What IS the Age of Maturity?

A recent question in CityView, a Des Moines alternative newspaper, asked readers: “Should the minimum age to purchase tobacco products be raised to 21 in Iowa?”  All sorts of answers ensued.  One reader said tobacco should be outlawed and marijuana should be legalized.  Another said that tobacco should be outlawed, altogether.  And, of course, someone compared purchasing cigarettes to buying guns.  Whatever.

The age of maturity should be consistent – for everything.

Whether buying cigarettes, purchasing an alcoholic beverage, voting, being tried in criminal court by a panel of your peers, entering the armed forces, gambling, or becoming married without parents’ permission, a person should know that the absolute legal dividing line is a particular age.

On July 1, 1971, the Twenty-sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified and placed into effect.  Section 1 of the 26th Amendment states: “The right of citizens of the United States, who are eighteen years of age or older, to vote shall not be abridged by the United States or by any State on account of age.”  I couldn’t vote in a Presidential race until the fall of 1972, although I was already 22 years-old and a veteran.  I voted for Angela Davis (Communist Party candidate) out of spite.

I turned 21 three months after the 26th Amendment was ratified.

I was drafted into the Army at the age of nineteen.  I was told by the government at the age of 19 that I had to involuntarily commit to possibly sacrificing my life for the sake of this country.  But I couldn’t drink legally, and I couldn’t vote until after I was discharged from military service at the age of 21.  I had very little control over my own destiny.  The Amendment did little good for me.

The Iowa Legislature, under a heck of a lot of pressure from many of us who could now vote, succumbed to the mob mentality of our generation and lowered the age for drinking beer and intoxicating liquors from twenty-one to nineteen in 1972[1].  It was too late to affect me.

Cigarettes are good for no one.  I smoked most of my adult life.  I have since quit (15 years ago – and it wasn’t easy), but I remember the power of nicotine over my body and soul.  I could always buy cigarettes at the age of eighteen.  If I wanted, I could buy them at the age of 14 – and sometimes I did, but I didn’t smoke regularly until I was 18.  Actually, I began chewing before smoking.  There was never a tug-of-war over what age we should or should not smoke.  The tobacco lobby was too strong.  We now get to experience how the tobacco lobby has lost its power in the state Capitol and the halls of Congress.  If it can happen to the powerful tobacco lobby; it can happen to any lobbying monster.

If I can ruin my lungs at eighteen, get killed in a war at eighteen, have the mature and responsible thought process of getting married at eighteen without going through parental permission, have the power to get a tattoo, an abortion, enter into a contract, and all those other things that are legal for normal adults to acclaim, I should be able to drink a legal beer, gamble, and, when I was 18 – vote!

Well, as I recall, those were some of the arguments we used in 1972 when we weren’t happy with the age nineteen decision.  We wanted more.  And we got it.  The following year after the Iowa Legislature succumbed to lowering the drinking age to 19, it reduced the legal age for drinking once again.  Eighteen was now the legal age for a person to walk up to the bar and say give me Bud Light[2].  But not really, Bud Light wasn’t invented – yet.

The opposition to the eighteen argument by the terrible teetotalers was that seniors in high school would be going to school drunk.  Yeah, that was a possibility (and in very few circumstances – reality).  But think of it, they could be going to high school married, legally smoking (at the time, smoking was an acceptable societal habit), entering contracts, and “Oh, my God!  Voting!”

As predicted, alcohol in high school, or at least as soon as school let out for the day, was an occasional problem.  But it was a legal problem.  And it wasn’t as bad as people claimed it to be.  But my generation had yelled about as loud as we were going to get.  Those now entering the age of eighteen had taken everything for granted.  So, in 1978, the law of a legal drink reverted back to the age of nineteen[3].

I can’t remember the age of maturity for drinking going back to twenty-one, but the Iowa Code Annotated tells me it was 1997[4].  I thought it had happened at least 10, if not 15, years prior to that.

Today, legal and scientific scholars tell us that the mind does not fully develop until the age of 26.

In Miller v. Alabama, Associate Justice Elena Kagan relied upon three “significant gaps between juveniles and adults” in two previous cases [Roper v. Simmons, 543 U. S. 551 (2005) and Graham v. Florida, 560 U. S. 48, 68, 74 (2010)] that set precedent for declaring that life sentences without parole for juveniles was cruel and unusual punishment.

First, children have a “‘lack of maturity and an underdeveloped sense of responsibility,’” leading to recklessness, impulsivity, and heedless risk-taking. Roper, 543 U. S., at 569. Second, children “are more vulnerable . . . to negative influences and outside pressures,” including from their family and peers; they have limited “contro[l] over their own environment” and lack the ability to extricate themselves from horrific, crime-producing settings. Ibid. And third, a child’s character is not as “well formed” as an adult’s; his traits are “less fixed” and his actions less likely to be “evidence of irretrievabl[e] deprav[ity].” Id., at 570.

Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460, 471 (2012).

