November 23, 2011


It's flyover country and I love it.

I once had a teacher who ripped on Iowa, saying there was nothing to see there, nothing to do except drive through it. I came to its defense, said there were wonderful things there but you just had to get off the interstate.

I'll stand by that. For me, I can't have a Thanksgiving and not think of Iowa. I'm in a bit of a different setting this year, just as I have been a few years. But when I was a kid, it was an annual pilgrimage.

Exciting, far away.... Iowa.

About this time each year, my parents corralled four kids into a station wagon or minivan and headed west to Tipton, Iowa where my Grandma lived. To me, it was exciting - far away, different, exotic. For Dad, I know it holds a particularly special meaning. Enough to tolerate the freeway around Chicago and the endless straits of freeway over the Mississippi River into his home state. That's where he was born, where he grew up. And because it's part of his history, it's part of mine too. So I can't let anyone rip on it. And I have to support the Hawkeyes, unless they're playing the Spartans.

I can picture all of it:

Tipton, the island of a small-town in the middle of nowhere. Grandma's old house on 2nd Street, with its unplaceable, inimitable smell and the football player wallpaper in the bedroom upstairs. The enormous old library and its huge yard right across the street where we'd play baseball. Her little church a few blocks down. The butcher behind her house, where every so often they had an animal awaiting its conversion to meat. The Tractor Dealership where we'd go and stand inside the huge tires. The gas station where somehow we were could still get Pepsi and Mountain Dew in glass bottles. Happy Joe's pizza. The mile walk to Walmart when we got bored.

And Thanksgiving Dinner, with the gathering of all of the cousins, aunts and uncles we usually only saw that time of year. Turkey, Rolls, Stuffing, Jello Salad, the usual, the bubble bread, and Aunt Helen's turtles (I don't suppose those would survive a shipment to Puerto Rico?) The seemingly eternal devotion from Our Daily Bread after breakfast. A rousing game of Chinese Checkers. Dated toys. That weird, aged exercise bike. A newspaper from 1903 that I kick myself for not asking Grandma for.

The occasional trip out of town to Mechanicsville, where Uncle Joe lived. Or Center Point, where Aunt Carol and Uncle Larry live. The admittedly more exciting trips to Iowa City and the University of Iowa, where we wandered onto the field at Kinnick Stadium or the court at Carver Hawkeye Arena, where my soft spot for Iowa Athletics was born. The way there on roads surrounded with outstretched fields and demarcating trees, and the farm houses and silos and barns, and small towns where everyone just has to know each other.

You get off the freeway, and Iowa's not so bad.

The world has seen many wonderful ladies. I'm just not sure any of them stack up to my Grandma Gamble. She did what Grandmas are supposed to do, always overflowing with kindness, you couldn't not love that lady. She sent a birthday card each year with a one-dollar bill in it. She had a little sign on her door that said, "In this house, you can sing and pray, but please don't smoke and swear." She was a gentle woman but an aggressive Skip-Bo player.

You know what? Grandma was awesome.

Thanksgiving, Iowa, Grandma Gamble, they're all neighbors in my brain.

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