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Preface (6/15/15; WC: 3448) (Chatty Version)

Thursday, November 15th, 2001 7:08 pm (pandemo) (Chatty version)

Preface [Offensive or Amusing?]

Podunksville, Iowa 1

Podunksville, Iowa, is a dinky town strategically located between Begin Speed and Resume Speed not far north of Highway 2 in the southern tier of counties. Either an Italian or Croatian coal-mining town in its heyday, depending on the ancestry of the local telling the story, it was so tiny even then that it might NOT appear on a state map.  Readers will just have to take its existence on faith, like so many other absurdities in the Bible Belt.2

The census takers say that the population is 15, but, personally, I think it took creative accounting to get the results that high.  Perhaps on a Sunday afternoon during a picnic after church, or maybe at a big family to-do, when everyone was gathered, the census workers showed up.

"Howdy.  Are you all from here?"

"Sure.  Lived here all my life."

So they counted them.

Following their sumptuous repast, the locals all went for a walk in the forest along the creek, striding out quite energetically, doffing sweaters, sweatshirts, and jackets as their body temperatures increased.  The aerobic activity, coupled with the rising heat and humidity, evidently resulted in quite a noticeable weight loss.  Railing at each other with the most offensive and juvenile nicknames they could come up with, the group returned to the pond at the old mine entrance, where the residents again bumped into the census workers.  Not recognizing them in their new duds and creative new "handles", they dutifully reported them again.

Just a thought...

Podunksville is very close to a whole host of other towns also not found on people's atlases: Confidence, (now even dropped from the STATE map, but still in possession of its highway markers and road signs); New York; Bethlehem, with, I am told by Granddad's old timer buddies from the area, a creek named The River Jordan between them; Harvard, and Promise City.  On state maps, Promise City will still be there, even though it has lost all its gas stations, grocery stores, its school, and lately, even the feed store, while the US Post Office keeps threatening to close its local office.  Anyone living in Podunksville, like my sister and I do, will have a Promise City postal address, and that will have to be good enough.

Our mother is a citified lady who does not reliably know her right hand from her left, north from south, and can only tell east from west when the sun is rising or setting.  She 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 say what m.p.h. even stands for) but CAN follow clear instructions.  Shortly after I moved into the area, about a week before my sister was free to join me, Mom's letter asking if I were up for my annual summer visit caught up with me.

Our names were not even ON the mailbox yet when a boyhood friend of granddad's, who just HAPPENED to be the substitute mailman for the day, noticed the last name on Mom's letter.  He honked his horn, then handed me three fliers addressed to the obsequious "occupant" along with it.  As I filled in a form for Leanna and me and thanked him profusely, we began to talk.

It turned out that he lives "a mile straight across the field, as a crow flies".  I took him up on his invitation to use his phone to call Mom with the directions when I accidentally let it slip that she had NO IDEA I'd moved, much less where, and had explained that her letter was considered enough notification for me to expect her eminent visit.

"Uh, Mom, I've moved.  Uh, Leanna and I just bought granddad Mackenzie's old ancestral home, which suddenly became available.  In the rush to get things finalized and packed up, we haven't had a chance to call.  We'd talked about trying to acquire it before, remember?  Do you know anything about it?"

"No, can't say that I do."

"Granddad once mentioned that he thought the house had been constructed around 1907, and it sure looks the part!  Have you ever seen it?"

"Not really.  Just heard some passing comments at Mac family gatherings."

Ignoring her unusual reticence, I plunged on, "Well, it's the original horse ranch, the one the family lost during the depression.  It sits on 80 rolling acres outside Podunksville, Iowa.  While Leanna was nursing him through his final illness, he longed for it constantly, she said."

"Surely that's not why you two impulsive horseaholics bought it! He's dead and gone now!  I'm sure his memory doesn't care one way or the other who owns the old place..."

"Mom!  I'm indignant that you could even THINK that of us!"

"Humph!  Let's see...  Um...  I can't find it on my atlas."  (This has been a recurring complaint from would-be visitors ever since we moved in...)

"Gee, Mom.  it's about 2 1/2 miles south of Confidence, the closest "real" town, with groceries, gas, and a church, and about 5 1/2 miles north of Promise City, which also has a little gas station with a food counter, but doesn't really serve food, a feed and grain store, and a combination lumber yard, farm clothing, and hardware store."

"I see.  Back of beyond, in the middle of nowhere, huh?"

"We can ride the horses to the Confidence store, unless the day is horridly hot!  Wouldn't want the milk to spoil on the way home."


"Yep!  Turning west on the paved road just north of the farm, we're also about 5 miles east of New York.  That's where a cool old abandoned church and nice graveyard is.  Continuing down the paved road, 7 miles west of us, is Bethlehem, where the rural water tower is."

