The strangeness of life and war

The nasal, clipped tone of the August 1945 radio broadcast reaches across 70 years.  It is up-to-the-minute coverage of the loud celebration in downtown Des Moines after the announcement that Japan would surrender.  WHO Radio is reporting:

“Des Moines tonight personifies the State of Iowa at the end of the war.  You can hear the noise.  Thousands of persons of all ages appeared from nowhere as soon as the news was flashed.  They’ve jammed the business district with noise makers and confetti, to say nothing of fireworks and bombs.  It gives the Des Moines loop the appearance of a thousand state fairs.”

World events caused this mob scene in downtown Des Moines.  August 6th, 1945, Hiroshima was struck with the first atomic bomb.  August 9th, 1945, Nagasaki was hit with the second.  August 15th, 1945, Japan announces it will surrender.

Almost exactly 70 years ago.

The late July heat dances with puffs of wind, dosey-doeing down the nearly empty main street of this small Nebraska town. The road is wide enough to be a six-lane beltway around some grand big city, but the tractor hauling a trailer of hay does not have to worry  about merging traffic or restricted taxi-only lanes.  The farmer in his air-conditioned cab lifts one finger from the steering wheel as he passes.  The old man and I wave back from our spot on the wooden bench, where we are taking a break from being guests at a wedding.


The old man continues his story.

“I was young and a patriot during that time.  The Second World War was not like any other war.  That was a just war.  If it wasn’t for that war, you and I would be under Hitler.” The words come slowly, thoughtfully, and with precision.

“When the war started, I had my basic training in the army.  They made a radio operator out of me.  Morse code, you know.  Then they sent me to a little island off the coast after that.  There were 25 soldiers there.  All morons.  I was the only radio operator there.”


Clearly, Russell Tershy does not suffer fools.  His first job, at the age of seven, was to gather the plums his father shook from the trees in the fields of California.  And that was just the beginning of years of harvesting, selling, managing, and ultimately founding a successful job training program throughout California. He has no time to waste on those who don’t want to work.

“I was asked by the military if I wanted to go to a university to study a foreign language.  Chinese is what it turned out to be.  So I was sent to Stanford University for 12 full months at the start of World War II.”

Tershy’s mother and father did not have the luxury of such an education after they immigrated from Lebanon.  In fact, Tershy’s mother never did learn to read and write.  The family ended up in Oklahoma in the ’20’s running a successful grocery business.  Good for several years, but like many Americans, they lost everything in the dust and depression.  When Tershy was five, they moved to California.

“There were 65 students in the Chinese class at Stanford.  The military kept knocking them out.   Finally there were 25 of us left.  Three of us were sent in the middle of winter to Texas and we were trained to ride and pack and take care of horses with the 1st Cavalry Division.”

Tershy’s family set up shop in California as soon as they arrived from Oklahoma.  They sold vegetables, worked in the fields, did whatever needed to be done to survive.  Tershy was there with his family when war broke out across Europe and the Pacific.  And now as a member of the U.S. Army, he had learned Chinese and was training with the cavalry in Texas.  Go figure.

“Then we were sent from San Francisco on a troop ship.  It was destined for India.  They were building the China-Burma Road and I believe we were supposed to be assigned there using our Chinese.”

Of course, this made sense, but life is never a straight line.

“So we were on the troop ship headed for India.  The troop ship stopped off of New Guinea.  We languished there.  We couldn’t understand what was happening.  It is my belief that they changed the orders of the troop ship right then.  To our great chagrin, we landed in the Philippines.  So, we became infantrymen with the 1st Cavalry for the rest of the war.”

Tershy was assigned to an eight-man squad that was sent out in the jungles of the Philippines for four months to ferret out resistant cells of Japanese.  His group was eventually brought back to prepare for the invasion of Japan.

“Two weeks before we were scheduled to hit the shores of Japan, the war ended.  The atomic bomb ended the war.  When we finally got to Japan, the 1st Calvary Division was the first to put their feet on Japanese ground.  The three of us who spoke Chinese did nothing with our Chinese.”

I ask for a picture.  So 93-year-old Russell Tershy takes me inside the air-conditioned community center, grabs his 92-year-old wife Ellie, and gives her a kiss.


Tershy turns from his wife:

“I discovered that the 12th Regiment of the 1st Calvary Division, my regiment, would have been the first regiment to hit the shores of Japan and they estimate we would have had 80 percent casualties.  I was chagrined about the atomic bomb when it happened, I had a lot of questions.  But I am convinced that was the only thing that saved my life.”

The live WHO radio broadcast from 1945 continues, reporting reactions to the Japanese surrender:

“Up in Waterloo, Iowa, Mrs. Thomas Sullivan, mother of the five brothers who perished in the sinking of the Juneau back in November of ’42, was unable to speak.  Her daughter, Genevieve, explained that Mrs. Sullivan was glad for the other boys returning, but her sons won’t be back.”

Russell Tershy shakes his head at the strangeness of life and war.  And he and his wife walk down the empty main street in this small Nebraska town, leaning together, 70 years later.






People actually do show up at the Downtown Farmers’ Market.  Handsome couples.  Striking men.  Beautiful women.  They are dressed in all types of fashions, from easy and relaxed to hipster heaven.  They promenade up and down Court Avenue showing off their most recent piercings or tattoos or beach-ready bodies.   Every Saturday.  And the children, my goodness, brigades of children in strollers, or strapped to mom or dad, or toddling unsteadily down the main concourse.  There is no getting around it, the Downtown Farmers’ Market is a people watching paradise.

But, of course, no one is watching.

They’re watching the dogs.  German Shepherds, Labs, Poodles, Great Danes, Burnese Mountain Dogs, Golden Retrievers.  Mutts and purebreds.  You name it, that dog is at the market.  And there is a crowd of people petting, stroking, poking, and generally being silly in front of that dog.  And heaven help you if there is a puppy.  The sidewalk shuts down in adoration.  No kidding.  It becomes a dog-a-palooza, right there in downtown Des Moines.

