After 8 years of marriage, which had produced 2 children and another one on the way (me-unplanned), Mom and Dad began talking seriously about a job change. (Mom would not start working outside the home until the ‘unplanned’ was in school). Dad had been working on the railroad (all the live-long day) which included periodic layoffs. In November of 1950, a couple weeks before I was born, Dad took a job with the Iowa State Highway Commission where he would remain until he retired on the last day of 1981.
Working for the road commission in Iowa was not an easy job. Iowa’s extreme weather conditions often dictated what type of work was done on that particular day. During their blistering summers, the highway’s pavement actually buckled from the heat and humidity which is very dangerous for cars and drivers. A state work crew would be notified from a passing motorist or farmer, alerting them another ‘blowup’ occurred so many miles east or west of Rock Valley. The guys would remove the buckled portion (usually concrete) and replace it with nice flat blacktop (a quick fix).
During the spring, Iowa’s ditches along the roads needed constant upkeep. Culverts needed cleaning out and weeds, wildflowers even errant asparagus patches needed to be mowed. Dad had this task often. I always knew when he was topping off the shoulders or riding a tractor through the ditch because he had awful allergies and his sneezing fits would start about 5 a.m. when the birds started singing. I was just down the hall sleeping, often finding myself wide awake by sneeze # 20 or so. Poor dad, I don’t ever remember him taking anything or doctoring for his allergies. He refused to use Kleenex and went through several hankies a day (blue and red paisley ones for work, white ironed one’s for church or elder duties). Red watery eyes with those long bouts of petite allergy/hay fever sneezes.
Iowa’s hardest season of work (and the longest) for Dad was winter. Often starting in November, the state seemed to be in a perpetual state of sleet, snow, ice, wind or blizzards. Boy howdy. We moved to Michigan almost 35 years ago and people like to compare the 2 states winter’s, but there’s no comparison. While Michigan might get more snow (especially lake effect near Lake Michigan’s shoreline) the big lake also keeps the temperatures warmer. Iowa has more days of below freezing and below zero. Way below. The other biggie is how the snow falls. In Michigan many times you’ll see several inches on snow on top of a tiny fence post. Aww, so cute. Most of Iowa’s snow comes to us in wretched fashion from Nebraska-accompanied by a 40 mph gentle breeze from the west-with nothing stopping its progression (Iowa does not have an over abundance of trees like Michigan). A portion of your yard might still boast a few blades of visible grass while the other side will have a ten foot drift trying to compete with your roofline.
During these whiteouts, blizzards, ice storms, and tsunami winds Dad’s job was keeping highways 75 and 18 as safe and clear as humanly possible, and their work day never stopped at regular quitting time. He often got called into work during the middle of the night and would end up working 16-20 hours before coming home. Mom would have his supper in the fridge on a pie plate, covered with aluminum foil which he’d pop into the oven for a few minutes if we were already in bed.
It’s easy to understand dad’s lack of bubbling enthusiasm for most chores around our hovel. He literally updated our house on the inside for 50 years but never really cared for all the work involved on the outside. By the time he got home from work, he’d either been mowing for 8 hours or plowing snow for 8-or more. He mowed because he wanted the yard to look nice like the neighbors, shoveled because our sidewalk was used by students trudging their way to school 2 blocks away. He had no interest in landscaping, buying or planting shrubbery. That task belonged to Mom. However when she brought home a new Blue Spruce he’d plant it without complaint, exactly where she deemed appropriate.
He loved to ‘tinker’ in our huge garage, hand painting large, religious signs he posted (along those same highways, 18 & 75 where he worked everyday) to encourage unbelievers to find their way to Christ with catchy, thought provoking statements.
As much as Dad disliked mowing, raking and shoveling (I don’t think he ever used weed & feed) he enjoyed growing a garden. Mom might have had something to do with this. She loved green beans, peultjes (peas in the pod) soft garden lettuce, radishes but most of all-fresh tomatoes (my favorite food in the world). Lucky for us, Dad could grow tomatoes like nobody’s business (although he was growing veggies in the best soil on earth)! If there was a dry spell for a few days and Mom and I were in the midst of an uncomfortable tomato withdrawal, we’d drive to the west edge of town where Luke & Tilly Van Berkum (no relation) had a small acreage-green house cause they grew enough tomatoes to feed the town.
There weren’t many meals from mid-August through September that didn’t include tomatoes. Mom and I always liked something cold with our meal like pickled beets, applesauce or cranberry sauce-unless there were fresh tomatoes. She’d slice (not thin, skimpy slices either) a cereal bowl full to go along with whatever she’d made for supper, meatloaf, ham, pork chops. Although we were not really a ‘sandwich’ family, BLT’s were on the menu every few days when tomatoes were at their peak.
But my favorite way Mom served fresh tomatoes was with tuna salad (which Dad refused to eat so this was our lunch most days when he was at work). Don’t get in a snit about the way Mom made our tuna salad. Water based Starkist, drained with a couple diced sweet pickles, celery and just enough Miracle Whip to hold it together. (I add green onion). She would carefully look through Dad’s stash of fresh tomatoes sitting on the counter and pick out the 2 best, biggest ones available. She’d take a steak knife and cut/carve out a pretty big section surrounding the stem, then pack that gaping hole with tuna salad. (Not gonna lie, it makes my mouth water, it was so good).
Guess I’ve not changed much in the amount of fresh tomatoes I eat or how I eat them. If we’re having a ‘good’ supper I’ll eat at least one tomato sliced with my meal topped with salt. For lunch it’s a BLT or simply sliced tomato on buttered bread topped with sugar. I’ll make tuna salad every 10 days (it lasts me 3 meals) although I no longer dig out the tomato middle. I slice it thick and chunk the slices in a bowl topped with salt. Dip my fork into tuna then stab a big chunk of tomato. A fond memory of Dad’s gardens during the 50’s and 60’s, how many times and ways Mom and I managed to eat tomatoes for 2 months a year…