So what is there to say about Cledis Anderson? He was one of those taciturn Iowans, the type that didn't say much unless he had something exciting to say, but then he had this weird emotional/romantic side to him; the love of singing, dancing (well, at least in his younger days)...
So now I am in the familiar Super 8 Motel on the outskirts of Humboldt, IA. Jordan is on the TV scanning through channels and there is a 12-pack of Pabst icing itself in the sink. Yes, this is classy: out of tragedy we have hewed endless cable and cheap beer.
Smells and flavors that are instantly evocative:
We walked into my grandma's apartment and all the relatives were there, talking talking talking, eating buttered kringla, drinking coffee, talking. Topics that were brought up and condemned:
Things not understood by my relatives:
Not known before this trip: docile little hamlet Eagle Grove has/had a "bad reputation". Girls walking through parks were "molested" or their purses snatched; even men could not walk the streets of Eagle Grove at night. While I admit that this little town looked a little gloomy/dismal as we drove through it this afternoon, and its grain elevator loomed alarmingly, and its houses' windows were uniformly covered in storm-resistant plastic, this is news to me; Eagle Grove's pizza parlors always seemed cheery enough when I was young, as did their library. So many things I never learned.
More dispatches from the wonder world of Humboldt County, IA soon!
Today was the "visitation" at the funeral home; the coffin was laid in a corner alcove and the great mass of friends and relatives that Cledis Anderson had came to pay respects, comfort dear Esther, socialize. I was expecting a little more wailing and gnashing of teeth, but most people handled the situation quite stoically, with a very deep religious conviction that allowed them to believe unreservedly that he was in a better place. There is a lot of beauty in that.
Funerals are pretty novel for me; this is the second one I remember attending in my life (the first being my uncle's, also in Iowa, back in 9th grade). But it is pretty clear that funerals are neither unusual nor unpleasant for the residents of the Humboldt County area. Far from it; they are a social event, an opportunity to see long-lost relatives, one's friends; it's almost like an extra church service, which has its place, I guess.
It is kind of funny: when I heard that I would be missing the last day of annual enrollment at my job, I was kind of pleased that I would be missing the endless drill of "the system won't accept my Flexible Spending Account entry" "well, did you read the instructions and enter a pound key" "uh no" "well you'll have to start over and use the pound key" "do I have to start over" etc. etc. So now instead of that I got "gosh when I last saw you boys you were this high (pointing to waist-level height)", "I remember you were always so smart", "what do you do?" Etc. etc. etc. Thankfully references to my love life or lack thereof were fairly rare and limited largely to the more outgoing of the group; my great-aunt Joyce; my 6th-grade teacher Mrs. Basler; and I think one other person. I think for whatever reason the presence of Thanatos in the room (and the smell was there, or was that the flowers?) chased away any talk of Eros; probably for the best--there will be no talk of great-grandchildren for some time, at least from my loins.
Interesting tidbits from Jan Basler, 6th-grade teacher extraordinaire: We discussed (as it seems we do everytime I visit Iowa) the paper I wrote on Chief Joseph in 6th grade, which the judge (at National History Day) didn't believe was written by a 6th-grader. The impossibly obscure word I missed in the spelling bee (it was "negus", look it up). The fact that I am not going to be Jan's "ticket to the White House", in spite of the fact that my politics are a) pretty left-of-center, and b) considerably left of Jan's, recent supporter of the Bush campaign. She's a wonderful woman, mind you, but it is very interesting... One thing that was novel that she brought up was the one word she stumped me on in the vocabulary lessons she gave me in 6th grade: the word was "mezzanine". And in thinking about it, I guess I would never have known what a mezzanine was back in 6th grade, in a land of low functional buildings... Sure, someday I'd get used to that word, but score one for Jan Basler. Score one for her.
