catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 11, Num 15 :: 2012.07.20 — 2012.08.02


After the garden

In the early 60s, the summer before I began fourth grade, my family moved from the small South Dakota town of Watertown to Sioux City, Iowa. As we pulled up to our new home in my grandfather’s grain truck, loaded with furniture and siblings, I wondered what that horrible smell was. I breathed through my mouth in a desperate attempt to dull the stench. It smelled of lard gone rancid, or scalded chicken feathers.

“Smells like bacon,” my twin brother said.

“Smell of money,” my father corrected as he began unloading. And he was right. Sioux City was home to the largest stockyards in the Midwest, just behind Chicago.

Looking at our new house on Virginia Street, a dilapidated, two-story Victorian divided into a duplex, I knew our family fortunes had taken a steep downturn. Our Watertown house had pink, scalloped siding and windows trimmed with brown shutters with sailboat silhouettes. Cottonwood trees lined our corner lot, a hedge against the outside world. In the middle of the yard stood a crabapple tree perfect for climbing.

The old Victorian sat high on the corner, on top of a raised yard braced by a four-foot retaining wall of rough-hewn, red granite. Not a blade of grass grew from the front yard; the hard-pack was covered by a layer of dust as fine as talc, a dull-brown color matching the house. Clearly, we had been expelled from the garden.

As the months and years wore on, however, I grew to love my new home, my neighborhood, filled with wonders and adventures. I would not have known this diverse world in my protected Watertown home. Sam’s grocery, a small brick building, was directly across the street and had a steady flow of kid traffic with purchases of 16 ounce bottles of RC and 3V Cola, popsicles and orange sherbet Push-ups.  On the same side of the street as Sam’s stood a row of houses in much the same dilapidated condition as mine. Members of the Sioux and Paiute tribe lived in those houses. We were on the 600 block of Virginia. The Greek families lived mostly in the 700 block, including my friend Mario. His mother, no taller than five feet, would often answer the door wearing only a black slip and bra — always an embarrassment to me, a shy kid who had grown up in my grandparents’ Dutch Reform Church. The Syrian enclave was several blocks north, closer to the grade school.

I could range any direction and reach wondrous destinations. East: the Floyd River, where we fished for carp and floated upon homemade rafts made with large chunks of Styrofoam. West: downtown, with its Orpheum Theater — an opera house, complete with balcony and box seats, converted to a movie theater boasting a 90-foot screen. Next door was a candy shop where a bag of shelled sunflower seeds cost a dime. Or that dime could buy an Indian-head penny in “fair” condition at the coin shop just down the street. And Martin Brothers department store had an escalator, an entertaining ride for free. North: Irving Grade School and a booming supply of friends. South: Lower Fourth Street, home to a series of run down bars, a discount furniture store called People’s, the Sioux City Barber College where kids could get a trim, a flat top or a butch for fifty cents, and the Chicago House, a seedy hotel once connected to Capone’s operations, and now associated with residents who offered services by the hour. An enterprising kid, such as my older brother Dan, could take his shoeshine box he made in wood shop and hang around the hotel and bars polishing shoes for some great tips.

And if all that wasn’t enough, just two blocks from home was the public library, a classic three-story, Andrew Carnegie-funded brick building. Bookcase after bookcase revealed amazing tales, unexplored worlds and faraway countries, stories of pioneers and explorers — stories of Pecos Bill taming the twister, Mike Fink and his flat boat, Paul Bunyan stomping through the countryside with his blue ox Babe, leaving prints that would fill up to become lakes. There were tales of the Arabian Nights and tales of King Arthur’s knights. I read a series historical-fiction books called YouWere There. I read about Huck Finn floating down the Mississippi. My love for science fiction was sparked by A Wrinkle in Time and Meg’s travels through the universe when she learned that a cloud of evil hung over earth.

Of course, growing up next to the stockyards, with its own odorous cloud, was not without troubles and adversity. Some problems were small. Bikes would be stolen from front porches, which led to accusations and fistfights. There was petty vandalism and occasional shoplifting. A bigger problem, however, was the abuse of alcohol, not only on Lower Fourth, but also in the families of my neighborhood. While in bed, I regularly gazed out my screenless window to Sam’s store across the street, watching drunk men argue and fight, sometimes with knives, until the police came with the paddy wagon and took them downtown.

In high school, when we were thrown in with students from the rich Northside, my friends and I encountered a new kind of adversity: we found that we were not all equal. Those from the Northside wore the latest fashions, rarely repeated outfits, drove cars and seemingly controlled all the clubs and extracurricular activities. Their position of privilege was obvious.

One time, my biology teacher, whom I loved, asked me to smile big for the class, which I did. He then he asked a popular Northside girl, Emily (whose father owned a packing plant in the stockyards), to smile. Notice, he told the class, how Emily’s upper and lower incisors precisely met because of orthodontics, whereas I (“smile again for us”) had a distinct overbite. He may have wanted to demonstrate my more natural biological structure, but the message was more than that: rich people can afford braces, not to mention dermatologists, new clothes and stylish haircuts.

In spite of these problems and painful reminders of a less than perfect world, I am deeply grateful to have left my little South Dakota paradise and be thrown into a grittier world, a world filled with stories, both in books and in everyday experiences lived in the neighborhood. It is part of the narrative of my life, a narrative that says I have some idea of diversity, of diverse cultures, of knowing what it’s like to be other. It’s a story of striving (for good or ill) to fit in. It’s the story of a group of friends who, for the most part, were the first in their families to graduate from college. It’s the story of discovering story.

Though we live in a fallen world, it’s still God’s world, filled with goodness, with family, friends, meaningful work and the beauty of creation. Even the Apostle Paul, who encountered Jesus while on the road to Damascus, struggled with the idea of leaving this earth. In his letter to the Philippians, he said he was hard pressed to choose between departing to be with Christ or remaining in the flesh to continue his work.

I, too, am reluctant to take up residency in a heavenly mansion. There’s still much to do and see here in my earthly home. For many years, well into adulthood and well after the Virginia Street house was razed because of urban renewal, I had a recurring dream about my old home. I would walk through the familiar rooms with their faded and peeling wall paper, go up one of the two staircases to the second floor and open a door that I hadn’t noticed before. On the other side of the door, to my great surprise, was an enormous space, a space bigger than my grandparents’ barn, a space that opened to the world — a space I still desire to explore. 

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