And, surprisingly, most of these dogs are pretty well-behaved.  What is going on?

“I try not to go to the farmer’s market because I’ve trained half the dogs down there.”

A boyish grin breaks over the large man’s face as he tells me this.  I almost expect the “aw shucks” of a school boy up to mischief.   Is he pulling my leg?

“You’ll hear ‘phooey’ echoing across the downtown market crowd.  Phooey means ‘No — Stop — Don’t.’  If one of my dogs hears phooey, it means, ‘don’t make me come and help you not do what you’re doing.’”

Derrick Honore has a deep well of a voice.  There is no breath in it, no nasal sounds.  It echoes up through his large body as a boom reverberates from way down in the shaft.  People and dogs stand to attention.

“In dog training the middle man is the correction or redirection that bridges the gap between the command and the response. It’s the dog’s job to cut out the middle man during training.  My philosophy of training dogs uses their predatory instinct and their ability at self-discovery.  I use what dogs already know against them to train them.”

Honore is a graduate of the Tom Rose School for Professional Dog Trainers in Missouri.  He has trained dogs professionally now for over 15 years under the business name of Kai’s Obedience Dog Training, named after Honore’s first dog.  He is a businessman. He is a professional.  And watching the group of dogs he’s training, he gets the job done.  He will train your dog, and with some luck, he’ll train YOU to not mess up your dog’s training.

“You are the hard one to train,” says Honore with a smile, “never your dog,”


Ah, but his life was not always so straightforward.

“I am a thug.  But I’m not that kind of thug.”  Honore hesitates, thinking.  “Although I still don’t take no shit.”

Raised in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Honore had a complicated life.  Left to his own devices as a young kid, he gravitated to stealing and fighting.  But dogs were a big part even back then.

“As a kid, I used to run from one neighborhood to another neighborhood in Baton Rouge.  I’d steal people’s dog.  I’d bring it over to my neighborhood, train it, and sell it to someone else.”

Honore shakes his head at those hard times.

“As crappy as that was, I didn’t think about it until I got older.   When those kids came out the next morning and saw that puppy wasn’t there, it must have been a terrible feeling for them.  It is a terrible feeling for me to think about what I done as a kid.”


Honore is not proud of his past.  He is also not ashamed of it.  He stresses to me that he is no rags-to-riches story.  But he believes he’d be in prison or dead if he was back in Baton Rouge.  He attributes much to a woman who ran a horse stables in Iowa City and assisted him in going to dog training school, to parents of an ex-girlfriend who became his surrogate parents, and especially to his grandmother.

“My grandmother pushed me hard.  She didn’t push me hard by being hard, she pushed me hard by expecting good from me even though I was bad.  So, I spent time trying to be good, even though I was actually bad.  Even though I was bad, I tried to spend more time with her to be good.”

I’m one step behind as I’m dancing through the “good” and “bad” and wondering if we ended on him being good or was it bad?

“She was one of those soft grandmas.  She got up in the morning and made biscuits in the morning.  She was the grandmother everyone dropped the kids off with. She wasn’t the typical ghetto grandmother that beat your ass and threw you outside no matter how hot it was.  She would always tell me,  ‘Don’t quit, dear.  Your daddy tell you you aint’ shit, everyone tell you you ain’t shit — keep going.’  I was supposed to be the crazy one.  I am.  Dogs keep me mellow.”

And he is mellow as he laughs.  And he is mellow as he talks politely to his clients.  And he is mellow as he professionally takes care of business.


“People trust me with thousands of dollars when they give me their dog.  I come in hat to the back, shoes untied, and I expect you to write me a check.  I can’t be bullshit.  I can’t snow people.  I am always respectful.  I may hurt your feelings, but my heart has nothing but respect.”

No doubt.  As for your dog . . . .

“Don’t make me come and help you not do what you’re doing.”













Traveling and haircuts

After the haircut was complete, the barber bowed politely.  I rubbed my head and gave a broad smile, hoping to convey my appreciation of a job well done.  The haircut was tight, precise, and nothing out of place.  I smiled again.  Another bow . . . and then a young woman was brought to my chair.  I was confused by her presence but again smiled.  The barber, seeing my confusion, grinned in a wide pantomime of lewdness, and pointed at the young woman.  Apparently there were further services included in a haircut and shave in South Korea in 1988.  Who knew?

Don’t get me wrong about traveling, I love home.  I am a homebody.  I love to wake up in my house, make a latte, and stay in my pajamas until noon.  Des Moines is a place of comfort and warmth.  At any time of day or night, you can find someone in Des Moines who will hold your hand, pour you a drink, rub your back, listen to your story.  Then you can politely get up and go home to bed.  Your own bed.  With your own pillow.

Which is a problem.

Complacency is my go-to spot.  I am more than willing to be satisfied with what’s in my hand at any particular moment.  Of course, the United States is the best country in the world.  Of course, Iowa is the best state in the country.  Of course, Des Moines is the best city in the state.  But maybe I’m wrong.   How can you really judge if you don’t go and see how other people live?

So you have to travel.

And while you’re on this journey, you need to get a haircut.  It’s a surefire way to see what’s going on, to connect with a group of people, to expand your horizons.  The barber shop is a cultural equalizer.  A window to another world.  For example, did you know that while traveling in South Korea in 1988 you needed to learn the Korean words for “I am married and I must politely decline your offer”?  Of course you didn’t.

I had walked up and down this street in The Hague, Netherlands, many times.  The store was always empty.  When I’d peer inside, I could see a single barber chair.  Outside, stenciled on the large plate-glass window was a simple sign: “Loek Schmits — herenkapper.”  But what really grabbed my attention was the high-end espresso machine resting prominently on the counter.  Interesting.

