Saturday, June 19, 2010

The real and present Dry Flat world

Pauline Barker Vincent (right), visiting here with Jo Shrader, is at age 97 Dry Flat’s senior former student and senior former teacher.

Up at 5 Friday to turn the oven on and bake, part of a commitment to the Dry Flat country school reunion, I got to thinking about thunderstorms four ovenloads later --- about 7. Sun was streaming through the east kitchen window, but these are unsettled times weatherwise down here and I wanted a little reassurance.

NBC’s “Today” show, when I turned the TV on to check the forecast, was broadcasting live from the new Wizarding World of Harry Potter amusement park in Orlando --- a Universal Studios bid to capture tourist dollars by recreating the Harry Potter movie sets, actualizing a fictional world in which refugees from the real world can with the swipe of a credit card find diversion, maybe even fleeting solace, in something that has never been, is not now and never will be.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t have anything against the Harry Potter books (sorry, but I’ve not read them) or Wizarding World exactly --- and I have watched a couple of the movies. They came my way last winter in a temporary DVD swap with friends.

But aren’t we’re increasingly overlooking the real magic --- sitting across the room, just outside the door or a short walk or drive away --- and becoming too reliant for solace on the illusion of magic in places like Orlando or inside the boxes that house our computers, televisions and other purveyors of stuff that looks real and sometimes seems that way, but isn’t? I suppose that’s better than drugs or strong drink, however ….


I see as much with my mind’s eye rather than through my glasses these days when driving east out of Chariton for a couple of miles on U.S. 34, then south on the Transformer Road across the Chariton River bottoms to the Lucas-Wayne county line: Places that used to be and people who used to live in places that still are. I know where at least two of the houses still standing along that road, built elsewhere to house members of my own family and then moved over here, came from; and see clear as day the old May place --- a mansion on the prairie that marched in tandem with one of southern Iowa’s biggest barns. Both now gone entirely.

Turn left a little beyond the county line and into the driveway at Dianne (Vincent) and Harold Mitchell’s place. If you think Sunnyslope Church of Christ when you read “Dianne and Harold” you’re on the right track.

Their house was built by Dianne’s father, Howard, for Wayne and Ethyle Cummins and their daughters, Karen and Sharon. Sharon is the only Cummins left now and it is real magic when she walks through the door because she looks exactly like her mother, my first and one of my best teachers --- at Dry Flat. We’ve all been stumbling while matching names to the faces of the 50 or so assembled just because we don’t see each other frequently and the years remold us. But not with Sharon. No confusion there.

Pauline Barker Vincent, at 97 Dry Flat’s senior student and senior former teacher, has not changed a bit in my eyes or to my ears either, although her son, Jacob, with more  stomach than I'd anticipated and an unfamiliar white beard, confused me momentarily. He preaches way down in Harlingen, Texas, however --- about as far south as you can get and still be in Texas --- so I hadn’t seen him in years.

Pauline still lives where she grew up and where she raised her children up the road from Dry Flat. I don’t want to overdo this because I know it will get back to her, but she is one of the few people I’ve known who embody grace plain and simple. And I’m not sure she realizes just how much that means to those of us who are not related to her but remember and/or know her.

She also is one of the few people left around here with whom I can talk meaningfully about my late Aunt Mary, her high school friend, and my late mother, who although a little younger shared room-and-board with Pauline in Chariton back in the days of the late 1920s and early 1930s when kids from the deep country quite often boarded in town during the high school week before the days of fast cars, good roads and school buses capable of covering lots of miles quickly.

Ron Christiansen prepares to head out with the second of two hayrack full of Dry Flatters. Harold Mitchell, driver for the first hayrack, is at left in the background.

Since I didn’t mean to go on and on here, I’d better pick up speed just as Friday did. After we’d gathered Friday morning, many of us piled onto two hayracks (ok, some of us didn’t pile, we carefully ascended portable steps) for the trip behind vintage John Deere and Allis Chalmers tractors piloted by Harold Mitchell and Ron Christensen a mile down the road to see the remains of old Dry Flat, converted to a hay shed after the school closed in 1958 and it and the acre that surrounded it reverted by deed covenant to the Vincent farm. In deference to my dad, who didn’t think much of green, I rode behind orange.

