About Joe

Formerly a prosecutor, formerly a teacher, formerly a presenter, formerly a janitor, formerly a baker, formerly a dishwasher, formerly a store clerk, formerly a construction worker, and formerly a carny -- still a husband, still a dad, still a dog and cat owner, and still love foot-long hot dogs.

Why not?

HELP WANTED: Person needed to create something wonderful out of an empty spot in Downtown Des Moines.  400,000 square feet available.  Some debris removal required.  Portions of Tea Room included.  Helpful if partially crazy.

The monumental fire and the destruction of the Younkers Building was quite a tragedy.  Sad for sure.  But, unfortunately, today is already tomorrow.  Time to pull up our pants, dust off our hands, and get to work.  Let’s look at those burnt embers and see them for what they are — a chance to cut out of whole cloth. A chance to do something totally different, totally unexpected, totally awe-inspiring.  Heck, a chance to order the large malt with sprinkles and gummy bears AND Oreo cookie crumbs.    Why not?

Come on, we need something special for this rebuilding project.  Something that catches your eye when you’re driving to work or dropping kids off at school.   Maybe something that causes you to sit up a little straighter, be a little better, smile for just a moment.  Something that Raygun might put on a t-shirt, or something where you tell out-of-town visitors “you’re gonna want to see this,” or something that has a crazy reality TV show named after it.  I mean, really, why not?

There is this guy in Barcelona, Spain, who could do this for us.  His name is Antoni Gaudi.  When I first saw his work, I thought he had more than one screw loose.   It was dark and late at night as I walked with my wife on the streets of Barcelona.  Suddenly an apparition appeared to our left.  A disturbing and wondrous vision.  Gaudi built a house of bone-like windows and blue-green colors and nary a straight line.  Imagine coming home from Court Avenue and seeing this structure at the corner of 7th and Walnut.  Now that would rock you back on your heals in a wonderful way.  Are those skulls?  Is that a dragon on the roof?  Sure, it’s no Tea Room, but WOW.


You’re getting nervous?  Well, we can sell prom dresses on the first floor during tournament season.  We can have Des Moines Gay Men’s Chorus sing from the windows during Pride Week.  And talk about a great Haunted House.  We can make this work.  Why not?

You want another choice?  Okay, how about this apartment complex Gaudi built just up the road on the Passeig de Gracia.  On the roof is a magical kingdom of vents and chimneys and open spaces.  This guy is totally wild.  Wouldn’t it be fun to go up on the roof among all these playful air ducts and look out over downtown Des Moines?  And if we went this direction, I assure you, Des Moines would have the next Star Wars Celebration, the next Star Trek Convention, and the next meeting of the Society for Creative Anachronism.  In the bag.  Why not?

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You want a third option?  Okay, what about Gaudi’s masterpiece, La Sagrada Familia?  The church sitting in the heart of Barcelona holds 13,000 visitors.  When we walked through the massive doors and looked up, my wife and I stood immobile with tears in our eyes at the wonder of it all.  Even the Pope came to visit this place in 2010.  Just picture such a building on the corner, rising up out of the center of Des Moines like a phoenix out of the ashes.  The Eighth Wonder of the World right here on 7th and Walnut.  Why not?

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Ah, but sadly I have bad news.   Gaudi’s dead.  Ignominiously dead.  Dead with such irony you don’t know whether to laugh or cry  – flattened by a tram in 1926 and left on the side of the road to die.  Everyone thought he was a bum.  Not the best reflection on mankind.  But, ironic or not, I’m afraid Gaudi’s unavailable.

Where does that leave us?  Who would have the audaciousness to pull this off?  Come on, let’s push the envelope.  Don’t forget, we’re the home of the Varnum decision.   We twice elected the current president of the United States.   And must I mention the Butter Cow?

Okay, how about this guy out of Paris?   I think his name is Gustave Eiffel . . . .


And, really, why not?






When a building dies . . . .

When a building dies do we mourn the loss?

With all the real troubles in the world, the real suffering, the real terror, the real death, it seems absurd to mourn a building.  I mean, come on, let’s be serious.

A thing, built of mortar and brick and glass and steel, is still a thing at the end of the day.  Right?  Nobody’s feelings are hurt.  Nobody is bleeding.  Nobody needs stitches.  You can’t even tell someone to just shake it off.  There’s nobody to shake.

Just because you ate lunch down that basement for ten years doesn’t make it some kind of holy shrine.  And even the cookies weren’t really a sacred sacrament (although I could be persuaded to reconsider this notion).  Sure, you bought shirts for work and ties for weddings and suits on sale.  And there was that coat.  But, at the end of the day, she was a fickle mistress who left you once the good days were over.  Even the updo to the infamous Tea Room was merely a come on.   Future hopes that weren’t realized.  And there she sat, empty, on the corner of 7th and Walnut in Des Moines, Iowa, for the last decade.  The Younkers Building.   A faded dream.

But then why the sadness when she burned to the ground the other day?

It’s simple, this gal, who was 115 years old, entered into a covenant with us.  A promise.  She crossed her heart and hoped to die and said, in no uncertain terms:

“I will stand here, immutable and impervious, on this corner, in the heart of downtown Des Moines, and I will be the guardian of the only thing that is left to you at the end of the day — your memories.  Even when my display windows are empty of fancy clothes, even when no pedestrians can enter my revolving doors, even when the smells from my kitchen are long gone, I promise to preserve within my brick and my steel your memories of bygone times.”

