My aunt Margaret, my mother’s youngest sister, a real beauty in her day, as was my mom, married Richard, a man whom after their divorce my father ordered off Grandpa and Grandma Snyder’s farm the first day of pheasant season. I was with my father in the car when we drove in and parked in the grass at the edge of the north cornfield. The stalks, stripped for the most part of corn; the rest, we kids would pick up, fill buckets and dump in a wagon. Dad told me to wait in the car, he’d be back in a bit; and he walked to the edge of the triangular cornfield in the bottom land north of the Botna River and stood. I was scared for my dad, for I knew who was there, having overheard my mom and dad talk, and he was nobody I wanted to be around. Richard and his buddy were down past by their parked pickup near the middle of the cornfield. They had started flushing pheasants along the fence line farther to the west, shotguns in hand. They must have heard us drive in, for they both turned around. As most realized, my father was a man of few words, saying what he meant at all times, unless he was teasing somebody about something or bluffing playing pinochle, pitch, or poker. Richard must have known that he wasn’t welcomed, for he and his buddy walked back to the truck and drove in the grass along the south side of the field to where my father stood. Pheasants flapped a distance to the next field. The conversation between the two and my father was brief. Dad stepped aside as they drove out the field, past me. Dad came over to our car. He watched their car go over the hill to the west; I watched them through the rolled down window under my father’s arm resting on the roof.
From spring of my sophomore to spring of my junior year, we lived in a shack of a house south of Botna, Iowa, a town so named because of the river. We farmed only one farm then, that of Grandpa Snyder’s, not two as we did when Mom was sick, not the Beh place. Farming two places, or 320 acres at that time, with a three-bottom plow, a grain seeder in the back of a wagon, two-row planters and cultivators, harrows the width of a tractor taxed my father. But without the second farm, our income shrunk to a level below poverty. To this day, I really don’t know for sure why we moved off the Beh place. I was told some years later that the landlady had died and that her heirs wanted to sell the farm, which seems plausible.
Our house was the last remaining remnant of a farmstead and little else, except perhaps a collapsing shed or two, a mile straight south of Botna, a hump of a town that contained a church that I’ve heard labeled Holy Rollers, a country store complete with a pickle barrel and a pot belly stove to keep customers warm, and a post office. Still a dying town as it was then, always dying. At the most, a handful of people lived there; my sister says if there is more than seven now, she’d be surprised. I wanted to attend the Holy Rollers Church, begged Mom in fact, and she let me. But the speaking in tongues, the thrashing on the floor, the hands waving to the ceiling in some sort of mystical language, the gyrations were too much for me. In that little white country church, I stood in the back frightened. And I don’t remember how I got home, if Dad came and got me, which I doubt, or if he was waiting in the store. More than likely I walked the mile south home.
We lived on top of a hill. A farm was straight east of us, its farmstead in the northeast corner; another, across from that one in the southeast corner. The north, south road that went by Grandpa and Grandma’s place, came to a t, jogged east and then north. It was the same road that went by the country school where I once attended kindergarten. A little ways further north were Reverend Itsy and his wife, the Scotts, and somewhere past that, the Petersens. Carolyn Scott and Everett Petersen were in the same confirmation class as I: Carolyn younger and Everett my same age. At this house, again an outdoor toilet. Washing, drinking, and cooking water, retrieved by a pump west of the house, kept in buckets in the kitchen. Two freezing bedrooms upstairs. The stairs opened into a room with a pot belly stove and a dining table. To the left of the stairs, the folks’ bedroom; to the right, a room with a sofa and a television. During the coldest nights in the winter, we kids vacated all the rooms except the one with the pot belly stove; the folks slept in their bedroom. Near the fire we laid on top of folded blankets on the floor and rolled ourselves in layers and layers of crazy quilt blankets. In the kitchen, most of the time in the winter, the water froze in the buckets by the sink.
We were waiting to leave for my sister’s eighth grade graduation. She had on a new dress. An early summer storm was forming in the west. It had come on suddenly, and beared watching. At the edge of the sidewalk where the car was parked, Mom and Dad stood in tandem, watching the storm gather, the swirling of the clouds. I’m sure that my father and mother were thinking about our bedridden grandpa, and our grandma who would never leave his side to save herself. With injunctions to stay in the house away from the windows, we kids huddled back of the living room, I holding my youngest brother, who was then a little more than a year old. But when silence stole our breath and when in the distance we could hear the whistling of a train, we all knew that something was coming. The folks ordered us into the cellar northwest of the house. We ran into it as fast as we could, for the tornado that formed within a split second had touched down a mile away. In the cellar, we heard little else but the tornado shrieking overhead. When all was silent, we stood together outside the cellar. The tornado had shredded the trees past the Itsys, the Scotts and the Petersens, not sparing the trees that shaded the country school on the corner. And it had exploded all the west windows of our home: the plate glass window on the west no more, some of the windows on the north and south. Glass everywhere.