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 Green Lamp/Final Epilogue

By Nick Holman

Fast forward roughly forty years. Dad’s adopted daughter, Nancy, is preparing for an estate sale on The Farm. Dad had recently passed away and Nancy and her husband are trying to clean everything out of the farmstead and pick up a few bucks in the process. She calls me regarding the sale and graciously indicates I can come out to The Farm a day or so before the sale and take anything important to me. As I drive the four hours down from Minnesota, I’m reflecting on what I might want. What I fail to consider is that all the things bouncing around in my head (the hand-crank ice cream maker, the musket in the hay loft for war games, the harness for yoking the work horses, and so on) have long ago been discarded. After all, it’s been many years since I lived on The Farm. I occasionally visited Mom and Dad after I left, but pretty much everything relating to my life with them and The Farm is gone.

I pull familiarly into the driveway and sadly notice the dilapidated condition of the buildings and farm machinery. Any paint remaining on the buildings is peeling or faded, boards missing or rotting away, hog house roof collapsed in, corn crib beginning to lean at an angle, as if inviting the next storm to bring it crashing down. The hay wagon with two flat tires, seemingly abandoned beside the barn. My heart aches with the memory of how clean and orderly the place had been those many years before with the efforts of ten to fifteen sets of hands continually tidying the farmstead.

Nancy meets me as I walk up the sidewalk and invites me to come in. I find that a little unsettling. It was more home to me than to her during my twelve years living there. Why should I need to be invited into my own home?

“That’s a selfish thought”, I say to myself.

As I enter, I hardly recognize the place. I easily follow the house contours from room to room, but the boxes and boxes of clutter accumulated over the years changes the interior mien and has no meaning to me. I decide to make a quick tour through to see what tugs at my memory and heart strings.

But, thoughts and flashbacks of kids and incidents start running through my mind as I walk from room to room and my pace slows. I spend about two hours memory-walking through the house and around the old but familiar out-buildings. The silo I stored the homemade wine to get it fermenting, the chicken house where shards from the broken mason jars still lie up in its rafters, a short stroll to the north swimming hole where we boys almost lost our clothes. But many other memories seem lost to time.

In the end, I only take three things. I spy an old Red Wing ten-gallon crock in the canning room in the basement. I instantly want it. I know Red Wing pottery holds its value well, and I have a soft spot in my heart for country antiques. It also represents the labor and the fruits of that labor in that room and, by extension, on the rest of The Farm. Many autumn days were spent in that room canning fruit and vegetables for the coming winters.

Second, I see a lone picture hanging on the living room wall that I immediately recognize. It’s an aerial photo of The Farm taken by a professional aviation photographer, circa 1954 or 1955. It shows the well-kept farmyard with barn, silo, corn crib, chicken house, machine shed and brick farmhouse. The image is just as I remember it that first day my siblings and I peered through the car windows as we neared The Farm those many years ago. I recognize the 1953 or 1954 Pontiac station wagon sitting in the driveway. We would cram nine or ten of us in that station wagon on Sunday mornings heading for church. I remove the picture gently from the wall and snuggle it under my arm. The third item I take is a green lamp.

Flashback: It’s winter, 1957 and a bunch of us boys are in the basement rumpus room goofing around and being rowdy. My brother, Howard, slams hard into a table along the wall, rocking it up on two of its four legs. It comes back down with a hard thud. But the table isn’t the concern. Against the wall on that table sits a green lamp Mom brought back from Wisconsin on her latest trip to visit relatives. It’s short, squat and very heavy, made of a rugged cast iron. It’s striking in its shape and color. It has an American Arts and Crafts design that would fit well in the Prairie style homes designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. It’s so angular, with almost all straight lines and eerie, but beautiful, green stained-glass in the lamp shade and body. It’s Mom’s pride and joy, and rightly so.

As the table rights itself, it looks for a moment that the lamp will do the same. But its heavy weight, as it tipped, has created too much momentum to overcome. It continues its slow, inevitable arc downward and crashes to the concrete floor. To its credit, and due to the heavy construction, the only things that break are two glass panes in the top shade piece. Complete silence and panic settle over us.

Someone has to tell Mom and, since he caused the lamp to fall, that duty falls to Howard. He reluctantly heads up the stairs and we’re all quiet, listening for the certain repercussion. A minute later Mom comes down, picks the lamp up off the floor, unplugs it, and leaves without saying a word. We can tell she’s almost beyond anger. She’s distraught. No one dares say a word while she’s there, not even one of apology or sympathy. A few seconds later my brother comes back in. He gives a shrug of puzzlement, says Mom was very mad and upset about the incident, but didn’t punish him.

