Iowa Writes

ZACHARY MICHAEL JACK
To Its Source: An Iowa Rivers Memoir


To be a boy growing up on the banks of a muddy midwestern river is to know both fear and fascination. In his all but forgotten 1911 account of canoeing the Missouri from Montana to Iowa, The River and I, then Nebraska poet laureate John Neihardt recalls his first exposure to the River as a six-year-old whippersnapper alongside his father: "There was a dreadful fascination about it," he writes, "the fascination of all huge and irresistible things."
              A St. Louis native like T.S. Eliot, who once called the Mississippi a "strong, brown god," essayist Eddie Harris likewise opens his travelogue Mississippi Solo with a memory of "sins and salvation, dreams and adventures, and destiny" before concluding, "the river in my memory flows brown and heavy and slow, seemingly lazy but always busy with barges and tugs, always working—like my father—always traveling, always awesome and intimidating."

                                                    ***

When I first came toe to toe with a river of my own, I faced it alone. My mother had temporarily separated from our father on the farm, my sister and I in tow. She rented the cheapest roof over our heads she could find, a dive along the Iowa River on Sand Road. In those days Sand Road was an enclave for the poor, the marginal, and the displaced—on our branch there was a convicted felon, a surfeit of lesbians, a sprinkling of 60s long-hairs, and a few hard-luck families like ours cash-renting trailer lots.
              My classmates at Longfellow Elementary in town had stay-at-home, chocolate chip cookie-baking moms and picket fences that kept in frisky golden retrievers, fences we turned into deep centerfield for backyard home run derbies. By contrast, our backyard featured its own, Mom-designated, too literal warning track: a three foot wide no man's land skirting the swollen Iowa River.
              When times were good, we ate grilled cheese and coleslaw together as a family, all of us, on the porch at Sutliff Bar and Grill in Sutliff, Iowa, an unincorporated town hard on the banks of the Cedar River near the farm. When times were bad, we escaped via the Sutliff Bridge en route to Iowa City, holding our breath as the tires of our oversized Olds 88 thwacked the bridge's loose wood planks like a vibraphone.

                                                    ***

To be a boy growing up on the banks of a muddy midwestern river is to know both fear and fascination. In his all but forgotten 1911 account of canoeing the Missouri from Montana to Iowa, The River and I, then Nebraska poet laureate John Neihardt recalls his first exposure to the River as a six-year-old whippersnapper alongside his father: "There was a dreadful fascination about it," he writes, "the fascination of all huge and irresistible things."
              A St. Louis native like T.S. Eliot, who once called the Mississippi a "strong, brown god," essayist Eddie Harris likewise opens his travelogue Mississippi Solo with a memory of "sins and salvation, dreams and adventures, and destiny" before concluding, "the river in my memory flows brown and heavy and slow, seemingly lazy but always busy with barges and tugs, always working—like my father—always traveling, always awesome and intimidating."

                                                    ***

When I first came toe to toe with a river of my own, I faced it alone. My mother had temporarily separated from our father on the farm, my sister and I in tow. She rented the cheapest roof over our heads she could find, a dive along the Iowa River on Sand Road. In those days Sand Road was an enclave for the poor, the marginal, and the displaced—on our branch there was a convicted felon, a surfeit of lesbians, a sprinkling of 60s long-hairs, and a few hard-luck families like ours cash-renting trailer lots.
              My classmates at Longfellow Elementary in town had stay-at-home, chocolate chip cookie-baking moms and picket fences that kept in frisky golden retrievers, fences we turned into deep centerfield for backyard home run derbies. By contrast, our backyard featured its own, Mom-designated, too literal warning track: a three foot wide no man's land skirting the swollen Iowa River.
              When times were good, we ate grilled cheese and coleslaw together as a family, all of us, on the porch at Sutliff Bar and Grill in Sutliff, Iowa, an unincorporated town hard on the banks of the Cedar River near the farm. When times were bad, we escaped via the Sutliff Bridge en route to Iowa City, holding our breath as the tires of our oversized Olds 88 thwacked the bridge's loose wood planks like a vibraphone.

                                                    ***

This fall I have returned to live in my home state, to Lost Nation, Iowa, a woebegone agrarian town where the grain elevator and redbrick schoolhouse dominate the skyline and the inky Wapsipinicon River greases the woody sloughs south of town. I've come here to be closer to my father and the rest of the family hanging on to the farm in nearby Mechanicsville. I've come here because of a name, Lost Nation—wistfulness personified, like naming a town Last Stand or WouldaCouldaShoulda.
            Unmarried, childless, and staring down the barrel of my mid thirties, I do not know where I am going, and, furthermore, I do not know how I am going to get there. Sweetly, I have become a metaphor incarnate, a lost nation made flesh.
            In Cratylus Plato attributes the Doctrine of Flux and the Identity of Opposites to the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, writing, "Heraclitus, I believe, says that all things go and nothing stays, and comparing existence to the flow of a river, he says you could not step twice into the same river." Was it not a mind-blowing paradox, Plato and Aristotle wondered, that the river could be the same and yet Other? If a man could never dip his foot in the same river twice, was it because he was not the same man, because these were not the same waters, or because this was not the same river?

                                                    ***

True, I have traced the paths of many of the world's most romantic rivers: Dublin's Liffey, London's Thames, France's Seine. In the States, I have rafted waterways from the Adirondacks to the Ozarks. In Mexico I have floated remote Lake Patzcuaro, believed by its people to be the very center of the world, the axis mundi.
            Each time, I set myself adrift in my father's perilous world, a world of wind and weather, of unanticipated calamity—the world of an Iowa farmer who doubled as a sailor and scuba diver. In this patriarchal milieu, I am hapless at best, beset by fears—a poor swimmer though an otherwise good athlete. Tackling the water, I am the equivalent of every Iowa schoolboy alone on the hard courts, working his weak hand, going to his left, attempting to exercise, exorcise, the weakness.
            Contemplating his own canoe trip down the Mississippi, Eddie Harris writes: "I stand at that magical age, thirty, when a man stops to take stock of his life and he reflects on all the young man's dreams that won't come true. No climbs up Everest, no try-out with the Yankees, no great American novel." The quintessential American male, Harris seems to say, dreams big, too big, so big he forgets what's right under his nose.
            Strapping on the life vest and clambering into my kayak, I am determined not to be that guy. In my own backyard waits Iowa's fabled Wapsipinicon, the river named in the Ojibwe for the homely wild artichoke. A river barely dammed. A river a man can travel for miles and not see a soul save his own.

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About Iowa Writes

Since 2006, Iowa Writes has featured the work of Iowa-identified writers (whether they have Iowa roots or live here now) and work published by Iowa journals and publishers on The Daily Palette. Iowa Writes features poetry, fiction, or nonfiction twice a week on the Palette.

In November of 2008, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated Iowa City, Iowa, the world's third City of Literature, making the community part of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network.

Iowa City has joined Edinburgh, Scotland and Melbourne, Australia as UNESCO Cities of Literature.

Find out more about submitting by contacting iowa-writes@uiowa.edu


ZACHARY MICHAEL JACK

A Mechanicsville native and graduate of Iowa City High and Iowa State University, Zachary Michael Jack worked as an Iowa public librarian and newspaper section editor before becoming a college professor. The author or editor of more than a half dozen books, Jack's most recent edited anthology, Letters to a Young Iowan, collects the voices of more than 100 Iowa luminaries.

This page was first displayed
on November 05, 2007

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