catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 1, Num 1 :: 2002.09.13 — 2002.09.26


Some say the Midwest is dying

Buzzing across Iowa this summer in my Honda Civic, I saw ghosts. I was straight-shooting Highway 3, and I saw farmhouses, hollowed out and lonesome, leaning barns with scattered shingles, and rusting cars tangled in prairie grass. A mailbox was toppled over in the ditch with only a short stub left on the shoulder.

Some say the Midwest is dying. Actually, any farmer in a seed cap will tell you money doesn't grow on corn stalks. Last year the average farmer from Iowa made only $15,000 after farm expenses. That's barely enough to keep the yard light on. Would-be farmers are getting smart, they're not farming. They're saying, "Forget the whole business." Since 1940, the number of people living on farms has dropped from 31 million to fewer than 5 million, and of those farm-dwellers, only half still farm.

A prick of resentment has been bothering me ever since my trip this summer. A child of Iowa soil, I'm not willing to admit we're dying. Dying is strong language to me. I didn't grow up in overalls, but I know there's something about small town life that can't die.

About a week ago I finally found time to spend a night in Hospers, Iowa. Hospers is a fine town, but most people wouldn't think of spending a night there—it doesn't make the map with a population of only 643. The city limits are less than one square mile.

I left home at a little after five and made the twenty-minute drive with my wife, April. We followed a milk truck into town, and April told me stories. She's from Hospers. I figured if anyone could convince me this small town was alive and well, she could.

She told me about school and her class of twelve. "That's the biggest class that's graduated," she beamed. "Arlene Van Otterloo cooked hot lunch," she said, holding my arm. "Her food was so good. Lunch was like Sunday dinner. We ate farmer's delight and milky rice with raisins. We even had homemade pudding," she said, tightening her grip on my arm. She was looking out the window, smiling in a way I thought she had reserved only for me. "I still pick her recipes out of the school cookbook at home."

She told me about Mrs. Zeutenhorst, who gave every one of her first-graders a Christmas ornament before they left for the holiday break, and Mr. Witt who took the liberty of teaching rocks and stars in his science class for four years straight just because he liked them. She told me the library was in the hallway, but that changed when it moved to the trailer outside, and band was on the stage in the gym. Sometimes the PE classes would get an earful. She told me about sports. "Mandatory after fourth grade," she said, "We had to play every sport."

She pointed out the Kountry Kitchen restaurant, we were both getting hungry, so I parked. "I'd be guilty by Hospers' law if I didn't take you to the Kountry Kitchen," she said.

The restaurant was tall and square like a giant cardboard box, but it was friendly. A wooden porch with pots of pink flowers was connected to the front. April held the screen door, and I walked in. Gray heads turned, all smiles, and a waitress in blue jeans and a Nike t-shirt greeted us.

"Do you have room upstairs?" April asked because she knew the place.

"Uh-huh. Right this way," said the waitress, who couldn't have been more than sixteen. We climbed a narrow stairway at the back and found our seats at a window table. "We never got to sit upstairs," April said over her menu.

I opened the menu and checked for specials.

"You better get the hamburger steak," April said. "My dad's going to ask what you got, and he'll say you should've had the hamburger steak." She smiled sympathetically and shrugged her shoulders. I took her advice, ordered the hamburger steak, and handed my menu to the waitress.

An old man across the room belly laughed, and the lady next to him with silver curls pinched a napkin at her lips. The waitress brought our salad and potato and circled the room with a pot of decaf.

"It's Saturday night," April said, crushing a Club cracker over her salad. I nodded in agreement. "No," she said, shaking her head, "I mean it's Saturday night, the night when everyone comes here to eat." She picked up her fork and played with her salad. "It's a social gathering, every Saturday. Mostly retired farmers, older people—they come here to eat early, and they socialize." I ripped the tin foil off my baked potato with a fork. "If we came next week everything would be the same—same people, same place." She folded some lettuce in her mouth and smiled. "These people don't need menus."

I looked around the room and said, "I think I get it." Everything was the same as it had always been, and that's what made the place. I picked up my ocean-blue water glass from the table, and April said, "I bet that cup's from the 50's."

