Category Archives: Happiness

Growing Up in the Midwest

Thug Can Be Only Skin Deep

Dad taught me with his thoughtfulness that a woman loves to receive flowers, wants to be pampered, and desires both closeness and space. He may not have bought many flowers during a more than fifty-year romance, but certainly brought Mom a lot of wild ones. Those deep purple winged violets and root beer brown and deep yellow daisies brought a loving pause to Mom’s busy meal preparations for an unpredictable number of friends and workers.

Dad had incredibly good taste in selecting the prettiest woman in the county. He was a small town boy—a very, very ornery one. The following photo makes him look a bit like a thug. But, then, like father like son. The next picture was taken of me taken 28 years later.

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Growing Up in the Midwest

Remembering My Parents

“Parents are the ultimate role models for children. Every word, movement and action has an effect. No other person or outside force has a greater influence on a child than the parent.” Bob Keeshan


I keep getting images of my parents, Robert and Marilee Beryle Fleenor Watkins, as I survey their farm. Children should revere their father and mother. It is the fifth of the Ten Commandments. “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long upon the land which the LORD your God is giving you.” That was always easy for me. Mom and Dad made me proud and thankful for their wisdom, perseverance, faith, and constancy. We had a few conflicts along the way, but their paths willingly became my paths. Seldom did I have any reason to question their parental judgment.

I received ample space to make small decisions as a child. Success brought positive reinforcement and failure was answered with interpretation and instruction. This living through the ups and downs of experience brought mounds of wisdom. Consequences became a master teacher. Every year my parents expanded the parameters for more difficult decisions.

Growing Up in the Midwest

The Beginning

Humble beginnings are not necessarily a limitation. Martin Luther was born a peasant in rural German. He became a theological giant. Abe Lincoln started life in a one-room rural cabin in Kentucky and became one of the most influential men in the United States.


Replica of the Lincoln Home

Millions of other farm boys got their first view of life feeding pigs, riding horses, hiding in a fort of hay bales in a barn. Not every person born humbly ends famous, but most mature with the satisfaction that they made a difference for their family and community. Obviously, the same can be said of people born in affluent circumstances. What were the differences between children in a rural setting and those in cities? This is the story of one rural family.

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My Childhood Home (1946-1963)

My life began in humble but not poor circumstances. I am thankful for that launching platform. I knew little about discretionary spending and never enjoyed using money foolishly. We never hungered, but seldom ate in a restaurant. We had a quaint house, but no extra bedrooms. We argued over bathroom time once we graduated from the galvanized tub. Hospitals were available. We always had a car and a pickup, even though we could often expect a breakdown. Our clothes were clean though simple. Mom accepted hand me downs with grace and thanks. I got glasses when I needed them and then again when I broke them. We were blessed with excellent teachers and public schools. We could afford the hot lunches. I went to the dentist annually but encouraged to not request Novocain because of the expense. We took family vacations but only to locations within a day’s drive. We lived a very simple life.

I didn’t resent having very little money, but I knew before puberty that I wanted something other than farming or living on a lonely lane in Iowa. I had no idea which path I would take away from the farm; nor did I know where the chosen path would lead. I would never have dreamed that I would live in Costa Rica before age 30 and spend most of my life serving the international community in Europe, Asia, South America, Africa and the United States.


The Fairest of the Fairs–And the Winner Is…..The Iowa State Fair!

Competition is good for the soul even among writing friends. I learned a long time ago that when competition is with only one person, it is best to go last. That allows me to know how much I have to exert myself. Unfortunately when some one really good goes before you, it is demoralizing at best and depressing at worse. But since I accepted a challenge with Nancy about the fairest of the state fairs, here we go.

If you have never been to a state fair, you have no idea what you have missed. The Iowa State fair borrows the best ideas from all other states and then uses the creativity and intelligence of the average Iowan and kicks the idea up a few notches. As a consequence, if you can endure the heat and humidity of an Iowa day in the summer, there is something for you.

Whether it is a short-course on agriculture, a life-size sculpture made from butter, an outhouse pushing contest, the challenge of competition in cooking, sewing, woodwork, and the arts, a culinary connoisseur’s haven, more midway thrills than the human stomach can endure, exposure to the best livestock in America, a plethora of country and pop music performers, car races, horse races, and much more, the world flocks to Iowa to see the best.

Farmers in Iowa look at going to the State Fair with as much seriousness as a Moslem considers a visit to Mecca during his/her lifetime. The Iowa fair started in 1854, before the Civil War was fought.

The internationally acclaimed Iowa State Fair is the single largest event in the state of Iowa and one of the oldest and largest agricultural and industrial expositions in the country. Annually attracting more than a million people from all over the world, the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines is Iowa’s great celebration, a salute to the best state in the midwest.