You can drive at the age of 16 and a car can be a potentially dangerous weapon.  You may enter the Armed Forces on your own at 18 and be handed a dangerous weapon.  However, you cannot drink or gamble legally until you are 21.  Is driving a car or carrying an assault weapon less dangerous than having a social drink and playing a game of blackjack?  I don’t think so.

Although legal, people my age cannot properly drive; they cannot seem to maneuver those middle turn lanes without having the rear of the auto block the traffic lane.  Some people my age cannot drink moderately.  Some cannot gamble without getting carried away.  Few still smoke, damaging their bodies and those around them.  I’ve seen horrible tattoos on several people my age.  Many, including myself, have been divorced – often the result of an immature decision.   And, oh my God, some adults vote for idiots.

I know many teenagers who make better decisions than a lot of folks in my generation.  Let’s face it, there should be one age of maturity.  I don’t care if it’s 16, 18, 21, 26, or 65, but let’s be consistent.

The age restriction that bothers me the most is the one in which a prosecuting attorney can try a minor in adult court.  What is so magic about a kid who cannot drive, get an abortion, wear a tattoo, enter the Marines, marry, smoke a cigarette, drink alcohol, gamble, or enter into a legal contract being tried as an adult in district court?  If we’re going to have juvenile court, let’s have juvenile court.

Kids are kids, one way or the other.  Justice is a difficult term to define.  Everyone has their own opinion of what they perceive as justice.  But justice must include equality.  If a kid cannot be conscripted into the Army, he or she should not be drafted into the adult judicial system.

This blog is dedicated to a woman who knew justice and fought for juvenile justice to her end.  Sister JoAnne Talarico.

[1] Acts 1972 (64 G.A.) ch. 1027, § 54, changed the legal age definition from twenty-one to nineteen years or more (later amended; see 1973 and 1978 amendment notes, post).

[2] Acts 1973 (65 G.A.) ch. 140, § 10, reduced the definition of “legal age” from nineteen to eighteen (later amended; see 1978 amendment note, post).

[3] Acts 1978 (67 G.A.) ch. 1069, § 1, substituted nineteen years for eighteen years in the definition of “legal age”.
[4] Acts 1997 (77 G.A.) ch. 126, § 1, in subsec. 19, substituted “twenty-one” for “nineteen”.


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Run, Ryan, Run

It’s hard to believe that only forty-nine years ago this month I was in Basic Training in the Army. The Vietnam War had peaked just two years earlier with the Tet Offensive, but the war was far from over. Every one of us in Charlie Company thought of the possibility of going to Southeast Asia with targets on our backs. About a decade ago, I checked The Wall in Washington, D.C. Not one of my fellow draftees in my platoon from that May had his name on the monument. We were fortunate.

I had always thought that I didn’t go to Vietnam because I kept volunteering to go anywhere in the world, including Vietnam, while I was stationed in Virginia. When people asked me if I was stationed overseas, I said, “yes, I am stationed at Fort Lee, Virginia.” Not many people understood what I was saying, or perhaps they did believe like me that Virginia was a foreign county. In my opinion, it is possible to believe Virginia is a foreign sovereignty; it’s called a commonwealth, and many Virginians who I came in contact with thought that Iowa was a place where potatoes grew on trees.

It was many years after I was honorably discharged when I figured out why I was not sent to Vietnam, or any other foreign country besides Virginia. During bivouac (pronounce BIV-wack), I was assigned to guard a traffic barrier with a couple of other privates. We were given a password and told not to let anyone through unless they had the password.

Shortly after we were strategically positioned around the simple barrier, a cadre of staff, known to all of us, walked up the hill to our position. I yelled: “Halt, who is there?” An assistant drill instructor said, “that’s not how you do it. Here, give me your weapon.” I gave it to him. That little incident was most likely the reason why I didn’t get to see the world beyond Hopewell or Petersburg, VA. Hopewell, home to several chemical plants that stained the water black, and Petersburg, where the Civil War continued into the 1970s.

As I look back at my Army career, I notice a couple other incidents that may have led to my exile to Virginia. Physical training is an essential part of Basic Training. The military used to grade a soldier on his ability to perform certain physical accomplishments. The incentive for this scoring is an automatic promotion from the rank of E-1 to E-2 upon leaving Basic Training. I blew my perfect 40 score. No one in my platoon received a perfect 40.

Not an athlete in high school, I shined brightly in physical activity in my nine weeks of hell in Washington. There are four physical activities in which each soldier was measured at that time. A draftee (I refuse to call us recruits) had to make it through the low-crawl pit and back within a certain time period. If the (unwilling) participant could make it down and back without raising his butt to a level ripe for a sniper attack, he received a perfect 10 points. If the time was less than required, a private would have points deducted. The low-crawl pit was also used to punish. I actually had more practice than the other guys. It shouldn’t be surprising that I earned a perfect score of 10.

There was a second test in which the participant had to zig-zag around some wooden structures. I might compare it to orange cones that college football players avoid while participating in the NFL Combine held in Indianapolis every year. But of course, these structures were not orange, they were camo and hard to see (tee-hee). I think the ideal time for a perfect score of 10 was something like 27 seconds. I made it in 23. Are you adding up these scores? So far, I’m at 20.

