Category Archives: Growing Up In Iowa

Growing Up in the Midwest


Hunting—Never Sat Well with Me

Most Iowa farm boys were introduced to hunting while in grade school. Can we say from that observation that fathers and boys naturally possess an innate drive to kill animals to provide for needs created by hunger? Did this tendency to seek food find its way into the gene pool due to repetition over centuries of turning to the forest or plains for food? No, I think killing animals is a learned behavior.

I became a hunter because I wanted to be with my father and do much of what he did. Maybe I thought it was a “manly” thing to do since my sister was never invited. Actually, we didn’t hunt to eat. Wild game never made it to my mother’s table. We had meat at almost every meal, but never what was killed on our farm. Our hunting was purely recreational and any squirrels, deer, or rabbits we killed were given away to others.

My parents gave me a Remington Nylon 66 rifle when I lost interest in my Daisy Red Rider BB gun. It is a semi-automatic rifle (22 long rifle only), fed by a 14-round tubular magazine located in its butt stock.

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Overall length is 39 inches, and barrel length is 19.5 inches. The weight of the unloaded gun, including the magazine follower tube, is 4.2 poundsIt was introduced in 1959 and discontinued in 1989 or 1990 (depending on the source). I suspect I owned one of first produced. According to Remington, approximately 1,050,350 Nylon 66 rifles were made. It had the potential to kill small animals or even a human if used inappropriately. Dad taught me a few basic lessons. Don’t load your gun until you are ready to enter the forest. Never point your gun at any human, even while turning to shoot. Keep your safety on until you are ready to aim and fire. Unload your gun immediately upon leaving the hunt.

My first trip into the woods with my new rifle was traumatic and transformational. I saw a beautiful male cardinal land on a branch about fifteen feet of the ground and thirty feet in front of me. I took aim never considering the consequences if I happened to hit the innocent and helpless creature. The radiant red bird fell almost instantly with the echo of the gunshot. I stood stunned. I approached and found crimson blood in the snow beside the motionless cardinal. I propped the gun against the leafless tree and picked up the warm limp bird. My stomach did a flip and my heart broke without losing a beat. I had just ended a life with absolutely no reason except thoughtless adventure and lack of respect for the value of a helpless creature’s life. Nobody ate cardinals or other songbirds.

There was no more shooting that day and I suspect that one deadly shot etched a dislike for hunting in my mind and heart that will follow me to the grave.

Peer pressure eventually led me into the forest again primarily because it was the accepted thing to do. But those hunts were rare. I don’t remember actually shooting many animals. I would later buy a 10-guage shotgun to hunt ducks, doves, and deer with friends. Fortunately I was a lousy shot and only killed one or two ducks.

I never taught or encouraged my children to hunt.

Growing Up in the Midwest


Five Unconventional Ways to Fish

 

Dynamite—The Loud and Violent Way

Many Iowa farmers had a number of “not so” legal options for those difficult days of fishing the “old fashioned way.”

On one occasion when a pole and a line yielded no results, Dad headed to our garage and opened a padlocked wooden box and removed two eight-inch long sticks about the diameter of a garden hose. This box had always intrigued me! And, now we learned its content. Dad said, “We will catch some fish now. I promise.” A thick layer of paraffin covered the beige sticks, but I chilled when I read the words dynamite and danger. He also pulled out a couple of caps from another cardboard box and cut two-tthree foot lengths of fuse wire. Off we would go to one of several isolated deep holes along the creeks of our farm. We didn’t know it, but our escape to deep into the farm was to avoid any chance of a game warden hearing the dynamite and suspect illegal fishing. I was edgy and excited. I knew dynamite was an explosive and worried that we could be blown to kingdom come should it accidentally explode. But, I put two and two together and realized that we were about to create such an explosion under water that some fish would be killed. I wondered how many and what kind? Would they be edible after such a horrific end?

