Thursday, January 03, 2008

North and South

Most of my life, when people ask me where I’m from, I have always said Iowa, because that’s where I spent my formative years, sixth grade through high school graduation, and because it is the state where my parents grew up. At this point, usually, the inquisitive person will say something about potatoes, to which all Iowans reflexively (and politely) say, no, I think that's Idaho.

If someone were to ask “where” in Iowa, I would say a small town in Western Iowa, over toward Omaha. If they persisted, or if it was clear they knew the geography, I would tell them I come from Denison. They painted “It’s a Wonderful Life” on the water tower sometime after I left town. Not because I left town, but to honor a favorite daughter. I still feel a strong connection to the state, though after nearly 25 years in the Wild West (the west coast of Iowa), nearly all of the rest of the country feels foreign to me.

My family occupied a number of abodes in the center of the country. My oldest siblings, my two sisters, were born in Iowa, then my father took a job with Arthur Anderson in Texas, where all three of my brothers and I were born, one in Corpus Christi and the rest of us in Houston. In the early 60's we moved (children of an itinerant CPA) to New Orleans, Joplin, Missouri, and Schuyler, Nebraska before alighting in the Hawkeye State, where I feel fortunate to have received a quality public education.

I didn’t start kindergarten and grade school till we were in Missouri, then had some more grade school in Nebraska, and I honestly cannot remember studying the Civil War at any level of school prior to college. I’m sure we must have read about it (it's not as if I can remember studying other things either). There must have been something about freeing the slaves. On my own, however, I recall at some point in high school reading my first Bruce Catton book. That was inspired by a trip to Gettysburg during junior high (the sort of visit so many people point to as the starting point of a life-long interest). We toured Gettysburg on our first family trip to the East Coast where my sister -- who lived near Hagerstown and was stationed at Fort Ritchie – was getting married. Now all these years later my oldest son, an 8th-grader, is preparing for a class trip to Washington, which will include a sidetrip to Gettysburg.

When I started this little blog entry – fast becoming a sentimental autobiography – I meant only to highlight the fact that I “belong” to two places in the middle of the country: Iowa, where I have roots, and where I spent seven important years, and Arkansas, where my parents moved soon after I left for college in Indiana. They lived in a lovely spot in the north-central part of the state, on Greers Ferry Lake, and are buried there. Two of my brothers live in the area, and one of my sisters is not far off in Memphis. All of that means that every time I've gone “home” since the late 70s, it was to The Natural State.

I am from the North and the South, but view them both as an outsider would, blowing in from the west. I am sort of ashamed to say that, in my seven years in Denison, I never noticed (or can't remember noticing) the Civil War monument on the courthouse lawn [I stole this picture from my friend Mark Knowles’ web site – I’ll try to remember to ask for permission later]. Must have driven by it a thousand times.

That gives you a good idea of the extent of my, and my friends’ Civil War consciousness in small town Iowa of the 1970s.

I've no idea what they teach about the Civil War in the schools of Arkansas, but I do know what they sell at the local five & dime-type market. As I mentioned in some posts last summer, I spent a week down there in July. Who knows what kinds of non-Donna Reed souvenirs they sell in the shops of Denison these days, but such is the enduring legacy of the Civil War in parts of the South that even in tiny Greers Ferry, population 930 as of the last census, you can find, along with extra batteries, sun screen, and flotation devices, a collectible ceramic depiction of the surrender ceremony at Appomattox Court House (signing what appears to be a surrender novel), and battleflag shower curtains (below).

It's been said before, here and elsewhere, that a lot of this overt sectional "nationalism" seems to be a fairly recent phenomenon, perhaps in reaction to the anti-flag publicity of recent decades. I never saw so many battleflags in the 80s or 90s as I did on this last trip. On the other hand, I never saw an Appomattox souvenir down there either, with its message of peace and reconciliation. That last one must be for the tourists and the transplants, as the Ozarks slowly become the retirement capital of the upper Midwest.

More on my Arkansas trip, and my newly kindled interest in Jo Shelby, in the next blog entry.


DW@CWBA said...

Great stuff, David. When I lived in Omaha for 4+ years, my familiarity with Iowa was mainly with the biking trails in the Council Bluffs area, though I did meet a fair number of people from Denison.

Looking forward to your comments on Shelby.

Ryan W. said...

This is a little off topic (apologies), but I'm curious if you have any thoughts on this blog posting about the confederate attack on Fort Sumpter, as a way to shore up the confederacy.

dw said...


Did you pay your respects to Grenville Dodge in Council Bluffs? There's a decent chance I know some of the people, or the families of people you knew from Denison, given the size of the place.

I made countless trips to Omaha over the years.


dw said...

Hi Ryan,

Thanks for the note -- I'll check out that link. Some do make the argument that the CS attack on Fort Sumter was a way to force the issue, and pull the fence-sitters like Virginia into the fold.


DW@CWBA said...

I sure did. I also lived right off of Dodge St. in Omaha, a few blocks away from U. of Neb.-Omaha.