The third obstacle was a line of bars hung about 10 or 12 feet off the ground. There’s no doubt you’ve seen these things on playgrounds everywhere. We were to move from rung to rung in 60 seconds and accomplish 76 rungs. I slipped off the 60-something rung. Observers help you up when you begin. If you slip off, it’s up to you to get back on. I can’t jump 10 feet off a sand surface and grab a bar. I had to take a score that was something like an 8.

The final event was the mile run. Two tall guys who claimed to be Nebraska track stars were offered a case of beer each if one of them could break the mile run in fewer than 6 minutes – the time for a score of 10. The drill sergeant who made the offer told them he had never had one of his recruits run the mile in fewer than 6 minutes and he saw this as a great opportunity. We were allowed to take off our button-down shirts and run in T-shirts, but running in army boots and fatigues with a belt was a challenge.

The track was a quarter of a mile. Four times around was a mile. I started in the middle of the pack. On the first pass, the two Nebraska guys were way out front. I may have been 5 or 6 guys behind them. On the second pass, both of them were in front of me, but I was gaining. On the third pass, I had left them both behind me and was out front. As I came around the final turn, I could hear the captain yelling at me. “Run, Ryan, Run. You can make it.” Aside from comparing myself to Forest Gump, I thought he meant that I could make it without falling down. I began to sprint, surprising myself. I didn’t know how close I was to the 6:00 minute mark.

5 minutes and 56 seconds. That was my time. I walked up under the lone shade tree, lit a cigarette and asked the drill sergeant if I could have a case of beer. Sgt. Green (I’ll change his name from Greene to protect his identity) did not think I was funny. Now, I believe that these confrontations I had with Drill Sergeant Green may have been recorded for future Army brass to read. That probably didn’t help me in my quest to be stationed in the Bahamas.

I did not make E-2 out of Basic Training. 10 guys in my platoon of Charlie Company were given promotions. None of them scored more than my 38 on the physical agility tests.

There’re so many more interesting things to tell you about my Army life, particularly my problems with Drill Sergeant Green. Perhaps I was his problem because he didn’t intimidate me. However, ever since I can remember, I have not been good at conforming or taking orders. The person who coined “question authority” had a groupie in me.

Again, please don’t thank me for my service. I often claimed that I single-handedly ended the draft. The Army really didn’t want any more men like me. But I’m proud to have been able to fulfill my duty to my country, no matter how hard we both tried to understand each other.

Believe me, there’s more to come.

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It’s a Matter of Taste

Twice a year, we like attending the Planned Parenthood Book Sale in Des Moines at the Fairgrounds. This past visit we acquired a shopping cart full of books for less than $10.00.

Some people exclusively use Kindle, and many more buy recent books from Amazon or local book stores. Used book stores like Half Price Books is a good source for reading material, too. However, there are some things you can get at the semi-annual book sale at the Fairgrounds that you cannot find anywhere else. I suppose it’s a matter of taste where you find and purchase your favorite literature. Some of the best cookbooks we have bought came from the Planned Parenthood Book Sale.

One of the bargains we picked up this spring was a collection of recipes from a cookbook put together by “The Tall Corn Chapter of Club Managers”. Inside Private Club Kitchens (Jumbo Jack’s Cookbooks, Audubon Media Corporation, 301 Broadway, Audubon, IA 50025. Printed 2004) contains recipes created by chefs and culinary teams from some of Iowa’s top country clubs. Some of the recipes will feed sixty, and some will serve 2-4.

We perused the book prior to Easter, looking for a meal that is not traditional such as ham, or lamb, or popcorn and toast (oops, wrong holiday). We found a simple recipe for Chicken Marsala. The recipe called for “2 oz. clarified butter”. Normally, I would use regular butter. However, I remember making clarified butter (also called Ghee) in the mess hall while I was in the Army. I didn’t make it, but my particular mess hall had two Army cooks who were chefs on the East Coast before enlisting in the Army. One of them made it.

I Googled the process of making clarified butter and found out that it is really easy to make. Another discovery was that clarified butter is 100% butterfat – simply, an oil like vegetable oil, canola, coconut, and peanut oil. Clarified butter has a “higher smoke point, a longer shelf life, and [is] a more versatile substance for making everything from stir-fries to sauces.” It’s butter without the water and milk solids that burn easily. I made some.

Since making the Marsala Chicken on Easter, we have been using the clarified butter in many dishes we prepare. My favorite use is to pop popcorn with the oil. No need to add butter; the flavor is incorporated into the final product. With the milk solids that were left over, I made honey butter.

The clarified butter, the leftover milk solids, etc., may seem very fattening, and I won’t pretend that it isn’t, but it’s not that much more fattening than the oils I mentioned above. In my opinion, it’s more flavorful.

Here is the recipe we used for Easter dinner. It is easy to make, doesn’t take long, and when it’s finished – it looks fantastic on a plate. It may become a tradition in our house.

