Guest Columnist

Stille Nacht as 2020 finally ends

Kurt Ullrich lives in rural Jackson County.
Kurt Ullrich lives in rural Jackson County.

The other night I saw a hopeful sign. The sun had set, the horizon was a bright pink/orange, and there were eight jet vapor trails tracing across the western sky. It was a glorious sight, like life was back to normal, passengers heading giddily to far-flung places like Denver and San Francisco. More likely, and hopefully, these were cargo jets carrying lifesaving vaccines to those in need.

Out in the hollow a thousand years of falling leaves continue to deteriorate on the ground, self-mulching to continue feeding a beautiful forest that emerged from some great lake a long, long time ago. I know this because every limestone rock I break seems to have fossils of small fish from 50 million years ago.

Eagles are plentiful this year. A neighbor picks up dead animals from the road, then places the poor creatures in nearby fields and the eagles are grateful. A woman told me today that she saw ten eagles in a field just north of my place, and I knew the reason why they gathered, not an Eagles Club meeting, but a feast.

The winter solstice has passed and this year the annual Paul Winter Consort winter solstice concert at the Cathedral of St John on the Upper West Side of New York City was canceled, due to COVID-19. The Winter Consorts song “Icarus” is part of the concert, an achingly melancholy yet hopeful song about coming out of darkness into the light is worth the price of admission. It’s the perfect tune for 2021.

I missed the Christmas star confluence of planets Jupiter and Saturn. Out here there is no light pollution so I figured it’d be easy to spot. Nope. Cloudy the first night and undetectable the next. It’s OK. There’s a lot of stuff I’ve missed over the years, things I’ve wished for.

I wish I’d been in Illinois, camera in hand, in 1958 when the City of Chicago retired the very last electric trolley car, or the last steam engine before diesel took over, each rolling unceremoniously into a barn, the barn where all history dies.

I wish I had been in attendance at Christmastime in Florida in 1968 watching the launch of Apollo 8 from a concrete pad, the flight that first carried astronauts around the moon. The subsequent landing with the pre-written, sophomore English words of Neil Armstrong was antic-climactic after that.

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I wish I’d been on that great battlefield in Pennsylvania on that cold November day in1863 when President Abraham Lincoln gave the most famous two-minute speech in history, later called the Gettysburg Address, wherein he said, “Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure.”

Much closer to home, I wish I’d been in Iowa on that long ago December when my little sister called me in my hotel in Munich to tell me that our father had passed. The next day I was scheduled to take a train to attend a Christmas concert in Zurich. I still have never seen Zurich.

It’s late now. All is quiet. Stille Nacht. In the town some miles from me most are at ease in their beds, likely happy 2020 is coming to a close. We all have wishes for the new year, some for the future, others more distant, and my biggest wish is easy; I wish you all a terrific new year. Your happiness is mine.

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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