smaller birds — a piece he calls Birds of a Feather.  All to be hung during this month of October at the Des Moines International Airport in the baggage claim area. The clever twist by Thammavong? We were all invited to paint these birds during the Des Moines Art Festival. Thammavong made us all artists.


And Rhonda Karr and Ron Karr decided to take advantage of this opportunity. So they grabbed an apron, picked up a small bird each, and began their art projects.

“I thought it was a neat idea to be part of something that was going up in the City,” said Rhonda. Bemused at the entire endeavor and making no claim to greatness, but happy to be a part.

Ron also made no bones about his skills.

“This is a simple idea. And a lot of people will get to be a part of it. I thought it was just a neat idea. But I am no artist.” They both laugh at the obvious. At least to them.

But Rhonda comes to his defense, the good wife.

“Well, you might consider him an artist in wood. He’s a carpenter. I, on the other hand, am in accounting. I followed him here.” Rhonda pauses, thinking about the implications of what she just said.

“Oh my goodness, what are we doing here? I’ve followed him here, just like I have for 46 years.” They both laugh. “Last Monday was our anniversary.”

Arms around each other, they agree to pose over their creations and the creations of many other folks who stopped to leave their mark. And, by the way, the creation of a 46-year-old marriage. That’s something that says, “The Karrs were here.”

IMG_2246Later in the summer, at the Iowa State Fair, was another opportunity. The large wind turbines sat near the southwest gates. On their side. And people climbed a ladder to sign their name to the giant wings. Or profess their love by initials and a heart. And now during the months of fall, somewhere in Iowa, those turbines are turning, proclaiming to the geese flying south — “Bill loves Annie.” It’s good to know. A mark has been left.

One theory has Kilroy being a rivet checker at a shipyard during World War II. He would make his sign in chalk to show that he had actually checked the rivets. “Kilroy was here.” Whatever the origin, the message became popular with American soldiers. Robert Capa, a World War II photographer, wrote of the rescue of GI’s trapped near Bastogne, Belgium, during the Battle of the Bulge. When Capa pulled into Bastogne, white chalk on the charred remains of a barn wall announced: “Kilroy was stuck here.”

So we leave marks. On birds high above baggage claim, on the blades of a wind turbine, or on a barn in Belgium.

We were here.






Rain and cold and dark were all that awaited the women and children riding the late night bus when they were ordered off into the rain and cold and dark. Terrified.

“The military men took all of us off the bus and they put us in a line to wait for something. What for? No one is talking to anyone. They were just keeping us there. The kids had to go pee. A guy said, you can just go behind those bushes. So I took my son and my niece, and we went behind the bushes. By the time we came back, I see my sister, absolutely petrified, just shaking, my mom next to her. My mom is holding my other son, my sister is holding her son. ‘What happened?’ I asked.”

Zeljka Krvavica sits across from me, gracefully leaning into the straight-back bench. The scarf around her neck perfectly looped and tied. Stylish. Legs crossed. Eyes glistening with tears of memory. This is not easy. Even 23 years later, in her comfortable living room on a sunny fall day in Des Moines, Iowa, this is still not easy.

“This is one of the experiences I really really try to forget.”

Zeljka Krvavica was born and raised in Sarajevo in a time of peace and prosperity. A multicultural European city made up of Catholics, Muslims, Orthodox Serbs, Jews, and everyone else. She had family and friends, went to college and studied English and English Literature, and was highly successful in her work. By the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo, she was one of the leaders in charge of the opening and closing ceremonies. Unbelievable at her young age. She met her future husband, and life was good.

“Sarajevo is a cosmopolitan town. Crossroads of East and West. It has always been a very politically involved town. In former Yugoslavia, it was a mixture of everyone. It was a very exciting city.”

The Olympics ended. People were so impressed by her work, she was invited to be on the personal staff of the Yugoslav ambassador to the United States. With husband in tow, off they went to Washington D.C. Four wonderful years later, with a new baby, they were given a choice — return to Sarajevo or continue working in D.C. Zeljka and her husband chose Sarajevo, the home they loved. It was 1989.

Zeljka, smart, politically savvy, an intellectual, says that she was oblivious to the dangerous changes taking place in her world. She was in love with her husband, her son, and her soon-to-be second son. She, like many people living in Sarajevo, thought the violence brewing around the Balkans from the breakup of Yugoslavia could not possibly include them and their beautiful city. So they chose to stay.

“We were thinking this would never happen in Bosnia. Part of the reason we went back to Bosnia was to vote. We knew something historic was going on. We wanted to cast our voices for the independence of Bosnia Herzegovina. The majority of Bosnians, especially in urban areas, were people who were more laid back, and not homogenous like in the villages. They did not think anything was going to happen. Then, we suddenly realized something was happening.”

And the bombing of Sarajevo began. Zeljka’s world turned upside down. The men were trapped. She, raised as a Catholic, and her husband, raised as a Muslim, faced another choice — to separate and get the children out, or to stay together in a city under siege. They chose for her and the children to leave. Zeljka and her two babies, her sister and her two babies, and her mother, were allowed to leave on a night bus evacuating women and small children. And so they were on the bus, in the middle of the night, traveling in Bosnian Serb-held lands. Everyone was terrified. The bus was stopped. They were all ordered off the bus. They were told to stand in a line in the wet and the cold and the dark.