And she did.  But now the building has vanished up in smoke like something out of Chinese mythology.  Fire destroys stone, metal, and wood, until finally subdued by water.   A battle of the elements.  But no matter how glorified the battle, at the end of the day, the Younkers Building was turned into hollow echo of itself.  A shell.  A corpse laid out for viewing.

And with her death, all the memories kept by her, which she held onto just as she promised, were released with a whoosh and a roar and a bang causing an avalanche of reminiscences over the last weeks.  From weddings registrations, to Tea Room celebrations, to baby clothes purchased, to dress suits fitted, to cooking lessons, to Santa visits, to riding those newfangled “electric stairs.”  You name it, there is a memory.   My friend, Holly Novelli, wrote to me of being a young girl visiting the store:

“It was thrilling to wander past The French Room to see the gorgeous evening gowns on display, twinkling and sparkling in the low light . . . the customers’ and associates footsteps muted by the plush carpeting . . . .  The walnut-lined elevators each had an operator that announced the departments on the floor as she opened the grated iron door.  Imagine.  No big store directory by the front door.  All you had to do was tell the elevator operator what department you were looking for and with a friendly smile, she’d deliver you to that floor.  My first career aspiration was to be an elevator operator at Younkers.”

My oh my.  These are real memories with real value.  And you know what?  That wonderful Younkers Building kept her covenant to us.  But what do we do now?

We need to mourn her loss.  We need to mourn a building.

When a tree is knocked down by the storms from the North Sea, potted plants appear next to the exposed roots.

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When a fisherman dies in Scheveningen, an old Holland harbor town, flowers appear at the statute of the wife of a fisherman waiting for her husband to return from the sea.

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And so when a building dies, we need to mourn the same way — with a few flowers.

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There you go.  A few flowers.  May the Younkers Building rest in peace.







Fathers and sons

Old farmers in the Midwest tell tales of winter blizzards so fierce that a farmer had to tie a rope from the house to the barn to be able to get back home.  The tied-off rope kept the farmer from getting lost in the blinding snow and freezing to death in the back forty.  The rough braided strands sliding in their stiff, chore-gloved hands must have felt as intimate as a breathing tube for a person without air.  This was not complicated.  The rope was their lifeline.

Johan Roos was raised near the sea.  His father would go down to the harbor in the small fishing village of Scheveningen, load his pushcart full of the fresh catch from the just-returning boats, then walk the neighborhoods of The Hague singing of the fish for sale.  From this beginning, Johan fell in love with the tales from the fishermen returning home in the early morning hours.  He began to hang around the harbor with his ear to the ground.

Years passed, as eventually did Johan’s father, and Johan grew to be a middle-aged man with his own life, his own concerns, his own joys.  But he still loved Scheveningen and began a Dutch web site about the people and the village he loved (http://www.allesoverscheveningen.nl).   During this time, a particular old fisherman, who’d taken a liking to Johan, would visit now and again on a Friday night, drink a little wine, and tell a few stories about the sea.  One Friday night, the old fisherman leaned over to Johan and said he had a new tale to tell.   So, over six weeks the story was told.  The old man’s telling took many tangents, many circumlocutions, many digressions that began at point “A” on the way to point “B,” but ended deep in the weeds.  Lost with no way back.  But the next Friday, they actually did get back.  And so the story fitfully unfolded.

The Arie van der Zwan was a ship 120 feet long and 23 feet wide.  A “logger” they called it in those days.  A short-covered bow and a cabined stern was all that offered protection from the elements for the sixteen crew members.  It had a noisy engine and a hold to store fish and was an improvement on the flat-bottomed boats that had fished out of Scheveningen for over 100 years.

The old man told Johan they had been out on the North Sea for three weeks.  The old man came from a long bloodline of fisherman: his father, his father’s father, his father’s father’s father.  This is what the men did.  But this December of 1960, when the old man was 19 years old, the catch in the North Sea was not good.  And the Arie van der Zwan was heading home only partially full.

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Scheveningen was protected by a harbor.  Two thin arms reached out from the land with an embrace into the sea.  The logger was making its way into those two arms.

“We were coming into the harbor and there was a terrible storm.  She came in with low water.  The boat beached into the sand.  You can only come in with high water.  The power of the low water pushed us down under.  The end of the harbor was too short at that time.  The boat broke on the rocks.  I was on the ‘behind deck.’  I was preparing to come home so was getting my clothes on.  I heard a noise and I fell onto the ground.  I ran upstairs onto the deck.  Only in my underwear.”

The Arie van der Zwan was hung up on one of the harbor arms.  Caught sideways in the storm.  A hole was letting water pour into the middle.  The waves were crashing over the top of the entire vessel, and seven members of the crew were caught under the short-covered bow and the remainder of the crew were in the cabin at the stern.  Their homes in sight, they might as well have been in the middle of the ocean.

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The old man told Johan that he was quickly freezing to death in the bow.

“There was a hole formed in the hold by the pounding of the ship on the rocks of the jetty.  Seconds seemed like hours, and hours seemed days, the engine we heard no more, as we have, I do not know how long seated together in terror, fighting for our lives.  The waves breaking over us, counting our breath and our forces.  The logger was beyond saving.  The wooden deck hatches were washed away by the engulfing waves.  From the holds flooded the empty barrels and skate networks.  Anxiously we were seven people under the roof of the bow.  It was pitch black and the only thing we could hear and see was the raging sea.”

Ah, but hours later, a rope was miraculously thrown from the stern to the bow.  The fishermen pulled themselves across the watery middle, which was bucking from the waves and awash with debris, and made it safely to the cabin.  From there, the families on shore created a human rope of people lashed together by their belts and pulled the fishermen from the cabin to the shore.  It was now the next day after the accident.  The old man had been in the cold and the water for hours.  He couldn’t believe that he was alive.

