Monday, August 29, 2005

A Riverside Visit With My Great-Great-Great Grandfather

On our way back from the wedding a little over a week ago, our route took us right by Charles City, Iowa where my great-great-great-grandfather John Kuck eventually immigrated to from Bremen, Prussia (now Germany), married and raised his family, all of whom died within two weeks of each other to some unknown disease except for himself and two sons. John went on to remarry and live until 1916, but until recently, I hadn't known where he was buried or even if he was buried in one of the cemeteries of Charles City. But with a little bit of luck, I ran across his name in a cemetery listing for Riverside Cemetery in Charles City and I thought it would be great to stop there, visit his grave and take a picture to give to my grandfather, John's great grandson.

I had done some research to try and locate the actual plot or block number of the grave over the internet but had been unsuccessful. All I had found were some stories about the cemetery being haunted. According to rumors, dark figures have been seen walking around and standing over graves and a few people have been attacked or approached by figures that refused to step into the light. Even an Indian has been seen out there and people claim that they always feel as if they were being watched at all times, especially near the mausoleum or along the riverbank. But driving on the freeway south of town, I couldn't resist the urge to check the cemetery out just in case it wasn't very big or I just got lucky and stumbled upon John's grave.

It was nearly seven in the evening when we pulled into the town of nearly 7500 residents and I pulled into a gas station to inquire about the location of the cemetery, which I imagined to be a neglected one somewhere along the Cedar River that runs through town. The young female clerk didn't know but the older lady working the pizza counter (Casey's is an Iowa gas station that always has a pizza counter in case you need a full tank and a slice or two for the road) knew of the cemetery and was able to give me rudimentary directions that included turning left at the bar named Sherm's. I was glad I had stopped right away and asked instead of just cruising the town in hopes of finding it like I had originally planned because it was a long ways off the beaten path and literally on the other side of the train tracks as the rest of town.

As we approached the cemetery main gate along the river, the cemetery appeared to be kept up in decent shape although by looking at the stones, it was plain to see that it was on old cemetery and probably no longer getting new residents if you know what I mean. We drove through the cemetery squinting at stones against the light of a setting sun shining low over the horizon, mainly looking for dates around the early 1900's when John died and the town was just turning fifty years old. Along the river, we came to a section of cemetery where there were lots of older stones, including some laying on the grass and others missing altogether. We parked the car along the road and each set off through the graves in opposite directions looking for my great-great-great-grandfather.

Although the shadows were getting long, I never did see any shadowy figures other than a family way off on another hill standing around a grave in a newer part of the cemetery. In fact, instead of feeling eerie, I felt very peaceful walking through the graves along the Cedar River nestled in a grove of ancient oak and other hardwood trees in the mild evening air. I walked in silence for about an hour among the graves looking for a stone that had Kuck written on it and wondering what I would do or say should I find it. How does one pay homage to an ancestor one has never met but has enormous respect for due to the fact that they left their home country to begin again in a new and foreign land, leaving all their relatives behind? I never got to answer that question because the sun had gone down and darkness was rapidly approaching when we gave up and walked back through the cemetery to our car. As we made one last pass with the car hoping for some luck that never came, I told my great-great-great grandfather John that I would come back again someday and spend a little bit more time telling him about my life and introduce him to my wife. As we exited the cemetery gates and started towards home still four hours of driving to the south, I told him simply, "Thanks."

Story postscript:
Upon leaving, we saw a building across the road from the cemetery with the words Riverside Cemetery Association written on it along with office hours and a phone number. I called the number up and inquired if they could help me out. The lady looked up my great-great-great grandfather's record there and told me he was indeed buried there. Not only is the lady send me a map showing the exact location of the grave but she is checked it out personally to see if there is a headstone and if so, what kind of condition it is in. (Large gravestone with some lettering hard to read.) As a bonus, she also sent me the internment records of all the Kucks buried there, including four whom I never new existed. Someday soon, I will make another trip up there and spend some time with my great-great-great grandfather John Kuck. I can't wait

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Even the Deaf Break Wind

It sounded like a long rusty ring-shanked nail giving way to a crowbar and releasing a decades old grip from a well-seasoned piece of timber... only wetter. Despite being in the middle of a crowd of talking people one evening well past sunset at my parents farm, I heard the noise clearly somewhere in the dark behind me and I now turned to seek out the source. It didn't take me long to realize that the noise had been a magnificent specimen of a farm and that the fartee had been none other than grandpa.

