Firetrucks and firefighters

“You can sit behind the wheel if you want to. Go ahead.”

The firefighter, younger than my youngest child, is grinning broadly as he encourages me. He has me pegged. Yup, beneath my bald head is a tow-haired five-year-old making firetruck noises while playing on the linoleum floor. Do I want to climb up? Please, get real. Can I also blow the horn?

It’s usually not a good thing to see a red truck blocking the street, ladders up top, hoses ready to go, firefighters walking down the street. But not today. The sun is shining. No smoke on the wind. Everyone is healthy.

Lieutenant Cory Macumber, Josh Boyle, and Rob Harris, all from the Urbandale Fire Department, are making the rounds of neighborhood after neighborhood.

“Hello, Urbandale Fire Department.”

What is going on?

Jon Rech, the Fire Marshall for Urbandale, explains to me later at the fire station:

“We’ve been doing detector replacements and battery replacements for years. However, this initiative started last year when Chief Jerry Holt put in for a grant to Endow Urbandale.  The goal under that grant is to try to reach out to various neighborhoods throughout the city, to get in and check out folks smoke detectors. Are they there? Are they missing? Are they really old and really don’t work?”

So three firefighters enter my home (after I responded to their mailed offer to be on their list). They check all the fire alarms. Talk to me about fire safety. Explain how to deal with certain peculiarities of my home — like why the alarm always goes off when I cook but not when my wife does. And answer all my questions about escape routes and carbon monoxide poisoning and grease fires.

Surprisingly educational . . . but what about the firetruck outside? Can we go look at it?

Fire Marshall Rech, however, hasn’t yet given up on my education.

“We find that kids seem to do a better job with fire education than adults do. Remember in elementary school you went to a fire station or the firefighters came to school? But nothing in high school or college. Our fire education stops in elementary school. Should we be surprised that as adults we don’t know to replace our fire detectors every 10 years?”

Yikes, busted! I didn’t know to replace my fire detector every 10 years. So that’s what the firemen do. They replace my fire detector. For free.

Oh, yeah, and they smile and laugh a lot. They almost make me forget about the firetruck out front. Are these guys crazy?

“Firefighters have to be a certain type of person because everyone is running out of a burning building and they’re running in. We are firefighters, but we are here to serve the community.”

Fire Marshall Rech points to his patch, which states: “Mission driven, customer focused.”

“Whether we are called to your house because of a fire, or you’re having chest pains, or your detector went off and you have no idea why. That’s what we are here for. Typically, when we interact with people they are having a pretty bad day. So to be able to do something like this is a benefit.”

Yes, it is.

Now, about that firetruck out front?

Firefighter Boyle opens the big truck door.

“Go ahead,” he says, “sit right up there.”

And I do.



Shirley Ballard

Shirley Ballard died the other day. Most of you didn’t know her. Honestly, she would have been all right with that. Not because she didn’t want to know you, but because she preferred to be behind the scenes. A little off stage. Far down in the credits.

But it would not be true. From the very beginning she stood out. A female cop working back when women cops were rare. A deputy with the Polk County Sheriff’s Office. Then with the Ankeny Police Department. Smart, tough, and fair. Eventually, the Polk County attorney hired her away as an investigator for his office. Someone to work the serious and complex cases. A seasoned veteran who knew how to get things done.

She and I started working together when I arrived at the county attorney’s office years later as a prosecutor. I suspect the county attorney recognized that I was a bit too young and bit too sure of myself and needed someone to keep an eye on me. Shirley was it. The first time we went out on a drunk-driving death case, she was chain-smoking, tough, and no-nonsense. It was obvious that she had years of experience and knowledge, while I had difficulty finding the location of the accident on a map. On top of that, she had handcuffs and a gun.

I was in way over my head.

We talked to witnesses, walked the accident scene, visited with the police, and viewed the body. I was nervous and faking it. As we were driving home, she said, “Joe, I want to show you something.”

A little bit later we pulled up to some obscure cafe in some obscure part of Polk County. She ordered chocolate malts. Then, in her deep, raspy voice, she told me that she refused to drive on the interstate because of all the death cases she had seen from accidents; and, by the way, she didn’t like heights. She poured malt into my glass.

“So, Joe, what about you?”

