Friday, June 22, 2007

the lincoln highway connected mt. vernon and lisbon, and had an old stone post about halfway between the towns that commemorated that. i walked that road a time or two, but usually when i lived in lisbon i had a car, or an old '50 dodge truck that made old farmers turn their heads and remember old times. mt. vernon is what's known as a casey's town, not big enough for a walmart (at that time); but lisbon wasn't even big enough for a casey's. my family came to visit me one time, from the east; it wasn't everyone, but there were four of them and me in the car on the way to the lisbon post office to pick up my mail. they were still amazed that my address could be: tom leverett, lisbon iowa. i tried to convince them that that was more than enough- everyone there knew who i was, the minute i got there, whereas i was still trying to figure out who they were. but, that was indeed my address; i got my mail at a box in the post office, which was open most of the time. i was also in the practice of leaving my keys in the car as i got my mail; in fact, i left them there most of the time. as we got to the post office, though, all four members of my family locked their doors on the way out- thus locking us out of the car. fortunately, the town was full of people who knew their way out of that jam. it was a resourceful place. it's one of the things i liked about it- you didn't have to get the police involved, just because you did something stupid.

the road south from lisbon went through a tiny town, sutliffe, that was even smaller than lisbon. it had two streets, swine drive and madison avenue, and i often stopped there just to wish i had a camera to take a picture of that street sign. the other reason i stopped was that the bridge was so rickety, you could see through it; it was good to stop just to make sure a car or truck could still make it across. i think even then they were making another one, or at least planning another; it was the only way across the cedar for miles in either direction. but my daughter and i especially liked to peer through the holes in the planks there, at the fast river below, and i would watch her very closely, knowing that in spite of being in virtually the center of a town, there was no one around for miles sometimes, if one of us were to fall in. we're talking sunday mornings here, or maybe toward the middle of a sunday in june or july. not a soul around. corn simmering on the edges of the roads; roads with no shoulder, just a drop-off into a ditch, and another sharp curve that could turn treacherous on a sleety evening. another dangerous thing about these roads was that you could occasonally come over a rise and see these huge monster farm machines taking up 9/10 of the road, looking at you with rectangular, shiny unearthy glass-window eyes, a farmer behind the glass to be sure. they meant you no harm, of course, but they couldn't just get out of the way, and, if you were going too fast, or unable to stop suddenly on the oil-slicked gravel or frozen ice, you were dead.

the gravel on these roads wore out your tires, the underside of your car, and your shocks; eventually dust would rise up through the various vehicles i had, and that's why i got them so cheaply, no doubt. taking the paved roads would be an extra five or ten miles, but well worth the peace of mind, and equally scenic- but sometimes it wasn't an option. in lisbon, it was usually an option- i didn't have to go through sutliffe. it was the scenic route. one thing i remember about this part of eastern iowa was that the relentless westerly winds, coming from northwest iowa, or colorado, or canada, depending on how you looked at it, would sweep right over the cereal factories in cedar rapids before they hit our area, and we would often have that cooked-cereal smell, or, you would drive through it on your way south. the smell was especially strong in cedar rapids itself, but we very rarely went there, and more often would just catch it while we were outside or while we had the car windows opened- we didn't use air-conditioning, ever. i'd smile a little, remembering my father's "that's the smell of progress" on smelling the steel mills in pittsburgh, or my grandfather, in central iowa, saying that the manure on the fields was a good smell, since it meant growth and another round of good crops, while we grandkids held our noses and went "peeeewwwww"....

in this era i went to jones county a lot, as i had a friend, j.t., who had bought an old stone building in stone city. stone city had a number of old stone buildings, including a bar/restaurant/place for music, but his attempt at establishing an alternative community there was probably doomed. anamosa ("annie"} was a prison town; the area was beautiful, but didn't have much in the way of jobs, outside the prison. one night i was driving home late at night, and came upon a hitchhiker, just a few miles outside of annie. this guy was drunk; his car was a silhouette out in the cornfield where he'd rolled it. he insisted that he was going to annie, even though i pointed out that he was heading toward mt. vernon when i picked him up. he actually argued with me about where the road was going. convinced as he was that he was going north, he eventually realized that i was sober, and let me turn around, and take him back north to annie where he could no doubt drink coffee or water until the police came by asking him why his car was found in a ditch that morning.

i would occasionally get lost on back roads of jones county or linn county, and drive around looking for the main arteries that i knew pretty well. it was incredibly beautiful country- corn shimmering on every hillside, old white farmhouses, redwing blackbirds in the roadside ditches, deer and other wildlife at the corners of the day, sunset and sunrise, when the fogs set and lifted. in winter the snow settled around the stubble left of the harvested corn and made patterns of brown on white, the sun reflecting off the surface of the snow and a car wreck if you looked at it too long. this was not flat country- it was river valley, the mississippi, the wapsipinicon, the cedar, the iowa, and various others came all through the area. it flattened out in places- right outside of lisbon was one- but generally the roads i went on were all hilly, all of the time. when i'd come back from flatter places, like des moines, or western illinois, i'd appreciate this more. we were in the hilly part- and sometimes i'd think, when i crossed a lonesome bridge out there somewhere, these rivers were once much more-travelled than our roads are today. and with these hills offering lookout, and edible fish in the rivers, this would have been a pretty lively place, i imagine, a place with lots of trading, and cultural exchange. this was true especially of some of my favorite places: ivanhoe, on the banks of the cedar; matsells' bridge, on the wapsi; a small town called rochester, on the cedar; some cabins south of iowa city, where the original town was called napoleon; the palisades park, known as the pal by cornell students, where there were caves in the rock overhangs. a friend of mine would always throw a quarter in these rivers upon driving across them, but i couldn't figure out if that was good or bad, a harmless or even useful superstition, or maybe a delusion, to make some really hungry fish swallow something really dirty and dangerous, when what they really needed, was to have the fertilizer and pesticide cleared out of the rivers, so they could get some real nutrition. i stayed out of it, though; my path was taking me back, now, to graduate school, which could only be iowa city; as soon as i could take it, i resolved to sit through a couple more years of school, and get qualified in something that would provide more meaningful work, other than painting houses, which i'd been doing a lot of.

one time i was buying paint, and someone said, there's really only three colors anyone buys- farmhouse white, john deere green, and international red. if you're painting houses, you'll want the white, he added. internationals were old farm vehicles, tractors, trucks and carryalls, that were beginning to disappear, but still had a lot of character; many of them were in fact red, probably for practical reasons. it was a kind of trinity of colors, an iowa trinity, and i think of it sometimes now, when my wife orders a "mexican flag" in a mexican restaurant- this, of course, is entirely different, involving kinds of salsa, dollops of sour cream, etc., but it has that same kind of balance, a james joyce kind of thing, that cuts through cultures, and hits you when you least expect it. the summer i was a painter i was also in a band called 'dogs of love,' though we didn't play much; d.l., the paint crew chief, got lots of work, kept me busy, and loved country music. house paint and beer went a little too well together, though, and i was leery of traps like the one i'd seen in the guy's car, rolled over by the road, him not knowing north from south. i was determined to keep my bearings now, and make something of myself. this was partly because my daughter had told me, one day, that my car was all crashed up, and i needed a new one. and because i knew, deep down, that she was right.

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