As I stared into the darkness in disbelief at where he was standing about a half dozen paces away from everything, I suddenly hoped that nobody else had heard it mostly because this was mixed company, half family and half neighbors and friends. As I turned to rejoin the conversation taking place on all sides, people seemed to be so engrossed in their conversations that they hadn't heard what had just taken place or they were being polite by pretending to be engrossed in their respective conversations.

I didn't think much about the incident until some of the neighbors were leaving a little bit later and we had all walked around to the front of the house to see them off. As we were standing around in a circle saying last minutes words of wisdom, I saw grandpa slink off about a half dozen steps into the darkness and let another loud ripping buzz cut sounding fart only a little wetter sounding. Suddenly it hit me. My grandfather not only had a bad case of gas but he had taken his hearing aid out earlier because the loud croaking sounds of the crickets were too loud for him when amplified. He thought he was politely and silently farting out of ear shot of all the guests but in reality, they were louder than he knew, way louder.

This time, I knew I wasn't the only one who heard him because several heads noticeably jerked when the fart broke through the cool night air. I swallowed a burst of laughter as I suddenly realized the humor in a deaf man farting and thinking he had done it out of earshot of everyone else. I was able to regain my composure briefly but no sooner than my grandfather had rejoined the group, he was almost half trotting out into the darkness again. Another fart ripped through the conversation and suddenly my stomach doubled up with peals of laughter just dying to escape. The guests were doing their best to pretend they hadn't heard but suddenly they were stepping up the pace in the goodbyes as they made their way to their vehicles. I think all of us were praying that the wind didn't suddenly shift and put us downwind of grandpa. As the guests got into their cars and slammed the doors, I bit my lower lip in an effort to keep the laughter silent not wanting to embarrass my grandfather who had once again rejoined the group. I wasn't doing a good job and had to turn my head away from his gaze as tears of laughter streamed down my face and I kept a firm grip on my lower lip with my teeth. My grandparents said goodnight as they made their way out to their RV parked out by the shop and I swear as they disappeared into the darkness, grandpa was in the lead at a fast trot.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Things Were Not Peaceful at the Monastery

My stomach nestled firmly high up in my throat near where my tonsils would have been had I not had them taken out as a kid. My testicles crawled up inside my body and had my bladder been full it would have emptied. I was floating in my small yellow kayak about fifty feet upstream of Monastery Falls where a boy had drowned fishing not five days before and I was terrified. The water bunched up from the normally wide expanse of the river and pounded its way through the two large granite rocks at the head of the falls not five feet apart. The river was up and the hole at the base of the upper seven-foot drop was a monster. It was one of those that would swallow me whole and spit me out a couple hours later like a stale burp.

Random blobs of foam flew up from beyond the brink as the roar of the rapids approached. My instructor was standing near the top of the upper drop eyeing my approach and form that right now was desperately feeling like it belonged on a nice couch back in Iowa instead of wedged into a whitewater kayak above the biggest falls on the Red River. The other classmates were scattered all along the right side of the falls all perched at a point where they thought they could see me bite the big one as best as possible. The current sucked harder at my boat pulling me towards the throat of the angry beast and I knew there was no backing out now. There would be no room to paddle until below the first drop because the rocks on either side were too close together. The instructor had informed me that I should paddle like hell to gain enough momentum to make it through the huge sucking hole at the bottom and to be sure and turn the paddle so it wouldn't behead me if it got caught on the rocks. My legs started turning into jelly as I paddled like hell toward what was certain death and drowning number two within a week but damn if I was going without a fight. I gave two final pulls on the paddle, folded it along side the boat and closed my eyes as the water fell away from the boat and it yawed down directly towards the gaping jaws of the monster hole.