Okay, Shirley was the mom we all wanted. Tough and kind and on your side. But still, what was I supposed to do with this snoopy questioning of my life? Just because she shared her personal stuff, did this mean I had to share mine? Should I really trust her? I mean, who was she, with her raspy voice and tough demeanor?

I told her everything.

No kidding. I told her my fears and concerns and worries. Yup, I was shameless. And what did she do? What she always did with all of us — she listened. It was heaven.

Over time, we worked together more and more. Who was at fault when a young man died when he fell off the side of a car as a bar fight spilled onto the street? Did that police officer have to shoot and kill when confronted down in a dark basement with a knife-wielding man? And did that old lady really pack her husband’s body in lime and bury him in the garden?

“Joe, I want to show you something.”

And then Shirley would take me to another obscure cafe that served chocolate malts. And we talked. Every time.

By the way, my experience with Shirley was not unique to me — well, maybe the sitting-down-with-malts part of it was. Generally, cigarettes or a can of pop were Shirley’s go-to choices. Wherever we were, Shirley would always end up outside. Smoking, of course. Or drinking pop. Or both. And there you would see the witness or victim or concerned parent smoking or drinking pop by her side. And, in case after case, they would tell her their fears, their worries, their concerns. Before long, Shirley knew the whole story from what just looked like a casual conversation next to the driveway, or outside the apartment complex, or on the busy sidewalk. She was a lie detector in reverse; she detected the truth. A skill hard to list on a resume or to recognize at an awards banquet or to post on Facebook after a rescued puppy video. But in a job where we were supposed to be “doing justice,” not a bad card to have up your sleeve.

By the way, knowing the truth was only half the discussion with Shirley. She always preferred compassion and constantly reminded me that things were never just the facts. “Joe, she’s lying about what happened because he beats her and we can’t protect her.” “Joe, these families go way back and these two sons are just pawns to their fathers.” “Joe, the police officer did what he had to do in shooting this guy with a knife, but the mom has to blame someone besides herself for calling 911.”

And so life went on. Case after case. Death after death. We did our job.

“Joe, I want to show you something.”

Shirley was retired. She was fighting the disease that would eventually kill her. Her raspy, deep voice was a whisper or nothing at all. I came to visit. Her husband, Denny, loaded her into the car, and Shirley took us to an obscure location in her town.

We all sat in the back booth. She looked at me and smiled. And, lo and behold, there was my chocolate malt.

One last time.

“Joe, I want to show you something . . . .”

I believe she did.

May she rest in peace.







The “small potatoes” game

If you’re feeling a little down because of what is occurring in the world, wondering what is going to happen to health insurance, taxes, and world peace, you should play the “small potatoes” game. It is fun-packed, travel-friendly, and can be played by the entire family. You’ve never played before? Ah, let me get you started.

The trial is not going well. Of course, my protestor is just persisting in his normal behavior toward the doctor, who, in a strange reversal of roles, is the guy being charged in this case. The protestor’s normal behavior is not nice. Trust me. I prosecuted the protestor multiple times in the past for crimes like trespass and interference. The last time around, the protestor had somehow connected himself with PVC pipe to several other people and laid across the floor in the entrance room at Planned Parenthood. Frankly, that passive resistance seemed more civilized than when he screamed at women as they entered the clinic. The abortion debate, and the protestor’s moral certitude, gave him a purpose. But the aggression seemed raw and unpredictable, especially as doctors who performed abortions were being killed around the country.

So, of course, I had loud splashy trials with the protestor and other members of his group for violating the law. Just the opposite today. Today, I am prosecuting the doctor for allegedly committing an assault. Justice for all. Ah, but holding the flag of righteousness does not make the trial less difficult.

As the doctor testifies, I see the jury staring at something behind my back. I turn to see what it is. There is my protestor, peering in through the glass window of the courtroom door, glaring angrily at the doctor. Yikes!

“Now, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, who was the aggressor, this doctor who is following the Constitution or that man behind the courtroom door with hate in his eyes?” The defense lawyer is not stupid.

The jury retires to the jury room. I rest my head on the desk.

After the jury returns a “not guilty” verdict, I am informed that I made a local radio talk program. Yup, they were calling me Shoeless Joe Weeg.

What? Can a slur be a slur if you don’t know what it means?

Come to find out what you probably already know, that Shoeless Joe Jackson, who played for the Chicago White Sox, was accused of throwing the 1919 World Series. It was the end of his career.

