Monthly Archives: May 2008

Dorman Downer or Smilin’ Todd?

I received this e-mail from reader Jim Mead Thursday morning:

I finally figured out why I so often skip your column. It’s your picture! I look at your face and think oh, it’s going to be a column about how the world is going to hell in a handbasket and there’s nothing we can do about it. And then I’m pleasantly surprised when I do read a column that you do have a sense of humor and a sense of proportion. You need a new picture, one in which you look happy, or mildly amused, or something. You’ll figure it out.
Jim Mead

I can’t say I disagree, Jim. Although clearly, judging by the sheer size of my large head, proportion has been a lifelong problem. But thanks, I think.

It’s true, my column photo does look a bit dour, as if I’ve just watched someone kick my dog or thoughtlessly grab my last beer. Perhaps I do need a more positive, sunny image, a la John Tesh.

It’s a conundrum. I’m interested in feedback from you, the reader. Does my photo depress you? Would your life be just a little brighter if Smilin’ Todd replaced Dorman Downer?

I’m waiting for your verdict.



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Go for the Gusto

Rich Lyle\'s Proud Colors

Reader Rich Lyle, who is among many great folks who told me how to quench my thirst for Grain Belt Premium around these parts, sent me this proud rendition of his tailgating flag. Rarely have I seen such pride and dedication on the part of a Schlitz aficionado, but I understand completely. It’s a great American brewing icon.

These colors won’t run. Belch, maybe, but there’s no shame in that.

Two thoughts occur to me. First, why has the word ‘gusto’ fallen out of favor? It’s fun to say, for one thing, and if there’s something this nation needs right now, it’s a tall, cold shot of gusto.

Second, why haven’t I designed my own tailgate flag? Now that I live 70 miles closer to Kinnick, I will have plenty of extra time to put together a much more elaborate spread. What could be better than to top it off than a boisterous banner of my own crafting?

If I ever get around to it, I will owe Rich and Schlitz much for the inspiration. And I will look for his flag as I march toward Kinnick next fall.


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Tornado thoughts

I’ve been debating for a couple of days whether to write anything about the tornado that smashed Parkersburg and parts of neighboring towns on Sunday. I really didn’t think I had much to add, opinion-wise. It’s a horrific scene and my heart goes out to everyone touched by the tragedy. I have friends and family from that neck of the woods and, luckily, everyone’s OK.

I’ve thought often of my own hometown, Belmond, over the past few days. It was also on the receiving end of one of Iowa’s rare F5 tornadoes in 1966, four years before my birth and seven years before my parents made the town our home. The unusual tornado hit in the middle of October, on homecoming Friday, no less, killed six people and damaged or destroyed roughly 600 homes.

Needless to say, Belmond was never the same, just as Parkersburg is forever altered. I saw the damage only in pictures, but the long term scars and imprints were all around. Some were physical, like the fact that Belmond had a lot fewer big, mature trees than most towns. Many historic Main Street buildings were destroyed, so the rebuilt business district has a much different aesthetic than most small Iowa towns, with a lot of late 60s and early 70s architecture. There’s an arcade roof over the sidewalks on Main Street, for example, created as part of the post-tornado revitalization.  

Although I certainly couldn’t quantify it, I remember people remarking on how Belmond had a particularly itchy trigger finger on its tornado sirens whenever the skies darkened. If there truly was a hyper-sensitivity to severe storms, I didn’t see it, but I wouldn’t be surprised. Anxiety would be understandable, especially on the part of people who lived through it. The 1966 storm hit with virtually no warning.

(Incidentally, I haven’t heard much from the readers who blasted my column last month on blowhards who complain about storm warnings interrupting TV shows. Go figure.)

But that disaster also made my hometown stronger, and maybe even more optimistic than your average burg. I think people took a lot of pride in the fact that the community came together, picked itself up, with a lot of help from its Iowa neighbors, and survived. There was a feeling on the part of that generation that if the town could come back from that, it could accomplish big things. (Of course, Belmond hasn’t been immune to hard economic realities hitting many small towns in recent years. Main Street certainly isn’t what it was 20 years ago)

Tornado anniversaries were part somber reflection, part celebration of resilience. I remember the 20th anniversary remembrance in 1986, while I was in high school. We re-staged a homecoming parade, complete with the BHS band, and stood in silence at 2:55 p.m., the moment the storm hit.

