Tag Archives: Newton

The Reunion

“Why am I here”? That was not a philosophical question I found myself asking, soon after my wife’s high school reunion began, but rather it was a genuine inquiry as to what I had freely gotten myself into. More distressing was knowing this evening was merely the first of two nights worth of reunion festivities. Friday’s gathering was open to all Newton alumni, who were holding their individual class reunions on Saturday, so the racetrack’s lobby was packed with an assortment of graduates (young and old). We were at the Iowa Speedway: the exact venue I publicly opposed, over a decade earlier, when I was a proud citizen of the small town.

I think the racetrack has been somewhat successful, but I’m sure the city, of approximately 15,000 residents, is still trying to recoup its losses from the generous incentives given by the town’s city council. The facility is certainly impressive, but a person could lose their voice, attempting to carry on a conversation, because it’s so deafening inside the huge lobby. I discovered that firsthand since I almost instantly developed a “tickle” in my throat after arriving at the site. It grew into an annoying cough before the evening was through. I’m a far cry from a social butterfly, so I’m positive my raw vocal chords were the result of my yelling just to be heard.

That first night I stuck to my wife, like a conjoined twin, because she’s a class reunion veteran, and this was only my second appearance in 30 years. I definitely found out (as if I didn’t already know) what it’s like to be the third wheel. Some of the male spouses weren’t in attendance while others I’m sure were content conversing with anyone other than myself. Thus, I was forced to give my best performance: acting as though I was interested in all of the “girl talk” encompassing me. Admittedly, I did have a few meaningful conversations, with people from my past, but I was more than a little relieved when the missus finally granted us permission to leave.

Surprisingly, Saturday’s soiree was considerably different. The evening was not only tolerable, but dare I say, it was sort of enjoyable. My wife’s actual class reunion was held outdoors at one of the shelter houses at Maytag Park. The familiar stomping ground, named after the nationally renowned appliance maker’s founder, holds many special memories for my family and I. When I was an adolescent I nearly drowned in the park’s public swimming pool (okay, maybe that memory isn’t so special). However, my wife and I did teach our only child how to ride a bicycle there, and all three of us received our high school diplomas, up on the cement stage, at the Maytag Bowl. Many times my family and I had picnics at the park, and we took full advantage of the wooded area’s Frisbee golf course and tennis courts.

Speaking of which I now have another “special” memory involving those tennis courts. During a rare lull, in the reunion conversations, I noticed some youngsters playing doubles on the courts nearby, so I moseyed on over to watch for a couple of minutes. The foursome unexpectedly stopped playing, just as I was arriving, and were congregating, only a few feet away from me, on the other side of the fence. I felt like a deer caught in headlights, after realizing I was now way too close not to be noticed, yet I was also aware it would surely seem strange to them if I suddenly retreated. Therefore, I quickly opted to harmlessly ask, “Are you guys just starting or finishing up?”

They all looked up at me but did not say a word. The teens just sat there in silence. They said nothing. Absolutely nothing. After what seemed like an eternity, and recognizing their fear, I uttered, “Oh, no…stranger danger,” in a feeble attempt to lighten the mood. Still nothing. I probably should’ve bolted at that point, but I sensed the need to explain why I was at the park, and I wanted to convince them I was not what they were thinking I was…a pervert. Luckily, I think the youngsters bought my story. I did find out the foursome had halted play in order to hydrate and to pick new teams. I wished them well and scurried back to the party.

Some people at the reunion looked pretty much the same, thirty years later, while others were fairly unrecognizable. This one guy swore he knew who I was, but I was clueless as to his identity. He decided he would give me some hints until I remembered who he was. He correctly named the street I used to live on and informed me where he used to reside. The “stranger” told a few ancient stories, I supposedly was a character in, and then he began naming some of “our” friends from the old neighborhood. He eventually did say the name of an old pal I indeed used to hang with; however, he remained a complete mystery to me until out of his own frustration he revealed his name. I did recognize the name, but that was all.

This same guy then began prepping or preparing (I’m not sure which) the rest of us guys for the impending arrival of another classmate’s wife. He had seen her earlier in the day, was obviously smitten with her, and for some reason wanted to assure the rest of us males of her incomparable beauty. The gentleman boldly proclaimed, “She blows everyone here away.” I tenaciously countered with, “Not my wife.” One of the guy’s classmates, standing next to me, then responded in the same manner. I think my “friend” from the past realized his faux pas, or else feared a spousal uprising, since he promptly began recanting his previous statement.