I was being publicly accused of throwing the trial.


Although . . . this was small potatoes compared to the late November day in fourth grade when I was walking home from school with my best friend who lived across the street. His older brother didn’t like me. Why? I’m sure it had something to do with my obnoxiousness that still pops up now and again 50 years later. My friend and I were prepubescent. The older brother was a normal hormonal teenager — hulking and scary.

The older brother saw us walking, crossed the street, grabbed my stocking hat, threw it into a tree, and beat me up. I mostly cried during this clichéd event.

But I was all right with that. Until the next morning.

The next morning, the older brother’s mother saw me walking alone to school. She marched over with that strident walk of a mother who has been wronged, grabbed my ear, shook me, and accused me of picking on her darling oldest son.

What??????? Yup, I was the bad guy for getting beat up.

And the oldest son, the bully?  He became a priest.

Although . . . this was small potatoes compared to the time when I was eight and eating dinner in the large dining room at a convent in Dubuque, where my aunt lived as a nun. The nuns back in those days were in full garb and looked very serious. I was messing around and had a fork in my hand. Somehow, the fork went flying, crossed the table, and smacked right into the chest of a pleasant-looking elderly nun. My parents and seven siblings sat stunned. I sat stunned.

Who did that? Who would throw a fork at someone who had taken a vow of poverty and chastity?

All fingers pointed to me.

I am going to hell. Even as a nonbeliever, I get it. When you spear a nun on the end of your fork, no matter your intent, you go to hell. It might not actually be the 11th Commandment handed down to Moses, but it should be.

So, there you go. This is the “small potatoes” game. Sure, the health care mess is frightening, but it’s small potatoes when you’re going to hell for stabbing an elderly member of a religious order. See? Tons of fun. Now it’s your turn.








Working out

Spandex shorts, wicking shirt, sport socks. Check, check, check. Weight-lifting gloves, yoga mat, roller tube. Got ‘em. High-performance shoes carried in my high-performance bag. Yup. And don’t forget the protein drink and proper hydration bottles. Of course. At last, zip up my breathable, rain-resistant jacket and I’m ready to go.

It’s time to work out.

The late-middle-aged man lifts the shovel. It is full of black Iowa dirt from the large pile dumped on the asphalt parking lot at the Walnut Creek YMCA. The wheelbarrow gives a small groan as the man fills it with a twist of his hips. He works with a steady rhythm. When full, he lifts its handles and wheels the load down the sidewalk where he dumps the dirt into the washed-out edging. Picking up a garden rake, he spreads the dirt, pushing it next to the sidewalk. Setting the rake down, he hauls the wheelbarrow back to the pile. Once again, he shovels up the black dirt.

I go into the Y and work out.

Some time later, I walk to my car in the parking lot with my sweat wicked away and my body well-hydrated.

The pile is gone.

The man has landscaped and raked and hauled the black dirt around the sidewalks and parking lot and any other place that needed attention. He now has a push broom with which he is cleaning up the mess. Head down, focused on his task, he sweeps the remnants into a small pile to again shovel into the wheelbarrow.

“It is a little ironic, isn’t it?” says Joe Czizek as he pushed the broom on the asphalt. The contrast between his “work” and my “working out” was not lost on either of us.

“It’s a little like people coming to the gym who won’t park an inch further from the front door than they have to.” Czizek gives a soft laugh. “To each his own.”

Nonjudgmental. Proud to be working for the YMCA. Happy to be able to help and solve problems.

“I am one of the District Supervisors for the YMCA. My office is here. My duties are anything and everything.”

Czizek is the guy we all want. No matter the problem, he either fixes it or he finds someone who can. Air conditioning systems, electrical, plumbing, carpet, drinking fountains, the large boilers inside the building. Next week, it is putting in a raised garden.

“I didn’t even know what a raised garden was two weeks ago. They said, ‘Can you put in a raised garden?’ I said, ‘Sure, what is it?’”

Czizek laughs at himself.

“What I love about the Y, you can see where the money is going, the projects they do. It is well spent. That’s unique in my experience.”

Czizek can go on and on about the people working at the Y and the people who use the Y.

“The people here are good people. We have a range, from the elderly to young. I call them elderly, but they are active as heck. And then you have small kids. I love the family setting.”