I laughed. "Nobody here would have it any other way," I said. The plain silverware, like ours in the drawer at home, the turned-over coffee cups, the wooden ducks hanging on the wall—these things were always the same; they were timeless. I cut up my hamburger steak and wondered whether this was the reason I was here—because these people had something most in American suburbia didn't, the timeless traditions of everyday life.

We paid and left. Stepping off the porch, we strolled Main Street, the entire block. April figured I would want to see the Hospers statue, and she was right. In the middle of the intersection at the end of the block stood a man on a pedestal leaning on a bayonet and at the base a lady in a gown with flags and an eagle.

Everyone in Sioux County knows about the Hospers statue—it's a landmark. As far as I know, it's the only statue in the county, but I'd never actually seen it, only heard about it. People from the rest of the county tell stories probably because they're jealous. They say a drunk man in an Olds crumpled his bumper on the statue. They say some kids knocked the woman's head off with a sledge and ran.

I guessed no one really knew why the statue was in Hospers, hogging up the road, except, I was almost sure of it, the people of Hospers. People here wanted to remember, to guard tradition with a pitchfork if they had to. I was sure they still told the story of September 5, 1921. I'd read it in Hospers' centennial history book. The streets of Hospers were clogged, farmers and townsfolk cheering as the canvas was taken away, unveiling for the first time the statue dedicated to the veterans of World War I. Ceremonies lasted into the evening, honoring the veterans with street games and baseball, a concert in the band shell, and even a mock battle. Some 300 men dressed in uniform took their positions and fired canons and rifles, spreading a haze over the town. Fireworks scattered in the sky, lighting up the battlefield as a plane soared overhead. The American flag could be seen advancing toward victory.

The statue had a story worth remembering, and as April and I were standing there on the curb at the corner, I told her what I thought about everyone in the town knowing about the statue. I told her the statue was timeless—unforgettable.

At first I thought she wasn't listening because she was looking at the statue and not saying anything, but then she pulled at her lower lip with her teeth, like she does when she's thinking. She didn't say much, she just said, "Timeless?" and looked me in the eyes.

"Timeless," I said, "it's what makes Hospers. It's why the Midwest isn't dying." I pointed, panning across Main Street. "I bet everybody knows the story."

April took my hand and smiled, not like she was impressed, but like a mother watching her kid eat spaghetti with a spoon. "I don't know the story behind that statue," she said, "All I know is it used to be white." Taking another look at the statue, she squeezed my hand and began walking back towards the car.

"And?" I said, unmistakably missing something.

"And now it's got colors," she said. "Come on," she looked over her shoulder, "we're going to Aunt Fran's."

We crossed town under golden leaves and pulled up to the familiar house with the van in the drive. The license plate read, "ANTFRAN." We let ourselves in, walked through the kitchen, and found her in the easy chair reading the Hospers' paper. "Say, did you see this article in The Siouxland Press?" she said in full voice, tilting her head up so she could find the article through her bifocals. "Some of my graduating class from '49 went to the Black Hills." She pointed at the page and handed it to April. "They have these pictures of everyone that went, and a few weeks ago they had some old ones of when we were in seventh and eighth grade," she added.

April scanned the page, and I looked over her shoulder. The heading read, "Forty-niners Head for the Hills" with two black-and-white photos underneath, crammed full of 70-year olds. Aunt Fran turned her attention to me, her cheeks balling up under her eyes as she smiled. "So what brings you two to town?" she asked. I sat down on the couch, close enough so she could hear. "We just came from the Kountry Kitchen," I told her.

She raised her brow, her eyes full circles in her generous lenses, and she laughed. "It's Saturday night," she announced in revelry, looking at me out of the corner of her eye. "Saturday nights have been big as long as I can remember," she said, pressing her lips together into a thin line. "We didn't get out much when I was a kid, but on Saturday nights we went to Hospers for almost two hours." April folded the paper and took a seat next to me on the couch. "We would
walk up and down Main Street, listen to the band play in the band shell, and when we were tired of it, of course, we'd go have a malt by Jazz." She took a deep breath, like she was circulating the warm air of a summer night through her lungs. "Jazz Reimersma had a malt machine in the drug store, and you could not find a better malt anywhere else in the United States," she said, looking at both of us, one to the other. "They were so big and so thick that you couldn't get the malt
through the straw." She pretended to hold a malt glass out in front of us. "Those malts were maybe 20 cents. Now they would be 20 bucks." She relaxed in her chair, shaking her head at the ceiling.

