by Roger Poppen
1984 Los Angeles Games offer a last shot at Olympic glory for Robert Rochmann.
A faculty position at a backwater university should allow enough time for
training--if he can focus on the weights and not the women. But his aging,
steroid-boosted body fails him, and he faces an investigation for his conduct
with coeds. It takes a young woman with a teddy bear to show him there
may be more to life than Olympic gold.
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A pleasant summer morning. I am walking with my parents through their old neighborhood in Watertown, South Dakota. At age ninety and ninety-one, they sense this is their last visit and they fondly point out places that hold so many memories.
"That was my grandpa's house," my father says of a blue box to which a second story has been added. Like George Washington's knife with a new handle and blade, little of the original remains. But there it stands, his grand- father's house.
A church parking lot covers the site of my mother's aunt's house. Her aunt never married--'old maid' was the impolite term--and cared for her father in his last years. I recall my great-grandfather. He had no teeth and entertained us children by pulling his lower lip up over his nose. He died at ninety-nine. I was disappointed he didn't reach one hundred.
We reach the church where my parents were married. It’s been converted into apartments, its old bricks painted a modern ecru. I take my parents’ picture as they stand smiling on the steps they descended as man and wife nearly seventy years ago.
Most of the houses we pass are neat single-story bungalows, sided in
white or pastel asbestos, aluminum, vinyl, a few stucco. A very few keep
their original narrow clapboards, having withstood a hundred howling Dakota
winters, a hundred baking summers. Here and there a house has fallen into
This morning over breakfast my uncle described a dispute he had with the man next door who'd let dandelions grow in his yard, their wind-blown spores contaminating the neighborhood. My uncle prevailed. His lawn is unblemished by dandelions, crabgrass, or any other intruder into the uniformly green, fine-bladed leaves of grass--as are all the lawns we pass, smoothly cut and as evenly edged as a Saturday haircut.
Tidy flowerbeds add color and lawn ornaments a touch of whimsy. Miniature windmills are favored, this being a land of ceaseless breezes. Many houses display welcome signs with the residents' names displayed as if expecting guests. One porch advertises: 'Grandchildren spoiled here,' 'Free hugs,' 'This way to milk and cookies.' Despite the cordiality, we see no one tending flowers, no children at play in the yards, no visitors knocking on the doors. Except for an occasional passing car, we have the street to ourselves.
I am impressed by the orderly grid we are traversing. Numbered streets
run south to north. Avenues, also numbered, reflecting the conservative
imagina- tion of the city-planners, run east to west. Only when we count
down to zero is this Teutonic system breached by Maple Street and Broadway.
Bartron Hospital once stood on Maple, the place where I was born in 1940. Six weeks later my mother took me in a wicker basket on a train headed east to join my father. A farm boy during the Dust Bowl years, Dad found greener pastures in FDR's expanding federal government. Thus we became the alien branch of a family rooted here since the 1880s. Every summer our 'vacation' consisted of a visit to relatives in South Dakota, three days trip by car. I recall the cars we traveled in: '36 Chevy, '41 Studebaker, '52 Chevy, '54 Chrysler, '57 DeSoto. Once in college, I no longer made the journey with my parents.
We arrive at the house where my mother grew up. Only its gambrel roofline
is recognizable. The front windows that once displayed blue stars indicating
my uncles' WWII service are covered by a closed-in porch. The back porch,
where my grandfather lay invalid for many years, remains as it was. In
the kitchen, laden with pies and casseroles brought by neighbors, I achieved
Close by was the train yard with the wondrous roundhouse where hissing
black locomotives, towering like wheeled brontosauruses, were driven onto
a giant turntable. All gone now. I was forbidden to go there, but what
boy could resist? On one momentous occasion a friendly trainman allowed
me to ride
Also nearby is the first house my parents lived in after they married. I take their photograph today standing in front, kissing like newlyweds. My mother tells me it's where I was conceived. More information than I was looking for.
Later that afternoon I go shopping for toothpaste and shampoo to replace the items my parents surrendered at the airport to make our nation secure from terrorists. A friendly clerk helps me find what I need, her accent sounding like a character from Prairie Home Companion. I remember my cousins teasing me about my 'southern accent,' making me repeat certain words for their amusement.
Also in the store is the only dark-skinned person I've seen in Watertown. An Indian, I suppose--'Native American' seems an unwieldy term here. I see no others in any of the shops or restaurants we visit. They keep to themselves, I'm told.
My parents have traveled a long road in matters of race. My mother's uncle, I hear, is said to have been a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Astounded that the Klan existed on the northern plains, I ask for details. But they have no more information. When I married a Chinese-American woman my mother assured me she had no problem and that she regards her dark-eyed grand- children as white.
They had more difficulty when their beautiful blonde granddaughter, my sister's child, became engaged to a black man. Then, when the Lord did not answer their prayers the way they had hoped, He at least gave them the grace to accept the situation. Mom tells this as she shows our relatives pictures of her curly-headed, coffee-colored great-grandchildren. How adorable and smart they are, how devoted and hardworking their father is. My aunt nods sympathetically. She confides she had a similar problem with her youngest daughter in college many years ago. My uncle solved it, she says, by paying the young darkie a considerable sum to cease his attentions.
In Huron, my cousin and I go to the auto races at the fairgrounds. Enthusiastic fans fill the grandstand, cheering as though Dale Jr. and Jeff were battling for the NASCAR crown. Buckets of Bud flow freely. A voluble, red-faced fellow sitting behind us with his wife and grandchild makes friendly conver- sation whenever the ear-splitting racket of the race dies down. Learning I'm from Illinois, he says he worked there for many years but was glad to return to South Dakota when he retired. "Too many niggers," he says. I can think of no reply, no rejoinder that would not provoke a confrontation. I turn my back, grateful when the roar of engines makes further talk impossible.
I leave my ancestral state with mixed feelings. My people are tidy, industrious, good-hearted. Their lawns and lives are neat and well-ordered. But many, I fear, have dandelions in their souls.
(Roger Poppen took up creative writing after retiring as a professor
of behavior analysis. He has published one novel, Mister Lucky,