Marsala Chicken

Chef Alan Clark, Sioux City Country Club


8 oz. chicken breast

2 oz. clarified butter

1 oz. salt & pepper

1 pt. sliced mushrooms

6 oz. Marsala wine

4 oz. heavy cream

1 oz. brown sugar

Dredge chicken breast in flour. Sauté in clarified butter on both sides until browned, season with salt and pepper. Continue to sauté: add sliced mushrooms, Marsala wine and brown sugar. Reduce by ¾. Add heavy cream and reduce until consistency becomes a caramelized glaze. Yield: 2 servings.

We served it with fresh steamed asparagus from our garden, wild rice salad, and hard rolls with honey butter. Because we have leftover Marsala wine, we will have to make this dish at least 3-4 times a year.



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Flaws in the Laws – Part III: 2nd Degree Kidnapping

“He got off on a technicality.” This is a quip that drives me crazy whenever someone walks away from a courtroom in which the person otherwise should have been found guilty. Just what is a technicality?

A technicality can be the absence of a comma, a misplaced comma, or any other piece of punctuation that makes a statute mean something different from what legislators intended. It can be that law enforcement or prosecutors violated a fundamental constitutional right. Or, it can mean that a procedural error existed; such as not following a specific provision of the Rules of Evidence, the Rules or Criminal Procedure, or any other aspect of the judicial system. This essay is going to focus on another “Flaw in the Law”, the plain language of a statute as interpreted by a court.

This issue was the object of an article in the Justice Reform Consortium newsletter of a year ago. During the 2018 legislative session, Rep. Mary Wolfe (@RepMaryWolfe) tweeted that “SF 2230 enhances the penalty for kidnapping a minor from Class “C” (10 years) to Class “B” (25 years) UNLESS kidnapper is a parent – not a parent of the kidnapped minor, just a parent – whose sole purpose is to assume custody of the minor – not legal custody, just custody.  After explaining this to the members of the Iowa House of Representatives, the bill passed 82-16.”  Words do matter.  See for yourself.

The Iowa Code now contains the following language:

710.3 Kidnapping in the second degree.

  1. Kidnapping where the purpose is to hold the victim for ransom, where the kidnapper is armed with a dangerous weapon, or where the victim is under eighteen years of age other than a kidnapping by a parent or legal guardian whose sole purpose of the kidnapping is to assume custody of a victim under eighteen years of age, is kidnapping in the second degree. (Emphasis added.)

That word “a” is going to come back and haunt someone. A smart attorney is going to get a defendant off on a technicality someday when the kidnapper is “a” parent (or “a” legal guardian), but not the parent of the child kidnapped.

You may, or a prosecutor may, argue ‘til the sun goes down that the Iowa Legislature didn’t mean what it enacted, but that it meant the exception applied to “the” parent of “the” child. It shouldn’t make any difference what the legislators meant, the Court is going to determine the outcome on what the statute says in viewing the language on statutory construction. Based on a 2004 Iowa Supreme Court case, Auen v. Alcoholic Beverages Div., 679 NW 2d 586 (Iowa 2004), “[t]he goal of statutory construction is to determine legislative intent.” The Court determines “legislative intent from the words chosen by the legislature, not what it should or might have said.. . . . Under the guise of construction, an interpreting body may not extend, enlarge or otherwise change the meaning of a statute.” Auen at 590 (Citations omitted.)

Representatives Mary Lynn Wolfe (D-Clinton) and Rick Olson (D-Des Moines) attempted to amend the bill in order to make it more precise in its meaning. However, the “technicality” remained in the bill because of a powerful virtue – control! Many technicalities are the result of a political party’s control over a piece of legislation. Rep. Olson’s amendment would have fixed the bill’s defect, and would have included a limited number of specified family members (besides “the child’s” parent) that would have been exempted from the wide scope of the bill’s terms.  As he mentioned during debate: “This is a common sense amendment.”

Nonetheless, the floor manager of the bill, Rep. Ross Paustian (R- Walcott), said that Rep. Olson’s amendment “waters down the bill”.  Actually, refusal to amend the senate file opened up the flood gates.

Rep. Paustian’s opening statement appeared to be a word-for-word description prepared by the Iowa County Attorneys Association (ICAA).  It was the same explanation heard during a subcommittee meeting.

It’s bad enough that 82 representatives would cast a vote in support of this defective bill, but all 50 senators voted to pass it.  Does no one in the Senate pay attention to the “plain language” of legislation?  We’ll be honest.  We didn’t recognize the serious flaw until we noticed Rep. Mary Wolfe’s tweet.

How can a legislator vote in favor of a bill that is obviously flawed?  Were legislators not listening to the debate?  Surely, it was brought up in caucus.  How can an association made up of lawyers, the Iowa County Attorneys Association, insist that the bill NOT be modified, even though it cannot be enforced as written?

Someday, a person who kidnaps a child, “whose sole purpose of the kidnapping is to assume custody of” the child, will walk away from a courtroom because the person is “a” parent, although not “the” parent of the child who was kidnapped, and people will gasp at the thought of the monster walking the streets, freely. The media will tell you that he was found “not guilty” because of a technicality; the legislators will blame the courts; the ICAA will deny it had anything to do with it, but will assure everyone that it can fix it; and you might say, “I read about that once, but can’t remember where.”

