Steam Festival - Part Four

Everyone asked after Amy's dad. Everyone knew he was in the nursing home and each wanted to know when "Johnny" would be back. This place is changing. There are too few old ladies in training to keep this delicate social fabric together. We dined today at Caroline's smorgasbord, the only restaurant in town. Broasted chicken, ham, meatballs in a creamy sauce ,and twelve different salads, two-thirds of which are cool-whip based. At $4.75 a head, the place is packed and we took Johnny and sat astounded at his depth of community. Everyone who passed by the table stopped to engage him and he was as warmed and energized by this as anyone could ever be. I commented to him after we left, as we were waiting to be admitted to drive around the threshing bee park ("Johnny can't walk? Of course he can't. Just drive your car around there, then.") "So," I said, "Looks like you've got pretty good credit here." "Oh yea," he sighed, " a fella's got to. This is what keeps me goin'," he continued, "If I didn't have these folks out here, willing to take care of me, I wouldn't have any hope of gettin' out of the nursing home."

Johnny will not return home from the nursing home. He's catching on and accepting. After all, his life has been defined by the same abrupt changes that have defined all of his neighbors' lives here. He has mastered abrupt at the knee of South Dakota. He was more interested in getting an ice cream than he was in looking at the steam tractors. "Once you've tried to make a living with these old machines," he confided, "You'd just as soon never see or think of them again." Today was plenty for him. We drove him back to the nursing home. He dozed between bites of ice cream, one terrifically tired teddy bear. We bundled him off to his room, to a nap which took him back to the times when he was one of the masters of this humbling territory.

Over lunch, he responded to one old friend that he thought he was doing pretty well. He was either going to get better or maybe he'd just go to sleep and go to heaven, which, he confided, wouldn't be so bad either. He's sleeping more these days. There's no depression in this doziness. It's clearly well-earned rest. His Parkinson's and his pernicious anemia rack his body and sometimes his mind. He was clearer this weekend. "A fella's got a lot of soul-searchin' time here," he reported, "That's pretty clever of them to make it like that. I can see where I am from here and it's just the way it is."

We left him tonight at supper. He was a bit confused about why he didn't need to put on his hat and coat, after all "it looked plenty cool out in the fields." His monologue disclosed that dinner might be out in the fields tonight as it had been on so many of his nights, delivered by dutiful wife or daughters, all grown and gone now. His dinner would be at a table set so his wheel chair could fit, with others, now in brightly colored bibs, who kept this place together. No wimps among them. I left proud to be aging and satisfied with our humanity.

The prairie and South Dakota are places like this. The work gets done. Community cares. So much gets lost in the shadow of pale artifice. It's not supposed to be particularly pretty or necessarily tidy. We make the bargains we make, wishing that we had someone to grow older with and deserving someone, too. Despair, they say, is the difference between what we expect and what we experience, and can always, it seems to me, be resolved by either accepting the way it is or by changing my expectations. The people who live here are masters of life. Not the flashy Elvis-impersonator life we too often mistake this journey for, but the stumble and stutter life that each of us eventually understands is our lot. No surprises and no regrets. There is a community around us that will sustain.

Modern life might have missed this point. Ignore the expectations television offers. Distrust everything the politicians and actors and the in role people suggest. There is a heart beating out here, a dedication founded in bed rock. None of us are strangers. We all share these feelings, these experiences, yet we pretend that we do not. Then again, on odd evenings, we bust these illusions and parade through a sleeping town, blowing off our steam and stranding ourselves in a common mud. We laugh, when we are together, and we pull ourselves out and continue. The stories continue. The traveler, the stranger at the bar ,might catch the pattern here and find no way to share his observation. Each is blessed with their own damned experience. Each is delightful. How can I tell a total stranger how I feel? Find your partner! Don't despair! There are no strangers here. Beer?



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