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Leighton Park

Leighton Park said nothing as they changed her name. Gossip said the Leighton family had failed to add a cent to the original bequest. And, anyway, they all moved to the North Side. And wasn't there something about a German marriage around the time of World War II? Opinion insisted on renaming the park; and she became Riverside Park although the river was quite a ways away. The great wrought iron arch over the entrance with the rust and missing 'G' was replaced with a brass plaque, which quickly grew dim. That plaque named a mayor, a city manager, and a head of the DPW but did not mention the original name.

All this was nothing to the park itself. She had survived WWII and even less necessary wars. For me it was always Leighton because Grandma Tom would pretend not to understand when I said I was going to Riverside. Leighton was two and a half miles of dirt road from my childhood home.

In summer, back then, I made regular private excursions with my bicycle to Leighton to straighten out both of us from the throwing down and curb jumping of our paper route and grocery deliveries. In winter the park was a long walk, pulling a Flexible Flyer for the sake of Leighton's single giant hill. The road I used to get to Leighton in every season had not been lime-rocked in many years, was never oiled, and seldom plowed. Graft and corruption, explained Mr. Hayes. Mr. Hayes had the only house on my road near the entrance to Leighton and was my source of gossip and opinion. In courtesy I would stop and talk to him about the park. But what I liked most about that back road was the weeds and wild flowers on both sides in spring, the brown grass and corn stubble stretching away West and East in late fall, the sagging fences marking property, and the tired lines carrying phone messages from God knows where. I liked the cold or mud or dust or leaf-covered fall and country peace of it. It was a good approach.

Walking or on the bicycle, with or without excuse, Leighton provided the thing to do when I wanted aloneness. Meeting me from the age-opposite end of aloneness, Mr. Hayes devoted many one-sided conversations to the park. He liked that a young fellow could openly admire the park. Leighton was his only neighbor, a statement he made each time I spoke with him. And cars used the main road and wouldn't have stopped anyway. From him I learned Leighton's history with many instances of bungling and self-interest that mark all civic history. I learned of Leighton's private affairs as well. The park's cared-for appearance, he said, was mainly owing to two old boys who had worked for years for the DPW. From time to time they would excuse themselves from the DPW depot card game and drive out to Leighton to prune and clear. It was their hobby. I don't know what's going to happen to her without them, he said. Mr. Hayes also told me that the patches of late annuals, and even the hydrangeas and asters, were the work of a nameless old woman who was driven out there by her daughter, it appeared, and threw seeds and cuttings from her garden into surprising corners of Leighton Park. In a good year, you could have the color both of leaves and flowers simultaneously at Leighton.

At one hundred and eighty acres, the inside of Leighton featured a winding roadway with three or four loops, and paths, and rows of forsythia and spirea here and there, and a balance of mostly brush-cleared, diverse woods. A thrice-bridged little creek ran through Leighton. You have to say that as "crick." And there were several clearings of rye grass for picnics or other gatherings, indifferently mowed. All these plants and low woods and grass were dominated by ancient elm and oak although there was also some younger maple, at a mere fifty years or so. The elm and oak sat like the spikes of a crown upon the head of Leighton's one great hill. They were set apart from everything else by a great down slope of grass and a fall off, called "the cliff," behind. That is where I would sled and where my people and others would sit and make their picnics. There were other trees, larch and few birch and beach and one or two willow near the creek. But those elm and oak presided over it all. Their age, I was told, was older than God.

Because of these trees, Leighton offered composure, there in that corner of Iowa so far from the sea or the mountain's majesty. Nothing, not the cracked and rain pooled narrow roadways, not the remnant benches nor the old all-but-abandoned baseball fields out away from everything, could disturb that generous composure.