By the time the 30th anniversary rolled around in 1996, I was a reporter in Fort Dodge and went back home to do interviews for a  story looking back. I’ll always remember talking with Maynard Holmgaard, a postal carrier caught by the tornado while he walked his afternoon mail route.

He told me the last thing he remembers that day was delivering mail to a house as rain started falling on an unusually muggy fall afternoon. Turns out the force of the twister’s winds blew him up against a pole that was then wrapped with tin sheeting from a shredded grain bin. Searchers found him only because his feet were sticking out. His face was so caked in dirt that his own family barely recognized him.

But he was fortunate to be held upright, because that reduced bleeding from a serious head wound he suffered. He was unconscious for weeks. Like the town, he survived and lived and healed. But as I found out when he grabbed my hand and guided it along a dip in the top of his head, the scar remained.

Although it’s hard to believe now when the scars are so fresh, Parkersburg will survive and heal as well.


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Vocabulary Corner — High Gas Prices

Today’s $4 word, from the Urban Dictionary

STAYCATION — A vacation that is spent at one’s home enjoying all that home and one’s home environs have to offer.
Usage — “Even though I live and work in New York, I don’t always get to enjoy all it has to offer, what with my work commitments, but I sure did have an awesome time here during my spring staycation.”

So how many of you are cutting back on summer trips as the price of gas approahces the dreaded $4 per-gallon threshold? I’m not sweating it, yet, although I’m starting to get Prius envy. 

Vacation barriers are nothing new to me. Because my dad coached summer softball and taught summer driver’s ed, “staycations” were a way of life for me. We did take short weekend trips occasionally. And we did go to a kickin’ family reunion in Colorado Springs when I was 7. But there was none of that iconic, traditional loading of the family truckster to see the Grand Canyon or Disneyland. Sniff.

I did have acres of woods, a bike, a BB gun, bottle rockets and lots of time on my hands, so I was able to fill my time with all sorts of healthy activities. We even played pickup baseball games. Man, that must have been 200 years ago.

But until now, I had no nifty label for my tribe’s sedentary ways. Problem solved.


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Today’s Column — Revisionist Herstory

Democratic front-runner Barack Obama stood on an Iowa stage Tuesday night, delivering a rousing speech to a big crowd at a big moment. Nice visual, but Iowans have seen it before.His rival, Hillary Clinton, was also still standing a few states away, passionately fanning her flickering hopes to win the nomination with a forceful speech in Kentucky, where she vowed to fight and scrap for every last vote.

That was something Iowans didn’t see before January’s crucial caucuses, which Obama won in a stunning upset. You have to wonder, if the twofisted Hillary of May had replaced the cautious Hillary of January, whether things might have been different.

Sure, it’s like wrapping revisionist history in hindsight to speculate, especially now that the race is nearing its end and Obama appears to be the winner. But you can’t help but look upon Clinton’s current gutsy campaign like a beautiful, arcing three-point shot that hits nothing but net, fired, unfortunately, after the buzzer sounded.

Where was that in the first half?

Where was this brawling, bareknuckled contender back when Iowans were sizing up the Democratic field? Why didn’t the Crown Royal shooter of Pennsylvania and the Maker’s Mark maven of Kentucky give her Iowa campaign a stiff shot of Templeton Rye? I bet some of her supporters here are wondering the same thing.

“She was so on message all the time,” said Liz Hoskins, a Clinton caucus backer and executive director at Waypoint Services for Women in Cedar Rapids. When Clinton privately visited Waypoint, Hoskins found her to be warm, passionate and personable, qualities that didn’t always come through on the Iowa trail. “I think she listened too much to (advisers) Mark Penn and Terry McAuliffe,” she said.

What if Clinton had listened to her gut? What if she had tried to outpunch John Edwards, the fair-haired passionate populist, and grabbed some fired-up, fed-up rural voters here, as she has in places like West Virginia?

What if a campaign now insisting that every American should get a chance to vote had done less griping about the out-of-state college kids who gave up winter break to legally caucus? Maybe Obama wouldn’t have cruised with the youth vote.

What if she had decided to leave Bill out of this, instead of making him an integral part of her strategy, starting in Iowa? Would that have made a statement that her campaign is not a nostalgia trip back to the triangula tion and prevarication of the ’90s?

Could she have stood, on her own, as what she is – a historic candidate smashing barriers, not carrying her husband’s baggage?