And that’s enough chit-chat. Back to work Czizek goes. And I head to my car with all my gear slung over my shoulder, sipping on my protein drink.

“Oh, one last question,” I turn and shout, “do you work out?”

I hear the laughter. Then he shouts back.

“No, but I need to!”

And back he goes to pushing the dirt.













The Gothic window

“It was then that I realized that all the really good ideas I’d ever had came to me while I was milking a cow.” Grant Wood.


Apparently, Grant Wood also had good ideas when he drove around in small-town Iowa. Which is why, when he was in Eldon, Iowa, Wood asked his friend to stop the car in front of a small, nearly-nondescript home, which he promptly sketched on the back of an envelope.

That was in 1930.

The house Wood sketched was a typical home for Eldon. Small. Well-built. An upstairs area tucked under the roof gables. A wrap-around porch. Three windows facing the front. White on white on white.

Ah, but then the home took a sharp detour from normalcy with that upstairs window. Supposedly purchased from the Sears and Roebuck catalog. The window is actually hinged so that items can be moved up to the second floor through the window because of the tight corner on the interior stairway.

But the window is more than a way to get in and out of the upstairs. It is a Gothic window. A large window, pointed at the top, dramatically out-of-place.

Of course, Grant Wood went on to paint his iconic American Gothic using this very house as the backdrop. And, as you know, he placed the Gothic window right over a very sober Iowa farm family modeled by his sister and his dour-looking Cedar Rapids dentist. Eventually, a museum sprang up in Eldon that celebrates the house and Grant Wood.

Ah, but there is a bit more to the story.

Although you’ve heard of American Gothic, you’ve probably never heard of the Dibbles. Most people haven’t. Catherine and Charles Dibble built the American Gothic house in 1891-1892. A little bit of a lark for them. Charles Dibble owned a livery in that same small town of Eldon, and decided his family needed a home. And the Dibble house was born.

Fine. But what about the Gothic window that even Grant Wood called “pretentious”? Gothic windows look good in churches, but in a small-town Iowa home? How did this happen?

No one really knows. Eldon is not a town populated with Gothic windows. No, I suspect the decision to put in Gothic windows was made like many of our decisions — distracted and a bit defensive.

Possibly . . . .

“Okay, there’s no dish washer, no garbage disposal, no upstairs bath. We are living in the smallest town in the smallest state and this is your plan for a house to raise our children?”

Catherine, of course, is right on the money.

Charles, who I’m sure just got home from work smelling of horses and hay and sweat and leaden with tiredness, doesn’t have an answer to these obvious questions. But then . . . ta-dah . . . his downcast eyes fell upon the Sears catalogue opened to church windows.

“Let’s put a church window in the upstairs. A Gothic window!”

Yes, folks, these are alternative facts, totally made up in the spirit of our times, but why not?

And so today, you too can travel to Eldon, Iowa, and see the famous Gothic window up close and personal. A happy ending for all.

Well, sort of.

It appears that Charles got in over his head at the livery. They eventually had to sell the house for overdue taxes long before Grant Wood sketched the house on the back of an envelope. The unfortunate couple was just a hundred years too early to reap the benefits of the small tourist industry kicked off by their decision to put in a Gothic window. The last evidence I can find of them is their names appearing too early for their years on tombstones in Portland, Oregon.

As for Grant Wood, he hung out around Cedar Rapids and Iowa City creating a body of work and teaching college students, although not without a bit of personal controversy.

“It is certainly true that Wood had, as we say now, ‘issues,’” according to Deborah Solomon in The New York Times.

Of course he did. Don’t we all? And then to top it off, he died way too young of cancer.

As for Grant Wood’s proverbial milking cow? I’ve tried it. Sorry. Also a bust. I’m still waiting for a good idea.


The Merle Hay Trestle

“I remember, . . .” began the old man.

The streetcar sits high in the air, click-clacking across the tracks. A long bridge, with eight buttresses, wood and steel framing, and exposed sides stretches out in front. There is no idle creek running below, instead, Merle Hay Road heading north to Camp Dodge. Snow is clumped on the ground furthest from the sun. The streetcar, perched over Merle Hay, is heading west toward Urbandale. The infamous Merle Hay Trestle.

Photos courtesy of Earl Short.