Later that night I encountered the “ravishing” woman. I played high school baseball with her husband. He was a grade younger than I, so he took over the centerfield duties after I graduated. I always liked the guy, and his wife was certainly nice enough, even insisting that she needed a hug from me immediately after we met (Oh, no…stranger danger), but as I suspected she was no match for my wife. By the end of the second evening I was no longer asking myself, “Why am I here?” I knew exactly why I’d been attending the weekend festivities of my wife’s high school class reunion. There’s no where on earth I’d rather be than by my lovely wife’s side.


A Fire Story

The year was 1981. It was a typical summer day in Newton, Iowa: hot and humid with not a whole lot going on (at least not yet). I was mowing the front lawn, but I can’t recall if I had volunteered to do the job, out of sheer boredom, or if my father had insisted on putting his eldest son to work that day. I do know I was pushing the old lawnmower back and forth, aiming to keep straight lines, from one end of the yard to the other. I kept going back and forth, over and over, seemingly caught in a lethargic state. Once in awhile I’d mix it up by following a square pattern, instead of the boring straight lines, to avoid falling asleep while manning the heavy piece of machinery. There was a time in my young adult life when I actually enjoyed performing the tedious task. I don’t think this was that time.

I remember in the past pleading with my parents, on more than one occasion, in hopes of coercing them into allowing me the privilege of experiencing the customary chore that every adolescent boy dreams about. A few of the younger fellas in the neighborhood had already encountered the time-honored task and were even getting paid for it, so I confronted my father with that arsenal of information. It did not matter to him how the other fathers were raising their boys because under his regime I was still too young to mow, and he thought it was utter nonsense to pay your own family for helping out around the house. As an adult I can understand and respect that sentiment, but as a teenager desiring some cold hard cash I just figured he was being a cheapskate.

I continued pushing the shabby but capable lawnmower, while dreading the approaching embankment that assuredly gave even my father fits from time to time, and flinching every time I ran over a rock, twig, or numerous other items hidden in the tall grass. (Oh that’s right, I was suppose to inspect the yard for such things before starting the engine.) My little brother had been entertaining himself, the entire time I was mowing, by riding his bicycle in circles out in the street in front of our house. Suddenly, he pulled up along side of me and nonchalantly said, “I think our garage is on fire.” My brother then peeled out back to the street and continued riding in circles, but this time he added a few figure eights to his repertoire. I wish I could say I immediately took some action at that point but I didn’t. I’m not sure if I thought my brother was joking or if the startling information I had just received only added bewilderment to my current lackadaisical state.

Only when my brother almost immediately returned and made the same declaration did I suspect there must be at least some validity to his disturbing claim. I turned off the mower and dashed over to the garden hose, already hooked up to the spigot, located at the front corner of our house. I decided to take a quick peek around the house before turning the water on to see what exactly I would be dealing with. My eyes widened and my jaw surely dropped when I saw one whole side of the garage engulfed in flames. I dropped the useless “weapon” after realizing the dire situation at hand would be comparable to me bringing a knife to a gunfight. I was wise enough to know (even as a youngster) that I was no firefighter. I was barely old enough to mow for heaven’s sake.

A few neighbors had witnessed what was happening and called the fire department, so I could already hear the distant sirens from the fire trucks coming to the rescue. Fortunately, nobody was inside of our nearby house at the time, but I remembered our two dogs, Ginger and Lucky, were helplessly corralled in our fenced in backyard. I rushed to the wooden fence and hollered at the family pets to come away from the spreading fire. For once in their lives they eagerly minded me as they trotted over to the opposite side of the yard where I was nervously waiting. I hopped over the four foot fence, and I must admit I felt a bit heroic as I lifted each dog up and over the barrier to safety. A substantial crowd had now congregated, out in the street in front of our house, to catch a glimpse of the burning inferno. The onlookers were a mixture of concerned neighbors and ambulance chasers. My brother and I joined them. We didn’t know what else to do.

