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COLUMNIST: Going home again to Bailey woods

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"You boys stay away from that cabin!" That was ma. It was around 1954, summer, and we hadn't been at Aunt Stell's and Uncle Pat's place up by the Bailey woods more'n two minutes. Two other cousins had come out of the house running to meet us when we arrived, and then we were all running, heading for the woods like the devil was on our tail. We heard someone's mom also holler: "And stay out of that river!"

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Sure. You bet. Four boys all around the age of 9 or 10, uh huh. River. Log cabin. Hardly any attraction there.

The Bailey woods, up in northeast Iowa where we were all growing up, was the last big wooded area around, I'd guess somewhere in the square mile range, and right through the middle of it ran the Wapsipinicon River, a river that rarely got over four feet deep in summer, which may have been the only reason the moms would let us loose, assuming they could have done otherwise.

Back around the late 1800's, ma's Grampa Sloan homesteaded 40 acres on the edge of that woods, and later purchased some more, just to make sure he had access to the trapping and hunting that the woods offered. He'd'of been pushing 50 years of age, more or less, and, him never having known any life except trapping the tributaries that fed the Mississippi, maybe felt like settling down for a winter or two, and pulling muskrat and beaver a little closer to home. Especially with his half-Wisconsin Indian wife, who may have been getting a little fed up with being left alone so much.

One of their daughters was my mother's mother, and she had grown up, married, and went into the wheat raising business out in North Dakota. All that came to an abrupt end in the thirties when the depression hit, and they lost their farm out there, after which they came back to Bailey to start over. That's where mom grew up, and where a bunch of her brothers and sisters didn't stray too far from, so some Sundays when kin all gathered on that side of the family, it was usually there we did it.

Most of the memories I remember ma talking about were about growing up in the depression, scouring the railroad beds for chunks of coal that might have fallen off (or, we later were told, were thrown off by my mother, who often got up on the moving coal car and helped some fall off). Plus there was a lot of wild game that made it to the table for food, and she was good at that too--deer out of the woods, squirrel, trout out of the Wapsi--you name it.

When dad began courting mom, Grandpa Sloan--now pushing 90--was still in the log cabin by Bailey, which he had originally built there many years before. Some of his mental processes had begun to slip a few gears, and apparently dad reminded him of a fellow trapper with whom he had spend winters with in Wisconsin, invading Indian territory and Indian trapping ranges that they wanted for themselves. He was a tough old bird, according to ma, with a crooked arm from a rattlesnake bite and a crooked leg that he had broken out in the wilderness one winter and set with a splint carved from a tree limb.

When dad would drive in to fetch mom, Grandpa Sloan would shout at him: "Hey Daniel! Get over here quick!" Dad would get over there, Grandpa Sloan would pull him into the cabin and put a rifle in his hands, saying: "They're coming. Best get ready." Dad always assumed that somewhere along the way, what with a half-Indian woman in his possession, he had angered some tribe somewhere. Finally, ma would come over and rescue dad, and they'd go on their date.

Dad, growin' up a pretty straight German Methodist, probably wasn't fully prepared for ma's side of the family, but he learned quick.

So when the families got together in Bailey, we lit out for another log cabin out in the middle of the woods as quick as we could. This one was built by the local boy scouts, down by the river. There was a swinging cable footbridge across the river just west of the cabin, and a little past that, a spring that ran the coldest bestest water any thirsty boy ever drank. Plus we were half a mile away from any grownups, too far for them to want to come get us. We played a lot of cops and robbers and cowboys and Indians there.

I hadn't been there in 40-some years when, while down there last fall, my brother said he'd heard the park service had bought the whole woods. Be darned if there now wasn't a road right up to the cabin. Be even further darned if the cabin wasn't for rent, so right then and there, we decided to all get together for pheasant hunting opener in Iowa last weekend, and stay at that cabin. There was one light bulb in there now--when there hadn't ever been electricity within a mile before--and a small wood stove. The inside of the cabin smelled just like I remember it--wood smoky and familiar.

So there we were, grown men getting along in age, clambering over the swinging bridge, which still looks like it did back then--just barely safe. Then drinking out of the spring and getting water to cook in and wash dishes, and finally talking about all the memories we had of the place. The relatives, aunts and uncles and cousins and all.

As we reminisced late into the night, in this cabin that hasn't changed a lick since we were boys in it, we felt closer to our own sets of parents--who are all long gone now. We felt closer to feeling young again, because of the memories they let us have all these years later of running the Bailey woods together.

They say you can't go home again.

They're wrong.

"You boys stay away from that cabin!"

We're still not listening.

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