Staying out of the mummy museum

The soup pot sits alone on the far burner at the end of the stove.

Out front, the servers and bartenders begin to prep the tables.  Their dark-attired figures weave and  bend and glide around the room.  The white tablecloths are smoothed and straightened.  Silverware is polished.  Chairs are adjusted.  On the bar is arranged row after row of different sized glasses.  Each inspected and wiped for any errant water stain.  The staff’s quiet murmur of misdeeds, family drama, and last night’s adventures all dies away as the early crowd arrives with an elegant swoop of long coats and draped scarfs.  A muted professionalism cloaks the dining room.  The lights sparkle through the large front window, gilding the front.  Everyone at Lucca is coiffed and buffed and standing at attention.

Carlos Fernandez calmly leans over the soup, smiles, and stirs.

Fernandez is a broad-backed young man, his head hunched into his shoulders, arms loose, body low, hands clenched.  You’d guess a boxer by trade.  A head and body that can take pain.  A brawler for sure.

“I made apple cake earlier today for tonight’s desert.  Now I am finishing the spinach soup.”

The smile that reaches across his face is flashed my way before returning to the burner.  Unperturbed by the stream of orders soon to come, he slowly whisks the soup.  One step at a time.


Fernandez comes from Mexico.  Guanajuato, to be exact.  A city in the center of the center of Mexico.  It is a world heritage site, the location of a yearly artist festival, and, believe it or not, a famous mummy museum.  Yup, petrified bodies.  The mummies were unearthed during a time when the city charged a tax to keep a loved one below ground.  Failure to pay the tax?  Welcome to the Mummy Museum.  Not a good thing.

“It is something to see,” Fernandez adds with a laugh.

But Guanajuato is also known for the people’s skill in working leather.  Shoes, purses, jackets.  You name it.

“Carlos has great hands, just like that area of Mexico is known for,” Steve Logsdon, the owner of Lucca, says.  “He knows what food should taste like in addition to being skilled with his hands.  A wonderful combination for a chef.”

The orders are now arriving one after the other as the early diners rush to finish in time for the show at the Civic Center.  Logsdon and Fernandez are working opposite sides of the kitchen.  Little conversation occurs as the burners are lit, pans are heated, and dish after dish is prepared and placed on the counters for the servers.


“Carlos was like 18 when he started working here.  He is 32 now.  I stuck with him through good times and bad.  He is very liked here.”  Logsdon talks as he keeps working the plates.  “You know he was in a gang in Mexico in his younger years.”

“Why did you say that?” Fernandez scolds with a smile as he flips the meat in the pan.   “Yes I was with a gang and got my teeth knocked out.  Not here.  Back in Mexico.”

“Carlos was fitted with new front teeth.”  Logsdon states, head down.

Neither of them look up.  Work starts at nine in the morning and goes to nine or ten at night.  Now is the time to work.

“I came to U.S. alone when I was 18.  This is the better life.  Mexico is so poor.  I met my wife in Des Moines.  I have two children.  And I learned how to cook from Steve.”

And cook they do, as Fernandez sidesteps from pan to pan, stirring, flipping, placing the cooked food on plates, and starting all over.


“My favorite thing to do in Des Moines is to work.  My mind changes a lot when I’m working.  Work is good.  I enjoy when it is busy.  Maybe I’m crazy.”  Fernandez looks up at me as he places the meat on the plate.  “I have a lot of ideas as a chef.  We are already planning Valentine’s Day.”

“I couldn’t do this without Carlos,” says Logsdon as he applies the finishing touches to an entree.

The plates are brought to the tables in seamless processions.  Wine is poured.  Mixed drinks are stirred.  Beer is opened.  The glasses on the bar disappear in twos and threes and fours.  The apple cake is delivered.

Then, with a bustle of coats and hats and gloves and scarfs, the crowd dashes off to the show.

Fernandez takes a long breath.  Smiles, showing his new teeth.  And begins preparing for the next round.

Another day almost done.  Another day that Fernandez has worked hard in America.  Another day he has paid his tax.  Another day safe from the Mummy Museum.




One good person, well-done.

It’s the voice that grabs your attention. “Booming” seems too violent of a description.  And “piercing” seems too irritating.  But “arresting”?  Ah, the voice does make you stop and look and check out who is making that noise.  Of course, there’s also his size.  A big man by any standards.  Bright-eyed and broad.   An athlete for sure.  From another time.  Well, it all began 72 years ago and counting.   A certain gravitas comes with that.  He’s been around.  He’s seen a few things.   He’s experienced a bit of life.

“The number one thing as a father or as a parent that you must do is set an example for your children.  My father never talked to me about what it meant to be a good father or a good husband.  I saw how he treated my mother.  I saw a man who cared about the community, cared about the children.”

Mike Carver is getting warmed up.  “Ways to Succeed as a Father” is the topic.  His credentials?  Four kids and fifteen grandkids.  And, yes, a willingness to put in the hard work.

“Fall of 1980 went through a divorce.  We had a split arrangement — we shared responsibility.  I remarried in 1984.  I had primary responsibility for four kids.  It turned out well.  All of them succeeded in lots of ways. That led me to write a paper that I used at a parent university where I was asked to speak on parenting.  The people in the room were basically men.  Just a handful.”

