Dave Parker died this past winter. You probably didn’t know him. He farmed with his uncle out near Mingo and lived alone in the old family farm house up on a hill. A big white clapboard house, with farm machinery spread out back, grain bins to the side, a carefully mowed yard, and an aged peach tree that spoke of an earlier time when clothes were hung out on the lines and pies cooled in the kitchen. He died unexpectedly in that same house one wintery night last January as the fields lay fallow. He was 51 years old.
The meal is pure Iowan. A slab of pork is handed across the table, taking up the entire paper plate, barely leaving room for a white roll balanced carefully on the side. Breaded mushrooms just out of the deep-fat fryer (with the cook loudly extolling his expertise as a morel-mushroom-cooking master — which he is) are plopped on top of the meat. Out on the patio, folks wear t-shirts and feed caps and jeans and shorts as they eat and laugh and talk. Yup, it’s the first Morel Mushroom Fest underway at the Greencastle Tavern in Mingo, Iowa.
Oh, and let’s not forget the auction.
“One hundred dollar bid, now one-twenty-five, one-twenty-five, will ya’ give me one-twenty-five?”
Old signs and beer coolers and chain-saw art are quickly sold under the rhythmic chant of the auctioneer. Then Ryan Maher, the owner of the Greencastle Tavern with his wife Theresa, stands up next to the auctioneer with an Hawaiian shirt.
“This is a genuine Dave Parker Hawaiian Shirt,” he shouts. “This shirt actually belonged to Dave,” he claims. “Don’t worry,” he laughs, “the tags are still on it, clean and new. This is your chance to own an original.”
“Three hundred dollar bid, now three-twenty-five, three-twenty-five, will ya’ give me three- twenty-five?”
What’s going on here? I ask Ryan later in the night.
“We did this tonight because we wanted to do something to honor Dave. We wanted to have this auction tonight to try to raise money. Dave was always sitting in the front row every time we had an auction for a little kid that had cancer, or any benefit events, or any fundraisers to help out. Dave was front row.”
Ryan is a big man with a big voice and big emotions. As he speaks of Dave, he stops and turns his back to me. Quiet. No words. After a bit, he turns back.
“Dave spent money on things he’d never use and when we cleaned his house out after he died, we found all kinds of stuff he bought at auctions that were brand new. He was just a very generous person.”
The large crowd that is present for the auction clearly agrees. A chainsaw carving of morel mushrooms is on the block.
“Four hundred dollar bid, now four-twenty-five, four-twenty-five, will ya’ give me four-twenty-five? Sold! For four hundred dollars.”
“I thought a good way to honor his memory would be to do something for kids. There’s nothing he wouldn’t do for kids. So we thought, let’s have this auction and give the money for Dollars for Scholars Colfax-Mingo. Let’s do a scholarship in his name for kids who are trying to further their education in either agriculture, because Dave was a farmer, or a kid who’s trying to go into the trades because there’s not a lot of money for those kids. Dave was a jack of all trades. He was a steelworker, an auto body man, he was a lot of things before he became a farmer. That’s the only way I knew how to continue to honor Dave. That’s what we did.”
Ryan emphasizes the “we.”
“There are so many people here who loved him so much. It’s not me that did this. This is the way of our community.”
Ah, but I already knew this.
Dave was our neighbor. He took us city folks under his wing and showed us how to run a little home in the country. He plowed our driveway, sprayed our ditches, and patiently explained septic systems. All done with a smile and a wink and nothing asked in return. He took care of us over the few years we knew him.
By the way, Dave had his own demons, as he would be the first to tell you, but during those years, we only saw him angry once. Our car had gone into a ditch and we’d called a tow truck to pull us out. When Dave later learned we had not called him and his tractor, he was not happy. Only then did I understand that we had denied him the chance to help. And helping his neighbors was who he was.
The last time I saw him, he had his truck pulled over next to our ditch, a beer in hand, oil-stained hat tipped back, one leg hanging out, smiling and laughing with the pleasure of just being there. That was his gift to us.
Ryan shakes his head sadly, “He was something, maybe not the same thing, but he was something to everybody in Mingo. He was family to us.”
A white dove has appeared at Dave’s farm house up on the hill. He’s been there all spring and is there now. Eating last-year’s corn out of the fields, I imagine. Keeping an eye on things. Wondering who’s going to fill the gap.
May Dave Parker rest in peace.