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.”

Pretty Girl

By Nick Holman

We boys are congregating on the concrete patio outside the back door of the farmhouse, ready to go inside for noontime dinner (again, city folks call it lunch) when Mom steers the car up the driveway with the newest addition to our foster family, making it now seven boys and six girls currently in residence. She – her name turns out to be Laurie – is riding in the front passenger seat, which already sets her apart from most of us. In general, the front seat of either of the cars is reserved for Mom or Dad and we foster kids sit in the second and third row seats.

As Laurie exits the passenger side, I can almost hear seven sets of eyeballs popping out of their sockets. She’s slim, but not skinny, and has long dark hair that brushes half-way down her back. She looks to be at least 18 but apparently is only 16. It’s difficult distinguishing the color of her eyes from where I’m standing, but that isn’t important. What pours out of them is a steady, confident gaze, the look of someone who’s accustomed to having boys’ and men’s eyes focused on her. I notice the assured walk as she and Mom approach. Long legs, slightly muscular. They pause momentarily as Mom introduces her and then they continue on. If she’s at all inwardly nervous about this new environment, it doesn’t show. I, along with the other younger boys, have to stare up at her as she’s probably close to five feet six inches tall. Her lips are just slightly full, but not to the point where she looks like she’s pouting. And, as she passes, I can see what looks like a hint or flicker of a smile. Not a smile of condescension or anything like that. Rather it looks like she’s trying to be open and friendly – almost inviting. Of keen interest to me and the other guys, it looks like she can easily fill out a size B or maybe even a size C bra. By Mom’s manner I can tell she’s already concluded Laurie will be a handful and require a close watch. Unknown to us, but known to Mom, Laurie has a history – or at least a reputation – for being promiscuous, or as we boys say, “loose“, when it comes to the opposite sex. Mom’s judgmental conclusion is, therefore, reasonable in hindsight.

To understand how Laurie’s short stay at The Farm plays out requires an explanation on the dynamics of the boys and girls here. The Farm isn’t like Boys Town in Nebraska, where everyone is male. Boys Town’s only worry is keeping the guys from fighting, acting up or running away. It doesn’t have to deal with the physical attraction associated with a high level of sex hormones coursing the bodies of 12 to 18-year-old males and females. Mom and Dad do. Though girls have many of the same urges and desires as boys, in our guy-mind eyes, it’s always the boys trying to unlock the gate to hanky-panky. So, it’s no surprise that much of our conversations, outside the ear shot of Mom and Dad, deal with girls: kissing, getting to first or second base, where to go to attempt stealing a kiss outside the view of Mom and Dad, stuff like that.

So, how do Mom and Dad deal with this continual source of opposite sex attraction? We refer to it as Plan A. They split the task by gender. Mom looks after the girls by assigning chores where she can keep an eye on them, while Dad does the same with the guys. Although we boys are generally the mischief makers, we’re easier to watch. During spring, summer and fall there’s always field work for the older boys, those most prone to sexual mischief. We younger boys are assigned chores closer to the house like milking, slopping hogs or herding cattle. This separation of responsibilities works quite well, or it did until this new temptation arrives. Laurie is like a field of wildflowers in full bloom and we boys are attracted to her like a swarm of honeybees. It takes Mom and Dad little time to realize this, so they develop Plan B.

To understand plan B requires a brief explanation of farm work. Most of the farm field work involves a sole driver riding a tractor, pulling an implement like a plow, mower or whatever. Keep in mind, the tractors and field equipment of the 1950’s are less comfortable and much less efficient than those of the twenty-first century. Therefore, one spends much more time doing field work in less-pleasant conditions. You’re all alone, exposed to the weather, sitting on a hard metal seat, with the constant roar of a John Deere tractor engine running at full bore barely four feet in front of you. It’s just you and the tractor going up-and-down or round-and-round the field, hour after insufferable hour. This is not a glamorous or particularly enjoyable task – unless you’re a dyed-in-the-wool Iowa farmer, which Dad is. He doesn’t mind the repetitive nature of the job a bit. He can spend all day, day after day, in the field. And that’s what he plans to do, but with one exception. He won’t be alone. He’ll have company on the tractor. That company is Laurie.

The cunning and shrewdness of plan B is, quite frankly, beyond what we ever imagined Mom and Dad capable of devising. Rather than trying to keep an eye on seven mischievous boys, why not just keep it on the object that’s triggering their wild imaginations? Don’t try to keep a net over all the hungry honeybees, keep it over the sweet flower. And it’s working. From about eight in the morning to noon and then from one in the afternoon until four or five PM, it’s Dad and Laurie riding round-and-round or up-and-down the field. If she’s bored by this, it doesn’t show. Quite the contrary. She seems to enjoy this special arrangement. Thus, a resentment begins to sprout amongst the other girls. Though unspoken, there’s always competition to gain Dad’s attention, and now Laurie is easily winning the contest. Consequently, some of the girls, especially the older ones like Rebecca and Julie, want to start riding with Dad on the tractor. As an aside, the passenger on the tractor generally sits on the back wheel-fender on either side of the driver. Since there are two back fenders, there can be two riders. So…., Dad is now having two girls riding on the tractor with him; one of them always is Laurie. Being a normal male, he rather enjoys this arrangement.

Now, back to plan B and its execution. We boys all know the purpose and what’s going on, but think the plan has a serious flaw that will eventually show itself. It can’t stand up to any significant length of time. If Laurie remains on the farm for a couple of years – or even two or three months – plan B falls apart. Dad will run out of fields to plow, or hay to mow or corn to pick. But Laurie hasn’t come for an extended stay, and this is known up front by Mom and Dad. As is the case with many kids that come and go, The Farm is just a temporary place to hold Laurie until county social services can work out a long-term solution for her situation. What that solution will be, for her and others like her, we seldom know. County social services generally comes to The Farm to pick up the child, but occasionally Mom or Dad is asked to drop the child off at the agency office. If they’re told what’s to happen with the child, they don’t share that with us.

And that’s what happens with Laurie. She arrived very suddenly and is gone just as suddenly. None of us knew she was leaving. One afternoon, when Laurie had been there about five weeks, she gets in the car with Mom and they drive out the driveway. When Mom returns, she’s by herself. The sexual yearnings and naive imaginations of seven boys come crashing down. Not one bee has disturbed a petal on the flower! And that’s the story of Pretty Girl.

Next Week: Read about young Nick’s adventure herding cattle in a ditch. With “three or four boys in bib overalls and bare feet keeping them in check,” what could go wrong?