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The Night of the Cross and the Flag


Laceyville, Pennsylvania, is a tired, depressing little town in northeast Pennsylvania. The Blue Ridge Mountains, part of the Appalachians, are on one side of it and the Appalachian Trail used by many hikers each year goes right through the area nowadays, but not back then in the 50’s. The Susquehanna River goes right by and floods most years and takes the lives of unsuspecting swimmers every year, at least it seemed to. Not much to do in Laceyville in the 50’s. I didn’t realize how little there was to do there until I left after high school and then came back to visit over the years. “What the Hell did I do while living in that town?”


While I was living in Laceyville I was not depressed (at least I didn’t think so) but living life to the fullest with the resources I had available. Not much in material goods but a whole lot of opportunity to be bored and to create things to do. In recalling my time in Laceyville, I will start out with the zaniest experience of my early life. It’s the flag incident. It came out of being bored.

There it was on the wall of the gym, that giant Russian flag, as bright red as anything I had ever seen, with the sickle and hammer in yellow, menacingly dominating the whole place. And, it was closer to the ceiling than the American flag at the other end of the room. Kids streamed in through the doors, as did the teachers from the First Grade through the Twelfth of Laceyville school. Laceyville, Pennsylvania, that is. In the tail end of the Blue Ridge Mountains. My sister, Pat, was the first in the school to see it and rushed back out the door to tell her friends and soon the gym was filled with kids and teachers. Gasps were heard together with laughter as people milled around, seemingly mesmerized by the sight. Finally, Prof Forscht (pronounced forest),as he was called by everyone, who was the Principal, came in and his eyes seemed to bug out of his head and his faced turned about as red as the flag but he couldn’t seem to say anything.

My friend, Ed Whipple, and I stood there without saying a word when we joined the excitement — watching the reactions. It seemed pretty entertaining until we heard some girl start to cry –and then one of the teachers said to Prof that “We better get these kids out of here!!”. Maybe she was thinking of Joe McCarthy. After all, this was 1952 and the “Commie Scare” was running high. Turning angry, Prof Forscht started pushing us out the door of the gym and the teachers hurried us into our rooms.

It was a great school day, of course, because nothing talked about by the teachers was even heard unless it had to do with “the flag”. Every time we got a chance, Ed and I would start a discussion about it. Who do you think did it? And why would they do something like that? Is there a band of “Commies” around here?

The town cop, county sheriff, the head of the local American Legion, the County School Superintendent, and lots of townspeople came and stood around looking at the flag with varying degrees of amazement and anger. None of them laughed when we heard them talking about it. This was turning serious. My stomach was churning, as was Ed’s. My friend, Ed, and our girl friends at the time, Elanor Evans and Francie Davis, hung around together, as we usually did any way, since we were kind of a “mixed clique” of “The kids with the high grades – teacher’s pets, kind of ”. On this day, and those following, however, it was for moral support. The fact is, we were the culprits!!! The “little Bastards”, as we would be referred to by many townspeople once the truth got out.

Well, how did any one find out? Maybe we could have kept our mouths shut. Except for one thing, it was hard to fool Prof. Ed and I had tried to talk up the possibility of “outsiders” having come in to whip up local feelings. But, even that backfired on us when some locals actually began to suspect a new family with foreign accents of maybe being responsible and they even called a special meeting of the American Legion to talk about just that. Prof knew from the beginning that it was students. He gathered the school together and announced that “He knew who it was and when he got the lowdown they would be kicked out of school for good.” The thing is, he suspected the wrong people. He never would have thought it was me or Ed or our girl friends. He thought it was my brother, Bill, and a couple of his friends, who were “always getting into trouble”. Ed and I were Juniors and Bill and his friends were Freshmen but they had been hell-raisers quite a while. At first we weren’t concerned since there couldn’t be any proof since they hadn’t done it. With Prof, though, he usually pronounced judgment and then claimed he had the evidence – and that’s what he did in this case.

The whole town was talking, newspaper reporters were coming, and after a few days this thing was getting out of hand. Ed and I decided we would “come clean” and we would take the rap ourselves since the girls were Seniors and Elanor’s brother was the one we had gotten the flag from. He was a sailor working in D.C. and had been given a bunch of these “Russian” flags which had been confiscated and told to burn them. He had kept a couple and showed them to us one Sunday night when we were sitting around bored (Why not in Laceyville , Pa., population 600 without even a movie theatre). The upshot was that we decided to hang this sucker in the school gym as a joke – it would be easy enough to break in, having done it before. And what an exhilarating experience it was to do this!! Knowing how funny it was going to be to everyone – what a great prank!! It was a real high!! The night was perfect for it and no one could see us anyway. Hearts pounding, laughing to ourselves. We never figured on getting into real trouble for this.