Then, the unthinkable.

“The soldiers announced that we had to leave one child there and just take one child with us. ‘No, no, no! You are not taking all your children,’ they shouted. ‘One child for one woman or family!’”

Zeljka pauses.  Lost in the memory.  Lost in the choice.

“And then we all started crying and screaming.  And the soldiers were like, ‘We will kill you.’”

Zeljka’s words begin to tumble together.

“And then suddenly, another military man came up. We were standing there freezing. He told us, ‘GO GO GO!’”

Zeljka calms her breath.

“And we just all jumped on the bus with all our children and left.”

It was the beginning of her life as a refugee. Eventually she ended up in Croatia with other refugee women and children. No men. She lived in a small room with her two kids for a year and a half. Teaching English for extra food. There wasn’t much to go around.

“There was a lot of solidarity and a lot of helping each other. My feminism really got stronger there, seeing these women being able to survive and be pillars for their families and save these kids. With all due respect, I have always been a strong believer that women are much stronger than men. In every aspect.”

Zeljka’s husband joined her (courtesy of a U.S. military flight out of Sarajevo because their first son was a U.S. citizen) and an offer was made for resettlement. Come to Iowa.

“I got a cable asking if I would accept a job in Iowa. I said, ‘Yes I would.’ I didn’t ask any more questions about what the job was.” Zeljka laughs softly.

Later, when they were approved and she asked the woman doing the resettlement paper work for any information on Iowa, the woman paused and said, “Well, I’m from New York.” The woman paused in thought again. “Yes, yes, potatoes. You will be eating a lot of potatoes in Iowa.” Again, a soft laugh by Zeljka.

But Zeljka did come to Iowa and is presently a case manager with the Iowa Bureau of Refugee Services.  She has worked with every refugee population that has come to our state since 1993, doing everything that needs to be done to get them settled. She has a special affinity for women refugees and runs several programs to address issues of mental health and domestic abuse and to teach diversity training to our kids in school. But the job is rarely easy.

“Over 8000 men and boys were killed in three days in a tiny little village in eastern Bosnia, just because someone thought they were different and were of a different religion. So, can you imagine serving the mothers, sisters, aunts, and daughters of these men?”


Recently, Zeljka Krvavica went to Washington D.C. to collect an award from President Obama. She was honored as a White House Champion of Change for World Refugees. What does that mean? Well, she saves people.

And so it sometimes goes with choices.










Room at the table

If you’re all the way to the mermaid tank at the Des Moines Renaissance Faire, you’ve gone too far.  This is understandable, because you were probably distracted and beguiled by the smiles and colors and beauty of the sights when you walked in the gate.  How could you not be?  And, in fact, how will this orange-hatted baby ever reach for the dull black-and-grays of adulthood after this experience?


But here you are at the mermaid tank.  A red-headed siren to be sure.  But her pool is just a wee bit further than we are going right now.  So, first let’s take a left down near those stalls.  There you go.  We are here at last.  A jousting tournament, with knights and squires and decorated horses.

“I’m 23.  I’ve been doing this for about 8 years now.  I’m head squire.  I set the field and deal with everything field-related.  Making sure that everything we need on the field is on the field the way it’s needed to be.”

Alex Lundy is our squire.  Yup, to a knight.  Although, there’s always more to the story of a squire.  He’s also a car detailer for Adesa in Grimes.  His full-time job.

“That’s how I pay for the apartment, pay for my internet, pay for my phone, pay for my water, pay for my car, pay for every single thing.”

But these mundane worries are not for today.  Today he is impish and laughing and entertaining.  Unsurprisingly, his stage name is “Happy.”


And, no, he’s not happy because he just got done cleaning up horse poop from the last jousting match.  He’s happy to just be out in the mix of things.  To be with his friends.  To play a character from another time and another place.  To be himself and to have fun.

“Getting to be able to fight my friends is the most fun.  I don’t know if you saw the first show, but me and my friend Grayson did a squire fight.  I love doing the fights.  Coming up with new ways to hit each other and not hurt each other is always exciting.  We have a spring run of shows and a fall run of shows.  We travel around the Midwest.  As far down as Wichita, and as far east as St. Charles, next to Chicago.  We practice whenever we can.”

Grayson Gambrall, his buddy, readily agrees.

“I play Grumpy.  He’s a squire for either Sir Daniel or Sir Joseph.  He wears a mask to disguise his face and identity.  He’s kind of mischievous.  I’m back and forth between good and evil.”

IMG_3162  So, Grumpy, what’s in this for you?

“This is something very unique.  It is very fun.”

Is that so?  What do you do for your full-time job?

I’m a senior in high school this year.  Dallas Center-Grimes.  I’m only 17.”

My goodness.  And what do your classmates think of all this?

“They think it’s cool that I do this.”

I am struck with wonder.  Knights, squires, minstrels, jugglers, fairies, yeomen, pirates, Scottish golfers, gypsy dancers, a king and a queen, and even you and me.  All exist together at the Renaissance Faire.  Young and old.  Happy and grumpy.  Kilted and unkilted.  All are accepted.  All support each other.  All coexist.

Even the mermaid.

IMG_3160It makes you wonder about things — after a summer of political wrangling of who’s in and who’s out, who’s a refugee and who’s not, who can stay and who has to go — if there’s room at the table for a mermaid, there must be room at the table for everyone.  It seems simple enough on a warm fall day in Iowa as the leaves turn towards winter.