One day a man was inside the shop as I walked past.  When I entered, his eyebrows raised.  You see, I have nothing on my head for a barber to actually “kapper.”  So there I was.  Standing stock still.  Unsure why I really entered.  As was the barber.  He suddenly gave a hearty laugh.  Shaking his head at my bald head, he said in hesitant English:  “Do you want an espresso or a cappuccino?”

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Loek Schmits spent about 15 minutes making me the perfect cappuccino.  He gave us each a cup and sat down and told me his story.  The preliminaries were succinct:  born and raised in The Hague; married to his childhood sweetheart; two kids; five grandkids; 69 years old.  He had cut women’s hair for 40 years.  He was one of the best and had a large clientele.  He raised his family, paid his bills, and was moderately happy.

Then he quit it all.

Loek Schmits stopped talking here.  He knew how to tell a story.  He slowly walked over to his high-end espresso maker and made us each another shot.  Settling back into his barber chair, he reached around for a plate and served us each two small ginger cookies.  With a deep breath, he continued.

He decided his life did not match who he wanted to be.  He sold his car, paid off his house, and built this small, tiny barbershop.  One chair.  He had two requirements for this new life: first, every day he would drink the best espresso with his customers; and, second, when he cut hair, he would play only the music he loved.  That’s it.  No other rules.  No ten-step program.  No Younger Next Year.  No 30 Days to Perfect Thighs.   It’s simple.  Good espresso with friends and good music.  End of story.

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Listen, I don’t want to appear all Susie Sunshine about this guy.  He talked of some adversity.  Spoke of his wife suffering from enough blockages in her heart to require several angioplasties.  Difficulties with old cars.  Concern about one daughter.  But then I asked him whether the last 14 years as a one-chair barber was worth it.  Loek Schmits smiled and said, “I have angels over my head.”
See, this is why you travel, and this is why you go to a barber.  And, just maybe, when you get home you will wonder whether you have angels over your head.  You know, that same head with the nice haircut.







Wedding planners, marriage, and pipe cleaners

Marriage is certainly a line in the sand.  One day you’re single, and your foolish behavior goes unnoticed, the next day you’re married, and your partner is the first to tell you that shirt doesn’t go with those pants.  I didn’t know that.  Now I do.  I’m married.  My clothes mostly go together.  Unless my wife is out of town.

I love the hot mess of marriage.  Marriage is an institution wrapped in the rigorousness of deeply held religious beliefs and the casualness of a minister who is really a Las Vegas Elvis impersonator.  Don’t you love that?  The right to marry is fought tooth and nail all the way to the highest court in the land, while at the same time some lawyer is preparing prenuptial agreements in a small back room in downtown Des Moines, getting ready for the divorce.  You have to love the law.  Every silver cloud has a dark lining.  One could even argue that gay marriage is all about the right to divorce.  Just like everyone else.  Equal protection under the Constitution as long as I get the sofa.

But all this presupposes something the Iowa Supreme Court and the United States Supreme Court failed to talk about in their landmark decisions on gay marriage — yup, you guessed it. Where is Aunt Regina going to sit at the wedding reception?  Or what about an open bar, given Uncle John’s propensities?  And do we worry about the guests who are vegetarians or octogenarians or vegetarian octogenarians?  Important wedding questions.  Ignored by everyone.

Well, not quite everyone . . . .

“Trust me,” the classically blond hair, blue-eyed woman says in a low soft voice, “I’ll take care of everything.”


Ah, a wedding planner has entered the room.  Please bow to the gods in thankfulness.

Maya Boettcher, with her assistant Lucy Solarz, lights up as she talks about weddings.  As should you.  Because things are in her hands.  Things are under control.  Things are going to go all right.  Sit back and enjoy.

This is Maya’s seventh year of full-time wedding planning.  And she’ll do anything you need from location, food, music, flowers, to where to buy the dress.  Even including bringing the Hawaiian Dance Team from Chicago to your reception.   She shows me a picture of one of her recent weddings that reflects the grace and beauty surrounding that happy day.


This reminds me that I was not graceful or beautiful on my wedding day.  My wedding was a shotgun wedding without the pregnancy.  I needed to marry fast, before my soon-to-be wife discovered what a schmuck she was getting hitched to.  So I married in the nick of time, two months after our first date. You could safely say I was a little difficult at my wedding. Surly and anxious, I even demanded we leave the reception less than an hour after it began.

“There are two types of clients: difficult and not difficult.”  Maya holds my gaze with some softness and much steel as she explains her philosophy of dealing with clients.  “If they are difficult, we pretend that they’re not.”

Lord, what a concept.  Deny a reality you don’t want for a reality you do.  Perhaps not the best choice if you’re gambling at Prairie Meadows, but perfect for a wedding.

“I empathize with difficult clients.  I have been in every situation that a client presents.  I have been in their shoes somewhere along the line.  People don’t know me and they feel embarrassed about their drama.  I don’t want them to feel that way.  I want them to feel like they can be honest and comfortable and that we aren’t going to judge them.”

Her company is called Plum Event + Design.  She does just about any event, but weddings are her meat and potatoes.  She did eight in the last five weeks.  And I mean WEDDINGS.

“Weddings have become such a thing.  People used to get married and have punch and cake in the church basement, now it’s $100,000 later and then you’re married.”

My oh my.   It reminds me of how I behaved so badly to the photographer at my own wedding 34 years ago. Yes, quite a jerk. Wouldn’t line up, wouldn’t smile, just generally uncooperative. He later told me I was the most difficult groom he’d ever worked with.

“I’ve had plenty of jerk grooms,” Maya assures me.  “I stroke egos.  ‘You look so handsome.  Don’t you worry.’  I don’t have to swallow any kind of pride.  Jerks are not just at weddings by the way.  Every day you have to be nice to people and know that it’s not about you.  You have to fix things.”

And brides?

