That Iowa Town

By Oney Fred Sweet

According to the popular songs, we are apt to get the impression that the only section of the country where there is moonlight and a waiting sweetheart and a home worth longing for is down in Dixie. Judging from the movies, a plot to appeal must have a mountain or a desert setting of the West. Fictionists, so many of them, seem to think they must locate their heroines on Fifth Avenue and their heroes at sea. But could I write songs or direct cinema dramas or pen novels I'd get my inspiration from that Iowa town.

Did you ever drive in from an Iowa farm to a Fourth of July celebration? A few years back the land wasn't worth quite so much an acre; the sloughs hadn't been tiled yet and the country hadn't discovered what a limited section of real good corn land there was after all. But she was Iowa then! Remember how the hot sun dawned early to shimmer across the knee-high fields and blaze against the side of the big red barn, how the shadows of the willow windbreak shortened and the fan on top of the tall windmill faintly creaked? The hired man had decorated his buggy-whip with a tiny ribbon of red, white and blue. Buggy-whip—sound queer now? Well, there were only three automobiles in the county then and they were the feature of the morning parade. Remember how the two blocks of Main Street were draped with bunting and flags, and the courthouse lawn was dotted with white dresses? Well, anyhow you remember the girls with parasols who represented the states, and the float bearing the Goddess of Liberty. And then the storm came in the middle of the afternoon. The lightning and the thunder, and the bunting with the red, white and blue somewhat streaked together but still fluttering. And just before sunset, you remember, it brightened up again, and out past the low-roofed depot and the tall grain elevator you could see the streak of blue and the play of the departing sun against the spent clouds. Nowhere else, above no other town, could clouds pile just like that.

You remember that morning, once a year, when the lilacs had just turned purple out by the front gate, and the dew was still wet on the green grass, the faint strains of band-music drifting out above the maples of the town, and flags hanging out on the porches—Decoration Day! How we used to hunt through the freshly awakened woods north of town for the rarest wildflowers! Tender petaled bloodroots there were in plenty, and cowslips down by the spring, and honeysuckles on the creek bank those late May days, but the lady's slippers and the jack in the pulpits—one had to know the hidden recesses where they grew. Withered they became before the hot sun sank, sending rays from the west that made the tombstones gleam like gold. Somehow, on those days, the sky seemed a bluer blue when the words of the speaker at the "Monument of the Unknown Dead" were carried off by the faint breeze that muffled, too, the song of the quartet and the music of the band. But close in your ears were the chirps of the insects in the bluegrass and the robins that hopped about in the branches of the evergreens.

We had our quota of civil war veterans in that Iowa town. We had our company that went down to Chickamauga in '98. And now—well, you know what to expect from the youth of that sort of a community. Prosperity can't rob a place like that of its pioneer virtues. That Iowa town is an American town and it simply wouldn't fit into the German system at all. There's nothing old world about it. The present generation may have it easier than their fathers did; they may ride in automobiles instead of lumber wagons; they may wear pinch back coats and long beak caps instead of overalls and straw hats, but they've inherited something beside material wealth. We who owned none of its surrounding acres when they were cheap and find them now so out of reach, are yet rich, fabulously rich in inheritance. The last I heard from that Iowa town its youth was donning khaki for the purpose of helping to keep the Kaiser on the other side of the sea.

But it was of the town we used to know that I was speaking. Changed? We must realize that. It was the sort that improves rather than grows. But we remember the place as it was before the blacksmith shop was turned into a garage and before the harness shop was given an electric lighted front and transformed into a movie. I guess the new generation has long since passed up the old opera house above the drug store for the rejuvenated harness shop and the actors that come by express in canned celluloid. But at county fair time, you remember, the Cora Warner Comedy Company used to come for a week's engagement, Cora Warner, noticeably wrinkled as she walked through the park from the hotel, donning a blonde wig that enabled her to play soubrette parts of the old school. And then there were the Beach and Bowers minstrels with their band that swung breezily up Main Street to form a circle on the bank corner and lift the whole center of the town out of the commonplace by the blare of trombones and the tenderness of clarinets. You remember how we Boy Scouts, who didn't know we were Boy Scouts, used to clamor for the front row of kitchen chairs after peddling bills for "The Octoroon" or "Nevada, and the Lost Mine"?

Oh, well, we're uninteresting old-timers now. And it used to be that I knew everyone in town—even the transient baker whose family had no garden and chickens but lived up over the furniture store, and the temporary telephone man who sat out in front of the hotel evenings with the pale-faced traveling man. That hotel—haunted with an atmosphere that was brought in from the outside world! Remember how you used to walk past it with awe, the hot sun on the plank sidewalk burning your bare feet, and your eyes wistful as you heard the bus man on the steps call a train? And the time came when we took the train ourselves. And when we came back—

When we came back, the town was still there, but the wondrous age when all life is roseate belonged to us no longer.

And yet that town, to me, will always be as it was in those days when the world was giving me its first pink-tinted impressions. And when my tussle with the world as it really is comes to a close, I want to go back there and take my last long sleep beneath one of those evergreens on the hillside where I know the robins hop along the branches. I know how each season's change comes there—the white drifts, the dew on the bluegrass, the rustling of crimsoned leaves. I'll know that off on the prairies beyond, the cornfields will still wave green in summer, and that from back across the creek, over in the school yard, there will float the old hushed echo of youth at play.