Fifteen fisherman made it.  But not Evert.  Evert was sixteen years old.  He was one of the seven caught in the bow.  He was the youngest on board.  Evert and the old man were the last to cross over from the front of the boat to the back, hand-over-hand on the rope.  Their hands were numb, they were weak, the storm was relentless.  The old man made it to the cabin.  Evert did not.

As the human rope rescued the fishermen from the cabin, the captain of the Arie van der Zwan could not believe that Evert was not there.  Even though the logger was breaking apart, the captain refused to leave.  He believed that Evert had to still be under cover somewhere on the boat.  The townspeople begged him to cross to safety.  Finally, when all was lost, the captain relented and came to shore.

“Evert was washed off the boat.  Found one week later on the beach at Hoek van Holland, near Rotterdam.”  Johan told me.

And the old man?

“The old man loved the sea.  So he went back.  He didn’t like the sea, he was afraid, but he loved the sea.  All of them sailed again.”

Later the old man fathered children who fished, and those children had children who fished.  And now the old man is gone and a grandchild works the sea.

I went down to the harbor in Scheveningen and stood alone to watch the old man’s grandchild, an officer on a large fishing ship, sail out of the harbor.

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His grandchild, high up on the deck, yelled my name and waved in greeting.


So, Johan, the rope saved the old man, didn’t it?

“Yes, the rope saved them . . . all but Evert.”

And then Johan added: “And, of course, . . . Evert was the Captain’s son.”

Of course.





Dear soon-to-be Graduate . . . .

Let’s talk about your future.  Please.  We must.  Before things get too far.   Sure, it was just a moment ago that you were trudging to class through ice and snow wondering if perhaps the glacier had permanently slid down from the tundras of Mason City to cover Des Moines.  But, no, winter seems to have ended.  Spring has sprung.  And before you sink into that new verdant grass with only your sweetie on your mind, let’s get serious for a moment.   In no time, every aunt, uncle, and stranger in the check-out lane at the grocery store will ask you a variation of the same dreaded question.  And you’re not going to be ready with an answer.  But they will ask.  And you will stand sullenly, or you will stutter, or you will blush, or you will lash out with anger, or you will fight back tears.  Unpleasant, for sure.  And possibly causing you to stay in your bedroom until you turn thirty.  Not a good option for all involved.

Listen, I understand that graduation from high school or college is a particularly perilous time.  Pressures come at you from so many angles.  All of them seem to center on the notion that you are supposed to have a path, a dream, a plan, a goal, a spreadsheet of options.  And people want to know what they are — thus, the variations on the dreaded question.  “What are you going to do now?”  “Where are you going to school?”  “How are you going to support yourself?”  “When are you going to move out? . . . start a family? . . . finally grow up?”  Sadly, in preparation for this barrage, there has been no burning bush speaking with the voice of God, no training by a wizened elderly Jedi Master, and not even a decent horoscope to rely upon beyond the sound advice (which I actually received from my horoscope the other day) to always choose the mashed potatoes.

Well, aren’t you in luck?  Today only, free of charge, I’m going to give you the one answer  to all those questions.  One simple answer that will even stop your Aunt Thelma from remarking on your weight gain at your graduation party.  Are you ready?  Say after me . . . .


No, don’t snigger, don’t turn away.  I’m not joking.  This is your answer.  It’s beauty is its simplicity.  Let me explain.

1.  Your parents at some point invested Great-Aunt Betty’s inheritance on your piano lessons, cello lessons, guitar lessons, tap-dancing lessons, singing lessons, violin lessons, ballet lessons, acting lessons — you get the drift.  It didn’t pan out the way your parents envisioned.  That is, at Carnegie Hall.  Now you can turn the tables and explain that at last you see their wisdom and you’re off to Barcelona to play the harp (which you forgot you had) at that spot just below the bridge in Park Guell.

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See, the decision to go to Barcelona is really about giving  back to the world what your parents provided to you.  It’s just one more incident of you giving of yourself.  In Barcelona.   In the sun.  On the beach.

2.  They’ve complained about your lack of “non-virtual” friends for five years.  Okay, fine.  Tell them that your friend Bill is going to play the cello while you play the squeeze box for hundreds of your new friends every day just outside La Catedral in the Barri Gotic quarter.

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Perhaps you will sing, perhaps you will dance a jig, but you and Bill will entertain real people with real instruments.   These streets, that saw the likes of Picasso and Gaudi, will now resonate with your voice ringing off the 2000-year-old Roman walls.  When you explain this to your parents, you might use some of the skills from that acting class they paid for and look off into the distance and tell them you are remembering your grandfather and just wish he was alive to see his progeny dancing where Christopher Columbus told the world of his discovery of America.  There you go.  Those folks at the Playhouse would be so proud.

3.  But will it bring happiness and goodness to mankind, as your family and church so firmly believe?  Respond with a gusty laugh, slap your dad heartily on the back, and explain that the pure joy of your music, as you play from cafe to cafe in the seedier parts of El Raval, will lift the spirits of the downtrodden, the poor, and the widowed.

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You might even mention the nearby hospital, where small children with illnesses that are only cured by music, will await your arrival each day with peals of delight.  You know, the hospital right next to that place that sells real absinthe.  No, I’m not kidding.  Real absinthe.

4.  “But you have no skills,” your parents say when you tell them your plan.  There might even be a hint that you are a wastrel and a good-for-nothing.  Tell them to have no fear.  Everyone loves monsters.  Everyone loves to be scared.  And who doesn’t like a mime, right?  There you go.   You are going to be an eight-foot tall, scary monster mime, right down by the harbor at the end of La Rambla.

