Editor’s Note: At just six yyears 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.”
Flashbacks – Me, Age Five
By Nick Holman
I’m startled awake by the feel of something scurrying up my bare arm. I jerk quickly and a mouse goes scrambling away, seeking warmth from some other body sleeping on the floor. My first thought is to go running to Mom in the other room. She, Dad and the two youngest girls sleep there. They have the luxury of a bed, which the four of them share. Whenever Dad is away for the night, I get the honor of sleeping in there too, since I’m the next youngest. In the main room are we four boys and the three older girls. My sisters are sleeping on one side, and we boys on the other. There is no sharing of beds because there are no beds. We all sleep on the bare floor. Our bedroom consists of the rest of the small one-bedroom home.
The house sits barely a hundred feet from the railroad tracks. When the coal trains go by, I can feel the vibration, the power and surge of the four engines pulling the heavy load. It rattles the house, the dishes and the bones in my body. Though a nuisance, those trains also supply an important commodity for our family. Coal can spill from the overloaded and swaying coal cars. A bend in the tracks about a quarter mile from our house is an especially accommodating spot. We gather the spilled coal in burlap bags and bring it back to burn in the stove, used both for heating and cooking. Without that coal, winter nights can be almost unbearable. Occasionally it’s supplemented with an old kerosene heater, but only when there’s money to buy kerosene.
The smell of the kerosene fumes is noxious and overwhelming.
So, back to the mouse. I crawl over to Midge and cuddle up beside her. Whenever I can’t reach the comfort of Mom, I go to Midge. I’m her favorite little brother and she watches out over me every chance she can. I’m the runt of the boys – the youngest, the shortest, the scrawniest – and need all the help I can get. I drift back to sleep.
I wake in the morning to Midge stroking my disheveled hair. “What brought you over here last night, darlin’”, she asks.
“Mice” I say softly.
“They didn’t bite this time, did they?”
“Nope.” I’d been bitten by a mouse or rat a few weeks before while I was sleeping. Likely it found little to feed on in the house and decided to see if my finger could sate its hunger. I’d gone running to Mom and Dad’s bedroom, even though I feared incurring the wrath of Dad for waking him. Mom was understandably distraught about the incident and, against Dad’s wishes, insisted that I stay with them the rest of the night.
It’s beginning to get light outside and everyone is stirring. We all sleep in our day-time clothes, so there’s no “getting dressed”. But today I’m changing out of my dirty clothes, the shirt with the hole in the elbow and the bib overalls with the patch in the knee. I find the clean clothes Beverly washed yesterday. She uses the scrubbing board and then hangs them outside on the clothesline to dry. I know they’ll have that rough feel from being hang-dried. In a way, I enjoy it. The rough, scratchy feeling tells me they’re nice-and-clean. I go behind a sheet hanging on a rope stretched across a corner of the room for some privacy. I quickly change because I have no skivvies to deal with. I don’t know if skivvies are a need or a luxury, but at any rate they’re not affordable. Not just for me but pretty much all of us. At least for us boys anyway. Not sure about the girls.
Lonnie, Howard and I head to the outhouse about eighty feet away to do what you do in an outhouse. I’m the first one in. It’s early morning so the day’s heat hasn’t had a chance to fill the shack with the overwhelming stench of warmed and decomposing human waste. As cool as it is, the flies are already buzzing lazily around, content in their utopian environment. Lonnie becomes impatient in the chilly morning air and jokingly yells in, “If you don’t hurry up, we’re gonna’ tip this thing over with you in it. And you’ll likely fall through that poop hole and be up to your eyes in sh**.” I’m sure he’s joking but quickly wipe with some of the nearby old newspaper and hastily exit. Last Halloween some teens had surreptitiously tipped over the outhouse as a prank. For days after that, I had dreams of being in there when it went over.
I’m starved for breakfast and a short while later head back inside with Howard. Last night’s supper left a lot to be desired. It was much like many of the others. An abundance of boiled turnips and rutabagas, sometimes with a little meat, usually chicken or pork because they’re cheap. There’s never a shortage of turnips and rutabagas. A nearby farmer grows both and we raid his fields at night, getting as much as we want. I hate both but still managed to eat some at last night’s supper. It’s better than going to bed hungry, but barely.
For breakfast it will be pancakes again, as it was for yesterday’s breakfast and lunch, and would also be tomorrow. When Dad didn’t sell many shoes on his routes, it meant we were eating lots of pancakes. They are not store-bought. The batter is made from scratch with flour, water and whatever else can be found in the cupboard or icebox that might make it taste and look like pancakes. It’s cheap and can feed lots of mouths. Unfortunately, there’s seldom syrup or butter for the pancakes. Instead, it’s sugared water with cinnamon sprinkled on to doctor up the taste.
