Drought, Missouri, farmers, rain, the Pope, Joan Lunden, milk prices, Channel 5, banks, FDIC, basketball, “Good Morning America” & the clear blue west.
Every Sunday during Mass, our priest prays for rain. He prays for the health of Pope John Paul II, he prays for peace with Russia and he prays for the sick to be healed.
His last prayer on the list: We pray for rain for the farmers. The congregation answers in unison: Lord, hear our prayer.
It is the summer of 1983, and St. Mary Magdalene’s Church is in the small town of Bloomfield in southeastern Iowa, a few miles from the Missouri border, an area hard hit by a drought called the worst in a half-century.
Father Wilkening’s prayer for rain goes on for weeks.
During the Universal Prayer, I sit in the hard wooden front pew, my mother’s unfailingly devout seating choice, squeezed between my older sister and brother.
During the Universal Prayer, I sit in the hard wooden front pew, my mother’s unfailingly devout seating choice, squeezed between my older sister and brother. Each time Father Wilkening begins the series, I close my eyes and press my palms together beneath my chin, and pray. But in my selfish little eight-year-old heart, I don’t care about the Pope. I don’t care about peace with Russia. I don’t care about the sick.
I care about the rain.
I pray for the rain when I’m in church. I pray for the rain at night in my bed before I go to sleep. I pray for the rain when I play outside beneath the broiling hot Midwestern sky. I pray for the rain when I walk across the dry, brown soil that turns to powder beneath my bare feet. This is the dirt of my father’s and my uncle’s farm, my grandfather’s farm before it was theirs.
Sometimes I see my father’s ruddy face, creased, worried, as he stands in the yard and studies his cornfields that have become a mass of stunted brown and yellow stalks with nubby, kernel-less cobs. I shade my eyes with my dirty farm-kid hands and study the fields with him. I turn to the clear blue west where I know clouds are supposed to form, and I pray, Please bring rain. Please water the corn. Please refill the creeks and ponds. Please save us.
But the clouds do not form. The rain does not come. This goes on for months.
Finally, a small afternoon storm arrives with a steady downpour, a few cracks of thunder and splinters of lightning. I splash barefoot in the puddles, letting the raindrops beat the top of my head and soften my curls to silk. My hand-me-down T-shirt and cutoff jeans become soaked and stick to my skin as I dance and play in the water and catch more raindrops on my tongue. It is rain, at last.
But then, my father’s face. Still creased. Still worried. It’s not enough, he says, shaking his head.
I don’t understand. It’s rain, I say.
One little storm, it’s not enough, he repeats.
That fall, Father Wilkening continues to pray for rain. Our tiny parish of barely twenty-five families—few of them farmers—don’t care about the rain as much as I do, I’m sure of it. All they worry about are their dead, crunchy lawns or the low, brackish lake where they want to swim. My mother unfailing writes a check every week to put in the church collection plate, and I pray twice as hard to equally do my part.
Soon, farmers around us quit farming. Sometimes there are auctions and crowds and the families cry when their tractors and wagons are driven away, their tools picked over. Sometimes the farmers just leave. One day a kid is at school in the desk next to me, the next day he is gone. I don’t know where they go.
I hear my father and my uncle speak in numbers and vocabulary I don’t yet understand. Twenty-five to thirty-five bushels an acre for harvest compared to a normal yield of one hundred and twenty-five. Land values down four percent. Cattle prices down. Milk prices down. Bankruptcies and tax delinquencies up. Five hundred public farm auctions a month.
The Channel 5 news anchor talks about the Caterpillar Tractor Company plant in Burlington, Iowa, shutting down. He talks about twenty thousand manufacturing jobs lost in the eastern half of the state. He talks about John Deere laying off workers by the thousands. My best friend’s father works for John Deere.
The nightly news terrifies me. I double my prayer efforts.
In September, a bank in town closes. The 112-year-old, three-story brick Exchange Bank on the northeast corner of the square with the plush red carpet and sparkly chandelier in the lobby.
In September, a bank in town closes. The 112-year-old, three-story brick Exchange Bank on the northeast corner of the square with the plush red carpet and sparkly chandelier in the lobby. One day without warning the green blinds are drawn over the tall windows of the ground floor, and there is a hasty, handwritten “out of order” sign hanging on the night-depository chute. Customers wander by the “closed” sign taped to the front door. Farmers pull on the brass handle only to find it locked. They try to peek through the covered windows before giving up and wandering a few doors down to a café, confused, disbelieving. They order a cup of coffee at the counter and sit because they don’t know where else to go.
No one realized it wasn’t insured, I hear my parents say, and I don’t know what that means.
We’re not depositors at the Exchange Bank, though. Our money is in the other bank across town and I am so grateful that I say a prayer of thanks our bank belongs to something I hear about for the first time, the FDIC, whatever that is.