And out of this small beginning, Carver was hooked.  In 2001, he was appointed by Governor Vilsack to a task force on responsible fatherhood.  And by 2007, he and others had partnered with the YMCA in offering courses and incentives to fathers under the Polk County Fathers and Families Coalition and the YMCA’s Fatherhood Program.  A program going strong to this day.

How does this happen?

“Both my mother and father were very involved in the community.  When someone came to town and didn’t have any money, they’d show up on our door.  When there was a need to raise money for something, my parents would chair the committee.  I saw so many examples of them getting things done.”

By 1963, Carver was in Iowa City going to college.  He was on the basketball team when a fellow teammate persuaded him to get involved in student politics and national issues.  Before long, he was the student body president.

“One of the players I played with at Iowa was an African American from Michigan.  He had actually pledged at Delta Chi, and that created a big furor that they had pledged this black student at Iowa.  It was kind of a hot issue.  Some of us felt that we needed to do something.”

Carver chaired a committee that organized an exchange of fraternity and sorority students from Iowa with students at an all-black college in Mississippi.  And out of this an activist was born.  A string of leadership positions soon followed —  President of the Iowa Commercial Real Estate Association, President of the Urbandale Development Association, member of the Urbandale City Council, President of the Urbandale Chamber.  And then there is that Urbandale Citizen of the Year recognition.

“Years ago I thought I was going to be  a Lutheran Minister.  I went from that to a political science major.  I got into the whole focus of working in the community.  I did banking for 19 years.  Because of the nature of banking, you’re involved in the community.  Then I left banking and got into commercial real estate which is also community focused.  Been doing that for 30 years.  I just enjoy connecting with people.”


Is that it?  Good parents?  The right peer group?  The correct nudge here and there?  Suddenly you’re Urbandale Citizen of the Year?

Mmmmm . . . .

“Every Monday at 5 a.m. I go to a chapel at St. Pius.  I’ve done that for seven years.  It’s a pretty good way to start the week.  I’m there by myself.  It’s a small chapel.”

Really?  Is there more?

“My wife’s a pretty incredible woman.  I have the greatest respect for her.  I’ve been married now for 30 years.  My wife is very private.  She doesn’t like the press.  If anything you write could leave her out, that would make her happy.  But my wife has been extremely supportive.”

Okay, take all the above, stir slowly, cook for 72 years.  There you go.  One good person, well-done.









A winter forecast

“The squirrel nests are high in the trees, have you noticed?”

My mail carrier is a fairly sane looking man.  Not a youngster by any means.  He hustles every day, working long hours, hanging on to a job that seems to be fading away before the ever-present digital devices.  I see him often through my window, striding across lawns, sorting catalogues and letters, bills and newspapers, steadily walking as he works.  An old plow horse.  And so when he takes a moment to talk, I listen.

“Yup, the squirrel nests are high in the trees,” he says, as he looks skyward to the branches in the neighbor’s oak.


Well, so they are.  What does it mean?

“The winter will be mild,” claims my mail carrier, with more than a smattering of wistful thinking.

A mild winter?  Why not?  Although predicting the weather all the way to next spring seems a little dicey.  Particularly in Iowa.  Particularly these days.  Perhaps the squirrel nests are so high in order to avoid the upcoming flood waters.  Who knows?  Listen, you pay your money and take your chances when it comes to squirrels.

Downtown, the wind whips across the flat concrete parking lots and jumps over the open stretch of wide river.  Cheers from Iowa Cub fans are nonexistent on this day.  It’s the wrong time of year and just too cold.  Multiple lines string out high above the water next to the stadium.

And there the birds gather.


“If you see large numbers of birds perching on power lines, look for a storm.”  So says Emma Springfield of Nature Center Magazine.  Really?  But what if the birds are just resting and enjoying the view?  A well-needed afternoon break.  A siesta, right here in downtown Des Moines.  But the birds aren’t talking.  They just sit and stare at the skyline.  Silently.

Don’t fret, there are even more signs for you to observe.   The wooly bear caterpillar and its brown middle band, thin or thick.  Cattle bunched together in a field.   Rabbits fat in November.  Roosters crowing during the midday.  The list goes on and on.  And I haven’t even jumped species to mention the ache in Aunt Martha’s knees . . . .

The high grind of the tractor engine echoes off the partial walls of the new building going up on University Avenue in Windsor Heights.  The motor is stilled.  Stiffly, Jay Parker climbs out of the cab.  A wry, smiling man with soft eyes in a weathered face.


“We come out of the ground with stuff so they can build on it.   But we’ll be done after this job.  The biggest problem is trying to keep it warm enough.  You see, we do footings.  And then everyone comes on top of our stuff.”

The outside construction season is coming to an end for Parker.  It is unclear if that is a good or bad thing.  Perhaps it is just the nature of things.

And what do you think the weather will be this winter?

“It’s going to turn out cold.  Everybody’s going to be locked out of more work outside.  Farmers Almanac said it’s going to be really cold.  We’re going into single digits tomorrow. There might be some work going on, but I know we’re done.”

Parker and I both stomp our feet trying to stay warm as we talk.  The cold wraps us in a blanket of quiet stillness.  But there is no warmth.  The air is clear and sharp and raw.  Our toes and fingers are beginning to sting.  It’s possible that Parker and I are the last survivors in the outdoors.  Alone in the wild.  On University Avenue.