What we thought we would get into trouble for was burning the cross the very same night on the front lawn of our favorite teachers, the Bennetts, and their 4 kids who were also our friends, Bob, Sue, Jack and Jim, 3 of whom were our age and the youngest, my sister Pat’s age. You see, the flag hanging took only part of the evening and, it was such great fun that we just had to do some other great thing. I don’t know whose idea it was but we all soon owned it. We built this cross about 10 feet high and wrapped it in cloth. Then we took a can of gas from Ed’s garage which his dad kept for his boat and drove 10 miles to the country home. Parking about a half mile away, we sneaked up to the house and, even with the dogs barking, managed to get this cross to stand up after we had soaked it in gas — and just when the house doors were opening we lit it and ran like Hell. About a quarter mile away we stopped behind some bushes and watched it burn. It caught a tree on fire in the front yard and we could hear Mr. Bennett hollering to the kids to “get the hose and get my gun”. It scared the Hell out of us as did the sight of the cross burning. It was still exhilarating as we raced to the car and sped back to town with lumps in our throats even as we bragged to each other about our great acts of Hell-Raising. When we got back to town we then all went home immediately with admonitions to each other to “act normal”.


As I said, we had decided to ‘fess up, Ed and me that is, to keep my brother’s ass out of trouble as well as Eleanor’s brother. We figured my older brother, John, being a long way away in the Marines would not suffer any consequences. We first went to Ed’s parents and told the whole thing. They were pretty sophisticated about a lot of stuff, had a lot of money, with his Dad being one of the “brothers” in Whipple Brothers Lumber Co., which my Dad had worked for most of his life and only recently making a break away from it for halfway decent pay.. On top of that, Ed’s mother was on the school board. We took quite a tongue-lashing but I knew it was nothing compared to what I would get when I faced things at my house. But before I went to confession there we decided to go see Prof Forscht who was dumfounded it turned out to be us, class leaders, straight “A” students, all that jazz. The upshot was that Prof didn’t want to kick us out of school and said he wasn’t going to and would have to think of something else for us. Maybe if Ed hadn’t been in on it things would have been different, so it turned out good for me to have a friend well connected.

When I went home and told my mother it was received far less graciously than at the Whipples and the only thing worse would have been if my Dad had not been working out of town. There was a lot of screaming, swearing, and being pissed off that they were going to blame Bill just because he was easy to blame. My mother also didn’t like it that we had covered for the brother in the Navy and the girls. If that counted for something how about the fact that my brother was now in the Marine Corps. Boy, I didn’t have an answer for that one, especially when she didn’t care that it was Elanor’s brother who had given us the flag and would really get his “ass in a sling” if the Navy ever found out. She screamed that he should “get his ass in a sling” for it. My younger brothers and sisters were freaking out as was my sister-in-law, Ann, who was staying with us while John was on tour with the Marines. My mother’s reactions to crisis got us into a “stew” every time as she seemed to hyperventilate and teetered on the verge of collapse. Needless to say, it was a traumatic night at the Jayne place, which happened to be, that year, in an apartment on Main Street above Sheldon’s Furniture Store/ Funeral Parlor. My Dad wasn’t called but I was told “YOU just wait until your father gets home”.

A couple of days after confession, a black car drives into the school parking lot and a guy with a suit about as dark as the car gets out. Any strangers always got our full attention at school. When he got out all eyes turned on us – Ed and me, the only confessed culprits. The reason being that Prof had let it be known not only to us but the whole world the day before that he had been contacted by the F.B. I. who would be coming to investigate. My God, we had hoped he was just trying to put the fear of God in us – and it worked, especially now that we could see THE MAN in the flesh. This guy in the black suit sure as Hell looked like an image of J. Edgar Hoover.

About a long, really long, half hour later, Prof came to the classroom door and motioned the two of us out. Instead of red I believe we were white with fear and I sure needed to go to the John. I don’t remember much about that meeting except for seeing the guy sitting on the edge of Prof’s desk in the tiny office and motioning the two of us to sit in the only two chairs in front of him. I only remember his first question, “Why the Hell did you do it fella’s?” Who knows what we said . It must have been stupid, so much so that he had to have figured right off that we were mostly a danger to ourselves. I do remember something about how it could have gotten some innocent people killed since there was a real fear of “Communists, who are out to destroy our country”, as he put it. Then he tried to find out where we got the flag and we told him the story about finding it down by the train depot as if it had been thrown off a train in a bag. After a while he seemed to buy this. We were close to tears several times. By the time we got back to class everybody else was gone and they didn’t get to witness our whipped look. What a relief because we were no longer thinking this had been such a hot idea and our smug looks from Monday were completely gone.

But, maybe we were going to get past this fairly unscathed. Or so we thought. Ed and I showed up at school on Thursday — and everyone is really pissed to see us. The teachers knew and the kids had all found out that we weren’t getting the boot even though that’s what Prof had promised. Special privilege, that’s what we were getting and everybody knew it. The telephone lines had been burning up with all the talk about it. The school was abuzz with angry conversations and us being given dirty looks and shunned. Before noon every student had left the building and those with cars had started driving up and down the street in front and all around town shouting that we should be kicked out of school. Adults made no effort to stop them and many even called the school and told Prof they agreed with the kids. We got sent home for the day and when I got to my place the street was clogged with angry kids and cars honking their horns and general bedlam, which may have been o.k. as no one was throwing anything (this wasn’t yet the Sixties). However, upstairs in our apartment my mother was, by now, completely hysterical and about to have another “breakdown” as were all the other kids in the house, except Bill, who seemed to enjoy the fact that someone was causing more misery than he for a change. My mother apparently thought the apartment was going to be stormed. And my Father had been called (during the work week) to come home from 125 miles away!!! That’s what scared the Hell out of me!!! Finally the cars and kids left when it got to be time when school would ordinarily let out anyway. Some of them had to catch school buses to their homes in the country.