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Sure, this option may not exactly be your parents’ dream for you, but, since your dad is scared of snakes, be sure to mention that your second choice is working as a snake charmer in the hills above La Sagrada Familia.

ImageThat’ll do the trick.  Let your dad make the choice.  The eight-foot monster mime or the charmer of an eight-foot snake?  “It’s your call, Dad.”

This will work.   I promise.   Just rehearse your line — “I’M GOING TO BE A STREET PERFORMER IN BARCELONA.”  And as you’re paying for your Lucky Charms at the checkout, and the clerk asks THE dreaded question, turn to the long line behind you, smile, tap dance a “shuffle ball change,” sing a short aria, drum an exotic beat on the grocery conveyor belt, and then pass your cap.  You’re ready to go to Barcelona.

And, listen, I’ll be there with you.  Why?  Because this answer also works at the other end of your life.  Yup, that’s me over there.  Thor.  The Mime of Thunder.  Or am I Princess Leia today?




Obamacare implicated in Grand Avenue Bridge fiasco

The recent fiasco at Grand Avenue Bridge, as reported first by Cityview, underscores once again how Obamacare has unmoored the very heart of red-blooded America.  Listen to me when I talk to you about this because I’M ANGRY AND I’M LOUD.  And you should be too.   After Obama almost stopped us from our God-given right to pay cash at the Iowa State Fair for deep fried butter-on-a-stick and those tenderloins the size of dinner platters, why are we continually surprised by his shenanigans.  Shame on us for sitting complacently in our lawn chairs  during this mess.  No more.  It’s time to stand up and take back our health care system, our bridges, and our deep-fried pickles.

As we’ve done so many times during this corrupt administration, we must peel back the layers of deceit that only a man born in Kenya could try to foist upon us.  Shall we start with the first so-called “coincidence” between the Grand Avenue Bridge and Obamacare?   Let me make this intricate conspiracy perfectly clear — and don’t be fooled by those slick folks from Iowa City either — Obamacare was signed into law during March of 2010.  Okay?  Are you still with me?  Construction on the Grand Avenue Bridge began in March of 2013.  I’m not kidding.  You can check.  Both in March.  Wow.  I rest my case.


You want even more?  Okay, how about this, what do the guilty do?  They run.  Well, guess who fled our country?  Yup, Mr. Barack himself.  And for where?  Why for the land of prostitution and drugs.  No, not Colorado.   Our so-called leader went to the Netherlands.  In March.  Yes, you heard me correctly, March.  Uncanny how all the strands come together, isn’t it?  March for Obamacare.  March for the bridge.  And now March for drug dealing and prostitution.


But is there another reason Obama fled the country?  After he eavesdropped and spied on innocent Americans like us, who did he run to?  Well, where did that other fellow go to escape prosecution for not eavesdropping and not spying?  You guessed it, Russia.  Who did Obama meet with in Holland?  It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see where this is going.  He met with his old pal, Putin.  Oh, my lord, just connect the dots, folks, and it leads right down to the grassy knoll and Crimea.  Surprise, surprise, look who’s massing troops on the border of the Ukraine and look who’s not man enough to stop him.  Oh, by the way, when did all this occur?  Yup, in March. The net just gets tighter and tighter.


Personally, after I saw that Obamacare forced the shut down of the Iowa Juvenile Home in Toledo, I was upset.  And then when Obamacare forced an activist judge to reopen the Juvenile Home, I was more upset.   And then when Obamacare forced our own Representative Steve King to shut down the government, I was starting to boil.  And then when Obamacare forced Representative King to physically reopen the government for the veterans to visit the World War II Memorial, which he had closed by shutting down the government, I was spitting mad.  I was so angry, I had to call my doctor for a sedative.  Which my doctor prescribed over the phone.  Of course, I reported my doctor to the Iowa Medical Board for practicing telemedicine.  Listen, I didn’t know that illegal telemedicine only applied to women.   And now my doctor won’t talk to me.   What did I tell you?  “Obamacarenot.”  It’s everywhere.


So, folks, it’s time to make a choice.  Bob Vander Plaats said “no” to becoming our next Senator, even though Bob himself told us he could have won if he wanted to, but he didn’t want to, although if he did want to, he was bigger and stronger than all the other kids on the playground, in fact three times bigger and stronger, but he didn’t want to just beat these smaller kids and become Senator, so he said that even though he was the winner, he was not going to come out and play.  Well, we need to do the same.  We need to say “no” to the Grand Avenue Bridge AND NOT DRIVE ON THE BRIDGE, even though we could.   And by saying “no” to the bridge, we are saying “no” to Obamacare.   And by saying “no” to Obamacare, we are saying “yes” to deep-fried pickles.  Please, save the pickles.

But be careful.  There are those Satanic red-light traffic cameras everywhere, daring to keep us safe.  In fact, I think that might be two cameras up on that light post — disguised as ducks.  As they say, if it quacks like a duck . . . .

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A streetcar is trying to kill me . . . .

A streetcar is trying to kill me.  I thought you should know.  Crazy?  Maybe.  Paranoid?  Certainly.  But untruthful?  You be the judge.

The bell is what announces the streetcar’s arrival.  There is no rumble, no whistle, no escaping steam to give warning.  Silence reigns as she smoothly glides along the tracks.  Three long cars connected to the earth by rails and electric wires.  The bell sounds.  It’s identical to the sound of the one on your childhood bicycle’s handle bars.  Not a blasting car horn.  No, more of a ringing that says, “Mom, look at me.”  And, sure enough, there it is, and there it goes.  Seemingly magic.


