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, www.chirihandmade.com, 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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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“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.

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“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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?




A moral education

Great teachers are out there, folks.  I’m talking about great teachers who are giants walking today’s earth.  Great teachers who will make you lean in, or step back, or gasp.  Who, when they get done, make you realize you are no longer the same person.  The planet has shifted.  You have changed life forms.  Maybe your teeth are even whiter.  I don’t know.  But goodness, great teachers are out there, and why aren’t we chasing them down?

Take Professor Jay Holstein at the University of Iowa.  He’ll turn your presumptions upside down and inside out — until you’re left on the classroom floor, dazed, wide-eyed, maybe even drooling, wondering if a drone was somehow involved in what happened.   Or take Dr. Greg Robinson at Iowa State.  You’re feeling down about humankind?  A bit pessimistic?  No need to go to a motivational speaker, no need to go to a counselor, heck, don’t even go have a drink — go talk to him.  Duh.  Or how about Maureen Griffin who taught chemistry for years at East High School and now is Hoover High School’s STEM  (“Science, Technology, Engineering, Math”) director?  You think you’re a failure and can’t succeed?  Well, go visit Maureen.  She’ll lift you up by your ears, smilingly point you in the right direction, and then give you a gentle kick down the path — all while teaching you a thing or two about life.

I’m talking TEACHERS here, folks, with a capital “T.”

Well, I met a great teacher the other day.  In Amsterdam of all places.  Ronald Leopold is his name.  He’s the  Executive Director of the Anne Frank House.  A museum housing the original Secret Annex where Anne Frank and seven others hid for two years from the Nazis.  Every year, 1.2 million visitors show up to walk past the moveable bookcase into the hidden rooms where these eight people ate, and slept, and survived.  Until they didn’t.  It is Ronald Leopold’s job to hold this legacy of Anne Frank in trust for us.

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Take a listen . . . .

“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.  When you educate about a life, it is important to know it is not just what she wrote in the diary, but there is more to that.  There is these seven months when she was in Westerbork, Auschwitz, and Bergen-Belsen.  We don’t know.  You have to learn about that.  You have to learn that part of history.”

Soft spoken.  Kindly.  A sad smile lurking at the corners of his mouth like that contemplative guy you see at the end of the bar.  He continues . . . .

“This kind of optimism, very much an American interpretation, an American view, how good will eventually overcome evil — maybe also a little bit religiously motivated — is one part of the story.  You have to be careful to not fast forward to only that part of the story.  You have to take in history first.  With all its tragedies.  With all the reflections on different roles people had at that time.  On the choices people made.”

“How it was possible that people became perpetrators?  Why it was, especially  in the Dutch situation, how it was possible in Holland that 75% of the Dutch Jewery was killed?  By far the highest percentage in Western Europe.  What does it say about civil society in Holland?  What does it say about the choices people made to be a bystander when injustice was done right in front of their eyes?  What does it say about people who became a helper?  Like the four people here who risked their own lives here in the Secret Annex in order to save the lives of others.”

“All these questions are vital questions in the moral education of young people.  They have to reflect on these questions.  They have to be aware this was not Hurricane Sandy; this was not some disaster that came from I don’t know where.  It’s not Ebola.  This came from choices people made.  And that is very important.  I think in order to achieve that with young people, you have to start with history.  You have to start with everything that happened.  What does it mean to you?  Maybe eventually you end up either in optimism — people are truly good at heart — or maybe not.  If you really went through this process, it doesn’t matter where you end up.  Here is something you have for the rest of your life.  It has to do with moral education.”

My goodness.  Did he just say all that while sitting in a room alone with an old guy from Iowa that he doesn’t know from Adam?  Did he just rattle this off extemporaneously with only a few questions priming the pump?  There must be something wrong with this guy; this is too good to be true.  He must have an insufferable ego, right?

He pulls back in his chair and sparkles with laughter at my impertinent question.

“I am a human being, with all my weaknesses, and sometimes, when Beyonce or Barbara Streisand or Billy Crystal, or whomever, comes, I’m like ‘wow wow.’   Then I come back to my office and see this picture I place on my computer.  ‘It is this little girl, it’s not you.’  This is not about me.”