“Message to upcoming bride:  trust me.  Let it go.  I have a therapist’s phone number.  I have someone who can help you with those feelings.  Don’t take it out on your significant other.  Get married.  Just think about what you’re really doing.  That is the fun part.”

Maya is a pro.  She’ll make everything as fun and as wild and as extravagant as you want, and then she’ll straighten the chairs around the tables.

“You want to cut the cake with a sword?  Great.  I can handle that.  For example, I can take a difficult father-in-law and give him a really important job and make him feel really special.  Give him the spotlight that he feels he deserves in a way that is controlled by my team.  And at the end of the day everyone is happy.”

Wow.  Really?  A sword?

“My whole thing is just being nice to people.  I know that is a cliche.  But you have to be nice to people, no matter who they are.  It might be the crazy girl, who is hammered, making a pipe-cleaner tiara at the kids’ table.  We still say to her, ‘We are so glad you had fun at the wedding.’  And really mean it.”

Goodness.  Listen, but what are we supposed to make with the pipe cleaners?

Maya just shakes her head, laughs, and she and her assistant head out the door to prepare another wedding.  The responsible people have definitely left the room.

So, what do you think?  Does this shirt go with these pants?





Those pesky relatives of summer

The applause is thunderous. But not from hands clapping.  Instead, skateboards brought by fans are smacked against the hardwood floor again and again.  The raw sound of wood pounding against wood resonates around the skating rink.  Primal.  Especially when laced with the dark throb of heavy metal music and the sight of hundreds of spectators, pierced and tattooed, spilling onto the floor.  The hammering of spears against hard-packed dirt in a distant jungle would be no more surprising.

The young man receiving all this attention had just hurled down the length of the rink, banked off one ramp, flew into the air above another large ramp, landed on the curve of an even larger parallel ramp, held onto his skateboard, and . . . survived.  And now he was hanging up in the rafters having flown right into the announcer’s booth.  Why not?

“Raaaaven Tershaaaaaaaay,” blared the announcer over the music pounding at Skate South in Des Moines.  “Increeeeeedible.”

Raven Tershy. From Santa Cruz, California.  Yup, just another one of those pesky relatives of summer that show up in Des Moines on their way to someplace else.  You know what I’m talking about.  You get that call from Cousin Bernie or Grandma Peg or Aunt Regina that your fourth-cousin-once-removed is passing through Des Moines on such and such a date, and do you want to look him up and get together?  Uh, sure.  Now who is Raven again and how are we related?

IMG_2160Mmmm . . . he’s way too cool.  Obviously, my wife’s relation.

“Stay Flared” is the name of Raven’s tour.  Twenty skateboard stars including Raven, traveling across the U.S. doing demos.  Fans, with their skateboards in tow, showed up at Skate South to see the pros perform.  And perform they did — banking, turning, flipping, flying, you name it.  Impossible?  Perhaps.  Did they just do it?  Yup.

Nursing a new bruise on his knee, Raven, going on 23 years, was nonplussed after the show.  “Ah, just fell that one time.”  He smiles like a twelve-year-old.  “But people coming out to watch us was awesome.  We started in Washington D.C. and have been traveling west.  This one tonight was cool.  I love the skating.  You know, I’ve wanted to skate my whole life.”

Sure you did, but aren’t you terrified when you’re hanging up in the air in the middle of nowhere?  And what do your parents think of all this?

“My parents love this.  They’ve always supported me.  Even my grandma.”  Again, Raven gives that smile.

And that’s enough.  He gives us a hug, hops in the van with the other stars, and off to Denver for another show.

“Stay flared,” I yell.  Unsure what it means, but I’m a new fan nonetheless.

Two nights later, the applause is thunderous.  Fists pumped in the air.  Cheers resounding off the low ceiling.  Babies and moms and dads and toddlers and teenagers are everywhere.  It’s a family affair tonight.  With a twist, of course.  Adult women, with dark eye makeup, tattoos, and hard looks, skate past in a whirl of motion.  Smiling as they bank the turn.  They are the center of attention at Skate West in West Des Moines.

“Roller derby night.  BEST OF THE MIDWEST.  Des Moines United versus the No Coast Derby Girls out of Lincoln, Nebraska.  Are you reeeeeeeady Des Moines?”

The announcer can barely be heard above the din of shouting, yelling, and the joyful cries of kids.

Yup, another pesky relative of summer has come to town.  This time, I’m supposed to go to Skate West to watch her derby team.   Uh, sure.  What exactly is a “derby team”?

“I love roller derby.  I started five years ago when I lived in Santa Barbara, California.  I just wanted to do something for me — not for the people at work, or the guy I was dating.  I saw an ad and said, ‘I could do that.’  I haven’t stopped except for injuries.  I was a terrible roller skater when I started.  I broke my finger in the first month because I just tripped.”

And Caitlin “Bash” Mohnike gives me one of her big smiles with just a glint of “I’m-up-to-no-good” in her sparkly eyes.  Ah, my wife’s relative again.

IMG_2198Caitlin is skating for the No Coast Derby Girls tonight — with the slogan, “no coast no mercy.”  She is 30 years old.  Now living in San Fransisco for a summer engineering program, but with roots in Lincoln, Nebraska, where she has her permanent job, her friends, and her roller derby team.

“The derby culture has changed a lot.  It used to be very much a party scene.  Everyone would wear a costume.  But now it’s become very athletic.  If you are one of the top teams, you practice three or four times a week.”

Lincoln is ranked number 40 in the world.  They are a good team.  Des Moines United is even better, with a ranking of 21, which is why Caitlin returned from San Francisco to compete in this game.

It wasn’t enough.  In a bruising bout that was close through the first period, the Des Moines club turned it on during the last 30 minutes and put the game away.

Caitlin is unperturbed.  She loves derby and thinks more women should play.

“People say they aren’t tough enough.  Yes, you are.  People say they can’t skate.  Well, then you’ll learn, right?  You’ll be fine.  As an adult woman it’s hard to find something to be a team in, that is what I love.”

