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.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

A Phone Call from Paul

State Senate Minority Leader Paul McKinley (R Chariton) called this morning. Paul is Senator for District 36, which includes Marion County. I was working in our Pella studio, and when my cell phone rang and I saw the name “Paul McKinley” flash on the screen, I knew why he was calling. He called to announce that he is “aggressively exploring a run for Governor.” I have heard rumors that Paul might be thinking about running for months, and when he stopped by our Knoxville studios a couple of weeks ago for an interview I asked him about the possibility of a run, and he told me (and eventually our listeners) that he was undecided, but “keeping all options open.” As Paul was leaving the studio that day, I requested that if he hadn’t made any promises to other media outlets to please call KNIA KRLS first if he decided to run. He smiled and nodded at the time, and I’m pleased to report that the Senator remembered that promise when he called this morning—and that he reminded me of it.

Regular listeners know that both Paul and Representative Jim Van Engelenhoven (R-Pella) join our Knoxville and Pella News Directors in weekly Let’s Talk Pella and Let’s Talk Knoxville news programs when the legislature is in session.

So it’s official. Paul McKinley has taken the official first step in a run for Governor. Based upon our conversation, it’s clear that he has put much thought in his decision, and he brings lots to the table entering the race—his background in manufacturing, business, knowledge of agriculture and education, among other issues. He also knows Marion County and Iowa well.

Of course his likely opponents in the Republican primary also have much to offer to many potential constituents—both those candidates who have declared, and likely some who have not. Today Paul joined Bob Vander Plaats of Sioux City, state Rep. Christopher Rants also of Sioux City and Cedar Rapids businessman Christian Fong in announcing that they will be or have filed papers. And then there is the likely Democratic nominee, Governor Chet Culver. As all Iowans know, it is difficult to defeat a sitting Governor. Regardless, it should be an exciting primary and subsequent general election.

Party politics aside, I believe that the election is going to be particularly interesting for everyone in Marion County simply because we have a local “horse” in the race. Of course, we at KNIA KRLS will not favor one candidate or party over another. I have already extended interview invitations to two of the other three likely Republican candidates (the last invitation will be extended as soon as I finish writing this), as well as Governor Culver. I hope for the news staff at KNIA KRLS to be able to interview all candidates on our Let’s Talk and In Depth programs—hopefully more than once—so we can help our listeners have the information they need to cast a responsible vote for the candidate that they feel will best represent the people of the state of Iowa.

The power of small market radio will likely make a big difference in this race, and I hope that all of the candidates recognize this. If I remember correctly, I interviewed a total of nine presidential candidates during last year’s election. Only the campaigns of two candidates declined the interview opportunity I offered them—now Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Senator John McCain. A staffer on McCain’s campaign told me that Senator McClain “didn’t do small market radio.”

I interviewed President Barack Obama twice.

Dr. Bob Leonard

Photo: Paul McKinley at the Bussey Fourth of July Parade, 2009

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Proud to be an Iowan: The 2009 Iowa Studies Conference

Did you know that all of Marion County lies on a geological feature called the Southern Iowa Drift Plain? It was shaped fundamentally by glacial deposits left over 500,000 years ago. Our hilltops are what remains of those deposits, and our valleys are the product of erosion. Some of that erosion comes from the melting waters of the subsequent glacial advance of the Wisconsin Ice Sheet, which came as far south as Des Moines about 14,000 years ago. In your imagination, take our highest hills, add a few feet of windblown sediment on top, and then fill in all of our valleys with earth. The flat plain that results is what the geological landscape of Marion County looked like several hundred thousand years ago, long before people arrived.

Friday I went to the 2009 Iowa Studies Conference at DMACC in Ankeny. Carolyn Formanek, Tom Schmeh (co-chairs of the Knoxville Historic Preservation Commission) and I joined over three hundred Iowans who had gathered to learn about and share their knowledge of Iowa (Tom was also a presenter. With Larry Ball, Jr. he presented a history of the Des Moines Speedway 1915-1916). The lesson I learned about the geological features of Marion County came from a presentation made by Ankeny High Social Studies teacher Taylor Anderson. A dynamic speaker, he presented aspects of his high school course called "Why Iowa?" Topics his class address include Iowa geography, Native Americans, explorers, settlers, the growth of cities, agriculture, industry, recreation, tourism, and the contributions Iowa and Iowans have made to the world.

Anderson brought sample materials to demonstrate student work, and Marion residents will be pleased to learn that Knoxville and Pella are seen as important Iowa places by Ankeny students, with mentions of the Knoxville Raceway, Elk Rock State Park, Slideways Karting Center, the Royal Amsterdam Hotel, Tulip Time, the Scholte House, Wild Rose Pastures and the Pella Opera House.