While surveying the situation and standing in awe of the roaring fire, that was consuming the two car garage and its contents, I spotted my parents up the street. About a half an hour earlier they had walked to our local elementary school to vote. My father’s curiosity, of the emerging commotion, undoubtedly was getting the best of him because I noticed his strides were getting longer and longer as he got closer and closer to the alarming spectacle. Eventually my father was in an all-out sprint, leaving my mother behind, after realizing the magnitude of the unwelcomed occurrence and where it was taking place. He instinctively sprung into action by grabbing the garden hose (I had deemed useless) and began spraying down our neighbors garage, only inches away from the blaze, so their property would not be damaged.

The fire department finally arrived and swiftly doused the flames before the garage fire could spread any further. Thankfully, there were no injuries and our home was spared, but the garage and practically everything in it was considered a total loss. The brown-paneled Ford station wagon, our family of six would cram into on the weekends to watch a double feature at the drive-in movie theater, was lost. The green Honda motorcycle, my father thoroughly enjoyed giving all of his children rides on (my mother wasn’t a fan), was lost. The Christmas decorations, acquired over many years and stored in the garage’s roof rafters, were destroyed. Every single handmade ornament crafted (with love) either at church or at school, for my parents by all four of their children, was reduced to ashes.

My little brother and I were almost reduced to tears, a day or so after the fire, when the town’s Fire Chief summoned us for questioning. He was investigating the cause of the fire and for some reason assumed we knew something. The intimidating man probably interrogated us for only ten minutes although it seemed more like ten hours. The Fire Chief kept insinuating my brother and I had to know something about how the fire started. He strongly suggested we were either setting off fireworks or experimenting with cigarettes before the fire erupted. The Chief then artificially tried befriending the two of us, after failing at his attempt of getting a confession, by saying there was no shame, and he would understand if we had lit some fireworks or had engaged in underage smoking. Neither my brother nor I gave in to the Fire Chief’s persistent hounding because we had the truth on our side.

The cause of the 1981 garage fire remains a mystery to this day. I did not know at the time of the fire that a beautiful girl, new to town, was amongst the spectators gathered in front of my house. Who could have known another fire would ignite, less than two years later, after I formally met and then began dating the “new girl.” It’s still somewhat surreal, after all these years, knowing that one of those ambulance chasers eventually became my lovely wife.


My Hometown

The longer I live away from my hometown the less familiar it seems whenever I go back to visit. Sure there were some changes here and there and store closings every now and then, when I was a citizen of Newton, but with each passing year the town’s transformation becomes more apparent to me whenever I venture back to the place I use to call home. One leisurely drive through Newton, on the city’s main street, and you’d know what I mean. The Tastee Freeze where I use to buy the majority of my baseball and football trading cards and where I would receive either a free parfait or a banana split, for every homerun hit during a Little League baseball game, is long gone. All that remains of the once thriving ice-cream joint is a shell of what it use to be. The empty rundown building, sporting a shingle-less roof, taped-up windows, and with its once packed parking lot now filled only with glass and debris, replaces the fading memories of the “grumpy old man” behind the counter whipping up a perfectly shaped ice-cream cone. It was almost a miracle when on the rare occasion the owner of Tastee Freeze would crack a smile. However, owning one of only two ice-cream parlors in town, for so many years, he was able to take that sour personality of his all the way to the bank.

Creative Touch and Mac’s Compact Disc Shop are also gone. The side by side hair salon and music store, my wife and I owned, was located just off the town square and brought both of us great joy for several years. I remember Mark, the UPS guy, routinely coming through my store’s front door, wearing those ugly brown shorts (no matter what time of year), with his jubilant demeanor and that predictable smile on his face when bringing me a package of merchandise. I always felt like a kid at Christmas, opening the box of inventory I had ordered for the week, even though I already knew of course what goodies were going to be inside. I also remember my dream of Mac’s eventually becoming a chain store, but I guess it wasn’t meant to be. After five years of only doing slightly better than breaking even, and with the downloading of songs off the internet beginning to catch fire, I sadly but rightfully made the decision to close my store. My wife was forced to close her thriving business, several years later, when we decided to move to Arizona. It has now been seventeen years since I went out of business. Numerous other businesses have come and gone in that same old building over the years, but high above the door’s entrance remains the visible remnants of stained glue, which long ago held the letters spelling out Mac’s Compact Disc Shop, for everyone in town to remember that “Mac was here.”

