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.









“I’m not a vegan, I’m a meatatarian.”

The clean water appears below us, deep down the shaft at Des Moines Water Works.  A submarine view.  The man and I gaze reverently down the tube.  Neither of us talk.  It seems we’ve discovered a new planet.  Clean water.  In a galaxy far far away.


My guide to Des Moines Water Works checks me over.  And I him.  His long white hair is parted off-center, eyebrows still dark from a once-upon-a-time youth, and soft, gentle eyes.  All wrapped in a work shirt, work jeans, and work shoes.  “Maintenance man” would be my guess, especially with the key ring strapped to his belt.

“And here’re the tanks that remove the nitrates.”


Ah, the problem of nitrates.  Too much of this stuff in our water and we’re talking serious illness and sometimes death, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency.  Not a good thing.  And my guide told me that Des Moines has had too much for too long, requiring these machines to work too hard to keep our water safe.  And, as nitrates keep increasing, new expensive machines are going to be needed.  He doesn’t think Des Moines should pay to remove the nitrates put in our water from upstream farms and pig lots.  It’s time to sue to make the upstream folks pay the bill or clean up.

“This state has to be something more than a feedlot between the Missouri and the Mississippi rivers.  Our interest is safe drinking water.  The other side’s interest is avoiding regulation.  No one in the science community believes that voluntary efforts are working.”

My guide sadly shakes his head and continues our tour through Water Works.  Large old basins, smelling of high school swimming pools, line the long hallway. Not a soul is around.  We walk into watery rooms crisscrossed with narrow walkways.  Water is being treated in every direction I look.  I start walking on the balls of my feet, certain I’ll fall into your next glass of water.

“Everybody with half of a brain understands that the corn belt is the main contributor to poisoning the Gulf.  What you’re going to hear from the Farm Bureau is that weather is the real culprit.  Well, water does not create nitrogen.  It transports it.  Nitrogen is an element.  What’s happening is that anhydrous ammonia from fertilizer and sewage from 21 million hogs are getting into our waterways.  Stop with the smoke and mirrors of volunteerism.”

My guide lumbers forward, deep into Water Works.  I realize I’m being guided by a bear. His broad back slightly bent.  Head leading down the hall.  One eye on his cubs.  Confident in each step.

“Our state leadership says we are feeding the world and more livestock is a good thing.  We don’t even ask the basic question what is the point of saturation.  What is the point when we have too many hogs?  21 million hogs in this state.  Seven times more than we have people.  If we had 21 million people, we’d be very concerned about the sewage treatment systems and about the environmental implications of that.  But when we have 21 million hogs, we think it is a great business opportunity and we fight any regulation.”

We walk into a mammoth generator room, high ceilings, large tanks, and marks on the wall to show how high the flood waters rose in 1993.  He points out the flood lines that show the building was overwhelmed.  But Water Works survived to clean water another day, he emphasizes.

“Volunteerism is a failure.  It’s the tragedy of the commons.  We can agree in principal that we should not abuse a natural resource that we share, but when it comes right down to it our self-interest will trump that.  If we depended on volunteerism for income taxes, or for abiding by the speed limit, or for air traffic control, or for the safety of food or pharmaceuticals, we’d kill a lot of people.  You can only do this through regulation.”

He doesn’t want to sound fanatical.  He doesn’t want to be marginalized into a category we can readily dismiss.  He is a pragmatic environmentalist.  He is not pro-Democrat or pro-Republican.  He doesn’t think either party is measuring up.  Neither has the political will to fight Farm Bureau, to fight big agriculture.  Water is his business and he wants to do good business for his clients.  So now he’s going to use the legal system to do good business for his clients.

“If you go through our employees’ parking lot, you will not see bumper stickers to save the whales.  They take rivers that are essentially industrial agricultural avenues to the Gulf of Mexico and turn it into water you and I can use.  The people I work for, the board I work for, believe that safe drinking water is a fundamental human right.  It has to be safe, it has to be affordable, it has to be in quantities that people can use.  That’s what these folks do.  And that’s my job.”


Bill Stowe, CEO for Des Moines Water Works, smiles.

“Listen, the folks here are dirt-under-the-fingernails environmentalists, and so am I. . . .   I’m not a vegan, I’m a meatatarian.”

