Wednesday, March 6, 2013

It's one of Iowa's largest, wealthiest cities. But it used to be my little town.

In 1967, this house was on the outskirts of West Des Moines.
Once in a while, if I look out the windows on the west side of the building in which I work, a glimpse of rolling fields and a water tower will take me back to my hometown.
I actually spend my working days here in that hometown, just a few miles south of the houses in which I spent my first two-plus decades. You’d never know it by looking around, though; when I lived in West Des Moines, the area in which I hang my coat now was so far “out in the country” that if I’d happened out this way, I certainly would have gotten lost.
Sometimes, though, if I catch the landscape just right as I heat my burrito or cup of soup, the view out the window is so familiar it takes my breath away.
I was born on Des Moines’ south side, but we moved west in 1967, after my mom passed away.  Our house was the westernmost in the city at that time, on 32nd and Giles streets, and cornfield bordered our yard on two sides; field mice visited our basement regularly and took up residence in the hide-a-bed, and I remember not being allowed to traipse out into those fields to retrieve my kite.
West Des Moines was home to about 14,000 people then, and in my 4-year-old mind, it consisted of the Li’l Red Barn convenience store, where we bought orange Hi-C by the case, and a tiny Dahl’s on Prospect Avenue.  We went to the Catholic church in “old” or “downtown” West Des Moines, but we never would have ventured there after dark; the church was too close to Fifth Street, which was "rough," I was told.
As funny as it seems to me now, as small as it was, West Des Moines seemed lonely then, and it felt right to a small, lonely girl.  It had discarded its “Valley Junction” moniker less than 30 years before and was still undergoing an identity shift from hardscrabble railroad town to the shiny place it became in the ‘70s. I looked west from our little house, and everything before me seemed very large.
The city quickly ate up all that largeness, though; three years later, we moved two blocks to the west and again, our house was the westernmost home in the city. My world expanded to include my school, Kiburz Drug Store and a few other places, and “old” West Des Moines -- despite its proximity to the dreaded Fifth Street -- was warm and welcoming as I began to make friends at school with girls who lived there. I’d occasionally be invited to their homes, and we’d walk to Legion Park to play on the swings.
Fifth Street itself, though, with its music and mayhem, was still off-limits. After hearing someone use the term “ladies of the evening” in conjunction with the area, I asked my very proper grandmother what that meant.  She sputtered a bit, then told me they were “girls who get all dressed up and go on dates with lots of men.”  I thought that sounded like a fine thing to be able to see.
I must have been in first or second grade when my city truly began to grow up. Thirty-fifth Street , the gravel road Valley High School sat on, received a thick coat of black tar, and then the pavement came. The late-night drag-racing stopped, and new homes – four-bedroom two-stories, all – sprung up between our place on 34thand Brookview and the brand-new freeway.  And Northwestern Bell brought our city its very own newfangled telephone prefix: “225,” which was long confused with Des Moines’ “255” and resulted in years upon years of misdialed numbers.
Retail excitement came in the form of a whole new mall when I was 12; I begged for Levi 501 corduroy pants from County Seat and Earth Shoes from Baker’s.   We moved again, a few blocks east this time, to a bigger house in a nicer neighborhood; a boy at school made me cry by telling me, “My parents said they can’t believe your parents spent $90,000 on a house.”
My friends and I hung out at Skate West and partnered with sweaty-palmed boys for the Couples in the Moonlight skate. We wore new bikinis to Holiday Pool and held onto our tops as we jumped off the low diving board. We bought cherry-coated vanilla cones from Dairy Queen on 19th Street begged to be allowed to eat – “just kids, no parents” – at the Pizza Hut on Grand.
I kissed a neighbor boy in a house under construction; it was nothing at that time to sneak into one after dark because our city was growing up even more, and new houses were everywhere.  I remember the smell of the wood and the thrill of the late hour – maybe 9:45 on a school night? He gave me a necklace with the Virgin Mary on it and a mood ring, and we still have lunch once in a while, that West Des Moines boy and me. I just ran into his wife and gave her a big hug last weekend.
Around the time I was wearing corduroys and mood rings, Fifth Street stopped being off-limits; I was a Betty Hill dancer, and we bought our tights and leotards at a magical place Betty owned. The Theatrical Shop smelled like new tap shoes and stage makeup, and if “ladies of the evening” still hung out down there, at least they had somewhere handy to buy their feather boas.
High school came, and with it my driver’s license and the opportunity to explore my little town via Chevy station wagon.  I became interested in photography and drove “way out into the country” – 50th and Ashworth – to find barns to photograph. Dahl’s grew larger, and new grocery stores opened “out west.”  We watched new subdivisions crop up, each one more exclusive than the last, until finally, a gated community came to town. 
By the time I was charged with raising my own kids, random circumstances had landed me in another part of town, and I put down roots there. But my work and extended family bring me back to West Des Moines most days of the week, so I’ve never really missed it.
But on days like this one, when I look out the office window and see open space, I remember. I’m far less small now, and far less lonely.  But in my mind’s eye, there are cornfields on two sides of me, and I’m trying to keep my kite from falling into the tall, tall stalks as I think about behaving well enough to be taken to the Red Barn to buy an Archie comic book.
And I’ll fall asleep reading it, at home in my small town, to the sound of drag-racers revving their engines on the gravel of 35th Street.


  1. Dear Lisa,
    Your writing is always so lovely, but this piece took my breath away. Perhaps it is because I am walking in your footsteps as I read.

    When we moved into our house, 35th Street had just been paved. I remember now (but had forgotton) that black topped road heading out, away from the school. The large house and its barn, on the southwest corner of Valley High School, still looked like it belonged to the open land it sat on.

    Our street, Pommel Place, was quite settled -we were, after all, the second owners of our new house- but the surrounding area was frantic with activity. Frames turned into houses overnight, or so it seemed. The field mice were a constant, and a contributing factor to my fear of both the basement and the Halloween decorations -their preferred nesting place. From the minute we were excused from the table until my mother's voice cut through the darkness, we played around the construction sites, stacking into piles wood that we were forbidden to bring home. Some summer nights we didn't roam out too far, as the band of neighborhood kids played Kick-the-Can in the middle of the quiet street.

    I, too, found the barns west of the interstate for my photography class pictures. I still have the letter from Sen. Grassley congratulating me on one of my entries (The Barn that Jack Built) that made it to the State Fair.

    Somewhere along Prairie View Dr., on what is now Colt Dr. or Meadow Pl., was the edge of a field that had a tractor turn around and it overlooked the interstate. That was the place my high school self and friends sought, after dark. We'd spread a blanket and lay down, like matchsticks in a matchbook, to watch the cars go by below us or stare up at the stars. Each August, the Perseids meteor showers bring it all back.

    When I'm lucky enough to hear it, I crank Petula Clark's "Downtown" and sing along. My heart still flutters with fear that I might not be asked out for the slow song. I wish I had the white skates I got for my birthday when I turned 9.

    I had forgotten about the Li'l Red Barn. I think I might cry.

  2. M.J., your words are as lovely as any essay I could have written! Thank you for your kindness. I'm glad you remember our little corner of the world as fondly as I do.