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Ode: 'Peeing off the water tower verified having come of age'

Jim Schaap
Ally Karsyn
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Well, if you look around, I’m probably the least likely in the entire room to say anything about “adulting.” I’m something of an alien. I actually had to look up adulting because I really didn’t have a clue as to what it was.  I do remember, however, that once upon a time in the little Wisconsin burg where I lived, peeing off the water tower verified having come of age. If you could, and did, you were a man. I don't know about women. 

I’m sure things have changed. If fact, I don't think you can’t get up there anymore. 

So truth be told, I had to look up the word. I wasn’t sure what it meant. But now that I do, let mine be the prophetic voice of elder here. I hesitate to uses the word “wise,” given the fact that wisdom, like beauty, often as not lies in the eye of the beholder. 

But if multiculturalism is a blessing, then multi-generational-ism might be too if it yields some unexpected growth. In very general ways, it seems that what we’re talking about here is some kind of verifiable growth; and what this old man—almost 70—would like to suggest is that epiphanies are nice, sweet and magical moments when the world turns on a dime into something that beckons anew; the truth is, the only time people stop adulting is when they give up on life, as some day most of us will—take it from a man who spent altogether too much time visiting in a comprehensive care facility.  

What I’m saying is that even old farts go “adulting.” Trust me. 

Ten years ago, I was doing some stories about the region’s Tai Dam residents. I was interviewing a 50-year-old woman who worked at a local meat-packer. She didn’t have skills in English, so I was using an interpreter. 

Things were working well. She seemed to open up to me, something that doesn’t always happen quickly on the bridge you try to build between cultures. She’d told me about crossing the Mekong, life in the refugee camps, and the transitions to living here in Sioux City; and I could see smiling more. I asked her what she did at Hormel, and, to the translator, she described the single series of cuts she made on meat coming down her line.

I tried to be as nice. “Tell her that lots of white Americans wouldn’t care to carve up meat like that all day long,” I said to the translator. “Ask her how she likes it.”

He did. She answered, and he told me, “She doesn’t know what you mean exactly.” So I tried to rephrase things. He nodded, asked her again.

She looked taken aback, almost shocked. The translator turned to me. “She says she likes her job.” He hunched his shoulders as if it were obvious. “She says in Laos she had to cut up the whole animal.”

I don’t know if standard fare millennials would call that moment “adulting,” but her answer was profoundly startling because it made me feel like a child whose stupidity we could more simply call “innocence.” Blew me away—I swear it; but what this old man wants to say is that moments like happen throughout my life if I let them, and every time they do I’m dead-on sure that I’ve left something behind, something I might well call being a kid. Of course, a woman named Dokmai loved her job cutting just one slice off the pork coming down the line at Hormel. Back home she had to butcher the entire buffalo all by herself.

My goodness gracious, am I child or what? It seems to me that what we’re talking about is growing up, and I think you can extend the paradox because it seems to this old guy that we get bigger, not only when, but because we get smaller. 

And then there’s this story:

Out here in Iowa where we live, on the eastern emerald cusp of the Great Plains, on some balmy September days it’s not hard to believe that we are not where we are.  Warm southern breezes sweep up from the Gulf, the sun smiles, and our own spacious sky reigns over everything in azure glory.

On exactly that kind of morning, I used to love bringing my writing classes to a place called Highland, Iowa, a ghost town on a corner of a section of land where a few remnants still exist. It was eight miles west and two south, as they say out here on the square-cut prairie, a village that was, but is no more. Highland fell victim to a century-old phenomenon in the farm belt; when white people moved in, they did so in abundance and cut up the prairie into 160-acre chunks. Back then, more people lived in the country than do now, when the portions are ten times bigger. Highland disappeared because its people did.

What’s left is a stand of pines circled around no more than twenty gravestones, and an old carved sign with hand-drawn figures detailing what was once a post-office address for some people—a Main Street with a couple of churches—that's right, a couple of churches. There's only five buildings but two of them were churches, which is more about fighting than it is about peace by the way, just in case you missed that. The town of Highland once sat at the confluence of a pair of nondescript gravel roads that still float out in four directions like dusky ribbons and keep going almost forever. 

I enjoyed bringing a writing class to Highland because what’s not there never fails to silence them. Maybe it’s the remnant grave stones in the cemetery; maybe the wind’s low moan through that stand of pines, a sound you don’t hear often on the treeless Plains.  Students stumble out of cubicle dorm rooms, get in a van, and wake up suddenly in sprawling prairie spaciousness, its culture shock.

I’m lying. I know why they used to fall into wordlessness—the sheer immensity of open land that unfurls before them, a horizon that’s almost invisible where earth shifts effortlessly into sky; it’s the vastness of rolling land like an ocean stopped in time. 

Suddenly, my students would open their eyes in a world so wide it seems almost as if there’s nothing there. That’s what stunned them into silence.  

Sixteen years ago, on a morning none of them or any of us will ever forget, we stood and sat in the ditches along those gravel roads, so far out of town no cars went by.  We were absolutely alone—20 of us, all alone and vulnerable on a swell of prairie once called the village of Highland, Iowa, a cemetery behind us in a circle of pines, but otherwise, all around, nothing but startling openness.

That’s where I was—and that’s where they were—on September 11, 2001. My class and I had left for Highland at just about the moment Mohammed Atta and his friends were steering the first 767 into the first World Trade Center tower.  We knew nothing about what had happened until it was over. While the rest of the world stood and watched in horror, my students and I looked over a landscape so immense only God could live there—and were silent.

Nobody can stay on a retreat forever, so when we returned to the college we heard the news. Who didn’t?  All over campus, TVs blared.

But I like to believe that maybe my students were best prepared for the horror of that morning not by our having been warned—nobody was. What happened was total surprise. But I’d like to think they were prepared simply by our having been out there in the middle of nowhere, being awed.

Every fall it was a joy to sit out there and try to describe the character of the seemingly eternal prairie, but our being there that morning, September 11, 2001, I’m convinced, was a blessing. I don’t know that it made me an adult, but I know that that morning I changed. Having grown smaller, I grew. 

I was 53 years old, an old man to my students, I’m sure. My childishness was long behind me, my innocence little more than a vague memory. 

You’ll have to answer for yourself if what I’m talking about is “adulting.” It’s your world, not mine.  

But I know this. Writers galore like to say that the only story we’ll ever write is the one when we move from innocence to experience, from being a kid to being an adult. We just keep writing that story, over and over and over. 

Sounds almost Sisyphean, doesn’t it? It isn’t. It’s really quite nice. Take it from old man who may well think he’s wiser than he is. But then, I’m still learning.

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Jim Schaap spent 36 years teaching English at Dordt College. He writes almost daily at siouxlander.blogspot.com. He’s the author of 24 books and several short stories. He is the voice behind an ongoing weekly series of historical stories about life in Siouxland, airing Mondays at 7:45 a.m. and 4:45 p.m., only on Siouxland Public Media.

Ode is a storytelling series where community members tell true stories on stage to promote positive impact through empathy. It is produced by Siouxland Public Media.

The next event is 7 p.m. Friday, June 2 at ISU Design West in downtown Sioux City. The theme is “Stigmas: An ode to the power of opening up.” Tickets are available at kwit.org. For more information, visit facebook.com/odestorytelling.

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