I ask Parker if he’s freezing.

“Kind of.  Are you?”

And we race to the warmth of our vehicles — unconcerned about tomorrow’s forecast.







“Should auld acquaintance be forgot . . . .”

“Should auld acquaintance be forgot, and never brought to mind?  Should auld acquaintance be forgot, and auld lang syne?”  Robert Burns.

The concrete of the parking lot reflected the last rays of the sun as it fell behind the businesses on the other side of the road.  A hard reflection in winter.  The Drake neighborhood sprawled out to the south and east.  The Beaverdale neighborhood to the immediate north.  And anchoring the end of the parking lot, nearly at the top of the hill, was a grocery store made of brick and metal and glass.  Indestructible materials.  When the Des Moines and Raccoon rivers finally flood this entire plain, future societies will excavate this hill and say, oh yeah, this was the famous Dahl’s Foods.  A marketplace where the rich, and the poor, and the in-between, all rubbed shoulders, all pushed shopping carts, all bought a donut for the ride home.  A Des Moines institution.

But there was no flood.  Dahl’s Foods is just an old man today.  Sagging a bit at the waist.  The top coat a little tattered.  Not moving too nimbly, nor with too much pizazz.  But still alive.  Still selling groceries.  Still watching over us as we make our way through the aisles.

“Bankruptcy” is the word whispered on the street.  $41 million in liabilities.  The chain of Dahl’s stores is going under.  It can’t survive in any form except through bankruptcy.  Various reasons are given as to why it has come to this.  Does it matter?

Driving by the Dahl’s store out on Merle Hay Road, the Dahl’s sign is blinking out.  Two letters gone today.  How many tomorrow?  Tick tock.


So I went to check on the Beaverdale Dahl’s.

The Salvation Army bell ringer looked hopeful as I approached the narrow entrance.  As he should.  Everyone dropped something in the red bucket.  Rich or poor.  Who wouldn’t?  This isn’t complicated.  The message is clear.  “We’re all in this together.”

And the double doors opened inviting me in.

The Beaverdale Dahl’s was humming.  People were smiling, bustling around, working, steady.  I asked for the manager.  He was at the cash register checking out customers.  Of course.

“There has been a lot of support.  This neighborhood has always done a lot to support this store.  And they have the same hope for us.  People are uneasy, but they’re still in shopping.  We have a lot of employees here who have been her 10, 15, 20 years.  The customers know them by name.  Hopefully they will continue to come and give us the support they have given us the last 83 years.”

Tom Day is not an old man.  He smiles and works and talks and gets the job done.   He has been the manager for three years at the Beaverdale store.  He is responsible for around 70 employees.  A lot of people.  A lot of families.  A lot of worry.


“My new years wish is that my employees here will continue to have a job at Dahl’s, whether it be Dahl’s or some other chain name, that is my biggest hope.”  He looks at me seriously.  This isn’t some ad campaign.  This is a man who wants to make it happen for his “family.”  And then back to work he goes as another customer comes to check out.

The deli is a Dahl’s trademark from years past.  Today, of course, there is a deli in every grocery store, mall, or gas station.  But not back in the day.  Dahl’s was at the forefront in serving those beans and fried chicken and salad.  Iowa food.

Sherrie, the Deli Manager, has worked the deli since 1991.  She personifies the tough, no-nonsense-but-kind Dahl’s women that staff the bakeries and delis and cash registers across the Des Moines metro.

“No last name, please.”  As if I was being a bit too forward.  Then she looked me over — to perhaps straighten my shirt or wipe a smudge off my face.


“My New Year’s wish?  I hope we all prosper and have jobs.  See Dahl’s come back to life again.  That would be awesome.  This is one of my favorite stores because of the neighborhood.  They treat you like family.  I love this store.”

On the other side of the store is Nick Hanian.  He is a young man, still unformed.  New to the meat department.  Proud of his job.  Tucked away in the corner, preparing meat, he can’t stop smiling when I approach.

What is your New Year’s wish?

“I want to keep honing my trade as a meatcutter.   I’m 5 months in and I’ve never had more fun in a job.  My coworker and supervisor have turned out to be my new best friends.  I’ve had a lot of fun.”


So, there you go.  Perhaps it is the end.  Perhaps not.  Life is fickle.  So I grab two Dahl’s donuts.  One for the road and one to savor.  Maybe that’s what you do.  Savor.

“For auld lang syne, my dear, for auld lang syne, we’ll take a cup of kindness yet, for auld lang syne.”  Robert Burns.



A homemade sweater.

“Why thank you.  You are so kind to think of me.  A homemade sweater.  Yes, those are bright colors you knitted.  Neon, aren’t they?  Wow, look at that size.  No, I’m sure I’ll grow into it.”

My oh my.  A gift of love to be sure.  Perhaps given to you by your Aunt Edna from Boone.  No doubt your favorite aunt.   But a homemade sweater?  This is a gift nightmare.  The sleeves usually are long enough to multitask as both arm coverings and a neck scarf at the same time.  Sort of a straight-jacket look for the young urban professional.   Then there is the problem of mass and gravity.  “Competing in the super heavyweight division on the center stage at Wells Fargo Arena is . . . The Homemade Sweater.”  And, yes, you do have to wear it to the family holiday party on Sunday.  Smiling.  Grateful.  And so overheated and itching that the family will assume you are having some type of flea attack.   Yup, nothing says the holidays better than a little mange.

