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.



Chasing Route 6 to Cleveland — a graduation gift

Graduation time is always complicated when it comes to picking out gifts for the graduating seniors.  For many reasons.  But not the least of which is a harsh reminder that you don’t really know what is relevant to the graduating generation.  You have aged.  Yup, just a little.  But I have a thought . . . .

The road runs hot with asphalt to the east.  Coming out of Adel, right through Dallas County, and smack into the Des Moines metro area.  A straight shot to the big leagues.

“Born November 3, 1918.  Van Meter, Iowa.”

The highway becomes Hickman Road, between Urbandale and Windsor Heights, goes up Douglas Avenue, abruptly changes into Euclid Avenue, and then weaves its way to Altoona.   Old U.S. Route 6.  The Grand Army of the Republic Highway to some.  From 1936 to 1964, it was the longest highway in the United States.  Then the big roads came and put an end to that two-lane pleasure.

“Signed by Cleveland at 16 years of age in 1935.”

You can still find Route 6 meandering across Iowa, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, all the way to Provincetown, Massachusetts.  But it is a crazy patch of road that is frequently gobbled up by interstates and turnpikes and who knows what else on its way to the East Coast.  But the East Coast is where it goes.  And the West Coast too.

The Heater from Van Meter was pitching locally when he was spotted by the Cleveland Indians.  By “locally,” I mean Van Meter and over in Adel.  But no matter how tucked away he was, the scouts for the Indians found him.  And by August 23, 1936, he had his first start in the big leagues, his first win in the big leagues, and he struck out 15 big leaguers.  He was magic.  All at the age of 17.  Just before he graduated from high school.

We found Route 6 on the other side of Newton, picked it up on and off in Illinois and Indiana, and rode it right into Ohio.  Passing small farms and Amish buggies and towns too faded for much more than a bait shop.  We then followed Route 6 into Cleveland.

“Inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame 1962.”

Downtown Cleveland is deserted on this warm day in spring.  The city has been primped and primed and spiffed up.  But no one is there.  The gorgeous monumental library sits empty.  The veteran’s memorial only has a few people resting on the stone benches.  The bars are all closed over on the west side.  I can even hear birds singing in the middle of downtown.

Except down near the ball park.

“Chosen greatest living right-handed pitcher during baseball’s centennial celebration 1969.”

The traffic jam starts blocks away.  Cars barely move.  The motorized trolley, in which we are sitting, creeps and crawls, waiting for the go-ahead from the lone cop in the middle of the intersection.  But everyone is in a good mood.  Laughing, shouting, happy.  What’s going on?  Of course.   Cleveland Indians baseball.

“Winningest pitcher in Cleveland Indians history.  Pitched three no-hit games.  Pitched twelve one-hit games.”

The base of the sculpture in front of Progressive Field in downtown Cleveland sets out all the facts quoted above.  A little harsh in their staccato effect.  It doesn’t mention the long hours pitching to his dad outside of Van Meter on their homemade baseball diamond.  It doesn’t mention that Nile Kinnick used to catch for him when they were both in high school and  Kinnick was going to school in Adel.  It doesn’t mention that his first no-hitter was on opening day in 1940 (a first and a last for an opening day).  It doesn’t mention that he signed a gazillion baseballs for his many fans over the years.  It doesn’t mention that at the age of 90, he was the starting pitcher at the inaugural Baseball Hall of Fame Classic.  And it doesn’t mention the fast ball.  So fast that they had to figure out new ways to measure its speed.

“Served in W.W. II with U.S. 1941-1945.”

Oh, yeah, and there were the four missing years in the navy.  He enlisted just days after Pearl Harbor and fought in the Pacific as a gun captain aboard the USS Alabama.  Then back to the Cleveland Indians he came.  Bob Feller.  A life well lived.











As for your graduating senior, I have not forgotten. How about this . . . give them a little money with a condition.  Tell them the money can only be used if they chase Route 6 to Cleveland as Bob Feller did.  Don’t like that?  Okay, tell them to drive to New York City.  Or head down to New Orleans.  Or fly to Paris.  Or float on the canals in Amsterdam.  You want them to come home to Des Moines at the end of the day, of course.  But, if not, that’s okay too.  Tell them to go see what’s out there.  Follow Bob Feller for a couple of weeks or months or years.

Simple as a fast ball across the corner of the plate.  Give them a couple of bucks and tell them to chase Route 6 to Cleveland.  They could do worse.











