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NARRATOR: Sunday nights have always given me the creeps. Growing up on
a farm, an extra layer of bleakness seemed to settle in when the sun went
NAR.: Back then there was, however, one really good thing about Sunday
night: Gunsmoke. My father, whose general mood seemed to be one long Sunday
night, brightened up considerably when Matt and Miss Kitty were on. Westerns
always did that for him.
NAR.: Here are my parents, Russel and Mary Jane Jordan, doing what they
like to do best: watching a good western. Their definition of a good western
is simple: good guys, bad guys, trouble.
Right now, Russ and Mary Jane are in trouble themselves. They're in so much
trouble, they're kind of starring in their own western --
NAR.: actually it's more of a Midwestern. It's the spring of
1990 on my family's farm in Southwest Iowa. My husband Steve and I are here
filming because it's no ordinary spring. It's looking like it could be my
parents' last on the farm.
MARY JANE: Is Charlotte there? Well, then I want to talk to you about
borrowing some money. Shall I-- I will tell you what we need and-- Farm plan,
that's Faga implement: Five hundred and seventy.
NAR.: My mother calls the bank to borrow money on a weekly basis.
MARY JANE: And Brewer Oil and Denison 66: Four hundred ninety-seven. Jon's
wages: Two hundred. Umhmm. That is it. Thank you. Bye.
NAR.: The creek that runs behind our farm is called Troublesome Creek,
because it twists and turns with no warning. Kind of like my family's story.
RUSS: He's way up high there, so he looks-- he actually looks smaller than he
really is. Jon, how about some of that twine and throw one ahead of him and
one behind him and then tie something between them and then bring him down.
MARY JANE: Tie a piece of iron on, to get it over there.
NAR.: That's my brother Jon with my parents. Right now their minds
aren't on their own worries.
RUSS: He's getting clear out to the end there, where we don't want him.
JON: It's not so much it's a long ways up, it's a long ways down.
MARY JANE: You little stinker. How did you do that?
JON: Come on. Come on. Come on. Come on. He wants to jump.
NAR.: While we scrambled to catch the moment, Jon caught the cat. She
actually jumped into his arms.
JEANNE: He's so sweet.
JON: You're okay.
NAR.: This is my family in a nutshell -- incredible luck, incredible
timing, and teetering on the brink of disaster.
JON: You're okay.
JEANNE: Oh, Jon.
JON: Did you see him reaching down? You're okay.
NAR.: So one's animal's been saved and thirty others are going off to
feed the world. People love to idealize farm life. They think it's wholesome
and simple. Growing up on the farm, it gets a little more complicated. Life
and death are a matter of chance.
NAR.: My family's been farming the same land since 1867 when my
great-grandparents migrated to southwest Iowa. They built this house on the
banks of Troublesome Creek. We call it The Homeplace.
My great grandparents' life reads like something out of Horatio Alger.
NAR.: James Jordan was orphaned at 13, fought for the Union in the
civil war, then headed west from Indiana in a covered wagon.
NAR.: His wife Agnes wrangled two babies as the wagon forded raging
rivers. Once they got situated she had four more.
NAR.: A few years after they settled, the town of Wiota was founded
NAR.: Their son, Warren, seen here riding up Wiota's Main Street, used
to tell us how James was part of a posse that came to the defense of the town
NAR.: Wiota was being terrorized by the Crooked Creek Gang, who claimed
to be just like the James Gang, only meaner.
NAR.: The story goes that one night, after shooting up the town, the
gang met a driverless, highsided wagon coming up Main Street. Shots rang out
and two of the gang were killed.
My great grandfather never admitted to being in that wagon and I don't know if
the story's true -- but since when have Westerns ever been true.
NAR.: Here's my great grandfather, James at 80, my grandfather Warren,
44, and my father, Russel, age 4. Russ grew up watching Warren nurse the farm
through the Dust Bowl and the Depression.
NAR.: He was a scrawny kid. And sensitive. He sent away for a Charles
Atlas body building course. In his teens, Russel dropped one of the L's from
his name on the advice of his Uncle Charlie --
NAR.: an armchair numerologist, who is better known in the family for
the nine years he spent in the front parlor -- rewriting the bible in verse.
NAR.: At 21, Russ got up the nerve to ask out the Iowa state 4H
NAR.: Mary Jane King. She was a college girl with more suitors than
she knew what to do with... until she met Russ.
NAR.: At 22 they got married,
NAR.: and proceeded to raise a family. At one time, four of my five
siblings were farmers. Only my two brothers are still hanging on.
NAR.: My oldest brother Jim rents a farm 15 miles south of my parents.
NAR.: My brother, Jon and his family live on the homeplace and Jon
works with my father.
NAR.: My parents' house is on the other side of the farm, a couple of
miles from Jon.
NAR.: For 40 years they farmed profitably -- which is to say, every
year they went to the bank for the operating loan that all farmers need to
plant their crops, and every year they paid it back. My father is a talented
farmer and in the 50's, 60's and 70's he did well.
NAR.: In the 80's when farmers everywhere were struggling, a multistate
corporation called Norwest bought my parents' bank in Atlantic, Iowa, the
largest town near the farm.
