dream ranch

~ All sky, no cattle ~


I hope the only explanation for this photo is that it was Halloween 1954 outside the Quonset hut we called home in Iowa City, Iowa, and that my mother had to do some quick costume thinking while my father, who wouldn’t have been interested anyway, attended the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa.

Mom always got a kick out of the photograph while I, bending over in a headscarf, center, could be about to barf. My brother Pat, also in a headscarf, is to my right.

Despite my apparent discomfort here, little did I know of trickier Halloween challenges lying ahead in Las Vegas and Santa Fe, New Mexico.

But Iowa City, where my father got his master’s degree, was our first home away from Granville, Ohio, and post-war student housing there on the Denison University campus. My parents were still starting out, married only since 1948 and both then Denison undergraduates. My mother, although she would prove to be courageous, was the youngest of her close family. So, both grandfathers — Homer W. Robertson and John L. Bjelke — came to inspect more student housing a couple of states away.

Here they are on the front step of a repurposed Iowa City Quonset hut with my mother, Patrick and me. Brother Rob was still an infant. And if that is a black Dodge parked in front, it would be grandfather Robertson’s, for he seemed to always drive black Dodges and grandfather Bjelke, around this time, had a gray Studebaker with the pointy nose.


Here we are inside in the Iowa City Quonset hut: Homer Robertson, or Pa, and John Robertson, left; Patrick Robertson and John Bjelke, or Far, right. I have few memories of life there, other than that it’s where my father began to read us poetry — starting with Theodore Roethke’s “Dirty Dinky” — and that he had a .45 caliber pistol that, legend has it, he traded to Iowa City painter Harold Eastman for a painting called “Daisy and Tilly, Lazy and Silly,” now with me in Placitas, 65 years later. Oh, and there were some woods across the road, known as the “Deep Dark Woods.”


The two grandfathers drove together to Iowa City from Granville. I think they also visited our previous Iowa City residence, the Hawkeye Villiage trailer park below, and probably were relieved to see the upgrade to the Quonset hut — one of many that I guess were put to use in Iowa City and elsewhere to house the post-World War II flood of college students on the GI Bill.

I don’t know how it was possible, but I think all five of my immediate family, plus the two grandfathers, actually spent at least one night in one of these trailers. The trailer had a kitchen sink, I think with running water, but I also recall bathing trips to the laundry house in the center of the village — possibly the pitched roof building at right in the photo. I don’t remember the trailer’s other plumbing options.

At least for this visit, our trailer was partitioned with Army blankets. While more of us were still alive, there was an often-told story of one of the blanket partitions falling or being pulled down in the middle of the night, revealing the two cramped grandfathers, sitting up and playing cribbage to pass the time.

Subsequent reports had it that both grandfathers, who had made it through the World War 1, Great Depression and World War 11 eras and maintained neat-as-a-pin homes and gardens, were at least a little shell-shocked by the Iowa City visits.

Hawkeye Village, Iowa City, 1947

Frederick W. Kent Collection of Photographs, 1866-2000

Here is the aforementioned Hawkeye Village kitchen sink, with my mother and brother, Rob.

Mom and Rob, Iowa City

My mother’s domestic adventures had only begun — a new life with three wonderful daughters was still to come — but it already was a long way from her first family and two-story home in Granville with the white picket fence at 128 South Main, shown more recently, below.

Scan 6

Front row: Nancy Jane, my mother; and her sisters, Eleanor and Barbara. Back: Brother Jack and patriarch, John L. Bjelke. I think this must have been taken shortly after the death of my grandmother, Frances.

Bjelke home, Granville, Ohio

The former Bjelke home in Granville. Living room was to the right; dining room, breakfast room and sun room to the back, right; kitchen at the back, left; lavatory with Farmer’s Almanac on a string, ground floor, left, near coal chute; basement below, where “Far” smoked his pipe and heard the news of the Pearl Harbor attack on the radio; Uncle Jack, I think I was told, would later enter Tokoyo Bay on a U.S. Navy minesweeper. In the 1950’s there was an extensive garden in back with fat tomatoes. Hobos left chalk or charcoal messages on the white picket fence and Grandmother Frances Bjelke, while John L. Bjelke was mayor and ran the Mayberry like jail just up the street, gave them food and took it up to the jail if someone happened to be spending the night. The family lived here for many years, but my mother was born in another Granville home, on a hillside near the start of the Newark-Granville Road.