Then we came back to the motel room, drinking "Leinenkugel's Red", apparently some sort of Midwestern equivalent to Henry Weinhard's or something, doing the beer-and-flipping-cable-channel things. I settled on this movie which I belive was The Black Hole and it was pretty damn ridiculous, cute robots colliding with a very post-2001 vision, pretty damn poor and pretty ludicrous, but it went well enough with the beer and the evening and the still-fresh memory of four hours spent in the funeral parlor.
We are in the Super 8 Motel, drinking Icehouse (aka "Icehole") beer and you would not believe it: TV has been unbelievably kind to us here in the Super 8. Here in the land of limited entertainment and unlimited horizons, the cable networks have rained down the inconceivable: Guided By Voices swinging microphone cables, making fun of Creed, singing "Tractor Rape Chain" on HBO. I said, hey, is that Robert Pollard? Jordan, in his words, "seriously freaked out". Icehouse bottles were lifted in exultation, and the possibility was raised that noted TV watcher and cheap alcohol consumer Cledis Anderson was smiling down upon us from the plains of the infinite. Oh, and Billy Madison too, unbelievable. Not that Billy Madison is anything approaching a great or a good movie, but when you are holed up in the Super 8 with a lot of domestic beer, it is pretty okay.
The rest of the day unfolded in typical Iowa fashion. We woke up (late) in the Super 8. Aunt Bunny knocked on the door, inviting us to the continental breakfast downstairs, but her knock was erratic, indistinguishable from some weird sort of failing-motor noise from outside. I didn't wake up for what felt like minutes and I think she was sitting out there knocking for minutes. Whatever: she got her English muffins eventually, while we slept grasshopper-style in our rented crypt.
We went over to the grandparents' apartment, where I went through my grandfather's tie collection, looking for something appropriate to wear to the funeral. Ultimately, the only item of his clothing that I ended up wearing was a too-large undershirt, since his ties were all very, um, dated. These ties will serve me well at some point (they are very dated in a charming way)...
We drove over to eternal St. Paul Lutheran Church in Renwick, Iowa, which still smells the same after all these years. Cledis's coffin was laid out in the narthex. Esther stood there crying about the finality, saying that she will be so lonely... I feel for her.
Weird memory-propelling object: atop the piano in the basement (a newish Yamaha spinet instead of the ancient cracked upright of years past), home of Sunday schools past, there was a plastic birthday-cake bank. Apparently, on kids' birthdays, they would put their age's worth of pennies into the bank and the money would go to missions or something. The weird thing: both JordanA and I got this weird surge of memory seeing this banal little trinket. It would have figured into our lives maybe once a year for at max 10 years (in my case), but it came across as something legendary, "totemic" as sociology major Jordan put it. Truth be told, every inch of that basement is haunted, as is every inch of the sanctuary--each moment I was in there I was looking to keep myself entertained, so every item on the walls or on the piano took on special significance. The picture of Jesus with white children and a sheep, the later picture of Jesus with mixed-race children and a sheep, the pictures of white confirmands stretching back to the 1910's, including my grandmother as a willowy sweet-smiling teenager, the wood paneling, the walk through darkness to the bathroom past the kitchen with its accordionated windows, the ritual of sandwiches, vacuum-pot-with-Pioneer-Seeds-logo coffee, and bars; all haunted.
The funeral was nice, although the organist was a little lost and the preacher seemed to be alternating between a xeroxed sermon from some Lutheran periodical and some scribbled notes on spiral-bound paper about the deceased (when he mentioned "he loved music, especially Lawrence Welk", the entire congregation nodded, especially us--well, he did love Lawrence Welk, but the work of Mr. Welk is the subject of a different entry). The hymns that were chosen were an interesting bunch--the first one, about "those who plow the fields" was thematically right-on but melodically unfamiliar to the congregation, who struggled with its large intervals and unfamiliar cadence (myself included), but then they chose "How Great Thou Art", a song which I will always associate with my grandmother, and with which I will always associate my grandmother. My dad chose "Let All Things Now Living", which the Cruise Missiles Named Bob embarrassingly covered in my religgy high-school days but whose melody is still pleasant but which was played by the aforementioned organist at a funereal crawl, which was not the intent: hope, man, hope! Funerals are all about getting together and telling the grandsons of the deceased how smart they were when they were young and how they are the hope for the future and come on! At least moderato! You sound like the stars in their orbit (lyrical reference) are swirling through a swamp, maybe the same drained swamp that this town was built on, but regardless! This swamp is full of dreams, black-soil dreams, black-soil memories, glaciers swarming all over the fossilized hulls of trilobites, it asks for at least a moderate pace!
