Mean Street USA
Oh don’t let this photograph fool you. Sure, it’s peaceful looking on Mean Street, the main road rolling down from King’s Hill up where the cemetery overlooks the Nodaway River Valley. The street, once upon a time lined with stately elms, was named for Melvin Mean, founder of the Chicken Licken factory south of town. These days, it’s where mostly foreigners with dark skin and narrow eyes work. It’s said that no self-respecting native with white skin and big blue eyes, like those hereabout, would stoop to working there. And, you betcha, I have it on good faith that Melbin Mean (a distant kin of Melvin Mean) would rather clean latrines at the swimming pool than stoop to Chicken Licken. He told me personally, “It stinks,” although it was unclear exactly what he was talking about, the latrines or the Chicken Licken-thing. Perhaps, to Melbin they’re one and the same.
If you study the photograph I saved specifically for your enjoyment, you’ll see that my hometown has empty streets. Taken with a Brownie Hawkeye, the image says a lot about the dreaded Dutch Elm disease that swept Iowa in the ’50s around the time Elvis gathered steam and screwed up his life. The peculiar form of elm disease that decimated every tree in town (elms were the only trees planted in 1840), made a genetic leap from embellishing the lofty bowers to the flesh and bones of Homo-sapiens populating the area. It was peculiar, to say the least. Damned so.
It all began when Ulice, the firstborn of Rolly and Polly Udderson expanded the Valley population to 1, 113. Delivered by Doc “Oz” Marvel, the 10-pound boy emerged screaming and hollering like all-bloody get out, perhaps because he came with — not a full head of flaming, red locks like his Irish ma Polly, but rather his pate was naked except for a topping of what seemed to be a slender branch with a green bud growing upward from where it planted dead-center on his soft, pink skull. It wasn’t a pretty sight, but it wasn’t exactly ugly either. As I said before …. peculiar.
Rolly and Polly thought this event not entirely unnatural, for indeed, the blessed two had witnessed many such birthing oddities on their farm north of town: the midnight arrival of a blue calf with six eyes; a trio of two-headed chickens with a common beak; and, on a full-moon night last winter, the birth of a pure white bull with a pure white twin attached to its massive back. Naturally, folks flocked from miles around to visit the Udderson Farm, figuring it gave them something to do on any given Sunday when righteous stores were closed tight on Mean Street. Baby Ulice was trotted out so all who came could see the branch with the budding leaf topping his skull, but only in the summer. His parents were savvy enough not to showcase their baby’s pate in the winter when the protruding branch was entirely leafless and well, pretty boring, especially if you paid a whole 25 cents to take a look. Did I mention the birth of the “cowchic,” the result of a cow humping a chicken in the Udderson barn? That surely was a difficult pairing, but the resulting offspring produces both milk and eggs. Well, it is the chicken in it that produces the milk, and the cow in it that lays eggs.
A month after the birth of Ulice, around August when the Valley heat caused dogs with lop ears to drop dead in their tracks, Goose Webster, the local Bible salesman, awoke to a strange change taking place on the soles of his once baby-soft feet. Ordinarily, Goose slept with his wool socks on (don’t ask me how I know this), but on this particular night he’d removed them for their monthly washing. At dawn’s early light, sitting on the edge of the sagging feather bed, Goose took a moment from his prayers to examine his feet in all of their naked glory and was stunned to find the undersides encased in something similar to the bark of elms. That’s to say, they were rough, gray and thick. It wasn’t a pretty sight, but it wasn’t exactly ugly either. And, okay it wasn’t normal either, but then again, was it normal to have a town constable with one arm or a local seventh-grader sporting an eye made of blue glass ordered from a Montgomery Ward catalog? And, I’m not even mentioning the infamous axe murder of 1912, wherein a mysterious slab of bacon was found propped in the house where twelve were slaughtered while sleeping. Don’t get me started. Okay?
Doc Marvel admitted he’d never seen the likes of “bark foot” in allof his peculiar years of Valley doings; however, the bark didn’t seem to be causing harm to Goose the Bible salesman, and Goose (don’t ask me how I know this), adjusted happily and quickly to his new soles, figuring they were so thick that he needn’t wear socks ever again….or shoes, for that matter. And I no longer had to wash his socks. So, now you know. His Bible sales increased greatly.
Things gained speed shortly thereafter with Doc Marvel’s office practically splitting its seams when endless streams of Valley residents came in with symptoms of what was eventually deemed by the Valley Health Department to be a mutant offshoot of Dutch Elm Disease (DED). Specialists drove in from Omaha to study the diverse peculiarities, bringing with them potions and lotions and poisons and chainsaws, and, in the case of the truly creative among the scientists, bags of root fertilizer to be spread on the residents, morning, noon and night. Not everyone thought the fertilizer regimen was a good idea, primarily because it was manufactured from odiferous chicken manure. In the end, everyone agreed it was preferable to the solution involving chainsaws.
To the left of the street’s southwestern view is the town park with its lone memorial to World War II. As I mentioned before, all of the elms died of DED and were removed in the ’50s, leaving the park back then as nude as a dancer at Omaha’s Warm Cradle Club.
That no longer is the case. If you were to visit the Valley (south on Hwy. 71, turn left when you reach the big fiberglass hog), it’s true you’d find me, and only me, in town. There I’ll be, in the formerly naked park, surrounded by all my friends and relatives who have taken root (blame it on the chicken-shit fertilizer), and over the years, flourished come rain, snow, sleet or hail.
That’s Ulice rooted in near his folks. Squint a bit, and you can still see a tag inscriptioon: “Udderson Farm. See Ulice for 25 cents.” Melbin and Melvin are a few feet south of the memorial and a bit east of Goose the Bible Salesman, who is known far and wide for his majestic bark soles. Be assured not everyone is rooted in the park centering the square; some are up on King’s Hill or standing guard at the swimming pool. A few lesser citizens (latrine cleaners and all) are dug in near the viaduct where hoboes hang out, and a few even lesser than those hanging with hoboes (politicians mainly) are lending summer shade outside of the arched bedroom windows at Hotel Desiree, former home to generous ladies. Mayor Orvis Slumpit made the decision about who was planted where, and he was the last one standing on the day he noticed the beginnings of a branch poking through his left nostril. That left only me (fortunately disease-free). So, it was I who assigned the good mayor Slumpit a spot near City Hall. He looks real happy, don’t you think?
Historians will write that I was lucky to have escaped the disease, but well, I’m not so sure. And, I’m certainly not so sure as to why out of all 1,113 folks, I was spared, especially since I never attend church. Doc Marvel had his theories (that’s him over there near Goose), but I have none, though perhaps I was fated to live to write this. Every ten years, I’m invited to London and Washington, D.C., where medical greats inspect me from stem to stern, searching studiously for signs of bark, branches, and/or leaves. In the spring of last year, I had a scare when a twig was discovered on my head, but nothing came of that when the doctors determined it was dropped there by a nesting crow.
The results of my 2009 examination were good, thank you. But there is some concern over a tiny bud at the tip of my tongue.