Dad’s sitting at the breakfast table eating when we come in. He glances at me and then looks at Howard and asks, “You wash up yet?” It is a trick question. Howard’s going to be punished if he admits that he came in to eat without washing up. And he will be punished if he lies about it. Dad seems to truly dislike Howard and takes every opportunity to punish him. No one quite knows why. Howard pauses and appears to momentarily evaluate the alternatives, as much as a six-year-old can, and says, “Yup. I washed up right after Richard.”
Dad turns to me and asks, “You wash up yet?” I hadn’t, and much more feared the wrath of Dad than the pleading look Howard is giving me.
“No”, I utter quietly without looking at either one.
Dad is quickly out of his chair. Mom and Darlene make a move to intervene but step back as Dad glares at them. To him it is an open and shut case. The house rule (actually, his rule) is that you wash up in the morning. If you don’t, you’re punished. If you lie, you’re punished.
He grabs Howard roughly by the arm and shoves him out the door. We hear a momentary, fruitless struggle, and Howard wailing “I won’t do it again; I won’t do it again.” Then thrashing, crying, a last whimper, silence. Shortly thereafter we hear the well pump handle moving up and down, bringing water from the well to the wash basin on the porch. Dad comes back in, sits down at the table and casually continues with breakfast. There’s complete silence.
A few minutes later Howard comes in, disheveled hair and clothes, red marks on his arms and a welt under one eye that will turn a ghoulish purple as the day stretches on.
And Another Day
It’s supper and Mom, Dad and the three oldest girls have just finished eating. The table is too small for the whole family to eat as one, so we eat in shifts. Dad stands up and casually says to Mom, “I’ve got a potential new customer over in Wadena to visit tomorrow, so I may be a bit late.” A look of displeasure flashes momentarily across Mom’s face, but she says not a word. The rest of us sit down to eat. Out of the corner of my eye I see Mom follow Dad into the bedroom. Through the cheap thin wall, I hear arguing. She’s accusing him of taking a day off to go see one of his floozies. Dad swears that’s not it at all. He says he’ll take Wendy and me along if that will make her feel better. The next morning Wendy and I are heading down the road with Dad in the beat-up Ford.
As we drive along Dad starts talking. “We’re gonna’ be pickin’ up some walnuts today that fell from a tree I heard about. They taste real good,” and he stressed the “real”.
“And they’re fun to crack open. You two wanna’ help pick ‘em up?”. Of course, we do.
“I’m not quite sure where the tree is but I know a friend who knows. We’ll pick her up on the way.”
A while later we pull into the driveway of a small, slightly rundown country house. Dad goes up to the door, knocks and shortly a woman in her early thirties opens the door. She gives Dad a wide smile, and they talk for a couple minutes. She momentarily disappears inside and comes back out with what looks like a picnic basket and a gunny sack. Back at the car Dad introduces her as his friend, Sibyl, and tells us to get to the back seat. Sibyl sits up front. She’s talkative and friendly, and Wendy and I find we’re getting excited about picking up walnuts and having a picnic.
After about 20 minutes, Dad steers the car over to the side of what appears to be a seldom-frequented, quiet dirt lane. We’re parked by a timber thick with trees. We all get out, climb through the barb wire fence surrounding the woods and start walking. In a few minutes we come to several walnut trees where there are lots of walnuts, both on the branches and scattered around on the ground. Dad tosses me the gunny sack and says, “Start pickin’, kids. Sibyl and I are gonna’ see if there’s some Butternut trees around here. Be sure to fill that sack full up. And stay here ‘til we get back. We don’t want you gettin’ lost in the woods. By the way, Sibyl has brought you a couple sandwiches to eat while we’re gone.” Dad and his friend turn and leave.
Wendy and I gather walnuts for a while and then stop to eat the sandwiches. They’re delicious, some sort of meat and cheese. Much better than what we’d be eating at home. We eat slowly to draw out the pleasure. Things seldom experienced need to be enjoyed slowly. Then it’s back to gathering walnuts. And more walnuts. A gunny sack can hold a lot of walnuts, especially for two small kids. After a time, Wendy turns to me and asks, “Is Daddy coming back?”
“Of course, he is,” I say bravely.
“Let’s just finish filling this sack and he’ll be back.”
We finish filling the sack and he hasn’t come back. I want to go looking for Dad, but remember his admonition, “And stay here ‘til we get back.” I know what happens when his orders aren’t followed. After what seems like forever, I finally get up the courage and say to my sister, “Let’s go see if the car is still there.”
