116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
The deeply forked tails give them away. Barn swallows. Last week dozens were lined up on a rural electric co-op line up on the graveled road that runs by my place. They were disrupted briefly as my vehicle passed, raising dust that settled on to the now-overgrown ditches, but they gathered again immediately, like it was an important meeting.
It was clearly a planned gathering, and the swallows were likely making decisions about when to begin the extraordinary long migration to South America. Longer, warmer summers have made those decisions much more difficult for them. This week, they are mostly gone. The lone barn swallow that has been hanging out in my hollow still is here, but autumn is upon us and she’ll soon be gone.
Tonight a storm is rolling over my house but it’s OK, as my house sits quietly below the ridgeline. In all my years here I’ve never taken refuge in the basement, instead stepping outside to take photos. Slightly irresponsible, but it’s my life.
It has been a strange couple of weeks. Lots of memories. Over the Labor Day weekend in 2001 my wife and I were in NYC for her birthday, going to Broadway shows and a New York Philharmonic concert. It was a glorious weekend, one we would likely not forget. We flew home to Iowa in the afternoon of September 10th. The next morning the world changed forever.
Time’s great arrow often carries us to unexpected places. Over the Labor Day weekend this year I attended a small town car show, one that my wife and I attended every year except, well, the one where we got the date wrong, showing up a day late. Anyway, I saw an old friend sitting at a picnic table and I asked if I could join her, with my bratwurst and potato chips. (cholesterol directly in to the veins)
She was with her granddaughters, ages 4 and 6. The girls were busy singing, “You better watch out, you better not cry. You better not pout, I’m telling you why. Santa Claus is coming to town.” And this was on a warm September day. All I could do was smile. Then grandma chimed in, singing in perfect tune with her delightful granddaughters and, before I knew it, I too was singing along, a chorus of two elderly people and a couple of adorable munchkins. It was beautiful.
As we sang two even more elderly people at the other end of the picnic table got up and left. Hopefully it was because they had finished lunch. I was reminded of my own youth.
In late summer, 1966, I was in the back seat of a car driven by my very serious great-uncle. We were in northern Minnesota, on our way to a cabin on a lake where we would do some fishing. On the radio was the Beatles’ recently released song, “Yellow Submarine.” As the chorus kicked in, “We all live in a yellow submarine, yellow submarine, yellow submarine,” my great-uncle, a brilliant man who designed and engineered locks and dams on the Mississippi River, joined in, lustily singing along with Ringo. It was a moment of joy I shall never forget.
Within a few years he was gone, and I get teary-eyed just thinking about that moment. With any luck the beautiful cherubs at this year’s car show will one day remember the day their grandmother sang with them on a warm September day, “So be good for goodness’ sake.”
Kurt Ullrich lives in rural Jackson County. His book “The Iowa State Fair” is available from the University of Iowa Press.