A rack of clothes

“I don’t have any trinkets under the counter,” the man looks at me, cheekbones smiling, eyes soft, freckles splattered across his face, “I only have service.”

He stands in front of a rack of clothes that have been tailored and cleaned and are waiting for pick-up.  His sharply pressed shirt, well-fitted slacks, and a tape measure draped around his shoulders all speak of a different time — a time of sleek black cars, long dresses with feathered hats, and pocket squares with dark suits.  An elegant time.

“I do major to minor alterations.  Everything from silk to leather.  Dry cleaning.  I do everything in dry cleaning from slacks to bridal gowns.”

IMG_3152And so the day begins with J.D. Daniels, Jr., owner and manager of Frederick’s Tailoring and Quality Cleaners in West Des Moines.

“I’ve always had to work.  I’ve never had my hand out expecting people to give me anything.  I believe you have to put something in to get something out.”

His voice is buttery and smooth.  The slight cadence of a preacher without the drama.  Honeyed tones.  The calming voice you want by your sick-bed when your mom is not around.

“I’m only as good as my last job.  Okay?  And I also maintain that each time I see a customer, it is the last time I see them until they come back again.  I never take anybody for granted.”

Daniels never has.  He got off the bus in downtown Des Moines on September 19, 1965.  Seventeen-year-old Daniels looked around at the rough crowd milling about the station and decided this was a bad idea.  But with encouragement from his mother back in Tennessee, he decided to give it a shot.

And fifty years later, here he is.  Of course, it was not a straight path.  He tried being a masseur, a car salesman, a construction worker, a furniture salesman, an office worker, a warehouse man.  You name it, Daniels gave it a whirl.  But it was clothing that drove his passion.  Selling it, buying it, fitting it, cleaning it.  He loved it all.

Daniels worked at various clothing stores around Des Moines.  Became the top salesman at every one.  “Made top book there,” he says.

“I sold more furnishings — shirt, ties, and slacks — than the furnishings people. Clothing, you see, is sports coats and suits.  When the garment came in, I’d take time to put it together with shirts and ties.  The objections I had to overcome were always the same, ‘Well, we already have some ties at home.’  ‘Yes ma’am, but when you bought those ties, they went with something you already had.  So if you put an old tie with a new suit it makes it an old suit.’”

A deep, melodious laugh echoes around the room.  The salesman at work.

“The only month I didn’t outsell was the month I lost my brother.  I named my shop for him.  Fred.  Frederick.  Fred had character.  It is difficult for me to pack up and leave this store because, as you noticed in the phone calls I’ve had, his name is mentioned every single time, every single day.  Every time my phone rings.”

“Thank you for calling Frederick’s Tailoring and Quality Cleaners.”

At 68 years old, however, Daniels is feeling his bones.  He can see the end in sight.  But, the good days are still awfully good.

“When I can bring happiness to someone based on something I have personally done for them, that they didn’t think could be done, it is very fulfilling to me.  It just happened a week ago.  Young lady with a wedding in Dallas, Texas.  A bridesmaid dress was way to small for her.  I turned it around in one day.  She came in, she couldn’t sleep the night before.  There was no material to make it larger.  But we work small miracles.  Magic is one thing, but a miracle is something else.  Magic is making something appear that wasn’t there.  A miracle is just making it happen.   She cried because I saved that dress for her.”

This is all fine and good today, but wasn’t it unnerving back in 1965 to come to Des Moines, alone and only 17, to try to start this new life, and then struggle through job after job?

“I wasn’t nervous.  I had seen a lot of different things in the past.”  Daniels looks off, remembering.

And then this successful, mature businessman, operating a tailor and cleaning shop in a strip mall in West Des Moines, told me of a different time and a different place.


Back in 1963, Daniels, seated on the far left, was involved in the civil rights movement.  It was a heated time, a time of change, a time of protest.  In one protest in which he participated, he and two high school buddies were refused admittance to the Tennessee Theatre in Knoxville, Tennessee, Daniels’ home town.  Separate but equal was the rule back then.  Each young teenager had the dollar admission raised in his hand.  Refusing to move.  This image was captured by a fellow schoolmate, Charles Howell, just before the teens were arrested by the group of white police officers.

“I am not bitter because of growing up with racism and segregation.  I have always looked at people as just being people.  Not being better than, more than, or less than me.  I respect people for what they’ve accomplished.  I don’t hold anyone in awe for what they do, or where they live, or what their last name is, or what their profession is.  With the support of my wife of 42 years, I’m able to continue to do what I do.  I am truly blessed.”

And Daniels laughs softly, adjusts his shirt, and gently touches the rack of clothes behind him, his life work.

“I take pride in what I do.”









Barn stories

“Do you know how many stories are in these old barns?”

I shake my head no.

“Well, the frost comes into the barn, and everything that happens that winter freezes along the inside walls.”

He pauses.  Lost momentarily in the high timber of an imagined barn.  He eventually  continues . . .

“You can be there in the spring when it thaws and you can hear and sense what’s happened in that barn all winter long.  So there are stories there.”

The traveling salesman.