I was on pins and needles, as if waiting for the executioner until I could hear my father come in the door. I guess I don’t need to go into a lot of detail about my father/son encounter. There was never any discussion with my Dad. His mind was always made up about evidence, justice and judgment in the discipline of the family. But this time I did not get any corporal punishment. Just the possibility of it was enough to turn my stomach upside down. My father was a great negative role model for all seven of his kids on this relational stuff, especially the 4 boys. My later parental practices were obviously based on my childhood experiences. No excuse, just fact. Anyway, what I got, in addition to a one-sided shouting conversation, and another dose of esteem-busting, was grounding for at least a couple of months — only it wasn’t called “grounding”in those days, just,”You’re not going to leave this house for a god-damned thing for the rest of the school year as far as I’m concerned”. School and work and that’s it. “And those damned friends of yours, I   don’t want to see you anywhere around them, do you hear me?” Of course, what made it worse for me was that Ed Whipple didn’t get any punishment. Seems like his parents figured that going through the last few days was punishment enough. My folks didn’t think that way. As I think back, I believe they thought it was all about them and how I was trying to make their lives miserable. Yep, sure as Hell, I remember thinking the same way when I was parenting, at times. Like father, like son, I guess. No breaks from the home front but another from the school! That same night, as my father finished with me and went to the local bar to assure his drinking buddies that he had straightened me out, Ed and I were called to Prof Forscht’s home and he told us he did not want to suspend us but that he was telling us to stay home the next day, Friday, and all of the next two weeks. We could make up all our work and it would not go on our record or affect our grades. He didn’t want us to spread this around, however. As far as the town was concerned we were suspended.

Well, when word got out about the suspension school went back to routine, minus the president of the Junior class, me, and it’s local “rich kid”, Ed Whipple. The town started to simmer down after a few days even though the talk continued about the whole thing and how people were so disappointed in me and Ed and “What’s the younger generation coming to anyway?” I heard all the talk because I worked at the local A&P Store and also cleaned up at George’s Restaurant. I got a lot of hours in, actually, and it meant less time to be stuck at home and more money for me as I got no allowance (who did, except my friend Ed?) and, in fact, bought all my own clothes and anything else that I needed or wanted , outside of the food on the table.

You might wonder what happened as a consequence of the cross burning which we had assumed to be the worst of the two things we had done. Well, on the weekend when we were suspended Ed and I came clean to the Bennett family about that by going to their house and apologizing to the teachers and their kids. By that time all the stuff had come down on us for the “flag incident” and they must have figured we had had enough. Besides, they knew us well enough to realize that pushing the KKK agenda was not part of our motivation – we were just bored, temporarily stupid, high school kids. It’s not to say it was easy going to their house and confessing and apologizing but I guess we were getting good at it by this time in the ordeal. And nothing was as bad as the fear-ridden reception and anticipation at my house which I had faced alone since bringing along my fellow conspirator would not have helped my case at all, only increased the wrath once he left.


But, I did live through this whole thing. A couple of weeks later we were back in school and by the end of the school year I didn’t notice any difference with classmates. In fact, they elected me class president for the next year ( all 25 members of the class voted for me, including myself).

I don’t know why I started out with this story except that it was the most exciting incident of my school years. It got reported in the Tunknannock and Wilkes-Barre newspapers. I used it as a basis for papers in my college years. It nearly cost my friend, Ed, a security clearance when he went in the service and needed it for some job. I have often wondered what would have happened if this had been the sixties. By then maybe we kids would have really started to give a damn about the implications of McCarthyism and the Ku Klux Klan. The 50’s seemed to be “in between realities”. It was between the Korean War and Viet Nam War. And it was between the white man’s successful years of Post WW II and the Civil Rights Movement when blacks got sick of riding in the back of the bus and taking the leftovers.

The flag and cross incidents and the ensuing series of responses and consequences represented my first brush with the law. I could actually have been sent to juvenile court, and probably would have, if today’s Hellbent “lock ‘em up” attitude had been prevalent.



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The Earth Always Wins

Most of the time, I live about 2100 feet from the Des Moines River. Right now, a levee keeps me approximately 375 feet away from the river. However, I received a notice earlier this year that about 10 square feet of the northeast corner of my living room is in a flood plain. It wasn’t that way when I bought the house. Lines are moving.

Before I bought the house, the basement had been flooded. That was in 1993. Of course, that was a 500-year flood. So, what did I have to worry about? In 2008, I had just shy of three feet of water in the basement. Since then, the levee has been raised. To be accurate, the government (I assume city, but it could have been the county) raised the levee while the water was rising at a pace faster than heavy equipment could add to the top. The brave construction workers won.