The town square, where young adults customarily would scoop the loop on weekends, appears to be the same. The Courthouse, sitting smack dab in the middle of the square, also looks the same, but many of the storefronts surrounding the government building are now different. Long ago the public could always count on seeing large glowing crosses, adorning all four sides of the Courthouse, and a manger scene displayed on the courthouse lawn during Christmastime. That is until some atheist, or other person with an unconventional religious belief, felt compelled to complain about the Christian decorations; therefore, ruining the traditional scenery of the season for the rest of us. The high school where I graduated from, located a mile or so south of the square, looks very similar but on a much larger scale than when I roamed their halls over thirty years ago. Boy, I must’ve received my diploma even before hitting puberty because I know I can’t be that old.

Several years ago Newton’s projected number of future high school students was significantly on the rise, although I don’t know what genius came up with that prediction, so the city put forth a bond proposal, to its taxpayers, for funding a major addition to the school. The proponents of the bond measure continuously hounded the town’s citizens with the ridiculous threat of, “having to teach our children in broom closets,” if the proposal failed. They also shouted the predictable, yet nauseating cry of, “let’s do it for our children,” until the proposal got passed and a costly addition to the high school was built. Now many years later those inflated, projected numbers have still not come to fruition, and if anything the number of students have tapered off instead. I cannot help but wonder, “Why does the school have broom closets anyway?”

Brown’s Shoe Store was the only place in the entire town where one could buy brand name tennis shoes, and it was a town square staple for as long as I can remember. Although I hardly ever shopped there it does seem strange that it is no more. When I was a starting forward on Berg Junior High’s eighth grade basketball team I was practically the only member of the squad who did not wear a pair of Nike high-top basketball shoes purchased from Brown’s. I wore K-Mart Trax. The following season I begged my father for a pair of those sweet Nikes, with the familiar tantalizing “swoosh” on the sides, so I could be like everyone else. Although he thought it was ridiculous, to spend that kind of money on a pair of shoes, my father did offer me a deal. He was willing to pitch in the amount of money he would have spent on a cheaper brand, but I would have to make up the difference from my own funds. The only money I had at that age was usually received as gifts from birthdays and Christmas, or earned from the occasional snow shoveling job, so I’m almost positive I went broke attempting to fit in with my peers.

I was beaming with excitement when I showed up to the first practice of my freshmen season wearing my prized Nike high-tops. That is until I noticed everyone else had moved on to either Adidas, Converse, or Puma basketball shoes, and the few who were still wearing Nikes had upgraded to the newest year’s model which looked nothing like what was attached to my feet. Lesson learned. That certainly may have been the point in my life when I stopped trying so hard to fit in with others, and I became perfectly content just being “What I Yam.” My newfound creed seemed a bit irrelevant though after my son was born. I realized I had his self-confidence to consider, and I recognized the world’s unfair view of the correlation between materialistic things and one’s self-worth. We tend to want to give our children more than what we had growing up, so I decided why not start from the get-go. My wife and I purchased our son’s first two pair of shoes at Brown’s Shoe Store when he was only an infant. One pair was red and white, and the other was Hawkeye colors (black and gold), but both pair of the tiny high-tops were of course Nikes. They were on sale, and probably the previous year’s model, but as a parent I made the decision early on there wasn’t going to be any K-Mart Trax for my boy.

I no longer have a voice in the happenings of Newton, but I do continue to care for the wellbeing of the town I called home for so many years. It was a good place to raise a family, and I have many fond memories of the time spent there. I simply outgrew the small town in Iowa, some time ago, and I’m glad I made the decision to move away. My hometown will always have a special place in my heart, but most importantly the town still holds my family, and that will always be enough to bring me back.


Baseball

This time of year I can’t help but reflect on my youth when the game of baseball consumed so many days of my life. It is almost impossible not to think back with spring-training in full swing, the aroma of fresh cut grass in the air, and the “boys of summer” occupying every baseball diamond in the Valley. While growing up in Iowa, I don’t remember my parents suggesting I partake in any specific activities, but whenever I would find something of interest such as boy scouts, bowling, or flag football to participate in they were very supportive, and they did not hesitate to sign me up. It wasn’t any different the first year I was finally old enough to play organized baseball. My father hesitantly got roped into assisting the coach, that initial season, although I don’t think we had even yet played the traditional game of “father and son catch” up to that point. I guess my father didn’t mind helping out too much since he continued assisting, whenever asked, at different times throughout my career. However, I do think he preferred sitting on the aluminum bleachers, behind home plate, and watching the game not only as a parent but as a fan of the game as well.

