The hotel parking lot. Early afternoon. He was packing his truck. Slamming toolbox lids. Reorganizing luggage in the rear cab. Iowa plates.
I’ve never met anyone from Iowa before. Or if I have, chances are they were so timid I don’t remember them.
Midwesterners, in my experience, are quieter than your average folks. They don’t enter a room like my people. Yelling, laughing, clapping everyone’s backs like a politician or a manure salesman.
They are humble people. Reserved. Kindhearted, but very hesitant to give away a free hug. In other words: they are Lutheran.
This man was late forties. Wearing denim and boots. Quiet disposition. He talked a little like Jimmy Stewart.
His wife was with him. Reddish hair. Pretty. They looked like they just stepped off the alfalfa farm. Good people.
I noticed the gas cans and chainsaws in the back of his truck. The entire bed of his Ford was weighted in heavy equipment.
The truck was towing an enclosed trailer with even more gear loaded inside. Lawn mowers, Weed Eaters, hedge trimmers, chains, axes, you name it.
There were garbage bags full of secondhand clothes, boxes of diapers, and baby formula.
“I’m on my way to Fort Myers, Florida,” he said.
I asked what a mild mannered Iowan was doing traveling to Florida after a Category 4 hurricane had just struck.
He shrugged. “Way I figure, what Florida people need is help. I got the tools, I got the time, so I thought, why not?”
His wife added, “It’s what we’d want people to do for us.”
I can’t help but feel like heel. I am a Floridian. And yet I have never—not once in my life—traveled to Iowa after a tornado to help tornado victims. I’ve never asked myself what I can do to help blizzard victims.
“You must have family in Florida,” I said.
That must be why he was going.
He shook his head. “Nope.”
“Friends?” I asked.
Another head shake.
“We just wanted to come,” said his wife. “We just really wanted to help.”
He is a farmer. He raises wheat. He comes from a long line of farmers. A long, long line.
“In Iowa,” says the man, “growing up, when something goes wrong, everyone helps each other.”
He tells a story. His grandfather’s barn burned to the ground in the 1930s, the height of the Depression. The fire spread to his grandfather’s home. The farmhouse burned down, too.
His grandfather had nothing left but a charred lawn and the family dog.
“He lost nearly ever’thin’” said the man, as he covered his truck in a tarp. “Grandpa was destitute overnight.”
But that’s where his story gets good.
Because the next morning, a cavalcade of wagons and buckboards came loping up the long Iowan highway.
Local men drove horse-drawn carts, weighted with fresh lumber. Women sat on tailgates of Model A trucks, carrying picnic baskets, casseroles, and wrapped cakes.
The wagons circled. The local men unloaded pinewood by the metric ton. The sounds of hammers filled the air. The rhythmic sounds of handsaws, razing across long spears of lumber.
The community rebuilt a brand new home in only four days. Then they built a new barn. A new fence. And they replanted crops, too.
“People loaned my grandfather everything he needed,” the man said. “They rebuilt his life, nobody charged him a dime. It’s just what we do.”
Every woman in the community gave the needy family single dish. The family had an entire collection of mismatched china, which the young man still owns today.
“It wasn’t about what they did,” said the man, “it was about who they were. That’s the kind of man I want to be. I don’t want to be a taker, I want to be a giver.”
But this all happened a long time ago, I reminded him. America isn’t like that anymore. People don’t give to each other without sticking their hands out in return.
These days people aren’t selfless and self-sacrificial. They are self-promoting and self-important. For cripes sake, doesn’t this man watch the news?
But the man just looked at me and smiled. He clapped my shoulder. “Man, you really need to come to Iowa sometime.”
I take back everything I said about Lutherans.