Nick Holman’s poignant stories recall growing up in a rural La Porte City foster home

Editor’s Note: At just six years of age, Richard “Nick” Holman, a member of the La­ Porte City High School Class of 1963, was placed in the state of Iowa foster care system with his large group of siblings. For the next twelve years, he grew up on a farm in rural La Porte City. Following a successful career in the United States Navy and working as a plant manager and long range planning for an international food company, he began writing a book about his experiences. In the Foreword, he writes, “Virtually all foster kids come from dysfunctional family environments and they absorb the bulk of the broken home fallout. The common thread they all share while in foster care is the uncertainty of what lies ahead. This uncertainty can cause them to think and act in ways others may not consider or understand. When they eventually leave the foster home, their futures will range from heartening and uplifting to unsettling and tragic. All incidents that unfold [in these stories] actually occurred during the time I and my siblings – three brothers and four sisters – were growing up in a foster home on a farm [near La Porte City in the early 1950s and 1960s. However, some events have been slightly changed to avoid potential embarrassment for yet-living individuals. All the names [except my own] have been changed, only their ages remain the same. This is the story of a close-knit family of siblings as they struggle to stay together in extended foster care. It’s also a story of life on the farm, but a life and a farm few have ever known or experienced, even those born and raised on a farm. It’s told through my eyes but relates more than just the experiences of me and my siblings. As you’ll see, it all comes to a rapid and unexpected conclusion.”

Grapes of Wrath

By Nick Holman

It’s three o’clock in the afternoon in late summer. I’m clinging to a high limb in an elm tree in the north timber, surrounded by grape vines. They’ve almost taken over the tree, with more grape leaves showing than elm. At the bottom of the tree the vines are fatter than my wrist, but where I am, fifty feet up, the vines are only finger thick. I’m hunting for clumps of ripe wild grapes, my eyes going from branch to branch. From the ground I’d spotted quite a few, so I know they are up here. It’s just a matter of searching them out.
Late August and into September is when wild grapes in northeast Iowa are at their best, ripe and plump. Any later and the birds will clean them out, so it’s now or never. Each clump I find I rip from the vine and drop in the pail that is attached to my waist with baling twine. A squirrel a couple trees over is barking loudly at me, trying to tell me to get the hell out of his domain. I ignore the chattering squirrel. The pail’s only half full and I need a full pail for my ambitious plan. I climb higher looking for more of the coveted dark purple grape clumps. So, what do I have in mind that’s motivating me to scramble up high into trees, risking life and limb, looking for grapes?

Though a lot of the guys on The Farm smoke, almost no one drinks alcohol. The primary reason is that it’s not available like cigarettes. It’s quite easy to get an adult to buy a pack of cigarettes for a minor, and when they do, we slip it in our pocket and bring it back to The Farm. It’s more difficult finding an adult to buy a six pack of beer for a minor, and even if they will, it isn’t possible to get it back to The Farm because of the bulk. The small size of a pint of liquor might allow it to be sneaked back to The Farm but, finding an adult who’ll buy hard liquor for a minor is almost impossible in the small town of La Porte City.

My solution is to make my own alcohol, and that will be wine. Why wine? My limited contact with beer convinced me I don’t like it. I surely don’t have the equipment to make hard alcohol. So, I’m going with wine, even though I’ve never had a sip in my life. One of the older boys has instructed me on the basics of wine making, as he knows them: mash grapes with water, strain out the pulp, put the liquid in a container and let it ferment. That seems awfully simple to me, like there should be more steps. And, aren’t there any other ingredients, like sugar or yeast or flavoring? But, what the heck. He’s a lot older than me so I’ll do what he said. I know where there are grapes because I’ve picked and eaten wild grapes many times in the past. I can get glass jars and bottles for containers, and I know where to let the mixture ferment undetected. So, my adventure begins.

