Small Wonders

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I was a boy in the 1950s, forty long years after November 11, 1918, Armistice Day, when the unimaginable carnage of the First World War finally ended. As a kid, I knew very little about my great uncle, who, by way of a grenade thrown100 years ago next month, met his death in some battlefield gully in France. What I knew is that he'd been killed in the Great War, and that my parents had better attend Decoration Day rallies in the cemetery south of town.

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Seems to me that houses these days have no attics, and I think that’s sad.

In what might be his most famous book, Curtis Harnack, born and reared just outside Remsen, spends an entire essay on the attics he explored as a kid in his ancient Iowa farm house, one complete chapter of his celebrated We Have All Gone Away. 

That wasn’t enough. A few years later he followed up with yet another memoir of the farm, The Attic, proving thereby that attics are actually treasure troves.

Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division

Those in the know were not particularly surprised to see Kaitlin Bennett come on campus around graduation dolled up as she was--her mortar board darlingly decorated with a dare, and her brother's assault rifle, with scope, slung over her shoulder. News stories claim that she was an outspoken 2nd Amendment advocate during her tenure as a student and that she wasn't at all shy about shooting off her mouth about guns.   

Battle of the Spurs

Aug 13, 2018
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There's something vintage Old Testament about the whole story, something that feels like myth. But it happened; and just a bit north of Topeka, an unkept highway marker up on a hill tells part of the story that can't be doubted. What can is far more fascinating.

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It's like a movie, a set piece from a show like The Music Man, set right here in Iowa. Pioneer days, 1865: a steam engine belching a plume so thick you can hike on it pulls a string of cars through eastern Iowa's rolling hills. Aboard a flat car sits a church bell, sturdily strapped to prevent carnage. 

That bell attracts a crowd, so whenever the engine blasts out a warning to a town down the pike, people gather to gawk--and listen. A whole crowd of rubber-neckers have heard about that bell, so it's rung in every hamlet.

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It's a stretch to think of Robin Hood on the Great Plains. Dakota warriors could do magic tricks with a bow and arrow, but somehow the hero of the Sherwood Forest would be a foreigner in a landscape without trees. The plains just ain't the place for Robin Hood.

But let’s try. Think of him emerging, angel-like, from a broad field of 12-foot hybrid corn in yet another Field of Dreams. Suddenly, there he is in green leotards. Friar Tuck is with him, and Little John, and his entire merry band.

Don't remember where I heard it, but the conversation wasn't directed at me.  I must have been sitting somewhere among a whole group of people when I overheard a mom telling someone else about her boy, how he was really into his own music, how he was in three or four bands and had already produced his own CDs, how he was going to make music his career, wanted to be a singer/songwriter.

Sure, I thought. He and a half million others. Maybe more.

"That's all he lives for these days," she was saying, or something to that effect. She was proud of him, and I was cynical.

When it killed, cholera did so with astonishing quickness. From the moment symptoms appeared --excessive diarrhea and vomiting, sunken eyes in a blueish face--till the moment those eyes closed forever was often a matter of hours.

Once the contagion was recognized, a steamer named St. Ange pulled over just south of here at the mouth of the Little Sioux River.

Two Roman Catholic priests, Black Robes, were aboard, holy men, Belgian born but dedicated to missions here. Both had notable records of selflessness, but only one would do good any longer.

Amy Meredith

You've probably never heard of Hermann the German and likely never stopped to greet him in New Ulm, Minnesota. Then again, you could have driven through town and not seen him at all. You've got to go south and up into the wooded hills.

But once you're there, he's a can't-miss. Hermann the German stands 32-feet tall--you heard that right. What's more, his statue stands 102 feet above town--way up there. Hermann the German ain't no "small wonder"--he's huge.

Howard Chandler Christy

Willa Cather’s My Antonia is 100 years old, published the same year tens of thousands of doughboys were killed in France and Belgium, thousands more dying of epidemic influenza even before they arrived in Europe. Cather’s classic novel brings the region alive, just as does “Roll Call on the Prairie,” an essay she published in the Red Cross magazine.

Today, Willa Cather’s tall-grass people are the “small wonders.” Here’s what she wrote.

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