Then she gives us a hug and heads out to the team’s cars to return to Lincoln, then back to San Fransisco.

“No coast no mercy,” I yell.  Unsure what it means, but I’m a new fan nonetheless.

So, what do you think?  Do you have your own relatives of summer coming through town?  And, more importantly, are you staying flared to new adventure?   And are you mercilessly refusing to coast through life?   Yup, you get it, relatives can be challenging.  Even the pesky ones of summer.










Not a shark attack in sight

Boredom is an art form perfected by teenagers, lifers in prison, and pop culture.  My money is on the teenagers as the pros in that group.  When the hapless parent appears at school and tries to hand over last night’s forgotten homework, the disdain of the young teenager is something to behold: half-lidded eyes staring off into space, no spoken acknowledgment of the parent’s existence, and a listlessly raised arm, clearly infirm, barely able to grasp the precious homework being delivered.  Listen, you bore them.  Period.

But boredom is everywhere in our society.  The boredom level is so dense it’s impenetrable — until the uniquely tragic blasts across our media.  The recent shark attacks fit the bill perfectly.  “Two teens lose limbs in separate shark attacks at North Carolina beach.”  Wow.  That got your attention.  And such news also provides a public service.  Look how many near misses we’ve had at Grays Lake this year alone.

Boredom is also uniquely aspirational for cool folks.  It is an earmark of popularity which is just out of reach for some of us, as popularity tends to be.  Popular people are bored with the ordinary aspects of life.  They are bored with their jobs, with their boss, with their spouses, with their children, and even with their dog.  And if you think your partner is the cat’s meow, or you’re proud of your kid making the honor roll at East, or scratching the dog’s ears is your greatest pleasure, then at least strike a bored look and keep it to yourself.  You do want to be popular, don’t you?

Apparently not Ashton Cross.




“I love food.  I love eating food.  I love good food.  When I was younger I was addicted to the food network even before it got so big.”

This gently smiling, muscle-bound, sous chef can’t help himself.  At 25 years of age, he is unapologetically thrilled to be a cook.  Boredom is not in his vocabulary.  With red hair that flames like the burner he bends over, he talks of love, life, and really good eggs.

“Last week we got some wild rhubarb and some farm-fresh strawberries.  We also got our farm eggs from the same farmer.  They are incredible, beautiful, you crack one open they are gold and yellow.  It’s not like the white ones you get from the store.  They’re farm fresh.  I take those eggs and make an ice cream out of them and then I use the strawberries and the rhubarb and make a crisp.”

Ashton worked for many chefs over the years since high school.  He also earned his degree from Iowa Culinary Institute at DMACC.  But now he has found a home a Le Jardin in Beaverdale.   Under the guidance of Tag Grandgeorge, the chef/owner, Ashton is off on another adventure.  But, let’s be clear, it’s about food.  Making food.  Serving food.  The art of food.

“We make the pate and mousse from scratch.  The soup is incredibly delicious.”  Ashton laughs.  “I may be partial to it because I make it.  People think it’s not healthy, but it is really a good-for-you soup.”

Most of the time, a smile plays at the corner of Ashton’s lips.  It slowly builds as he becomes more comfortable in the telling.  And within a few moments his eyes are twinkling  and laughter erupts.  His life is not complicated.  He works at the restaurant, he works out at the gym above the restaurant, he works at the restaurant.  It’s love.

“The creme brûlée I change on a weekly basis.  I do a s’mores cream brûlée.  At the base I add chocolate chips, so it’s like a chocolate creme brûlée, with a layer of crushed graham cracker crumbs, and I make a vanilla meringue that would be like your faux marshmallows, I pipe it on top and I torch.  It tastes like summertime.”

Ashton’s skill is no mystery.  His mom used to bake pastries for Lola’s Coffee Shop in Valley Junction and he cooked right along with her as he grew up.  In high school at Urbandale, he found himself taking all the culinary classes at Central Campus in downtown Des Moines.  And now Tag Grandgeorge is rounding out his education.  Like with something they call the Pork Shank Redemption, which Ashton describes as if reading from the Gospel According to John.

“We smoke the pork shanks.  We then braise the pork shanks for four hours after that.  We pull the meat out, slice it off the bone.  We then use the leftover braising liquid to make a white bean cassolette.  And we braise duck.  So you get the sliced pork shank portion with the braised duck in a white bean cassolette and it’s toped with sautéed apples, onions, and kale.  We then have an apple-cider gastrique that we drizzle over it in the pan.  I can honestly say no one has ever been disappointed in that.”

Ashton can also honestly say he is unapologetically passionate.


“If you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life.  I don’t feel it.  Some days its long, but every day I get off work I’m happy.  It can be busy, or something bad could have happened, it doesn’t matter.  Cooking is an art to me.  I feel that way about a lot of things in life.”

Ashton shrugs his muscled shoulders, bends down, and torches another creme brûlée.

By the way, no reports of a single shark attack at the prep table.

















The chronically sports-impaired

The crack of a bat against a ball, the rising crescendo of the crowd as the striker roars towards the goal, the muted pound of the runners flying down the far side of the track — all are the sounds of spring sports as they turn slowly towards summer, then summer to football, and football to basketball, and basketball to soccer.  The sports calendar as part of the liturgical year.  Sprinkled for good measure with wrestling and tennis and swimming and golf and gymnastics.  “For everything there is a season.”  Except, of course, for professional basketball, which refuses to end.

And now the summer camps are upon us. Football camps, basketball camps, tennis camps, soccer camps, wrestling camps.  Big business, for sure.   But a way to teach fundamentals and keep kids busy.  By the time young adults get out of high school, they know the rules.  They know how to play the game.  They know a point guard from a right tackle.

Unfortunately, that is not me.

