Army Volunteer

Stir fried dinner, Jan. 25, 2021.

My decision to enter the military created a personal challenge. I had protested the Vietnam War in high school and college, and favored non-violent approaches to resolving conflict. At the same time, Father had served in the Allied occupation of Japan after World War II. While he did not talk much about his military service, it was an important part of how his life evolved after graduating from Leon High School in Tallahassee, Florida.

Mother took me to register for the draft when I became eligible at age 18. I still have my Selective Service card. People in my birth year were eligible for the draft lottery on July 1, 1970 for calendar year 1971. I took a student deferment to attend the University of Iowa in fall 1970. Because of it, my number would be drawn in 1973 for the following year, after graduation. Rather than take a chance in the 1973 lottery, when the Selective Service drew 125, I canceled my deferment, and accepted eligibility, because my draft number was 128. One could be eligible for the draft lottery only once, so I was off the hook on conscription.

After graduating from university in May 1974, I stayed in Iowa City contemplating next steps. When Richard Nixon resigned the presidency on Aug. 8, 1974, a weight was lifted from me and almost everyone I knew. This freed me to take a long tour of Europe, a modern-day equivalent of the 17th and 18th Century Grand Tours. I returned to Davenport as winter set in. I worked a couple of jobs in 1975, yet living in my home town wasn’t for me. I remained restless about what would be next.

When the Vietnam War ended on April 30, 1975, I revisited joining the military. Without the danger of the Vietnam War, my father’s service came to mind again. I discovered a program to enlist for Officer Candidate School to become a commissioned officer. I took all the tests, went through various hearings, and despite frowns from the panel at my shoulder-length hair, was accepted. I enlisted in the program and left for Fort Jackson, S.C. in January 1976, the Bicentennial Year.

Why did I enlist? I felt the U.S. Army at the end of the Vietnam War was a despicable mess. The March 16, 1968 My Lai massacre of more than 500 people, including young girls and women who were raped and mutilated before being killed, was particularly on my mind. I believed the only way to address problems like My Lai was for people like me, who valued non-violent means of conflict resolution and common decency, to enter the military and do a better job of leading it. Father’s military service played a role in my decision, as did the opportunity of youth and being single. I have no regrets in following my father’s footsteps and joining the Army.

DAVENPORT, Ia. (Dec. 28, 1975) During the last three days I have heard two significant quotes and several metaphors well worth remembering here.

Christmas Day as I escorted my Grandmother down the front stairs (of the American Foursquare) and as the sun was sinking in the west, she said, “The day we have prepared for so long is gone.”

Also Joe, on the eve of his 24th birthday said, “The ink has dried on the last year, and already it begins to fade.”

Both of these touch home for me at this time of my life.

Journals, Dec. 28, 1975

From a Room in Thomasville

Spanish Moss on a Tree in Thomasville, Georgia Photo Credit – Wikimedia Commons

THOMASVILLE, Ga. (Dec. 7, 1997) For the past three weeks I have been wrapped up in the transition between CRST and Oil-Dri. The time has gone quickly and with the 12-16-hour days, I have had little time for reflection. It was only Friday night I did something for myself — I went to Walmart and bought some shaving cream and underwear.

Yesterday, after five hours at work, I drove toward Tallahassee and went to a Goodwill store, a large bookstore, and got groceries — to last me until I fly home on Friday.

What I observed is difficult to put into words. Mostly it is difficult because I am not accustomed to writing observations. But I will attempt something now.

On Georgia Highway 3, near Ochlocknee, is a huge clay mine. Across the street is the Oil-Dri plant which processes the clay into absorbents and cat litter. The reason I am here is to train these people to provide the transportation services needed to move products to market. This is something Oil-Dri was doing on their own, but in a changing economic environment they now chose to outsource the function.

People are very nice, and determined to preserve their way of life. What that means, I am not sure, but I detect that many in the area do not have a lot of money, and things like a person taking home a bag of rolls from the farewell luncheon, and statements about living in Cairo or Moultrie because a person cannot afford to live in Thomasville, are revealing.