We funeral-processioned out through unoccupied streets to the Vernon cemetery, a slight rise in the glacial plains, a drive on a gravel road past black-fields-interwoven-with-dry-corn-husks. You can see the grain elevators of both Hardy and Renwick on a clear day like today, quite beautiful. The VFW honor guard fired their rifles, and I guess I should have covered my ears, you know, genetic predisposition toward deafness, but I didn't, at least for volley #1. (he got three volleys). The flag on his coffin was methodically, almost angrily folded up into a little triangle, and presented to my visibly moved grandmother; words were spoken and we drove back to St. Paul Lutheran, where ham-salad sandwiches (and, thankfully, egg salad sandwiches, not ideal but hey, any port in a storm) and potato chips and (cookie-)bars were had, washed down with vacuum-pot coffee.
We drove home past the emu farm (yes! Iowans are weird and enterprising!) toward one of the most beautiful sunsets I've seen in a while, a huge orangey orb against far-off stands of trees on farms on straight unknown gravel roads, toward our old house, overgrown in a tiny town that has gone to seed/shit, toward Humboldt, my aunt and cousin talking about god-knows-what in the front seat, my aunt exhorting my cousin to go slow on the curves, long long long and then we were safe in my grandmother's overly warm basement apartment.
We drove off to the Fireside Grill, Humboldt's finest restaurant probably but it still serves grilled cheese sandwiches and Broasted products, I ordered fried cauliflower and a baked potato and they threw in Texas toast (familiar but way way back, a flavor that I associate with the Swedish meatballs of my youth). Heinz 57 sauce has strong turmeric, mustard, and tomato flavors; I dipped my fried cauliflower in the Heinz 57 sauce and if I closed my eyes and held my nose, it was almost like eating Indian food, beautiful Indian food; in the middle of the heartland I was turmeric-stained, full, happy, ready to go and get hammered on Icehole in the Super 8, amen, amen, amen.
One more night in the Super 8 before we head home, finally. The weather is still beautiful here in Humboldt, IA, but I swear I will kiss the first soy product I see, the first gram of dietary fiber I see. Oh man.
Today we went over to my grandma's apartment. Al was listening to the Hawkeyes cream Minnesota on the radio and everyone else was watching the Cyclones cream the Jayhawks on the TV. Justin and I went in to look at my grandfather's clothes. It was the longest time I'd spent with my cousin in some time, at least without his mom in the way, and he's trying to be cool and/or productive and/or creative, but he has a long way to go; he comes off as pretty young. We subdivided Cledis's clothes. The smaller and/or kitschier items went to me (argyle sweater-vest, Pioneer Seeds jacket), and the larger and less kitschy items went to my much larger cousin. I picked up a couple western shirts which don't fit me but will probably fit Sean. It's weird that my grandpa's clothes will go to some Portland hipster that he never met but I think it's kind of beautiful. I also received a couple cardigans (indie-rock fashion intersects with old-man fashion in many unexpected ways), some ties, a couple belts, some socks. It is good that his clothes are going to his oldest grandson; I think he'd like that.
