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It was, at the time, just another feature of northwest Iowa culture, I thought, like talk about “a hundred weight,” open gilts, and an endless list of the cattle coming up on the sale barn floor on Friday. “Corn corners,” they were called, a feature of rural life out here I had to get used to, in talk that to me felt a little paranoid, like my father forever arranging toilet paper strips over the public thrones his little boy’s heinie had to visit on vacation.
My mother-in-law gave corn corners frequent reference in not-so-subtle warnings. She didn’t like ’em, even snarled about money-grubbin’ farmers who didn’t give a hoot for neighbors who planted crops as far up to gravel road corners as they could.
On the other hand, if you left a goodly space at the very edge, sort of like this–
you were a good farmer and a good neighbor. In a region as thoroughly Calvinist is this, being a good neighbor was not only nice but biblical.
She gave warning several times before the whole story came out, how once upon a time years ago at the corner just east of the house, two cars, midday, had come roaring into an intersection. Neither suspected the other was coming. Neither slowed. Neither had any sense that pieces of both of those cars would never be put together again.
I knew the name of one of the drivers because his father was a neighbor. But little more than that.
Here’s what the paper said. “A 22-year old soldier, Gerald L. Bajema, of Orange City, is in critical condition at the Grossmann Hospital this morning (10:30 Wednesday) as a result of a collision northeast of Orange City Tuesday afternoon.” The parenthesis are ominous, suggesting things could change.
If you’re wondering, I’m quoting the Alton Democrat of June 3, 1955, and the article says the two other boys, the ones in the other car, “are listed as fair.”
That awful crash occurred at a nameless intersection just down the road from the place my wife once called home. It happened in June, when the corn could not have been much taller than ankle-deep.
The Democrat describes what happened with childlike innocence: “The accident occurred 3 miles north, and 2 miles east of Orange City, at a wide open intersection; the result of two cars arriving at one spot at one time.” It’s a phenomenon country people here know bloody well.
No paper today would say what the Alton Democrat did, June of ’55. “Bajema’s skull is fractured,” it says, and then colors in the scene with details that make the horror more vivid. “Bajema was driving a 1950 Studebaker convertible,” and he was home on furlough. Of course, by the time the paper sent got into mailboxes, the community knew the story anyway.
“Ironically, he was less than a half mile from home at the ill- fated intersection.” Then, The Democrat can’t help but mention the irony, thereby increasing sadness: the boys in the other car “had also almost reached their destination at that point.” That’s the story.
My father-in-law tells me he saw it happen. He’s 97 years old today, and says he remembers being out on the yard, even remembers seeing both cars coming, seemingly oblivious.
My wife, who was seven years old, remembers the sound, as I’m sure her mother did. Her mother died a decade ago now, but it was her mother who brought up “corn corners” in early October, in a refrain I once thought risked obsession. She’d remind her daughter we would come back to Iowa from Arizona. She’d say, “You tell Jim to mind the corn corners,” because she knew I wasn’t a native, and I sure as anything hadn’t heard the sound of that deadly accident. “You remind him,” she’d say because I was a foreigner.
The boy of Bajema, a soldier on leave, died sometime after 10:30 on Wednesday, but the sound of that crash stayed very much alive in the memories of my in-laws.
We live close now and sometimes return home through an intersection just a mile east of the spot where Gerald Leroy Bajema died in that Studebaker convertible one sunny June afternoon. Honestly, I can’t help but resent the farmer whose crops are out there so close to the scene of all that horror and thoughtlessly close to the road. The guy left a corn corner right there a mile from the spot where Bajema was killed, planted his damned crop all the way to the edge of the intersection, leaving people blind.
I went there yesterday with a camera. I wanted to document the guy’s lust for Iowa gold, to write something about how quickly we forget, about how some extra bucks for a bushel of corn seemed wicked.
But he’d cut his corn back, scalped things to where they should be. There’s lots of vision now. I’m not kidding. I should have taken a picture.
I don’t know why he did it–it’s not quite time to harvest corn. He may well have been simply cutting silage, as so many farmers do just about now. Maybe he cut back the corn corner for strictly economic reasons, never gave a thought to who might be coming up the road. I don’t know if he knows the story that happened a mile west 61 years ago and left a mark on families all around. He’s younger, not old enough to have heard the crash.
But I’ll tell you what I’d like to think. I’d like to think that maybe his mother remembered early June of ’55. And if she’s too young, maybe his grandma was the one who didn’t forget. I’d like to think someone remembered.
It’s safer now, that corner. Maybe what was there just became so much silage, but I’d like to think there’s more to those stubble stalks. I’d like to think–I would–that someone remembered.
That’s what I’d really love to believe.
Growing up in the Pacific NW, I never knew about “corn corners”. What an interesting essay you wrote, and, as a history buff, I find the story of the young soldier sad.
Thank you for your wonderful, yet tragic, story, James. The local color that you’ve used artfully in your story illustrates the universal Christian imperative of our Lord’s commandment to, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”