Taylor Anderson is proud to be an Iowan, believes that we as Iowans have lots to be proud of, and that we need to share this with the children of Iowa so they see home as a good place to stay and make contributions to when they become adults.

There were dozens of papers presented at the conference, including topics on Iowa military history, ideas for educators, historical archives (including radio), President Herbert Hoover, the homicides at Villisca in 1912, Iowa's Native Americans, immigration, the Little Brown Church in the Vale, how to learn from cemeteries, the women's suffrage movement, significant poets, Frank Gotch--the great Iowa wrestler, Chiefs Keokuk and Black Hawk, the underground railroad, among many others.

One of the highlights of the conference was the keynote speech by a dear friend of mine, Zachary Michael Jack, a fourth generation Iowan whose family owns a century farm in eastern Iowa. Zachary loves Iowa, and has compiled a new book of historical and literary readings titled Iowa: The Definitive Collection, Classic and Contemporary Readings by Iowans about Iowa. It's a thick book, a heavy book, with over 500 pages that celebrate our past and who we are today. World famous sons and daughters of Iowa join those long forgotten to tell our story. I've only barely opened the book, but have been pulled in--not into a dull history book--but into a lively tale that should be told and told again.

As I write this, a fresh pot of coffee is brewing. It's early Sunday morning, and the my family is beginning to stir. It's a comfortable time, as the sun rises very slowly into a day that will pass quickly. In a moment, I will shut off the computer and settle into my chair, and open Zach's thick new book on my lap, settle in, take a sip of coffee, and read. To learn more about us.

That moment is now.

Dr. Bob Leonard

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Dixie Gebhardt, Generals "Black Jack" Pershing, George S. Patton, and Pancho Villa

Today is Iowa State Flag Day. As most people from Marion County know, the Iowa State Flag was designed by Dixie Gebhardt of Knoxville. But what does the Iowa State Flag and designer Dixie Gebhardt have to do with Generals Patton, Pershing, and the Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa?

On the eve of World War I, the United States engaged in skirmishes along the US border with Mexican troops as well as Pancho Villa's army. Officially known as the Mexican Expedition, it was more widely known as the Pancho Villa Expedition, or the Punitive Expedition. It began with Pancho Villa's raid on the small town of Columbus, New Mexico on March 9, 1916. Pancho Villa was leading an uprising against the Mexican Government. Apparently a local merchant in Columbus, New Mexico, was supplying weapons and other supplies to Villa and his army when that relationship soured. At 4:17 AM that morning Villa and his troops attacked the town, located about 3 miles north of the American/Mexican Border. The U.S 13th Regiment based in Fort Bliss Texas had an outpost in Columbus at Camp Furlong. Ten American civilians and eight soldiers were killed in the raid, and the town was burned. Villa escaped back across the Mexican border with horses, mules, machine guns, ammunition, and other merchandise, but suffered severe losses--more than 60 of his troops died in battle.

On March 15, President Woodrow Wilson ordered General John J. Pershing into Mexico with 10,000 men after Villa. Interestingly, the first airplane used in war, a Curtiss JN-4 was deployed for reconnaissance. Lieutenant George S. Patton led a raid on a small community, reportedly killing several of Villa's men personally, and this is where it is also rumored that he came into the habit of carving notches on his revolvers. While Pershing's forces never found Villa, they did engage Mexican Federal troops (likely to the delight of Villa, who was fleeing both armies). The US 7th Calvary and the African-American 10th Calvary (among the legendary "Buffalo Soldiers") met the Mexican army in the Battle of Carrizal, Chihuahua. Most forces were withdrawn in 1917, and the mission has never been considered a success. The battle at Carrizal is considered a loss, 50 Americans died, and 23 were captured. Historians speculate that threats from Germany in Europe at this same time resulted in a diplomatic settlement with Mexico, and the conflict did not escalate. Pershing wrote that he had been "outwitted and out-bluffed at every turn," and wrote "when the true history is written, it will not be a very inspiring chapter for school children, or even grownups to contemplate."

But what does this have to do with Knoxville's Dixie Gebhardt and the Iowa State flag?

Troops from Iowa served in the Mexican Expedition under Pershing's command. History tells us that they wished to serve under a regimental banner that represented their home state. In response to this request, the Iowa Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution held a design contest for the flag, Gebhardt's design won, and presumably our Iowa troops chased Villa, and engaged the Mexican Federal Army under this banner. The Iowa Legislature adopted the design as the official State Flag on March 29, 1921. Gebhardt wrote that "Iowa's banner should embrace the history of its domain from the time of its occupation by the Indians to discovery by the French and purchase from Napoleon by Jefferson, to its admission into the Union, down to the present . . . in a design so simple that school children and adults can recognize its symbolism and know that it meant Iowa."

