Tuesday, March 30, 2010


Hauling in an armload of yesterday’s groceries from the bed of the truck, I heard a cry of surprise from my eight year old son, Asa. He was doing his chores, and had made his way into the back yard to feed the dogs. “Dad!” he yelled. “Come here!” I put the groceries down on one of our two front deck chairs, and walked back to him, wondering what had caught his interest.

“Spring snuck up on us!” he said with a big smile. “Daffodils!”

“It sure did,” I said, smiling too.

Dr. Bob Leonard

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Waiting for the Storm

Restless waiting for last Sunday’s storm to hit, I bundled up to take a walk and get a little exercise--both physical and mental. The storm had been predicted to arrive in the middle of the night, until it stalled somewhere over Nebraska, and the National Weather Service changed their prediction to a 6AM arrival in Marion County. Six to twelve inches of snow were expected. I started watching for the storm to arrive about five AM, ready for it to hit hard. Six, seven, eight and nine o’clock came and went with hardly a breath of wind and a tin colored sky apparently stuck in second gear somewhere over Warren County. I headed out the door, and down the BNSF railroad tracks that run through the county. I started just north of Bussey, intending not to be gone very long.

I crossed G71 and walked down Story Street, and soon started slipping and sliding down the hard packed icy gravel road. I found myself looking forward to walking the railroad tracks, where I hoped that I would have more secure footing. About six inches of snow had accumulated, and I learned that the railroad tracks were more difficult to traverse than I had anticipated. Secure footing yes, but it proved heavy going through the snow. I soon settled into a Charlie Chaplinesque duck-walk down the track.

The combination of snow, my relative isolation from humanity, and the fact it was a Sunday morning left me in a blanket of quiet. I heard no voices, no vehicles on roadways, and no airplanes. Only birds. Juncos, sparrows, chickadees crossed my path, and occasionally followed the fence rows that paralleled the tracks. Hawks and crows flew overhead.

Animal tracks were everywhere, a couple of deer had broke a trail through the snow before me, walking between the two rails for a half mile or so. Coyote and raccoon tracks were abundant, and I followed the tracks of a solitary turkey for about the length of a football field.

The color of the sky nearly matched the color of the snow around me, and any color different from the grey/white of the snow and sky stood out like a beacon. The dark color of the tracks, and the brownish grey of the trees and underbrush were also remarkably consistent. It was almost exclusively a two color world--light grey and dark grey. I spotted coyote scat, an occasional curled tan oak leave sitting on top of the snow in the middle of the tracks, and cracked open honey locust pods. Every few hundred feet or so a few kernels of bright yellow corn lay scattered on top of the snow. I tried to pull together a possible sequence of events that could pull a few kernels of corn from a harvested field to the middle of a snow covered railroad track, and failed.

A small glimmer of yellow in the snow caught my eye, and unconsciously my mind reasoned that it was another kernel of corn, until I took another look. It was a slightly different yellow than a corn kernel, and a little smaller. I was puzzled for only a moment. Urine. Mouse pee, I thought. I got down on my hands and knees for a closer look. Sure enough, there were very tiny tracks leading to and away from the yellow puddle. I even spotted a thread of the track where the creature’s tail had left a long tiny rut in the snow. I searched my memory trying to recall which mammal species we have in the area that fall under the common name “mouse,” and soon realized that I knew little about our area’s smallest rodents. As I stood up and walked away, I looked forward to getting home, pulling out my mammal reference works to learn more.

Contemplating mice, I noticed that seven larger mammals--cattle--must have gathered to contemplate me while I was occupied studying mouse pee. I made a brief attempt to speak cow, with no noticeable result.

For awhile the bright splash of a red cardinal daubed at the white landscape before me like a impressionist painter testing a brush. Two does watched me pass from behind a fence row, and I startled a flock of turkeys. They launched into the air more like a fleet of ships setting to sea than birds taking flight. Their wingbeats were heavy, fighting for purchase more like they were flying through gravy than through air.

I continued my trek, rounding bend after bend in the track. An occasional coal seam could be seen in the gouge of a creek bank, and I thought about the people generations ago who wrestled the coal out of the earth in Marion County to fuel the western expansion of peoples across the continent.

