Once Upon a Time in Iowa
While I lived and toiled in Texas for almost 40 years and consider myself a naturalized Citizen of the Republic, I was born in Iowa.
Being very young at that time of my birth, I don’t remember a lot about it — but apparently I was born during a snowstorm in Clarinda, Iowa, during November of 1952. So says the family, and it could explain why I hate cold and snow to this day.
I had long black hair when I was born, they say, and it wasn’t an easy birth. I was born upside down – came out of the chute feet first instead of head first – with the net result that my lungs were full of fluid and I wasn’t breathing. Maybe I didn’t want any part of the world from the get-go, who knows. There wasn’t a priest at the hospital at 8:00 p.m., so a nun baptized me — just in case. A priest was called and he came in and emergency baptized me again.
Obviously the docs and nurses got me to breathing. Witness the fact that I am here to write this 60 years later. A few weeks later I was officially baptized in the Roman Catholic church. Later in life, having heard about the thrice-blessed baptism thing, I guess I felt like my ticket was already punched and I could indeed do anything I damned well pleased.
I was born in Clarinda because Montezuma (where my folks lived) was too small to have a hospital. My grandmother, uncle and a baby cousin (all on mother’s side) got stuck in the snowstorm coming in from Des Moines, but they got out safe and made it to the hospital.
The long black hair I was born with eventually went blonde and then dark brown – a trait that would later be shared by my son after he was born 40 years later.
Come about 1955, I had another serious bout with life. I got rheumatic fever. Rheumatic fever is similar to scarlet fever and is caused by a streptococcus virus (like strep throat). Rheumatic fever is on the far serious edge of the strep spectrum and can be fatal to young’uns and old folks especially. Besides extremely high fever, Rheumatic causes abdominal pain; cardiac problems; severe joint pain and swelling; nosebleeds; skin boils, rash and open cysts; and quick, uncoordinated jerky movements kind of like seizures.
We don’t know how I got it, but mine got so bad they shipped me off from Montezuma to University Children’s Hospital in Iowa City some 65 miles east from home. The virus is very virulent and I was essentially quarantined. Dad and Mom were not allowed to come to the hospital lest they catch it from me, which Dad says upset them horribly. I was in hospital alone for about a week before they let my folks come pick me up. Again, I got better – but the rheumatic boils and lesions left numerous scars on my scalp that would plague me through the Butch Wax Haircut days of the 50s and into the 60s because hair doesn’t grow on scar tissue. Throughout those short-hair days, I had unmistakable meteor craters in the butch-cut on the top of my head that the other kids never failed to point out.
Not much happened after that until I was in kindergarten in 1957 when my first sister, Bonnie, was born.
Signs of things to come. The February day that Dad was bringing Mom and Sister home from the hospital, I went to school. Education is important. I told the teacher I wanted to go home because my momma was bringing us a baby sister. Teacher said I had to stay in class. I bided my time until the teacher went out to get our milk-and-cookies snack. Whereupon (they say), I climbed out the window of the classroom and proceeded to walk home. Cops (well– singular “cop” in such a small town) were called and a general ruckus ensued. The cop found me walking along the main highway through town. He radioed in and they called our house. Mom, Dad and brand new sister Bonnie were back from the hospital in Clarinda, so the cop took me home – which was where I wanted to be to start with. Score Kirby one, School zero – and the first of several times I would have “situations” with schools.
Another important event occurred in that kindergarten 1957. I learned the Pledge of Allegiance. I don’t remember much praying going on at the start of each school day, but I distinctly remember the pledge. Every day we would place right hand over the heart and dutifully recite “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America. One nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all”.
That pledge may look a bit odd today, but it was the pledge that was in effect as of the 1945 United States Flag Act. The Act was amended in 1952 to insert “One nation under God …”. I guess news moved slower back then, but as of 1957 in rural Iowa we were still taught the pledge without the under God part — and to this day I still get some disapproving looks when (without fail) I recite the pledge at public gatherings but forget to include the 1952 revision.
I was a bit of a hellion early on, they say. Our neighbor, Mrs. Mary Smith prized her garden flowers. She won Blue Ribbons every year at the Poweshiek County Fair for her perfect garden flowers. Well, they tell me, one day I was out playing and decided my momma needed a pretty bouquet – so I went next door and pulled up a bunch of flowers (well – all of them) by the roots and carried them in to my mom. She stared at them in horror and pretty soon Mrs. Smith was banging on the front door screaming like a banshee!
“What did that (unintelligible) little (unintelligible) do to my flower bed???!!!”, said Mrs. Smith rather loudly.
“Now, Mary” said my mom, “he didn’t mean any harm and I am certain we can make this right. Kirby David Sanders! Get in here and bring those flowers!” I knew I was in deep when momma called me by all three names.
I, having earlier been banished to the living room and told “you just sit there until I call for you”, brought the flowers (stems, roots and all) into the kitchen. Said momma, “You apologize to Mrs. Smith and march right out there with her and help replant every last one of those flowers”.
I went immediately with Mrs. Smith and helped replant every single flower – but she didn’t win any Blue Ribbons at the Poweshiek County Fair that year.