Yesterday I took my clothes to a coin-operated laundromat where there is a wash, dry and fold service. The proprietress is a woman who will, for 75 cents a pound, wash, dry and fold clothes. There are two very young children who stay with her — they are young enough to be grandchildren. When I returned to pick up my clothes, there was a gathering of older females who were of an age to be daughters/mothers of the others. The proprietress indicated that Iowa was a long way from that coin-operated laundromat.

Saturday afternoon I drove south on 319 toward Tallahassee. As I entered Leon County, I remembered entering that county with my parents when I was seven or eight years old. I am not far from where my father spent time as a teenager. I liked the road with the trees reaching over the road surface — Spanish moss hanging from them — a cozy drive on a busy road leading to shops, and eventually, the airport from which I will fly home.

It was inside Walmart yesterday afternoon I was inspired to buy this paper and continue my journal from Georgia. The idea of writing in it as an escape and as creative endeavor seems inviting after 23 straight days of endless activity. I never know if I will write volumes or if this will be my solitary entry as Monday comes and I move back into a work mode — engaged in what must be done.

It is a place of solitary enjoyment — as usual, I know not when, if ever, I will return to read these writings… or if, like the writings I had stolen in France, they will just be gone forever — to be composted into some other matter. Now, it is rewarding to put the words to paper, and so, on what is turning into a retreat weekend, I am at this table writing.

It is in writing down thoughts I am able to move on to the next activity. It is like putting money into a repository where it is unseen and as such out of my attention — letting me be free to engage in new thoughts. I have left the curtain closed in my room. I can see it is light outside, and when I emerge, I will have a fresh view of what potential there is in my environment.

Now it is time to end this journal entry. I have come to this place in my day and the promise of my future calls me. I have used this morning — the three hours since I woke up — to bring focus to what I am doing. Now mental activity pulls me toward work. Indeed, that is the reason I am here in Georgia.

So now, I will close this page, this entry — go to the exercise room for an hour, then begin writing in other actions, the next phase of my career as an Americanist.

~ Lightly edited from my personal journal.


Seven More Days

Chick pea salad sandwich

“Battle map has been drawn,” wrote our enthusiastic meteorologist who hails from Florida. We’re expecting heavy snowfall by mid day and continuing until morning.

I plowed the driveway yesterday, so the concrete absorbed heat from the sun and will melt the first flakes. After that, as always in Big Grove Township, we’ll see what happens. We are in the middle of the red zone she mapped out for us.

Staying inside was the plan all along. People are talking about the end of the coronavirus pandemic with hope in their voices. Now that people we know are getting vaccinated, there may be an end in sight. A University of Iowa epidemiologist wrote yesterday it won’t be over until cases of COVID-19 are minimal in our community. One hopes public health professionals will instruct us in what that means.

Thus far in January, I wrote 54,175 words, more or less. That includes three categories of writing, blog posts, rushes (first drafts), and a final draft of the book that follows the outline. I’m rapidly learning the quantity of words is less important than their quality. With so much output, I need a week to catch up on editing. It does appear this autobiography from the contagion will proceed to a finish. With seven more days in January and a snowstorm in the works, I should be able to focus on the work.

We cook all of our meals and have been since the pandemic began. Saturday I made a batch of chick pea salad, one of my favorite dishes. Our meal rotation includes spaghetti with tomato sauce, pizza, chili, stir fry, soup, sandwiches, oatmeal, tacos, quesadillas, and various small plates intended to break down and disperse our daily eating over a longer period. In a nod to southern cuisine, we make a “meat with two sides,” although our meat is typically a veggie burger with two different vegetables. With both of us retired until after the pandemic, home cooking will continue.

Seven more days of living this January. I’ll take mine one at a time.


Time Alone

Derecho damaged woods.

I spend plenty of time alone in nature. Mostly it is during walks, or jogs, or bicycle rides. There is no desire to spend an extended time there. “Nature” borders on the sad these days because of its degradation by humans.

When on my grand tour in 1974, I spent time alone. Unless I clicked with someone, it made little difference if I ever saw them a second time. Landing at Heathrow, taking buses, trains, private cars, and in one case, a hovercraft across the English Channel, most of my travels were with someone I met at a youth hostel or hotel, and then for only the time until our next destination. I enjoyed spending the end of each day with others at a hostel. By morning I was ready to venture on my own to interact with the places I’d come so far to see.

