Boys as a group are not all that complicated. Just wave a few select items in front of their confused and suspicious eyes and they will normally focus and charge forward. One such piece of shiny red cape that traditionally gets a boy’s attention — as demonstrated by the Wooden Horse of Troy — is a BIG TRUCK. And even more attractive than a large man-made machine is DESTROYING A LARGE MAN-MADE STRUCTURE. When these two are combined, sparks will fly.
On a cold, late-fall afternoon, just off the Scott Avenue Bridge, a couple of blocks to the north of Graziano’s Grocery, was the perfect merger of big-truck and destruction. This wonderful feast for the eye was occurring deep on the Des Moines River Bottom.
Check it out yourself. Take off work for the afternoon, park your car on the Scott Avenue Bridge, look down river, put your elbows up on the rail, and you’ll see a man ripping apart a trestle bridge. Alone. With a large claw of a machine as an extension of his arm. You will be stunned into worshipful silence.
This is raw power. Periodically, the man will saunter out of the Claw to slice some metal with fire. No kidding.
Who is this mountain of a man? Why has he come in off the range to wrangle metal in downtown Des Moines? Does he carry a six-shooter?
Mike Howard rarely speaks without smiling. He doesn’t have much to say about the Claw, the fire, or the trestle bridge. Rather, he wants to talk about his children: Oskana, Mesha, Inna, and six-month-old Victoria. “I love my kids,” he says. He wants to show me pictures.
Is he serious? What is going on here? Can I operate the Claw? When do we get to knock something down?
He laughs and speaks about his Grandma Nellie Stone. She raised him and wouldn’t let him marry until she died. As a good grandson, he didn’t. But there he was, in his forties, no prospects in sight. Lonely. What to do? His friend, a young Russian woman from Marshalltown, told him to go north to meet a nice girl. And she didn’t mean Mason City. So, off Mike went to St. Petersburg. You heard me correctly. He went to Russia. Several trips later, he spotted a young woman in a St. Petersburg restaurant — Anna. After courting her for a year and a half, they were married. She moved to Iowa. And now she is the mother of four. Mike smiles with pride.
This is all very interesting, but what about the fire? It must be pretty dangerous to knock down a bridge, right? Won’t the flying metal cut you in half if you make a mistake? Aren’t you worried about the endless death of being sucked into the dangerous waters below the dam?
“I’m taking off early today,” Mike smiled. “It’s my eleventh-year anniversary. I know Anna and I will be married forever, but I’m going home to be with her tonight.” Is that a blush?
“Do you want to see a picture of my youngest?” As if I had a choice.
So, there you have it. No big truck. No destruction. Just Anna the Russian Bride and Four Kids.
May we all be so lucky.