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.”

Crime and Punishment

By Nick Holman

Modern child rearing guidelines say that spanking is seldom considered as an option for punishing bad behavior. Rather, more soft-sided or psychological approaches are used. Parents may choose the deprivation route, where they take something of value away from the child or young adult as punishment. Or they may try conflict resolution where, if there is a fight or argument, the two antagonists are encouraged to sit down and talk through what just happened and how that made them feel. Or perhaps the misbehaving child is sent to their room to think in solitude about what they’d done. There are many more options offered by parents and psychologists in addition to these. Most of them will be effective in the right situation, administered by the right parent and with the right child. However, there’s something to be said for a good old-fashion spanking once in a while. On The Farm, it’s the primary method of punishment for bad behavior. Three spankings in one day, though, may be over the top.

Howard is a mischievous and devilish eleven-year-old. He seems to enjoy antagonizing others, especially me, his younger brother. He also doesn’t think he needs to play by the rules. And, though he can be industrious and energetic, he often shirks assigned tasks to do things he enjoys. All these are behaviors frowned on by Mom and Dad because they disrupt the flow of normal activity and cooperation on The Farm. Additionally, their religious upbringing and faith encourage a more corporal punishment approach to maintaining order and discipline. Howard is about to experience this.

Crime Number One

As with many other boys on The Farm, Howard smokes whenever he can get a cigarette. And he thinks he’ll never get caught. One of the older boys, Gary, had acquired a pack of cigarettes and Howard pleaded to give him one. Gary acquiesced. Now Howard mulls over the time and place he can securely light it up. He has several places in mind that are safe from Mom and Dad. He settles on the chicken brooder house in the meadow across the road from the farmhouse. It’s far enough away from the farmstead that the smell of smoke can’t be detected, and on the south side of the building you can be completely out of view from the house. Howard and I go there every morning to feed and water the young chicks.

So, while there today, Howard motions me to slip behind the brooder house with him to have a smoke. He pulls the treasured cigarette out of his shirt pocket, lights up, takes a puff and hands it to me. After we each have a few drags, Howard snuffs out the cigarette and puts the unsmoked butt, along with the matches, back in his pocket for later use. We then head back to the barnyard to complete our other chores.

As we come up the driveway, Mom marches out the side door of the house and makes a beeline directly toward us. By the look of determination and purpose on her face, I’m sure nothing good can come from this meeting. She walks up and demands, “What were you two doing sneaking around behind the chicken house?”

Since Howard is notorious for fabricating believable stories and because he’s the older one, I let him answer. Of course, Howard spins a good yarn.

“Richard accidently let one of the young chicks out of the brooder house and we had to catch it and get it back inside. You’ve told us before that raccoons and foxes will kill and eat a chick if they’re still out at night. We sure didn’t want that to happen.”

Mom doesn’t even pause to consider the plausibility of the story. She doesn’t believe a word of it. She somehow knows we’ve been up to no good, and she’s determined to get to the bottom of it straight away. She asks Howard to breathe in her face to see if she can smell smoke on his breath. He tries to exhale a tiny breath but that only makes her more suspicious.

“What’s that in your pocket?”

Howard must have figured “in for a penny, in for a pound”, and so he lies again.

“Nothing” he says boldly, making a feeble attempt to put his hands in his pockets and bring them out empty.

Mom’s having none of it. She steps up, reaches into his shirt pocket and pulls out the matches. She then stands there looking at him and waits. After what seems like an eternity to me, but is only a few seconds, Howard reaches into his other pocket and pulls out the used cigarette butt.

With disgust and anger in her voice, Mom says just one word,

“Smoking!”

The discussion is over. The crime has been identified. Next is the punishment.

It’s a foregone conclusion there will be a spanking. The only thing to establish is the details. Will it be Mom or Dad who metes out the discipline? Mom momentarily pauses, as if asking herself the same question. Both of us boys are just praying it’s her because she always administers spankings by hand, rather than the paddle board Dad uses.

There is a green board that’s kept on top of the furnace in the basement for such occasions. Why one of us boys never surreptitiously tossed the board into the furnace remains a mystery to this day.

After the pause, with the decision made, Mom goes into action. One can almost hear our sigh of relief, knowing we won’t get whipped with the board. I’m first. Mom grabs me by the arm, spins me around fast and starts spanking with her strong, broad hand. Before the first blow has landed, I’m bawling and peeing my pants from the nervousness and anticipation. Mom delivers what feels like a gazillion stinging hits, but is really only seven or eight, and lets go of me. Next up is Howard.

He’s been paying close attention to the severity of my punishment and the number of smacks on the butt, so he can get a sense of what he’ll have to endure. However, Mom has changed the equation. She lets Howard know, since he also lied, he’s in for much harsher treatment.

As she reaches for Howard’s arm, “IT” spews forth from his lips. What is IT? Howard has a well-established habit, when he’s being punished, of trying to deny he’s committed the crime. Before the first stroke of a thrashing is administered, he’ll be wailing, “I didn’t do it! I didn’t do it!”
But just two strokes into the punishment the tune changes to, “I won’t do it again! I won’t do it again!” It’s doubtful this inconsistency has ever crossed his mind, certainly not at the time punishment is being given.

It’s to the point of being a topic of humor on The Farm. And today, true to form, Howard starts into, “I didn’t do it, I didn’t do it….”, until the first punishing whop from Mom’s hand lands on his butt. And then it’s, “I won’t do it again. I won’t do it again.” When the thrashing stops, his incriminating wailing stops, but the crying and whimpering continue until Mom’s out of earshot. Little does Howard know this is just phase one of today’s crime-and-punishment trifecta.