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Dad carved a small hole in the stick of dynamite, pinched a cap tightly around one end of the fuse wire with pliers and shoved the cap as deeply as possible into the hole in the dynamite. Dad issued a warning, “You kids get behind that big oak tree and stay there until I get back!” I worried frantically Dad would hold on too long to the stick and it would blow him into the next county. Yet, I was so hoping we would find some really big fish, the likes of which we had never seen.

He went to the edge of the creek, carefully lite the fuse, and threw it into the deepest point of the creek hole. The length of the fuse wire allowed about 30 seconds before the burning fuse reached the nitroglycerin. After the explosion and the sight of the water rising toward the sky, we rushed with long sticks to the edge of the creek and collected the stunned and dead fish. There was a five-pound carp, several bullheads, numerous small perch, and two turtles.

Gigging—Harvesting the Stranded

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Floods often covered portions of river bottoms following heavy spring rains near our house. Farmers couldn’t enter their fields until the rivers or creeks could empty into the larger rivers and the sun gradually dried the land. No one could hurry the process. Most years the drying would occur in time for the farmers to plant a late crop in the worse areas. A lot of large fish were trapped in shallow pools on the land. People would put on boots and wade into these pools to gig the fish. This was one more way that Dad had to make fishing a certainty rather than a hope.

The Magneto—A Shocking Strategy

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We also fished with a telephone magneto. The magneto produced an electric shock when two copper wires were attached to the positive and negative poles on the magneto. Then, we just dropped one wire over each side of the boat and an electric charge rushed out trying to find an object upon which to discharge. This method was rather selective since it sent an electric charge primarily to the bottom dwelling catfish. They were stunned and paralyzed, and slowly floated to the surface where we could catch them in a fish net. The difference between the using a gig and using the magneto was the gig was legal and the magneto could have resulted in a huge fine.

Seining—More for Your Money

Seine fishing is a method of fishing that employs a seine or dragnet. A seine is a fishing net that hangs vertically in the water with its bottom edge held down by weights and its top edge buoyed by floats. Seine nets can be deployed from the shore as a beach seine, or from a boat.

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We periodically used a seine on some of the larger creeks when the water was high. This method required two strong people to pull the seine from each side of the creek until they reached a point shallow enough to cross the creek and then gather the net and remove the trapped fish.

Bottle Fishing—Multiple Large Bobbers

Lakes and river coves provided the quiet location to enter right before dark with a boat and individually pitch ten to fifteen gallon plastic bottles that had been tightly sealed. Each bottle had a ten to fifteen foot length of forty pound fishing line attached to the handles of the bottles. Each line had a lead sinker and a baited hook dangled in the water below the “bobber” bottle that was usually painted a conspicuous color.

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Two options remained. The fisherman or fisherwomen could then leave the bottles overnight and return the next morning to collect the bottles and the fish that had taken the bait. Or, if it was moon lit night, the people could remain in the boat with a lantern and wait for the bottles to begin to “bob” up and down or begin to move wildly wherever the fish pulled. Regardless, over a period of several hours several fish would eat the bait, get a hook stuck in their mouth, and be on the last swim of their lives.

These different fishing strategies practically guaranteed catching fish. We did speak frequently about the legality of using dynamite or a magneto; maybe that is why we talked about it much more than actually doing it. Obviously these options are not recommended today in our mobile world, but they brought a lot of fun to kids and adults that liked to flirt with the one game warden allotted to every few counties.

 

Growing Up in the Midwest


Fishing Worms—The Old Fashioned Way

Just about thirty yards north of the original site of the outhouse was the seepage of a makeshift leech bed from the drains and sewer lines of the house. Dad often sent us there for fishing worms. We knew exactly where to dig. Worms loved the environment around our sewer exit. Halfway down the slope our sewage spilled out of the pipe and on the hillside and then filtered its way into the ground. This formed a moist slightly stinking area covered with rusty sheets of tin roofing. Under the tin the soil could easily be stirred with a pitchfork, and with every turn, to to five fat juicy worms would try to take flight from the sunshine they had never seen in their damp tomb. We could easily gather a half-gallon tin with fifty worms and cover them with the deep black Iowa soil in a few minutes. Of course, my sister was never willing to get her hands dirty collecting the worms so she was the designated pitchfork operator. She was the revealer and I, the gatherer.

