American Harvester

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A tribute to A.D. Kester      April 25, 1921 – December 8, 2015

Alfred Dwight Kester was many things in life, including a Captain in the United States Army, who fought bravely at the Battle of the Bulge. But well before that, and until the end—and above everything else, he was something else.

An Iowan!

This was remarkable to me when I first met him. As a native Californian, the Midwest seemed like another planet—as different to what I knew as Oz was to Kansas. Of course Iowa is much like Kansas, so that when we went to visit his parents the summer of my 13th birthday, I felt we were going on a kind of magical adventure, only in an odd direction.

Dwight came from what’s perhaps the definition of an American small town called Mediapolis, which is in Des Moines County, in the far southeastern corner of the state, not far from the Mississippi River. I mention the county, because as I soon learned, Iowa had on its license plates then (and probably still does) what county you were from. People would honk and wave or flash their lights whenever they got a glimpse of someone from their county, when driving in another part of the state. I suppose that in such a flat region, boundaries between counties are kind of a big deal.

Mediapolis was chosen as the town’s name meaning “middle” and “village,” the middle referring to the distance between Burlington and Wapelo on what would become the Rock Island Railroad line. The town was founded in 1869 and looks it. Looks it still, with just over 1,000 people in residence to this day.

No clues for guessing what the staple industry is in these parts. That’s right CORN! And here I think it’s appropriate that we recall the song that Dwight taught us all…Oh, we don’t give a damn about the whole State of Iowa, the whole state of Iowa, we don’t give a damn about the whole State of Iowa, who in the hell likes corn!

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Dwight’s parents were old by then, of course. His father had a bung eye and a damaged hand, but he could still pluck daddy longlegs off his strawberries. Dwight’s mom was still spry and made us pink lemonade, which we sipped on the verandah of their classic, simple white frame farmhouse, while watching the heat lightning ripple out over the cornfields…so golden green and shimmering in the sun…so mysterious and even spooky at night.

It was the first glimpse for me into another kind of American life, which I felt intuitively, had a kind of reality that was very separate from what I was familiar with. This intuition deepened when one day, Dwight took me out alone on a special pilgrimage, which I remain very grateful for, because it was a window back into not only his past, but an American past we’d do well to recall today.

He took me to not even a ghost town, more a ghost hamlet, which consisted of an unplanted section of field, a few lost sheds, old rusted machinery, and a long one-storey brick building, derelict for years, with more shatter than glass.

He explained to me that there had been more structures here back in the Depression, and that this was where many local families, including his, moved to and joined forces when they lost control of their houses and farms. Farming communities tend to have more solidarity than most, but this must’ve been a great challenge on many levels. Hardscrabble times.

None of us ever really leaves behind the primary place of our growing up. Dwight traveled and relocated many times in his life…but I think he took those acres of bristling corn, and that schoolhouse where tough lessons were learned with him. Even at 13, I realized I that this crumbling building, dwindling in a haze of crops was where his character was forged. I was looking right at the source of his sometimes taciturn and stubborn nature—as well as all the key qualities of generosity that truly defined his being. Perseverance. Optimism. Gratitude. Community service. Loyalty. Discipline. And Honor. It was all there in that humble building, where proud people, family by family, communed to survive. And survive they did.

Just beyond the schoolhouse, very much to Dwight’s surprise, an old abandoned  local church was still standing—if you squinted. It in fact seemed to be sinking into the soil even as we approached it. I wondered what memories it held for him. He clearly hadn’t thought it would be above the ground.

Inside was dead still at first, barred with shadows from the sun boring through holes in the walls, as if a magnifying glass were burning into a leaf. Heavy smell of dried mud, weathered wood, and rotted cobs. The floorboards had long been stripped, maybe to make tables or doors. We had to balance beam our way across the joists to get to where the pulpit had been, feeling the lumber ooze down deeper under our weight. A quarter of the roof was gone, but the rest seemed strangely intact save for one hole, shaped like a jagged California, which felt so far away to me.

Then, exactly as we reached what was left of the pulpit, a curious and disturbing sound began. You could’ve mistaken it for cornstalks sighing in the wind, except there was no wind. Then it changed in tone, becoming more festering and high pitched—and very, very localized. Only a few second later, the black root earth beneath the joists simply erupted in a swarming, boiling mass of eyes, fur, and tails. MICE. More mice than I’d ever seen outside a movie, and we were as far from the entrance as we could get.

Panic. But panic is a funny thing—when you have someone to share it with. It can almost feel like a surprise, of the kind you’ve been waiting and hoping for, without knowing what form it will take.

I looked at Dwight, and he looked at me, and then in unison, without knowing why, we glanced up at the rafters above. We’d been so intent on crossing the joists, we hadn’t paid attention before. But now we did—and there it was, in the exact center of the rafter, reverend of another version of church.

I don’t know if you have the image of a barn owl readily in mind, but they are remarkable looking, even for owls. They’re relatively small birds, with wing feathers tinged a rich autumnal mix of yellow, brown, cream, and gold. But as graceful as they are in body, it’s their faces that are hard to forget—soft pure white masks shaped almost exactly like an apple cut in half—with deep and disproportionately large carbon black eyes. Hunting eyes. They can fly in nearly total silence. Perhaps that should be said again, out of respect for forces greater than we can understand. When we think of our struggles and calamities of motion and resistance, we should remember that a seemingly ordinary barn owl, native to a field of nowhere, can fly almost without making a sound.

The instant we glimpsed the owl, a hush filled the ruined sanctuary again…a grim collective intuition among the rodents. Too late. The owl minister had stirred from its doze—unfurled the robes of flight—and that was just about all we saw. It neither swooped nor plunged…some other verb is required. It was like witnessing the invention of tactical flight in a confined space. Bam. It took a squealing mouse in its beak and in an eyeblink was back on its perch, lording it over the shadows and the endless harvest once more.

We stood on the joists, listening to the frenzied horde trying to regain order after the raid from above, fleeing back into the fields…the cornsilk sun blazing through the rents in the walls. Neither of us wanted to look up…at the brass and buttermilk colored tufts and full moon face, enjoying its feast of grain eating fear on the cross of the rafter. No. Didn’t seem right. After a moment or so of silence, as close as we could come to the quiet of those wings overhead, Dwight turned to me and said something that may have more meaning than he intended, which I hear still. He said, “I wasn’t expecting this. But aren’t you glad we were here to see it?”

OWL

 

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