Jordan and I got kind of sick of hanging out in the hot close stuffy basement apartment so we headed down to Fort Dodge, aka "the Dodge", listening to KHBT/Humboldt, aka "The Bolt". They were broadcasting the Cyclones game instead of their usual robust mixture of classic rock (with inexpicable quirks like heavy heavy rotation of U2's _Rattle and Hum_--what the hell is up with that?) We stopped by the "Mister Money" pawn-shop where I had stopped last summer, had seen lots of wild indie-rock promo CD's last summer. I had seen a copy of Damon and Naomi's _Playback Singers_ last summer there, and kind of regretted not getting it, especially after I ended up loving _With Ghost_ so much, and then moving on to loving the whole Galaxie 500 catalog. Guess what? It was still there! I also got Solex, Bardo Pond, and Matthew Shipp CD's, all for $2.49 apiece. I also picked up an Electro-Harmonix Small Stone which I suspect is vintage, not a reissue; how would one of the American-made reissues make it to Fort Dodge? In either case, a nice score for $30, especially if it works. We went to Goodwill, nothing.
Then on to look for a copy of the _O Brother, Where Art Thou_ soundtrack for my uncle Al. He has been singing "A Man of Constant Sorrow" since we've been here... and he's going to take us to the airport tomorrow... it's the least we could do. Of course, Target does not seem to sell any tapes, and, as my brother noted, they have a million security cameras looming overhead at all times. Weird. However, we did see our first Asians and blacks of the whole Iowa trip; we referred to Asians as "UFOs" (as per the Blue Sonoco CD) and black people as "ninjas" for whatever reason. Hispanics are "samurai", god knows why. One has to manufacture one's own entertainment in north-central Iowa. And speaking of entertainment, remind me never to set foot in a Wal-Mart again; that place is like setting foot inside the very heart of depression, of poverty, of the sadness that ensues when you knock your girlfriend up. Employees are standing around watching for what? Shoplifters? Lost shoppers? The ennui on their faces is severe and palpable, something that could reach out and ask for help. "Samurai" were spotted, as was lots and lots of worthless crap that will easily break. We walked for what seems like miles; oh lord, let me never shop there again. We drove home with "the Bolt" blaring songs by Guns 'n' Roses and Poison ("Every Rose Has Its Thorn", which both Jordan and I agreed was a "misstep", although it probably resonates with certain 22-30-year-olds who remember losing their virginity in the back of a Trans Am to this little number with its big gated drum sound and squeaky meandering guitar solo.
We rattled back home to Humboldt, where my great-aunts and great-uncles were sitting and talking with my other relatives. I talked with my great-uncle Ed (law, not blood) about the fact that my band did not play polka music, but that I admired Ukrainian polka-country music. The "love it or leave it" argument was countered with my "America would not be nearly as great is it is if it did not tolerate dissenting opinions" argument; it's good to couch these sorts of things in patriotic language. And I am a patriot, I guess; I don't find flag-flying noxious, and I don't think there's anything wrong with freedom of expression, freedom of religion, etc. I don't like corporate oppression or warmongering but anyway: we talked and I don't think I came off as a Communist or an unreasonable man. I'm not. We ate lasagna--I heated up this weird, weird self-heating vegetarian lasagna entree that featured pinto beans prominently in its ingredient list--and all was nice. Jordan and I sat at the coffee table in the living room (Bunny and Justin had taken off for their home in Creston, IA--a trailer, last I checked)--so we were the youngest, relegated to cross-generational card-table duty. We ate lasagna, mine vegetarian, his made by Alan's ex, with plenty of cream cheese; inane conversations percolated about the main table as we watched, mostly in silence. Joyce and Ed and Art and Bernie took off, and we sat around for a while before we took off.
Jordan and I took my grandpa's tan Plymouth Caravelle (1986?), with handicapped placard (aka "chick magnet") down to the Hy-Vee pharmacy. Jordan bought "Bud Ice", an attractive if gaudy ice-crystal-shaped bottle, slender in the hand, and we headed back to the Humboldt Super 8. The last night. Tomorrow Al will take us to Des Moines and we will head back to Portland on some United flight or other, and we will fly between worlds; we might as well be flying in space--different, different, different worlds.