Fortunately, the walnut trees hadn’t been too far into the woods and it’s easy for us to find our way back to the road. The car is still there. We stop at the edge of the woods. I hear voices coming from inside the car, so I motion Wendy to be quiet. The car windows are rolled down slightly, and I hear muffled talk and giggling coming from the back seat. Instinctively I know we should not be there. We would be punished mightily if Dad saw us. I also know we’re witnessing something we shouldn’t. I take my little sister by the hand and lead her back to the walnut trees to wait. I sense that, even at that age, she also knows the activity in the car is wrong.
And Another Day
It’s early afternoon and we four boys are on the back-porch chanting “I’m hungry. I’m hungry.” We know it’s not doing us any good, but we keep at it. Dad has gone off to sell some shoes. Mom and Darlene have walked to town to see if they can find any work. The oldest of the four sisters inside the house, Midge, has explained to us numerous times that there’s nothing to eat. But that doesn’t stop us.
“I’m hungry, I’m hungry,” we chant in unison. When the two sides of your belly are rubbing against one another, you aren’t open to reason. My oldest brother, Leroy, says, “Let’s go to the store and find us somethin’ to eat. We’ll steal it if we have to.” On the way he hatches a plan.
There is a small grocery store about half a mile away. It is not much more than a mini mart, but it’s where our family buys groceries when we have the money. Leroy and I go in and approach the owner, an older gentleman, maybe in his late fifties. He slightly recognizes us, mostly as the poor family down the road, but also because Mom and Dad shop there. Leroy has never had a problem with talking to folks and pipes right up, “Say, Mr. Wright, you happen to have any work for me? I could do pretty much anything for you. I could set food on the shelves, straighten up stuff in back, sweep the floor.” And he proceeds to name a litany of things he could do to help out. All of this is intended as a distraction.
Meanwhile, Lonnie and Howard try to nonchalantly enter the store unnoticed and go over to the pre-packaged bread and sweet rolls on the far side of the store. Though Mr. Wright’s back is slightly turned to them, he can likely see them out of the corner of his eye. While Leroy is talking up a storm, Lonnie grabs a loaf of bread and Howard a package of sweet rolls and stuff them under their shirts. They casually turn and head back to the door. While Leroy is still talking, Mr. Wright suddenly holds up a hand for silence. Leroy and I shift our feet nervously. Did he see our brothers’ brazen, but clumsy, thefts?
“I’ll tell you what,” he says.
“I could use someone maybe a couple times a week come in and sweep the place up.” Before he can finish Leroy asks, “What’ll you pay?”
“I could pay you ten cents a week. How’s that sound?”
I haven’t said a word the whole time, but it sounds good to me. “Can I have a job too?” I blurt out.
“No, I’m sorry, son, but there’s only enough work for one.” Of course, Leroy took the job.
As we turn to leave, Mr. Wright says “Hold on a second.” He grabs two large cans of pork-‘n-beans and says to us.
“Here, why don’t you take these with you. I know you all occasionally hit a rough spot getting food on the table.”
Lonnie, Howard, Beverly and I are on the west side of the house playing hopscotch in the dirt. It’s a typical warm Iowa summer afternoon and, with no trees around, the ground and side of the house are absorbing the hot rays of the summer sun. Hopscotch is the perfect game for our family because it requires no fancy equipment and young kids like me can play with my older siblings. We play it a lot.
I spot a car heading down the dirt road toward our house. The road is seldom used, so the car is very noticeable from a distance. Lonnie yells, “It’s The County. Get inside.” We sprint for the door, trying to get in before they see us. Neither Mom nor Dad is home, but it doesn’t matter. We know what to do when county social service shows up. Pull the shades, lock the doors, and be absolutely quiet. We’re all laying prone on the hard, linoleum floor, being very still.
We hear the car stop, the car door open and close and then shortly a wrap on the front door. Silence. Another wrap on the door. More silence.
“I’m from county social services. I’m here to check on you. Just wanna’ make sure everything’s okay.” Nothing.
“I know you’re in there. I saw you as I came down the road.” Nothing.
“Would you open up please? I’m not going away until I speak to someone.” Still nothing. I hear footsteps along-side the house, and then a tap on a window. They continue around to the back porch and wrap on the back door.
“Hello, I know someone is in there. I’m just here to see if everything’s okay, or if you need some help.” And again, silence. Finally, after a couple more knocks on the door, I hear a car door open and close, an engine start, and the car drive away.
We wait in complete silence for a few more minutes. Are they trying to trick us by pretending to drive away? In our minds, The County is what will destroy our family. Mom and Dad have said so over and over. The County will take us away from them, and then split us up and adopt us out, never to see one another again. It is such a dreaded fear that no amount of knocking or pleading at the door by a person with a kind heart and good intentions will overcome it. And so, the poverty, the hunger, the mistreatment, the woeful housing, the deplorable conditions – they all continue.
Next Week: Just as Nick and his brothers and sisters begin to settle into a new routine of living on a farm, a shocking development has devastating consequences…