When I climb back down the tree I have almost a full pail and call it a day for picking grapes. Next is the mashing, which I do in a milk pail in the milk room, ensuring no one sees me go in. I then strain the mash with a sock I liberated from the sock drawer in our boys’ room. My storage containers are Mason jars that we have aplenty on The Farm from all the canning that’s done each fall. They don’t have a tight seal at the top without the rubber gasket, but I don’t want a tight seal. My “instructor” had warned that fermenting will create pressure and, if it has no place to go, the bottle will explode.

My final act is to put the jars in a safe place for fermentation. I want it to be warm because that’ll speed the fermentation. My brainstorm idea is to store them in one of the hay-silage bins we filled this past summer. It’s warm because of the chemical reaction in the fermenting hay, and I’ll have easy access to the containers. I just dig a hole in the silage, put the jars in standing up, so they didn’t leak, and cover the hole with more silage. With the previous two days of wine making, I have six jars in total fermenting and aging in my “wine cellar.”
Perfect. Now, all I have to do is wait for it to become wine.

It’s never been clear to me what that concoction I call wine is supposed to taste like. Nor do I know when the fermentation is complete. Nor do I know how long it’s supposed to age. At day three I become impatient and test one of the jars. It just smells and tastes like a weak grape juice, and I put it back. At the end of a week I test again. I can smell the fermentation when I take the lid off, which I think is a good sign. It has a slightly different taste, which I attribute to wine being made. The bottle goes back. At two weeks I can see the fermenting action taking place in the jars with little bubbles rising, and the liquid has a definite “kick” to it.
Two days into the third week I hear we’re going to start feeding cattle the hay silage. I have to come up with a new wine cellar option quickly.

My new storage space, wine cellar number two, is the hay loft. There are plenty of places to hide it there, so it’ll be safe. The downside is heat, of which there is very little, so fermentation will slow. And it’s more difficult getting the jars up into the loft than I anticipated. But it’s a secure spot. At the end of week three I test again. My first observation is that I can’t physically see the fermenting occurring in the jar anymore, likely because of the lack of heat. And the taste hasn’t changed much from the last testing. I have to come up with a warmer storage space.

Brainstorm number two arrives by accident. I’m repairing the automatic feeder in the main chicken house the next day. It’s in the attic portion of the building, an area kept temperate by the warm bodies and activity of 2,000 chickens below. It’s also dark and seldom frequented by anyone. It’ll be the ideal place to get the fermentation process moving again. I can place the jars in the far corner away from any prying eyes. Early in the evening, when no one’s around, I ferry the six jars to their new home, wine cellar number three. I’m hopeful it will be their final resting place.

Week four comes and goes and I decide to wait until the end of week five to test again. I’m optimistic the wine will be nearing the end of fermentation and turning into a fine wine.

As I climb up the ladder to the chicken house attic, I’m hit by a wave of fermentation odor. My first thought is that a jar has somehow tipped over, as improbable as that might be. I hurry over to the dimly lit corner with some slight trepidation. There at my feet are six broken mason jars! I’m stunned. Heartbroken. It’s clear the bottles have been broken, not exploded because of fermentation pressure. No one knew they were here. How could that happen? Who did it? How will I ever know?

Epilogue: Fast forward ten years. My brothers and I are having dinner with Mom and Dad at a restaurant in Waterloo. We’re reminiscing about some of the shenanigans that took place on The Farm, sharing with them some of the misdeeds we’d hid from them as foster kids. They’re enjoying the stories. Suddenly Dad looks up with a quizzical smile and asks which of us tried to make the wine. I’m completely taken aback. I’d almost forgotten about the ill-fated wine bottles. I confess with a grin and ask how he’d found the jars. Dad said it was dusty up in that attic and all he had to do was follow the footsteps to the corner.

Aha! Finally, after ten years, the mystery of the grapes of wrath was solved!

Next Week: Read about Nick’s ride(?) on “a strong metal steed” in “The Wheels go ‘Round and ‘Round.”