What Iowa would Frank Miller draw?


Managing Editor

Storm Lake, Iowa

I miss Frank Miller. He died a long time ago, when I worked at the Algona Upper Des Moines newspaper. I grew up with him but never met him. I learned to read with him.

When the Des Moines Register announced that its Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist died, with an empty box but for his signature, I remember walking the two blocks to the Kossuth County Courthouse in a daze.

This may seem an overreaction from one of thousands of readers. Or, it may have been a premonition of how Iowa would change. I think a little bit of our state died that day with Frank Miller in the Merle Hay shopping mall parking lot -- not of a heart attack, as he did, but of a dry rot.

THE REGISTER occasionally uses a Miller sketch, as it did on a recent Sunday with an editorial about urban sprawl. The sketch overpowered the editorial, which I could only skim. It was an ink drawing of a barn amid trees, and for me evoked an Iowa I once knew and fear we have lost.

It occurred to me, as it often has, that the great debate in our state is what we have lost and what we are becoming.

The hog lot fracas is not so much about groundwater as it is about how Iowans conduct their affars. We always have had manure and flies and cattle defecating in creeks. We have not had huge corporations owning our agriculture -- at least not blatantly as it is now. We are becoming a state of hired hands, a transitory people whose interest is vested more in a 401K plan than in our neighbors.

We have turned the one-room schoolhouse into a museum site along the lake. Instead we consolidated schools, dried up small towns, put in computers, hooked up to the Internet and watched our test scores start to slide. People who argue against putting cops in the schools here fear not so much a police state as they do the loss of a civil society. No longer can we control the occasional hooligan through a football coach.

We drive to Wal-Mart to buy everything we need, and walk Main Street asking merchants for donations for this cause and that, oblivious to who our neighbors are and how they eat.

IT TAKES A GREATER man than me to articulate what it is that Iowa was, just a decade ago, just before the farm crisis, and how it has changed and depreciated. But I know it has.

The industrialization of agriculture, the depersonalization of communities, the crazy wave of business and institutional consolidation, all seem to weave together into an uncomely fabric that apparently cannot be unwoven.

This is not the rolling state of happy working people that Grant Wood depicted. Maybe it never was. Stone City is abandoned after a brief fantasy.

There had to have been a truth in those colorful, corned hills that produced the great men and women like Norman Borlaug, Henry Wallace, Harold Hughes and Ruth Suckow. Today, we produce Robert Waller (Bridges of Madison County) and Jane Smiley (1,000 Acres), who move to ranches in Texas and California to dump their spouses.

The Des Moines Register, sold to an out-of-state corporation, is retracting to its golden circle immediately around the metro area, the state is funding school technology with revenues from gambling, and the leaders of the Des Moines chamber of commerce are hirelings for foreign corporations.

THAT WALK TO THE courthouse in Algona took me past a bank that was grand in its time in Greek revival style. It was bought by United Bancshares (now Boatman's, I think) and covered up in glass that reflected the courthouse square.

I remember seeing myself in that glass, and I think:

I knew that place that Frank Miller drew, not so long ago. He probably couldn't tell me where it went if he were here today. But it would be interesting to see what he would draw.

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