Serious business at the fun table

Three women sit at the corner table in Star Bar on Ingersoll.  All blonde.  All laughing.  All comfortable in their skin.  Periodically, they lean in to each other conspiratorially, then rock back in a whoosh of hilarity at some clever story or phrase or memory.  Obviously, the fun table.

Samantha, 17 years old, diagnosed with leukemia.   

The fun table?  You know what I’m talking about.  You go to a wedding reception or a class reunion or a graduation party and there’s a fun table.  And not just “ha-ha” fun.  I’m talking about people who enjoy each other’s company.  The only ego on display is the one who can entertain the others long enough to make them laugh or make them cry.  And the more you can make fun of yourself, the better.  It’s not complex.  It’s why we all want to sit at the fun table.

Bradley, 4 years old, diagnosed with cancer.  

So, I sat down with the three women — Linda Frazier, Denise Sullivan, and Holly Novelli.  All work full-time, all have kids, all are grandmas.


“We are a very quiet and humble group,” says Linda.

Laughter all around.

“I know it’s hard to believe,”  Linda smiles, “but we aren’t special in doing what we do.”  And then all three women chime in chorus, “ We just do what we do.”

More laughter.

Okay, fine, I’ve stumbled across a group of crazy women.   What are they up to?

Alice, 3 years old, diagnosed in March 2015, with neuroblastoma.  

Linda explains. “Angels for Sam was actually started in 2007 by my sisters and me and some family and friends.  Our brother has a daughter who was diagnosed with leukemia and people didn’t know what to do.  So, we gathered. We knew that her treatment was going to take about two-and-one-half years and knew that money would obviously be of benefit to them.  So we just started brainstorming.  My niece’s name is Samantha.  So we came up with ‘Angels for Sam.’  That’s how we were born.”

Ava, 5 years old, diagnosed with leukemia in 2012.

“Our first event was a motorcycle ride.  Some friends who came said they rode motorcycles.  They said we should do a benefit motorcycle ride.  None of us rode a bike.  We got flyers and went to Trophy’s Bar and handed out flyers.  A gentleman there said he could help us.  His name is Clem Vestal.  ‘I’ll get you donations.  I’ll get you blockers.’  He left, and we said, ‘What’s a blocker?’  We didn’t have a clue.  He organized that event for us.  We had one bus for those who didn’t have a ride — for us actually — and 65 motorcycles showed up.”

Macy, 3 years old, diagnosed with leukemia in 2014.  

Denise, Linda’s sister, picks up the story.

“We got hooked.  It’s such a good feeling and people would come to us and be like, ‘We know this person that needs help, what do you think?’  This was all word of mouth.  Soon our yearly fundraiser turned into 240 motorcycles and three buses.”

All three women look back over this last eight years of fundraising.  They are proud of the money they’ve raised, but believe the fundraiser is really about something else.

Baby Penelope, neuroblastoma cancer.

“The thing I love about the motorcycle fundraiser is that we have bikers from all walks of life mixing with friends and family of either the beneficiary or a previous beneficiary.”  Holly pauses.  “The absolute feeling of love that is with this event is unbelievable.  Absolutely unbelievable.”  Holly, a biker friend of Linda and Denise, shakes her head in wonder.

Denise says they have helped somewhere between 30 and 35 sick children and sick adults through Angels for Sam.

Princess Camryn, 4 years old, neuroblastoma.  

After they tell several stories of sick kids and sick parents, I ask how they deal with the sadness of these kids and adults going through these illnesses, especially when there are unhappy outcomes.

“The day of the ride, when we help someone, we don’t solve their problems.  The money is a drop in the bucket.  It is the feeling of love they get from everyone.  It is a game changer . . . sorry.”

Linda tears up, quickly joined by Denise and Holly.   A contagion of tears among the angels.

Melanie, mother of five children, malignant melanoma.

Holly laughs, wiping her eyes, “Don’t worry if you don’t have friends who ride motorcycles.  This is one of those events you can just show up.  It doesn’t matter if you don’t know anybody, by the end of the ride you’re going to have 10 new friends.”

And what about the folks receiving the donation?

Lochlan, 13 months old, rare form of liver cancer.

“It’s hard sometimes for some people to accept help.  I told one young mom there are times in our lives when we are the givers and times that we are the receivers.  It’s your time to be a receiver.”  Holly says in a voice that leaves no room for disagreement.  A mom’s voice.