The Iowa State Fair, the inspiration for the original novel State Fair by Iowan Phil Stong, three motion pictures, and Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Broadway musical, is without a doubt the country’s most famous state fair.

National media often ranks the Iowa Fair as one of the top events in the country. In 2004, USA Weekend named the event the #2 choice for summer fun in America, topping New York City’s Times Square, Cedar Point Amusement Park Resort in Ohio, and Disneyland in California.

Midwest Living magazine named the Fair one of the “Top 30 Things Every Midwesterner Should Experience.” The Fair is also the only fair listed in The New York Times best-selling travel book, 1000 Places to See Before You Die, and the subsequent travel book, 1,000 Places to See in the U.S.A. and Canada Before you Die.

Iowa’s Fair is also known as “America’s classic state fair” because the event features all the traditional activities associated with state fairs in a park-like, 450-acre setting (the Fair’s home since 1886). The grounds and the adjoining 160 acres of Campgrounds are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Most of the buildings pre-date World War I; many are priceless examples of American exposition-style architecture.

Throughout its history, the Fair has been a unique institution, serving to educate, inform and entertain people from all walks of life. It is an outstanding agricultural showplace, boasting one of the world’s largest livestock shows. Also home to the largest art show in the state, the Fair showcases visual and performing arts with a variety of special exhibits and activities. Each year, hundreds of manufacturers and industrial representatives clamor to rent coveted exhibit space.

Several ground stages feature more than $500,000 worth of spectacular entertainment free with gate admission. Performers and dynamic track events thrill thousands of fans in the Grandstand (Iowa’s original outdoor concert venue). Nearly 600 exhibitors and concessionaires feature quality merchandise and tasty foods. Hundreds of displays, exhibitions, demonstrations, unique attractions and all kinds of competition – for fun, for ribbons and for the pride of being chosen best – make Iowa’s Fair one of the biggest and greatest.

I attended the 100 anniversary of the fair in 1954 at the age of 9. Approximately 500,000 people attended that year. Unfortunately I was at the Illinois State fair when Roy Rogers appeared in grandstand show in 1959.

Our family’s annual vacations, except for one trip to Colorado, included a week at either the Iowa or Illinois State Fair. We alternated between the two. It was 132 miles to the Illinois fair and 166 to the Iowa fair from our home in southeast Iowa. That was a long trip for little boy. I can remember the effort to spot the golden domes of the capitol building of either Des Moines or Springfield signaling that we were entering the capitol city and hence close to the fair.

Long before most people had RV’s and trailers, the state fairs had acres and acres available for camping. In our case our family on my mother’s side always rented an 18 x 18 foot tent where we all slept on army cots and where the women cooked most of our meals with goods brought from our farms. My folks would buy a one week pass that allowed all family members daily entrance into the fair grounds, just a short walk down the hill from “tent city.”

The food selections have changed radically from then until now. Then we chose carefully between Carmeled Corn, Lemonade, frozen malts, and cotton candy, sweet corn. Now you can buy 70 different foods served on a stick at one of more than 200 food venders. s exotic choices such as deep-fried oreos, double bacon corn dogs, smoked turkey legs, Iowa pork chops, Apple Pie on a Stick, Blooming Onions, Caramel Apples on a Stick, Cheese Curds, crab fritters, Deep-fried Twinkie on-a-stick, funnel cakes, Dutch letters, fried pork tenderloins, and fried peanut butter/jelly sandwiches. This is to just name a few.

Now I need to concede that the Illinois state fair far exceeds the Iowa State Fair in two somewhat significant ways. The first way has to do with their Girlie Side Shows. The Illinois fair had for a few years a girlie show on the midway. I always figured that Illinois had that act while Iowa didn’t because Illinois must have had more of what my mom called “hussies.” Now these were lewd brazzen women that specialized in “personal revelations of their big tops.” Well, that was quite an attraction for my cousin and myself since we had not seen anything naked other than our farm animals. The carney barker would stand on the stage in front of the “hussy tent” and call his redheads, blonds, and brunettes to come out to show a hint of what could be seen inside. Naturally, this was a sideshow only for adult males. But some enterprising young pubescent early teens, namely my cousin and myself, quickly developed a plan to check out this show.