Sports and I took a different path.  Listen, I was ready, willing, and able to give one-hundred-and-ten percent, to win one for the Gipper, to dance under those Friday Night Lights, but I just couldn’t figure out how to dribble, or pass, or hit, or tackle.  And my fellow teammates understood this.  We had an arrangement.  They would let me do my thing in right field — or was it the back court? — and I would promise to never touch a ball.  It worked for the most part.

Ah, but becoming a father of child-athletes created another set of problems.  When I turned to my wife at a kid’s soccer game and asked, perhaps a bit too loudly, how soon before intermission, she was not alone in rolling her eyes.  Goals, touchdowns, baskets, offsides, fouls, penalty box, half court, mid-field, zone press, and even an alley-oop, were a part of my vocabulary.  Unfortunately, still confused, I freely used them indiscriminately no matter what sport my kid was playing.   This creativity was not appreciated.

Which gets me to my problem.  For the last month we have been bombarded with unrelenting news of Fred Hoiberg, his replacement Steve Prohm, the Chicago Bulls, the fate of the Cyclones, coaches’ press conferences, recruiting prospects, and on and on.  For those of us chronically sports-impaired, this is a nightmare.  I remain lost in the wilderness of confusing sport information.

So I turned to a professional for help.

IMG_2005“Let me tell you a story to put your problem in perspective,” says Arlen Ciechanowski with a twinkle.

“I was a fifth year senior at Iowa State playing offensive tackle for the Cyclones.  We were going to play Oklahoma, who eventually became the National Champions that year.  Our head coach, Earle Bruce, said we can beat Oklahoma if we follow certain keys to victory.   Coach then looks directly at me and says, ‘One key is that Ciechanowski must control Lee Roy Selmon.’”

Arlen pauses.  He is a big man even at 63 years old.  He’s stayed in shape his whole life.  A cop.  A trainer of cops.  And soon to retire as Director of the Iowa Law Enforcement Academy.  He’s a tough guy.  But he’s born to the stage.  His body begins to revolve and lift and hands go high, as if he was Earle Bruce, imploring great deeds from his boys in the locker room.

“Now Lee Roy Selmon was the Outland Trophy winner the next year, went on to play pro ball, and is now in the NFL Hall of Fame.  The three brothers were Lucious, Lee Roy, and Dewey.  They were a ton.  They were tough.  Oklahoma always prided themselves on great defense.  Lee Roy was making 12 unassisted tackles a game.  Some ridiculous amount.  He spent more time in the opponent’s backfield than the running backs.”

Of course, I’m wondering what exactly is a running back and what exactly does he run back from?

But I don’t want to interrupt Arlen, who has now risen up in his chair as he grows in stature to portray the magnificent Lee Roy Selmon.

“The first possession we had on offense, Couch Bruce called a dive right off of me.  So the running back is going to follow my block.  It was picture perfect.  I got into Selmon’s chest, I was driving and driving and driving.”  Arlen demonstrates, pumping his hands out and back.  “I pushed Selmon over into a pile and our running back went for a 30-yard gain.”

Arlen sits back, blowing out a deep breath.  He is surprised to this day at what happened.  This was not a fist waving, in your face, pump-it-up moment for young Arlen.  This was a recognition that you can sometimes win at Prairie Meadows.  And, of course, that you should take your winnings and go home.

“But, Coach Bruce, in his wisdom, thought there was a weakness and called the same play.  Lee Roy decided he really didn’t care where the ball went.  He was intent on wreaking havoc on me.  So, my head flew back as he hit me, and I was pushed two yards into my own backfield as he continued to pummel me.”

Arlen deflates just as he must have on the field.  Battered and bruised, he sinks down into his chair, then gradually sits back up.

“I got up slowly and got back in the huddle.  Our center, Jeff Jones, comes over and starts tugging on my jersey.  ‘Come on, get in the huddle.’  I go, ‘Jeff, I am in the huddle.’  He shakes his head, ‘No, no, you’re in the Oklahoma huddle, Arlen.’”

And Arlen laughs at himself, shaking his head at the memory.


That’s it???  So, the lesson is . . . if you get hit hard enough, you might end up in the wrong huddle?

Arlen claps me on the back, drapes a large arm around my shoulders, and says, “I have a lot more stories.”









Lawn Mowers Anonymous

My name is Joe and I’m a recovering mower.

Just drive around on any evening or weekend in Des Moines.  Go ahead.  Notice what’s going on this time of year.   People aren’t at the theater.  People aren’t drinking at the bar.  People aren’t hanging out with their friends.  Nope.  They’re mowing their lawns.  The number one activity for a significant segment of the population is mowing.  Sure, there are those who are too young to mow.  They go party in East Village or dance on Court Avenue or eat out at fun food trucks.  But you want to be an adult?  Go push a Lawn-Boy for a couple of hours.

And, as you travel farther away from the concrete of downtown, the mowing takes on a bit of a moralistic tone as your lawn becomes a clear measure of your self worth.  How long is it?  How green is it?  How trimmed is it?  Listen, your cut grass is not the same as world peace, but what are you going to do?  A slight break in the rainy weather and the sound of Des Moines is the roar of small engines striving mightily against nature.  The battle only ends when you are either “Yard of the Month” or you are found wanting.  This isn’t complicated.

On top of all this competition, the very act of mowing carries certain risks.  The rhythmic push of the mower, back and forth and up and down, causes rumination.  Upon what are you ruminating?   Your life, of course — and, if there is any yard left — your wife’s life, your kids’ lives, your friends’ lives, your fellow workers lives, and even your dog’s life.  This is not a good thing because you inevitably start to compare yourself to others who are all more creative, smarter, happier, wealthier, and, certainly, more good-looking.  As you mow your dandelions and creeping charlie, you realize that everyone even has better lawns.  Before you know it, you start to think it may be time to move to the Himalayas.  Or at least Boone.  Yup, your life has sunk into a mire of gas fumes, grass clippings, and despondency.