“What made the trestle so neat? When the conductor would go zipping across there, it was a blast. I was always looking for the trestle from my seat on the trolley. We’d go across it so fast, I wanted to go back and do it again. 35-40 mph tops. It seemed like 100.”

Earl Short is edging 80 years old. He’s a big man. Tall and broad with a strong, deep voice and attentive eyes. Streetcars, their history, and the people who were part of that era are his passion.

“My father started as a streetcar operator in 1923 and retired in 1961. Streetcars in Des Moines ended in March of 1951. Trolley buses ended in 1964.”

Earl Short’s path was different from his father’s.

“I worked at the Des Moines Register in the mail room for 22 years. Then as realtor for 26 years. I retired in 2003 and just turned that page in my life.”

And that is when his adventures started. In chasing down his father’s past, he discovered a whole world of streetcars and the people who were affected by them. Word got out that he was collecting stories and photos. Before long, folks wanted to hear what Earl Short discovered of this bygone era. He obliged, taught himself PowerPoint, and now has 50 presentations lasting an hour-and-a-half each. He estimates that he has spoken to 150 groups.

Standing room only at the Franklin Library on a recent afternoon. At the front of the room, Earl Short speaks about the various streetcars and their routes throughout the metro. He tells us how the streetcars worked, who operated them, the people who used them, the businesses that thrived along the routes, the remnants that still exist in hidden-away spots, and the hope for the future. We sit mesmerized, while the old folks nod in memory.

Later, he and I sit and talk in his home office. His computer is alive with old photos, lecture notes, and e-mails from folks around the country interested in streetcars.

“I was so young when I crossed the Merle Hay Trestle. I remember we were frequently going out to my father’s garden near the Urbandale Loop. I remember playing in the garden. My dad would get on the streetcar carrying gunnysacks full of potatoes on his shoulders. One hundred pounds on both shoulder. His arms reminded me of Popeye.”

Pictures of his dad, the Urbandale Loop, the location of the garden, are all backdrop to more stories, more pictures, and then more stories with pictures. All told by Short with great passion. And so the afternoon passes.

Listen, folks, I know that horses and buggies no longer promenade down Grand Avenue; that the dime stores and the downtown Younkers are wisps of smoke; and that great-grandma’s mac-and-cheese has been replaced by a macaroni Zombie Burger. But perhaps these old stories and photos are what keep us rooted to our lives as our world becomes a collection of apps and tweets that spin across our screens and dissolve with lightening speed.

Or not.

Earl Short digs up more photos from his computer.

“Streetcars are really my passion. I spend so much time at this. My wife, God bless her, she puts up with it.  Because she knows that this really keeps me busy and keeps me mentally going. I’m very content.”

Earl Short pauses.

“Now, Joe, back to the Merle Hay Trestle. I remember . . .”


The Merle Hay Trestle as it appears today.







Another marriage saved on the California Zephyr

My wife is stuck. Having climbed up into the top bunk of the sleeper car, legs forward, head tucked, she can’t unfold. The ceiling is just a bit too close for her six-foot frame to unbend. And now here she is. A human sandwich traveling to Denver on Amtrak.

How did this happen? And, more importantly, am I at fault?

The California Zephyr, the long-distance Amtrak train from Chicago to San Fransisco and back again, cuts through southern Iowa with the rhythmic beat of the steel wheels and the mournful wail of the loud whistle. In the dark, the big engine rumbles past small Iowa towns like Red Oak, Villisca, and Stanton, where I imagine the residents are long used to the clickety-clack of the wheels, and turn over in bed like synchronized swimmers, only dimly hearing the passing racket.

The Zephyr crosses Iowa twice each day. One train going east and another going west. It isn’t complicated. Catch it early to go to Chicago. Catch it late to go to Denver and beyond. It’s all about which side of the track you stand on.

Fortunately, Pat Green will set you right.

For 32 years, Pat has worked at the Osceola station, south of Des Moines, Iowa. She loves it and is proud of the passing years.

“Met a lot of wonderful people. All those years you get to know people well. See the kids grow up from little ones all the way to adults, and then I see their kids.”

Pat’s eyes crinkle with laugh lines. She is where she wants to be on this late night.

And how do the Amtrak conductors treat you?

“The train folks are like family to me. They treat me very, very well. Cindy, one of the conductors on today’s train, actually made my hat.”