The water slammed my chest as I brought my paddle back out and desperately went through the motions trying to find some solid water somewhere in the aerated foam that engulfed me. I couldn't tell if I was going forward or being pulled back but I felt the blade of my paddle sink into some dense water somewhere beneath the foam and I pulled with all my might launching my boat forward and into the bright sunlight on the far side of the standing wave beneath the hole. However, I was slightly askew and my boat surfed right down the backside of the wave and into the shore right at the base of one of my fellow students feet. The nose of the boat slid along the face of the granite boulder with a loud scraping noise before wedging firmly into a crack and stopping me so hard that the momentum of my upper torso kept going slamming my thankfully helmet head against the deck of the kayak. Dazed but still clutching my paddle, I tried for an upper brace as my boat slowly rolled over but it was weak and the boat kept going. Just as my head was about to disappear under the foamy water, the paddle blade hit bottom and pushing up I was able to right the boat.

The boat was upright and I fought to regain my composure as my kayak now hurdles over a couple intermediate drops towards the lower larger drop of ten feet, backwards. This was back when white water kayaking was in its infancy and the short stubby models of today weren't even a thought. The channel was to narrow for me to be able to turn my boat around in time to meet the lower falls head on and so I straightened it up slightly as I went over the lip, backwards. I hit the much shallower and less dangerous hole at the bottom of the lower drop and was immediately flushed downstream. My kayak sickenly tried to roll as the various eddies piled water on the deck but the adrenaline was kicking in and several almost savage braces kept it upright until I finally eddied out in the large eddy along the shore of the manicured lawns of the monastery for which the falls is named after.

My stomach and testicles both assumed their rightful positions within my body and the pounding adrenalin gave way to shaking in my hands and arms as I realized that I had made it through the falls and more importantly, lived to tell about it. I floated there for a couple minutes soaking in the peaceful surrounding below such a violent section of the river and listen to the sounds of my cheering classmates. I regained my composure and with a few strokes, punched out of the eddy right below the lower hole at the base of the falls doing a peel out while surfing the wave to the other side of the river where they were all waiting. The classmate whom legs the bow of my boat almost pinched beneath the upper falls joking told me how large my eyes were as my boat turned backwards and almost upside down. I hid the quivering in my arms, legs and voice and as bravely as I could said, "Oh that's nothing, you should have seen the size of your eyes!"

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Catching a Rainbow Dream

We were on our way to a lake buried underneath the Cirque of Towers in the Wind River Mountains of western Wyoming and were fly-fishing some of the streams exiting the Cirque along the way. My brother had a massive knot that he was trying to untangle, my father was putting some new tippet on his fly rod and so I continued on up over the natural bulge that formed the dam for the lake until the lake spread out before me. It wasn't a large lake but it made up for its lack in size with shear beauty. Steep vertical cliffs lined the three other sides only punctuated occasionally by a deep cleft that was home to a small glacier. To top it off, it was a cloudless blue-sky day with nary a wind so that the surface formed a perfect mirror.

I loosen up my fly and stripped a generous coil of line at my feet before beginning my rhythmic casting with the fly rod, while keeping a large boulder between myself and my intended casting spot. Grip the line, cast forward, wait for the line to unreel out straight, cast backwards, letting some line slip between the fingers of my free hand and add some more length to my cast, grip the line and cast forward, repeating until the fly was getting out to the right distance from shore at the mouth of stream that the rest of my family were sitting along down below some two or three hundred yards.

The cotton like dry fly hung over the water on the forward cast waiting for a backward tug that this time never came. I allowed the fly to settle on the water ever so gently and crouched down further behind the rock so that it was barely in sight. The water is so clear in the lakes of these mountains that you can spot fish swimming down in twenty and thirty feet of water and yet they appear to be near the surface. But as a result of your being able to see them, they can also see you and since humans rarely visit this corner of the earth, they become easily spooked and will take off leaving your dry fly to slowly take on water and sink beneath the surface.