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By the way, I notice that our Repertory Theater of Iowa is presenting the Diary of Anne Frank, April 10 through April 26, 2015, right here in Des Moines.  And it’s interesting that Jim Loos and Randall Vos are co-chairing a Netherland’s International Year at Des Moines Area Community College  Yup, a whole year on Holland at DMACC.  Finally, it looks like the major traveling exhibit from the Anne Frank House is also scheduled to be in Des Moines during April.  Quite a coincidence.

Shouldn’t we invite this guy to come along for the ride?


Steel shutters

Steadily the rain comes down in Amsterdam.  No surprise really.  It is the Netherlands in late October.  The walk from the train station up past three canals was too much for my shoes as they now release a telltale squish.  But still, there’s the line for the Anne Frank House, stretching all the way from one canal to the next.  And even more surprising than the length of the line is that no one is raising a fuss as they wait patiently while the rain drips steadily from the brims of their hats.  Open umbrellas are the only concession to the wet that I can see.   Perhaps a little discomfort is appropriate.

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“Our freedom [in Amsterdam] was severely restricted by a series of anti-Jewish degrees: Jews were required to wear a yellow star; Jews were required to turn in their bicycles; Jews were forbidden to use streetcars; Jews were forbidden to ride in cars, even their own.”  Anne Frank, Saturday, June 20, 1942.

Anne Frank’s story of hiding from the Nazis for two years in the Secret Annex, and then of her death in the concentration camps, compels 1.2 million people a year to want to see behind the moveable bookcase into the hidden rooms where eight people ate and slept and survived.  That is, until they didn’t.  Only Anne’s father Otto returned from the camps alive.

“Jews were required to do their shopping between 3 and 5 P.M.; Jews were required to frequent only Jewish-owned barbershops and beauty parlors; Jews were forbidden to be out on the streets between 8 P.M. and 6 A.M.”  Anne Frank, Saturday, June 20, 1942.

Anne Frank’s neighborhood is no longer warehouses, but million-dollar canal homes.  And that price even includes the homes that lean precariously one way or the other.  Literally shifting with the sands of time.

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Amsterdam has over 62 miles of canals (more than Venice), and over 1200 bridges.  But these defensive rings of canals, built in the 16th and 17th centuries as moats, didn’t save the Jews.  Of the 80,000 Jews that lived in Amsterdam, around 60,000 were murdered by the Nazis.  Men, women, and children.  That’s about every person living in West Des Moines.  And don’t forget Anne Frank.  She and her sister and her mother and father all ended up in Auschwitz.  Anne and her sister were transferred from there and died in Bergen-Belsen — shortly before the camp was liberated.

“Jews were forbidden to go to the theaters, movies or any other forms of entertainment; Jews were forbidden to use swimming pools, tennis courts, hockey fields or any other athletic fields; Jews were forbidden to go rowing; Jews were forbidden to take part in any athletic activity in public.”  Anne Frank, Saturday, June 20, 1942.

The Anne Frank House is an unusual museum.  Just ask the Executive Director, Ronald Leopold:

“This museum is basically 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 in 2014, there are 60,000 of these empty places.  This sight, this house, this position, reflects the history of these 60,000 empty places here in Amsterdam.  What does this mean in 2014?  I think this has to do with identity.  Who am I?  Who is the other?  The way I perceive myself.  The way I perceive others.  Why do I use prejudice in categorizing people?  Why is it important to be aware of that?  What is the step from prejudice to discrimination?  Basic questions for everybody.”

So people line up to see the Secret Annex.  To remember the past and to reflect about today.

“Jews were forbidden to sit in their gardens or those of their friends after 8 P.M.; Jews were forbidden to visit Christians in their homes; Jews were required to attend Jewish Schools.”  Anne Frank, Saturday, June 20, 1942.

Ronald Leopold explains:  “They had to go to separate schools in 1941.  In Anne’s class there were every week and every month, fewer and fewer pupils.  Fewer and fewer students.  And it all ended up in 1942 when there was nobody left.  The same for teachers.  Today, you might miss class for one thing or another, but not because you were on your way to your death.”

“It’s difficult in times like these: ideals, dreams and cherished hopes rise within us, only to be crushed by grim reality.  It’s a wonder I haven’t abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical. Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.”  Anne Frank, Saturday, July 15, 1944.

Anne Frank was arrested a few weeks after she wrote those words.  And she was dead by March of 1945.