The sky grew darker as I finally found a gravel road that I figured would eventually allow me to ratchet myself back towards home. A left, a couple of straight miles, another left, then a right would bring me home, if I reasoned correctly. I passed a few houses, and a couple of abandoned farms. A pickup truck full of people pulled away from a house with a small terrier chasing the truck. They drove by me and we waved at each other in an Iowa kind of way. Friendly, but slow, and careful not to raise our palms too high or flap or rotate our palms too rapidly. Exuberant waving in Iowa is restricted to high school girls.

I watched the truck slow, stop, then turn around. They drove back toward me slowly, then matched my pace. It was what looked to be a middle-aged man and his children. He rolled down the window, and asked if I needed a ride anywhere. I told him no thanks, I was just out for a little walk. They all looked a bit surprised, like they had never seen someone walk down their gravel road before. Not on purpose anyway. Now that I think about it, it probably is a rare event on a road where maybe only half a dozen vehicles or so a day pass by.

I saw a small old cemetery and trudged through the snow to the gate. I pushed it open, and the gate creaked as I went in. A sign on the fence identified it as the Stanford Doud Memorial Cemetery. Only a few headstones stood up through the snow, and even fewer had legible inscriptions. I was wondering how old the cemetery was when I found the nearly illegible marker of Mrs. Doud memorializing her life and death on September 7, 1855. A half dozen other headstones poked up through the snow, asking to be investigated. Wandering around under the still threatening skies, I realized that I was standing in the midst of the remains of some of the early pioneers of Marion County.

The science is clear that Native Americans have been in Marion County for thousands of years. From that perspective, the settlers of European descent have been here for not much more than the blink of an eye, a little over a hundred and fifty years. Yet, seen from the perspective of one human lifespan, it seems forever ago. What were they doing here, I wondered? What were their lives like? Where did they come from? Did they find the better lives they were looking for? That actually, the same better lives that we all are all looking for--that humanity has always sought. I hoped that Mrs. Doud and her family had prospered here, but knew that I would never know. That was a verdict only she could reach, and she wasn’t talking.

I shut the gate behind me as I left, and picked up my pace as I headed towards home. My big chair and family awaited me. I looked to the sky and smiled as snowflakes began to fall.

Dr. Bob Leonard

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Vander Streek Acres

I drove south out of Pella down South Clark Street past Pella Corp, over a bustling Highway 163 and into the country. South Clark turns into 228th Avenue at some invisible point along the way, and the road has a bit of a roller coaster feel to it. A stop sign greets travelers at the bottom of a hill as the undulating terrain eventually yields to the Des Moines River Valley that divides Marion County. T-17 originates here, and a right at the stop sign will bring you to Tracy or Knoxville within a few minutes. The Van Dusseldorp Sand and Gravel quarry lies straight ahead, mining gravel from old Des Moines River channels. I'm wondering how old the gravels are--if they washed down with glacial melt from the late Wisconsin ice sheets from somewhere up in Minnesota or Canada, or if they are older. But that's another story. The pavement ends on 228th and continues as a country road until it dead-ends at the river. I took a left on Lucas before that happened though, and climbed back into the hills again. Quick left and right climbing switchbacks brought me up the hill to grassy pastures punctuated by trees. Beautiful Christmas trees.

Soon a sign showed me that I had arrived. Vander Streek Acres. I got out of my truck under the pines, and heard pounding and conversation coming from a metal building. Paul Vander Streek hadn't seen me arrive, and walked past me to hang up a wreath decorated with a red bow. He saw me, smiled, and walked over and brought me into a metal building where the pounding was occurring. The pounding was the sound of Jayne Nunnikhoven and Nola Vander Streek making wreaths. Soon we were engaged in a conversation about Christmas trees. How Vander Streek Acres started, what kinds of trees are available, how the trees are managed, and how the Vander Streek family found it's way into the George H. W. Bush White House. I was also reminded that real Christmas trees are a green, renewable resource. The setting was serene, and lovely. I wandered around for a few minutes after the interview was over, absorbing the sights and sounds of nature on a warm autumn day. Paul had shared with me the fact that the endangered Indiana bat (Myotis sodalis) and flying squirrels (Glaucomys volans) can be found on the property, and I realized that I had never seen either before. Another time, I guess.

Hopefully in a few days when I bring the kids back to pick out a Christmas tree.