A traveling salesman, miles from home and jittery from driving the Iowa gravel roads, pulls up the lane to a farmhouse.  The big trees cast a wide shade that wraps around the front porch, beckoning after the heat of the day.  To the side of the porch is a low-slung Adirondack chair directly in the shade.  The busy farm wife stops her chores to offer a piece of pie.  Unfortunately, the farmer is still off working in the barns.   But go ahead.  Take a rest.  Pull up your feet.  Dig into that pie.

Sorry, Tim Florer, our traveling salesman, did not take the invited rest.  Don’t get me wrong, Florer will not pass up the pie.  He appreciates good food.  But sit around while the farmer is working?  Please.

“I’m an old farm kid.  I love rural people.  I would drive out to Greenfield, Guthrie Center, Lamoni, Adair, and if the farmer was out there feeding the cattle or the hogs, I’d slip my rubber boots on and go out and help.  Why?  Cause you gotta.”

A life insurance salesman by trade, the patter rolls off Florer’s tongue as a warm embrace.  You are the center of his universe and he’s going to tell you stories and give you information and make you laugh, if by nothing else than his own beefy guffaws.  He’ll listen well, and then respond with vowels buttery to city ears.

“Aaaa’m here for you,” he says.

Of course he is.

“The kitchen table.  That’s where 99% of the life insurance business is done.  At the kitchen table.”

His big arms balance on the table.  His large frame blocks any other view.  You can sit back and relax.  He’s going to take care of you and the conversation.  Both.

“When I sell life insurance, I ask them to give me their dreams, give me their goals.  And I try to take care of them.  It’s not real fancy.  It’s about honesty and integrity.  It’s simple.”

Of course it’s not simple.  But Tim Florer is a born salesman.  Perhaps serendipitously so, but a born salesman he is.

“I was 20 years old when I was working at a bank and got a letter in the mail saying you were recommended by someone saying that you would be good at life insurance sales.  So I went and took the aptitude test.  Passed it, and I went into the training program.  Three weeks into the training, I asked the trainer who it was that recommended me.  He starts laughing.  He says, ‘We go back and find old marriage licenses from the past year, and everybody gets the damn letter.’”

His large laugh erupts causing all around him to laugh.

“I’ve been doing this for 42 years.  I’ll do this until they put me in a hole.  I mean retirement?  What is that?”

The artist.

Our salesman was traveling the back roads of Iowa selling insurance as he is supposed to do.  He noticed, however, that the farmhouses and barns were vanishing before his eyes.   He started looking more closely.  With a camera.

“Atlantic, Iowa.  I’m on the way to an appointment.  Gravel road.  I hear a voice, ‘Turn right.’  I’m the only person in the car.  But I’ve learned enough over these years, you hear something, you do it.  I turn right.  Go up a hill.  To my left is this stunning old windmill.  A fence post with the wire wrapped around it.  It became the covers of one of my books.”


A lot of photographs are taken by Tim Florer.  Many backroads are traveled.  He soon compiles several photography books.  All beautiful.  All published in large formats.  All in black and white.  A passion is born.  Capturing moments in time.

Of course, photography is just the beginning.  Florer starts writing fiction and poetry that echo his life philosophy.  In fact, his most recent book, Full Circle, will be available at a book signing on September 24th, at St. Mark Center, 1105 Grand Ave., West Des Moines, 6:30-8:30 p.m.  He promises — in his best salesman voice — a unique experience.

“When you come to one of my book signings, they’re like something you’ve never been to before.  I greet you at the door.  You go over and get wine and a full spread from Gateway.  In the back, I’ve got two cellist.  People come, eat, buy a book, and they stay.  No texting!  Simple communication.  It’s wonderful.”

No doubt.

The gifter.

Our traveling salesman developed a certain view of life: “Appreciate those slivers of time that we all have, let them soak into your soul so that you can recall them later as a comfort to yourself.  It’s those precious moments.”

Tim Florer has taken it as his mission to pass on unexpected kindnesses as a way of focusing our attention, of “soaking our soul” in the moment, and of giving back.  So every week, Florer anonymously buys lunch for some table at Trellis Cafe in the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden.  He hopes to bring a little joy to some customers.  And maybe they’ll pass it on.  That’s his hope.  He buys the meal and the server leaves a poem on yellow paper.  Simple enough.


Although, trust me, if you’re at Trellis, you won’t see Florer.  Only the poem delivered to some table.  And perhaps a smile of joy, or maybe a few tears, from those receiving the gift.  A moment, for sure.

And, of course, this creates another story that waits to be told at another time with a different cast of characters.  Barn stories work that way.





A wasted day avoided

“I’ve had a good run on this kidney, but it’s about up.”

Really?  Who says that kind of thing?

The school building lies low in the afternoon shadow of the golden Capitol.  The Iowa State Fair is over.  The legislature is long gone.  The parking lots for the nearby government buildings are hushed after the late-summer hustle and bustle.    But all is not quiet for the school in the shadows.  New decorations are on the walls.  Desks and chairs are carefully aligned.  And over there are boxes and crayons and paper and class plans.  Check, check, check, and a final check.  At last!  The first day of school is about to begin at Capitol View Elementary School in Des Moines.  Today, everything is possible.

“I won’t lie, the first three days of kindergarten are the roughest.”

Tim Robinson shakes his head and rolls his eyes and then groans for my comic relief.

“It’s not that they don’t know their letters or they can’t count, they just don’t know school.  Things like — this is how we line up, this is how we sit still, this is how you raise your hand if you have a question, this is how you wait your turn, this is bathroom expectations.”