Pat proudly dons the pink hat made by her friend.

And if a train is running late and people are angry or frustrated?

“I’ve always try to be nice to everyone. If the trains are late, I try to get the people to go with the flow.”

But the train is not late tonight. Right on time. Pat corrals us all up and marches us over to the westbound track as the train comes in with a roar.

My wife and I are taking a sleeper car for the first time. An adventure to be sure. Although there is the small problem that I am large, inflexible, mildly claustrophobic, and an easily-motion-sick kind of guy. A closed-in sleeper on a moving train may not be the smartest idea.

The porter, apparently sensing that I’m a little uneasy, immediately takes us in hand, gives us fresh bottled water, asks after our needs, and shows us our small cabin of two facing chairs that turn into beds and a wonderfully large window the size of the compartment. And then off we go to the dining car to get a late supper under the direction of our waiter, Armando. All very civilized.

And it is civilized. For example, at breakfast the next morning we sit with John Pare, a retired teacher, principal, and assistant superintendent from Wisconsin. Someone who has been around.

Quick with a smile, John says that he’s heading to Reno for a stamp show where he has an exhibit. A hobby of many years.

“I had a little time, and I wanted to do a little something for myself. I could have done it cheaper on Southwest Air, but I wouldn’t have met you, and I wouldn’t see the mountains. I took this trip before. I just remember how spectacular the trip was.”

And the sleeper car?

John gives an easy laugh.

“I haven’t been in a sleeper in a long, long time.”

Ah, which gets us back to the sleeper compartment. A clever conversion of two chairs into bunk beds. A wonderfully economic approach to sleeping. Narrow step leads up to the second bunk, where the sheets are nicely tucked and the pillow fluffed and ready. It’s like the upper story of an Amsterdam canal house. Fun and adventurous.

I point this out to my wife, as I warily look at the narrow mattress pad, the low ceiling, the lack of window, and some kind of safety belt bolted into the ceiling that straps on to the top bunk like a straight jacket, presumably to keep you from jumping in terror.

I’m certainly not going up there.

Yup, look at that fluffed pillow, dear.

My wife gamely gives it a shot, which, of course, results in her transforming herself into a human sandwich. Turned in half. Head against knees. Nowhere to go. Stuck forever in the top bunk.

So, folks, here we are one more time at that juncture where a marriage can go several directions. Most not good for the spouse who wants to remain married.

But she laughs. Yup. I do not lie. She reverses her steps. Tries again. And successfully unfolds to lie flat on the bed.

I wipe my brow and quickly attach the safety belt before my wife rolls out of bed and finds a normal husband.

Whew. Another marriage saved on the California Zephyr.






Robert Waller — the measure of a life

Robert Waller died the other day. Some of you may not know him by name. He was the one-time dean of the business school at the University of Northern Iowa who, by the way, also wrote The Bridges of Madison County. You remember, the book on the New York Times bestseller list for several years and then made into a movie starring Merle Streep and Clint Eastwood. Not a bad claim to fame. An Iowa boy who hit the big time. Good for him.

Sadly, or ironically, or predictably (given your bent), Waller became famous and ended up moving to Texas, divorcing his wife of almost 36 years, and marrying a much younger ranch employee named Linda Bow. I know this because I read about it in a 1997 Texas Monthly story titled Burning Bridges. And I read it again in a 1997 People magazine article by a different journalist also titled Burning Bridges. Neither story overly friendly to Waller.

People magazine claimed that Georgia, his then wife, confronted Waller about his affair with Linda Bow while they were all together on vacation in India.

“Devastated, Georgia flew home and filed for divorce,” according to Texas Monthly.

And, of course, their only daughter was dragged into the mess, the Texas Monthly claims.

“He told me in anger that I was taking my mother’s side because I was in it for the money. My mother is a wonderful, saintly person. The fact is, I’m a female, and I too feel betrayed.”

Not to be outdone, People magazine told of the party for 45 people thrown by Georgia in celebration of the final divorce, where one guest reportedly stated: “It is a pyrrhic victory, says a friend: ‘Now the house has ghosts.’”


And Waller’s response to all this?

“Waller says that there are ‘all sorts of rumors about me,’ and that ’88 percent’ of what has been written is wrong.” So says the Sacramento Bee in 2005. 


