Prompt from Ruth Conn: Warm summer nite and the neighborhood kids have a game of kick the can going while the adults talk about the latest local scandal.
Back in 1977 I was working for Nutrena Feeds in northern Iowa. I was a travelling salesperson, calling on hog farmers door to door. I had moved from Belmond, population around 2500 to Clear Lake, a resort community of about 8000 people. I lived in an apartment building near the cemetary and called on the local farmers on the north side of Highway 18.
I didn’t know anyone in Clear Lake, but it was a hopping town in the summer, and I got to know a few folks. There was a softball league so I decided to join in order to make friends. I was randomly assigned a team—it was sponsored by The Clear Lake Bakery and most of the players were workers at the bakery.
We played other local teams, fortunately not a competitive group or I would have been in trouble. I had never played softball on a team before—any talent I had came from playing catch with my brothers, PE class in school, and a natural athletic ability. My teammates were welcoming. They were curious, but kind. I was asked the “normal” questions, like, “Where do you work?” and “Are you from around these parts?” and “What’s it like in Montana?” And one or two of the bolder players would ask, “What country are you from?” the nicer version of “What nationality are you?”
The league played through the summer, starting in the late spring when the weather was often wet and cool through the hot, muggy, prime corn growing months of July and August. I missed a few games due to travel for work, but I mostly traveled locally within a 15 mile radius—it always amazed me that there could be enough farms to support a salesman in such a small area. In Montana it would take a 300 mile radius to capture the same number of farms and ranches.
I wore my Clear Lake Bakery softball jersey with pride. I belonged! I was part of the team. And even though I didn’t see these folks on a day to day basis, they took me in on the Thursday nights we played ball.
One evening, towards the end of the season one of the players invited us to her home after the game. We sat in the backyard of her modest one-story home on folding and lawn chairs. Her kids were playing with other teammates’ kids, running in the fenced-in yard, games of tag and kick the can going while us adults drank beer and chatted about nothing at all.
I was sitting next to one of the bakers, a tall Jack Spratt kind of guy, too lean to have eaten many of the buns and donuts that he made every day. We had been talking about his work, how early he had to start every day to allow for the mixing and blending, letting the yeast do its work before baking or frying, all in time for a 6:30 doors opening deadline. We ran out of talk, and I had the sense he was making a move for me.
I shifted uncomfortably, the pause in the conversation lengthening, the darkness of the evening hiding our expressions. I turned to him, ready to embark on another open-ended question about his work, when he turned to me, and said, “I have false teeth.”
In my life, I have had people disclose interesting and personal details of their lives. Don’t ask me why, I guess maybe I am a good listener. My mechanic once told me which wet wipes he used in the bathroom, and why one brand was better than another for wiping his tush. He even offered to give me a package to try—in all seriousness and sincerity.
So when this baker, in his attempt to make conversation, fed me the line, “I have false teeth,” I could go nowhere but to say, “Oh, really? What’s that like?” Politely, earnestly, with a questioning look on my face. He took my question and ran with it—he told me how they worked, how he had to care for them, and how easy they were to put in. And then, before I could respond, he dropped his teeth in front of me.
Like, didn’t he use Polident? Weren’t they supposed to be, sort of, glued in? I had never seen anything like it before in my life. Yep, he was a gummer alright. And the teeth did do their job for him, he was much more attractive with them in his mouth than without.
I made it through the night without any more intimate disclosures and the season ended without further ado. I’ve told this story many times, my mother laughed the hardest I had ever seen her laugh. I think fondly of the Clear Lake Bakery team, their warm acceptance of me, the free donut occasionally when I would stop in.
And the magic of a warm Iowa evening when our closest held secrets escaped.