My Dad had a better way to collect fishing worms. Now there are dogs and there are dogs. My father claimed to have trained one of the most intelligent of dogs to do amazing things. Stanley Cohen, author of The Intelligence of Dogs, posits there are three aspects to a dog’s intelligence. First, instinctive intelligence is the dog’s ability to perform the task for which they were bred, such as herding, fetching, or guarding. Second, adaptive intelligence is the dog’s capacity to solve problems on its own. Third, obedience intelligence is the capacity to learn skills from a human.

His dog had learned hunting differentiation skills so that if Dad took a rifle and walked toward the forest, his dog would automatically tree squirrels. However, if Dad carried a shotgun, his pet would immediately begin looking for rabbits. But, Dad’s proudest moment came when he left the house with a fishing pole and his pup grabbed a tin can, ran behind the barn, and began to dig for fishing worms. Now that was quite a dog and an amazing Dad. No wonder I have always been comfortable with my imagination and ability to slightly amend the truth.

Dad always said, “There is always a way to catch a fish if you are hungry. It may be by hook or by crook.” And sometimes he resorted to the latter.

On occasion Dad would load three to five poles and a tackle box in our 1935 rusty Ford pickup; and off we would go to the lake at the New London country club. If lucky, the fish would be biting and Dad would never get to wet his line because my sister and I would keep him busy baiting our line and removing the catch. Sometimes, fishing with a pole ended without a bite. Dad must have hated an empty stringer.

You may remember that on one occasion seven of the disciples of Jesus spent the night fishing with no results. As these hungry exhausted men recovered their empty nets on the Sea of Galilee; they headed for the shore for another day. A voice from the shore directed them to fish from the other side of the boat. Probably with some resistance, they followed this directive from an unknown stranger, and dropped their nets into the sea and immediately their nets became so full, they couldn’t haul in the huge catch. I guess you could call that a divine plan B since the disciples later discovered that the directions came from the resurrected Jesus.

Growing Up in the Midwest


Fishing with Dad

Look at where Jesus went to pick people. He didn’t go to the colleges… he got guys off the fishing docks. Jeff Foxworthy

As I glance at the pond from the stile I recall the times I caught fish. So many memories of bass, bullheads, bluegills, carp, catfish, sunfish, and spoonbill catfish…I can’t remember fishing without a result.

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My First Bullhead

The Farm Ponds

From the top of the stile of my childhood home, straight north of me is a pasture where my sheep often grazed, where Dad played catch with me and where he hit pop flies before bedtime, and where we screamed with glee as we flew kites. The small pasture about the size of a football field declines to a ravine that was dammed up to form a small pond about a hundred yards to my left that provided a limited amount of water for frogs to croak and spawn or a place to ice skate in the winter. My sister and I tried to ice skate there by stuffing paper into the toes of our parent’s skates still stored in the garage from the years they lived in Denver, Colorado, during the Second World War while Dad was working in a factory for the war effort.

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Most of the year this shallow pond was covered by algae and served as a supreme breeding ground for mosquitos. The dam also served as a drive for vehicles to pass over the ravine that was formed decades before by erosion. Four larger and much prettier ponds beyond my view provided a source of water for our livestock regardless of where they might be on our farm. Dad stocked all of the ponds with catfish, bass, and bluegill—all of which fought a vicious tug-of-war before I drug them ashore.