We snuck away in the morning from the campsite with a couple of canvas tarps that were used to cover the back of our pickups on the trip so if we drove in rain our gear would not get wet. Then, prior to the 1 p.m. show we snuck under the back of the tent and inched our way, almost blindly, to a location near the left side of the stage where there were no chairs to block our view. We had cut a couple of peep holes in each canvas so we could sit quietly on the ground near the side of the tent with hopes that everyone would just think that we were just piles of the tarps had been left as a part of the set-up. It was a pretty sweet compact room with a view until midway through the show my cousin got the urge to use the bathroom. And, without telling me, he created a small stream running from our hideouts toward the crowd of distracted men. Yep, there is room for a taraddidle in almost every story.

I also have to admit that the Illinois fair is also the strongest when it comes to the husband calling contest. Here is a sampling:

My grandfather Fleenor was a first class land trader and entrepreneur. And, he taught my cousin the importance of never spending more money than you earned. Over the years we developed a sophisticated strategy of how to make money at the expense of the midway game shysters. There was one money maker that we used as our primary source to triple or quad-drupple our money on a given day. So, we could take the five day allowance of $10 that our parents gave us and turn it into $40 or more. With this we could try the double ferris wheel, the Side Winder, and Halley’s Comet. Rides that would never have fit into the budget our cash-strapped allowance provided by our parents. Here was our major ploy. There was one popular game that resembled a crane with a gravel bucket that dropped when a crank was turned in an effort to scoop up a prize. Unfortunately, the bucket always seemed to drop where was no prize except for where the people wanted to let people win just enough to draw interest from passing crowds. We studied the game and learned that cranes moved methodically inch by inch around the arc from one side to the other. Then, by simple patience and observation, we could watch while others spent there money and then left in discouragement just before the point where we would pay our dime and pull out the gift that the barkers would buy back for a quarter. It proved to be our gateway to a free week of frolic at the fair.

I was fascinated by the barking, cussing, and threats of the sulky drivers as they raced around the track. On one occasion, my father and I were standing along the rail when one driver yelled at the cart and horse in front of him. “Either move over, or I am going to let my horse run right over you!” As they moved ahead and out of hearing, the crazy driver of the faster horse actually ran his cart right up and over the left wheel of the leading driver causing quite an entanglement. Obviously the leading driver was unwilling to make room for the faster driver. I wonder if one–Terry Teeple–was at that race.

Now I could go on to talk about the competition for the largest pumpkin–yep, a 1,323 pumpkin raised in Iowa. Or, I could talk about the 1,335 pound boar. I guess you could say he would be capable to “litter” up the place.

I could go on to write about the years when our attention turned from the midway and the observation of farm animals to the exploration the beautiful 4-H girls pranced around showing their prize figures. Obviously, the fair got better and better until one of those girls convinced me to say “I do.” And, that was the end of my escapades at the fair.

So, let me close with the following evaluation of State Fairs. After retiring Jim Koppel from Moline, IL, visited all 50 of the state fairs. He used 100 criteria in making his decision.  And here is a list of his top five.  #1  The Iowa State Fair       #2   Alaska    #3   New York State Fair    #4  Minnesota   #5   Texas State Fair.  Opps.  I am saddened to report that the Illinois State Fair did not make his list.  An autobiographical “taraddidle” by Bob Watkins

“Most People Are Wimps These Days!”