How do we take the measure of a man’s life? Is there a truth to be found? Are we left with President Trump and his “alternative facts”? Does the outrageous and titillating always triumph? Is everything relative even when the dirt hits flat against the lid of the coffin?

I don’t think so. There is truth. The sun does rise and the sun does fall. If you hit me, I will hurt. Cinnamon rolls are a glimpse of heaven.

It’s just that people are not the best source of truth.

I once had a murder case with an eyewitness. Yup, a person who saw the bad guy actually shoot the victim. A slam dunk case, most would say.

Of course, I lost.

As I moaned and groaned and felt horrible for the victim’s family, I remembered what an old prosecutor told me many years before when we were doing a burglary case out of Newton.

“Joe, I’d rather have one fingerprint at a crime scene than a dozen priests who are eyewitnesses.”

Why is this? Well, we are all fallible it seems. We see what we want to see. We blink and fill in missing pieces. We hear things and develop pictures in our brain that are totally made up. Our past impacts our interpretation of the present. Darkness, trees, TV noises, itches, dirty glasses, and “Get down tonight” humming in our head gives each of us our own picture of reality. Or, is it clearer to say, our own picture of fantasy? Listen, you pay your money and make your choice.

But don’t get me wrong, there is truth. There is a measurable fingerprint.

Robert Waller wrote some great stuff. He wrote of sadness and joy and love and romance. He wrote about perfecting a jump shot and disappointing his father. He wrote of his only child leaving for college and his utter sadness in her empty room. He wrote of his love for his first wife and his pride in her independence. He wrote of the heart-wrenching death of his cat. He wrote about magic. And he wrote about Iowa.

He loved Iowa so much that he wanted his ashes scattered at the merging of the Winnebago and the Shell Rock rivers below Rockford, Iowa.

“I try to sort out the feelings. I am alive, breathing, healthy. Yet one day I will float out over these waters.”

That was written back in 1987 in his book Just Beyond the Firelight, before all the fame and glory and infamy. And here we are, 30 years later.

“Romance dances just beyond the firelight, in the corner of your eye.”

Robert Waller wrote that line.

That is a truth.

May he rest in peace.



In search of Mother’s Day

“Mother is the name for God in the lips and hearts of little children.” William Makepeace Thackeray.

Mother’s Day cards in the card aisle at the grocery store are something to behold. Funny. Sincere. Loving. You can choose any flavor. You just sign your name at the bottom and pop it in the mail. Listen, it’s better than nothing, right?

Well, not according to Anna Jarvis.

Anna Jarvis is the woman who spent years trying to get government recognition for Mother’s Day, then spent even more years trying to stop what it became. No kidding. Anna Jarvis was so bent out of shape about the commercialization of the holiday that she was willing the spend the last half of her life fighting against florists and card makers and others she thought took improper advantage of this special day. According to Katherine Antolini, author and historianJarvis was even charged with disorderly conduct for trying to bust up a charity sale of . . . you guessed it . . . Mother’s Day carnations. Not exactly a Hallmark moment for Jarvis.

So where does that leave us with Mother’s Day and its true meaning?

Certainly, the notion that everyone has a mother is somehow comforting in these times where we are busy identifying who’s “in” and who’s “out.” Since we all have a mother, it makes  it harder to really believe that someone is a member of an alien species if they have a different religion, or a different shade of skin, or dare to want to use a bathroom not designated on their hall pass. Of course they’re not aliens. See, they have a mother. Put them with the “in” group.

And then, of course, there is that crazy mother/child bond. Before I married, my wife told me an apocryphal story passed down in her family. It was the story of a great-grandfather, who was described by one and all as a no-account drunk who spent up the family money and was a hard man. The great-grandmother eventually bore him 11 children. One day the house caught on fire. Great-grandmother miraculously rescued all of her 11 children. Great-grandfather died in the blaze while sitting in his favorite chair in the living room. How unfortunate.

“Did that really happen?” I asked my bride-to-be.

“She was later tried and found innocent of murder,” she responded, innocently enough.

The bond between a mother and her children is so powerful that even the National Parks have warning signs posted about the increased danger of seeing a mother with her little ones. This isn’t a mystery.

But there is more. Mary Cassatt was an American painter around the time of the impressionists. She became famous for her paintings of mothers and children. Her art could capture a small moment between a mother and her child that is nothing special — but totally special, loaded with love, connection, and belonging. The gifts of a mother.