We all know that streetcars are long gone from Des Moines.  There is the periodic glimpse of a rail poking through the broken asphalt in a forgotten downtown alley.  But that’s all that remains of Des Moines’ light rail system — dull iron lying in a murky puddle.  Abandoned to cars, and buses, and Interstate 235, streetcars are a distant memory.

And fond memories they are for some.  Lord, even the acerbic Michael Gartner wrote in these very Cityview pages of meeting his father at a streetcar stop as a young boy. His father would “hop off and, first thing, lift you high in the air and give you a hug as the streetcar clangs on down the track.”  Yup, even the crusty Gartner is a believer.

Of course, my demise was also not on my mind when I first saw streetcars in the big cities of Holland.  I loved them.  And why not?  They are red, small-scale and narrow, they are clean, they give off no diesel fumes, they run nearly every ten minutes, and they just feel civilized.  People crowd on and crowd off, and no one, as far as I can see, has the urge to throw themselves onto the tracks.

But, I swear to you, my nemesis is out there.   Hidden behind a clump of trees, the streetcar silently waits for me every day.  This morning we both waited.  Who would make the first move?

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Hah, she blinks first.  The streetcar pokes out her nose and then roars past me in frustration.  Another day that I’ve not been squashed.  Yahoo.

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Clearly, I need help.

Samira de Blij drives thousands of people in her streetcar in The Hague.  Some days, she has several hundred folks sitting patiently behind her.  The reason for this is simple.  You want to go visit a friend, you jump a streetcar.  You need to go to the grocery store, hop on a streetcar.  You’re late for work?  Please, just get on the streetcar.

“You don’t have to be Einstein to drive a tram,” she says as she sits at the controls that operate over 45 tons of moving steel.  She then pauses, looks wistfully down the track, and tells me of the foxes she sees playing in the high grass next to the tracks in the early morning light.  She sighs.  Oh my.  A romantic realist is at the driver’s wheel.  I’m already half in love with my killer.  This isn’t good.

Image 2“I have been driving for 12 1/2 years.  I only wanted to do this a year.  It is such a beautiful job, you know.  If you love people, I love people, it is a very nice job.  People can be so good and so nice, you can play with it.  You can make sure that the atmosphere is good in your tram.  Because if you wait for someone running to catch the tram, and the other passengers see it, they have warm hearts for each other.  They love it when I am social for another human being.  That is always a good thing to see.  It gives me hope for humanity.”

Okay, fine.  Keep talking.  But a small part still wonders, when do we run over the unwary?  Mmmm . . . ?  When do we take out that poor schmuck from Des Moines, Iowa?

With seemingly cheerful indifference to my fate, Samira smiles at the loading passengers, calls out a welcome, and waits for the unbalanced to get seated.  And off we go to the next stop.

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The front computer tells us that Samira is running two minutes behind schedule.  She is going slow because she is spending so much time talking to me.  “Don’t worry,  don’t worry,” she keeps saying to me.  Then we see an elderly man trying to cross the track a block ahead.  He is having a hard time.  Probably four-dozen people on the streetcar have to be somewhere at a certain time.  No matter.  Samira stops everything.  We sit in the middle of the track.  She smiles and waves the old man across.  He hobbles over the rails and returns the smile.  I glance back into the cars — all the passengers are smiling.   I’ll be darned, she’s right.  Samira and her passengers do give hope for humanity.

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“Children, they love the tram.  Little kids sometimes you take them on your lap.  They push the bell.  They are so proud.”  She laughs softly to herself.  “People bring everything on the tram you know — closets, beds, mattresses, a small refrigerator, I even once had a sheep.  I drove to the stop.  My god, what a strange dog.  And it was a sheep.”

Samira pauses and then smiles at me: “Maybe I make my work bigger than it is.  But for me it is good.  It is good for me.  Because it makes me happy when I go to work. . . .   And, Joe, I see everything.  It is okay.”

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With thumbs up, my ex-killer silently drives off.  Ashamed at my silliness, I head down the street.  But, I immediately have to jump back — a small ice cream truck, with tinkling bells, nearly flattens me.  See, an ice cream truck is trying to kill me. . . .




Part 2 — The common birch tree

A clump of paper birch trees was planted by my neighbor in his front yard several years ago.  Today, the white-bark trees stand out proudly against his blue house in Des Moines.  They delight the eye.  Their cousin, the river birch, is in our front yard across the street.  80 feet tall.  It is a monster of a tree.  Our white-bark tree also stands proudly over our house.  Both sets of trees seem protective as they sit like sentries in our neighborhood.  Guarding us against evil.

Listen . . . .

I was not surprised to see the displays of shoes taken from the victims of the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau.  Adult shoes.  Children’s shoes.  Stylish shoes.  Yes, even shoes with holes.  All in one pile.  When the Soviets arrived to liberate the camps in 1945, they found 43,525 pairs of shoes not yet shipped out by the Nazis.

Image 2The shoes, the suitcases, the eyeglasses, the hair — these are all on display for anyone to see.  Shocking, but not surprising.

It is also no surprise the source of these items.  The Nazis deported, at a minimum, 1,100,000 Jews to these camps located on the edge of the Polish town of Oswiecim (Auschwitz to the Germans), about 30 miles from Krakow.  And those numbers don’t even include the thousands upon thousands of Poles and Roma taken to Auschwitz.  The large majority of newly-arrived victims — the children, the sick, the elderly, pregnant women, mothers with small children — were stripped of these same displayed clothes and were immediately pushed into the gas chambers.  The remaining small group, the “prisoners,” were also stripped of their clothing, their heads shaved, and they were put to work, or experimented upon, or shot, or hung.  Their lives were a couple of weeks or a couple of months or a couple of years.  As one surviving prisoner wrote: “[The Nazis told us] you did not come here to live, you came here to die, and you will.”