Before it was removed by the graffiti police, a piece of wisdom on a pole near my home said: “The earth always wins!” I don’t think I should take any chances this time around. I am required to buy flood insurance because I have a mortgage on the house.

I don’t understand. I’m confused. Can’t I just expect the federal government to jump in and make me whole again after the waters have subsided? Isn’t that the way it works?

Several farmers in the western part of the state along the Missouri River have sued the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), claiming “flood control is no longer the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ top priority,” that “the agency is focused on slowing the river and restoring habitat that protects the endangered pallid sturgeon and shorebirds like the piping plover and interior least tern.”

Residents of western Fremont County are blaming the U.S. Corps of Engineers for mismanaging the Missouri River. U.S. Senator Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) also has chimed in. Both are accusing the Corps of directing most of its attention to wildlife, and not enough focus on its top priority – flood control.

How quickly some people forget. Many Iowans, if old enough, will remember the floods of 1993. The community of Hamburg was flooded that year, along with many other communities throughout Iowa that are situated by a river. Cedar Rapids, Des Moines, Davenport, and numerous other cities, large and small, were affected by catastrophic flooding that year.

In 1993, Hamburg wasn’t flooded by the waters of the Missouri River, but because of a “drainage ditch [that] carried water from a large area north of the Hamburg area.” That water “backed up behind levees at the confluence of the Missouri and Nishnabotna Rivers, where Hamburg is located. The water from the drainage ditch could not escape into the river when the gates were closed to keep the river water out of the area.”

Former Congressman Neal Smith personally looked into the situation and did what he could to help the residents of Hamburg and the surrounding area. He spoke with General Geneva, the top general in the corps, and found out that the corps had “made a complete study of the area in 1986 and developed plans to install two large pumps, which would be used to pump water back over the levees and into the Missouri River. “However, under procedures the Reagan and Bush administrations had adopted to prevent such projects from being federally funded, those plans had not made it through the bureaucracy to the top office in Washington, D.C., for action.”

Congressman Smith sought and gained immediate approval for an appropriation of about $800,000 in federal funds to get those pumps Hamburg and Fremont County needed. “To qualify such a project, there must be a local sponsor such as the county or city. That local sponsor in this case would need to spend a comparatively minuscule sum to launch the project. [Congressman Smith believed] it was $60,000. In 1994 there was no flood threat, and the local sponsors then chose to not even do their small part to get the pumps into place quickly.”

I can look out my front door and see two pumps on top of the levee across the street from me. But is it enough?

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Levee Portfolio Report for 2018 says: “No levee is flood-proof. Levees reduce the risk of flooding, but no levee system can eliminate all flood risk. A levee is generally designed to exclude floodwater from the leveed area over a limited range of flood events.”

This isn’t by far the first flood to hit the southwestern corner of the state. Residents must be ignoring the USACE’s reports. “Levees that experience long duration flood events are more likely to develop performance issues associated with breach prior to overtopping failure modes such as embankment and foundation seepage and piping.” [Piping is a “system of fissures through which water can travel inside the levee. Piping can be created by animal burrows or the gradual flow of water over time, thereby eroding tunnels inside the levee.”]

The USACE is not solely responsible for everything on both sides of the levee. It’s a partnership, like the estimated 11 million people who work or live behind levees in the United States. Stakeholders have a responsibility, too. “Levees in the USACE levee portfolio vary widely in age, design and construction practices, and flood regimes (e.g., coastal, river, flashy or long duration). The average age of levees in the USACE portfolio is roughly 50 years.” The levees along the Missouri River have been in place without much change for longer than the normal lifespan.

As a youngster, I remember the old men around town talking about the changes the USACE made to the Missouri River. “Made it a funnel,” one guy said. “You can’t harness all that water to go straight down the river without having some area that can allow it to sit for a while.” These old timers were talking around me and all of us lived just about two counties away from the Missouri and had the Loess Hills in between. Those old-timers, who are most likely dead now, predicted this over 50 years ago.

I don’t get it. The lawsuit by farmers in southwest Iowa claim that the USACE are slowing the river. I’m not an engineer, but as I see it, moving levees back from the edge of the river to make it shallower and slower would appear to make the river more capable of accommodating fluctuations.

No matter what some flooding victims may think, earth, wind and fire are impossible to tame under circumstances in which any of the three can get out of hand.

I will be purchasing some flood insurance in the near future, as much as I hate to do it. It’s not to protect me as much as it is to protect the mortgage holder. I’ll never be able to be whole again. I will try to be prepared and move things out when I see signs of high water. After all, the earth always wins!



Smith, Neal, Mr. Smith Went to Washington. Ames, Iowa. Iowa State University Press. 1996. Pp 288-290.

Eller, Donnelle. Iowa farmers: Corps prioritizes endangered species. The Des Moines Sunday Register. March 31, 2019. Pp 1A & 14A.

https://usace.contentdm.oclc.org/utils/getfile/collection/p266001coll1/id/6922 United States Army Corps of Engineers Levee Portfolio Report. March 2018. Pp. 8, 16-17,

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