And then your mower breaks down.


“Thank you for coming.”

The smiling man can’t stop himself.

“Thank you for coming.”  Really?  My lawnmower has broken down.  My grass is growing.  The neighbors are all mowing.  I’m falling behind.  Ahhhhh . . . .

Scott Dawson is the owner of Beaver Mower.  He understands that you are in pain.  He wants to help.  And he’s going to do everything he can to get you back out there.

“This is a business where people want things now.  I have to deal with people very delicately.” Scott sighs just thinking about trying to get his customers to understand what must be done.

“People think mowers must be done immediately.  We try to do the best we can.  Everybody is busy.  But we try to please everyone, and, at the same time, realize that’s not going to happen.”

Today, Scott is averaging 100 to 150 mowers in his shop.  This, of course, creates delays. Because of this spring rush, he is running two to three weeks to get your mower fixed.

What?  Did he say two to three weeks?

Scott was a professional musician for 32 years.  Plays the drums.  Being on tour got to be a little too much.  So, for the last 13 years he has owned Beaver Mower.  With five employees and a large shop, he is hustling to take care of the many customers.

“We are here all year long.  We are steady busy.  But as soon as the grass starts growing, everyone figures out that they need something done.  And everybody is in the same boat and everybody comes in all at once.”

I politely explain to Scott that I am not just anybody.

Scott picks up the phone to answer another call.  His front desk man comes into the office with a question.  A customer pops around the corner to see about a trade-in for a new mower.  All within five minutes.

Scott sighs.

“Here’s the truth.  If you’re not rude, I’m going to do everything I can to help you.  If someone says, ‘Look dude, I know you’re doing your best,’ I’ll do everything I can to get you back to mowing.”

Without shame, I look Scott in the eye and tell him he is doing his best.  

Scott is grateful for the customers.  This same rush occurs in snowblower season also.  Scott patiently understands that’s the nature of a seasonal business.  And he tries to help. He knows that he’s just the messenger of bad news for people who want things done immediately.

“We try to be sympathetic to emergencies.  ‘Hey I’m trying to sell my house, I have to mow my yard.’  We will try to take care of those people and try not to take advantage of our regular customers.  It’s a balancing act some people don’t understand.”

I tell Scott that I just remembered I’m trying to sell my house.

“Some people think they’re owed something.  It is what it is.  I’m not purposely trying to single you out and keep your mower just to anger you.”  Scott laughs and gives me a therapeutic pat on the back.  “Everyone’s mower will be done as soon as humanly possible.”

Feeling singled out, I stumble outside the shop.

I stand alone among the machines that need repair.  Adrift in a sea of mowers.

IMG_1956“Thank you for coming.”  Scott shouts after me and gives me a thumbs up.

My name is Joe and I’m a recovering mower.




The death of a farmer

Dave Parker died this past winter.  You probably didn’t know him.  He farmed with his uncle out near Mingo and lived alone in the old family farm house up on a hill.  A big white clapboard house, with farm machinery spread out back, grain bins to the side, a carefully mowed yard, and an aged peach tree that spoke of an earlier time when clothes were hung out on the lines and pies cooled in the kitchen.  He died unexpectedly in that same house one wintery night last January as the fields lay fallow.  He was 51 years old.

The meal is pure Iowan.  A slab of pork is handed across the table, taking up the entire paper plate, barely leaving room for a white roll balanced carefully on the side.  Breaded mushrooms just out of the deep-fat fryer (with the cook loudly extolling his expertise as a morel-mushroom-cooking master — which he is) are plopped on top of the meat.  Out on the patio, folks wear t-shirts and feed caps and jeans and shorts as they eat and laugh and talk.  Yup, it’s the first Morel Mushroom Fest underway at the Greencastle Tavern in Mingo, Iowa.

Oh, and let’s not forget the auction.

“One hundred dollar bid, now one-twenty-five, one-twenty-five, will ya’ give me one-twenty-five?”

Old signs and beer coolers and chain-saw art are quickly sold under the rhythmic chant of the auctioneer.  Then Ryan Maher, the owner of the Greencastle Tavern with his wife Theresa, stands up next to the auctioneer with an Hawaiian shirt.













“This is a genuine Dave Parker Hawaiian Shirt,” he shouts.  “This shirt actually belonged to Dave,” he claims.  “Don’t worry,” he laughs, “the tags are still on it, clean and new.  This is your chance  to own an original.”

“Three hundred dollar bid, now three-twenty-five, three-twenty-five, will ya’ give me three- twenty-five?”

What’s going on here?  I ask Ryan later in the night.

“We did this tonight because we wanted to do something to honor Dave.  We wanted to have this auction tonight to try to raise money.  Dave was always sitting in the front row every time we had an auction for a little kid that had cancer, or any benefit events, or any fundraisers to help out.  Dave was front row.”

Ryan is a big man with a big voice and big emotions.  As he speaks of Dave, he stops and turns his back to me.  Quiet.  No words.  After a bit, he turns back.

“Dave spent money on things he’d never use and when we cleaned his house out after he died, we found all kinds of stuff he bought at auctions that were brand new.  He was just a very generous person.”

The large crowd that is present for the auction clearly agrees.  A chainsaw carving of morel mushrooms is on the block.

“Four hundred dollar bid, now four-twenty-five, four-twenty-five, will ya’ give me four-twenty-five?  Sold!  For four hundred dollars.”

“I thought a good way to honor his memory would be to do something for kids.  There’s nothing he wouldn’t do for kids.  So we thought, let’s have this auction and give the money for Dollars for Scholars Colfax-Mingo.  Let’s do a scholarship in his name for kids who are trying to further their education in either agriculture, because Dave was a farmer, or a kid who’s trying to go into the trades because there’s not a lot of money for those kids.  Dave was a jack of all trades. He was a steelworker, an auto body man, he was a lot of things before he became a farmer.  That’s the only way I knew how to continue to honor Dave.  That’s what we did.”