And, with a laugh, off he lumbers to continue the fight.








You have to get in line

The line has only one other couple.  Young and bright-faced.  The docent takes them under her wing and gently guides them through the exhibit.  We follow after.  The birth, life, and death of Anne Frank is on display for all to see.  Made famous by her diary of two years hiding in the secret annex.  And her ignoble death a few months later.  Her story is told in this quiet, small exhibit at the Viaduct Gallery of the Des Moines Social Club until April 26.  An exhibit put together by the folks that run the Anne Frank House.  You can find it on the first floor of the old fire station.  Don’t worry, there is hardly any line.


Half a continent away from Des Moines, the crowd stood patiently in line stretching several blocks to get into the Anne Frank House.  Young women.  Old men.  Families.  Foreigners and natives.  It appeared that they stood without any forward movement as the morning ticked past.  Only the shifting feet in the wet and cold indicated they were not escapees from Madame Tussauds Wax Museum down the street.  Umbrellas and raincoats and good shoes were prerequisites as the rain drizzled steadily throughout the morning.  Oh, and don’t forget the chill that was alive and well and looking for the slightest opening.  But everyone remained.  Waiting.


“This museum is an empty house.  It’s empty because it reflects the absence of people that should be here.  The same is true for 60,000 other places in this city.  There are underneath the reality of Amsterdam that you experience right now, there are 60,000 of these empty places.”

So the executive director of the Anne Frank House, Ronald Leopold, told me last fall of the strangeness of his museum.

“The house represents what happened in Amsterdam, what happened in this whole country, and what happened in many places of Europe when people returned and found emptiness.  Here at the Anne Frank House you can feel that very emptiness. The emptiness of those returning, and all those who remained, and all of us who should be aware of the emptiness.”

The train lines at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Extermination Camp are also about remembrance.  This side of the tracks — you went to the gas chamber.  That side of the tracks — you were worked to death.  Anne Frank was placed on the side of the track that would be allowed to live a few more months.  What remains are empty tracks.  No trains come to this dead-end now.  Only the birds singing in those birch trees at the end of the line sing the same song.


“We don’t know what Anne Frank thought when she was in Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen.  We don’t know whether she kept her hope, her optimism, her idealism, or whether she lost it in the terrible circumstances she was in.  We don’t know.  I don’t want to speculate about it.  What is important is to be sure to know that part of the history as well.”  Ronald Leopold patiently explained to me.

The same day I talked to Ronald Leopold in Amsterdam, I was in a neighborhood bar in another city.  A line of men flowed out the front door.   Chanting and singing and excited.  I flowed out with them.  The chant became more raucous.  I smiled and watched on the other side of the street.  I later asked my friend, who spoke the language, what the group was chanting.

“Hamas, Hamas, Jews to the gas.”


“After pessimism, what?  When I see the incredible energy of young people, and how they strive to make the world a better place and how they are inspired by Anne Frank, that is still very hopeful.”  Ronald Leopold sat quietly for a moment.  “Perhaps you saw the line in the front of this museum.  The interest is only increasing.  There is a young generation growing up very much committed to build their future.  We as grown ups have a responsibility to help them.”

But you have to get in line.







“Yes, Ms. Griffin.”

The school door swings open.  A room.  Just like any other school room.  That is, if your school room was in Silicon Valley and was called Apple, or Google, or Facebook.

“If I were going to sit down at a dinner with ten people at the table and ask everybody to draw a picture of what you think a classroom look likes, nine out of ten of those pictures are going to look pretty similar.  But if I ask ten people to draw a kitchen, they would draw something that they could use, that was tailored to their needs.”

She’s tall.  Soft eyes countered by a no-nonsense jaw.  Strong hands.   Sleeves rolled back.  She is a force.  Perhaps she is that teacher in tenth grade whom you accidentally called “mom” to the hilarity of your peers.  Or perhaps she’s that nun, with only the oval of her face framed by her habit, for whom you drew hearts in second grade.  I don’t know.  It’s your fantasy.  But, trust me, an archetype she is.

“We don’t treat our classrooms like kitchens.  We first think about the curriculum and we may not even think of the space.  Changing the space changes how the curriculum is taught.  It causes you not to stand and deliver.  It causes you to design things kids can do together.”