“Somewhere in Hillary’s inevitability phase, the trailblazing nature of her effort got lost,” Howard Kurtz wrote in the Washington Post this week. “She became the establishment candidate, the return-to-the-’90s candidate, and the wow factor – which has always surrounded Obama – simply faded.”

Maybe it wouldn’t have changed things here. Obama deserves credit for running a consistent, inspiring, organized and well-financed campaign.

Perhaps this is his moment.

But Hillary Clinton’s gritty end game has also made this her moment – to reflect on what might have been.

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Awkward Moment

Date: Friday, May 16

Location: Cedar Valley Trail near downtown

Level: Minor

I was walking along the trail around midday when I encountered a running woman.

Running Woman: “Are you that Tom who writes those articles?”

Walking Me: “Uh..yes.”

Running Woman: Offers some sort of very kind compliment that I can’t accurately quote now. (I wasn’t carrying a notebook and pen at the ready, so sue me.)

The name switch is, of course, easily understandable. For one thing, it’s tough to deliver compliments while running. Although I don’t do much running myself, I can imagine the difficulty.

Second, Todd and Tom are very close. For instance, I worked for The Fort Dodge Messenger for roughly three years, 1994-1997. For at least half of that time, the publisher called me Tom. “Hello Tom,” “Good story, Tom,” “Say, Tom…” you get the idea.

John Kerry once called me Tom for much of a phone interview in 2003. It was the same day President Bush appeared on the aircraft carrier under the “Mission Accomplished” banner. Talk about an awkward moment.

So running woman, wherever you are, thank you for the compliment. The awkwardness was all on my part.

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Friday Mailbag — Postville Raid

My column on the Postville immigration raid drew quite a bit of mail. Most agreed with me that congressional paralysis on both immigration reform and on reining in the excesses of the nation’s meatpacking industry made Postville’s trauma possible.

I received lots of mail, but the most poignant paragraph came from Roger Engstrom of Postville, a Vietnam vet who said he has worked at Agriprocessors for a decade.

The Monday morning the Federal Officers burst (best word available) into my office at Agri, my first, very first, thoughts were of raids on South Vietnam villages 37 plus years ago.

And then I was at the same church you were at here in Postville and I saw the same fear in the eyes of the people there that I had seen in the villagers. The children’s eyes in that church had this 57 year old fat white guy crying his eyes out in guilt and shame of past acts, and in frustration of current situations.

Richard Lenth, who said he grew up in Postville and still has familiy in the community, argued in an e-mail that the government ignored warnings of what was happening at the plant.

Early pleas for help from the people of Postville were generally met with caustic responses that they were racist bigots. To hear state and federal government officials now claiming they had no idea that there were any problems is an absolute denial of the truth. I will forever believe that had pleas for help from the people of Postville been properly addressed as they arose we would never have reached this point.

Several writers had sympathy for the plight of the workers and their families, even though many came to our country illegally. Nanci Young was among them:

The people in Postville seeking a better life are not that far removed from our ancestors who came to the US seeking a better life. They are human beings who inherently deserve to be treated with respect and dignity. I don’t have a solution to the problem of illegal immigration. But I sure as heck know that the answer is NOT to devastate a town and several families, children, couples, and in general, people.

Martha Zipsie wrote to express her admiration for the legal immigrants she’s worked with at Kirkwood:

For over 25 years I’ve been a volunteer tutor in the ESL program for Kirkwood, and while I’ve never known an illegal immigrant, I’ve known plenty of legal ones and seen how hard they work(2, 2 and 4 jobs) to make a better life for their families. I always tell them how much I admire their courage and determination. I would never make it in their countries.

But Scott Welty was not sympathetic.

Now let me get this straight, I’m suppose to feel sorry for what happened to the people that were in this country illegally? I don’t think so! Ain’t gonna happen! No way, no how.

A couple of readers also, rightly, took me to task for my grammar. Bev Amoroso, a former Kirkwood instructor, was one with an eagle eye:

“Myself” is a reflective pronoun when one wishes to place emphasis; for instance, “I, myself, will do it.” Many people confuse the correct usage of “myself” and “me,” perhaps thinking that it is in some way self-promoting when, in fact, it is incorrect grammar.

In your column today you stated “. . . woman told Gazette video journalist Mike Barnes and myself to leave, pronto.” The correct usage should be as follows: “. . . woman told Gazette video journalist Mike barnes and ‘me’ to leave, pronto.”

Keep up the good work but do use correct grammar!

Keep those e-mails, comments and grammar lessons coming.


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