The size of the place is also not a surprise.  I stood midway on the train tracks in Birkenau and looked down to the far trees.  It’s like standing at the Polk County Courthouse and looking east down Court Avenue all the way to the Des Moines River.  Now, do that same distance in all four directions.  There you go.  The size of Birkenau.


Auschwitz and Birkenau were distinct camps, but they were really part of the same complex made up of several nearby camps.  Birkenau’s claim was its ability to kill and cremate the most people in the quickest time.  It had four main gas chambers with crematoriums, each able to murder 5000 people a day.   Efficiency was documented and prized by the Nazis.  Meticulous work orders were saved even for the crematoriums.   No surprise.

I was also not surprised by the display of hundreds of canisters of deadly gas pellets, Zyklon-B, that were poured down the chimneys into the gas chambers.

Image 3

Our guide, a Polish woman, who committed to this life’s work when she was 18, told us that the poison gas pellets were activated by the heat of the victims’ bodies.  Even the choice of poison seemed to underscore Nazi hatred.  The Jews must die, according to the Nazis, as long as their bodies are warm.  Hate is not surprising.  Gut-wrenching.  Horrible.  But not surprising.

No, I was surprised by only one thing . . . .

The three of us walked through the main gate of Birkenau, down the tracks that run on and on until they don’t, and then we turned to the right.  We passed the gas chambers and crematoriums that the Nazis tried to destroy before the Soviets arrived.  Crematorium III, with it’s stairs going downward into the large vault where thousand upon thousands had their final moments.  Crematorium IV, which was destroyed in a mutiny by Jewish prisoners in 1944 — three SS men dead — 250 Jews killed.  The ruins of Crematorium V.

And then we looked up.

We are totally alone. Not another human soul.  Birds call somewhere in the far distance.  Muted.  The grey sky empties the late-winter landscape of all color.  Dusk in the middle of the afternoon.  Everything appears to be descending, enveloping, eroding.

And then there’s the birch trees.  They rise up out of the forest floor, stately and proud, watching us watch.


There’s a picture, taken by one of the SS officers in 1944, showing dozens of mothers and children, and an old man or two, next to these trees.  Waiting to go into the gas chamber.  Sitting and standing in this forest.  Moments from death.  Innocent.

Image 1

I ask our guide if it was really this peaceful back then.

“Yes,” she says.  “I have talked to several survivors who said it was very quiet because no one wanted to say anything that would draw the Nazi’s notice.  If the Nazis noticed them, they were beaten or shot.”

And are these the same trees as back then?  “Yes,” she says.  I later read that the Polish variety of the “common birch tree” lives to over 100 years.

The guide considers me as I look closely at the trees, and she says: “You know, the name ‘Birkenau’ means birch trees.”

Of course it does.  Certainly it does.  How could it not?  A nightmare wrapped in festive paper.

Yes, I admit it, I am totally surprised as I stand next to these trees.  I know it doesn’t make sense.  I know I’m an old guy whose mind is on the way out.  I know that crazy is actually crazy.  But I can’t stop thinking — given what the birch trees saw, how can they not be weeping?



Part 1 — Stones

Stones are a bane to Iowa farmers.  Every year, new ones work themselves up out of the dark depths of the earth to land right smack in the middle of the field that is to be planted or plowed or disced.  Yup, right there in the middle of the row is a rock that wasn’t there last year. Every spring, the farmer will build a cairn of stones on the edges of the field to haul away for use at some other spot on the farm.  And the next year, it starts all over, another stone suddenly appears.  Birthed out of the prairie soil.

