Preface [Revision of Offensive or Amusing?]
Podunksville, Iowa, is a dinky town strategically located between Begin Speed and Resume Speed limit signs way down on Highway 2. It is so tiny that it may NOT appear on the map. Readers will just have to take its existence on faith, like so many other absurdities in the Bible Belt.
The census takers said that the population is 15, but, personally, I think it took creative accounting to get the results that high. Perhaps on a Sunday afternoon during a picnic after church, or maybe at a big family to-do, when everyone was gathered, the census workers showed up.
The workers, who had gone door to door to talk personally with everyone they counted, said, "Oh, here's some new faces. Howdy. Are you all from here?"
"Sure. Lived here all my life."
So they counted them again. The locals were walking quite energetically, and the aerobic activity resulted in a weight loss. Turning another corner, they again bumped into the census workers, who dutifully reported them again.
Just a thought...
Podunksville is very close to a whole host of towns also not found on atlases: New York, Iowa; Bethlehem, Iowa, with, I am told by old timers from the area, a creek named The River Jordan in between; Confidence, Iowa, Harvard, Iowa; and Promise City, Iowa. Promise City may still be on state maps, even though it has lost all its gas stations, grocery stores, its school, and the US Post Office keeps threatening to close. Anyone living in Podunksville, like I do, will have a Promise City postal address, and that will have to be good enough.
When Leanna and I moved into the area, our mother asked for directions to our house for a visit. This citified lady does not reliably know her right hand from her left, north from south, can only tell east from west reliably at sunrise or sunset, has not the least conception of how long a mile is, or how long it should take to drive it at 60 mph, (in fact, probably could not define mph), but CAN follow clear directions,
"We just bought a nearly 75 year old house on 80 rolling acres in Podunksville, Iowa. The closest "real" town, with groceries, gas, or a church is Confidence." (Now-a-days, only the church is left. The store burned sometime before the road got paved. The only practical effect that had on us at the time was that we could no longer shop on horseback for a loaf of bread in the summertime.)
"I can't find it on my atlas." (a recurring complaint as long as we lived there...)
"It's about 2 1/2 miles from Confidence and 5 1/2 miles from Promise City on the main road. Other nearby towns are equally picturesque or famous. The farm is 5 miles from New York, 7 miles from Bethlehem and 12 miles from Mystic."
"Don't you think you ought to say you are a little closer to Promise City until you get the farm more paid off?"
Gotta love her... She is indubitably one of a kind.
Our names were not even ON the mailbox yet when a boyhood friend of granddad's, who just HAPPENED to be the substitute mailman for the day, noticed the new last name on Mom's forwarded letter. Spotting a new truck in the driveway, he pulled in for a friendly chat. He lives a crow’s mile flight straight across the fields on the next gravel road west. He is a very interesting fellow with several sons just the right age, and exceedingly bright, abnormal in this area, we have been told repeatedly. We took him up on his invitation to use his phone to call Mom with the directions for the visit she had written about… (Oops! Guess we had better tell her the pair of us are following in granddad’s footsteps.)
As the new kids on the block, we lived in the proverbial gold fish bowl. Everyone knew our business, or thought they did.
The day our mother came, armed with her directions, she discovered that
• we had traded in Centerville.
• we had attended the Promise City Methodist Church on Sunday, and had gone back of a night.
• we did not feesh, but was right neighborly. [translation: Others could fish here.]
• I needed to change my earl. [translation: I needed to change the oil in Baby Blue Ram, my pick-up truck, whose odometer read 3000, she was told, when I parked at a churchgoer’s house to car pool to Centerville.]
• When our lawn needs mowed, we did not have to poosh the lawn mower; it walked by itself. Mowing down the booshes and mowing the rough ground would be a mite hard on the blade. They reckoned we had best get someone in there with a garden tractor to plow it up and reseed it, lessen we was gonna get ourselves a rider. [Nobody would be caught dead down here saying to be between verbs, much less conjugating said verbs correctly, and I reckon, lessen I wanna be thought snobbish, I had best learn ta talk like the locals.]
• I'd best be careful, cuz that man I was adatin' had a prison record. [translation: Gossip is rampant the world around. NEITHER OF US HAD DATED ANYONE IN THE AREA YET.]
(How prophetic! When I returned to school after my first year, one very magnificent older gentleman, Mr. Leon Deierling, greeted me traditionally, "And how was Despina's summer vacation? What color is your gown going to be?"
"My gown? What GOWN?"
"Why, your WEDDING GOWN!"
"My WEDDING GOWN?
"Do I get to meet the guy first, or is he just provided as a community courtesy?")
Our mother did reasonably well with the directions. She found the twin cemeteries on each side of the gravel road outside Confidence [now completely defunct, but still honored with one road sign from a bygone era]. She turned south the two and a half miles, passed the paved road, a half mile north of our farm. She easily spotting the huge "Sunny Slope Church" sign, but, not realizing that she had covered 1/2 mile yet, she drove right past our farm, our pasture-full of familiar horses, then PODUNKSVILLE itself.
I have to admit, she is an equal opportunity town-misser. Not realizing that she had already traversed the 1/2 mile, she continued another five or six miles, also driving right past Promise City, crossing over Highway 2's paving, and continuing south another mile to a T in the road.
There she reread her directions, discovering no turns once she passed the cemeteries, and, not being male, asked for directions -- from two men from our Sunday School class. The story of "The Day Our Mother Came To Visit" has become a local legend...
