On July 5 The New York Times had two articles datelined Clear Lake, Iowa, noting that Michele Bachmann and Newt Gingrich had marched in the Fourth of July parade. I was there and saw both of them. Ms. Bachmann wore heels. How impractical, I thought, for walking in a parade.
Clear Lake is a town of just over 8,000 in north central Iowa on I-35. On the Fourth of July the crowd was estimated at 40,000. The parade has always been an attraction for those running for office. The summer before the 2008 caucuses Hillary and Bill were in the parade, as was Mitt Romney. Not together, of course.
My family summered in Clear Lake, driving up from Webster Groves, Mo. We stayed in a cottage on the south shore that my dad bought in 1939. My mother gave it a Sioux name, Tipi Koda (House of Friends), and furnished it with a Native American theme. My siblings and I reluctantly sold the property in 1999, but I have continued to return to Clear Lake.
In order to see the parade up front and center, I got up at 4:30 a.m. to stake a place along Main Street. Carrying folding chairs, I saw that most of the spots along Main Street had already been taken by blankets and chairs that had been set up after Rookies, a bar, had closed.
I was staying with a childhood friend, Richard, in his house two blocks from City Park. I knew the house as a child when his grandparents lived there. Richard and I met 70 years ago, in the summer of 1941, just before we entered second grade. Later, I was best man at his wedding and he was best man at mine. He’s now a widower, I was divorced more than 30 years ago, and the two of us rattle around in his house of modified Prairie design, stucco with large overhanging eaves. (Frank Lloyd Wright designed houses and a hotel in nearby Mason City, which is also River City of “The Music Man.”)
Summers, growing up, Richard and I were part of what we called “the gang.” We were three boys and three girls who swam and played along the south shore, dating others independently when we were teenagers. There was roller-skating at Bayside, the amusement park, and dancing at the Surf. That’s the Surf where Buddy Holly played on Feb. 2, 1959, just before he was killed in a plane crash north of town. The annual Winter Party commemorates Buddy Holly and the Crickets each February, when Clear Lake, as on the Fourth, swells to thousands.
Richard practically never left. He taught for a few years in Blue Earth, Minn., and Sioux City, Iowa, but mostly he’s been in Clear Lake. His life is as bounded as the streets or, for that matter, the lake. Life is predictable. I join that order, or re-enter it, when I visit, detached from most everything else. The sky is expansive, the air sweet. I breathe it in as I walk the tree-lined sidewalks into town.
Clear Lake falls back into place after the Fourth. The next morning I walked with Richard for coffee at the deli. A group of about six men and six women meet there every morning at 8. The men sit at one table, the women at another. Talk is town gossip — never malicious, that I’ve heard, but of the kind that derives from the same root as “gospel,” gossip meaning good talk. It is good, too — about folks in town who might be ill, the weather, the crops, with droll humor as in a play. “That’s a nice lookin’ Hawaiian shirt ya got there,” to one man, to which he said, “So expensive I couldn’t take the trip to Hawaii.”
After coffee, I headed back down to the lake and sat on a bench looking out at the water. The lake is 15 miles in circumference. Summers during college, I sailed a boat for guests at the Lake Shore Hotel. The hotel, which was torn down in 1964, was a rambling building of three floors, one bathroom per floor, with rates ranging from $1.25 to $4.50. In the summer of 1941 the Iowa artist Grant Wood lived in town and took some of his meals at the hotel. The Whisters held their annual convention there, old men and women playing the card game. It was serious business, so serious that at their request we covered the mirrors in the dining room where they met to make sure no one cheated.
Occasionally at night some of the other college boys and girls and I would sail the Lake Shore Hotel boat to the head of the lake near Lone Tree Point. We would beach the boat on the sand, spread our blankets, and break out the six-packs. We did not get drunk but just talked, about life ahead of us, who was dating whom, college. There seemed to be no cares and little pressure. We got into college without difficulty; we would get jobs without difficulty. Life was open and promising.
Of course all that is gone, including our family cottage. Lakeside property is too dear to keep as a summer residence alone. Most cottages have been replaced by very large houses on narrow lots, the height of the houses making up for the lack of breadth. It’s endemic to the country.
On a quiet weekday, Richard and I joined our friend Sally from the old gang and slid into a booth where we could look out over the lake and enjoy our hamburgers and fries. Drinks of water or iced tea. Lunch for about $8. Yes, we reminisced, but also talked about ourselves at present and, considering where we are in life, penultimate concerns: living on modest retirement incomes that have been flat for three years, matters of health. Meanwhile the lake, where once the Winnebago camped, remains perennial for us — the boundary of it, as well as its beauty and enchantment.
The geography is different there, the history, the air. The wind brushes your face differently. As Sally said of Clear Lake and Mason City, no one would think to ask, Do you go to church? The question would be, Which church do you go to?
Another day and I flew to New York, landing at La Guardia. I took a shuttle bus to Manhattan and then a Jitney to East Hampton. Oh, the glamour and the clamor! Each time I return to Clear Lake I am momentarily startled when someone I am passing on the sidewalk makes eye contact and says good morning or good afternoon. Back on Main Street in East Hampton I am again guarded.
I have never figured out quite where home is. It is here, of course, in the literal sense, with friends and my son, Tom, and his partner, Brian. But I was born in Minneapolis, and there is that axis from the Twin Cities to St. Louis right through Iowa. I am on that axis. I could kid my friend by saying, “Hey, Richard, marriage is legal now in both Iowa and New York. Where shall we be married?” But I don’t say that. The question would further reveal the ambivalence of home.
Richard has his family plot in Clear Lake Cemetery. My family plot is there, too. “I hope you’re buried here,” he said, “then we can wave at each other.” I guess that would settle things.
The Rev. Robert Stuart is pastor emeritus of the Amagansett Presbyterian Church. He lives in Springs.