Things clicked when I met Gerhard on the green at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. We met before a performance of Twelfth Night and hung out together afterward. He invited me to visit in Vienna when I made it there in six to eight weeks, and I did. I even tried to get a job in Vienna to extend my stay with him and his room mate from a small village in the Carinthia Alps. When I returned to Europe for military service, while living in Mainz, I took a train to Vienna to visit them again. We corresponded for a long time afterward.

Sometimes I met people I wanted to shake. I met Jorge from Argentina at a hostel in Munich. He was a decade or more older than me and literally falling apart as his partial plate broke twice while I was with him. He brought too much gear, as if he planned to live in some European city permanently, lingering for hours at a local cafe. “He carries with him such a large portion of Argentina that it will break his back someday,” I wrote.

My traveling companion is quite a mess. He smokes very much and eats chocolate and drinks coffee and doesn’t exercise much, all of which combined lead to his poor physical health. Today too, he broke his partial and as a result is walking with his front tooth missing. Also, his temperament makes him very slow and lethargic in moving, and more important, in his thinking. He cannot perceive the world as I do, but acts like a selfish mouse searching only within the egocentric world of self. I often wish to abandon him, but just as many times I see him as needing help. At any rate, I’ll travel with him for as far as Amsterdam.

Personal Journal, Oct. 22, 1974

While I was with Jorge I was encouraged to write more, take photos, travel, and etc. All things seemed better at first. We made it together as far as Heidelberg. He was missing his native Buenos Aires, and my patience with his encumbered companionship was wearing thin. I left him to travel to Cologne alone.

I’m reading a book called Notes from an Apocalypse by Irish author Mark O’Connell. In it he describes going off by himself to the remote Scottish Highlands in a form of pseudo right of passage or retreat. What he found was he couldn’t really get away from other people. A Royal Air Force airplane flew over his campsite, close enough to see and be seen by the pilot, who was on a training mission, or perhaps making a bombing run to Syria, he wasn’t sure which. So it is anywhere on the globe. The mark of we humans is everywhere. In Iowa that is particularly so.

When Big Grove Township was first settled, it was known for the saw mill on Mill Creek. The native oak, walnut, hickory, ash, elm and cottonwood that once thrived among numerous pure springs were long gone by the time we got here. Soon after the big grove was removed, so was the sawmill. Such is living in Iowa, a place with very few natural areas. Even the farmland across the state relies on artificial inputs to produce crops. Every place is subdivided and deeded to someone.

In modern life we can get time alone yet there is always something pulling us back into the maw of humanity. Lately, during the coronavirus pandemic, time alone means a flight into the imagination, into memory. I’m okay with that. If I yearn to do things in person with people, I also accept the restrictions designed to prevent spread of COVID-19. In a time of contagion we get plenty of time alone.


Old Snow

Snow that fell Jan. 1, 2021.

The snow has been on the ground for three weeks without a significant addition. In Iowa, drought conditions are setting in. It hasn’t been cold either. Ambient temperatures today were in the single digits and we’ve yet to have a deep freeze. More weirdness related to changes in global weather systems.

My day seems half wrecked as I worked all morning on a project related to the community wastewater treatment plant. It’s a shitty job (sorry), but someone has to do it.

After a quick shower, I’m ready for a couple of hours writing before making our go-to Friday night pizza dinner. I bought a fresh bell pepper at the market for an additional topping and to mix it up.

There are so many stories I want to tell and the rush of memories is a bit much. It seems a mad competition between writing stories down and the end of days. The engagement in writing takes me to a timeless place where I forget about sewer sludge and the limits of my humanity. I want to camp there for a long while. I forget about passing time and opportunity.

Yesterday I found an 1883 history of Johnson County on Google Books. It has a detailed account of the history of Big Grove Township. More than I’ve seen. I wanted to start writing about it immediately, adopting it to my narrative, adding sentences from other research. Instead, I bookmarked it to return once I’m ready to write that section. I felt proud of my discipline and a little sad because I didn’t just follow the vein. It’s like that with a lot of things.