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As for “never again”?  Notice the windows to the Anne Frank House.  Giant steel shutters on a rolling track.  They’re not steel because of the rain.  I ask Ronald Leopold about the shutters.

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“Do you mind if I prefer not to answer? . . .   But we’re not naive.”  He shakes his head.

And the rain keeps falling.



Water into wine

Dead would not be too strong to describe the wine industry in Iowa just a few years ago.  Only 30 acres were in grape production as recently as 2000.  I’m not kidding.  30 acres.  My goodness, there’s residential homes in Waukee with more acreage.  Herbicides, bad weather, and row crops tolled the bell for what was once a vibrant Iowa crop.   And if you stirred in all those problems with the post-2000 years of recession, the increased push to plant corn, and the forecast of a Zombie Apocalypse, the dark days were close upon us.

A miracle was needed, folks.

The barker stood several feet up from his audience.  Microphone clutched in his left hand.  Iowa State Cyclone t-shirt front and center, walking his narrow stage.  Bespectacled, balding, and bearded, his patter was smooth and comfortable — mashed potatoes and gravy for the soul.  As he talked, the underbelly of a joke seemed cooking just on the other side of whatever he said.

“Ladies and gentlemen, keep on stomping.  And don’t give a worry about your feet.  All we have to do is strain out the warts and the toenails and it’s ready to drink.”

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Dead silence.

“Warts and toenails”?  Is that what this guy said?  Is he kidding?  Is this legal?  Why is anyone taking off their shoes and dipping their feet in that barrel of grapes?

Oh, a joke!

He had us hooked.

“How come that juice won’t come out, young man?  Act like a windshield washer. Yahoo.  There you go.”

Enthusiastic, with a stage-quiet voice that could quickly crescendo to a boom, Michael White of Iowa State Extension, a Viticulture Specialist, was hard at work at the Iowa State Fair in August.  Teaching us how to stomp grapes.

And so now it is harvest time in October — more than two months later — and time for Mr. White to answer a few questions.

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“You see, the 101 Iowa wineries now have 5.93% of the market share of the retail wine sales in Iowa. The average Iowa adult consumes approximately 1.4 gallons of wine per year. The national average is approximately 2.8 gallons per year.   Just promoting Iowa wine to a few Iowa wine consumers is not enough.  Part of the mission of the Wine Experience at the State Fair is to introduce Iowans to the culture of wine.  The music, meals, socializing and wide range of wine types.  In many parts of the world, wine is part of the meal and the center of family and friend get-togethers.  The native Iowa wine industry would like to see our wine culture grow in Iowa.”

Now as you consider the virtues of Iowa wine, remember that just 4500 miles away, grape fields stretch for miles and miles and miles.  Bordeaux, the Loire Valley, Burgundy, Alsace, Rhone, Languedoc, and Provence.  To name just a few.  And I’m only talking about France.  What about Italy, Spain, Germany, Australia, New Zealand, California?

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The lesson from White?  Don’t leave out Iowa.  Remember, the wine industry has existed for thousands and thousands and thousands of years.  Heck, even Noah planted a vineyard.  And Iowa was a part of this boom in times past.  Believe it or not, our heyday was 1919.  Ranked sixth in the country in grape production.  A powerhouse.  “The 1900 U.S. Agricultural Census showed that Iowa produced 7,403,900 pounds of grapes and 76,301 gallons of farm-processed wine,” according to White.  Wow.  But by 2000, White says that only 30 acres of grapes remained.  Not a pretty picture.

“I jumped on board ISU Extension in October of 1994 taking a job as a regional crop specialist.  It was while I was working as the Central Iowa Crops Specialist that Ron Mark of Summerset Winery located north of Indianola contacted me early in 2000.  He asked if ISU Extension could put on some grape growing classes because he needed grapes. At the time Iowa had 13 wineries of which only two grew grapes – Summerset Winery in Indianola, Iowa, and Tabor Home Winery in Baldwin, Iowa.  The rest is history.”

Well, with a little work.  White started holding monthly meetings at Summerset Winery.  And the industry slowly started to take off with the efforts of a lot of people and a lot of institutions — Iowa State University, community colleges, the Iowa Departments of Agriculture and Economic Development, and the Iowa legislature, to name a few.