In our many rites of passage Leighton played her role. There was the cliff, a crumbled and complicated steep rock wall back of the great hill that required climbing as a kind of test. The heedless, knowing no fear, did it in a herd shouting discouragements at each other. Others of us did it privately at first for practice, just in case we fell and were shamed by a broken arm. In company you had to start at the center of the bottom and go straight up, more or less. The great trees at the crest of the hill watched. Below lay space and rubble. The achievement of view upon success was that gently slopping four acre rye grass lawn beginning at the crest of the hill below the great trees.

Those trees also watched the trials of our rubber band powered model planes we spent hours creating in whatever private space we were allotted at home. That space for me was very generous. My father had died in the polio epidemic when I was five. My brother had died before him, so there was only my sister, mom, and my grandmother. These planes were not war models but the trainers, spotters, and cubs build for flying not for death dealing. With them we learned the handling of glue, paper, and the tensile strength of balsa wood struts. I and a few others also had larger, more imaginative private concoctions which were powered with the long bands of rubber twisted up with an especially fitted hand drill until the knotted mass was hidden inside the frail body and beat upon the insides as it drove the great hand-formed propellers in flights of six and eight and twelve minutes. We sat them free from beneath the great trees into the high air created by the slope of the hill. Twelve minutes. That is almost forever. They circled in the calm air and the slight updraft. I was very expert at this flying and even felt superior to intimidating fathers who would acquire and fly gas motor driven models which cost a fortune.

The churches, Evans Junior High School, the men's clubs and the unions all organized their events at Leighton from time to time. Uncounted hotdogs were eaten. They came from the John Morrell plant on the west side of town, with ketchup bottled in Muscatine from tomatoes grown on the truck farms along the Mississippi, on buns from Lowenberg's Bakery on the east side.

Marking the beginning of fall was Labor Day, which Ike had declared to avoid the traditional May Day celebrations after the big strikes in '47 and '48. Our town had two factories, meat packing and farm implements, and two big unions with long traditions. There had been strikes and demonstrations and sit-ins in the thirties. Three men had been killed by the National Guard at the Morrell plant in 1934. The '47 and '48 strikes were almost as militant. So, in the manner of such things, Labor Day was declared and became the biggest beer and bonfire event for Leighton.

Leighton, also, had her nights. A loop of crumbling road ran up the hill on one side and down around the other. And there, under the trees was the most dignified get lucky spot for the working class side of town. We all told ourselves, from about nine years old, that it was a mark of respect to take a girl there in your car, the most known and lofty of spots. And for nine year olds there was night spotting. You could see them up there and wonder what was happening and, then, as the years came quickly on, exactly reproduce those happenings as if they were something wondrously unique. The trees sheltered our education in familiarity and trust, instructive disappointment and compromise, the lessons slowly coming home that everything, even this, had to be an exercise in equality. So, you see, the curves and disappearances of women's bodies were familiar things to Leighton, as were our erections, all of it fragile and inevitable.

Each perfect fall season there would be family Sunday drives in my uncle's big Ford, taking the long paved way around, close packed with picnic baskets, lawn chairs, Grandma Tom, mom, my sister, and the rest of us, and usually another uncle or two and two more cars full. There was always contention over the lawn chairs. Four slats and eight dowels and three yards of canvas. Young people where expected to chase each other, climb, and then sit on the ground. And it was from the ground, full fed, that I watched my uncle lean toward my aunt, rubbing her bottom through the cloth cover of the lawn chair, round and round, as they all talked and joked. Lessons in the plain geometry of affection.

I believe that the ancient, first growth elm and oak and maple distinguished Leighton from all other parks. Radio-carbon dating says that those trees had tens of millions of years to develop their perfection. Many lower, more inhibited trees lined the streets in town, larch mainly, and there were places on the North side, the estate-like old Morrell and Foster homes and the homes of the bankers and merchandisers out by Fire Hill Junior College, where a few stately trees grew, exceptions to the rule that there was no match for Leighton's trees. However, most living town trees were less than forty years old. Short lived poplars grew in many back yards along with apple and cherry and beach and young maple. Every North American tree had a street in town named for it and every street was tree-lined. Compared to the crest of the hill at Leighton, they all seemed like shrubbery, however tall. Only at Leighton was there the isolation, loftiness and age necessary to give the giant trees their status. Only at Leighton had the land been given a freedom from agriculture and building by some buck and roll of glaciers millions of years before to create that corner of our farm-surrounded and rich, flat land o'goshen.