And then there was Mr. Garrity’s garage. Garrity was another neighbor. In modern parlance, I would claim he maintained an attractive nuisance. The garage was really an off-kilter ramshackle old shed. Looked like the only thing holding it together was the four-paned glass windows. So what’s a curious kid gonna do when faced with such a thing? The answer is obvious –- pitch stones through the windows and see if the building collapsed. Which, of course, is exactly what I did. The building didn’t collapse.
That evening, when my dad came home, Mr. Garrity came over bellowing like Mrs. Smith had done before. The next Saturday was spent with my dad – glazing and puttying new glass into the window frame. As I recall, the inside of that garage looked worse than the outside.
I stayed out of trouble for a while — until the town, the county and the state decided to build some new sidewalks and fix the sewers along the highway in front of the house. First thing they did was dig things up, pound some wooden stakes into the ground and set up these kerosene-fueled bomb-looking thingies beside the markers to light up the markers at night so people wouldn’t drive off the road and crash. There was always water running alongside the dug up place next to the wooden stakes and the kerosene-bomb looking thingies. Didn’t take me long to discover that I could pull up those wooden stakes, throw them into the water and make battleships! I threw dirt clods and rocks at the sailing armada of battle ships trying to sink them. Then I accidentally bumped one of the kerosene bomb-thingies into the water – and the water caught fire! Wow! What a strategy. Put a battleship in the water, run downstream a few feet and throw a kerosene bomb into the water – then run back and start throwing rocks and clods. If the rock-clod artillery didn’t stop the surveyor-stake battleships, the downstream flaming mines surely would!
A couple days later, there was an angry crowd of surveyors and county engineers and the town cop on the porch talking to my dad. I was banished to the back yard “until construction was completed”.
I was released from exile when “construction was completed” and allowed back out front. There were guys up and down the street laying concrete for sidewalks and finishing out the overlay for the soon-to-be sewer culverts. Another attractive nuisance! When an impetuous kid sees unattended wet concrete, what’s he gonna do? Walk in it! Leave some footprints for the ages! So I went walking in the wet concrete and hit a spot about a block away from home when I heard something go CRACK! and the concrete earth disappeared out from under me. Suddenly, I was in a deep hole up to my chest in wet concrete and I couldn’t get out. I couldn’t move. Mrs. Mary Smith (Lord love her) saw what happened and call the police — and the volunteer fire department. They all came out (along with several of the surly surveyors and engineers) and dragged me out of the concrete. Once again, I was banished to the house or school while they leveled the sidewalk and fixed the concrete culvert construction that had collapsed beneath my feet.
While I was banished to house or school at about age six, I was fortunate that the folks my parents rented from had loaned them a TV. It only received one station out of Chicago. Reception was spotty and there wasn’t much on — Uncle Milty, Howdy Doody and a cartoon I loved called Crusader Rabbit which I mispronounced as ’Sader Rabbit. There was only one episode (tested starting in 1948), but I loved it! In modern terms, Crusader Rabbit was a sort of early Calvin and Hobbes, but that Crusader was a Don Quixote bunny rather than a kid and his cohort was a bumbling tiger. It was a “test run” by Jay Ward who later went on to create Rocky and Bullwinkle – in which episodes Crusader Rabbit was a squirrel and his “Hobbes” tiger was a moose. Other than that, we listened to the radio.
Dad came home one evening and announced that he had to go to a meeting in Cedar Rapids and I jumped for joy. “Can I go, too? Can I go, too?”
Dad said “ Why would you want to go to a meeting in Cedar Rapids?”.
I said “Because if you are going to meet ‘Sader Rabbit, I wanna go, too!”
Dad explained to me the difference between Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and ‘Sader Rabbit and I stayed home with mom while dad went to his meeting.
After the concrete had hardened on the sidewalk-sewer project, I was released from home-or-school exile at the ripe old age of six. I viewed the magnificence of the concrete ribbon in front of our house and the site of my concrete sinkhole adventure. The sinkhole site was now an incredible square cave. A concrete bunker worthy of investigation! I crawled in like an intrepid scout in search of defensible positions for the troops – and got stuck.
Once again, the cop was called, the volunteer fire department showed up, and they hauled me out of the newly constructed stormwater sewer. I was placed under house arrest again as the result of my curiosity.
My youngest sister, Barbara, was born in October of 1958, completing our idyllic 1950s family of five. Life was stereotypically good.
Come 1959, I was seven years old and the town of Montezuma breathed a collective sigh of relief. Dad and Mom moved us all to Iowa City so dad could finish his Master’s Degree. Don’t remember much from there except that we lived in a round-roofed tin World War Two surplus Quonset hut (“on-campus student housing”). It had a living room, a kitchen and a bedroom. In the bedroom, Bonnie and I slept in bunk beds. Barbie slept in a cradle on the other side of the bedroom next to Mom and Dad’s bed. When it rained the pinging on the tin roof sounded like sonar hitting a submerged submarine. Dad took me to a Hawkeyes football game that year. It was snowing. I escaped from the stands and went running onto the field to play in the snow. Cops retrieved me and delivered me back to dad. Ineligible man on the field.
Sister Bonnie tells me that in the short time we were there, I also tried to “tightrope walk” the rail on a bridge over the highway – and made it all the way across.
In 1960 I was eight-years-old. Dad got a gig as an associate professor and opportunity to complete his doctorate degree at the University of Houston (TX). We all packed into a used 1953 Ford sedan and went to Texas.