“Our boys” — Part 1

The old Dutch couple moved slowly along the narrow reflecting pool.  Flowers and a vase were cradled in the woman’s arms.  They stopped.  The man took the vase from the woman and carefully, with obvious complaint by his joints, went to one knee next to the pool.  He dragged the vase through the water and then handed the dripping vase to his wife.   Pushing both hands against his bent knee, he forced himself back into a walking position.  The man adjusted his coat.  With his wife by his side, he continued the slow walk along the pool towards the stairs.  Looking past the old couple, and just on the other side of the stairs, could be seen the tops of marble crosses and stars of David glimmering in the early morning sun.  And in the far corner, an America flag flying far from home.

ALFRED WESTVOLD.  Hometown in Jasper County, Iowa.  Killed on April 7, 1945, east of Muhlhausen-Thuringen, Germany.  His wife was Helen, his only son was Larry.

The cemetery near Margraten, the Netherlands, might have been sitting smack in Iowa farm country from outward appearances.  When the bus from Maastricht left my wife and I on the side of the road, we found ourselves in the middle of lush spring wheat fields.  Not a town or a person in sight.   It was the wrong country for “amber fields of grain,” but it felt like home.

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The engraved stone wall across the road announced: Netherlands American Cemetery and Memorial.  This road in front of the cemetery, the road we travelled to arrive, was originally built by the Romans for the war campaigns of Caesar.  This same road was used by the Germans to invade France.  And the road was later used by the Allies to attack Germany.  During late1944 through 1945, however, this road carried truckload after truckload of dead boys.   Sometimes 1000 a day.  The trucks were unloaded at this very location.  The last stop.

ADOLPH PEDERSON.  Hometown in Emmet County, Iowa.  Killed on November 28th, 1944, in Germany.  Bernice was his wife.  He had six sisters and one brother.

Although the Netherlands wasn’t totally liberated by the Allies until 1945, this little section in the southeast corner of Holland was freed by September of 1944.  It became a staging area for troops heading into Germany and other parts of the Netherlands.  Many soldiers that came through here were put up by Dutch families and made Dutch friends.  Many of these same soldiers returned in the trucks, killed in nearby Germany.  Over 17,000 bodies.  The majority of the dead were eventually returned to their hometowns in America.  But 8,301 stayed in this restful spot next to their comrades — hallowed ground.

CHARLES CLOUGH.  Hometown in Hardin County, Iowa.  Killed on November 22, 1944, in Mullerdorf, Germany.  His dad was Charles.  His mom was Eldona.  He was killed by a German sniper on Thanksgiving Day.

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Forty sets of brothers are buried here.  Side by side.  As are four women caught in the maelstrom of the Second World War.  When bodies were found that could not be identified, they were given a marker that says: “Here rests in honored glory a comrade in arms known but to God.”  There is even one grave with two unidentified bodies together.  It is suspected they were killed in a tank explosion.  Melded together in the heat, it was felt “unethical” to separate them.

EDWIN WULFEKUHLE.  Hometown in Clayton County, Iowa.  Killed on July 28, 1943, somewhere in the North Sea.  Wife was Ruth.  His only son was Edmund.  He was last seen bailing out of his plane.

Two long walls separated by a reflecting pool provide the roll call for 1,722 missing American soldiers.  In 1994, the remains were found of one young soldier whose name was on this wall of the missing.  His funeral was the last to be held at the cemetery, nearly 50 years after the end of the war.

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GEORGE KERBY.  Hometown in Appanoose County, Iowa.  Killed on February 23, 1945, in Hilfarth, Germany.  His dad was David.  His mom was Cora.  George was promoted to Private First Class nine days before he was killed.

Ah, but there’s another story this cemetery tells.

In late 1944 and early 1945, as the bodies poured into Margraten, the Dutch town folks responded by assisting in any way possible, including digging graves when the bodies became too many for the American Burial Corp.  When the war finally ended, the Dutch communities were at a loss as to how to thank the Americans and to show respect for those who gave their lives.   On Memorial Day in 1945, just weeks after the end of the war, 30,000 Dutch showed up at this cemetery to honor the American dead.  Even more amazing, all 17,000 graves were decked out in flowers provided from Dutch gardens.  After the ceremonies were ended, the Dutch refused to go home.  They remained at the cemetery to pray for the dead.  No one left.  And the next year?  50,000 Dutch showed up at the Margraten cemetery.  Yup, 50,000 Dutch to honor our dead.