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“I eventually became a full-time Viticulture Specialist in 2007, leaving my agronomy days behind. We now have 101 licensed wineries and 312 vineyards covering 1,250 acres in Iowa.”

My goodness.  An increase of 88 wineries in 14 years.

But why would anybody get into this business?

“People get in the wine business primarily to have a good time.  Nobody in this business is bad.  It is a great industry to be with.  I enjoy being up on stage promoting the industry.  I don’t even think, I just do it.  I like to work with families and kids like this.  I’m married- myself, with three kids, four grandchildren and one on the way.  When you work with Extension, you’d better like kids.  We have this little program called 4-H.”

Back up on the stage in August, White is dancing around, helping each group to stomp grapes, and congratulating everyone for just showing up.

“Give them a hand everyone.  Now you all know how to do this.”

Really?  Is this really possible?  A wine industry in Iowa?  And if wine is possible in Iowa, what else is possible?  A cure for Ebola?  Why not.   World peace?  We’re ready for it.  East High School facing Ames in the final of the Iowa Football State Championships?  Ah, now that would send you back to church.

“By the way, everybody who participates can get a ribbon,” Michael White says to the crowd.

Mmmm . . . water into wine.  A miracle.







Smart phones

Now, don’t push.  Everyone will get to see everything.  That’s it.  Okay, sex and drugs to the left.  Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Van Gogh straight ahead.   And the Anne Frank House to the right.  What’s your pleasure?  Of course it’s sex and drugs.  I know, I know, it wasn’t a fair test.  Duh.

Let’s just follow these young men and women as they pour out of the central train station in Amsterdam.  Be careful there on the tram tracks.  Yikes, the bikes have the right of way.  Look out, here comes a tram.  Lord help us.

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Just go straight up to Dam Square.   Over there to the right is the main building of Amsterdam’s government.  You’re not interested?  Okay, how about that carnival and wax museum?  Wow, that’s a pretty high ride.  Where’s the fried brownies you always get at the State Fair?  I’m afraid they don’t have them.  Now, I can get you a brownie with a little marijuana flavoring.


Okay, let’s veer to the left, down the canal into the Red Light District.  Mmmm . . . you smell the marijuana?  Of course.  Yes, I know they are called coffeeshops.  No, they don’t sell coffee.  Yes, that is a very large condom.  No, you can’t take a picture.


See all the signs for “no pictures”?  Rumor has it that the prostitutes will chase you down and smash your camera.  And at the sex toy shops?  They will yell and bang the counter and almost get violent.  You don’t want that.  NO PICTURES please.  It’s the law.

Okay, do you see these women in bikinis behind the large glass windows?  Yes, all down those alleyways and across the canals.  The red lights turned on mean they’re in business. A curtain closed?   It means they’re working.

Let’s walk down this narrow alley.  See them perched on their stools or standing next to the full-length window?  Yes, they will make eye contact, or rub a provocative tattoo against the window, or wink suggestively.  Look, over there is the slow moistening of a lip.  This isn’t a mystery.  They love sex.  They love to have sex with strangers.  They particularly want to have sex with you.  From Iowa.  Their dream come true.   And, yes, they are working their way through college.  Yes, this is their vocational choice.  No, there is no issue concerning human trafficking.  Trust me.

Just enjoy yourself.

There goes a nice young man through a door.   Wow, that curtain closed quickly.  Did you hear the swoosh as the metal rings slid along the rod?  Look, all his buddies are waiting outside.   They’re here on behalf of their friend.  I’m sure they hope it develops into a great relationship.  Long term.  Let’s move to the next window.  Yes, that one four feet further down.   Or that window four feet further after that.  Or the window four feet after that.  My goodness, here’s a whole house of windows.

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But look again.  That woman over there in the window with that not-very-warm-looking bikini?  She’s on her phone texting.  Yes, and there’s another woman on the phone in that window.  Talking talking talking.  And there’s someone checking her e-mails.  Perhaps looking to see who’s friended her while she was busy for the last 15 minutes.  My goodness, everyone is on their smart phone tonight.

You know, my friends, smart phones are a wonderful way to keep in contact with your mom and dad and boyfriends and girlfriends, check on sales at the grocery store, read Tolstoy or romance novels, and, frankly, a great way to keep an eye on your kids.  Smart phones are a window to the world.

Of course, as with all windows, you can look in or you can look out.

Oh, there’s another customer.

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