In magic fall, Leighton would bring families out at least once just to look at the leaves while we young people kicked together giant piles to leap into and scatter once again. You could, if my uncle's timing for the drive was perfect, see how leaves from the great trees would flaunt themselves from the branch and tease each other to the ground. One, beginning high, would flutter down touching others which fell onto yet others and the whole grand volume of the tree created tiny avalanches toward the ground where we kicked and rolled.

Mr. Hayes had also told me how an old couple, the Westcotts, would walk themselves to exhaustion through Leighton in the fall just to look at the falling leaves, and how one Thursday these quietest of people came to his house with the story that they had seen a fallen angel in the park. Not a dramatic story, really, compared to all the other fallen angels tales, but it was Leighton's own. According to the Westcotts, the angel required only sympathetic murmurings and a few sturdy, encouraging words from Mr. Westcott, along with a moment of rest there beside the trees, before he or she or it was able to return again to the heavens or to wherever. Mr. Hayes had given them each a cup of coffee and after they began their pace back home he walked over into Leighton, thinking maybe some wanderer had fallen asleep under the trees, but he didn't find anybody, he confided.

Among a people given to labor rather than self-expression, the leaves of Leighton might release small bits of expressiveness. One uncle called the wide imported bamboo rakes that had just appeared, Leighton rakes. And an older cousin, taunted at a picnic about his shotgun wedding, said that no, it was in October, therefore a Leighton wedding. And, because of my mother's gift of a small lie and some creative substitutions while reading to me during one winter illness, I briefly believed that the leaves of Leighton Park had inspired "The Last Leaf," that odd, hurtful story of devotion and death. And she read to me, if I am not mistaken, Isaac Bashevis Singer's tale of two leaves. I do remember that it lacked O'Henry's zing.

I have always associated embarrassing movements of emotion that sometimes occur in human stories with the leaves of autumn and with Leighton Park. The creation, growth, maturity, and then senescence, abscission and the fall of leaves. Somehow I hear "Oh, rise not above your station, ye toiling folk, for behold, I have given you Leighton Park and each other to form a loving personhood, a community. Ask no more than that." This echo in my life often comes as too much. And it was never quite my own story. However moved I might be by the stories of others, I was a young man longing for a father all that time, one who could never quite get a handle on death or take it in.

In the mull of alternative story that goes on in the mind as you read or listen or even as you are writing stories, I have often thought of those leaves which somehow never fall. In winter you could tromp through the leaf cake icing along the side of Leighton's roadway and always notice last remaining leaves suspended up in their tree like scraps of message. You could imagine them inscribed with some cowboy poetry, cast in loneliness, never read, even by God. They are unnatural and improper, those few of them high up in the trees like sentinels or pickets, left behind after all the garrison is gone, to deceive the enemy, sacrificing themselves for the safety of others. Or perhaps those last leaves were too courteous to break away, to fall from the grace of life. Or too courageous. Perhaps they were like some determined teachers who hang on to provide instruction to next year's tentative, inexperienced, green-pointed growth. Or are they simply living a life of illusion? We often do that.

In any event, I look toward autumn in the months of spring, while it seems the whole world does the opposite. I look forward to leaves falling, leaves for the healing of nations, leaves falling on the singers' graves, leaves blowing over the body of a land that is merely waiting for its next impregnation. I look forward to visiting Leighton again, if not this year then next. The park has known so many coverings, green and white and brown, but only that one covering which is both beautiful and desperate.
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