By Patrick Irelan
My father is holding me in his arms at the big parking lot in Ottumwa. I can smell the packinghouse where Uncle Clell and Uncle Emmett work. My mother and sister stand beside us. A big crowd fills the parking lot. Some of the people are black. Some are white. The lot has no cars in it that day. Behind us, some boys have climbed up on top of the steel bridge. I wonder if the boys will fall into the river.
Up the river from the bridge, the water spills over one part of the dam. At one end of the dam, a building made of yellow-orange blocks sticks out into the river. I like to look at the building and its windows, although I don’t know why it’s there.
Up the street from the bridge, a little building stands at the entrance to the parking lot. The building has chairs where people can sit and rest. It also has toilets. I wonder if the black policewoman is in the building, making sure the men sit on one side and the women and children sit on the other.
My mother and I go to the little building sometimes after she goes shopping in the stores beyond the Burlington Railroad tracks. A man comes out of his little one-man house and holds up a sign whenever a train crosses the street. I got lost in a big store once. I was scared, but a lady helped me find my mother.
The people in the parking lot are looking at a train stopped beside the depot. My father works in another building along the tracks, but I don’t know where. Most of the men in the crowd wear overalls or other work clothes. The women wear dresses. Some of the dresses have flowers on them. Some people are more dressed up. A lot of the men and women have brought their children. The children wear clothes like mine, although I don’t remember what their clothes or mine looked like.
All the grownups are looking at a man who’s standing on a platform at the end of the train. The man has on a suit and tie like the ones men wear to church on Sunday. He holds his hat in his hand. I can hear the man talking, even though he’s a long ways away. It’s like hearing someone talking at the county fair. The man talks loudly. He moves his hands as he talks.
I don’t understand anything the man says, but the grownups understand. They clap their hands, and some of the men shout. A man in front of us yells, “Give ‘em hell, Harry.”
That’s all I remember about that day in the 1940’s.
Patrick Irelan has had over twenty of his essays and short stories published in magazines, literary journals, and anthologies such as Kansas Quarterly, Crosscurrents, and Prairie Weather. In 2002, the University of Iowa Press published his family memoir, Central Standard: A Time, a Place, a Family.
Photo of Harry S. Truman courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.
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