In 1940, after the fall of Poland, 380,000 Jews were penned into a ghetto in Warsaw.  A wall was built around that ghetto, and any Jew found outside those walls after October of 1940 was at risk.  To die.  The numbers inside only increased as time went on.  It is estimated that another 70,000 Jews were added to the ghetto from surrounding areas in Poland.  450,000 people before it was all done.
ImageThe Nazis decided the Jews could live on 184 calories a day.  So, the deaths began.  In 1941, over 100,000 died from lack of food and from the accompanying diseases that swept the ghetto.  So many died that the dead were without burial.  Bodies lay in the streets. In 1942, after the words were spoken of the “final solution to the Jewish question,” 265,000 Warsaw Jews were herded to a train station on the edge of the ghetto, known as the Umschlagplatz.
Image 5From here, the Jews were taken to their deaths at Treblinka.   265,000 in 1942 alone. Finally, by April of 1943, the Warsaw ghetto was nearly gone.  An amazing resistance was launched by the few survivors.  But by May of 1943, the ghetto was leveled.  Another horrific chapter of a many-chaptered book in the persecution of the Jews.
The end of a time.
A high brick wall should be easy to find.  Even in Warsaw.  We are looking for a small surviving remnant of the ghetto wall.  Sienna Street in Warsaw, the books say.  The address is 55.  Walking, walking, walking.   We actually find Sienna Street.  We walk down the street.  Nothing.  We retrace our route.  Okay, there is Sienna 55.  Nothing.  Zero.  Zip.
Ah, the book says the entrance is on another street.  Sure enough, there is a small sign pointing down an alleyway midway down the adjacent street.  We walk into the alley with some concern that we are walking into a private drive — we can only see an acupuncturist’s shop on a ground floor, and in front of us, the back of a large apartment complex.  In the inside courtyard, to the left, is a contained garbage bin for the complex.  A man comes out to dump garbage in the bin.  He leaves.  All is quiet.  Not another soul.
Then we see it — a corner of the ghetto wall.  Abutting the face of the white apartments.
Image 7
The wall seems to be crumbling as we stand there.  It is late afternoon.  There is no street noise in this inner courtyard.  You can touch the brick with an open palm if you want.  No alarm will go off.  No security guards are present.   It seems forgotten except for the placard attached to the wall and a map of the former ghetto.  The placard reads: “In the period from Nov 15, 1940 to Nov 20, 1941 this wall marked the limit of The Ghetto.”
I don’t touch the wall.  There is an irrational fear that that the bricks will give voice to what occurred here.   And perhaps I will be measured.
My wife and I only whisper.
Two bricks from this wall were taken for the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C., and apparently bricks were taken for other museums around the world.   And in the cavities, stones are placed.  Small stones.  Some on top of a note.  Some with a candle.
Image 4This is not complicated.  Someone stood where my wife and I are standing.  Today.  Yesterday.  30 years ago.  They brought a stone.  Maybe from Israel.  Maybe from Sweden.  Maybe from Des Moines.  Or just maybe from the ground beneath the wall.  It doesn’t really matter.  Someone else was here.  Someone else saw.  Someone else remembered.
This spring, Iowa farmers will again collect newborn stones from their fields.  These stones will come from deep within the earth to land without ceremony next to the soybeans.   Clean.  Fresh.  New.  These stones will not be soiled by human suffering.  They are Iowa stones.  Formed by icebergs.  Stolid and reliable.  But as anti-Semitism ping-pongs around Western and Eastern Europe, from soccer fields to political halls, who will remember the stones in the crumbling Warsaw Ghetto wall?

The late winter blues

You’re tired.  You’re tired of winter.  You’re tired of slogging through another day.  You’re really tired of another year silently slipping away.   Your exciting job of last fall has become relentlessly mired.  And now even the children are acting squirrelly.   Spring probably won’t come.  Listen, I’ve heard that can happen.  We will all just exist in some soggy, in-between time.  Grey will be Iowa’s new State Color.  Leftovers will be the new State Dish.  Mourning doves, now living furtively on the lam thanks to the Iowa legislature, will be the new State Bird.

How to get out of this funk?

I have an idea.  When’s the last time you were on a bike?  Do you remember the feeling?  There you are.  Gently turning the pedals.  Tall.  Upright.  Your cheeks blushed by wind.  Your ears muted by the whoosh of air.  Your eyes wet at the far corners.  And your mind focused on balance and movement and the outside.  All the while your arms reach outwards to embrace the handlebars and . . . .

Yikes!   Shake yourself. Enough of this idyllic claptrap.  Get a grip.  But . . . could this “wistful you” of late winter be the real you?  In Des Moines, Iowa?

It’s winter in Holland.  No one seems to register this fact.  In a country where there are more bikes than people, you just mount up.  You bike if you’re four years old and you bike if you’re 80 years old.  You bike to school.  You bike to the grocery store.  You bike to work.  You bike to the theater.  You even bike to pick up your Christmas tree.  Rain, sleet, hail.  Doesn’t matter.  You just bike.

Let’s start with the functional.  Are you counting the bikes in this grocery store parking lot?  Yup, well over 100.  And all close to the front door.

Image 4

And where’s your three-ton SUV to haul home the toilet paper?  No problem.  The large wooden box shaped like the prow of a ship is the perfect container for groceries, or kids, or even your mother-in-law.  It’s the mini-van of the low countries.

Image 5

And what about family?  How can this possibly work when you have to get kids to school, and to soccer, and to piano lessons?  Could I interest you in this green model, which offers a handy way to transport five in cozy comfort.  Heck, it even has a convertible option.  Did I tell you about the gas mileage?

Image 17

Yes, I admit, it does rain nearly every day in this neck of the woods.  And that’s why God invented the umbrella to protect your business attire as you’re biking to meet a client.  Yes, you’re going to have wet shoes.  So what?  Wear wool socks.  Duh.

Image 2And what about the car’s all important function as a place to make-out with your sweetie?  Well, my favorite bike sighting is young couples.  The gal usually sits side-saddle on a wooden padded frame over the rear tire, with one arm gently resting against the the guy’s back.  A soft touch.  They chat away as they roll down the street.  When they come to a stop, she gracefully alights, and stands at the side of the bike with no break in the conversation.  The light changes, back up on the cushion, and away they go.  I imagine they get to a certain quota of stops, and then one of them just proposes marriage.  It’s time.  They’ve biked together long enough.  The other says “yes,” of course.   And 10 years later, . . . the loads gets a little heavier.  And the legs get a little stronger.


So, where are the dark enemies of these bikers?   You know, the bad guys who complain that bikes are taking up too much of Ingersoll Avenue?  Well, since everyone bikes in Holland, everyone is in the same boat.  The bike trumps pedestrians by common practice, and the bike trumps cars by strict liability laws.  The bike is the boss of the road.  Period.

Of course, there has to be evil lurking in this daydream.  It’s earthly form is the devil-red, all-devouring tram.  Everyone gets out of the way of the tram.  Although if you don’t, it slows down, rings a soft little bell, and you hop to the side.  Hell’s wrath avoided.

Image 1

So, late winter blues?  Go get your bike tuned up.  Put on your helmet.  Hop up in the saddle.  And become the king and queen of all you can see.










Dear Lolo Jones . . . .