Ryan emphasizes the “we.”

“There are so many people here who loved him so much.  It’s not me that did this.  This is the way of our community.”

Ah, but I already knew this.

Dave was our neighbor. He took us city folks under his wing and showed us how to run a little home in the country. He plowed our driveway, sprayed our ditches, and patiently explained septic systems. All done with a smile and a wink and nothing asked in return. He took care of us over the few years we knew him.

By the way, Dave had his own demons, as he would be the first to tell you, but during those years, we only saw him angry once. Our car had gone into a ditch and we’d called a tow truck to pull us out. When Dave later learned we had not called him and his tractor, he was not happy. Only then did I understand that we had denied him the chance to help. And helping his neighbors was who he was.

The last time I saw him, he had his truck pulled over next to our ditch, a beer in hand, oil-stained hat tipped back, one leg hanging out, smiling and laughing with the pleasure of just being there. That was his gift to us.

















Ryan shakes his head sadly, “He was something, maybe not the same thing, but he was something to everybody in Mingo.  He was family to us.”

A white dove has appeared at Dave’s farm house up on the hill.  He’s been there all spring and is there now.  Eating last-year’s corn out of the fields, I imagine.  Keeping an eye on things.  Wondering who’s going to fill the gap.

May Dave Parker rest in peace.




Grace and the tollbooth

Tollbooths are a rare bird in Iowa.  We don’t pay a toll to travel down Grand Avenue to East Village, for example.  We don’t toss money into metal baskets and wait for the arm to lift so that we can drive past the shops in Beaverdale.  And, frankly, I have yet to get a ticket-stub to cross Scott Avenue Bridge.  Tollbooths just don’t exist in our neck of the woods.

And, listen, I’m not complaining.

But this isn’t true out East.  You can ride the Indiana, Ohio, or Pennsylvania Turnpikes and see your kids’ college education fund vanish as you travel from turnpike to turnpike.  And the tollbooths themselves are wild circuses.  Red and green lights flash above the booths, the throaty sounds of trucks downshifting vibrate across the lanes, and the smell of diesel and gas and hot concrete is everywhere.  All that’s missing are elephants.  And don’t let yourself get distracted too long because you have to find your lane based on the overhead signs: EZ PASS —  CASH — EXACT AMOUNT — TRUCKS ONLY — CREDIT CARDS — MANNED BOOTH — AUTOMATIC BOOTH.  I always look for that far lane — SLIGHTLY BEFUDDLED.  That seems to fit.

And now you’re fourth in line to pay the fare.  Unfortunately, a brief delay usually occurs because some poor fellow in front of you is squeezing out the driver-side door to retrieve the toll he dropped just a bit short of the basket.  Although we in the line have all done the same thing at one time or another, and, believe me, we all profess to be people of kindness and understanding, don’t be fooled.  Everyone fights the urge to honk their horn and yell unkind remarks.  Some more successfully than others.

After you pay your money, you are in for another special treat — the horse-race start out of the gate.   Look at that Porsche, idling lazily to your left.  Look at that souped-up Mustang, gunning its engine on your right.  Okay . . . are you ready? . . . Go!  Unfortunately, in your eagerness to show what a minivan from Iowa can do, you choose a lane that promptly shunts you off the turnpike into another tollbooth lane to get back on the turnpike.  Yes, a vicious circle of tollbooth purgatory.  So it goes on the road.

But yesterday, on the way home to Des Moines, my wife and I saw a tollbooth to love.  It was just outside of Cumberland, Maryland, where the North Branch of the Potomac River runs deep in the Appalachian Mountains.   The tiny tollbooth sits on the east side of that famous river.  The sign announces that we need $1.50 to cross.  As I held out the money, a smiling woman in a flag t-shirt appears.  She dangles from the window a metal cup attached to a long wooden handle.  Our quarters clang into the cup, and the barrier lifts to allow our passage.

IMG_1921“I’ve worked here for nearly 40 years or better,” Grace Grogg says with a smile.  “This is the only privately-owned toll bridge between two states that I know of.”

The Oldtown Toll Bridge is a low-water bridge with Maryland on one bank and West Virginia on the other.  Periodically, the water tops the bridge forcing it to close.  That’s apparently why it’s not called a high-water bridge.  So around eight times a year the rain comes and the bridge closes.

“Generally, not for very long,” says Grace.

A year ago, part of the bridge washed out for 71 days.

“I growed up around here.  I’ve always been in this part of the country.  And I’ve never seen that before.”  Grace shakes her head in amazement.

Are people friendly who drive across the bridge?

“Sometimes we have a few nasty people.  Most folks are pretty nice.  It’s better than 30 miles to take another route to get across the river, so most folks appreciate it.”

Grace says all this with a mountain twang, a large smile, and a loving-mom demeanor.  But there is no denying, she sits alone for hours in her tollbooth.

“I don’t get bored or lonely,” she says emphatically.  “I work puzzles.”  And she holds up a box full of hundreds of tiny puzzle pieces.  She explains that at the end of her eight-hour shift, the completed puzzle is dismantled and carted away for the next day.

Grace stops talking to take care of a pick-up truck coming across from the Maryland side.

IMG_1933The loose planks in the middle of the bridge bounce up and down with the weight of the truck.  Spring rains have jammed river debris against the center concrete pylons.  No signs of civilization are visible on either bank.  It is not a difficult to imagine it all swept away in a hard downpour.  A return to the land as it was in the beginning.

Grace turns back from collecting the toll and patiently smiles.  She has all the time in the world as we both listen to the birds singing in the trees.

How does this all end for you, I ask?

“I’ll be here until my dying day, or I’m unable to do it.  Whatever comes first.”  And Grace laughs, gives me her final smile, and returns to her work.

So I get back in the car, cross the bridge, and my wife drives us home — and Grace places another puzzle piece down.