Maureen Griffin smiles.  She is at the end of her day.  Tired.  Too much going on.  Of course there is.  Ms. Griffin is the STEM Academy Director at Hoover High School, among other things.  STEM — Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.  STEM academies are our country’s response to the idea that we are not keeping up with technology while educating our kids.  We’re falling behind.  Someone’s going to land on the moon before us.  So now we have an Iowa Governor’s STEM Advisory Council, and Hoover High School is one of the few schools in Iowa with a STEM Academy.

And how best to train these rocket scientists is Maureen’s job.  So, this gets us to her room.  Right smack in the middle of Hoover High School.  A room used by about 75 students and multiple teachers in the course of a day.  And sometimes even the football team.

We walk around the room.

A giant interactive white board hangs against one wall with a projector shining on it from the ceiling.  It is possible to project your computer screen onto the board and then overlay it with notes drawn on the white board.  It is a group document in work — something out of a science fiction novel.

A large low table with chairs sits kitty-corner to the white board.

“This table allows you to write directly on the table.  I can bring my small group to this table.  I’m going to brainstorm here.  It allows the small group to interact on a shared idea.”

Across from the table is a more traditional TV screen.

“This is the video conferencing area.  We use it to Skype.  But it does everything.  You plug  your computers to this connection and you project it onto the TV.”

Strange green mushroom-shaped chairs surround the video area.  Yup, they bounce when you sit on them.  “A student favorite,” Maureen claims.

And then there’s the cushioned stairs, with computer connections spread at the base of each stair.  And wide cloth chairs with swivel arms for your notes.  And even a spot for a student to tinker on an idea isolated away from the group.



A school room like none I’ve ever seen.

Ah, this is all well and good, but are acronyms and high technology the whole answer? Hmm . . . .

Maureen and I walk the halls.

“Hoover is now one of the best schools in Des Moines.  It was all hands on deck.  We took control of everything.  You screwed up, there was consequences.  Now people are transferring here.  We are doing things right.  Our graduation rate is higher than anyone in the district.  It’s all about individuals.”

Every ten steps I see what she means.

“Sarah, did you get that done?  Do you need some help?”

“Yes, Nathan, come and speak to me later.”

“Olivia, what are you doing still here?”

Student after student is greeted, cajoled, confronted, mildly scolded, greatly praised, and certainly acknowledged.  Maureen at work.

“Every time a kid comes into my office and has screwed up, or needs help with something, I draw a picture.”

Maureen starts drawing a time line on a white board, with me as her student.

“Joe, this is you born, right here.  This is you dying.  And this is you probably in high school.  And I’ll call it out.  You’re an African American.  You’re going to die probably around 83 if you’re fortunate to live through this tumultuous time.  You’re going to live to about 83.”

As Maureen draws the time line, underscoring my birth and death with quick hash marks, I swallow self-consciously and start fidgeting.

“So you’ve been doing school your whole life.  And I’ve got this really short window with you, four years.  And I’m preparing you for the rest of this time.  Because if you never see another teacher, if you never see another person in an environment where you have to be there from 7:40 to 3:10 every day, you’re on your own.  I have this little window to help you.  And you’re right here.  And you are still screwing up, and I only have this much time left.”

Lord help me.  I am right there.  What am I going to do?  How do I get a handle on this before it is all over?   Yikes!  I am screwing up.

“And so my theory is, if I get you for 6 1/2 hours a day, 180 days a year, if the only pleasure of your day is you coming to school and knowing that Ms. Griffin is going to be there or your teacher is going to be there and they’re going to welcome you, then I want them to feel welcome.  I think it’s our duty to every kid.  Don’t you think?”

I wipe my brow.  “Yes, Ms. Griffin.”


And Ms. Griffin, perching her chin on her hand, gives me a mildly skeptical look.  And then heads out the door to take care of her next kid.








A good man in desperate times

The grizzled man climbs up out of the litter-strewn riverbank at dusk.  He hesitates.  Flannel shirt wrongly buttoned over multiple undershirts, pants bunched on top of long underwear, a tight stocking cap pulled over a shaggy head with long white hair hanging from the sides.  A homeless man.   The blackened fingers, bitten by frost, are waved in my direction.  He looks down the bike path, his head turning left and right, and then slowly shuffles towards my car in the gravel lot.

