In his brown-and-white pickup, my father drove to town and bought me a can of grape soda pop from the Pester’s station. I drank it all by the time we got home on the rock road past Walden Park. This was our ceremony. We didn’t even need seatbelts. Extended cab pickups had not yet become popular, and the safety harnesses were tied in knots and stuffed between frayed cushioning, therefore the five of us rode together in a seat made for three, shoved tight, me sitting on my mother’s lap. As my father smoked cigarettes, I kept an eye on the speedometer to make sure he was not going too fast. I believe this is probably why he drove about 10-miles-per-hour on gravel near the end of his life—from years of conditioning. For someone who won racing trophies from the Kansas City drag strip, which bookended his skeet shooting awards in our China cabinet, it was a life-changing experience to constantly be bugged by your youngest child.
For his birthday, my son Grant chose Prairie Trails Museum of Wayne County in Corydon over the Science Center of Iowa in Des Moines. I was not disappointed, as walking a few minutes from home beat driving for two hours. Before we even got to the front door, the boys were engrossed in the river rock separating the machine shed from the main building. The horse-drawn road grader still sits facing Highway 2. My family donated it several years ago. My cousin Matt and I once pretended we were characters from Star Wars as we stood on its platform trying to turn its blade. Today, this would be known as steam punk, combining what people from the 19th century thought the future held, but through the dystopian lens of a robot, those monocle-wearing dreamers of binary code.
My sons disappeared for a while, playing hide-and-seek near glass displays meant to keep swastika armbands from touching them. They asked to see the machineguns. A three-barreled Derringer was the best I could do. The shotguns got them talking, because they know their grandfather carried that weapon during Vietnam. But these were Remingtons from the turn of the 20th century, next to rifles that shot musket balls from the turn of the 19th century, across from a room holding petrified seedpods and ferns from a time when a century was like a day.
As we had walked in the door, an older couple spoke of the displays as they prepared to leave, how it would take more than one afternoon to see everything. It requires years of practice. The gentleman’s consideration of the 10,000 things he walked past without noticing helped my focus. For a moment, he had become my teacher. I did not rush, but sat in the pews, old seats from the Wayne Theatre, and chairs from the courthouse they tore down in the 1960s. Two hours was enough for the hungry and tired boys to hide in plain sight. I missed plenty, but I also saw things I had never seen before. The tiny roulette wheel contained in a wooden box with a coin slot was one. It is a microcosm of how people throughout the ages have tried to make sense of seemingly random events, and then made a profit off others.
In the end, Grant and Wes wound up in the machine shed, where swords have been beaten into ploughshares. There are black-and-white photographs of men standing still for the camera so they would not blur. Their names are familiar, because my ancestors homesteaded here in the 1850s, and I am related to many of those farmers covered in facial hair near shocks of hay.
Before reading the caption, one drawing back in the museum had caught my attention. In the early 1900s, Swiss psychologist Carl Jung spoke with a Native American chief, who told Jung how through his eyes, white men had tense, staring, cruel faces. He told Jung: “They are always seeking something. What are they seeking? The whites always want something. They are always uneasy and restless. We don’t know what they want. We think they are mad.” At first, I saw that same cruelty in the pencil drawing of the pioneer. I laughed softly when I discovered it was my great-great-great-great grandfather.
In the machine shed, Wes pumped a hydrant for a well with a studious expression, and Grant laughed when the water got sucked out of its reservoir and poured upon his hands. They wondered at the technology that made this possible. It was a mystery to them, unknowable, but it is also the magic required to draw up water from dark places.