"Water tower?"

"Yeah, all the wells in the area are polluted, except ours, according to the relatives of the guy we're buying the farm from.3 Ours tested clean, but since the well sits IN the barnyard, I don't see how it possibly could really be pure.  We plan to get on the rural water line as soon as we can afford the backhoe to dig the water pit."

"No water pit?"

"It's okay -- we have running water in the house, not a path around to the back like I did in that first farmhouse I rented.  No catalog needed here..."

"That's one past experience I don't want to repeat!  And to THINK that I held it all the way from town so I could use your 'clean' bathroom!"

"Uh, well, continuing west down that same paved road, ten miles away, we hit Millerton, which has a post office and the restaurant with the best cook around.  It also an old style general store that carries groceries, clothes, hardware, lumber, and all kinds of farm supplies.  It has sky high prices, but the clerks know what a 'thingamabob' is, AND can generally give you the RIGHT 'whatchamacallit' for whatever piece of machinery you're trying to replace the gismo on, according to the relatives we bought the farm from.  That's also near the phone company stuff, so we'll be on a four party line in the 'Millerton exchange', which is long distance to both Promise City, where our church is, and Seymour, where I'll be teaching, but not the closest veterinary's office, where Leanna hopes to work.  The next farm north of us is outside the Seymour Community School District, which is so small, it can't require that staff live within the district and still keep qualified people in all necessary areas the way bigger districts can.  The upper elementary attends the old Promise City school."

"Promise City?"

"To the south, right!  Then we're 12 miles from Mystic to the east, but I'd hate to even TRY to tell you how to get there.  You have to dodge around the watershed for Lake Podunk.  A lot of local folks' land got chopped up by the lake waters when the dam was built.  There are full-grown trees all under water in parts of it, some at just the right height to foul boat motors, so I'm assured."

Dead silence met this barrage of folksy information at first.  Mom obviously thought these names and situations were made up -- a joke.

"Promise City?  Confidence?  Um... Those don't seem to be on my atlas, either, dear."  Her voice shifted automatically into for-your-own-good "lecture" mode.  "Despina, you two may have had a mystical experience which lead you to undertake this mad escapade, but don't you think you ought to say you're a little closer to Promise City until you get the farm a bit more paid off?"

Ah, the old fake!

Gotta love her...  She's one of a kind.

As the new kids on the block, so to speak, we lived in a gold fish bowl.  Everyone knew our business, or thought they did.

The day my mother came, armed with her minutely-accurate-to-the-least-tiny-detail directions, she discovered that
o We had traded in Centerville.  (Translation: bought groceries)
o I had attended the Promise City Methodist Church on Sunday, and had gone back of a night. (Translation: at night.)
o We did not feesh, but were right neighborly. (Translation: We didn't fish, but allowed the locals to use the pond previous owners had stocked.)
o I needed to change my erl. (Translation: I needed to change the oil in Baby Blue Ram, my brand new pickup truck, whose odometer read 3000, she was told, when I parked at the house of a lady I'd met at church and made plans with to car pool to Centerville for groceries.)
o When our lawn needs mowed, we did not have to poosh the lawn mower; it walked by itself. Mowing down the booshes and mowing the rough ground would be a mite hard on the blade.  They reckoned we had better get someone in there with a garden tractor to plow it up and reseed it lessen we were going to get ourselves a rider.  (Translation: The push mower had tractor feet and was too small to mow down bushes.  We needed a new one more suited to the job.  [Nobody native would be caught dead down here saying to be between verbs, and I reckon lessen a body wants to be thought snobbish, she'd best learn to talk like the locals.])
o 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.)

This last statement proved to be quite prophetic.  Returning the summer after my first year of teaching in the area, one very magnificent older gentleman, Mr. Leon Deierling, greeted me, "And how was Despina's summer vacation?" a tradition he continued right up until his retirement. 4 Then he added, "What color is your gown going to be?"

"My gown?  What GOWN?"

"Why, your WEDDING GOWN!"


"Do I get to meet the guy first, or is he just provided as a community courtesy?"

Our mother did reasonably well with the directions.  She found the twin cemeteries on each side of the gravel road outside of Confidence [now completely defunct, but still honored with one road sign from a bygone era], so she got on the right road.  She was to continue south for two and a half miles, passing one paved road, a half mile north of the 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 the farm, drove right past a pasture full of horses she's known since we girls were in high school 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 already come the 1/2 mile, 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 or T's once she passed the twin cemeteries, and, not being male, asked for directions.... from two men who were in our Sunday school class, as it turned out that winter after the harvest ended.  The story of "The Day Our Mother Came To Visit" is still 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 the telltale rooster tail of dust was invisible over the crest, SHUT OFF her engine, got out, and started over toward them, instead of driving down to the gate like a sensible person...  She only stopped when she saw how steep and dusty the banks and weeds were.  Obligingly, the fellows climbed over the barbed wire fence and waded through horseweeds 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's near here.  My daughters' new farm is just north of Paradise City."