I delayed my return to the farm until I get the COVID-19 vaccine. Because so much is in flux between the state and federal government, it’s hard to say when I might get it. My group, as defined by the Iowa Public Health Department, becomes eligible in the next phase, which begins Feb. 1. The question is whether there will be enough vaccine to meet demand. We have a large number of health professionals in our area and they are also a priority.

In the meanwhile, I reviewed last year’s garden planting schedule and copied it into my calendar so I’m ready to go when the greenhouse is up. That will be when this old snow melts, and hope of spring is in the air. Well, I’m hoping already.


Editor’s Desk #3

Work station in Colorado in 2008.

The wind was fierce Tuesday afternoon, blowing down branches in the neighborhood. After the Aug. 10 derecho one would have thought all the weak ones had fallen. Our property survived yesterday’s minor wind storm without damage.

I spend time on process. In reading my journals, I was reminded I always have. Early on it was a response to the quality movement as Iowan W. Edwards Deming practiced it. He was all the rage among manufacturers who spent untold millions of dollars developing ways to “improve quality.” Properly done, quality improvement programs reduced costs and improved gross margins. While on an extended business trip to West Texas, I found an autographed copy of Deming’s main work, Out of the Crisis at a thrift store for a dollar. Deming’s ideas were well disseminated, even reaching the city with the annual rattlesnake roundup. Deming’s quality process applies to writing.

My writing process evolved to the next iteration this week. I liken it to a funnel. The store of memories, artifacts and previous writing go in and slowly drain out in the form of daily thousand words rushes. Rushes are created however they occur. When I’m ready to edit, I print them out triple spaced and edit on the pages.

This week’s development was to use edited rushes to create a draft of the book in a single document n the cloud. I typed the headers of the working outline on the document, and as I write, lay parts of the rushes on the framework, re-write, and edit them again. Experienced writers may find this obvious, but y’all didn’t tell me so I had to figure it out myself. I’m satisfied the process was improved. I back up the book document after each writing session on my desktop and a flash drive.

The main benefit of studying the physical record, writing it into rushes, first edits, then incorporating the writing into the draft book makes me read what has been written multiple times. It becomes a better product. I drop segments, ones I thought were good when writing rushes, in favor of a tighter narrative. I elaborate as needed or make a note to do more research and follow the narrative down the rabbit hole of existence to make it better.

I read a journal from 1996 this week. While I don’t much think about them, the experiences remain in living memory. I tasted wild blackberries we found along the state park trail again. We swam in the lake under a blue moon again. We sat on a picnic bench watching a sailboat regatta breeze by again. The memories are visceral and real. With all the sensory stimulus, the capacity of humans to remember is remarkable.

For the first time this winter, ambient temperature dropped below freezing on Wednesday morning. It’s been a warm winter thus far. As it plays out, I’ll be watching for an opportunity to prune fruit trees. In the meanwhile I’ll be at my writing table coronavirus writing.


Book Review: The Hidden History of American Oligarchy

In The Hidden History of American Oligarchy: Reclaiming Our Democracy from the Ruling Class, Thom Hartmann recounts three periods of increased hegemony of oligarchs in American society. He posits that with the inauguration of Joe Biden as president on Jan. 20, 2021, we citizens have work to do to reclaim our democracy from the control of wealthy Americans.

The history of increased influence of wealth in the United States is becoming well known. Stories about it appear frequently in newsletters, on radio and television, and in books and other publications. In this book, Hartmann adds a needed layer of historical context to the discussion.

Readers may be familiar with the Powell Memo, Citizens United, the rise of dark money interests coordinated by Charles and David Koch, and the power they wielded to take control of our government, including the judicial, legislative and executive branches. Donald J. Trump’s presidency is a logical extension of these influences. We left democracy behind and become an oligarchy ruled of, by and for the rich, Hartmann said. The next step is tyranny if democratic values don’t return to dominance.

“The United States was born in a struggle against the oligarchs of the British aristocracy,” Hartmann wrote. “Ever since then the history of America has been one of dynamic tension between democracy and oligarchy. And much like the shock of the 1929 crash woke America up to glaring inequality and the ongoing theft of democracy by that generation’s oligarchs, the coronavirus pandemic of 2020 has laid bare how extensively oligarchs have looted our nation’s economic system, gutted governmental institutions, and stolen the wealth of the former middle class.”

