Preface [Revision of Offensive or Amusing?]
*Podunksville, Iowa, is a dinky town strategically located between Begin Speed and Resume Speed signs way down on Highway 2 in the southern tier of counties. In its heyday, it was either an Italian or Croatian coal mining town, depending on the known ancestry of the local telling the story, 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 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 for a picnic after church, or maybe a big family get-together, when everyone was gathered, the census workers came.
"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, coupled with the heat and humidity, 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 people's atlases: New York, Iowa, (5 miles west); Bethlehem, Iowa, (7 miles), with, I am told by 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 will still be there, even though it has lost all its gas stations, grocery stores, its school, and the US PO 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.
My mother is a citified lady who doesn't reliably know her right hand from her left, north from south, can only tell east from west when the sun is rising or setting, 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, she asked for directions.
"We just bought granddad Mackenzie's nearly 105 (adjust date to match what you stated somewhere in Vol. 111 or IV) year old house on 80 rolling acres in Podunksville, Iowa, but the postal address will be Promise City. The closest "real" town, where you can get groceries, gas, or go to church is in Confidence."
"I can't find it on my atlas." (This has been a recurring complaint as long as we 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, 12 miles from Mystic and 7 miles from Bethlehem."
She obviously thinks these names are made up -- a joke. "Don't you think you ought to say you're a little closer to Promise City until you two get the farm more paid off?"
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-deta
o I 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 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.)
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 when I parked at the house of a lady I met at church to car pool to Centerville.)
o When my lawn needs mowed, I did not have to pooshmy 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 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 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, as by the time the summer after my first year of teaching in the area was completed and I returned to school, one very magnificent older gentleman, Mr. Leon Deierling, greeted me, "And how was Despina's summer vacation?" a tradition he has continued right up to the present. Then he added, "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 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 was 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 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 in our Sunday school class. The story of "The Day My 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, but stopped when she saw how steep and dusty the banks and weeds were, instead of driving down to the gate like a sensible person... 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 fixen' 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 farm that had someone at home until she got to us.
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 woodshed 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 like I knew Granddad did, 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 then 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 doubt it can be saved," drawled a stranger in bib overalls whose red pickup was behind my Mom's Subaru. "You'd best get that truck out of there. You got a garden hose?"
"How about a phone?"
He backed onto the road; Mom went for her keys, as she'd LOCKED the car in my driveway, out in the middle of nowhere, when we'd gone inside for the last time, and I fired up my truck, driving with much backing and cranking between the trees in the fence row and Mom's car, then went 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 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 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.
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'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%." (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 capital of the state know that it is in Iowa. I think this stems from the fact that Robert Altman, the famous director from Kansas City, Missouri, made it big with his movie M*A*S*H, which was spun off into an even more famous TV show of the same name, which is still "alive" in reruns. "Radar" O'Riley was from Ottumwa.
Southern Iowa, home of picturesque Lake Podunk, where the men fish, the women tan, and the children learn not to play with worms with rattles on their tails at a very early age.
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.
I took it all with the proverbial grain of salt.
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 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. 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. Enjoy!
*Readers should be careful not to confuse Podunksville, Iowa, with Podunk Center, Iowa, which, once upon a time, really existed, or with Podunk, Michigan, which is still of such a grandiose size as to appear on atlases and that state's maps. Like Garrison Keillor's Lake Woebegone, Podunksville just might be located on the corners of the map folded underneath when the four surveyors, in an ecstasy of effort, over-stated the land mass of Minnesota, so the problem was solved by folding the overlapping edges underneath in the center. In the following story, Despina and Leanna Mackenzie purchase their granddad's farm at his death.
Last updated 11/28/04.
Word Count: 2424
Reading Level: 8.2