RICHARD WESTFALL.  Hometown in Tama County, Iowa.  Killed on April 1, 1945, at Eisen, Germany.  His mom was Nora.  His dad was Carroll.  He also had two brothers who fought in the war, George and Raymond.

A translator used frequently by the American army staff back in 1944 was the Margraten town clerk, Joseph van Laar.  After the war ended, an American soldier asked van Laar to periodically bring flowers to the grave of his cousin.   Peter Schrijvers, in his book about the cemetery and town, says that van Laar responded: “I will take care of your cousin’s grave as if he was my own family, . . .  I will adopt his grave.”

LYLE EVANS.  Hometown in Linn County, Iowa.  Killed on April 6, 1945, near Dortmund, Germany.  His wife was Alice.

And so it began.  The request for adoptions from American relatives overwhelmed van Laar.  Soon the mayor of Margraten decided to form a committee to organize the adoption process.  The Dutch responded to the committee’s request for volunteers in overwhelming numbers.  Grave after grave was given a family.  And now, nearly 70 years later, every grave is adopted, every missing person has a family.  Yup, over 10,000 adoptions.

As for the adopters, sure, they bring flowers to the graves, they write letters to the families when the families request, they send pictures of the grave or pictures of the name on the wall, but, mostly, they remember.  They remember when we all might forget.   And their remembrance is kept alive by their children.  The caretaker at the cemetery said that some graves are tended by the third generation of the same Dutch family.  The dead passing on the memory of the dead.  Amazing.

Image 5On Memorial Day this year, every grave will again have flowers.  And, once again, thousands from the surrounding communities will come for the ceremonies to honor the dead.  How can this be?  Schrijvers offers a clue: “When the Dutch talk about the soldiers whose graves they have adopted, they rarely mention ranks or last names.  Instead, they speak of Jack, or Gustav, or Antonio, or, just as naturally and caringly, of ‘our boys.’”  You see, this is personal.  As van Laar said to the American soldier, “I will take care of your cousin’s grave as if he was my own family.”  And so they do.

What about the dozens upon dozens of Iowa boys resting on this hill?  Don’t worry.  Each one of them has a Dutch family.  These families are bringing flowers, brushing off the cross, or the star of David, or the carved indenture into the stone wall.  Grass will be clipped, bird droppings whisked away, a wet cloth wiped across the smooth white marble.  Rest assured, the grave will be prepared for this Memorial Day, someone will speak his name aloud, and every Iowa boy will be remembered and honored.


PAUL LUTKER.  Hometown in Scott County, Iowa.  Killed on January 2, 1945, in Belgium.  Wife was Lenora.  Daughter was Nancy.

Meanwhile, the old Dutch couple made their way up the stairs to the large field of graves.  The old man trailed just a little behind his wife.  They seemed intent as they headed into the field of graves.  They had a job to do.  An important job.  They had flowers to deliver to their boy.

“Our boys.”


What should a woman not have to do?


Wading into the dark waters of women’s issues is not a good idea.  Especially for a male.  I  know this.  Why not just stay up on the bank where there are no snakes, no quicksand, no danger?  This seems a no-brainer.   But, unfortunately, I also believe in the magic of four events.  If four similar events call out to you within a short time, even though you are reluctant to wade into the muck, it’s already too late.   Just by counting the events and noting the coincidences, you’ve already planted one foot right in the middle of the snakes; you might as well put the other foot in the quicksand.   And, who knows, it may be a quick death.  Although I wouldn’t count on it.

It all began with Joni Ernst.  You know, one of the Republicans running for the Senate seat being vacated by Iowa Senator Harkin.  Yup, it was her amazing ad touting her ability to castrate pigs.  A gimmick to be sure.  A successful one.   In the same vein as the ad, however, I wondered about Ernst’s political position on Planned Parenthood and contraceptives, given her proclivity for castration.  Heck, you probably wondered the same thing.   But I recognized that thought as silly nonsense.  Unfortunately, in short order, along came Sarah Palin pulling me towards the water.

“No one is going to push her around . . . .  She’s not one who’s going to be told to sit down and shut up and let the good old boys do what they’ve been doing . . . .  She’s packing’ and she knows how to use it.” Yup, that  would be Palin stumping for Ernst in West Des Moines.  She continued: “Liberals like to claim there is a war on women.  Little chicks who need little sugar daddy government to take care of us.  Liberals make it sound that women are defenseless. Well, [Joni Ernst] is a pistol-packing Harley rider.”