Hartmann lays out his argument in plain, easy to understand terms and gets to the crux of it quoting former President Jimmy Carter, “So now we’ve just seen a complete subversion of our political system as a payoff to major contributors, who want and expect and sometimes get favors for themselves after the election is over…. The incumbents, Democrats and Republicans, look upon this unlimited money as a great benefit to themselves. Somebody who’s already in Congress has a lot more to sell to an avid contributor than somebody who’s just a challenger.”

More simply put, Al Gore said in his 2013 book, The Future: Six Drivers of Global Change, “American Democracy has been hacked.”

The book quickly works through the origins of oligarchy in America from the invention and wide use of the cotton gin, the rise of industrial robber barons, and the Reagan revolution. Hartmann’s focus is not only on reminding us of history.

In the final section Hartmann details a dozen ways to break the hegemony of the oligarchy. They include addressing media, taxing the rich, restoring election integrity, and rebuilding a progressive Democratic Party. While readers can’t do everything alone, the book serves as a roadmap for where progressives can go from here to combat the oligarchy.

Like Hartmann’s other Hidden History books, this one is a quick but important read for people who are engaged in progressive politics and seek a change from the power of moneyed interests and concentration of wealth among the richest Americans. The Hidden History of American Oligarchy is a must read. It will be released on Feb. 1, 2021.

~ First published on Blog for Iowa

Living in Society

Inauguration Day 2021

Inaugural pin.

It is a new day in America as Joe Biden and Kamala Harris take their oaths of office and install a new administration this afternoon.

They have a long list of items to accomplish today. The rest of this week, and the whole term, is expected to be a non-stop effort to reverse four years of degradation to our country and its standing in the world. As Biden said during the campaign, he wants to build back better than we were. It is a daunting task. Things have changed since the Obama-Biden administration, although, not enough to lose hope. The official schedule calls for the 46th president to sign executive orders and take other presidential actions beginning at 5:15 p.m.

“Our tradition of a peaceful transition of power, established in 1800, has been broken,” wrote historian Heather Cox Richardson in her Letters from an American. It is hard to dispute.

Security in the U.S. Capitol is unprecedented for the inauguration of a president. Thousands of National Guard soldiers occupy the center of our government. As journalist Laura Rozen put it, “Troops, have arrived in Washington, D.C., after an attempted coup by pro-Trump extremists.” Citizens and friends are discouraged from attending the inauguration in person.

It’s not like our government has been working for anyone but the richest Americans. The economy is in shambles and the coronavirus pandemic rages with more than 400,000 dead of the virus. The Federal Government executed more than three times as many people in the last six months than it had in the previous six decades. Trump’s support for Saudi Arabia in its war in Yemen resulted in a humanitarian crisis. In almost every aspect of life, things we cherished have been violated.

A majority of Europeans believe America’s political system is broken and Joe Biden will be unable to halt his country’s decline on the world stage, according to a recent survey. China is rising and many expect them to eclipse American’s post World War II role as preeminent world leader. Foreign policy, like almost every aspect of governance, was not a strong suit of the Trump administration.

I pay attention to the inaugurations of our presidents. I listened to every inaugural address since Truman, 13 presidents in my lifetime. With an open mind I’ll find Biden’s live stream and listen to his speech. Much as I’d like Biden to be brief, I have followed him for a long time and don’t expect brevity, brilliance, or much that has not been vetted on the campaign trail. Surprise me, though.

Like any new political beginning, our transport vehicle carries a lot of baggage. With Biden and Harris’s experience, one hopes they brought along what we will need to improve our lives. Fingers crossed.


Colorado Peach Crisp

Kitchen Radio, Colorado Springs, Colorado.

Oct. 4, 2008 – COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — After hiking among red rock formations, our daughter and I went to a grocery store and bought vegetables for stir fry dinner — firm tofu, celery, carrots, red bell pepper, snow peas, broccoli florets, yellow onion, and garlic. Upon return to her shared apartment we prepared it the way our household has been doing since before she was born.

At 6 p.m. we tuned the kitchen radio to Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion and made dessert. Listening to the program on Saturday afternoon, while working in the kitchen, had been a thing since the early 1980s. It was comforting regardless of what happened each week.