"See, this is it," she said, "we didn't go to the cafe." She checked us out of the corner of her eye. "I suppose I didn't spend time in the cafe until I started working in town in ?51. Millie ran the place, and she was the Justice of the Peace. We would be at the cafe for coffee, and somebody would have to appear before the Justice of the Peace, so Millie would go back to the kitchen with them, and they'd pay their fine or whatever. Of course, I don't know exactly how that all went. I never had to appear before the Justice of the Peace." Aunt Fran's cheeks ballooned again, and she laughed. She leaned over and scooped up a pile of bath towels and wash clothes into her lap. "Then again, things change," she said, smooshing her lips together like an M as she brought the ends of a towel together at her knees. "There's not much left of Saturday
nights these days." She smoothed over the towel with her palm. "There's not much left of Hospers." She stopped to take a look at us. "Really, what is there?" she asked, holding up her shoulders. "I keep my fingers crossed that the Kountry Kitchen is going to stay open. Bennett and Twila are moving to Orange City the first of the year, and unless you two want to run the cafe, it'll be done." She kept talking like we weren't even there. "The Press is still in town, but
the hardware store closed. We still have the post office and church, but other than that, nothing." She finished folding the towel, pulling it together into a tight square, and we sat in silence. Nothing, I thought, that's strong language.

April spun a few lines of conversation about her sister playing volleyball and her brother being sick with asthma, and we thought we'd better get going. We grabbed sodas from the fridge and said goodnight.

April watched me as I walked around the car and got in. "What are you thinking about?" she asked, still looking at me as she shifted the car in reverse.

"I'm thinking about those photos in the paper," I said, remembering the black and whites in The Press.

I thought about the women huddled together on that park bench in their jackets with their cameras and purses on their laps and their heads pulled in close, and most of the men behind them standing shoulder to shoulder in plaid shirts loose around the neck, some with glasses shading their eyes and some bald, and all of them smiling at the camera while squinting into the sun. Over 51 years after graduation they're still piling into cars and driving 400 miles to snap
pictures of buffalo. They're saying, "Let's do this again, maybe Boston next year, because who knows how long we'll have together?" They're saying they still have a story.

But Aunt Fran made my brain spin. She says no to Saturday nights these days. She says she would rather stay home and watch the Channel 4 News under a blanket than go to the Kountry Kitchen for a plate of liver and onions. She says the place won't last. We see this sign in the window as we're driving out of town. I don't know how we missed the sign. It's black with orange letters and says, "For Sale by Owner." It's like a death certificate. April says the main route through town, highway 60, is moving to the east. She says truckers will have no reason to hammer their air brakes for this small town.

I'm about to say, "You're right. Who's to say Hospers is even going to be around in twenty years. I don't know," but I don't because I look at April. She's making fists at the wheel, and she's looking straight ahead. The whites of her eyes are glowing, and her jaw and lips are tight.

She turns the wheel, and we cut around the base of the statue. Because of the darkness, I can hardly make out the rich colors that continue to give life to the man settled on the stone, his arms clasped casually over the point of his bayonet. The woman rests her arm on the stone foundation, her left leg forward in step. Her chin is raised. The eagle next to her stands perched. Its wings are spread entirely, eyes focused ahead.

We accelerate down the highway, and it's like April's stone face is telling me another story—the story of her family leaving the farm eight years ago; the story of the farm place being bulldozed and left for corn, her family becoming another statistic; the story of her mother crying when they drive out this way. I watch the tears slide down April's face in the light of the passing cars. I think her tears are saying, "Hold on." I think that's what they're all saying, even Bennett and Twila.

I don't know what to say to April. I put my arm behind her seat, and I tell her I like the statue, painted or not.

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