Riding Side Saddle

side-saddleI wasn’t riding shotgun in my brother’s big blue tractor. More like riding side saddle is how I’d describe it. Riding shotgun implies having a protective function and a clearly defined task. I had neither. I was in the small jump seat to the left of his driver’s seat. Close enough so we could talk, yet far enough to be out of his way while he drove.

When I was back home playing farm on a recent June afternoon, my brother invited me to ride with him as he prepared a field for planting soybeans. I live in Iowa, nearly 350 miles from the home farm in Wisconsin, so I don’t get quality or quantity time with my big brother very often. These opportunities only arise every couple of years. So I accepted his invitation.

I’ve never been any good at field work. My long-passed tractor driving experience is limited to a Cub Cadet lawnmower and an old Allis-Chalmers tractor that wasn’t much bigger. But I still like tractors and I love my big brother. So when he offers, I go along for the ride, on the side.

Laura Sternweis

How to Fold Towels

Soon after my husband and I were married, we discovered we had been raised in two different schools of thought regarding an issue that affected our daily living: how to fold towels. He thought towels should be folded in thirds. I believed that the correct and aesthetically pleasing way to fold towels was in quarter sections. Each of us was certain the other was doing it wrong.

towels

However, we had taken to heart the communication sessions during our premarital counseling. (Thank you Father W. and Reverend Bill. Yep, we had two, but that’s another story.) So as we dealt with our laundry in those early days of our marriage, we calmly worked to discern the reason for our folding discrepancy.

Dear husband thought towels should be folded in thirds because that was how his mother did it. I thought towels should be folded in quarter sections because that was my mother’s method. Both our mothers were wise women, so I pondered why they didn’t fold towels the same way. (Dear husband didn’t much care, but humored me anyway.)

My mother folded towels in quarter sections for a simple reason — because a stack of quarter folded towels would fit in the bathroom cabinet. As dear husband thought more about the issue, he realized that towels folded in thirds fit neatly on the shelf in his family’s home. In both cases it seemed necessity indeed was the reason for our mothers’ invention. Each method made sense to us and neither was worth arguing about.

In all the years since, we have folded both ways: thirds for bath towels and quarter sections for hand towels and dishtowels, based on what fits best on the shelf or in the drawer. This has been our approach to most issues in our marriage — deciding what’s worth an argument and what isn’t, and doing what makes sense. This approach has served us well for 29 years and we anticipate it will work for quite a few more.

Laura Sternweis

Something New at the Farm

siloThe silo behind the barn was new once, but it’s old now. It’s an example of changing technology in American agriculture in general, and my family’s Wisconsin dairy farm in particular. The silo stands alone, its two companions having been dismantled stave by stave and carted away. Their former foundations are all that remain to prove their existence, just two concrete crop circles, lonely labyrinths that lead nowhere.

Technology comes and goes on the farm, as it does elsewhere in life. Whenever I return to my rural roots, I’m likely to be greeted by another change. I’ve been coming home to something new at the farm for nearly 37 years.

I left home for college in 1980, when plans were underway for the farm’s first milking parlor. Each time I came back for a visit that fall, there was something new to see — the double 8 herringbone milking parlor, a freestall barn with a slatted floor over a manure pit, new silos by the barn. Because I hadn’t witnessed the day-to-day progression, the farm’s transformation seemed all the more pronounced.

Since then I’ve lived away from the farm — graduating from college, working in central Wisconsin, and moving to Iowa. During the intervening years two new freestall barns have been built, along with a larger milking parlor. Older tractors have been traded for newer tractors. Older buildings have been repurposed. A small calf barn went up, worked hard for several years, and now is being replaced by a larger structure with modern automatic feeders. New silage bunkers have been added and old tower silos have been torn down.

A few days ago I travelled the circular paths of the old silo foundations. I wandered through the framing of the new calf barn under construction. And I walked the farm, contemplating the past and the future. With each visit home to the farm, I remember the old, but I look forward to the new.

Laura Sternweis

Dog about Town

Blue-coneNone of my family’s farm dogs had to wear the Cone of Shame when I was a kid. But today our town dog does.

My husband and I have an old dog. Blue is almost 13. But a week ago he forgot he was an old dog when the smell of a backyard rabbit helped him recapture his long-gone puppyhood.

Blue gave chase and the rabbit went running. It took refuge in our small metal tool shed, squeezing through the gap underneath the closed doors. Blue couldn’t get through the doors, so he turned the corner and proceeded to tear open one of the shed’s metal side panels. He popped the screws and bit and clawed his way along the sheet metal, tearing it like paper — and cutting a gash in his left front leg. He didn’t catch the rabbit, but he left the shed looking like a blood-stained crime scene.