Yikes, what was happening?  Sarah Palin was causing me to think about what women should do in this day and age.  What are women’s aspirations?  Where does feminism go next?  Palin’s vision of women (who she admiringly calls “Momma Grizzlies”) is that they should be strong, aggressive, and up for a fight.  The term “defenseless women” is coined by Democrats to entice women into being subsidized by the government — according to Palin.   Interesting notion.  I mean, who doesn’t admire a strong women?  Of course, do strength and aggression put bread on the table?  Is any safety net needed for single moms or women caught in poverty because of health problems or other reasons?   Is aggression really the only missing ingredient for women to succeed in the world?  And is carrying a gun ever the answer?

See, I was starting to fall over the edge into the water.   What did I tell you?  And I was given a decided shove by an event in Washington D.C.

A panel of self-styled conservative women were discussing feminism at the Heritage Foundation.  Mona Charen, a columnist for conservative publications, forcibly argued that the real concern by women should not be the lack of women in powerful positions, but “what is happening with men.”  “The decline of marriage has damaged men, women, and children. . . .  Family disintegration is the problem. . . .  The decline of stable families is hitting boys disproportionately hard.” Charen then rattled off statistics supporting these conclusions.  Having read of these findings before, I am hard-pressed to disagree with her.  Few would disagree that children generally do better with intact families.  Period.  She goes on to argue that single women with children are exposed to all sorts of dangers, which is why government programs are attractive to them and why they vote for Democrats.   Marriage is the answer, according to Charen.  And who caused the problem for women?  Charen tells us: “Feminism must take the blame.”

If you set aside Charen’s provocative language, we are left with her proposition that marriage is what society needs for the stability of the family.   That makes some sense.  I wonder, however, if she goes far enough.  Is the lack of two-partner families just a symptom of greater societal problems like poverty?  To say marriage is the answer to family disintegration is like telling a person to stop coughing to cure their cold.  I don’t think it works that way.

And then the fourth of my magic four events occurred, pushing me right into the dark waters.

Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, successful TV personalities, wrote a column in The Atlantic.  They assert that the reason for the disparities between women and men in the workplace is  because women have less self-confidence than men.

“Success, it turns out, correlates just as closely with confidence as it does with competence. No wonder that women, despite all our progress, are still woefully underrepresented at the highest levels. All of that is the bad news. The good news is that with work, confidence can be acquired. Which means that the confidence gap, in turn, can be closed.”

Is that it?  Is self-confidence the piece that will bring high-powered positions to women?  Can self-confidence really be learned by action?  Isn’t this just a variation on Sarah Palin’s Momma Grizzly?  And what about Charen’s concern about marriage?  How does that tie into this workplace disparity?

My head was spinning.  Four visions concerning what women should do.  I could no longer ignore it.  So, I did what any man would do.  I went to the gym.

Henriette stands behind the main desk — the mother of this gym in Holland.  With her pale, freckled skin and reddish-blond hair, she could be the poster woman for the word “Dutch.”  And like the Dutch, she does not tolerate the intolerant.  Including me when I get on my high horse.   You want advice?  She is the go-to gal.

Henriette told me a story.

“At the start of the war, my mom was engaged to marry a Jewish man.  He was sent away. . . .  She feels so awful and sad about it.  It was a strange time.  Everyone wants to survive.  After the war, she met my dad.  He was a smooth talker.  She thought he was the best man ever.”

But soon after the marriage, Henriette’s father started acting strangely.  “He wrote with lipstick on the walls, ‘my wife, she is dirty,’ because there was some stuff left around the table.  It started as mental abuse and then physical abuse.  When it was done, he cried and said he was sorry.  ‘I hope you can give me another chance.’  My mother was pregnant. Her dad was in prison because he built bunkers for the Germans during the war.  Soon she had two kids, three kids, four kids, and I’m the fifth.”

When Henriette begged her mother to leave her father because of the abuse and his philandering, her mother stated that she had nowhere to go.  So the abuse continued.  “My brother and I have the most hitting.  The three older sisters had less.  My brother is stuttering.  When my brother didn’t say words, my dad looked for reason to beat him up.  He shaved his head one side so everyone could see that he did something wrong.  My brother left when he was 15.  All those years go by.  And I left at 16.”


Okay, what should a woman do?  I certainly don’t have the answer.  Not that I would object if you are a married, self-confident, Harley rider.   Or even an unmarried, shy, bicycle rider.

What should a woman not have to do?  Mmmm . . . how about survive?









A typical conspiracy

Conspiracies are awesome.  Who doesn’t love an intricate web of deceit and lies and blind alleys that end with a broken bottle, three yellow tulips, and five drops of blood.   The obvious explanation?  A conspiracy.  Conspiracies are the province of mystery story writers and science fiction authors and the media.  We all love a good conspiracy.