"One of 'em fixin' to teach school?"


"Well, the town they live 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 Mackenzie place, and I'm SURE you'll find 'em."

She did, by stopping at every visibly occupied farm until she got here.

That turned out to be unfortunate, because when she was late, I decided to burn the packing boxes I'd gotten emptied.  I got them carted out and put into the burn barrel, located directly behind an old slab woodshed that was of quite unique design.  A huge Chinese elm tree shaded the shed and the nearby LP tank.  I'd intended to jerk the rusted old barrel out of the weeds so it was further away from the building the same as Granddad did in his boyhood stories, but I heard the engine of a car going slow, ready to turn in.  Sure it was my mother, I quickly lit the top box, then dashed around the house to hug her, planning to return immediately.

But when she promptly handed me something, we started carrying things inside, then I had to give her the mandatory tour, so I did not think about the trash being unattended until I heard a knock at the door.

"I hope you don't value that shed overmuch, as I doubt it can be saved," drawled a rotund stranger in bib overalls whose red pickup loomed behind my Mom's Subaru.  "You'd best get that truck outa there.  You gots a garden hose?"

"Not yet."

"How about a phone?"

"Not yet."  (Nobody had cell phones back then.  I doubt they’d been invented yet, hard as that is to imagine.)

He backed onto the road; Mom went for her keys, as when we'd gone inside for the last time, she'd LOCKED her car, even though it was parked in my driveway, out in the middle of nowhere!  I fired up my truck, managing with much backing and cranking to squeeze between the trees in the fence row and Mom's car, then dashed from the roadside clear out to the barn for some grain buckets to scoop water from the water troughs.

The building was burning quite merrily by the time the local fire fighters came the 17 miles from Corydon, the closest town with trucks...  Volunteer firemen began arriving from all over, which activated the local grape vine.  The company that owned the LP tank sent a driver to try to move it, but the cap exploded, shooting a plume of gas higher that the tree's top into the by-then-night sky, increasing immensely the number of locals drawn to our roadside.

The tree also went up, flinging sparks onto the house's roof.  The windows facing the fire cracked from the heat.5 The firemen emptied one pumper and switched to another somewhere around 2 a.m.  A deluge of neighbors continued coming from miles around, as the propane tank was a more visible diversion than the fourth of July fireworks, drawing people from a wider area, we were later assured.

Finally, the tank burned out enough to be drug on its side up into the pasture as a precaution, one of the firemen informed me, a way to save the other outbuildings and reduce the risk of taking anything with it if it lost its integrity and exploded.

My mind boggled! Hoping mother had not overheard the "risk" remark, I watched the operation, praying my face was expressionless.

If an exploding tank could wipe out nearby buildings, what would it do to clustered NEIGHBORS standing nearer yet?  ...  Lose everything before we even get moved in?  ...  Why, just this morning I’d written a check and signed the insurance documents right in the agent's office! Surely that meant we were now covered!...6 "Against your own negligence?" demanded my conscience.  Desperately I tried to control my breathing, which was roaring in my ears as if I'd just completed some death-defying athletic feat.

Gradually, the sides of the gravel road emptied of other people's vehicles, leaving only ours.

As we dropped exhausted into bed on the hydabed couch, Mother quipped, "Honestly, Honey, I've heard of 'house warmings', but don't you think this was just 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, folks were just full of good advice.

"When you're out and about 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 driving along.  I'd hate to hear you hit one by accident."  Wink, wink, nudge, nudge...

"Oh, so you're moving to Lapland."

"No, I'm 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, it would raise the IQ of both states by 50%."  (Leanna got quite a laugh out of their comments, but then, she had been living in southern Iowa for a while, so it wasn't quite the shock to her system.  The reader is 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 state capital know that it is in Iowa.  I think this stems from the fact that the famous Kansas City, Missouri, director Robert Altman 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, who once addressed our faculty at an in-service, the most enjoyable one we ever had, was from Ottumwa. 

Southern Iowa, home of picturesque Lake Podunk, where the men fish, the women tan, and the children learn early not to play with worms with rattles on their tails.6

Southern Iowa, home of kindred spirits to those folk in Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Missouri, where, again according to Northerners, the bright ones move away and the rest intermarry.

Does the phrase "raised in the shallow end of the gene pool" elicit any memories?  If not, 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 how universal the small town mentality is.

I took it all with the proverbial grain of salt.  Like granddad's people before us, Leanna and I knew it was super horse country, and that's why we chose it.

