Guest Columnist

A furry bandit, and stealing away to memories

Kurt Ullrich photo
Kurt Ullrich photo

First, the photo. The little bandit you see above has been hanging out in my yard for the past few days. Right now she is smaller than my smallest cat and is, if I may say so, absolutely adorable; and she’s not as frightened of me as she ought. That will change, but for right now the kit hangs around, chittering at me in a voice that mimics purring. When I respond she moves off, obviously noting I don’t speak raccoon. I’ve not seen her mother, so I worry.

Three hours from here people are shooting each other in alarming rates, most of the kids in my rural county are eligible for free and discounted meals at school, and I’m concerned about a baby raccoon? There’s more. Conservation practices by farmers in Iowa are not codified but are instead voluntary and, while most farmers are likely conscientious about how they plant corn and soybeans, many are not and are responsible for polluting more than 8,000 square miles of the Gulf of Mexico. I am not strong enough to do much about these things, so I hang with raccoons and a computer that only works part-time out here.

Summer has arrived and I don’t much care for it. Water continues to run in the dry creek bed down in the hollow, something I’ve not witnessed in my twenty years on this land. And, thanks to water standing everywhere, the gnats are horrendous. Gnats don’t bite or sting, instead slicing the skin to drink your blood, leaving lovely, itchy blotches. I was pretty sure I looked my worst when I got braces, glasses, and acne in the 5th grade. The gnat welts on my face and neck have caused me to rethink that. And how do they manage to get in to my pants?

About this time of year well over half a century ago my mother arranged a job for me. It was my first real job, other than mowing lawns for $1.50 a pop. Every Saturday after my catechism classes at a Lutheran Church, where I failed miserably, I’d ride my bicycle toward home, stopping in a downtown where I was tasked with filling buckets with water and ammonia so as to wash and squeegee the Main Street windows of a clothing store catering to elderly women. I also swept the sidewalks. I didn’t mind, as I was never really management material, preferring tasks that were repetitive but could be done well.

Across Main Street from the store where I labored was a tavern, a throwback to another time. In the long days of summer the front door was always open and blue cigarette and cigar smoke wafted out on to the sidewalk while old men played cards somewhere back in the dark, old men listening to country music on a jukebox. I suppose there was a pool table but I don’t know. The tavern is long gone, but the building remains.

In the half-light of old age it’s all about memory and retrospect, a luxury I’m happy to embrace. A couple of weeks ago two more of my high school classmates died. I didn’t really know them well in school, only getting to know them later at reunions, learning that they were people worth knowing, worth caring about, worth remembering. Now, please excuse me, I want to see if my little friend is out in the yard.

• Kurt Ullrich lives in rural Jackson County. His book “The Iowa State Fair” is available from the University of Iowa Press.

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