When considering the many activities and sports I participated in as a child I knew something was a little different about playing baseball. I suppose I took a special liking to the summertime game because it came a little easier to me than most anything else I attempted, and once I discovered the incredible sport it was always at the forefront of my mind. Almost every day during my summer vacation was spent recruiting anyone in the neighborhood who was willing to play baseball or at least something similar. Whenever enough players weren’t found, for a full fledged game, then either a game of trap, 500, or sometimes an arousing game of whiffle ball would have to suffice. Those events could last all day long with the occasional timeout only being taken for either a short potty break or the dreaded dinner-time interruption. Most games would end in the evening but usually only after the batter could no longer see the ball. My parents were well aware of how much I loved the game of baseball, and they also knew how to make it work to their advantage. I was more apt to complete my household chores, do better in school, and behave better altogether with the looming threat of having it all taken away from me.

Entering my first year of high school that threat remained, not only from my parents, but also from the school itself since every student had to maintain a certain minimum grade point average in order to participate in any extra-curricular activities. I didn’t care much about excelling academically in school, but I always made sure I did well enough to stay eligible to play ball. A few months before I was to begin my initial year of Newton High School baseball the city’s loveable and longtime head coach passed away. I remember attending Mr. Eversman’s funeral, which was held at our town’s only Catholic church, along with what seemed like the entire community. I did not go to the service just so I could get out of a couple of classes for the day, as some students improperly did (although I won’t deny that was an added bonus), but I did go simply because I felt like I needed to be there. I didn’t know the beloved coach all that well at the time of his passing, but I had been anticipating the upcoming season, and I was excited by the prospect of playing ball for him.

A “new sheriff” came strutting into our small town shortly after the death of Coach Eversman. Mr. Stoffers seemed pretty cool to us kids, when he first arrived on the scene, but everyone knew Coach Eversman’s replacement had some pretty big shoes to fill (not only figuratively but literally as well). The former coach possessed an intimidating build whereas his replacement was small in stature and assuredly had to look up to the majority of his players. Coach Stoffers had very different ideas on how to run a baseball program which included forcing mandatory short hair and no facial hair on all of his players. This was not a problem for me since long hair was forbidden under my father’s roof anyway, and I still had a baby face that only needed shaved maybe once a week. Before the season began Coach invited everyone over to his house, a few at a time, so we could get to know him and meet his wife and his dog. He had us talk about baseball, life in general, and we filled out a questionnaire he had waiting for us. Come to find out baseball was Coach Stoffer’s life, and he sometimes used our answers on the questionnaire as ammunition against us once the season began. I now regrettably had answered “pro baseball player” to the question, “what are your hopes and dreams for the future,” because after making an error (and honestly there weren’t that many) he’d gibe with the response, “and you wanna play pro ball someday.”

That first season under the new sheriff’s regime was a trying one for me. I can recall an early spring-training practice, held inside due to weather, when I had finally had enough of his criticism. During a pitchers’ drill, on the proper way of fielding bunts, I drifted away from the imaginary indoor mound, and with Coach Stoffers still yapping away I continued on through the gymnasium doors, out to my car, and headed home for the day. The next day the coach’s wife, who taught Physical Education at the high school, found me and suggested I should, “just show up to practice,” because her husband wasn’t going to beg me to come back. I would not have even considered rejoining the team that day if not for the advice my father had given me the prior evening. He told me I should not let one man stand in the way of doing something I love, so I did “just show up,” and eventually things got better: not because he changed but because I learned to deal with his antics. That’s probably why I wasn’t too fazed the very next year (my senior season) when after hitting a grand slam, and jubilantly trotting around third base, there was Coach complaining that my four-run dinger was not a line-drive.

Any dream I had of playing professional baseball was actually over before it began. Realistically, I knew deep down that I was good but probably not that good. I did earn all-conference honors both my Junior and Senior seasons of Varsity ball, and a couple of small Iowa colleges (Grandview and Simpson) did show some interest in me. Oklahoma State University also sent me an informational packet about the school and their baseball program. To this day I’m still not quite sure why. Shortly after my high school graduation I was informed about some tryouts, for the Cincinnati Reds, being held at a facility around forty-five minutes from my home. Someone must have believed in me enough to suggest trying out, but at the end of the day I wasn’t one of the handful of players chosen to stay. This time of year these days are now filled with numerous other things, and my body is not what it used to be, but the days of playing baseball still holds a special place in my heart.