Nicolle and Her Mother c. 1900; Nathan Emory Coffin Collection of the Des Moines Art Center; Photo Credit: Rich Sanders, Des Moines.

So, I thought I would go look for Nicolle and her Mother at the Des Moines Art Center. I wandered and wandered through our world-class museum and could not find a single dark-haired, blue-eyed mom holding Nicolle.

Come to find out that she is in storage. Bummer.

Turning a corner, however, I found another family portrait at the Art Center.

Rosie and her mother (and friends) c. 2017; Chef’s Palette — Des Moines Art Center Cafe; Photo credit: Joe.

Rosie Punelli recently opened Chef’s Palette in the Art Center. A homecoming of sorts having worked for Lisa LaValle in this same spot for many years. But now it is all hers.

“I get here about 7:30 after I get my two kids to school. Then I start doing prep for the day, baking cake and things like that. I’m ready to open at 11.”

And open she does to the wonderful smells of soups and pastries and today’s special — chicken and sausage gumbo.

“I brought my mom, Jeannie, to help me. And this is Charletta. She is one of my best friends. And her niece, Kira, works in the kitchen. Charletta is like my kids’ other mother. This is a family operation.”

No kidding.

Professional service, high-class food, and one of the best locations in Des Moines. It’s an easy sell. But there’s something else going on here.

“I want the customer to enjoy the experience. That’s why I’m here. I want people to walk away happy — to enjoy the atmosphere and the food. Some people come in, they’re hungry, and a little bit grouchy, but by the time they leave they’re satisfied. That’s what I want.”

And . . . .

“We are one big family. I depend big time on my crew. I couldn’t do it without them.  I couldn’t do it without Charletta or my mom or without Kira. They all help me so much. It’s a dream.”

Love, connection, and belonging. Mary Cassatt could not have drawn this portrait any better.

So where is Mother’s Day and its true meaning? Is it in our shared humanity? Is it in the fierce bond between a mother and her children? Or is it in the spirit of love, connection, and belonging?

Got me. I’m a struggling dad.

By the way, would you mind passing me another slice of Rosie’s homemade lemon-ricotta cheesecake?





Bob Harvey

Bob Harvey died the other day. Most of you wouldn’t know him. He was an agent with the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation during most of my years as a prosecutor. A quiet man. Usually buried away deep in the bowels of the DCI building, in isolation, where he did his best work. A pro.

Firearms is what he did. He could tell you anything you wanted to know about a gun involved in a murder. Trigger pull strength. Markings the gun left on the shells. Operational ability. Where the gun came from. What shells it could fire. Bullet identification. And on and on and on.

And Bob’s opinion was unerringly the opinion the jury or the judge found true. Once I even dragged him out of retirement because a national gun expert said Bob’s work in an old murder case was wrong. I was stunned and worried. I shouldn’t have been. After Bob reviewed the national expert’s work, he carefully explained to me how the expert made a crucial mistake in his analysis. And, at the end of the day, the national expert agreed. No kidding. Listen, Bob knew his stuff better than the next guy. It’s just who he was.

But, frankly, smarts are never enough, and Bob brought more to the table. He brought credibility. When he spoke, the jury listened, the bad guy listened, and I listened. Why? Because he was never invested in the result. He was a scientist. It was never about winning for him. Ever. It was about getting the facts right. Period.

But Bob did care. He cared about the process. And he cared about all of us, even though personally I was a bit player in his life. He came across as the father we wish we had. Over the years, he would listen to my crazy questions and concerns, and patiently and clearly explain the facts. I would bring Bob into a grand jury to testify, where I would be rattled and on edge and dancing with out-of-control witnesses, and Bob would sit at the witness stand, smile, and calmly tell us about this shell casing coming from that gun, his deep voice resonating around the room like dark chocolate melting on your tongue. Warm and rich and comforting. And we all settled down and examined the facts. Not a bad trick.

Whenever Bob and I finished a case, he’d ask me: “How did I do, Joe?” And I was always surprised because he didn’t realize what a star he was. He genuinely didn’t get it. Everyone else did. The juries did. The judges did. I certainly did.

So, one last time, . . .

“Bob, you did great.”

May he rest in peace.