On June 13, 1987 I turned on a tape recorder to capture the final episode of A Prairie Home Companion — supposedly. Our daughter was two years old and wanted to spend time with me. Once the recorder was set, she and I went walking around our neighborhood in Cedar Rapids. When we returned the program had run over its allotted time and the tape ran out. I caught a re-broadcast on Sunday and re-recorded it. As we now know, Keillor didn’t retire. He came back and lasted the second time until 2016. He gave our Saturdays a predictable, calming feeling.

We took ten Colorado peaches from the ice box, peeled and sliced them in the only large bowl available. There was no granulated sugar in the pantry so we macerated them in brown sugar, cinnamon, clove and nutmeg. We arranged them in a glass pie dish and dotted them with butter. Next we cleaned out the bowl and mixed dry ingredients: flour, more brown sugar, salt, butter, rolled oats and a dash of water. I built the top high, knowing it would cook down.

During a yearlong internship in Florida, I bought her toaster oven which I now set to convection at 350 degrees. It doesn’t take long for a toaster oven to preheat. I put the shelf on the bottom rack, set the timer for 25 minutes, and monitored the peach crisp through the glass as it cooked.

She was sewing at the kitchen table, the radio was playing, and I was cleaning up while the crisp baked. We hoped dessert would satisfy, yet whatever its sweetness, it was unmatched by the scene: a father and daughter re-enacting the lives of our grandmothers on a fall Colorado night.

~ Adopted from a post on Big Grove News, Oct. 4, 2008


Living on the Kasparek Farm

Last night we looked at an old picture of the building that is now Smitty’s Bar and Grill in Solon. In sepia tones, seven teams of horses and wagon are lined up in front of the building on the dirt street.

We can make out the lettering on the windows of the shop: Cerny Bros Grocery, Cerny Bros Hardware and Cerny Bros Feed. While the roads have been paved for many years, much of downtown and the surrounding area resonates of the area’s origins in history before automobiles.

Big Grove Township was established before Iowa Statehood, and the first sawmill was built here in 1839 by Anthony Sells on Mill Creek. There is a subdivision named Mill Creek today and throughout the area, people refer to early settlers or builders of the homes instead of the people who now live in and own them. The names Cerny, Beuter, Andrews and Brown persist, as does the more recent name of Don Kasparek upon whose former farm our home is situated.

It is important to know the history of the area where we settle and I try to spend some time each year understanding Big Grove history. There is a lot there, and there is much to learn. What dominates is the culture we bring with us to this area where all trees indigenous to the Northwest once existed in abundance.

The oak, walnut, hickory, ash, elm and cottonwood that once thrived among numerous pure springs were gone when we bought our lot here. There were grasses and a lone mulberry tree that appeared to have been started from a bird dropping on the re-bar marker placed by Kasparek’s surveyor. The ground had a high clay content which suggested that Don had removed the topsoil before subdividing the plats. When he died a few years ago, I recognized him in our association newsletter and we speak of him from time to time in the neighborhood.

Yet, like Popeye the sailor, “I am what I am and that’s all that I am,” and can’t help but believe who I am is little of the history of this area, and more of the culture I brought with me. That culture is rooted in coal mining, factory workers, farming, home making and the rural culture of Virginia, Minnesota and north central Illinois. Our history as a family goes back on both sides to the Revolutionary War and my line to Virginia goes a hundred years prior to the revolution. That my ancestor Thomas Jefferson Addington is a common ancestor to the Salyer girls of the Salyer-Lee Chapter 1417 of the United Daughters of the Confederacy stands in contrast to the story of Maciej Nadolski working in coal mines in Allegheny, Pennsylvania after the Civil War and then buying land from the railroad in Minnesota.

What of my father’s birth in Glamorgan, Virginia, named after Glamorgan, Wales? And what of the suppression of Polish Culture by the Russians after 1865 that led to a massive migration of Poles to North America? And what of the failure of farming culture that led the Nadolski family to move from Ivanhoe, Minnesota to Argyle near the Canadian border, and then to the Cherry, Illinois mining community? Safe to say, we don’t often speak of these things here in Big Grove.

Perhaps, with time, we will.

~ First posted on Big Grove News, Nov. 23, 2008.