Wednesday, October 15, 2003

On Dust, Corn, and Popcorn People

In the southwest corner of Iowa, we pull in to my brother-in-law's house south of a town called Red Oak. He's taught there for almost 25 years, and he's my wife's only brother. He's a funny and brilliant guy who knows enough about history and baseball to keep you talking all night.

My wife's family is from Iowa, and she was born just about 20 miles from here. One of our stops this weekend is to that little town, but we also have plans to see a square of countries, about 25 miles across, six counties, all in southwest Iowa.

Most folks have no concept of the Midwest. To them, it's just a flyover area of blank spaces, a green patch in a road atlas, a place they've never been. There is some sense of cold. If you say "Iowa," some folks imagine corn.

But there's so much corn you can't even fully describe it. As we drive the highways, dirt roads, and gravel roads (all brilliantly straight north and south or east and west) we are always bordering corn or soy bean fields. The corn stalks are dead, harvested, but still straight and standing and whistling a bit in any breeze. Up close they make a rustling sound, like cardboard against paper, dead leaves against a window. Field after field, and nothing but that on the horizon. Trees only intrude inside towns or around river bottoms. The fields themselves are uncluttered, rows and endless rows, sometimes a shocking group of silver silos, a single combine or harvester, a row of gigantic power lines escaping toward Nebraska.

On a blue and sunny Saturday my brother-in-law drives us around. We roll in his giant Buick on dusty roads, the dust pouring in vents or closed windows. Dust so thick it makes a fog around you. Think Pigpen. Think Cary Grant in "North by Northwest." Dust so heavy you can feel it on your tongue. You sneeze. You blow your nose, then take another deep breath of dust. The car is full of dust, but how could it not be. It's been a drought year and dust is what you get from that.

Every town we see has a population of about 800. Some smaller. Some larger. My brother-in-law tells us which towns are dying out, which ones are hanging on. They all look much the same, with old prairie-style homes from the turn of the century, a tiny post office, one or two restaurants (one's always a buffet). Farmers push into town in pickups or congregate on benches or by the feed stores.

Everyone waves, smiles. The sun beats down on a late autumn day. The crop for corn was okay this year, the soy beans won't be quite as good. But it's a beautiful place, even with the dust.

We roll into Hamburg, Iowa, where my wife was born, and where she's not been since that day. It's like most of the other towns we've seen, but a little larger, a little more prosperous. "These are all popcorn," my brother-in-law says, pointing at over a hundred squatty silos, about 40 feet high, about 40 feet across. They have a popcorn festival here each year. We find the hospital, a one story deal, three or four wings, and my brother-in-law looks at me and says, "You should be bowing. They probably have a statue of her in there." I look back and smile at my wife, but can't see her through the dust in the back seat.

We go through town and then head up a small hill that leads through some homes. (There are hills in Iowa, and Kansas, and all the rest.) "These are all popcorn people up here," my brother-in-law says, as we wind up and right into the driveway of a nice brick house, sprawling, green lawn. A kid on a lawn mower nods at us and keeps going. We get out for a minute and peer over the back of their back yard, fields, a distant Interstate, and dust rising off a county road and a single green pickup.

We go by another town, where my wife graduated high school, and another where my brother-in-law's high school volleyball team is going to play that week. One of his players is sick, his best player. She has mono or West Nile, something. She missed the last couple of games. The phones in the area have been buzzing about her; will she get well? Will she back to play Malvern? We have to have her back to beat Malvern.

We head up another gravel road. It's big enough for one and half cars of this size, so we're right in the middle. Dust roars in both sides of the car. I'm smiling, holding my breath. Corn rushes by both sides. Suddenly, a giant red combine appears ahead of us, moving in the same direction, but slower. My brother-in-law is pointing out the window on his side. "One of my players lives there," as he motions at a small farm house down a dirt road. We fly past the combine, two wheels half in the ditch, the combine's massive red arm right at eye level on my side.

When the day is over, we get out of the Buick and the dust settles on me, my clothes. I worry about the motorhome. My tin can will be full of dust. I will have to clean it all out before I get back on the road.