On the day our family left Des Moines, Iowa—this happened in August of 1972—my self-image changed completely. Whoever I thought I was before vanished, and the city where I was born and where I lived until we headed upstate also underwent a mental revision. School would start in about a week, and I planned to make sure that my fellow eighth-graders understood right away that the new kid from the cosmopolitan epicenter of Des Moines (population 250,000) had a thing or two on folks from Storm Lake, which only 10,000 people called home. As I walked around downtown—or “uptown,” as the locals called it for some upside-down reason—before classes started I assumed culture shock would soon overwhelm me. Although Storm Lake had its charms, with wide, tree-lined streets, and a picturesque downtown, when I saw farmers driving pickup trucks and walking around in overalls I pictured myself starring in a TV show that was basically the Beverly Hillbillies in reverse. I was prepared, when I met my future classmates, to convey all kinds of attitude.
That plan, it turns out, dissolved almost instantly. As dumb as I was, I soon realized that I was very lucky. Both in and out of the classroom, my grade school years were wonderful—lots of friends, endless fun and laughter—but the junior high I attended, larger and more impersonal than Perkins, was about as laid back as a prison. It was a dangerous school where students were afraid of other students and where law and order came hard and fast, much more so than at Perkins, although at Perkins you got a better education. When our parents announced that, in Storm Lake, their six children would be attending a Catholic school once again after a long hiatus, I thought oh no, here it comes, my assumption being that nuns were even meaner in small towns than in booming metropolises like the one where I grew up.
But the eighth-graders at St. Mary’s were the rowdiest classmates I would ever have, and no teacher could hold us back. I remember a day when maybe half the class stayed after school. At some point the teacher left; I can’t remember if she planned to return or if we were simply supposed to remain there on the honor system. We responded by tipping over desks and throwing books on the floor and basically wrecking the room. No one said anything to us the next day. Now that was my kind of school. I remember wondering if the public school, which was right across the street, was even rowdier. All of my guy friends that year were from St. Mary’s, but the girls I cavorted with were all from the public school; therein lies everything I know about the public schools of Storm Lake between 1972 and 1973 (or at any time, for that matter).
That only begins to tell you what was good about Storm Lake. The house we moved to was bigger and older than the one in Des Moines and had beautiful woodwork inside. It was located across the street from a park, and beyond that was the lake. Lakeshore Drive was part of the route that all the teenagers made as they scooped the loop, and in my mind Storm Lake was one big circle where all the fun people passed our house at least once a day. The soda fountain at Ben Franklin’s, the grain silo on the main drag, the huge motorcycles that all the St. Mary’s student kept crashing, wide alleys, and even, strangely enough, the squealing pigs at Hygrade, all those things and countless more contributed to Storm Lake’s charm. To me it was like a countrified and modernized version of American Graffiti, with nature hippies instead of guys with short, slicked-back hair. When John Fogerty sings “We could make music at the Greasy King” during “Sweet Hitchhiker,” my mind flashes immediately to the burger joint—can’t tell you the name, can’t tell you the street—where we went after the football and basketball games (unless, that is, we were roaming the railroad tracks with the public school girls).
Clearly we had found the Promised Land, but after a year we he headed east, to Ohio. Since then I’ve only been back to Storm Lake a few times. Even though the houses aren’t as big as they were in my memory (how could they be?) and I lost track of my old buddies and your perspective tends to change as you grow older, I still think Storm Lake was the right place and the right time for me.
With a family of eight, it’s hard, after people have moved around the country, to reunite everyone, but recently seven Wilsons were in the same house, including our oldest sister, who’s now the only family member living in Iowa—close to Storm Lake, in fact. She brought to Celina, Ohio (where my parents now live) a copy of the Storm Lake Times that contained the jubilant article its co-owner and editor, Art Cullen, wrote after the Times won a Pulitzer Prize for its investigative reporting. The judges commended the Times for “editorials fueled by tenacious reporting, impressive expertise and engaging writing that successfully challenged powerful corporate agricultural interests in Iowa.” Along with shedding light on the nitrate pollution caused by bad farming practices, the paper exposed the dark money used to suppress that conclusion. The damage isn’t limited to Buena Vista County, where Storm Lake is located. “It is choking the waterworks and the Gulf of Mexico,” Cullen wrote in an editorial. “It is causing oxygen deprivation in Northwest Iowa glacial lakes.” If you think about it, the story has parallels to Flint, Michigan—or more directly to Celina, Ohio, where similar shortsightedness has forced officials to post a closed sign for entire summers on a lake that has long been a big tourist draw.
There is a message here. Typically the Pulitzer Prize goes to the big city papers, but not this time. The judges deserve credit for recognizing the value of a twice-a-week newspaper with a circulation of 3,000. And the staff at the Storm Lake Times deserve credit for taking their role as journalists seriously instead of delivering the fluff (or clickbait) so many magazines and papers resort to in a desperate attempt to “build their base.” “We’ve always believed that the Storm Lake Times should be as good at covering Storm Lake as the New York Times is at covering New York,” Cullen has written. Ultimately no matter where you are there’s a story to be told. That’s true if you’re a journalist or a fiction writer or a songwriter—meaning you don’t have to move to Greenwich Village to tap into something vital.
And sometimes the wide-open spaces far from the madding crowd are the best launching pads for progressive ideas. No one thought much of it when, in August of 1973, some folks decided to ride their bikes across Iowa. Since then RAGBRAI has become a huge event that prefigured the ecologically-conscious and fitness-minded bicycle craze. Storm Lake was one of the stopping/starting points for that first ride, and Lakeshore Drive was on the route. As a result I found myself chatting, in my own front yard, with some of the Des Moines crowd, including co-RAGBRAI founder Donald Kaul, whose Over the Coffee column was a highlight of the Des Moines Register, and his son Chris Kaul, one of my grade school buds. Here you see Donald Kaul explaining to some old-school Iowans that highways were built not for cars but for bicycles and tractors.
While preparing this screed I discovered that that, along with growing up in Storm Lake, Art Cullen went to St. Mary’s and was probably (based on our ages) one grade ahead of me. No one in my family seems to know him, myself included. Whatever his school history, I hope his class behaved better than we did, as we gave the nuns more than enough grief. Now, though, he’s raising all kinds of hell. I always thought Storm Lake was a good place—and I’m sticking to that story.