Apparently, she realized it was an accident and punishing Howard wasn’t going to make the lamp revert to its unbroken condition. We never, ever see that lamp again. It seemingly vanishes from The Farm.

And there it is now, right in front of me. I have no idea where it’s been for the last fifty years. I don’t know why but I’m really drawn to it. Perhaps it represents for me all the things that had happened on The Farm, both good and bad, that I thought had disappeared with the demise of the foster home. But there’s the lamp, and instantly the memory of the above incident swirls into my conscience, bringing with it many other memories. The lamp seems to be illuminating those memories. I must have it.

Nothing else on the farmstead particularly grabs me. I thank Nancy, load up the three articles and head back to Minnesota. All three are now part of our home. The crock occupies a sun-lit corner of our dining room today, gently holding and nurturing a small tree planted within. The photo of The Farm hangs on the wall in my study, next to several other important memorabilia I’ve accumulated and immortalized over the years. The green lamp holds a place of prominence in the living room, sitting on built-in cabinetry above the TV. The two missing panes of glass in the lamp shade were replaced. There it resides, fitting in so well with the prairie home style house my wife designed for us. It’s almost as if the house was built knowing the lamp would eventually come.

There’s not a day goes by that I don’t pass by that lamp, look at it, smile lightly and feel a slight tug at my heart strings. Mom and Dad may not have been successful at passing The Farm to a son, but they’d unknowingly succeeded at passing on its memories.

Final Epilogue

Looking back more than 65 years to my first day on The Farm, it’s difficult to overstate its impact on me and most of the 100 or so other kids that lived there. When we were there, almost every day seemed to be one more day where we had it harder than everyone around us. And maybe we did. The punishments often didn’t seem to fit the miss-behaviors and many decisions seemed arbitrary. But Mom and Dad were entrusted by the county to provide a structured, safe environment for kids from dysfunctional homes until a viable and permanent family structure was available for them to return to. They succeeded exceptionally well. Did any of us grow up to be a senator, CEO of a Fortune-500 company or Hollywood celebrity? No. But, to my knowledge, none of the kids on The Farm subsequently went to prison, dealt drugs, became prostitutes, or committed crimes against society or humanity.

I was fortunate to have lived on The Farm longer than any other foster child. That allowed me to see and witness more than most others. However, the events I chronicled are only those I am aware of. That’s part of the sadness of documenting these events. There were surely many other events just as humorous, compelling or touching that will never be told. Each of those 100 or so kids had incidents or events unrelated to those I’ve preserved and are likely much more meaningful to them.

Contrary to what might have been implied in some chapters, I did not become a farmer. I enjoyed it and it was very fulfilling. It provided me many life skills. But it can be a very demanding and strenuous avocation, and I chose to go a different direction. And I did not make the military a full-time career. I liked the dependable structure it provided and the adventure of experiencing different cultures and countries. But the continual moving did not fit the picture of what I and my spouse wanted for a family environment. I left the active Navy after nine years but stayed connected for another 16 years through the Naval Reserves, continuing to enjoy those parts of the Navy experience I relished. I went on to have a meaningful and gratifying 35-year career, all with one company, in the food industry in California and Minnesota.

I now live in Minneapolis with my wonderful wife of forty plus years.

My early years bore witness to a disruptive marriage as a young child, but then I was afforded the opportunity to witness the unbreakable marriage bond of Mom and Dad. They were married for 70 years. They never fought and I can’t recall them even having a strong disagreement.

Having come from a broken home, I wanted to model their behavior, and provide a stable, caring environment for my son and daughter. I feel I succeeded. Now in their mid-thirties, both have graduated from college, are married and starting families of their own, living in the Twin Cities area.

I wish I could report that The Farm is still going strong, farmed by a son or daughter or close relative of Mom and Dad, but I can’t. I know that was their strong life-long desire, but it didn’t happen. The farm is still in the immediate family but only as an asset on a balance sheet, rented out and providing solid annual income to a trust. The few acres that held the buildings and farmhouse have been re-parceled and sold to whomever met the asking price. Most of the buildings are gone and the house reconfigured in a way that is hard to recognize, even by me. Other small acreages have been parceled off and sold for home sites. What’s left is mostly tillable land that can generate a steady stream of rental income, a good business model, but not a good family farm model.

At least I still have the picture on the wall to look at.

The Progress Review gratefully acknowledges Nick Holman for sharing with our readers some of the events he experienced growing up in a La Porte City foster home. Not surprisingly, the stories he has written in the Fostered on The Farm series have really resonated with local readers. They represent a fraction of the content that Nick will include in a book that is still in the pre-publication stages. A number of readers have already expressed interest in the upcoming book. If you’d like more information about it, when it will go on sale or just want to send a comment to Nick, logon to www.theprogressreview.co and click on the Fostered on The Farm link.