Thursday, November 15th, 2001 7:08 pm
Podunksville, Iowa, is a dinky town strategically located between Begin Speed and Resume Speed signs way down on Highway 2. In its heyday, it was an Italian (some say Croatian) coal mining town, but even then, it was so tiny that it may NOT appear on a state map. Readers will just have to take it on faith that it really exists.
The census takers claim a population of 15, but, personally, I think it took creative accounting to get the results that high. Perhaps the workers came on a Sunday afternoon for a picnic after church, or maybe it was a big family get-together. Then, when everyone was gathered, the census workers came up.
"Howdy. Are you all from here?"
"Sure. Lived here all my life."
So they counted them. They all went for a walk in the forest along the creek, walking quite energetically, and the aerobic activity evidently resulted in a weight loss. Returning to the pond at the entrance to the old mine, they again bumped into census workers, who, not recognizing them, dutifully reported them again.
Just a thought...
Podunksville is very close to a whole host of towns also not found on your atlases: New York, Iowa, (5 miles west); Bethlehem, Iowa, (7 miles), with, I am told by two old timers from the area, a creek named The River Jordan between them; Confidence, Iowa, (two miles); Harvard, Iowa, (17 miles), and Promise City, Iowa, (six miles). On state maps, Promise City may still be there, even though it has lost all its gas stations, grocery stores, the school, and the US PO keeps threatening to close its local office. Anyone living in Podunksville like I do will have a Promise City postal address, and that will have to be good enough.
When I moved into the area, my mother asked for directions to my house so she could come to visit. She's a citified lady who doesn't reliably know her right hand from her left, north from south, can only tell east from west at sunrise or sunset, has not the least conception of how long a mile is, or how long it should take to drive it at 60 m.p.h., (in fact, probably could not even define m.p.h.) but CAN follow clear directions.
"I just bought a nearly 75 year old house on 80 rolling acres in Podunksville, Iowa, but the postal address will be Promise City. The closest "real" town, with groceries, gas, or a church, is Confidence."
"I can't find it on my atlas." (This has been a recurring complaint as long as I have lived in this area...)
"Well, Mom, it's about 2 1/2 miles from Confidence, 5 miles from New York, 5 1/2 miles from Promise City, 7 miles from Bethlehem, and 12 miles from Mystic."
She obviously thinks these names are made up -- a joke. "Don't you think you ought to say you are a little closer to Promise City until you get the farm more paid off?"
Gotta love her... She's one of a kind.
As the new kid on the block, so to speak, I lived in a gold fish bowl. Everyone knew my business, or thought they did.
The day my mother came, armed with her minutely-accurate-to-the-least-tiny-deta
• I had traded in Centerville. (translation: bought groceries)
• I had attended the Promise City Methodist Church on Sunday, and had gone back of a night. (translation: at night.)
• I did not feesh, but was right neighborly. (translation: I didn't fish, but allowed the locals to use the pond the previous owners had stocked.)
• I needed to change my earl. (translation: I needed to change the oil in Baby Blue Ram, my brand new pick-up truck, whose odometer read 3000 when I parked at the house of a lady I met at church to car pool to Centerville.)
• When my lawn needs mowed, I did not have to poosh my lawn mower, it walked by itself. Mowing down the booshes and mowing the rough ground was a mite hard on the blade. They reckoned I had better get someone in there with a garden tractor to plow it up and reseed it lessen I was going to get myself a rider. (translation: my push mower had tractor feet and was too small to mow down bushes with. I needed a new one more suited to the job. [Nobody would be caught dead down here saying to be between verbs, and I reckon lessen you want to be thought snobbish, you'd best talk like the locals.])
• I'd best be careful, because that man I was dating had a prison record. (translation: Gossip is rampant the world around. I WAS NOT DATING IN THE AREA YET.)
(How prophetic! When I returned to school after my first year, one very magnificent older gentleman, Mr. Leon Deierling, greeted me traditionally, "And how was Despina's summer vacation? What color is your gown going to be?"
"My gown? What GOWN?"
"Why, your WEDDING GOWN!"
"My WEDDING GOWN???
"Do I get to meet the guy first, or is he just provided as a community courtesy?"
My mother did reasonably well with the directions. She found the twin cemeteries on each side of the gravel road outside of Confidence, so she got on the right road, the one connecting Confidence to Promise City, where she was to continue south for two and a half miles, passing one paved road, a half mile north of my farm. She found that corner, easily spotting the huge "Sunny Slope Church" sign, but, not realizing that she'd covered 1/2 mile yet, she drove right past my farm, drove right past a pasture full of horses she's known since I was in junior high without recognizing a one of them, then DROVE RIGHT PAST PODUNKSVILLE without realizing she was in a town.
I have to admit, she's an equal opportunity town-misser. Not realizing that she had not come the 1/2 mile she was supposed to go once she hit that corner, she continued another five or six miles, also driving right past Promise City, crossing over Highway 2's paving, continuing south another mile to where she hit a T in the road.
There she stopped, pulled over, reread her directions, discovering no turns, curves, or T's once she passed the twin cemeteries, and, not being male, asked for directions -- from two men who, as it turned out that winter when they came back to church after the harvest was in, were from my Sunday School class. The story of "The Day My Mother Came To Visit" became a local legend...