The design is patterned after the blue, white and red flag of France, with the blue symbolizing loyalty, the white purity, and the red courage. Our national symbol, the eagle, carries a blue streamer on which is our state motto, "Our liberties we prize and our rights we will maintain." By legislative decree, we celebrate Iowa Flag day every March 29.

I lived in New Mexico, and worked for many years in Mexico, and I have been to Columbus, New Mexico, dozens of times, and have enjoyed wandering through the State Park where Camp Furlong once was, and presumably where Iowa soldiers were stationed. A number of years ago I found myself in Carrizal, Mexico during the celebration they have in July of their victory over our forces in the Battle of Carrizal. Carrizal is a small town, with maybe 100 residents, but that day hundreds of people from miles around gathered for speeches, fireworks, dances, and an approximately 50 gun salute by then current soldiers in the Mexican army in honor of their fallen comrades. The celebration began mid-morning under a severe desert sun, and lasted late into the night. The celebration is held every year.

Meanwhile, back at home, few remember our fallen in the Battle of Carrizal, or even the Mexican Expedition. Celebrations of defeats is not a custom we embrace. We do remember, however faintly, Dixie Gebhardt and at least part of the story behind the flag of our state under which the Iowa soldiers fought. A painting of her and our flag can be found in the Marion County Courthouse, as can a display of the original flag as it was designed. A memorial is on the courthouse lawn, as is one in the lawn of her former home just west of the Knoxville Public Library.

One warm morning a couple of weeks ago, my friend Ralph Porter and I walked over to the memorial on the courthouse lawn. Ralph is old enough to have known Dixie Gebhardt personally, and as he told me a few stories about her, I realized that Dixie Gebhardt and the Battle of Carrizal is only one handshake distant into the past. As we left the memorial, Ralph pointed out that the Iowa Flag was missing from the pole at her memorial.

While Iowa Flag Day passes without speeches, fireworks, dances, and gun salutes, this year it hasn't passed unobserved. The Knoxville Historic Preservation Commission passed out line drawings of the Flag for elementary school students to color, along with a CD and brief text that teachers used to prepare a lesson. Carolyn Formanek with the Historic Preservation Commission tells me that more than 300 colored Iowa State Flags were returned, and that our teachers were able to present a lesson on the flag and it's importance to the community that hopefully students will be able to pass on to their children when the time comes. Early this coming week these colored Iowa State flags will be on display in local businesses.

While I don't know how many Iowans served in the Mexican Campaign, I do know that enough of them did that they requested a banner representing our state under which they could serve. And Knoxville's Dixie Gebhardt gave them one. While victory belongs to the Mexicans, it is no small consolation that it is likely that General Patton learned some lessons in the Chihuahua desert with Iowa troops at his side that served him and our forces well in our victory in Europe in World War II.

Dr. Bob Leonard

My acknowledgments to Wikipedia entries on the Mexican Exhibition, Black Jack Pershing, and the Battle of Carrizal, and to the Iowa State code for information on Iowa Flag Day.

Monday, March 23, 2009

A Good Rainy Day

Dawn seemed to come late this morning, as gray clouds blocked the sun and a gentle rain fell. While I know that most of us would have preferred a sunny day, the cloudy skies and rain were likely a welcome sight to area firefighters. A minimum of 28 grass fires in the past seven days in Marion County have made for a busy week for the dedicated men and women—mostly volunteers—who fight our fires.

Sunday afternoon a tiny flame or ember that escaped a burning trash barrel set fire to approximately 20 acres of land west of Knoxville on McGregor. That only 20 acres burned is a tribute to our area firefighters. Just outside of Knoxville, McGregor is in the fire territory assigned to the Knoxville Township Rural Fire Department. Shortly after arriving at the scene, crew leaders determined that they needed help. The fire was about to reach hundreds of acres of land managed by the Corp of Engineers that serve as a buffer against floodwaters when Lake Red Rock reaches capacity. These waters back up into the Whitebreast drainage and its grassy shores, and with recent dry weather the grassland could have been ablaze quickly, with the possibility of miles of the southern shore of Lake Red Rock aflame.