Let’s be clear up front.  I am not a fan of fans.  Even the idea of “fans” conjures a group of normally sober Iowans, good people, suddenly sprouting bright school colors as they perch on bar stools or couches, their eyes intently focused forward while surrounded by a sea of cheesy potato chips and neon-red little hotdogs.  Some 19-year-old on the screen will soon decide whether these normal midwestern folks will spend the next few days wildly ecstatic or morosely depressed.  Really, fans are just one step away from multiple personality disorder — there they are, standing at the photocopy machine at work, meek and mild, then, BANG, they become your crazy Uncle Bob and loopy Aunt Thelma.  Trust me, I’ve been there, being a fan is not a good thing.

Well, Lolo, I’m a fan.  Back when you were at the Drake track for Roosevelt High School, my wife and I stood on the field with mouths agape watching you do the hurdles.  We were hooked.  LSU, a professional career, and two Olympics have only fanned our enthusiasm.  Yup, sure enough, that’s us on the couch.

Here you are again.  A new sport.  A new Olympics.  Good for you.  But where do you go from here?  What happens when your 38 years old?  Or 48 years old?  Or even 58 years old?

Got me.

So I talked to a guy named Rik Priester.  A world champion power lifter.  Yup, the best in the world in 1990.  Back then, he was you.  Well, you, but Dutch.   And with more hair.


In the beginning his star didn’t shine quite so brightly.

“My mother left my father when I was three or four and got another boyfriend.  It did not go well for me.  He drank a lot.  When you’re young you don’t know, but afterwards.  Every day a lot.  In the beginning, I don’t think there was any violence.  But 10, 11, 12 years old, there was violence a lot.  Against my mom and against me.  But more towards my mom, but I stand in between.  Every day you know your dad comes home, he’s drunk, and the story repeats.  Every day the same thing.”

Priester does not volunteer information about himself easily.  Maybe this reluctance is his character, or maybe it’s a cultural remnant of Dutch Calvinism.  Unclear.  Although, he looks directly in my eyes as he relates these earlier years.  Perhaps daring me to disbelieve.  I don’t.

The violence at home continued until the inevitable confrontation that resulted in Priester running away at 16 to live with his aunt.  And at 17, he joined another family — the Dutch marines.

”For six years I did everything — special forces, scuba, anti-terrorist.”

But he left the marines, looking for more opportunity.  He tried management at a factory for four years.  Didn’t work.  He tried schooling to be a fireman.  Unsuccessful.   He then became a bouncer and started a security business.  Not enough.

“I felt I had to do something with my brains.  So what can I do at the age of 43 to start studying?  I went to the University for physical education at age 43.  I was the oldest one.  I was twice as old as the other students.  In my third year, they invited me at the University to teach.  For 12 years I did that at the University.  I was very proud.  At the same time, also in the third year, I taught at the High School.”

During all this searching for meaningful work, Priester married the remarkable Harriet.  Four children followed.   Priester is very clear about Harriet, even 31 years later — “I owe her everything.”  She rolls her eyes, but smilingly pecks him on the cheek.

And his world championship as a powerlifter?  After his 1990 victory, Priester left that world far behind him.  He had other things to do.

Five years ago, he opened a family gym with Harriet.  Professional athletes began training at the gym.  Priester assisted them in their programs.  Priester’s knowledge about strength building became known to the Dutch National teams.  Within two years of opening the gym, he became the strength coach for the Dutch sailing teams and the Dutch beach volleyball teams.  He got results with his protégés that drew attention.  By 2012, he was at the Olympics in London with two of his young women.  Amazing.


So, quite a story, wouldn’t you say, Lolo.  Rags to riches.  A life well lived.  A beginning, a middle, and an end.

Ahhhhh, not enough for your competitive soul?  Try this.

He wiggles his way into the compression suit with some difficulty.  An old dog with newfangled equipment.  Clearly unhappy with the clothing’s restraint.  The mat is squared just right. The weight belt is lifted and placed and then lifted and placed again in the same spot on the bar.  A sacred ritual.  Effort can only get you so far in this world.

Priester dips under the bar hooked on the rack.  Focuses.  And then rises up from the ground, shouldering the burden.  He steps back delicately, balanced on a fine line, carrying not only the weights, but all of us who have stopped breathing as we watch.  He goes down, down, down, into a squat.  And now what?



“I started the second time when 52 years old.  Squats are my thing.  I went up to a certain level.  I decided I had to slow down, it’s enough.  Then I looked at the results of people competing.  So I started adding weights.  I now have the Dutch record in squats, but I want the record in deadlift and bench press.  I have to finish it.  I became second in the world last year at the World Championships in squatting [for all age groups].  I was 57 years old.”

And your goal?

“World champion in September.”  Okay, 58 years old and world champion in all age groups.  The best in the world.  Really?

Back at the gym, Priester gathers himself, then explodes upwards from the squat, shaking the room, raw and wild-eyed.  We breath in as he sets down his load.  I wipe my brow.

There you go, Lolo.  Something to consider as you fly down on that wild ride, tucked in your bobsled, hanging on for dear life, and wondering what is next after this giddy Olympics.

Oh, one more thing.  You remember Priester’s wife, Harriet, the woman who is his backbone through thick and thin.  I stood next to her in the gym as her husband prepared to lift.  She leaned over towards me with a smile.

“Joe, don’t tell anyone,” she said as she was watching her husband lift more weight than anyone in the world,  “but I don’t know why they say those power-lifter outfits are sexy.”

Yup, Lolo, I suggest you find a Harriet also.

Now, where are those cheesy potato chips?