Dr. Bob Leonard

To listen to the interview, go to http://kniakrls.com, click on Radio Plus, and scroll down to In Depth Monday.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Avenue of Flags

Another Veteran's Day is behind us, and Marion County paid due tribute to our veterans. I stopped briefly by both free Hy Vee Breakfasts in Knoxville and Pella, spoke with a few friends, and took a couple of photos. Hundreds of veterans and their spouses were served breakfast, and as I watched them eat and converse with each other, I wished that I had the opportunity to speak with each and every one of them to learn their stories and share them with listeners. Of course, I have spoken to many Marion County veterans during my years at KNIA/KRLS, and have shared some of these stories, but never enough.

Perhaps my favorite Veteran's Day event is raising the flags for the Avenue of Flags at Graceland Cemetery in Knoxville. Over 200 flags are raised, and I have been told raising flags at Graceland has been the custom for over 50 years, with the details of the event's origins unclear.

Perhaps two dozen people of all ages gathered Tuesday, and flags were transferred from storage bins into the back of a pickup truck. A truck with poles slowly circled the cemetery, with volunteers pulling empty poles off of the truck and dropping them next to their stands along the paved paths through Graceland. A second truck followed, and from the bed of this truck Marilyn Miller passed out flags to those following who then attached the flags to the poles and raised them. Having attended for several years now the sounds are comforting, poles clanking to the ground, flag grommets snapping into place, metal sliding against metal, with a background of quiet conversation, and an occasional laugh. Finally, a prayer, gun salute, and taps.

Over the years I have have watched Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, other youth and veterans help each other countless times, raising the flag being a shared experience that transcends generations. It's a moving scene, not to be missed. This year, I watched a veteran of perhaps Korean War vintage and a girl scout raising a flag stumble and start to drop the flag and pole, then together catch it, making sure that the flag didn't touch the ground. He said "Whew, we were lucky that time!" She smiled and laughed, sliding the pole into place. With that flag and pole secure, they walked back to the slowly traveling pickup for another.

Dr. Bob Leonard

Monday, September 7, 2009

The King of Speed

The year was 1969. Richard Nixon was president, the Beatles were at the top of the charts with "Abbey Road," we put a man on the moon, and Mario Andretti was the king of speed. For those to young to remember, America was obsessed with speed and power. It was they heyday of Detroit muscle cars, and every young man dreamed of owning and driving a Chevrolet Corvette, Camaro, a Ford Mustang, a Pontiac GTO, or a Dodge Charger, among other American made cars. And in much of the world, the race that epitomized speed was the Indianapolis 500. It was a much different time then, there was no Internet, there were only three commercial television stations, and our nation's collective attention was even more focused on major sporting events than it is now. With respect to popularity, the Indianapolis 500 was the Superbowl of it's time, everyone watched on television or listened to it on the radio. And Mario Andretti was a superstar. He remains the only driver to have won the Indy 500, the Daytona 500, and the Formula One World Championship.

I was fifteen in 1969, and among my idols were John Wayne, Neil Armstrong, Bart Starr and the rest of the Green Bay Packers, and Mario Andretti. So, you can imagine what went through my mind when I had the opportunity to interview Mario Andretti when he was in Knoxville recently. Andretti was in town to help unveil a tribute sprint car in celebration of his 1969 Indy car--a sprint car that Donny Schatz eventually drove to his fourth straight victory in this year's Nationals race. My youthful fascination with Andretti was gone, but I was still intrigued by the possibility of interviewing one of the greatest drivers and athletes of all time. For a few hours after the invitation to interview him, my mind kept journeying back those 40 years, remembering what those times were like, and how much life has changed.

I arrived at the Sprint Car Hall of Fame and Museum for the interview about a half an hour early, and watched the fans line up for a glimpse of Andretti, hoping for a word or two, a handshake, or an autograph. He arrived, spent some time speaking with fans and the media before the tribute car was to be unveiled. The interview went well, and we spent a considerable portion of it talking about his youth in war-torn Europe. Andretti was born in 1940 in Italy as the war began, and he spent much of his youth in refugee camps. He became a U S citizen as an adult. It is a compelling personal story, and I remember that his immigrant's success story was part of the reason that he drew so much of our attention during his prime racing years.

I was leaning on the rail of the staircase to the second floor of the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame and Museum when the tribute car was unveiled. I was part of a crush of media and fans that filled the lobby and staircase of the museum trying to get a glimpse of what was happening. Andretti was joined by the great drivers Donny Schatz and Tony Stewart for the unveiling, and all three made brief statements to the assembled crowd. When the car was unveiled, I watched all three drivers mill around the car, talking about it, touching it appreciatively, as media flash bulbs lit the room, and a crowd pushed their noses at the glass windows of the museum trying to get a glimpse of what was happening inside.

