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From his column A Minute with Don

minute-with-don-11-14-1I’m not sure how often one has to do something in order for it to become a tradition, nor am I certain about when a comfortable routine becomes a rut; however, I know it can happen.

For the past several years, I’ve made a trip every Memorial Day weekend to visit the graves of several family members. I have a circuitous route that takes me through the back roads of northern Missouri into some small communities in southern Iowa. My people, back to the middle of the 19th century, settled and raised families in that part of the country. They were farmers, miners, and small town merchants who had immigrated from Germany and Scotland in search of a better life for themselves and their children. My journey to the communities of my roots always leaves me amazed at the collective perseverance that shaped my family tree.

There are certain constants one discovers in visiting the final resting place of deceased relatives. You certainly don’t need to call ahead or be concerned about catching them off guard. And unless there has been a significant flood, they’re probably right where you left them on your last trip. Death has a way of curing all manner of wanderlust.

I have discovered that each trip, even though it follows a similar route to the same locations, brings new information about my roots. Since this is a weekend for any number of folks to make similar trips, I’ve occasionally had conversations with others in some of these remote cemeteries about their relatives and histories. Of course, given the small town nature of the setting, I’ve learned some things about the local communities which certainly would have been part of my family’s experience. If you don’t want to learn anything “colorful” about your family, don’t spend too much time discussing your ancestors with others.

On my most recent trip I had some extra time, so I stopped at a couple of locations which aren’t part of my regular routine. One was a remote cemetery on the outskirts of the small town of Cincinnati in southern Iowa. (It seems the early founders of some rural towns had much higher hopes for their community’s growth than would ever materialize.) Most persons laid to rest there were born in the 19th century—some in the early decades. One such grave was that of James Walter. He was born in 1816 and deceased in 1861. As nearly as I can discover, he was my great-great-grandfather. He’d made the trip from Ohio to Iowa in the early days of Iowa statehood. Many of his descendants would spend their entire lives within a dozen or so miles of his final resting place.

It was also with interest that I discovered on my great-grandfather’s headstone the symbols for a couple of “secret orders.” He was killed in a mining accident in 1911 at the age of 57. I’ve been told he was a faithful attender of the local Disciples of Christ congregation, but apparently he also was a member of the Odd Fellows lodge, and the Knights of Pythias. I guess it’s okay to reveal this, since he never would have known about the Church of the Nazarene or its prohibition against joining secret orders. And since he seemed to like to join benevolent organizations, if he had known of the Church of the Nazarene, he might have been intrigued by them as well.

One of the more interesting tales I discovered was during a stop in the small Iowa town of Exline, on the Missouri state line about 90 miles southwest of Des Moines. My father’s family has roots there, so I’d taken a short detour off my main route to drive down the main street of this hamlet. An enterprising merchant has opened a general store in the center of town, offering snacks, antiques, short order meals, and memorabilia. Several locals had gathered for lunch, and I noted with some interest that mine was the only foreign made car parked along the block.

While perusing the store’s merchandise, I noticed a large, spiral bound volume purporting to be “The History of Exline, 2005.” I couldn’t resist thumbing through the pages and, as anticipated, found some family stories and pictures. Due to some unfortunate family circumstances, my father and his brother, at a very early age, had been taken in by an aunt and uncle, Virgil and Ruthie Walter. Uncle Virgil and Aunt Ruthie raised the two boys as their own.

You can imagine my delight when I discovered a story in the chronicle of Exline about Virgil shooting an elephant. The historians who compiled the book revealed that in 1913 an elephant had escaped from a holding area maintained by a circus in northern Missouri. For a number of days, the elephant roamed and harassed the environs of northern Missouri and southern Iowa. There were tales of it attacking horses and riders that tried to corral it, and even one account of it leaning against a house threatening the stability of the small frame abode. When the elephant encountered a barbed wire fence, he’d simply push the wire to the ground with his foot and walk on unimpeded.

The storytellers related how someone in the area gave my great-uncle Virgil a Winfield rifle and sent him in the general direction of the last sighting of the elephant. As it turns out, Virgil encountered the beast on a farm outside Exline. He fired two shots just behind the pachyderm’s right front leg. Initially there was no response, but within a few minutes the elephant collapsed and died. And so my great uncle Virgil became the only known person to ever hunt and kill a free roaming elephant in the state of Iowa. The carcass was buried on the spot where the animal fell. For a number of years, the family who owned the farm apparently displayed portions of the tusks taken from the pachyderm before it was buried. And the storytellers surmise that someday an enterprising paleontologist will be digging in southern Iowa, discover Virgil’s kill, and declare that at some time in history elephants roamed freely across the middle of America’s plains.

I enjoyed pondering this story as I ate lunch at the Bluebird Cafe on the square in Centerville, Iowa. The establishment has been in business at the current location since 1926. My grandmother once worked here as a young mother, arriving early each day to do all of the baking which would be needed for the daily customers. Based on the pictures in the restaurant, it appears to have the same ceramic tile flooring which was installed prior to 1926 when the building housed a drugstore. Just a few feet away from the front door is the spot where my mother and father met for the first time on a Saturday evening in the late 1930s. She had come to town with her girlfriends to walk on the square, and he’d made the trip from Exline to the county seat. I’m glad they got acquainted that evening.

My traditional trek of my family’s old haunts began with little expectation of finding anything unusual or interesting. After all, I’d made the trip many times, and the chances of discovering anything new where the main destinations are cemeteries seemed slim. It would be, at best, a routine spring journey through the countryside. But before the day was over, I’d again found new elements of rich, personal history in places I would least expect. I gained a slightly different understanding of some of the personalities that shaped my family. In short, I knew a little more about me.

So what about you? Are you in a phase of life characterized by “been there, done that”? We all eventually face such times with the church or along our spiritual journey when life seems a routine that holds little promise of anything new. But then we come across the story of a marauding elephant, or a brave pioneer, and realize who we are and that what we have and enjoy are much more than what meets our jaded gaze. The secret ingredient for such discovery is a willingness to move aside from the routine path, take a little extra time, and open our eyes to new perspectives.

How would you alter your routine and schedule if you knew you could shake off some dust and encounter a new revelation? Might it be taking a different route to work or school? Or finding time to stop and explore intriguing locations along the highway of your normal travels. As I’ve grown older, I think I have begun to discover that life is only as boring as I decide to let it become.

Consider allowing God to lift your gaze, encourage your soul, and refresh your spirit. Don’t be resistant to making a few changes in your habits and traditions. It may be surprising what you learn.

Don Walter is director of Pensions and Benefits USA for the Church of the Nazarene.

Illustration above is from story in the September 30, 1923, Kansas City Star.

Editor’s Note: An online version of the Elephant Hunt in Appanoose County may be found here.

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