This well-preserved, cultured lady pulled over onto the wrong side of a gravel road at the bottom of a deep enough dip that you could not see the telltale rooster tail of dust over the crest, SHUT OFF her engine, got out, and started over toward them, but stopped when she saw how steep and dusty the banks and weeds were, instead of going down at the gate like a sensible person would have... . Obligingly, the fellows climbed over the barbed wire fence and waded through horse weeds taller than their heads to meet her. (Locals have a very active curiosity when it comes to eccentric strangers.)
"Will you please tell me where Paradise City is?"
"Paradise City? Never heard of it."
"I know it is near here. My daughter's new farm is just north of Paradise City."
"She fixen' to teach school?
"Well, the town she lives north of is up on the paving you just crossed, but, believe me, Lady, it ain't no Paradise! Truck on north 'bout five miles or so, to the old Shorty Holmes place, and I'm SURE you'll find 'er."
She did, by stopping at every farm that had someone at home until she got to me. That turned out to be unfortunate, because when she was late, I decided to burn the boxes I'd gotten emptied. I got them carted out and put into the burn barrel, located directly behind an old slab wood shed that was of quite unique design. A huge Chinese elm tree shaded the shed and the nearby LP tank. I intended to jerk the rusted old barrel out of the weeds so it was further away from the building, but I heard the engine of her car going slow, ready to turn in, so I quickly lit the top box, then dashed around the house to hug her.
We started carrying things inside, and I had to give her the mandatory tour, so I did not think about the trash being unattended until I heard a knocking at the door.
"I hope you don't value that shed overmuch, as I reckon it’s a goner," drawled a stranger in bib overalls whose red pick-up blocked Mom's Subaru. "You'd best get your truck out of there. You gots a garden hose?"
"How about a phone?"
He backed onto the road; Mom dashed for her keys to her LOCKED car parked out in the middle of nowhere in my driveway, and I fired up my truck, employing much backing and cranking to squeeze between the trees in the fence row and Mom's car, then sprinted to the barn for grain buckets to scoop water from the horse troughs.
The building was burning quite merrily by the time the local fire trucks came the 17 miles from Corydon, the closest town with trucks... Volunteer firemen began arriving from all over. The company that owns the LP tank sent a driver to move it, but the cap exploded, shooting a plume of gas higher than the tree's top into the by then night sky.
The tree also went up, and sparks kept jumping to the roof of the house. The firemen emptied one pumper and switched to another somewhere about 2 a.m. Neighbors came from miles around, as the propane tank was a bigger diversion than the fourth of July fireworks, and drew people from a wider area, I was later informed.
Finally, the tank burned out enough for it to be hauled up into the pasture on its side to save the other outbuildings and reduce the risk of taking anything with it if it lost its integrity and exploded.
Gradually, the sides of the gravel road emptied of other people's vehicles, leaving only mine and my mom's.
As we dropped exhausted into bed on the hydabed couch, she quipped, "Honestly, Honey, I've heard of "house warmings", but don't you think this was a wee bit OVERBOARD?"
People in northern Iowa feel superior to those in southern Iowa. When I went back north to pack up and move down, the folks were just full of good advice.
"When you're driving along down there, be careful passing cars. Some of the old timers will signal a left hand turn by opening the left door as they are going along. I'd hate to hear you hit one by accident." Wink, wink, nudge, nudge...
"Oh, so you're moving to Lapland."
"No, I am moving to Podunksville."
"That's what I said. Lapland -- where northern Missouri laps over into southern Iowa. I've heard it said that if the bottom two tiers of counties seceded from the state and joined Missouri, the IQ of both states would rise by 50%." (Readers are permitted one heart-felt groan.)
Southern Iowa, where Ottumwa, Iowa, is located. Ottumwa is so famous that even people who don't know that Des Moines is the capital of the state can tell you that it is in Iowa -- thanks to Robert Altman, the famous director from Kansas City, Missouri, who made it big with his movie M*A*S*H, which was spun off into a famous TV show of the same name, which, for all I know, might still be in reruns somewhere. "Radar" O'Riley was from Ottumwa.
Southern Iowa, home of picturesque Lake Podunk, where the men go fishing, the women tan, and even the toddlers learn early on not to play with worms with rattles on their tails.
Southern Iowa, home of kindred spirits to those folk "raised in the shallow end of the gene pool" in Kentucky, Arkansas, and Missouri, where, again according to Northerners, the bright ones move away and the rest intermarry.
Sound farfetched? Try reading the recently published book The Darwin Awards. It is a collection of news stories from all over the world... which just goes to show you how universal small towns are. I took it all with the proverbial grain of salt.
I am reminded of the lead character in Murder, She Wrote, who said she would not live anywhere else, as she couldn't write her stories without the people who surround her. Smart lady. Big cities are impersonal. If you want to make connections with real live folk, move to a small town, and talk to the locals. Better yet, listen to them. Add a dollop of imagination, creative gossip - a time-honored local tradition - to which the reader has just been treated, and voilá, a book. Enjoy! .
Last updated 7/9/09.
Word Count: 2330