It was a perfect summer day, one of those days when touring the ridges in Eastern Iowa I was pretty sure that were it not for the smoke from western wildfires I’d be able to see tomorrow. I half expected to see Grant Wood walking along the side of the two-lane, wearing his favorite overalls, perhaps a cat walking behind him.
But alas, this ain’t 1932 and besides I couldn’t stop and chat with Mr. Wood even if I did see him. I had a lunch date with friends and relatives in a distant town, at a place known for its delicious pork tenderloins the equivalent of a cholesterol drip and it doesn’t get any better than that and I didn’t want to be late, like I usually am.
On this day music of Brian Wilson radiated melancholy from the car speakers. No silly surf music here, just another old guy still writing songs, wondering how it’s possible we got to this place, how we failed to pay attention when it mattered.
Wilson sang “Whatever happened to my favorite places/ Nothing’s where it used to be/ Whatever happened/What’s gonna happen to me” and it felt about right.
I slowed when going through small towns, noting that in one there was a table in a front yard with a hand-painted sign ‘summer squash free’ and I wanted to stop and pick up a couple of the yellow vegetables, just for show, maybe just put them on the kitchen counter because school has started and summer’s almost out of reach.
Temporary signs along the fence-line advertised an upcoming chicken supper at some parish or other and another invited one and all to an ice cream social and for a moment you forget what century this is.
Small farms along the way advertised fresh eggs, places where the children probably gave the chickens names, like Florence, Gerty maybe.
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In another small town three old men were sitting in the shade of a century-old tree, passing the time, solving the complicated problems of the world and I wish them luck. But then again, maybe these are curmudgeons who are at an age wherein the taste of everything is sour, and may be we have enough of that.
The back roads were rife with guys on loud motorcycles they may or not be able to afford. No smiling by these guys. It’s not about the bike; it’s about attitude. I love these folks. Once upon a time I too plied the back-roads on a deafening Harley and man I was cooler than cool. Now I’m just old.
It was just one of those perfect days, like you’re pretty sure the next town would be Brigadoon, a place not yet ruined by modernity or the bellyache of politics and hate. And it wasn’t of course, just another last gasp town where memories trump the future.
Back home the hickory nuts still on the trees look like miniature green-leather baseballs. Deeper in the trees the fruit of the wild plum invite picking and tasting but plums, rather like rhubarb, are so bitter one has to use equal parts sugar to make them palatable: half plum, half sugar. Better to leave them on the tree.
Oh, and the luncheon with friends and relatives? There was much love and much laughter. As I said, a perfect summer day.
• Kurt Ullrich lives in rural Jackson County. His book “The Iowa State Fair” is available from the University of Iowa Press.