THE SPECIAL PROJECT – The Heartland Series

In the deep recesses of my mind, tucked away in a well-protected crevasse is Heartland. Memories of my boyhood reside there. It is a place where a boy’s picturesque view of his world makes time stand still. I do not often go there, but when I do a warm memory always welcomes me. Let’s go there now. A memory of my boyhood is waiting for us. 

Combo road, bike, bib.001


A little house with a big porch sits at the end of a dirt lane. Its lane connects to a gravel road that runs south from Highway 2 west of Corydon, Iowa. A leftward-lilting barn and disheveled tool shed, with metal roofs that match the roof of the house, a garden, and chicken hutch. Cornfields surround this acreage that Bennie and Fred call home.

Pedaling my bicycle down the lane, a brood of Plymouth Rock chickens cackle and scurry to avoid the wheels of my bicycle. A cool easterly breeze, uncharacteristic for early July, makes my morning ride bearable. The chickens are smart to get their business done early. They will be roosting when I mount-up for the four and three-quarter-mile trek trip back home.

Sitting on the porch in over-stuffed chairs that desperately need some stuffing, Bennie and Fred nod their greetings as I put down my bicycle. As I walk toward the porch stoop, empty beer cans are scattered about. Catching Bennie’s eye, I place my left index finger to the side of my nose then breathe sharply out my right nostril. A slimy mass shoots forth. Bennie’s approving grin reveals a gap where two lower teeth ought. My proud smile showcases my missing front tooth. Fred, watching our exchange, uses a cloth to wipe sweat from his baldhead

“Get on up here. We saved you a seat,” Bennie says in a voice made phlegmy by the plug in his cheek. Today, like every day except Sunday, a half-inch thick piece of rope holds up his spotted and greased stained hammer hook jeans. The shirt and jeans he wears have seen too many days since their last washing. I dare not think about his socks and underwear.

Splat a stream of Fred’s spittle hits the nearby earth. For someone sitting as far up on the porch as is Fred that is a mighty skillful feat. Pushing a box in my direction, Fred points. His way of saying, “Sit”, which I do. Duly ensconced on the porch, we commence whittling. A rough-cut whistle is the object of my attention. Silence hangs over us.

Bennie and Fred belong to Dad’s church. They attend Sunday services once or twice a month, usually arriving late and leaving early. Their Sunday outfit is clean hammer hook jeans and shirt with the same shoes they wear every other day. Church dinners and potluck suppers, they never miss, always early, staying late. They were born, grew up, and lived on the acreage for most of 60 years except during the war. Fred saw action in the Pacific and Bennie served stateside, someplace in Texas, I think. Bennie is the oldest brother. Fred is the quiet one, has been since the war.

I am not exactly sure how or when Bennie, Fred, and I first connected. I do know that with no family but themselves, they took a quick fancy to me. I am always welcome at their place. When they attend church, afterwards they always tell Dad—never Mom—I am their “special project” and they are my “tutors”. Dad smiles reverently, but I can tell he is worried.

When times are dull in town, or Pamela needs some extra peace and quiet at home, I pedal out here for tutoring. Last time, in addition to roughing out the whistle, I learned how to blow my nose without a handkerchief or sleeve. The time before that sitting on the porch, we shot horseflies with a 22-caliber rifle. Fred is a much better shot than Bennie and I. One time, Fred made a quarter disappear in his ear.

Today, after some serious whittling, we break for lunch. Fried eggs, cheese, and pickle on Wonder Bread sandwiches. Mine with milk, beer with theirs. I am careful to chew each bite 20 times, as I am supposed to do. When done with the dishes, back to the porch we go. With the air now stultifying, we settle down to some serious whittling. After a while, backward goes Bennie’s head. His mouth drops open. Asleep, one rumble, then another, and another rolls out.

Fred smiles. I smile back. He motions for me to come near. I slide the box toward his chair. He holds out his unkempt right hand. Moving his index finger to and fro, he motions for me to “pull it”. I always try to do what I am told to do, so I do pull his finger. Instantly there is a loud “PFFFTT”. Then Fred, grinning proudly, waves his hand in front of his nose. Seconds later I understand why. I learn my lesson.

On this trip to my Heartland, memories of a bygone era greet me. They help me recall summer days with unlocked doors, trusted neighbors, and parents who let their young son pedal out to hang with two men on their acreage. Of a community that knows Bennie and Fred, despite their rough appearances and boorish behaviors, will protect and care for me at a time I need both.

Many a lesson I did learn from Bennie and Fred on the front porch of their house at the end of a dirt road. The deepest and most enduring of which is the importance of bringing a gentle heart and playful soul to the lives of others. While Dad never once asks about my times at the acreage, I have no doubts he knew the lessons I would learn there.

Mark


Note: This is the eleventh post in the Heartland Series. Please click the subscribe button on the right side of the blog page to be notified of future posts.

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