Well, and what if you’re sitting at the fun table and someone needs help?  Apparently it’s the time to be a giver.  Lucky for the rest of us.


[The motorcycle fundraiser is June 14th, starting from 9-11 a.m. at The Brewhouse No. 25 in Altoona.  Angels for Sam is a nonprofit organization.  100% of all money raised goes to the beneficiaries.  By the way, you don’t have to have a motorcycle, you can ride in a bus.  New friends are guaranteed.]









Searching for morel mushrooms

“When the lilacs bloom, it’s time to start.  Although some people do wait for the dandelions.”

Good advice for almost any endeavor, don’t you think?

And so the lilacs are blooming and out we head.  Beau Perry, Max the Dog, and myself.  In search of the elusive morel mushroom.

“Everybody has a theory as to where you find morels.  I just go wandering through the woods with Max.  Usually around dead or dying elms.  But I’ve found them anywhere.  No point to where they might be.”

A young man with a young wife and a young family living in an old farmhouse outside of Des Moines, Beau is my guide.  He is rakishly engaging, and may, I suspect, have spent his youth in perpetual time-out.  Just a guess.  Certainly that “who me” grin and twinkling eyes says he’s your man if you are up for a bit of harmless mischief.


Today, however, Beau is already committed.  He’s going to take me out to find morels.  Mushrooms, that is.  Cooked in butter and lightly salted — a gift for a king and a queen.  I can hardly wait to fry our first batch.

At least that’s what I thought we were doing.

Beau tells me shortly that’s not what we’re doing, . . . as we stand in mud a mile up a creek bordering a cornfield.

“Whenever I go to look for morels, I’m really just going out to go for a walk in the country.”

What??????  We’re not looking for mushrooms?  Then what are we doing slogging through this Iowa countryside?

“Look, over here, that’s a bull snake.  A good three-footer.”

“See that blue heron.  It’s just drifting upstream, working the creek.  I need to show you their nests.”

“This creek is shallow.  It is my favorite spot because usually there is a beaver dam down that direction.  The entire dam is usually corn stalks.”

“Look at that big nest.  See that red-tailed hawk on that branch over there?  They’ve had that nest there for three or four years.”

Okay, okay, Beau, I see the deer tracks in the mud, and I see those wild raspberries, and, yes, sure enough, that is asparagus growing right there.  But what about the mushrooms?

“Oh, generally I just kind of mosey around until I find them.”

Lord help me.


What is going on here?  What is this moseying-around business?

Nanci Ross is an assistant professor at Drake University in ethnobotany (“humans interacting with plants and the landscape”).  Charmingly open and friendly and smart, Dr. Ross is no fool, and I’m hoping she can explain why I’m out on this fool’s errand with Beau.


“We think we are separate from nature.  This idea is something that has evolved fairly recently.  This is a new thing in human history.  It’s very prevalent in Western culture, the separation of man and nature.”

Dr. Ross gives me a small smile to make sure I’m paying attention.

“This separation from nature is a figment.  We have lost this holistic relationship with our landscape.  But we still feel it.  We are a part of that world.  We are a member of nature.  And we have always been aware of this.  We have a gut feeling that we are a part of it and an intellectual feeling that we are not.  And it’s a conflict.  So I think we go out in nature to seek this connection, this feeling it gives us, a little bit of a sense of peace.  Out of our mind and into our heart.”

I’m all about peace.  But what about the mushrooms?

“When people are out looking for morel mushrooms, they are looking for this connection with nature.  Here’s the funny thing, I have been out looking for morel mushrooms, and I’m actually allergic to mushrooms.  I found them and left them.  I certainly wasn’t going to eat them.  To be out and looking around.  That is what’s going on.”

Oh, I get it.  That’s what Beau and I are doing.  We are looking around and hanging out.  Chilling with nature.

But, listen, while we are here, Dr. Ross, where did you say you found those mushrooms that you left behind?  I think I could be even more holistic if I could find just one measly morel mushroom.

Apparently, that is not to be today.

Our lack of luck is no matter to Beau.  With twinkling eyes, Beau told me of a further bonus to our galavanting in the woods.

“Make sure you have your wife check you for ticks,”  Beau chuckles.  “All over . . . .  That’s the other benefit of looking for morels.”