Perhaps you didn’t talk about bathroom expectations last week at Principal or John Deere or the Public Defender’s Office, but, for Mr. Robinson, this is meat and potatoes.

“I think the two biggest academic transitions that students make are kindergarten and college.  Kindergarten is a huge step.  You’re stepping into another world.  You’ve been with mom, or dad, or whomever, for five years.  Then you’re expected to spend a whole day with not only a complete stranger adult — who might be a big, loud man — but also with a bunch of strange kids.”


Mr. Robinson is a big, loud man.  Slim and muscled, with a tightly trimmed beard, short red hair, arched eyebrows, and a wide smiling mouth.  A man that is certainly up for fun.  You gotta a story?  Let’s hear it.

“One of the kids the other day, a really sweet kid, was talking to me.   I said, ‘Do you know what this color is?’  He didn’t.  I tell him, ‘Well this is a yellow crayon and it’s yellow.  What else is yellow?’  He said, ‘Bananas.’  Great.  ‘Okay, find the flower that is this color.’  He pointed to some yellow flowers.  ‘Wonderful,’ I said. ‘What’s the color of the flower?’  He said, ‘Banana.’”

Laughter all around.

Ah, but there is also a more solemn side to this young teacher.


“I had a little boy that screamed for the first half hour of every day for eight solid days.  We could not figure out what it was.  Come to find out he had a terrible past with his dad and was deathly afraid of men and that’s what the issue was.  We put him with a female teacher. That was really hard for me.  It broke my heart.  That was one of my kids.  I’ve had rough kids every year.  You’re never going to have an easy class.  This job would be boring otherwise.”

Mr. Robinson has goals and plans and projects and fun and play for all his kids.  Teaching is a love.

“This is going to be my 8th year teaching kindergarten and my 9th year at Capital View — I taught one year of 2nd grade.  I’ve loved it all.  This is my career.  This is what I want to do.”  Mr. Robinson pauses.  “And there won’t be any social security left anyway, so I’ll be doing this until I die.”  Mr. Robinson smiles.  “That’s okay.”

But there is a little bump on his road to glory.  A small one.  In the shape of a kidney.

“The kidney thing started about five years ago.  I woke up one morning and had a low-grade fever and both my ankles were swollen.  I knew that wasn’t good.  I didn’t know why.  They informed me I was in end-stage renal failure.  I didn’t know what renal failure was.  I asked him what that meant.  He said your kidneys have shut down.  That wasn’t fun.”

Both of his kidneys failed.  But he had some good fortune.  After a painful five-plus months, Mr. Robinson got a new kidney.  A cousin was a close match and she agreed to give up a kidney.  An angel on earth.

“I would not have said yes to talking to you unless there was a chance it could get word out for organ donation.  I will do anything to get word out.  I was part of the 17% of people who needed kidneys that year that got them.  People wait years to get even a cadaver kidney.  It is so important to be an organ donor.  To even consider saving a life.”

But now his new kidney is going south.  He is thrilled with the five years from his cousin’s kidney and feels it was a wonderful gift.  But at 33 years old, he’s not done and wonders about the next step.

“I don’t think about this all the time.  Whenever I do have a thought about what I potentially have to face, these kids are a huge part of what I have.  A day without the kids is a day wasted.  Every day I get up knowing that these kids expect to see me here.  And if I have expectations of them, I should be here for that.”

He looks down.  Quiet.  Thinking.

“The kids and I have stuff to do.”

Of course.  The day’s a-wasting.






Dressed for success

A suburban Garden of Eden exists south of University Avenue in West Des Moines.  Law offices, corporate buildings, and restaurants are all set within wide manicured green spaces with flowers and trees and wide swept sidewalks.  It’s all sparkly and fresh and new and clean.  People show themselves only briefly as they hustle from their air-conditioned cars to the air-conditioned buildings and back to their cars to beat the late summer heat.  Suits and ties and heels and skirts are the daily wear.  Success is at every turn.

But over there on the corner . . . .

Side by side, they work together.  Chalk line pulled tight to guide the way.  Brick, mortar, brick, mortar, then more brick and more mortar.  Hard work.  A wheel barrow, a trowel, and a level are their tools.  Tools you could find in your grandfather’s tool shed.  Or for that matter your great-grandfather’s tool shed.   Four bricklayers hard at work.   


“R. W. Dalton & Sons is the name of our business,” says 81-year-old Russ Dalton.  An ornery-looking man.  Up to no good for sure, as his eyes twinkle mischievously.

“I started this business.  We’ve had our company for 40 years, but I’ve been in the brick business probably 55 years and I’m still at it.”  Russ grins proudly, looking down the line at his progeny.

There is the distinct feeling that Russ is waiting for the banter to begin.  He does the call, and someone on the line is responsible for the response.  So we wait for it.

Randy, Sr., Russ’s son, gladly picks it up.  “55 years?  I thought you retired long ago,” he says off-handily, while laying a brick.

Laughter all around.

This group has fine-tuned its act with a lot of together time.  I’m clearly the audience for the afternoon as I stand with them on the corner of 42nd Street and Westown Parkway in West Des Moines, where they are laying bricks for a decorative wall.

Randy, Sr., explains their business.