Crime Number Two

All of us boys had come back to the house from doing morning chores and are in the basement taking off work shoes and cleaning up before breakfast. Dad comes in and asks who was supposed to feed the cattle in the south end of the barn. It’s a simple task of going up into the hay loft, tossing down a few bales of hay and then spreading them out in the manger. It only takes 15 minutes or so to accomplish. With little hesitation, Howard says it’s his chore and he’s just completed it before coming to the house. This, of course, isn’t true. The earlier smoking fiasco had put him behind schedule, so he skipped the task. But he’s already had one encounter with punishment this morning and is looking to avoid another at all cost.

It’s truly likely that, if he volunteers that he forgot and will feed the cattle right after breakfast, the incident will die right there. But he doesn’t, and it doesn’t.

Dad turns, gives Howard a skeptical look and says very dryly, “I just went by there and there ain’t no hay in the manger.”

Howard replies, “Well I fed ‘em three or four bales, so they must’ve ate it all up already.”

Dad, having lived on a farm all his life, knows it takes about 45 minutes to an hour for the cattle to consume that amount of hay. Now, truth be told, Dad seems to favor Howard a bit more than the other boys on The Farm and isn’t looking to entrap him. He likes Howard’s industrious nature, though Dad thinks it needs to be channeled right.

Howard’s also good with his hands and has a natural way with machinery, traits any farmer admires. And his slightly rebellious attitude reminds Dad of his younger years. But lying is something he won’t tolerate from any of us.

“There’s no way those cows could eat that hay up so quick. You sure you fed ‘em? Or, might you wanna’ reconsider?” he asks, hoping to give Howard a chance to extricate himself from the rising water he’s wading into. But Howard heads right for the deep end.

“I sure did feed ‘em, just a little while ago. They must’ve ate it all up.”
Dad considers that statement for a moment, turns and reaches for the paddle board. All discussion is now over. A few seconds later Howard is wailing, “I didn’t’ do it. I didn’t do it.” And then, “I won’t do it again. I won’t do it again.” So goes phase two of the crime-and-punishment trifecta.

Crime Number Three

Howard and I are only about a year and a half apart in age. Most parents know that siblings so close in age, especially if they are of the same sex, are continually arguing and fighting all the way through high school. Howard and I are no exception. What makes matters worse between us, occasionally I can get the better of my older brother and make him cry “uncle” in a fight. That really infuriates him.

As an aside, with most fighting on The Farm, once someone cries uncle, the victor releases the loser and the skirmish is over. The conflict isn’t meant to inflict pain. It’s just to establish dominance. We don’t shake hands or anything like that, but the fight is over, at least for the moment.

Mom and Dad don’t condone fighting, but they recognize that sometimes it’s a way for kids, especially us boys, to release energy and tension, as well as settle disputes. When they witness fighting, they immediately break it up. If it appears to be particularly malicious, punishment will be forthcoming. Lots of pushing, shoving and threats occur, but surprisingly few fights.

There’s always some friendly wrestling going on, maybe out on the lawn or up in the hay loft. But it’s mostly to emulate the wrestling holds we saw Saturday night on TV. The 1950’s were a big-time era for professional wrestling, and its popularity on TV adds to the allure. For many young lads, Gorgeous George and Verne Gagne are names better known than that of the president of the United States. This is especially true in a hotbed wrestling state like Iowa.

WRESTLING ICONS – As wrestling pioneers during the First Golden Era of Professional Wrestling in the 1940s and 1950s, George “Gorgeous George” Wagner (left) and Verne Gagne have both been inducted into the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame.

Howard and I are in the barn late in the afternoon of this same fateful day, passing the time until evening chores come due. We’re practicing a new wrestling move seen on TV last Saturday night by Verne Gagne. Howard’s sure he can escape from the hold we saw and asks me to get him in the hold. I oblige, but my brother can’t escape. This incenses him. The harder he tries, the more firm is the hold and the cockier I become. The only way I’ll release Howard is if he cries uncle, which he eventually does. But by now, Howard can’t control his temper, and what had been a wrestling match is now a fight, with tumbling, scratching, punching and so forth. This is taking place during one of those infrequent periods where younger brother can get the better of the older. And it happens again in this fight. I get Howard in a head lock and am squeezing hard to get him to say uncle. In exasperation, Howard gets hold of my arm and takes a big chomp on it.

I scream in anguish, release my brother, and run crying to the house. Two minutes later, Mom appears in the barn with me in tow. The teeth marks and blood on my arm are undeniable, and, surprisingly, Howard doesn’t try to lie his way out of it. The crime has been established. Will there be punishment?

As mentioned earlier, some fights go unpunished. However, there’s a well-known rule on The Farm that any intent to seriously injure will automatically be grounds for punishment. The teeth marks are all Mom needs to make her decision. She knows Howard has already gone through two spankings today, so part of her wants to be lenient. But the part of her that works 24 hours a day to maintain discipline and order on The Farm has the dominant voice.

She grabs Howard by the arm, turns him around and starts spanking. This time, though, there is no wailing of “I didn’t do it. I didn’t do it”, or “I won’t do it again, I won’t do it again”. There are just the cries of an eleven-year-old boy receiving his third butt-warming of the day. The crime-and-punishment trifecta is over.

Next Week: Nick tries his hand at (covertly) making wine in “Grapes of Wrath.”