[Yesterday, Beau took me to the mother lode — I’m not saying where — but rest assured, I’m feeling more one with nature.]



Elvin’s Voice

The dapper white-haired man sits elegantly entwined upon himself — leg over leg, arms crossed lightly, waist turned gracefully inward.  A flower waiting to open.

“I started what is now as an international plant society about Gesneriads.  That is the African Violet Family, you know.”

No, I don’t.  In fact, I can’t distinguish an African Violet from a shrinking violet.  As for identifying a Gesneriad . . . .

The 78-year-old man is nonplussed by my ignorance. He smiles graciously.  He explains when necessary.  And in every gesture and turn of speech he treats me as if I knew what he knows.  I don’t.

“I was 13 and living on our family farm in Oklahoma when I wrote the letter to the Flower Grower magazine saying let’s start a society for Gesneriads.  I was 14 when we published our first society journal.  I was plowing a wheat field when my mother brought me the first copies from the printer.”


“Total books that I’ve written on gardening?  75 all together, I think.  I never pulled them all together until I was named Iowa Author of the Year by the Des Moines Public Library Foundation.”

The white-haired man gives a self-deprecating laugh as he remembers that event.

“I was invited to serve on the selection committee for author of the year.  When I got there, they said if you vote for yourself, it will be unanimous — you’ll be the Iowa Author of the Year.  The next thing I know I was on the board.”


Elvin McDonald looks every bit the Southern gentleman as he putters in his garden dressed in a jacket, tie, and, yes, even a pocket handkerchief.  He has been a garden writer and editor and educator his entire life, most recently for Meredith as senior editor for Traditional Home Magazine.  But there is hardly a garden publication out there that he hasn’t somehow shaped or started or influenced.  That he is the Botanical Educator and Ambassador Emeritus for the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden is no surprise.  In charge of the gardens at Terrace Hill?  Of course he is.

But Elvin also had another life at another time.  A society life that speaks of elegance and celebrity and bigger-than-life characters.

“I got a job at House Beautiful in New York as a garden editor.  It was love at first sight.  A southern Tennessee lady , with a capitol ‘L,’ was the editor.  Sarah Tomerlin Lee.  She was shapeless.  She wore these tents.  But she had this French chair and this big French desk and she’d lean back the whole time.  She started the interview by saying, ‘Honey, I love you, I think you’re going to be very expensive, but we’ll work out something.’”

“I did a story with C.Z. Guest, who was a famous socialite and sportswoman.  And through C.Z., I met Oscar de la Renta.  And I remember walking down Madison Avenue, seeing them, and they’d say, ‘It’s Elvin.’”

“Eleanor Noall was part of old New York society.  She was the last woman Paul Child dated before he married Julia.  Not too long before Julia died, I did a story with her for Traditional Home and I mentioned Eleanor Noall to her.  And she said, ‘That Eleanor Noall, is she still around?’”

“Audrey Hepburn was a darling person.  She told me when she didn’t have a dime she wallpapered her apartment in New York with seed packets.  Colorful pictures from seed catalogues.  In the end, she had this fabulous property in Switzerland with a rose garden and orchard and kitchen garden.  Robby Wolders, her last companion, was the nicest man in the world.”

We sit in his garden, Elvin and I, looking out over the early spring blooms.  The white whicker chairs are comfortable and bright.  The late afternoon sun is beginning to promise warmer days.  And Elvin speaks of life and death and gardens and beauty . . . and the endless characters that have starring roles and guest appearances in his 78 years.


“The original purpose of the botanical garden was to contain in one place the knowledge needed to replant the earth in the event of a cataclysm.  And the oldest one is in Padua, Italy.  It dates from the 1500’s.  It is still alive and thriving.  Mike LaValle’s favorite Italian cuisine is from Padua.  And the Des Moines Metro Opera is performing an opera at the Botanical Garden in July that is set in Padua.  Is that not great?  All the pieces connecting.”

Now and again, Elvin chokes up as he speaks.  A very small sob in the middle of a story.  Almost an unnoticeable hiccup.

“Are you sad that many of these people have passed on from your life?”  I ask.

“No,” he says, surprised that I don’t understand,  “I am happy and in wonderment of the memory.  That is why I cry.”

There’s a flower out on the market.  A late-blooming white narcissus.  It’s called Elvin’s Voice in honor of Elvin McDonald.  You might want to go listen.