“We are out of Madrid.  We do a little bit of everything.  Brick work and concrete work are our bread and butter.”  Randy, Sr., trowels on more mortar, straightens the line, places the brick, as he talks to me.  Clearly, the businessman in the group.

And how do the four of you get along, day after day, in such close quarters?

Randy, Sr., without hesitation, replies: “When we can’t stand each other, we just argue and scream.  That’s the way we are.”  Everyone chuckles and nods in agreement.

“We always work as a team, when we’re not fighting.  At the end of the day, a cool beer on the way home solves everything.”  Randy, Jr., the son of Randy, Sr., chimes in from the far side of the line of men.

Randy, Jr., takes this moment to tell me that he has the hard job of mixing the mortar and hauling it over to the others.  He bemoans his lot in the business: “I have the dirty jobs because I’m the low man on the totem pole.”

IMG_3086No one disagrees with his self-assessment . . . and no one offers to mix the mortar the next time around.  Someone has to be the low man on this four-man crew.

During all this, Rod, the nephew to Russ, with his bandana tight, just smiles and works his line of bricks.  Mortar, brick.  Mortar, brick.  Quiet and steady.  The Harpo Marx of the family.

And what about these bib overalls that you’re wearing?

“The bib overalls are company issue”  Randy, Sr., says, without breaking a smile.

“The most practical thing you can wear,” chimes in Russ.

“For one thing you don’t have to hitch your pants up every time you bend over,” Randy, Sr., throws out there.

“And a belt buckle doesn’t poke you in the belly,” Russ fires back.

“And you’ve got lots of pockets for all the instruments you carry,” says Randy, Sr.

Then Randy, Sr., pauses.  All of us wait.

“. . . and they fit even though we’re all fat.”

A general uproar.

“I like this work.  I like working with my hands.  I like people to see your stuff when you’re all done working. You can’t go to any town within 40 miles, there’s something we done somewhere.”   Randy, Sr., sums up their job.

And for fun?


“This is it,” says Russ with that twinkle.

And so it is.



The cow days of August

Wet with dew in the morning, dry and dusty by noon, the August grass is course and thin and dying.  Even before each day gets too far along, the heat presses everything into the shade.  Hot and heavy.  Only the cicadas give voice as the birds and squirrels hide in cover.  Sadly enough, it’s time to face the facts.  School looms on the horizon.  Vacations are coming to an end.  Work awaits.  Only one last gasp of summer remains.

It’s the cow days of August. 

The first bull comes out, scared and stubborn.  Can you blame him?  The Red Angus is clearly not liking how his day is going.  He is a hot mess even with the air conditioners roaring.  The arena is packed with spectators.  People are yelling and clapping.  The announcer voice crackles over the loudspeaker.  The smell of corn dogs and nachos and ripe manure drifts around the sanded ring.  The bearded large man in the feed cap, and the tough wiry woman in a white t-shirt, push and nudge and push and nudge to get the reluctant bull onto the scales.  At last we get a weight.

Ahhhh . . . pretty darn big, but not big enough to win the Super Bull contest at the Iowa State Fair.

Meanwhile, at the dairy barn . . . .

“Cows like to be milked.  It really relaxes them.  Most farmers milk twice a day.  Some milk three times a day.  The average dairy cow produces 8 to 10 gallons of milk every single day.”


Celina Young, a student from Iowa State University, smiles.  She is a fountain of knowledge as she lectures outside the milking parlor at the Iowa State Fair.  Even with her microphone on the fritz, she hikes up her voice and carries on.

“She’s going to dip that teat in iodine and let it sit there about 30 seconds.   Then she’ll use a rag to wipe it off.  After that she’s going to take two strips of milk out of the teat and this is going to serve two purposes.  She gets a visual assessment of the milk, she wants to be sure it is the right color and nothing in the milk that might be wrong.  The other thing is, it stimulates milk let down.  We can’t just expect to put a milking machine on her right away and let her milk go.”

The crowd and I all shake our heads in agreement, “No, we certainly can’t expect that.”

Back at the Super Bull competition . . . .

The trailer backs up to the opening into the arena.  The loud and raucous spectators are ready for the second bull.  Heck, we are all old hands now.  We see how it’s done.  Get the bull out of the trailer, guide him to the scales, get him weighed, and whisk him back home.  Simple.  Come on.  Let’s go.

Oh my lord!  What is that?

The crowd stops breathing.  We all stop breathing.  Out of the chute of the trailer comes a massive, white, muscled monster.  On it’s toes.  Rippling, snorting, prancing, invincible.  It roars onto the sand.  And the crowd gasps with delight and fear at the rawness and power spinning off this Charolais bull.


“To milk a cow by hand, It is pretty similar to the machines.  We still want to go through all the hygiene.”  Celina smiles after her group presentation, happy to be talking about milking and farmers and a way of life that she loves.  She comes from a long line of dairy farmers and wants to make a career of informing people about the important role of farmers in our lives.

“Okay, so what I always tell beginners, you want to start by pinching these fingers, like that, and then pulling straight down.  When you get more advanced you can do a rolling technique with the fingers.  When I get going with both hands . . . just like that.”

And a stream of milk shoots from the cow, who continues to chew, nonplussed.