I can imagine the feelings of the person who accidentally set the fire, just as it slipped from their grasp. Pure panic. Perhaps they were simply burning the Saturday trash as they did every week, and were watching it carefully, when the wind picked up and a bit of paper blew away, setting the nearby grass on fire. Very likely for a moment they thought they had the fire under control, fearfully running and stomping at the little pyre as it quickly grew, then finally chasing it desperation as it fled with the wind. Or maybe they set the trash in the barrel on fire, like they had done a thousand times before, and then retreated inside and upstairs to wash dishes at the kitchen sink, with plans to look out at the burning barrel below as the trash slowly burned--just to be safe. And then, with their hands in sudsy dishwater, they spied the fire leap from the barrel, caress the grass, then rise, and sprint to the nearby Whitebreast grasslands. Perhaps they yelled for help, ran outside, and grabbed the hose to turn it on only to realize that they were too late. The hose didn't stretch that far. Either way, and perhaps recognizing that there was no plausible deniability as to who started the fire, dialed 911.

From here, our dispatch team at the Marion County Law Enforcement Center paged out the Knoxville Township Rural Fire Department, and they quickly arrived, perhaps their fifth or sixth fire of the weekend. Tired, and thinking of their families and the conversations, chores, and other tasks left incomplete or unattended, they raced through the streets in their red fire trucks, sirens wailing and flashing lights blazing to the fire scene. As they arrived, I'm sure someone was out in front of the house, pointing the way for our firefighters to pass through the yards safely, even though the smoke from the fire could be seen for miles. Perhaps the person who started the fire mouthed "I'm sorry" as the firefighters passed, or gave an apologetic shrug as they pointed the way. Either way, knowing many of our firefighters as I do, I suspect that they were either expressionless, taking in the fire scene in front of them, or nodded and smiled as they passed.

KNIA KRLS Knoxville News Director Alex Rusciano and I were there, watching as Knoxville Rural FD fought the fire, soon with help from Knoxville, Pleasantville and Columbia Fire Departments. Marion County Sheriff's Deputies positioned themselves where they could watch the fire engines and pumpers abandoned on the street, as the quicker grass trucks with their small water tanks and hoses were more efficient fire fighting equipment on the sloping terrain. Our firefighters worked with speed and efficiency, much to the appreciation of the family in whose back yard the fire was started. The family stood on a deck behind the house, quietly cheering the firefighters on as they took photographs and shot video. Scanning their faces, I tried to figure out who had started the fire, but soon realized my powers of perception were insufficient, and I felt it rude to ask.

As we watched, grass trucks darted around the field, returning to refuel from tankers and fire engines as needed, then roared back into action, chewing up the landscape as their tires spun spitting dirt, burnt grass, and charcoal. After about an hour of hard work, and when it appeared that the fire was under control, and that the southern shore of Lake Red Rock was saved, the grass trucks moved more slowly, checking hot spots to make sure that nothing would re-ignite.

Once the scene was secure, the firefighters gathered their gear, climbed into their trucks, and with the Sheriff's deputies they formed a firefighting conga line, engines, tankers, grass trucks and sheriff's cars slowly driving down the street, towards home, family and tasks unfinished. I took up the rear, lagging behind, and saw the family who started the fire waving thanks at the crews, even if they didn't.

Dr. Bob Leonard

PHOTO: Austin Kingery (in truck) and Brian Schlotterback check hot spots.

Friday, March 20, 2009

The First Day of Spring

The first day of spring always brings such joy. Today was a little cool in Marion County (about 50 degrees mid-day), a little overcast, but signs of spring were everywhere. Technically, the day is the vernal equinox, where the earth’s axis is oriented such that the sun is directly above the equator. The word vernal is from the Latin word ver for spring. Equinox is derived from the Latin words aequus (equal) and nox (night), which refers to the fact that the night and day are about the same length.

I managed to find a bit of time just after lunch for my son and I to take a 45 minute or so walk on the Karr Trail just below the Cordova Tower at Lake Red Rock. What a treasure the trail is! A flock of red-winged blackbirds greeted us as we parked at the trailhead. The trail winds through rolling hills at the margin of the lake, and is covered with old oak/hickory woodland, with several interesting wooden bridges serving as fun resting points along the way. Several cardinals sang for us, accompanied by chickadees. My son is seven, so we spent most of our time discussing hickory nuts, snails, fossils, aliens and the physics of time travel.

When we neared midpoint of the trail we heard laughing ahead. Down on the beach were two boys and two girls--late teens probably. The boys were leaping off of rocks, barefooted, into the sand while the girls sat on driftwood laughing at their antics. They all smiled and waved at us as we neared, and the boys started acting even more silly, causing the girls to hold their sides with laughter as the sun broke through.

I smiled, and we waved back. Ah, spring is here…

Dr. Bob Leonard

For KNIA / KRLS News

(Photo thanks to Ron Huelse)