The First Question: Why?
A good reporter's first task is to ask questions. It's a family habit of ours, learned early on.
My first memory is of waving good-bye to Dad on our sun-drenched lawn one Sunday morning a hundred yards north of the sparkling lake. I was two. Dad piled into a car bound for Madison, Wisconsin, where he would be a guinea pig for a potential cure for tuberculosis. The year was 1959.
Why did he leave me there? Where was he going? Would he come back?
A childhood friend of his from Whittemore, Iowa, Lloyd Roth, head of the department of pharmacology at the University of Chicago, was working on this project at the Veterans Administration hospital. Roth was also a physicist and had worked on the Manhattan Project, which developed the atomic bomb.
Dad had picked up TB during World War II while stationed in Sicily with the Army Air Corps. He was a captain in charge of a supply depot at an air base; it's a wonder the planes could fly because he didn't know a screw from a screwdriver. The disease didn't fully manifest itself until after the war. When it did, more than a decade later, our family was in quarantine in Storm Lake, Iowa, a meatpacking town of about seven thousand with a small college and, yes, a lake.
There we were, Mom alone with six kids, I the youngest.
Brother Bill let loose hamsters in the basement that spread throughout the house.
Brother Jim and I painted the basement red—including the clothes and bedding drying in the furnace room.
Brother Tom, the eldest, tore the screen doors off the Corral Drive-In theater with a beery buddy.
Brother John wanted to run away.
Sister Ann was taking care of me, after a fashion.
Mom called Dad in the hospital hoping for sympathy. He laughed.
They took out a lung and he wasn't supposed to last more than a few months. He made it fourteen years, just long enough for me not to understand him.
Meantime, Mom had been battling the VA ever since the war ended, trying to get him promised benefits. The records building in St. Louis burned down and with it the evidence that Dad contracted TB while in service.
She had been through an endless siege for information before. Her first husband and father of my oldest brother, Tom, Omer Kelly, was shot to death in a Chicago bar when Tom was about two. Mom spent years trying to find out how he died. Her father, Art Murray, traveled from Bancroft, Iowa, to Chicago with his lawyer, Luke Linnan, to find justice. Linnan had an old friend who was a judge there. The judge told them to go home, and to quit asking questions.
She never quit asking.
Our mother reared us to do the same.
Sometimes your questions get answered. Which means, of course, that often they don't. I have been a reporter and editor for Iowa newspapers for thirty-eight years, and I've spent a lot of that time asking questions about little towns and about quiet people who also ask the same questions amid a patchwork of corn and soybean rows.
I didn't mean to wind up in Storm Lake at all. I was driving to the big city and bright lights but took a U-turn to come back home where brother John had just started a weekly newspaper, The Storm Lake Times. I did not want to go back. But the journey led me to the story of a lifetime, to a Pulitzer Prize in 2017 for taking on corporate agriculture over river pollution, and down a road to a place where I finally realized that I belonged.
Worlds are built and worlds are buried amid the tall grass here in Iowa. You plunge your finger in the soft black soil and expose a seed, a kernel of knowing where you are, a story, an idea, a myth of who you are, and it grows out here against all the odds. It persists against the hail that comes sideways. It preserves itself frozen in a January gale out of the northwest that makes you wonder how you ever survived. It gets flooded and scorched and comes back. No matter what you do for the next ten years, it comes back. It demands you pay heed to it, heel to it, nurture it, and hope for it. It's the land, the story, an impulse to take a rough first draft of history, a drive to divine some truth in a place that lays it bare, by asking and listening. To love a place and be its chronicler, to commit yourself to it, to prick its conscience and make it aware that we have bucked up against its limits, and to leave your mark for posterity. The seed becomes a song, its verses written in this expansive green garden, and you are left to discern them and write one anew. To be a friend to the place and not to spoil it.
These are the questions I start with.
Who came first, and where did they go?
What is our place?
When will I live up to him?
How do we live against that horizon?
Why am I drawn or pushed here?
Where are we going?
Into the pink sunset, down Buena Vista County blacktop C-49, as the combines spew dust and corn stover, you can almost see the lights eleven miles west as dusk enshrouds Varina, home to St. Columbkille Catholic Church and a grain elevator outpost with a smattering of weathered frame houses.
Storm Lake, Iowa.