I was about to cast my fly through the air a few times to dry it out before setting it back on the surface when I saw it. At my oblique angle, I could only see a shadow but I knew that it was a large torpedo like fish and it was swimming towards my fly. Every nerve and fiber in my body suddenly tensed up like hard granite as I kept my eyes glued to the fly. A splash of water and the flash of a silvery tail all within a split instant, unlocked my mind and muscles, setting them into action and setting the hook. The fly rod bent double as all slack flew from my hands and started stripping itself from the reel. Fly rods don't have tensioning devices and so I placed the palm of my hand along the spinning reel to provide the tension and prevent the fish on the other end from taking it all out. Nothing left to do but to let out the mandatory war whoop to let my family below know that I had one on and the fight was on.

Sensing the applied tension, the fish doubled back and leapt clear of the surface allowing me for the first time to see that it was a very large rainbow on the other end. Hitting the surface with a splash, I stumbled backwards taking in line and trying to keep the end of the rod up so that tension remained on the line. Three times more in quick succession, the large trout leapt clear of the surface trying desperately to gain its freedom but I kept the rod up and never released the tension. Back below the surface, the fish swam this way and that alternately stripping out line and allowing me to gingerly reel it back in trying never to exceed the one-pound limit on the thin tippet material at the very end which allows the line to be nearly invisibly attached to the fly.

By the time the rainbow had worn itself down, my brother and father were along side and helped me land the tired fish. With a firm grasp of its lower lip, I pulled the trout free of the water and held it clear for everyone to see. Having backpacked for two days carrying all our gear on our back, we had left such non-essential equipment like tape measures and fish scales at home so we could only guess at the size which we deemed to be around 24รข€? and about six pounds in weight. It was enormous, too big for the frying pan and too big of a fish for me to want to eat it.

I gently lowered the trout into the water and while holding it be the tail, gently moved it back and forth to bring much needed oxygenated water past its gills and bring new life and energy back into the muscular body. After about two minutes, the fish had recouped sufficient strength and with a quick thrust of its tail, launched itself into the lake and set itself into dive mode. I watched it swim down into the depths and slip into the shadows of a large boulder some twenty feet down beneath the surface. My dream of catching a big rainbow had finally come true and hopefully someone else would come along in a year or two and catch an even bigger dream.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Them Boots Were Made For Kicking

Inevitably, I was one of the last ones to be picked for the kickball game at recess. Standing a full foot taller than most of my classmate due to a large growth spurt, I was tall, gangly and not very coordinated. I could do well fielding the ball but I could never seem to kick it out of the infield and very rarely made it to first base without getting nailed with the ball and thus getting "out." Today was no exception. It was a cold, muddy day and despite all the snow having melted the day before, my mom had forced me to wear my big sorrel boots to school to keep my feet warm. They did that job well but with the heavy weights at the end of very long and very thin legs, made me very slow.

Our team was in the outfield first and due to my drastically reduced speed, several balls that I normally would have caught or at least stopped got past allowing the other team to score much to the displeasure of my teammates. Our team seemed to be kicking line drives or floaters that were easily caught and so it was deep into the third inning before my turn to be "at bat" had arrived. The pitched sent the ball rolling towards me and I started churning my weighted down legs as I ran towards the plate and the point of impact with the ball. The speed of my kick was slow to say the least but what I later learned as the physics law of momentum took over and the toe of my large sorrel boot planted firmly into the side of the ball sending it streaking into the outfield and over the heads of the opposing team.

I slogged around first as I watched the ball roll and disappear over the far hill and out of sight. I rounded second and looked back as I made my way towards third seeing one of the other team chasing the ball across the street. Never in the sport of kickball at our grade school had someone kicked the ball over the hill much less the street at the bottom of it. As I rounded third and headed for home, I could hear the unmistakable sound of a soccer ball thudding on the ground somewhere in the vicinity of second base but as momentum helped me launch the ball, it helped my feet continue pounding along the worn path between the bases and across home plate which I stomped on loudly as I sailed past and into the throng of my cheering teammates. Home run!

Although I was never picked first and whenever the weather was nice out and I wore my tennis shoes to school, I was still picked last, the kids kept an eye out on days with nasty cold weather. If they saw me rounding the building corner at recess and making my way out to the kickball diamond with my giant sorrels on, I got picked third or fourth from last instead of dead last. It was an improvement and I took it happily.