While Stewart and Schatz were clearly appreciative of the car, Andretti was different. He couldn't take his eyes off of it. He circled it with fascination, an admiring smile on his face. He touched it tenderly, respectfully, his gaze on it as if he were admiring a great work of art, or a beautiful woman. The other drivers walked away from the car to take seats to address questions from the media while Andretti lingered a few more moments, his mind in a whole different world than the rest of us.

Dr. Bob Leonard

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Marion County Fair

The kids and I went to the Marion County Fair over the weekend. Having lived outside of the state for many years, I have a special appreciation for our county fair, as well as for the Iowa State Fair. When I lived in New Mexico, I attended the New Mexico State Fair every year. I remember teasing my wife Annie (a native New Mexican) that the “New Mexico State Fair would rattle around inside the Iowa State Fair like a BB in a rain barrel.” And it’s true. It 's also true that while the New Mexico State Fair is larger than the Marion County Fair, the Marion County Fair has more representatives of every farm animal except perhaps horses.

We wandered the fair entries and admired the handiwork of our fellow residents who chose to share their creativity with us. The animals caught the kids attention as they marveled at the size of the horses and cattle and the playfulness of the goats. The bent over cages and spoke gently to rabbits, and laughed out loud at a rooster they decided to call "Elvis" because of his hairdo.

Of course they rode some rides, and played some games on what I presume is called the midway--I don't know what else to call it, but I thought it a fine midway for a county fair. I was pleased to see some old fashioned games--tossing dimes in dishes brought back some memories, but what really caught my attention was the game where one tosses darts at balloons in an attempt to win a stuffed animal. An old man with a soft voice took my couple of bucks and handed the kids darts. They threw, threw again, and again, as the man continued to hand them darts as the kids continued to fail to pop a balloon. Finally, my son popped a bright blue one, and the man handed him the biggest stuffed animal on display, saying "Congratulations! You win the grand prize!"

My daughter continued to toss darts, to no avail. Finally the man said, "Want me to pop one for you hon?" She nodded, and the man popped a big yellow balloon in the middle of the board, smiled, and asked her to take her pick of stuffed animals. I don't remember which stuffed animal she chose, but I do remember the smile on the man's face as the kids gleefully waved goodbye as we walked away, stuffed animal treasures under their arms.

Dr. Bob Leonard

Tuesday, July 14, 2009


In Pella yesterday an eight year old girl pedaled her bike out onto a street in front of an oncoming car at the intersection of Woodlawn and Hazel. I arrived at the scene shortly after the ambulance, and saw a few people gathered around the front of a gray SUV. The ambulance was parked to the side, and I could see a Pella Police car blocking the street, prohibiting traffic from passing through. Pella PD officer Paul Haase was moving about the accident scene calmly taking notes and photographs. I parked a block or so away, and walked a bit closer, but not too close. Those gathered looked concerned, yet calm, and I felt a bit of relief, hoping that the injuries to the child were not serious. Ambulance personnel were working quickly, but I detected no urgency. Occasionally I caught a glimpse of a small blond head, and saw it nod once. Everything is going to be OK, I thought. The girl was loaded into the ambulance, it drove off slowly up the hill to Pella Regional, and the crowd dispersed. A purple child's bike lay up off of the curb, a helmet close by.

The scene was now quiet, and Officer Haase was sitting in his squad car filling out paperwork, so I walked up to talk.

"She going to be OK?" I asked.

"Yeah," he replied, looking relieved. "Maybe broken arm, that's it. She was wearing a helmet. Could've been lots worse."

I noticed that he had smiled and nodded when he said "helmet."

"Eight years old," he added.

"Any charges?"

"No," he said, shaking his head. "She just pulled out and rode right in front of them--nothing they could've done."

I thanked Officer Haase and walked back to my truck, and pulled away slowly. I turned around and drove back to our studio on the Molengracht a few blocks away, but one thing in my world had now changed. It seemed that everywhere I looked, were kids on bicycles. I had never noticed it before, but Pella is a city full of kids on bicycles. Kids of all sizes and shapes, on bicycles in a rainbow of hues. Swooping in and out, up and down, on side streets, main streets, sidewalks and parks. Bicycles everywhere, and I had never seen it.

Until yesterday.