I am reminded of the lead character in Murder, She Wrote, who said she would not live anywhere else, as she could not write her stories without the people who surround her.  Smart lady.  Big cities are impersonal.  Anyone wanting to make connections with real live folk should move to a small town and talk to the locals.  Better yet, listen to them.  Add a dollop of imagination, and voilá, a book.


1 Readers should be careful not to confuse Podunksville, Iowa, with Podunk Center, Iowa, which, once upon a time, really existed, even if it was mostly a tourist trap, or with Podunk, Michigan, which is still of such a grandiose size as to appear on atlases and that state's maps.

2 Think Prairie Home Companion here.

Like Garrison Keillor's Lake Woebegone, Podunksville just might be located on one of the corners of the map folded underneath to hide the error when four inept surveyors, in an ecstasy of effort, over-stated the landmass of Minnesota.

Evidently, the frontier territories were shy of surveyors, as the same four employed by Minnesota were also responsible for surveying the Iowa Territory, but they arrived at different times.  Due to spring flooding and mud, the poor guy assigned to start in the southeast corner arrived several days behind the one sent to the southwest, and both of them were nearly a month behind the two doing the northern corners.  Instead of meeting near the center, as scheduled, they were only 20 miles off the border of the Missouri Territory, and a bit east of center.  But, with their Minnesota experience behind them, they knew what to do with the extra they'd accidentally created.8

3 That turned out to be just one of the assurances the relatives gave us that didn’t hold up in real life.  The cold air leaking through the sill of the window that continued several feet below the level of the counter right at the location of the kitchen sink also froze up the water lines at the drop of a hat, despite repeated assurances to the contrary.  We should have been well-warned when Leanna first opened the cabinet to see a scum of nearly evaporated water dirtying the bottom of a broken-handled pan positioned directly under the U joint which was positioned directly in front of the lower edge of the window, where the most draft from a cold north wind would enter.

4 Conversation at the faculty lunch table got a lot more boring after Leon, who had taught for a while in the wilds of Alaska, living with natives originally, left.

5 The local insurance agent informed us that the cracked windows and broken off shingles we’d all watched the power from the fire hose send flying was “old damage” and therefore not covered...  Had he claimed that they were not covered because the fire was self-caused, and we could not insure ourselves against our own stupidity, I would have accepted it without a qualm, and probably been able to talk Leanna around eventually.

6 As it was, however, after a few more lessons8 on the uselessness of paying an insurance premium, Leanna and I decided to drop it and save the $600 or so dollars a year to cover the actual damage, which we deemed to be caused by acts of God.

7 Again, think Garrison Keillor's Prairie Home Companion Lake Woebegone monologues here.

8 Then again, that might play havoc with the laws of physics, making the water in the creeks run uphill and animals grazing in pastures have to stand on their heads to eat.  That type of thing might have its place in a tale, but not this one.

9 When Leanna injured her back cleaning up flood damage, which caused a several day hospital stay, the excuse was, "You don't have flood insurance."

When we attempted to apply for flood damage insurance, as that first time, the water lapped against the quarter round molding along the edge of the joint between the porch and the house, we were denied because, "Your farm is in a flood plane.  That makes it ineligible, as it is prone to flooding."

When a single lightening storm bombarded the farm with multiple strikes, each damaged appliance was charged a $250 deductible, because, "They're on different circuits."  (Fortunately, the repairman only charged ONE service fee to fix everything, so the bill was just pennies over the combined deductible, even though the dryer had to be taken in with him to solve the heating element problem, despite the fact that it turned out to be that only one side of the 220 to the dryer plug was operational.  The electrician's charge to repair THAT was additional, and STILL the result of the SAME STORM'S effects, still uncovered by our "full coverage" insurance.  Insurance shysters and their shenanigans don't seem to be limited to hurricane victims.)

Last updated 6/27/15 Added spaces after periods; 6/19/15 Added (Nobody had cell phones back then.  I doubt they’d been invented yet, hard as that is to imagine.) changed "got" to gots; 1/23/13, changed "was" to would be added she was told, and [now completely defunct, but still honored with one road sign from a bygone era] ; 3/8/10 Corrected horseweeds. 11/24/09 Changed expect her visit eminently to expect her eminent visit 6/8/08 - Added “until sometime after the turn of the century”; "Radar" O'Riley, who once addressed our faculty at an in-service, the most enjoyable one we ever had, was from Ottumwa. 
 footnote 4 add “who had taught for a while in the wilds of Alaska, living with natives originally,” 8/16/06 -- So extensive, do line by line edit.)

Word Count: 3448 (excluding footnotes)

Reading Level: 8.1
Tags: sotfw -- sc
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