Meanwhile, the monster Charolais stands on the scales.  He barely fits.  Muscles dance under his skin.  Listen, there is no doubt to any of us watching that this bull is doing exactly what he wants to do.  He’s willing to get weighed, he’s willing to get fussed over and have his picture taken, and he’s willing to not jump the barrier and crush us.  For this we are all thankful.  Unless, of course, he changes his mind.

“Dairy cows eat about 100 pounds of feed every day and a bathtub full of water,” explains Celina.  “Why are dairy cows so skinny?  Dairy cows are like Olympic athletes.  They are high performance animals.  They eat all that feed and drink all that water and all that energy goes into making milk.  Other cows are like body builders.  They are meant to put on lots and lots of muscles.”

The Charolais bull, owned by Gene Bedwell of Osceola, does not win this day.   With a weight of 2,726 pounds, the Charolais was 167 pounds short of the title.  As for the milk, it keeps flowing from the dairy cows into large containers.  Splashing and rolling in a stream stronger than the flow from a garden hose.  And then it’s suddenly over.  The cow is meekly led away.  Show is done.  End of the night.

So we all start to drift home.  School, work, no fun, all await at the other side of the fair.  September is pulling us forward with an unwelcomely firm grip.

Ah, but what’s this?  In the birthing barn.   A new calf is born.


Hah!  It’s still the cow days of August.
















The death of a doctor

Children should not die before their parents.  Parents should not die before their grandparents.  And husbands should die long before their wives.  This is not complicated, right?  There is an order to the universe.  This domino has to fall before that one falls and the next one and the next one.  “To everything there is a season . . . .”  Get with the program.  It’s either your turn to die or it’s not.  Rules are rules.

And, by the way, doctors should not die before their patients.  Ever.

But Doctor Charles R. Caughlan did die the other day.  Most of you didn’t know him.  He was a thoughtful man, who listened well to complaints, and had a deep competence.  A rare thing, that.   Doctor Caughlan’s job at his office on Mills Civic Parkway was the stuff of life and death.  With his stethoscope placed gently at your back, he would listen to the workings of your body, looking for anything amiss, anything not behaving as it should, anything that might foretell the end.  There was no room in this doctor-patient relationship for his own ending, his own death.  But die he did on the first day of July, when children’s laughter echoed in neighborhood parks and the orange day lilies blossomed in Iowa yards.  He was 66 years old.

Don’t worry, I get it.  A relationship with a doctor is always intimate.  Doctors look at every wrinkle and spot and discomfort that you hide from even yourself.  Especially from yourself.  They will tap your knee, listen to your insides, have you cough and move around, and then discreetly probe even further.  Yup, count on it.   Samples will be taken, and blood drawn, and scrapings taken here and there for even further examinations long after you’ve left the office and are waiting in some drive-thru for your large order of fries.  It’s exhausting work to keep you alive.  And some guy or gal has agreed to the challenge.  But Dr. Caughlan was unique even among these special folks.

“Call me Charlie.”

The fit man, with meticulously combed grey hair, a back that was ramrod straight, looked at me with a professional appraisal.  Not exactly a father figure, but a man of authority, a man to rely upon in a tight spot.

“Call me Charlie.”


“Well, Charlie, I don’t feel so hot.”

And Charlie would figure it out.  Tie pulled tight against his neck.  Two pens properly aligned in his white doctor’s coat. He would go to work on your body.  Sickness would be banished.  Aches and pains diminished.  Tests and probes would conquer ill-founded fears.

“You’ll never die of a heart attack.”


“Brain tumors are not contagious.”

Are you sure?

“Pain is not acceptable as a way of life.”

My oh my.

No matter the problem, no matter the issue, Charlie diagnosed, treated, and solved the puzzle.  A miracle man.

Several eulogies were given at Charlie’s funeral.  Beautiful eulogies.  Come to find out that Charlie was a man of humor and joy, who loved his family, his children and grandchildren and above all his wife, and took care of his friends.  He talked with others about religion and grace and golf and accepted all that they were, just as they were.  I loved that he sometimes had a wicked temper on the golf course and he had a real joy in cooking.  Who knew?

“You should retire,” Charlie said to me one day with a serious tone.

What??????  I’m too young.  I have a career.  I have work to do.

“You should retire,” he repeated doggedly.

Why, Charlie, why, after all these years, are you giving me this unsolicited advice?

“You have a stressful job.  You had a bad accident that surely didn’t lengthen your life.   It is a good time to retire.”

I sat dumbstruck.  But it was Charlie, so I listened.

And retire I did.

Then Charlie died.

What is going on here?  My expectation was that he would usher me into my own death.    Didn’t I make that clear from the get-go?

More than several years ago, I lay in a hospital bed, paralyzed, breathing out of a hole in my throat, unable to talk.  Charlie picked up my file.  Looked it over slowly.  Straightening up he gave me a small smile, tight and serious above the mouth.

“You’ll make a full recovery,” he said to my silent shock.

“He’ll make a full recovery,”  he assured my ever-present wife.

“You’ll live forever,” he summed up to both of us with conviction.

And Charlie went off to take care of his other patients.  Making the rounds.  Reassuring us all.  And we all breathed easier at his light step and steady hand.

Listen, none of us believed that we would live forever.  Of course not.  And none of us believed that we would make a full recovery.  Nobody makes a full recovery.  Rather, we all expected that Charlie would be there to reassure us through the next catastrophe.  And the next.  And the next.