Christmas Taradiddle 2017
“Most People Are Wimps These Days!”
Sometime between Thanksgiving and January 5, thousands and thousands of North American families will pack into their warm cars and drive a few miles to select their spruce, pine, or fir tree at the Boy Scouts or Lion’s Club rented parking lot. Hundreds of nearly perfect trees will be propped up on makeshift stands for easy selection. These recently cut trees release a pine odor that is unique to Christmas. Parents and grandparents will plop down $50-$150 for a tree that will hold its needles for three to four weeks. What a bunch of wimps! For us old timers, such a process is markedly anti-climatic and anti-traditional. For the others, the Christmas holiday ain’t what it ought or could be.
I lived in the early 1950’s when men were men, and boys were men. Christmas was notably dufferent back then because of the location, the availability, and the cost of trees. During my childhood, the first Saturday of December was marked on our 16 x 24 inch Burlington Bank and Trust calendar. The free gift from the bank provided adequate space for families to record all important events—whether the weaning of calves, the God’s Portion Sale of the local Church, or a host of birthdays and anniversaries. Few families failed to have a date calendar hanging somewhere in their kitchen. Mom always scribbled “Falling and Decoration of the Christmas Tree” in the area under the first Saturday after Thanksgiving. No other activities could “trump” this family tradition.
November was reserved in part to verbalizing our dreams of how we would find something even prettier than previous years.
We would go over as many creeks as necessary to look for the “perfect” tree. An artificial tree was not an option. My Dad, my sister, and I made the foray while Mom stayed home making a variety of cookies and keeping the chocolate and/or spiced tea hot for our undetermined return to the home fires.Temperatures in southeast Iowa usually hovered close to or below freezing during December, and snow often covered the ground. There was about a 35% chance of snow in early December according to historical weather records. My sweet dishwater blond sister was three years older than I. No one could call her a tomboy. In fact, I always thought of her as a bit prissy. So, while I would dress in five buckle overshoes, overalls, a thick-hooded wool coat, gloves, and a pilot cap. Carolyn would wear her loose top rubber boots, snow pants, fuzzy white coat, mittens, and a beret with earmuffs.
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Our annual hunts had many similarities year after year. My mother scanned the countryside frequently throughout the year trying to spy an ideal tree. Unfortunately, we could only consider wild cedars since spruce, fir and pine were not native to Iowa. These “nicely-shaped” trees could only be spotted in the yards of other families. I would have snuck in during the night to steal such a tree, but my legalistic Mom vetoed that idea. Christmas tree farms were non-existent. The wild cedar trees belonged to the general populace–first come, first serve. Unlike in the deep south of United States, Iowa cedars were seldom perfectly shaped; instead, they were scraggly and never a deep green. Unless, considerable rain fell during the summer, some of the boughs were often more tan than green. Consequently, it took a lot of walking and patience to find an acceptable tree. Usually, we would have to go deep into the timber to find an area that had not been picked clean by other families on the prowl.
If we had not spotted a tree that was close to the road during the summer and fall, Dad would hook our B John Deere to a hay wagon—load a saw and a double bitted ax, his two energetic children on the wagon along with one or two dogs, and head out for an area of the farm that he deemed most hopeful. Every thing usually went really well as long as we rode toward the timber toward the back of the farm on the wagon.
The problems began when we had to leave the wagon. We walked when we reached a point on the farm where the tractor and wagon could not proceed because of creeks or fences. Carolyn’s boots were inadequate to keep the snow from falling inside and eventually causing her to cry about her feet getting cold. I suspect the “few” snowballs I threw at her caused some additional discomfort. Simultaneously, our hands would chill to near freezing. And both my sister and I would beg Dad to build a fire. That never happened.
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My sister, though an above average athlete, never perfected the dynamics of climbing over a barbed-wire fence. She approached the effort as a combination of climbing Mt. Everest and escaping over a prison wall with three strings of barbed wire at the top.
I would step onto the second barbed wire with my right foot while holding on to a fence post, quickly step two wires higher with the left foot, then swing my long right leg over the top wire without touching, balance there, put my weight on the right leg, swing over the left leg and attempt to jump to a perfect landing on the other side of the fence. More often than not, I landed on my bottom in the snow.
Carolyn, on the other hand, had much shorter legs, less balance and limited agility. (At least that is the way I perceived it.) Plus, the fear factor doomed her to failure before she began. She grabbed the barbed wire to begin the ascent and immediately got her mittens tangled in a barb. The thorn-like barb would puncture her flesh. She would fall back to the ground and the fussing would begin, followed by “I can’t do this!”
Dad would tenderly urge, “You need to learn to do it sometime. Try again.” The next effort usually resulted in her reaching one wire higher up the obstacle when again she would stick herself with one or more barbs, and she would climb back down, pouting pathetically.
Finally, she would reach the top of the fence, get a straddle the fence and then her foot would slip off one or other side and she would lean precariously while screaming “HELP” wildly with the top wire firmly sinking its barbs into the insides of her legs. Dad would rescue his sweet little angel and I would get up out of the snow where I had been rolling in laughter.
But, sooner or later, we would find a candidate tree, and a decision had to be made by unanimous vote. I chose to endure a bit of discomfort (often two or three hours) in order to find a tree that was greener, balanced, and definitely tall enough to reach the ceiling of the living room. I can’t remember a single year that Dad didn’t have to fall the tree in the timber and then cut off a few feet at our house because we had insisted on a tree that was a couple of feet too high.
Sooner rather than later, Carolyn was voting yes to every tree we considered.
Dad would then saw down the tree and we would let Carolyn yell “timber” to help her forget her wounds. The return to the tractor and wagon resulted in a few more outcries of helplessness. And, then, when we reached the tractor, we would take turns warming our hands through our gloves on the muffler of the tractor. I remember so well the care that had to be taken to get our gloves warm enough to remove the chill but no so hot as to burn our hands.
Home always looked and felt so good. Mom had warm molasses cookies and piping hot chocolate ready for us before we would size and decorate the tree. And, since Carolyn had been given the task to yell, “Timber,” in her deepest voice; as the youngest child, I was allowed to finalize the tree by placing the angel.
From that moment, the attention shifted from the Christmas tree to guesses about what we would find under it on the Christmas morning.