So, I had to check it out when I heard that down in Peru there’s a group of women who knit amazing jackets, gloves, sweaters, and whatever else there is to knit.  The web site,, called them the Ñaña Knitting Collective of Peru.  A knitters’ circle.   Rumor had it that they were not making the proverbial homemade sweater.  Rather, their sweaters are beautiful, well-fitted, stylish, feather light.  And with a local connection to boot.


“When I say we make handmade sweaters, you think of something with a bunch of animals on it and it’s like 17 colors and shaped like a box and about an inch think.  And when I say it is a fair-trade sweaters the image is even worse.  From the very beginning we committed that this was going to be fashionable apparel.  It going to be current. It’s going to be very high quality.”  Lexi Wornson Young smiles at me patiently, recognizing that I’m a victim of past sweater trauma.

Image 2

Young, daughter of the original owners of Back Country Outfitters and a present manager at the Beaverdale store, started the small business, Chiri, with her friend, Emily Fifield, in 2011.

“It’s all based on women knitters in Peru who are in a cooperative.  The group I’m working with is 18 women.  It’s a wide range of ages.  Some grandmas in their 60’s and some young women in their early 30’s.   There are always babies and small children under foot causing mayhem.”

“When she lost her husband at a young age, Eliciana turned to knitting to support herself and her two children.”  

Young buys from this cooperative and then wholesales the items in the U.S., including at Back Country.  But that doesn’t really explain her relationship to the cooperative.  She and her partner have invested in these women.  They are part of their lives.  And Young is more than a buyer — she sizes and designs the sweaters, then goes to Peru to iron out any bugs in the production.  She works hand-in-hand with the women in the cooperative.

“Her artistry isn’t limited to knitting, though; Beatriz also has a captivating voice and loves to sing traditional huaynos, both happy and sad.”

“I’d like to get to a point that we are selling enough sweaters that we are able to sustain this group of women year round with consistent work and they can start to add more women to their group or a second group.”

All these hopes pinned on a homemade sweater?

“I’m aware that I work with a group of women who each own probably not more than 3 outfits when they’re making these sweaters.  But I don’t think clothing is silly or supercilious.  How you dress is how you express yourself.  It’s a service these women are providing to women in the U.S.”

“When she was a teenager, Edith knitted garments with her mother to sell at the market in her hometown of Juliaca.  Now she has three children of her own.”

Image 4

Okay, a women’s business run by women, where the items are created and produced by women, and the finished product is sold by Young — a woman.   Oh, yeah, and then some woman buys it.

“There are all sorts of marginalized populations around the world.  Wherever you look, women are struggling a little bit more.   And there is strong evidence that supporting women supports community.  When you look at all the social science, if you support women entrepreneurs, women community leaders, the resources end up back in the community so much more.”

Young brushes back those bangs that want to disguise one eye, and looks directly at me with her Peter-Pan smile that asks me to climb up on the sill and jump with her out the window.

“Epifania has her hands full raising five children and is grateful that her work as a knitter allows her to earn the money she needs to support them while also letting her spend time at home.”  

“When you buy a Chiri garment, it actually has the name of the person who did it on the tag.  You can go onto the website and look it up and read about her and see her portrait.  I would love to close that circle and in my wildest dreams we would invite some of the people who own the product to come to Peru and take some knitting lessons and spend a couple of days with these women.”

“Frida is pure spunk.  You can count on this feisty woman for anything, as her younger siblings will testify.  With no children of her own, Frida at one point took on work as a construction worker to help send her brother through school.”

Mmmm . . . Eliciana, Andria, Amelia, Frida, Graciela, Juana, Edith, Hilaria, Ines, Marleni, Paula, Yolanda.  Mothers and grandmothers and caring women.  A knitters’ circle.

So there you go.  A gift for you.  A homemade sweater.














It isn’t personal

Entering into the public meeting on this early winter day in Iowa was reminiscent of visiting a new church eager for converts.  Smiling faces greeted everyone at the door.  Materials were placed into calloused hands as the staff kept everyone moving forward.  Coffee and donuts were displayed on long tables — church-basement style.  And the murmur of voices rose and fell in a comforting way as we were shunted to the auditorium.  It all ran as smooth as oil.

Crude Oil Pipeline Project — Iowa Informational Meetings — Newton, Iowa.

Bunched at the back door of the auditorium were large men.  Farmers.  Beefy.  Strong.  Their feed caps were pushed up higher on their foreheads today.  No sun beating down in here.  Their bulk blocked the narrow entrance into the auditorium. Clogging the line.  The people behind milled and gathered, perplexed as to what to do next.  A person at the mike was encouraging the flow to continue.  It didn’t.

Eventually, the people in charge of the meeting cleared the blockage.  The farmers and union folks and Grannies-for-a-Liveable-Future and everybody else were placed into seats.  Sound equipment was tested.  The meeting began.

Image 2

It’s a bit of a tough sell when you think about it.  How do you tell Iowans that their land will be dug up, a pipeline planted in their corn field, 38-inches down, and crude oil will be pumped underneath the land they have stewarded against harm for generations?  Really?