A furtive telephone call brought me down to the river’s edge.  A call promising too much.  I was used to dead ends, and sat resignedly waiting for the man to make his way over.

I knew this part of town.  The homeless camp on this bank was cleared long before winter came.  Eagles work the waters below this bridge on Scott Avenue.  A few fishermen hang around during the day.  And occasionally, the laughter and music from Mullets Bar will drift across and down to the sandbars.  But in this evening gloom, when the early night air touches the river creating a low-slung fog, no noise is heard.  Although we are in Des Moines, it could be the dank and musty Thames flowing below London Bridge, or a creaky canal in the warehouse district of Amsterdam.  A place of dark deeds for sure.

The man leans on my car.

“What should I call you?” I ask.

“Is Deep Throat taken?” he says in a low, growly voice.


“OK, how about Bill Stowe?”

The man, who has spent his adult life studying the river up close, saw and heard a bit too much.  He has a secret that refuses to stay hidden below the layers of flannel shirts.  A secret he wants to share.

“It’s in the Raccoon River,” he says.   “Go check the river.”

So I do.

Down to the river I hike.  The water drifts flat and syrupy.  The Raccoon, born from the joinder of the North and South Raccoon, feeds into the Des Moines River at Principal Park.  The Raccoon spans Buena Vista, Sac, Calhoun, Carroll, Greene, Dallas, Audubon, and Guthrie Counties.  It is the drain in the tub for northwest and north central Iowa.  It’s here where the water flows that the man said I would find the secret.

Climbing to the water’s edge, I see that the muddy river looks darker than usual.  Somewhat like the oil on your dipstick.

I take a smell.

Oh my lord.  It’s crude oil — with just a bouquet of nitrates.  Bakken Crude Oil.  The man didn’t lie.  There is a secret hidden in the river.


Back to the man I go.

Why is Bakken Crude Oil coming down the Raccoon River?

The man shuffles back and forth.  Left foot, right foot, left foot.  Looking down the entire time.  A young school boy caught doing mischief.

“The nitrate level was out of control,” he says as a preamble.

I reassure him that everyone understands that problem.

“I did everything I could to make the water safe for the people of Des Moines.  After bringing that lawsuit against the upstream counties, I was at my wits end.  So don’t judge me harshly.”

I was perplexed.

“So I made a deal.”

It began to dawn on me at last.  A deal struck in desperation.  Voluntary efforts had failed. The legislature was not supportive.  The governor was less than helpful.  The man was at the end of his rope.

“We made a swap.”

Ah, so they did.  The brilliance and audacity was stunning.  Who could have possibly guessed how this man had struggled in this dance with the devil.  He knew the water was being poisoned by nitrates.  He knew there was no political will to address the problem.  He knew that his chances of success were slim at best.  But, the bottom line, people needed clean water.

Of course.  It is so obvious.  Crude oil from the Bakken fields is gushing down the Raccoon River.  No doubt, the oil refineries can much more easily deal with the nitrate runoff.  And, as a bonus, no more worry about oil spills in the middle of farm fields.  The land is saved.  Hoorah!

But what about our drinking water?  What is the other side of the swap?

“The crude oil pipeline is quite clean.  This isn’t as crazy as it sounds.  Rural water comes through pipes.  Your city water comes through pipes.  This is not a new idea.”  The man’s tone has changed.  He wants me to understand.  He wants me to see what he’s seen.

So, down the crude oil pipeline our water comes.  Nitrate free.  Just as mother nature intended.  Wow.  American creativity at its best.

I stare at the man as he mumbles quietly to himself.  He then slowly shuffles back to the river, back below the Scott Avenue Bridge.  His long white hair blowing softly on either side of his stocking cap — a rock star leaving the darkened stage.  Who would have guessed?

A good man in desperate times.


[This is an April Fool’s piece.  In real life, Bill Stowe, the CEO for Des Moines Water Works, does not live under the Scott Avenue Bridge.]









“Every punch hurts”

A knockout is clean and simple.  You get knocked down.  You don’t get up.  It’s all over.  No more floating like a butterfly or stinging like a bee.  The end.

A technical knockout is not so clean and not so simple.  The referee calls the fight usually because the losing boxer’s safety is at risk.  Why?  Because the poor guy is getting walloped by the winning boxer.  It’s not an uplifting sight.

Or maybe it is.