I have no reassurances to give those touched by Charlie.  It’s not fair.  Life is out of sync.  Your doctor should not die before you.  Charlie was a good man who should be here today.  But I will take to my own grave the picture of him casually leaning against the examining table, his small smile as he looked at me, scared and unsure, and his gentle reassurance that all would be right.  And it was.

May he rest in peace.












When life hits you with a metal chair

The trainer sits large at his desk.  Clothing loosely draped.  Arms and legs wide and open. Hair pulled back in a tight pony tail.  He seems too meaty to be your typical trainer.  Too much bulk.  Picturing him doing a downward dog seems like a stretch.  It’s much easier imagining him driving rivets on a steel girder.  Yup, a hard man doing hard work.

But the truth is that yoga and kettlebells and free weights and weight machines and bosu balls and rubber bands and TRX straps are all the tools of this man’s trade.  Justin LeHew is a certified trainer at Anytime Fitness in Beaverdale.  A good one.  But at night?  Mmmmmm . . . .

IMG_2552“All right.  Ladies and Gentleman, here to defend his IPW Heavyweight Title, is Juuuuuustin Decent.”

Rock music thunders.

Boos and hisses and catcalls reverberate around the room.  A giant of a man at 260 pounds jumps up into the ring.  The boos only get louder as he flexes to the four corners.  Then the young men in front of me, one with an iconic mullet, begin a chant:  “We want Ryan.  We want Ryan.  We want Ryan.” Ryan Slade is Justin Decent’s opponent for the night.  The crowd takes up the chant, stomping and screaming.

Justin stops his posing.  He points a furious finger at the crowd.  The scowl permanently etched on his face becomes only more menacing.  And he bellows:

“I don’t care what you want.”

With a  roar of defiance, he jumps out of the ring to confront the hecklers.  And the audience screams back at him with delight.

A typical night of professional wrestling.  Impact Pro Wrestling.  The main event for the IPW Heavyweight Title is Justin Decent, the current champion, versus Ryan Slade, the challenger.  A match for the history books.

“When I was 10 years old, my dad owned the Country Kitchen in Grinnell.  Several of the WWF wrestlers at that time had done a show in Des Moines and were on the way to the next town and had stopped at our restaurant.  It was late, the buffet was just closing.  They came in and asked my dad if they could have the buffet.  My dad said, ‘If you don’t mind signing a placemat for my kid, you can have the run of the buffet.’  I spent the night with the Junkyard Dog, Rowdy Roddy Piper, Hercules, some of these older named guys who I loved and still love.”

Justin LeHew wanted to be a professional wrestler.  But this desire had to go on hiatus for awhile.

“Two things I wanted in my life.  I wanted to be a pro wrestler and I wanted to be in the army.  So no one was surprised when I enlisted.”

After several years in the army, he went back to civilian life and began the extensive training to become a pro wrestler.    As life will have it, he was then recalled to go to Iraq.

“I was very proud to be doing what I was doing in Iraq — doing security and road clearing missions for explosives.  I finally felt I’d fulfilled the oath I had sworn to.  I was very scared during that time.  Anybody who says otherwise in that situation, I’d call baloney.”

But safely home he returned, back to becoming a pro wrestler.

And the fight begins.


It is out of control.  A Street Fight, they call it.  No Holds Barred.  Ryan throws Justin out of the ring onto the hard floor.  Justin flips Ryan up in the air and then throws him into a large trash can that then careens into the concessions.  Ryan lifts Justin and throws him into the chairs and then climbs up on the ring and jumps off the top to land on Justin’s prone body.  Justin tries to bash Ryan with a metal chair only to have Ryan grab the chair and crack Justin over the head.  Kicks and punches and eye gouges and elbow throws.  All in a days work.

“I was very active in theater and speech and debate in high school.  I thought I’d become a theater teacher when I left the army.  I did one semester of that.  I helped coach the debate club at Osceola.  But professional wrestling soon took care of my theater urge.”

Justin LeHew, the Iraq vet, trained hard and became a professional wrestler.  And once he’d achieved that goal, he was looking around for a day job.  With the advice of his wife, who reminded him of his love for the gym, he became a certified trainer.  A match made in heaven.

“I get to teach other people to exercise.  I get to help them lose weight, gain muscle, whatever their goals are, doing what I love doing.”

But few of his clients know him as Justin Decent.

“I started out with tights that had a parental advisory label on them and I went and bought an inflatable doll and carried it around as my manager for about five years.  I proposed to it in the ring.  It was a popular character with the crowds.  So I became Justin Decent.”

I didn’t get it.  Seeing my befuddlement, Justin said the names slowly again — Just-in-Decent.  Ooooh.

“To this day I still have a rewards point card for an adult novelty shop because in five years I bought 13 of those dolls because inevitably someone would fall on it and it would pop during the match.  I’d freak out like my wife just died.”

And what do you think of your career choices today?

“When I’m in the ring, the middle of the show, the crowd is having a good time and I’m having a good time, I’m right where I’m supposed to be.  And the kids that come are really part of that.  I feel a kinship with them.  I look at them, they’re having a blast, they’re cheering, they’re booing, and I think back to that kid at my dad’s restaurant, hanging out with those guys having dinner.”


Mmmm . . . Justin LeHew, aka Justin Decent.  Perhaps Just Decent.  A good man to tag team with when life hits you with a metal chair.