My Childhood Understanding of Death

I spent the first fifteen years of my life with the notion that animals died but that people seldom or ever did. Maybe I didn’t want to cope with the unknown. My Dad had a few close calls but somehow avoided being swallowed by quicksand, spelunking, having his skull crushed with an ax, and nearly drowning while noodling (hand fishing) for huge catfish along riverbanks. I didn’t even know that newspapers had an obituary section. My closest pets always eventually died but not members of my family. I don’t remember attending a funeral until I became a pastor.

 

My own death, however, provided me with a lot of sleepless nights. For some reason I feared I would die and be laid to rest on my back. I could only sleep on my side or stomach as a child, and I fretted over an eternity of discomfort lying on my back in a coffin. Thankfully I have learned to sleep on my back as well as come to the realization that the body has no perception of its position in a casket.

 

The first part of the prayer “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep” brought me great comfort. The last part however caused me pause “If I should die before I wake I pray the Lord my soul to take.” Why did my parents remind me to remind myself at bedtime that I might not live to see another day?

 

Other than my own death and the death of animals that I quickly deemed quite natural, death seldom entered my mind. My parents caused my birth. Someone or something will determine my death. Each took or will take a few moments. The in between is what excites me. Over seventy years I have learned not to waste too much time fretting over what will be my last moments. I recognize, however, that my life on this earth lessens with every day. I do find it interested that many people care little what will happen in the eternal after death. Eternal destiny deserves careful thought by all.

One More Story about Our Dog–Happy


Even the Faithful Make Mistakes

The experiences with Happy usually ended with the dog being lauded, but at least once he unintentionally caused my calm father to a fast manifestation of discipline. Dad, Happy, and I had been squirrel hunting. We left our brand new 1953 Oldsmobile 88 on the dirt road east of our house and spent the afternoon following the calls of our dog when he treed a squirrel. We had bagged several squirrels that Grandma Watkins would be so happy to fry for my grandfather.

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Just as we returned to the car we saw a six ducks land on a neighbor’s pond. We knew that Happy would spook the ducks and put him in the car to wait our return. Happy was very angry to be left behind and barked until we could no longer hear him. The attempt to kill the ducks and the return to the car provided no reason for happiness. Instead, Happy had tried to escape through the headliner of our new car. The inside of the car looked someone had hung shreds of crepe paper from the steel retainer bars.

Dad went ballistic. I had never seen my Dad explode. The first new car for Dad in ten years looked like the aftermath of a New Year’s Eve party. He reached into the car and grabbed our dog by the nape of the neck and cast him out of the car and skidding upside down into the ditch. It was a blessing that Happy high-tailed it and left the scene of the crime or we might well have had a family funeral. Happy finally found the nerve to return to the house late that evening, and he was verbally abused for the damage. By then Dad had realized that we had left the poor dog in a situation he could not understand or bear. Within days Happy had regained his pedestal in the family and took his place on his rug in the kitchen near the stove.

Growing Up in the Midwest


More About My Childhood Spirituality

Maybe I was unusual but I always wanted to attend church, read the Bible, do daily devotions, and attend church camp. I was first out of house and first into the church. I believe God lights a spiritual ember in everyone’s heart, but some ignore the fire and gradually it dies for lack of attention by the recipient. I can’t remember when the fire was not there. I have always been drawn to the “spiritual woodpile” for more wood to keep the fire going. There are times I am concerned my embers are dying or scared by the raging flames compelling me to go where I would not normally go. As I age my physical body is gradually weakening and will wither away, my emotions are nearly the same but will soon fray, and my mind still functions well. The mental, physical, and the emotional are temporal. The only eternal link I have to the forever future is my spirituality, my relationship with God.

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My heart aches for the multitudes of people that find the spiritual quest a boring labor. Fortunately, God never gives up on a single person. Scripture states it clearly “Behold I stand at the door and knock, if anyone will hear me and open the door, I will come in and we will dine together” (a paraphrase of Rev. 3:20). I wish everyone could sample the entrees and desserts of the spiritual menu rather than being satisfied only by steak and potatoes of our physical desires.