“I was born and raised in Fort Dodge, Iowa, with two sisters and three brothers.  My dad worked on the slaughter floor and my mom was a nurse’s aid at the county home.”

The words are jumbled together, chewed on, and delivered like taffy being pulled at the State Fair — a long string of stretched-thin sentences with no periods or spacing or changed intonation.   The large pink jacket doesn’t help dispel this illusion.

John Roby continues . . . .

“One of my goals is to get on the Ellen DeGeneres show.  I hope my story will change people’s lives.  My story is my life.  Look at it back then and look at me today.  I think it is a touching story.  It’s a little depressing.  How you can be at the top?  And then everybody takes you for what you’ve got?  It’s a sad story.  But it is touching.  What do you think of my story?”

April 3, 1993.  Dalton, Georgia.  Roger Bonine versus John Roby.  130 pounds.  International Boxing Organization World super featherweight title is on the line.  Out of the ring will walk a changed man.  Adulation, respect, endorsements will follow.  Champion of the world.

“My manager said, ‘John can you make 130?  There’s a title out there for you.  If you make this weight, we’ve got the title shot.’  So I went down another weight.  And I had the title shot with Roger Bonine.  From Georgia.  He had the title for super featherweight at 130.  Eventually I made the weight, two days before the fight.  I was amazed.  I went down as the 2 to1 underdog. And what do you know, I knocked him down in the fifth round and I took the crown.  IBO crown.  One of the biggest belts in the world.  April 3rd, 1993.  Preston Daniels, the mayor of Des Moines, made it John Roby Day.”


The 52-year-old hands are remarkably fine.  Fingers long and delicate.  Knuckles unswollen.  Nails neatly trimmed.  The hands of a patrician, not a boxer.

John Roby takes a long breath.

“What did I do to deserve this crown?  I waited for so long.  It was a blessing.  I see myself winning the belt in dreams.  And sometimes dreams come true.  And my dream wasn’t a fantasy, it was the real deal.  It came true.”

John Roby’s life dramatically changed.

“It was like I was reborn.  I was giving people autographs.  People noticed me more.  ‘Hey, Champ.  How are you doing?’  It made me feel great.  Especially when I was going to schools and telling the kids about my career.  The recognition made me feel good.”

And that was the beginning of the end.

“My downfall was being ‘mister-all-that.’  Mine wasn’t dope, drugs.  Mine was being a ladyizer.  I liked being out there.  Chasing women was my problem.”

The big money never happened.  John Roby worked at Dahl’s in the produce section to make ends meet.  One year later, in 1994, he lost his crown to Jeff Mayweather by a 12-round decision.  But worse than the loss, he had an accident at work.  He injured his neck and head.  His life would never be the same.  Fifteen losses and a few wins later, his career was over.

“John, how do you survive today?  Where do you get your money?  How do you live?”

He turns away.  He coughs.  His brow furrows.  A heaviness comes from deep down in his throat.

“I didn’t want to tell you, but I get a check.  I feel like I’m stupid because I get that check.  I feel like I’m retarded.  I feel like I’m retarded.  I have failed.  I’m trying to do this story.  I feel ashamed.”

John Roby recovers slowly from this blow.  He looks directly at me.

“Everything is slow these days.  Reflexes, legs. . . .  But I think I could make a comeback!”  He laughs almost painfully.  Then he becomes serious.

“Now I have feelings.  Every punch hurts right now.  Back then the punches didn’t hurt.  Right now, every punch hurts.  I was like superman.  I’m still superman, but I don’t have the cape anymore.  I’m not the man of steel.  I’m just John Roby.  The puppy, John Roby.  The old puppy, John Roby.”

So John survives.  Volunteers with kids at various places.  Helps out where he can help out.  Tries to inspire people with his story.  And has a message he delivers in quick jabs.

“Go to school.  Get your grades up.  Respect your teacher.  Respect your parents.  Discipline.  Make your dreams come true.  If you want to become a professional anything, you’ve got to give it your best.  You can’t listen to negative.  If you’re listening to negative, you aren’t going anywhere tonight.  Be sure to get your education.  Don’t be a boxer.  You need your brains.  Become a doctor.”


“Is this a sad story for a fighter?  I blew my money.”  He shakes his head.  “I gotta get another shot.  Do you think I have a good story?”