And we certainly have had our share of them in recent times.  Just check the internet.  Global warming is a conspiracy by those against big oil.  The horrible tragedy of the Twin Towers was a conspiracy by the Government to curtail individual freedoms.  The mysterious loss of Malaysian Flight 370 was a conspiracy to cover up that it was shot down by [blank] government for [blank] reason.  Oh, and let’s not forget that Obamacare is a conspiracy to bring us under the thumb of Russian Socialism.  And on and on and on.

Conspiracy theorists, however, are in no way limited to grand tragedies and health care.  When we receive two parking tickets in a row, it is obviously a conspiracy by the Des Moines Police Department.   Offering year-round school for Des Moines Schools is a conspiracy to undermine the family.  Your boss asking you to train a new employee — duh — conspiracy to phase you out of a job.  When I was a prosecutor with the Polk County Attorney’s Office, I was constantly accused of being involved in some kind of grand conspiracy against someone for some ill-gotten purpose.  Please.  As my wife would gladly tell you, I’m just not that clever.

But even though all conspiracies have a menacing component, something dangerous to our wellbeing, we still cling to their rosy light.  This might be because conspiracies require the existence of a higher being, a clear purpose, an explanation for the inexplicable.  If every accident, every mistake, every tragedy, every stupidity, can be explained away as the result of some Machiavelian madman, wow, we are free and clear.   Something bigger and smarter and more evil than mere ignorance is causing it all to happen.  Absolution complete.

I ran across a new conspiracy the other day in, of all places, Colmar, France.  Colmar is this fairytale city that has a markedly unfairytale past.  First, the fairytale.  It is one of the most funky, beautiful little places in the world.  It sits comfortably on tributaries of the Rhine River at the foot of the Vosges  Mountains in north-east France — the Alsace region.  Yup, you heard me correctly, I said wine.  Riesling in particular.  Although the vines are just beginning to sprout, they are something to behold.

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And the town is a delight of rich-pastel colored houses, timbered windows and doors, and cobblestone streets that wind and curve and wax and wane.

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Sure, this place is the home of the guy that designed the Statute of Liberty and it has a museum with a work of art that is such a big deal no museum outside of Paris is more visited in France.  But it is these amazing homes that cause you to stand in the middle of the street with your mouth open and eyes wide.

Now imagine tanks and soldiers and machine gun fire on these streets.  Yup, Colmar was conquered by France in 1673, made part of the newly-formed Germany in 1871, then back to the French after the First World War, then retaken by Germany during the Second World War, then back to the French in 1945.  As you can see, none of pretty Colmar’s history was very pretty.   How it survived is a mystery to me.

But to the conspiracy.  As you World War II buffs know, by January of 1945 the Germans were almost pushed back to the Rhine River.  Not quite, however.  There was a pocket around Colmar still held by the Germans.  The Battle of the Bulge was over, but there was real concern about this small area in the Alsace region.  The French and the Americans mounted an offensive.  At the end of the day, it is estimated 8000 Americans lost their lives at the Colmar Pocket.  And twice that many French.  As for the Germans, they still don’t know how many died.  A lot.  An unbelievable cost for a battle that has disappeared in history.

But, again, back to the conspiracy.  Just after Colmar was taken by the Americans and French, the Americans arrived with a truck that contained two safes.  In those safes was special super-secret cryptography equipment used only for the highest level of communications among the Allies.   And, even more amazing, in those safes were the Allied plans for the spring invasion of Germany.  Yup, the entire plans drawn up by Eisenhower and his buddies.  All sitting in a truck in Colmar, France.  Parked on a side street.  And since it was nighttime, everyone was tucked into bed.  Sound asleep.

Well, not quite everyone.

That night the truck disappeared.

So what happened?  Did the Germans sneak back into town (they were four miles out), find the side street, hot-wire the truck, and scoot back out of town?  Did Hitler order a cunning infiltration?  Was the truck really stolen by the Russians in preparation for the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962?  Or was it aliens?  You can pay your money and make your choice, but, clearly, a conspiracy of the highest order.

Of course, I’d never heard of the “Colmar Incident.”  I suspect you hadn’t either.  In researching Colmar, I came across a secret report, written years earlier, released by the National Security Agency in 2008.  It told of the loss of the truck  and how it was a potential disaster for the invasion of Germany.  It catalogued the unlimited resources thrown at the pending catastrophe.  Even Eisenhower was personally involved, according to the NSA document.