I hear the names of families who lost money in the Exchange Bank. I know their kids. We go to school together. Sometimes I steal glances at their faces in class and wonder, did you pray enough for your bank when you were in church on Sunday? And I feel smug, because I prayed, and my bank had the FDIC.
I get my third-grade school picture taken but my mother does not order copies, to save money. Two months later, my teacher hands me a packet of printed pictures anyway. I don’t know why. We didn’t pay for them. The bank closing, it seems, has confused everything.
Our little town is on the local news. Then the national news. The New York Times writes about us. I listen with my father to Peter Jennings on ABC, on our Channel 5 that is always snowy. He reports that there are 424 uninsured banks in the United States. Four are in Iowa. One is in my town. And it is already closed.
At church, Father Wilkening prays for rain, and now for the families who had money in the Exchange Bank.
After the bank closes, the brick building sits empty. After a while, it becomes a sandwich shop, then a pizza joint, and other businesses I can’t remember because they come and go so fast. The popular bank president leaves town with his wife and two handsome teenage boys. My sister had a crush on the younger one. They never come back. I don’t know where they go.
In the winter of 1984, the Davis County High School boys’ varsity basketball team has a winning season and makes it to the state tournament. Our town finally has some good news. Something to celebrate. The boys on the team are heroes and there is a citywide pep rally. Father Wilkening prays on Sunday for the boys to have a safe trip to Des Moines, and for a win. The school prints T-shirts that say “Davis County Too Tough to Die” like The Ramones album, though I don’t know who The Ramones are. My mother buys shirts for me and my sister and brother. They have gold sleeves and maroon lettering and our galloping mustang mascot on the chest. Giant “Too Tough to Die” billboards are erected on Highway 2 and Highway 63, greeting motorists as they come and go from our town.
“Good Morning America” hears about our uninsured bank that closed, and about our basketball team going to the state tournament, about our T-shirts and billboards, and they come to our little town because we’re suddenly interesting.
They film kids wearing the T-shirts in front of the west side of the county courthouse—a beautiful gothic building in the center of the town square that makes a perfect backdrop for the camera shot. I am there wearing my gold and maroon T-shirt, and my neighbor Jessica hoists me up for the camera because I am too short and lost in the crowd. On three, we all shout “Davis County! Too tough to die!” and cheer while the camera rolls. Joan Lunden tells the story of Bloomfield and our bank and our basketball team, and I get up early to watch, before the bus comes to take me to school. For the first time in my life I see myself on television, a tiny speck in my neighbor Jessica’s arms. I’m smiling and look happy.
Joan talks about us for only a few minutes, and then we go back to the forgotten middle of nowhere.
Joan talks about us for only a few minutes, and then we go back to the forgotten middle of nowhere. Our boys don’t win the state basketball tournament.
Seasons pass. Harvests. Calvings. Powdery earth still beneath my feet.
Depositors at the Exchange Bank never get their money back. The drought persists. More farmers leave. A few, I overhear in terrifying whispers, go out into their barns and shoot themselves.
A protest group comes to our little town. They assemble white wooden crosses and plant them in the yard of the courthouse, the exact same spot where I smiled and cheered for “Good Morning America.” One cross for every farm foreclosed in our county. There are dozens and dozens of the haunting white ghosts.
Nothing, it occurs to me, has changed. I’m sorry that I smiled and cheered for “Good Morning America.”
Father Wilkening leaves and we get a new priest. Father Gottemaller. He also prays for rain. My mother gets a part-time job at the liquor store on the square to help make extra money. She still writes a check to the church every Sunday.
Only now, the checks make me angry. I don’t trust money anymore.
At last, a spring planting season brings rain. Not just one isolated rain shower, but weeks and weeks of rain, and the ponds and lakes refill, the grass turns green, the creeks swell and I dance barefoot in the puddles and cry Hallelujah! My family’s farm is saved.
But then, my father’s face. Still creased. Still worried. It’s too much, he says, shaking his head.
I don’t ask him what he means, because this time I understand. This is how it will always be. Too much. Not enough. Too tough to die.
The next Sunday, Father Gottemaller prays for the rain to stop, for the flooded creeks to subside and for the swamped fields to dry out so the farmers can plant their crops.
My mom writes her check. But I don’t pray. I am a farm-crisis kid now.
I don’t trust money. I don’t trust the sky.
Lead Image by AdriaanC
Kali VanBaale is the author of the novels The Good Divide and The Space Between. She is the recipient of an American Book Award, the Independent Publisher’s silver medal for fiction, the Fred Bonnie Memorial First Novel Award and an Iowa Arts Council major artist grant. Her short stories and essays have appeared in Numéro Cinq,The Milo Review, Northwind Literary, Poets&Writers, The Writer and several anthologies. Kali holds an MFA in creative writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts and is a faculty member of the Lindenwood University MFA Creative Writing Program. She lives outside Des Moines with her family.