Well, the pipeline company spokesman, Chuck Frey, was the man for the job.  A voice that was down home just enough, but not too much.  Not young by any means.  No tie or jacket on stage.  Eyes that crinkled with humor on a worn face.  Smart as a whip.  A pen showing in his shirt pocket, as if to write down anything important you might say.  And don’t forget the Mr. Rogers’ lilt, that comforting sing-song we all love, where the sentences end on just a fraction higher musical note.  The perfect choice.

Image 1And Mr. Frey did his job.  Safety, security, non-invasive construction, and 100% promise to pay for any damage to the land, any loss of crops, harm to livestock, and to clean up all “events.”   “We will meet or exceed all safety requirements,” Mr. Frey assured us.

Oh, yes, and did I mention the money?  Lots of money.  Money for Iowa.  Money for the 15 permanent jobs.  Money for the construction.  Money for the land owners.  Money for taxes.  Short-term money.  Long-term money.  Money money money.

And when people raised questions about the environment and the need for an environmental impact review, or were worried about the past-record of spills and clean-ups, or were concerned that the promised jobs were really Iowa jobs, or whether the estimate of economic impact was correct, or whether the pipeline was really a public purpose, or whether the ultimate use of the crude oil after it was refined was for outside the U.S., or whether the impact on train and truck transport would be reduced by moving oil through the pipeline, or whether it is wise to support an industry that is contrary to Iowa’s use of alternative energy sources such as ethanol and wind . . . .  Mr. Frey looked concerned. Engagingly concerned.  Helpfully concerned.  We’ll-get-to-the-bottom-of-this concerned.

He didn’t know the number of “events” or “releases” in the past.  Sorry.  He stuck by his economic impact numbers (although Professor Dave Swenson, an economist from ISU who is not for or against the pipeline, finds them seriously exaggerated).  And, as for the grumbling about the environment, Mr. Frey spoke of America.  God love it.  The need to be free of foreign oil.  We as citizens demand the oil, the pipeline just satisfies our needs.   End of story to a smattering of applause.  An amazing performance.  Bravo.

So, I had to talk to him.

Image 5

“How does it feel for you to do these meetings where so many people are emotionally invested in hating you or loving you?”

Hesitation.  Well, actually, he looks down at his feet like an uncomfortable young boy.  Shucks.

“I don’t think I can really can’t talk about that.  You’ll have to talk to the media representative to see if I can answer that question.”

Media representative:  “Gosh, I never want to say no to the media, but I’m afraid it is . . . no.”

Mmmm . . . I get it.  It’s simple.  To ask about “feelings” is a personal question.  It’s treating Mr. Frey as a person.  This isn’t personal.  Don’t try to make it personal.

This is a thirty-inch pipe traveling the length of Iowa wrapped in money.  Lots of money for the pipe-line people.  Some money for the people who own the land.  Short-term money for the workers, whatever their number really is and whoever they really are.  And money for the State.  That’s all this is.

It’s just about money, folks.  It isn’t personal.







One cup of Iowa nice

Nothing seems to be free during the holidays.  Your money appears to be made of a special paper that dissolves upon contact with air.  Now you see it sitting crisply in your wallet, now you own a plastic Santa that sings a Rastafarian remake of “Jingle Bells.”  Really?  And, let’s be honest, everyone wants so much from you.  Your list of gifts only gets longer as December picks up speed.  Shoes, shirts, toys, games, smart phones, and fruitcakes.  My oh my.  Sure, we all want Tiny Tim to get what he wants, but who will pay off the Ghost of Christmas Past come January?

And what about you?  Heaven forbid.  A mocha and a donut costs nearly an hour of labor under Iowa’s sad minimum wage.  A movie with your sweetie consumes the weekly food budget in one fell swoop — and forget that bucket of popcorn.  A cup of good cheer at the local tap?  That’s a slippery slope that usually doesn’t bring glad tidings the next morning.

Nope, nothing seems to be free this time of year.

Well, I have a surprise for you.  Today only.  Free gifts for the entire family.  Yahoo!

Let’s start with a gift for that problem aunt.   We have to go to Lisbon, Portugal.   It’s laundry day.  Yup, just like us, they have washing machines.  But, unlike us, they hang their clothes out to dry.  Fresh air.  On the clothes line.  Old school.

Image 2

Surprisingly, with drones and high-tech cameras around every corner, no garment is too sacred to keep from hanging over the street.  Boxers and panties, bras with padding peaking through the wiring, too-worn pajamas, socks that must have seen less airy times, and everything and anything else.   A person’s life displayed on three thin wires.

All for the passersby’s viewing.  Free of charge.  The perfect gift for that snoopy aunt in the family.  She’ll love you for this.  She can stare at A stranger’s laundry and make disparaging comments to her heart’s desire.  Perhaps it will even discourage her from remarking on your weight.  It’s worth a shot.

And what about your brother who is always looking for love in all the wrong places?

Check out Sevilla, Spain, where every bench is occupied by lovers.  Embracing, kissing, entwined and entwining.  The soft-lit small streets of the old Jewish quarter seduces you towards real romance.  Heck, why shouldn’t you kiss the person next to you, throw aside your job at Principal, and devote yourself to love?  It’s a no-brainer.