The vet prescribed antibiotic pills, Neosporin cream, and the cone until the wound on Blue’s leg heals. Not sure what to do for the wound to his pride, as he wears his cone with shame.

Perhaps the farm dogs of my youth were tougher than our town dog of today. Or maybe they just never encountered a rabbit in a closed-up metal shed.

Laura Sternweis

A Cap for Wolf Blitzer

NRC-hostThe day I met Wolf Blitzer was cool and crisp. Our encounter was brief, yet poignant on that Iowa April morning 22 years ago. As he stepped off the White House Press bus near the Memorial Union parking ramp, I welcomed him to Iowa State University and gave him an ISU cap. Then he was off, headed to the ballroom-turned-press-room in the union. We did not meet again.

I handed university headgear to many reporters that morning. As an extension communications specialist at the university, I’d made the cut to be an ISU host for Wolf and all the other national reporters on the bus — including Rita Braver! and Bill Plante! — two icons in particular who I admired from across the press room. They all had travelled to Ames, Iowa, for the National Rural Conference, co-hosted by Iowa State and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Now the “normal” people in attendance likely were more impressed by the real stars of the day, President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore. And it was inspiring to witness history being made as the President and Vice President gathered perspectives on rural issues and views on the 1995 Farm Bill. However, as a former agriculture reporter and continuing news junkie, I was star struck to be in such close proximity to not only the newsmakers, but also the news breakers.

President Clinton and Vice President Gore were too far away to see me. Rita Braver and Bill Plante were close enough to see me but likely didn’t notice me. And Wolf Blitzer probably didn’t keep the cap. But I still have the story.

Laura Sternweis

P.S. Watch this C-SPAN video of President Clinton’s opening remarks at the National Rural Conference.

Spring Break with Jesus

When you’re standing ankle-deep in the Atlantic Ocean and a young woman with a Bible asks if you’d like to accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior, what should you say? What the hell? That was my reaction, though I was considerate enough not to voice it aloud.

spring-break

The woman with the Bible was convinced that Jesus was right there with us. I was skeptical. Being a savior is a lot of work and he likely had other things to do. I’d already seen evidence of far worse sinners than I on that Florida beach. I thanked her, but politely declined her offer.

During spring break 1982 I was a 20-year-old college student who’d hopped a frat bus to Daytona Beach with my best friend. She had won two round-trip tickets as first prize in a college dance marathon. She asked me to be her guest, and my parents agreed that I could go. So with my suitcase and $200, I was ready for adventure.

Wisconsin to Florida is a long ride on a bus with drunken frat boys (and college girls, to be fair). My friend and I hadn’t thought to bring any booze, good girls that we were, so other than a few swigs from a passed-around bottle of ginger brandy, our bus ride was alcohol free. Many hours later we arrived unimpaired at our hotel, a low-budget, beach-front, cinder-block edifice. We were pleased to find our room had a balcony with a view of the ocean — if you turned your head to the right.

There’s a lot I remember about that spring break. We packed 6 girls into our hotel room with a kitchenette and one bathroom. We ate cheap — bologna and hot dogs from the 7-Eleven down the street. We rationed our money so we could afford more important items — barroom cover charges and beer. We drank a lot and danced a lot and partied with guys from other colleges. Forget the frat boys from our bus — we wanted no attachments to follow us back to school. We stayed out late, cavorted in the ocean, fell asleep on the beach, and cultivated a fine sunburn.

I’d never been so far from home before. Sometimes I walked alone along the beach to contemplate that fact and wonder what my future would hold — as I did the day the woman with the Bible walked up to me, read some scripture, and asked me a question.

Of all my memories of that spring break 35 years ago, standing in the ocean with the woman with the Bible is the most vivid still. So maybe I did spend spring break with Jesus, at least part of the time.

Laura Sternweis

Requiem for My Sunbird

with-sunbirdTwenty-five years ago I bid my Sunbird goodbye. As a new mom with a sweet baby and an awkward car seat, my relationship with my two-door, compact car had irrevocably changed. Getting that car seat into the back seat simply was a pain in the ass.

Six years earlier I’d purchased my 1986 Pontiac Sunbird brand new from the dealership. It only had 12 original miles on the odometer when I drove it off the lot.

But I’d brought my sweet baby home from the hospital after nearly 24 hours of labor, 2 hours of pushing, and an emergency C-section. For all the trouble it took to bring him into this world, I wanted to be able to transport him safely around town.

My husband and I received $700 for my Sunbird, which we used toward the purchase of a year-old Buick station wagon. That car had plenty of room for sweet baby’s car seat and all his accompanying accouterment.

A lot can happen in 25 years. No doubt my Sunbird eventually ended up in an auto scrap yard. But my sweet baby has grown up to become a fine young man. All in all, it was a pretty good trade.