Instead of using the nearby gate, this well-preserved, cultured lady pulled over onto the wrong side of a gravel road at the bottom of a dip deep enough to hide the telltale rooster tail of dust, SHUT OFF her engine, got out, and started toward them, but stopped when she saw how steep and dusty the banks were... Obligingly, the fellows climbed over the barbed wire fence and waded through horseweeds taller than their heads to meet her. (Locals have a very active curiosity when it comes to eccentric strangers.)
"Will you please tell me where Paradise City is?"
"Paradise City? Never heard'a it."
"I know it’s nearby. My daughters just moved north of Paradise City."
"One a ‘em fixen' ta teach?
"Well, the town they’s north of is on the pavin' ya just crossed, but, believe me, Lady, it ain't no Paradise! Truck on north 'bout five miles, ta the old Shorty Holmes place, and I'm SURE you'll find 'em."
She did, by stopping at every inhabited farm until she got to us. Unfortunately, when she was late, I decided to burn the boxes we had emptied, carting them to the burn barrel, located directly behind an old slab wood shed. A huge Chinese elm tree shaded it and a nearby LP tank. I had intended to jerk the rusted old barrel further away from the building, but when I heard a car slowing to turn in, I quickly lit the top box, then dashed around the house to hug her.
We carried things inside, had the mandatory tour, ignoring the unattended trash until we heard a knocking at the door.
"Hope ya don't set too much store by that shed, cuz I reckon it’s a goner," drawled a stranger in bib overalls whose red pick-up blocked Mom's Subaru in the narrow drive. "You'd best get your truck outa there. You gots a garden hose?"
"Hows 'bout a phone?"
Thinking back on it now, I realize that nobody had cell phones back then. I doubt they’d been invented yet, hard as that is to imagine, so I simply answered, "Not yet."
He backed onto the road, giving mom’s car access to the gravel road running along the front of the property; Mom dashed for her keys to her LOCKED car, (parked in the middle of nowhere), and I fired up my truck, backing and cranking between the fence row trees and Mom's car, then sprinted to the barn for grain buckets to scoop water from the horse troughs.
The building was burning quite merrily by the time the local fire trucks arrived... Volunteer firemen swarmed in from everywhere. The company that owned the LP tank sent a driver to move it, but the cap exploded, shooting a plume of gas higher than the tree's top into the night sky.
The tree also went up, sparks jumping to the house roof. Neighbors came from miles around -- the propane tank created a bigger diversion than the fourth of July fireworks, and drew people from a wider area. The firemen emptied one pumper and switched to another about 2 a.m.
Finally, the tank burned out and was hauled up into the pasture on its side to save the other outbuildings and reduce the risk of taking anything with it should it explode.
Gradually, the sides of the gravel road emptied.
As we dropped exhausted into the bed I was sharing with her, Mom quipped, "Honestly, Honey, I've heard of "house warmings", but don't you think this was a wee bit OVERBOARD?"
People in northern Iowa feel superior to those in southern Iowa. When I went back north to pack up, folks were just full of good advice.
"When you're driving along down there, be careful passing cars. Some of the old timers will signal a left hand turn by opening the left door as they are going along. I'd hate to hear you hit one by accident." Wink, wink, nudge, nudge...
"Oh, so you're moving to Lapland."
"No, I'm moving to Podunksville."
"That's what I said. Lapland -- where northern Missouri laps over into southern Iowa. I've heard it said that if the bottom two tiers of counties seceded from Iowa and joined Missouri, it would raise the IQ of both states by 50%." (Readers are permitted one heart-felt groan.)
Southern Iowa, where Ottumwa, Iowa, is located. Ottumwa is so famous that even people who have no idea that Des Moines is the capital of the state know that it is in Iowa, thanks to Robert Altman, the famous director from Kansas City, Missouri, who made it big with his movie M*A*S*H, which was spun off into a famous TV show of the same name, which, for all I know, might still be in reruns somewhere. Radar O'Riley was from Ottumwa. I have met the actual man the character was based on in real life — a very interesting guy.
Southern Iowa, home of picturesque Lake Podunk, where men fish, women tan, and toddlers learn not to play with worms with rattles on their tails.
Southern Iowa, home of kindred spirits "raised in the shallow end of the gene pool" in Kentucky, Arkansas, and Missouri, where, again according to northerners, the bright ones move away and the rest intermarry.
I am reminded of the lead character in Murder, She Wrote, who said she would not live anywhere else, as she could not write her stories without the people who surround her. Smart lady. Big cities are impersonal. To make connections with real live folk, move to a small town, and talk to the locals. Better yet, listen to them. Add a dollop of imagination, a smidgeon of creative gossip - a time-honored local tradition - and voilé, a book.
1 Readers should be careful not to confuse Podunksville, Iowa, with Podunk Center, Iowa, which, once upon a time, really existed, even if it was mostly a tourist trap, or with Podunk, Michigan, which is still of such a grandiose size as to appear on atlases and that state's maps.
Last updated 1/3/16 Standardized top links; 12/14/15 Extended title to match TOC info; 7/6/15 Changed want to to wanna; couldn't to could not; to to ta; heard of to heard'a; changed three cases of my to our; 6/19/15 Added (Nobody had cell phones back then. I doubt they’d been invented yet, hard as that is to imagine.) changed "out of" to outa; updated areas where the italics were missing, the double space after end punctuation, removed contractions unless in dialog, and finished changing I to we. 1/23/2013 changed "was" to would be added she was told, and [now completely defunct, but still honored with one road sign from a bygone era] 3/8/10 corrected "horseweeds". 1/25/10.
Word Count: 2111 (excluding footnotes)
Reading Level: 8.1
Thursday, November 15th, 2001 7:08 pm (pandemo)