Jacob Vincent acted as tour guide on our hayrack as we headed toward Dry Flat. Note the beard. When did that white happen?

The sky was the amazing part of that trip as clouds gathered in the west and northwest. There were those who thought we wouldn’t make it without getting very wet and others who made insensitive jokes about the headlines we would generate if accurately-aimed bolts of lightning picked us off, but we made it. Headed back, the wind shifted abruptly and a hot morning turned almost chilly as we watched the clouds circle away leaving us dry and safe and windblown, awed by the spectacle out there under that big sky.

Dry Flat, converted to a hay shed, doesn't look like much now, but those of us who attended school there see it from an entirely different perspective.

After that an old-fashioned potluck lunch (official because both Jello and olive-and-pimento loaf were among the offerings), more visiting and a program before we scattered at 2 p.m.

Jake gives the Cox brothers, who had to head back into Corydon, a preview of the slide show that will be a part of the afternoon program as Dale Cottrell looks on.

At an event like this, tears can be a sign of success --- and there were some of those. Sharon generated a few just by looking so much like her mother and being so gracious about whose daughter she was. Memories of absent friends did, too. My goodness. My classmate Marilyn (Nickell) Gibbs should and would have been here had death not intervened; so would Linda Mae Allard, neighbor and friend. And many others.

But the thing about it was that it all was real, happening in the here and now in a real place in the real world. And I’ll bet there are those who would have paid the price of a Wizarding World ride to cruise down gravel with us on a hayrack behind a vintage tractor chased by that gathering storm.

The memories may have been just memories, but they were of real people and real places and real events that helped shape real lives in what sometimes seems almost another world, although it was real, too. When in less hurried and troubled times innocence lasted longer and children could, if circumstances were right, be shielded lovingly from many of the world’s woes until they had gained the strength needed to go out into it. It was real magic. I’m amazed at how fortunate we were to live it.

Just visiting was a major part of Friday’s Dry Flat country school reunion.


Later in the day with clouds gathering in the west and north again we opened the imaginary gates at 6 for the historical society’s arts and crafts fair on our hilltop in west Chariton --- nothing magical about the event either really, but unfolding magic none-the-less for those of us involved in organizing it and watching now.

The exhibitors were enthusiastic, the crowd steady, the food good and the music outstanding. I’d never expected to see fully-grown adults dance down the driveway toward the patio, but there it was live and in living color to music by Adam Barr on trumpet with his small ensemble of Nancy Courter on keyboard and Steve Scott on drums. The barbershop quartet Boys Night Out was just as good.

The nature of the crowd was the exceptional thing because historical societies have troubles attracting younger people. But here were whole families just roaming around enjoying themselves --- even a few bands of kids on their own just like in the good old less dangerous days. I got a kick out of hearing the ringleader of one of these groups, all of 8, reminding her four or five younger charges as they made their way down the path toward the log cabin laden with hot dogs, chips and lemonade --- “now remember we can’t go in there with food.” Our chief distributor of programs, age 7 perhaps and the grandson of the board secretary and one of the exhibitors, did his job far more effectively than any of us several times his age would have done.

We closed at 7:30 and just after the last guests had reached their cars parked for blocks in all directions and all but a couple of the exhibitors had packed up and driven away, the skies opened and then the fireworks started as we stood high up just inside the front doors of the Lewis Building and watched --- incredible bolts of lightning, tremendous claps of thunder, giant punctuation marks to remarkable day.

Now you’ll think I’m funning you when I say that I knew at the start, while baking those muffins, that the day was going to turn out this way, but I did. Wasn’t really worried at all (although I did check computer radar a couple of times just to make sure). I attribute it all to grace, which has the capacity just to roll over and enfold us --- sometimes when we expect it, other times when we just allow it and now and then flat out of the blue. I call it real magic. But you can call it whatever you want --- even wizardry.

1 comment:

Elzan said...

We've been enjoying your blog for quite a while, and I've wanted to comment on other entries but just didn't take the time to do it. After reading this one on our reunion, I must comment. Thank you for such a good report on our day. You really captured the essence of our time together. Elzan