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The stories on Highway 75

By August 5, 2016 4 Comments


When our kids were just kids, for a time at least the Schaaps–me mostly–toyed with the idea of keeping rabbits out back. When we were shopping, I spotted a hand-painted sign along Highway 75–“Bunnies for sale”–at a farm ten miles or so north out of town, rural Doon maybe. I was looking for Dutch bunnies specifically, those darling belted ones, little miniature things you couldn’t have shot in your garden even if they’d taken out all your lettuce.

That’s why I stopped at that farm–to look at rabbits. But they weren’t Dutch–the rabbits, that is. The woman who came out to talk certainly was–and of the Calvinist variety. Didn’t take long and I left without buying bunnies, the garden-type variety, not a sweetheart like the one up top, and believe me neither was she.

Every time I passed that farm place in the last thirty years I remembered that when I stopped that afternoon, she told me she’d read a book of mine, my very first, in fact, just read it and she recognized me as the author. For a moment, I was thrilled.

But she didn’t like the book and she made it very clear she didn’t. I can’t resurrect the conversation or the shape of her disgust. But believe me, it was a kind of Jeremiad. She was convinced that books like mine were an abomination, so convinced that her assault minced no words.

Honestly, I don’t remember why she was so angry. There isn’t a dime’s worth of sex in that old collection of tales about Dutch immigrants to the rural Midwest. There was maybe a nickel’s worth of foul language, but just about all of it was in the same Dutch language this farm wife, or her husband, might well have spit out loading hogs. But I’ll never forget that moment, not only because she was so almighty unpleasant, but also because all I thought I’d done with that book was tell stories that Dutch-Americans from her own neighborhood might well enjoy. It was the era of Roots, and I thought every tribe and nation–mine especially–wanted tales of their own wooden-shoed Kunte Kintes.

But her brand of Calvinist mind and soul made me a heretic, and she let me know it.

That trip to the woodshed comes back to me every time I pass her farm. I don’t remember her face or her words, but I remember thinking I’d just met the kind of dour Dutch Calvinist caricature the rest of us have to prove we aren’t, someone so convinced of the darkness all around that he or she actually delights in misery.

A week ago I had to read stories at a little Bible league gathering up the road, so I was driving north on Hwy 75 again when a half-mile up the road a car turned out of her driveway, that driveway–a red Firebird or something, sporty thing. I couldn’t help giggling a little, thinking it could be that woman, forty years later, coming out of the gravel driveway of my own bad dreams. The story came back once again, as it always does, less in pain than amusement. She turned north. I was a car behind her.

Another ten miles up the road, she turned off the highway and down the street where I had to turn. I giggled some more. Then she slowed at a church parking lot. I stopped giggling and followed her in. Both of us looked to park in shade. I parked in the back of the lot, she didn’t. I got out of my car, walked past hers and into the church. I didn’t look, didn’t wave, didn’t say hi, didn’t acknowledge her in any way, shape, or form. But it happened: that righteous scourge who came after me, teeth bared, forty years before, was going to be among the Bible leaguers in that church.

Honestly, I think I did well that afternoon behind the mike. Both stories I’d chosen were the right ones for the audience, which was all female and most older even than I am. They laughed at the first one, laughed in a way old Calvinists aren’t supposed to, and were moved at the second. After a hundred such readings, you know when you win and when you don’t, and that hot afternoon up the road, I won.

But when I walked back to the parking lot, I couldn’t help seeing that sporty red car, and I couldn’t help wonder what that woman thought of the speaker she’d pummeled years ago, whether she even remembered chewing me up and spitting me out right there in front my kids and her bunnies on the yard. I wondered whether it pained her to have to listen to that apostate, whether she wondered why on earth that the executive committee ever asked me to read stories anyway.

Maybe she didn’t even remember me. Maybe the whole thing went right over head.

But I could help wonder what she thought or said when, around those tables in that fellowship hall, those women started talking after I left, because I’m guessing that at least one of them might have said, “That Schaap guy can sure read a story. Wasn’t that good?” I’d have loved to hear what she’d said. I’d have paid to hear.

There are no bunnies on the farm there anymore, at least no sign on the highway. None for sale anyway. Her kids are grown, I’m sure, as are ours. We don’t have rabbits either, except the ones in the garden I really ought to shoot.

But here’s my joy. For as long as this old Dutch Calvinist lives, when I go north out of town and spot that farm once again on the west side of Highway 75, rural Doon, there’s a new chapter to the story I’ve never forgetten, and forever after the whole thing will just make me giggle. Praise the Lord.

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.


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