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.”

The Wheels Go ‘Round and ‘Round

By Nick Holman

It’s late fall and I’m driving a tractor through the corn field, pulling a load of corn. Earlier, Dad had picked the load, dropped the wagon and started picking the next load, while I hitched the full load to my tractor to haul back to the farmstead and unload. Snow is expected in the next couple days, so we’re anxious to get the corn crop out of the fields.

It’s early evening and I’m fidgeting around for the head light switch. We recently purchased a new John Deere Model 4010 and I’m not yet completely familiar with all the gadgets on the instrument panel. I finally find the switch and flip on the lights, continuing on down the field, straddling a row of already picked corn.

We endured a substantial amount of rain the previous week and parts of the field are still wet. I’d normally be weighed down with concern about getting stuck pulling a heavy load of corn, but I’m brimming with confidence driving the 4010. It’s the newest and most powerful row crop tractor John Deere makes, with about fifty percent more horsepower than any other Deere tractor available. I’m sure there’s nowhere that tractor can’t go.

Truth be known, I’m not only unconcerned about getting stuck, I’m anxious to find some mucky stuff that can challenge the strong metal steed I’m riding. I’d relishing the skirmish. The tractor, wagon and I go through a couple of wet sections that slightly test the beast, but I’m not satisfied with those challenges.

The next wet spot I happen upon, I stop right in the middle. For those unfamiliar with some of the tricks to use when getting bogged down in snow, mud or whatever, one of the principles is to keep moving, and your momentum will help you get through. Do not slow or stop, lest you lose your momentum.

Not only do I stop, I want to present an even greater challenge for the 4010. I decide to purposely “pop” the clutch, that’s releasing it quickly, when starting to move forward. That has the effect of making the wheels go faster than the rest of the tractor, spinning the tires. I’m aware of what I’m doing. I have great confidence that I, the tractor and the load of corn will, with little struggle, be heading on down the field unabated.

Sadly, I’m ignorant to another important physics principle. To increase friction, and hence traction, one needs to have more of one surface, i.e., the wheel of the tractor, in contact with the other surface, the ground. My new, powerful, bad-ass 4010 doesn’t have four-wheel drive, and its rear wheels are only slightly wider than other tractors. Unrecognized by me, it can garner little more traction than any other run-of-the-mill tractor. As I pop the clutch, expecting instant forward acceleration, I instead feel downward movement.

The sinking sensation of the tractor is replicated with the sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. The tractor has quickly dug holes with its rear wheels and is resting helplessly on its frame. I immediately know there’s no chance of driving out of this. My boisterous, brash arrogance is buried in the mud with the 4010.
I hike back over to where Dad is and explain the situation. Well, I don’t exactly explain the whole situation, just the part about the tractor getting stuck in a wet part of the field. No need to bother him with the details of the 4010 not living up to my foolhardy expectations.

Having almost gotten stuck with the picker a couple times himself today, my abbreviated description doesn’t arouse suspicion with Dad. He sends me back to the farmstead to get the other tractor and meets me at the scene of my ill-conceived lark. We hook a log chain onto the 4010 to try dragging it out, and almost get the rescue tractor stuck. Dad shakes his head in resignation. The 4010 and load of corn are going nowhere. Ultimately, they sit out in the field for several more weeks, feeling the cold of winter close in around them. Once the ground freezes solid, the rescue efforts of another tractor are enough to help the 4010 free itself, and the load of corn is pulled out shortly thereafter.
It’s an embarrassing incident, but a good teaching moment. It’s one that proves useful in future situations where poor traction conditions temper my unbridled arrogance.

Next Week: Over a period of many years, Wellwood and Ruth Williams were the foster parents of dozens of children, including the Holman siblings. As the foster child who lived at The Farm for the most years, Nick gets an offer he isn’t expecting in the installment entitled, “Adoption.”