Image 5

This is the perfect club venue for your brother.  Slow down the throbbing beat and heat up the glow.  And, yes, the best part, the romance is all free of charge.  The ideal gift.

Ah, what about your hard-to-satisfy parents?  Well, in Grenada, Spain, lies the Alhambra.  It is a group of palaces and fortresses built on a mountain top.  The first palace was built in 889 by a Moorish emir.  Many emirs followed over the centuries building their own palaces an extending the fortress.  The Alhambra even includes a palace built by Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, in 1527.  And a gigantic garden that will knock your bell-chiming socks off.

But check out this pool deep inside one of the palaces.

Image 6

The reflection?  Your parents will love it.  It will remind them of beauty and grace and divert attention while they are paying your college loans.   All this for free.  See, gifts for everyone.

Finally, I have one more gift — just for you.  A cup of Iowa nice.

The other day in Des Moines, Iowa, it was a holiday disaster.  I was broken down at a Casey’s on Douglas Avenue.  It was evening and the holiday lights began to glow on the light posts around me.  But my car wasn’t feeling in a festive mood.  Dead as Jacob Marley’s ghost.  Even the hopeful grinding noise of the ignition had long faded away.  I was stuck.

I popped the hood, called my wife, and pulled out the jumper cables to wait.  Coming east on Douglas was a large tow truck from Perry’s Service & Towing.  I gave it only a passing glance.  I was resigned and stoic as I waited next to the car.  I did have a small concern that my wife had taken this opportunity to find a better marriage partner.  But otherwise I was just fine.  Well, I was feeling a smidgeon sick.  Perhaps the beginnings of tuberculosis?  And my coat was too thin for the cold.  And one leg felt it might be going a little numb.

“You need a Good Samaritan,” said Greg Bunce.

Bunce hopped out of the Perry tow truck.

“Put away those cables,” he directed.

And he hooked up his own cables.  Started my car.  Wished me “Merry Christmas.”  Jumped back in his truck without collecting a nickel.  And was gone with a nod.

Did I hear a “Ho Ho Ho”?

So, what did I tell you . . . one cup of Iowa nice and gifts for the entire family.  Free today.















Home for the Holidays

The fast train from Madrid, Spain, to Avignon, France, departing Monday afternoon.  Train 9724, Car 1.  Seats 71 and 76.

Shoulder to shoulder, the men stood.  Hundreds of men.  Singing, yelling, chanting.  Deafening.  Frightening.  Empowering.  Solidifying.  Their roar began in the highest seats of the stadium, floated across the mass of men in the middle, then descended until it washed out across the playing field.  It was immediately followed by another roar, and another, and another.  Until they all stood with one voice.  One sound.  One gigantic family with hands raised.  Home.

Image 2

“Most of the people use the word ‘hooligan,’” said the young man who preferred not to be named.   “My opinion is that it is a stupid word. When you translate it most of the time you say they damage things, but I never damaged things.  And never will do that.  I never call myself a hooligan.  I’m a fanatic fan.”

Window seats on the high-speed train from Avignon to Brussels departing on Tuesday morning.  Train 9860.  Car 3.  Seats 15 and 16.

The young man is my guide for the evening.  He is smart, stylishly dressed, employed in a good job, pays his bills, and shows up for work five days a week.  And some days, like this week, works seven days in a row.

“I am hardcore.  I love the game of soccer.  I love the club.  And I love the people around me.”  My guide looks at me intently, hoping I hear his emotion.

He has been a fan of ADO Den Haag since a boy.  ADO Den Haag is the professional soccer team in The Hague, the Netherlands.  Some fans have a reputation from years past of participating in a violent form of hooliganism.  Assaults, destruction of property, riots, arson.  Not a good history.

“I would never do that,” my guide said.  “That was the past.”

Tuesday evening, the intercity train from Brussels to The Hague, Netherlands.  Train 1242.  Platform 18. Any available seats.

My guide took me to a club get-together at a local bar before the match.  Club members came and shook my hand, patted me on the back, bought me drinks.  Smiles, laughter, jostling.  The boisterousness soon sent a mass of them out the front door and onto the street.  An edge of excitement.  An edge of out-of-control.

Image 1

“Sometimes my love was so big for the club, there was not a lot of money, so we collected bottles to travel to games.  The old members watched our backs.  They told us when we were stupid.  We all have the same love, the same loyalty, the same hobby.  I have a very big group of friends.”

Tram 17 in The Hague.  Second car for people with luggage.  Standing room only.  Tuesday night.

My guide is respected.  When he walks into the room, people approach, want to talk to him, press his flesh.  When he passes through the crowd,  people move to the side.  A quiet earned authority.

And the fighting that we hear about?

“I work.  Friends of mine work.  Sometimes we fight.  We fight in the stadium or the city.  This is our hobby.  Most people say this is strange.  What I say is strange is when you go out to another man’s garden and take the laundry for underwear.  That’s strange.  People like to see boxing.  Okay, then when I fight with somebody who also wants to fight, then what’s the problem?”

Are there rules?

“I don’t take part in a fight where the enemy does not want to fight with us.  They are afraid we will use weapons.  In the early days, it was common that people used knives or other weapons.  But personally I never used a weapon. Ah, once, it was for my own protection — a broom stick.  At a tournament in Amsterdam.  We were 20 and around 70 people attacked us.  I’m not a he-man.  I must protect my friends.  I’m not a fool.”