After an intense hunt for several days, the truth did come to light about the stolen truck — and it wasn’t Hitler, it wasn’t the Russians, and it wasn’t aliens.  A French farmer was the culprit.  Fortunately, all the top-secret information and equipment was found untouched.  Germany could be invaded in the spring.  World War II was soon to be history.  The end of the Colmar Incident.

Oh, and one more tidbit, according to the NSA report, the French farmer did not steal the truck to sell the information to the highest bidder for world domination.  Nope, that darn French farmer took the truck because he had some furniture to move.  Yup, furniture.  So, being a practical farmer, he swiped the truck, threw the safes in the river, and moved his furniture.  Period.

A typical conspiracy.








Daydreaming in early spring

Is there any harm in letting your mind drift along on a warm spring day, feeling the sun on your neck, and smelling the just-turned Iowa dirt from across the fields?  With the world topsy-turvy because of missing planes, upside-down ferry boats, and troops massed on the border, isn’t it all right to take a short vacation from it all?  It seems as if whimsy is relegated to second best most of the time.  Certainly not newsworthy.   But isn’t it all right to daydream?

As a kid, we all daydreamed.  We lay flat in the grass and watched the cloud shaped like a dragon float across our vision.  It was awesome.  Now you are an adult.  There is no time to lay in the grass.  Besides, it is dirty.  But the experts are now saying that daydreams are the gateway to problem solving, career goals, and discovery of inner fears and desires.  Perhaps they are right.  But daydreams are also floating on the Raccoon River in an inner tube in the middle of August.  Period.  If daydreaming clears your skin at the same time, so be it.

You say you are a little rusty at daydreaming?  Here, have a seat on this wooden bench next to this canal in Gouda, the Netherlands.   See the three young boys playing?  The boys are shouting and laughing and being dopey, like young boys are inclined to do.  The one on the bridge dared his friend on the pier to jump.  The friend did.  Now it is the turn of boy on the bridge.  He’s scared.  And thrilled.  He’s almost ready to let go of the iron bar.  Leaning out, leaning out, leaning out . . . .   And in your daydream, perhaps you should plant a “no swimming” sign at the front of the bridge, draped with their shirts obscuring the sign’s message.  Now, wasn’t that easy?


You want to try a second one?  Okay, here’s an old classic.  You are standing on the bridge looking out over the boats and funky houses of this large canal in Leiden, the Netherlands.  Two swans make their way against the current.  They’re heading home.  But in your daydream these are not common swans.  They are princes.  Changed into swans because they failed to appreciate the gifts they had in their lives.  Love was treated cavalierly.  Friendship was squandered.  Kindness was manipulated.  And now?  Now they drift together up the canal.  With each other as companions.  Taking turns leading, gathering food, and guarding against young children throwing rocks.  And with all that they have lost, their necks still stand proud as they head out together — to a new future.

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Hah!  You’ve got it.  Way to go.

All right, here’s a tricky one for you.  Now you’re walking the small cobblestone streets in Colmar, France.  You see a nest sitting high up on a church tower.  A stork nest.  Truly.

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Barely discernible is movement in the nest.  The storks are watching from on high.  They are bringing babies.  Now relax, your daydream hasn’t taken an unforeseen turn down a dark and narrow hallway into a baby’s room — unless, of course, you want to be a father or mother.  No, these storks are bringing babies to themselves.

In another nest, two storks gawk with wonderment at you far below.  Considering, perhaps, that you might be a large earth worm.  But then correctly deciding that you looks a bit too chewy — a bit too Midwestern.

Before they were interrupted by your voyeuristic tendencies, they had been discussing what to tell their children about where baby storks come from.  The father had suggested explaining that elephants bring the baby storks in their trunks.  The mother wisely pooh-poohed such ridiculousness — and briefly wondered why she wanted to raise children with such a dolt.  Fortunately, the father stork quickly regrouped and suggested they tell the truth.  The mother stork smiled, making the father once again stand tall against the afternoon sky.


Excellent job.  And don’t worry.  No one will think you are crazy when you do this.  Why?   Because who’s going to tell them that you took off on a little trip?  Not me.  And, by the way, I haven’t forgotten that there are serious issues that need serious minds doing serious work.  But, let’s worry about domestic abuse, juvenile crime, racism, nationalism, and the price of corn — tomorrow.

How about this dog and little girl in the French village of Turckheim?  The dog is wondering if he will grow up to be a little girl.  The little girl is wondering if she will grow up to be a dog . . . .  Now you have the hang of it.

Image 1Daydreaming in the early spring.





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. . . .