Laura Sternweis

Little Things about Dad

Don-Marge-jewelryMy Dad often bought jewelry for my mother, but he was not one to wear it much himself. He’d put on his watch and his wedding ring and call it good. He had a 1970s man necklace — a gold cowboy boot on a chain — that my mother bought for him from the Avon lady. But I’m not sure he ever wore it. His lack of personal affinity for jewelry is one of the little things about my Dad that I find myself pondering from time to time.

My father was more of a toothpick man. After a meal he’d grab a toothpick — flat, not round — from the box in the kitchen cupboard. He’d pick his teeth with it, then chew on it for a while, thoughtful, before going back to work on our farm.

He collected what some would call trucker hats, though I think of them as farmer caps. His were likely to sport emblems of seed companies, co-ops, or farm machinery. Some were for work, some he wore to town, and many more were stored in plastic bins on his closet shelf, awaiting their opportunity to be useful.

He grew a beard in 1982, because January was extra cold that year. On several consecutive Sundays he was either snowed in or snowed under, dealing with cold and cows and calves. So he didn’t go to church and thus he didn’t shave. At least, that’s what he told me. I’d been trying to talk him into growing a beard for years, but he always remained clean shaven — until that winter, when it was his idea. Turns out he liked having a beard, and he remained bearded for the rest of his life.

Dad also liked to chew Beemans gum by the half stick, sing from time to time, and occasionally drink half a juice glass of beer. His birthday will be here again in a few days, the twelfth one since he died. So I remember the little things about him to keep his memory alive.

Laura Sternweis

** Remembering Donald J. Sternweis, March 12, 1930 – March 30, 2005 **

Me and Friendship 7

me-and-friendship7 My space fever began in first grade, when I read about John Glenn’s historic space flight the year I was born. I was impressed by his orbit of the Earth on Feb. 20, 1962, and by his spaceship, Friendship 7. What a great name! Evidently space exploration was all about making friends, not enemies. I liked that idea, as I learned about this Mercury mission from the easy-reading book in my classroom.

I watched Apollo take-offs and splash downs throughout the 1970s. I drank Tang and ate Space Food Sticks, just like the astronauts I read about in my parents’ LIFE magazines. I even wrote a report on the solar system for the fourth grade science fair. (I still have my second-place ribbon.)

I remember Skylab and the Space Shuttle Challenger, but as adult life intervened, I lost track of the space program. My space fever went dormant for many years.

But a 2015 trip to Washington, D.C., renewed my interest. That’s when my husband and I toured the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. As we studied all the rockets and satellites and space suits and moon rocks, a particular spacecraft captured my attention. There was Friendship 7, right in front of me! I got as close to it as I could, and begged my husband to please take a picture of me and my spaceship. My space fever was coming back.

The symptoms returned gradually — an International Space Station update here, a SpaceX launch there. With recent news reports commemorating the 55th anniversary of John Glenn’s Mercury mission, my space fever is full blown — with no cure in sight.

Laura Sternweis

Songs in My Head

old-radioAlthough I’ve never been to L.A. International Airport, I know that it is “where the big jet engines roar.” I didn’t know I knew this until I experienced a road trip revelation. When I heard that classic country song on the radio, to my surprise I started singing along. I didn’t recall being much of a Susan Raye fan, good 1970s singer that she was, but I knew the words to her airport lamentation. It wasn’t hard to figure out why.

As I sang along with Susan, no longer was I in the car, tooling down a Midwestern highway with my husband. Instead I was transported via audio back to the dairy barn of my youth. Evidently L.A. International Airport imprinted on my brain back when I used to milk cows, feed silage, and carry out other farm chores with my father and my family, all while listening to the barn radio. Whenever my dad was in the vicinity, that radio was tuned to the country music station.

Classic country music accounts for many of the songs in my head — and by classic country I mean mainly 1960s and ’70s country. It’s cow-milking music, the music of my farm-kid youth. It rattles around in my head along with ’70s rock (from when Dad wasn’t in the barn) and ’80s pop from my college years, as well as hymns and gospel music — from church and my parents’ record collection.

But most often it’s that old country music that I’ll find myself singing along to, whether I hear a song on the radio or in a random YouTube video. Sometimes a song starts playing in my mind for no reason I can discern. Then come the memories — of home and farm and family.

Once in a while, a song will trigger a memory strong enough to make me cry, as was the case with L.A. International Airport. I don’t know why that particular song affected me so. Perhaps because I hadn’t heard it in decades. Maybe when I was a kid I had liked the song more than I realized. Or possibly the repetition of the last line of the chorus — “I won’t see him anymore” — was enough to spark my tears. (My dad died 12 years ago.)

Although L.A. International Airport and the other songs in my head occasionally give rise to tears, they do not lead to sadness. Instead the songs in my head transcend space and time and reconnect me to days gone by.

Laura Sternweis