“Most of the time there is no fight.  Well, with the police maybe.  But then you will be arrested and go to jail.  I’ve never been to jail.  Ah, for six hours, but not more.”

Image 1

Amsterdam Schipol Airport to Minneapolis.  Delta Flight 0163,  seats 12B and 12C, departing at  3:00 p.m., Wednesday.

After the match, my guide took me to meet the players in a special room and then to the clubhouse.  I was given beer and food and introduced to players, managers, trainers, and club members.  All smiled.  All answered my questions.  All were polite, friendly, and welcoming.  A solid group.  A group with whom you feel safe.

My young guide leaned into me: “This is my family.  This is a great part of my life.  This is home.”

Minneapolis to Des Moines.  Delta Flight 3351, seats 8D and 8C.  Departing Wednesday night.  For Des Moines.   

Home for the holidays.


Dear Food Dude . . . .

Honestly, I started out blaming you.  Who wouldn’t?  We were lost.  Deep in the vineyards outside of St. Emilion, France.  And vineyards are like cornfields — one row of grape vines is indistinguishable from the next row of grape vines.  Row after row after row.  And those ancient sections of stone fences that spring up in the vineyards?  Well, they’re no different from old volunteer pumpkins you discover in the long grass next to the garden in late fall.  They’re a pleasant surprise, and great to stomp on, but of absolutely no use for directions.  Sure, it’s all very French and very idyllic and very “salle de bain,” or some other French nonsense.  But we were lost.  And hungry.  And thirsty.  And it’s your fault.  Why?  My wife blamed me.  I blamed you.  You are the “Food Dude.”  You’re supposed to tell us where to go for food.  You didn’t.  Simple as pumpkin pie.

Well, when I saw a gas station and some tumbled-down buildings in the distance, I assured my wife we would find water at the gas station.  Of course when we got closer, the gas station had closed its doors, removed the pumps, and had nearly sunk back into the ground.  Not a good sign.

Image 3Then we noticed all these working men walking into the past-its-prime building across the street.  Naturally we followed.

And manna fell from heaven.

An unmarked open bottle of red wine was placed on our table.  And over the next two hours, soup, bread, liver pate, rabbit, beef, chicken, pork, cheese, scalloped potatoes, barley and tuna salad, shredded carrot salad, dessert, and coffee appeared.  No English was spoken.  No questions were asked.  Not a bit of hesitation in setting down bowl after bowl, family style.  The guys in work clothes ate, and we ate.  Until we couldn’t eat or drink anything more.  The place was called La Puce — “The flea.”

But guess what?  I just checked.  There is still no review for La Puce by the “Food Dude.”  Really?  What will happen to other folks lost in vineyards?  Get a grip and get writing.

Signed — Lost in the vineyards.

Dear Food Dude:

Honestly, I started out blaming you.  Who wouldn’t?  We had walked in the rain long enough.  Our sodden clothes matched our sodden mood.  No restaurant had room for us in the mid-sized coastal town of San Sebastian in Spanish Basque country.  Sure, it’s hard to beat walking along quaint Spanish cobblestone streets and hearing loud joyful Spanish shouted from doorsteps and alleyways.  But we were hungry and we were wet.  And we were not in the mood.   If they would have run the bulls through the streets like they do a couple of miles away in Pomplona, instead of danger we would have seen dinner.  We were in dire straights and it was your fault.  Why?  You’re supposed to tell us where to eat.  You didn’t.  My wife blamed me, and, yes, you get it, I blamed you.  Duh.

Then we saw it.  A small bar/restaurant — Hidalgo 56.  Run by the smiling Juan Mari Humada and his wife, Nubia Regalado.  Tapas was the game.  And the dishes lined the bar from front to back.  Grab a plate.  Load it full.  Juan takes away the food that needs to be heated — and you stand or sit while you eat delicacy after delicacy.  Roasted sardines, fish soups, goat cheese delights, small breads with chorizo or ham, rice and tomatoes, beans, eggs, oiled green peppers, olives, filleted oysters, and every combination of the above with potatoes.  All for you.  And wine.  And dessert.  And espresso, por favor.

Image 2

Don’t worry.  Juan and I had a long chat about tapas.  Since I understood pretty much nothing he said, he placed the family cook book in my hands to take home, poured more wine, and smiled with patience at my lack of Spanish.

And today, where’s your review of Hidalgo 56?   I need you to take care of this.  Pronto.

Signed — Wet in Spain.

Dear Food Dude:

Honestly, I started out blaming you.  Who wouldn’t?  We had searched Europe for the perfect crepe.  From Amsterdam through Belgium and Germany and all the way to Paris.  No perfect crepe.  It was obviously your fault for failing to direct us to a great crepe place.  Why?  My wife blamed me.  And guess who I blamed?  I hope you are getting the drift of this.

But then we were in St. Jean-de-Luz — the French side of Basque country — at an outside market.  And there was Nicolas Jamet.  A young man from Brittany making crepes.  I have to tell you, his sparkly eyes and pirate smile tricked us into trying crepes once more.  And try them we did.

Image 5

Okay, this guy is a certified pastry chef who travels from market to market selling wonderful French specialties.   And his dream?  His own shop.  Not a bad idea, because his pastries and crepes cause death by swooning.  It happened to us.  We ate his crepes, we swooned, and we died.  Simple as that.

And, yes, Food Dude, still no review.  Meanwhile, people are going crepeless.  A horror.  I’m counting on you to take care of this problem.  Lickety-split.

Signed — Looking for crepes in Europe.












Do you know Joseph Haymoff?

The curious, who were mostly French on this early November day, carefully made their way down through the hedges and brambles and thorny bushes of the steep embankment until the spiky plants opened onto the sand.  Everyone stopped to look over the vast beach at low tide.  A glorious sight.  The sun sparkled white off the cliffs to the south.   Billowy clouds floated placidly over the water to the west.  And the beach ran miles to the north until it finally turned back into the sea.  Dark mussels left by the retreating tide were strewn underfoot along with a mix of white-washed shells and the pearl glimmer of palm-sized clams.  Everyone slowly drifted off in ones and twos.  And all that was left was the empty beach, the scattered shells, and a lone sea gull.  Omaha Beach in early morning.

Image 1

Do you know Joseph Haymoff?  Middle initial “M.” I can’t seem to find much of anything about him.  He lived and he died.  That I know.  I can tell you this — he’s not buried in America.  Thousands of miles from home is his resting spot.  However, he was from Polk County, Iowa.  That’s all I can find.  And he’s buried under a white marble Star of David.  82nd Airborne.  Purple Heart.  Plot D, row 15, grave 11.  Died June 6, 1944.

The Normandy beaches were divided into five sections for the invasion by the Allies:  Omaha, Juno, Sword, Utah, and Gold.  At least 10,000 men died on these beaches.  And that doesn’t even count the German dead.  Gun shot, shrapnel from bombs, drowning in water, blunt force from air crashes, and all the sicknesses that followed — that pretty much sums up the manner of death.  But confusion still reigns as to who died when and where and by whom.  But die they did.

Perhaps you know Ben Winks?  Middle initial “W.”  He was a glider pilot.  Second Lieutenant, U.S. Army Air Forces, 82nd Squadron, 436th Troop Carrier Group.  Came from  Sumner, Iowa, in Bremer County.  Died June 6th, 1944.  Purple Heart.  Air Medal.  He is buried under the white marble cross just directly behind Joseph Haymoff.  Plot D, row 14, grave 11.  Does that trigger a memory?

Rain lightly fell as we climbed the slippery path up the cliff.  No curious visitors today.  Too wet.   Low tide again as we looked out on another beach.   Remnants of a makeshift harbor, engineered by the British for D-Day, were visible throughout the water and sand.  The tide pools were long and shallow, filled with a sea suddenly stilled.  We climbed off the path and across the broad-bladed switch grass to stand on the concrete roof of a structure no bigger than a single-car garage.  Two openings were in the wall below us looking out onto the beach.  One for the machine gun.  One for a much larger gun.  A perfect view overlooking Juno Beach.

Image 2

Over there is Victor Kakac, Jr.  Middle initial “O.”  Died August 1st, 1944.  Family home in Missouri Valley, Iowa.  Blanche was his mom.  Maybe you knew her.  He’s buried just up a ways from Ben Winks.  Plot H, row 15, grave 8.  Does his name ring a bell?

People walked their dogs on the water’s edge.  One woman braved the chill and was swimming out in the surf.  Children built sandcastles.  Two kites drifted lazily past.  Lovers walked slowly ahead — bumping together as one, then back apart, then together.  The portion of Omaha Beach at St. Laurent-sur-Mer beckoned us all.  Just up the way sat the sculpture by Anilore Banon — “Les Braves.”  Swords or wings?  Your call.

Image 1

And there’s George Petersen.  Middle initial “J.”  Private in the 30th Infantry Division.  Died on July 30th, 1944.  Hometown listed as “Iowa.”  Killed in action.  Buried not too far from Victor Kakac.  Plot H, row 15, grave 5.  Perhaps you know him?

And look, over there’s Kenneth Paulsen.  Middle initial “F.”  Died July 28th, 1944.  Came from Iowa.  Buried not far from George Petersen.  Plot H, row 13, grave 28.

What are the stories of these Iowa boys?  What were their lives?  Who were their loves?  What were their fears?  I certainly don’t know them.  I can’t even find them.  I’ve looked.  Was the maelstrom that was D-Day just an eraser of all these boys?  Have these young men turned into numbers only?  And what about the British boys, and the Canadian boys, and the Russian boys, and, yes, even the German boys?  Do you know their stories?

And Arnold Rahe.  Middle initial “A.”  Killed on July 24th, 1944.  An Iowa boy buried just over a bit from Kenneth Paulsen.  Plot H, row 20, grave 15.

At the top of the cliff overlooking Juno Beach, the rain starts falling again.  Anyone left outside has headed for cover long ago.  The German bunker remains out of view.  The beach with all of its war debris is hidden below us.  Dark clouds mass and the hard rain falls.  But off in the distance, out over the sea, appears a rainbow — the sign God said he would use to remember his covenant with Noah not to destroy mankind.

Image 2

What is our reminder?

Plot D, row 15, grave 11.  Normandy American Cemetery, Colleville-sur-Mer, France.  An Iowa boy.  Joseph Haymoff.  Do you know him?