By the 90's, my family's good reputation and sixty-year relationship with the
bank didn't seem to count for much.
NAR.: What counts now is that they haven't yet paid off $70,000 of
accumulated back debt. They're on the dread "Troubled Accounts List." This
spring, when they got their yearly $150,000 operating loan, the bank announced
that the local loan officers my parents had always worked with had been taken
off the account...
NAR.: and a man from corporate headquarters was taking over. A man my
father called the "hired gun".
RUSS (off-screen): Did I ever tell you the story about the cattle feeder that
went into the bank and wanted to borrow money to feed cattle?
RUSS: And this banker was a kind of a tough, old guy and he said, "Well, I
can't lend you money to feed cattle." And the guy said, well, he really wanted
to do that. He said, "I'll tell you what I'll do." See, this banker had this
one glass eye. He was real proud of that glass eye because he thought no one
could tell that he even had a glass eye. So he told the farmer, he said, "You
look me right in the eye and if you can tell me which eye is the glass eye,
I'll let you have the money." The guy studied him real close and he said,
"Your right eye is the glass eye." And he said, "How did you know that?" He
said, "I didn't think anybody could tell." And he say, "Well, I looked at them
both and there was a little bit of feeling in that eye."
So, if the Norwest Corporation had been able to find that guy -- find that
banker, they would have really been elated, I know.
NAR.: The bank was demanding that my brother Jon, who'd been farming
with my father for 10 years, sign a statement assuming complete liability if my
parents failed to make payments.
NAR.: Russ and Mary Jane were asked to sign over their life insurance
in case of default. Jon and my parents had seen enough foreclosures to realize
they might be headed for their own. Any doubt was removed when they met with
Tim Wolf, the new loan officer sent out from Des Moines.
JON (off-screen): He had an attitude. I mean attitude with a capital A...
JON: Right from the start. He came in there and the second I opened my mouth
and was halfway well-spoken and phrased things correctly and kind of called him
on a couple of things and threw a couple of things in his face that actually
made sense. Why should we sign this when we don't own anything, you know?
JEANNE: What are you going to take? Our kids?
JON: Yeah. He resented that. He was used to dealing with these guys who come
in there kind of looking up under the bill of their cap, kind of like, "Well,
we'll take whatever you give us. Mighty appreciative." When you get so mad
that the peripheral vision goes away, that's how mad I was. There was nobody
but me and Tim Wolf. And I was just, you know, staring down the barrel of a
45. I was-- And then I thought I was mad-- I finally-- I controlled myself a
little and then Russ got into that-- that leaned-back attitude, where he'll
cross his legs and lean back and get a hold of the handles of the chair and
start lecturing from that comfortable, relaxed position. He'll start-- You
And he was just, you know, "What are you coming in here like this and talking
to us like that? You don't know us and you dare to come in here and say that
Jon doesn't have any commitment to this place and, you know. We don't need to
talk to you. We don't need to be here. We can leave right now if that's what
And then, Tim, of course, he's tried to push us, so now it's time to pull back
a little. And he says, "Well, now, now. We need to talk. We need to
negotiate. Negotiation, it's just negotiating, folks. That's what it's all
about. You know, that-- I've done this. Trust me. Go with me on this, you
know. Let me lead you through this." And we were totally livid. Mother was--
had totally lost it by this point. She was crying and between the sobs was
telling me to calm down and telling Russ to calm down.
I mean, it's like we had been set up. You know, "Gunfight At The OK Corral",
going into that pass where the cowboy leans over and says, "You know, this
looks like a good place for an ambush." I mean we just walked right into it.
NAR.: We went to the bank's headquarters in Des Moines to try to
understand their position on my parents account.
NAR.: We met with Tim Wolf and another bank officer who listened in
from the back.
JEANNE (off-screen): Their account has been referred to as a troubled account.
I was wondering when you know--
JEANNE: that a loan is not -- it's not going to work. That something has to
TIM WOLF: Yeah, I don't know if I really want to answer that. That question.
I really don't want to get into--
SID (off-screen): I think where's Tim coming from there: we can't discuss
TIM WOLF: Your parents. We can talk about generally troubled loans. But I
really don't want to talk specifically about --
JEANNE: Okay. That's fine then, if you can just talk about, in general,
what-- You know, what is a banker--
TIM WOLF: How do we determine if it is a troubled loan... Well, what we
have-- We have what we call a risk-rating system, where all the loans are
risk-rated based on, you know, the current ratio, their earnings trend, their
collateral, their cash flow, and, I think there's one more thing. There's five
different things. There's a risk-rating with one being the best and seven
being the worst. And so, based on what their financial performance has been,
based on the information that the borrower provides us, based on the financial
statement, we analyse what they've been doing financially. And based on that,
we develop a risk rating system. So...
NAR.: As Tim went into risk ratings and collateral margins, I realized
I'd been harboring a naive hope. Maybe I could convince the folks here at
Norwest that my father was a great guy, who deserved endless credit for his
years of good farming and hard work. I'd been watching too many westerns with
There were no loopholes here, no exceptions. For the bank, this was strictly
business. And why shouldn't it be? My parents did have a bad risk rating.
TIM WOLF: You know, the risk-rating of our borrowers and everybody's risk
rated exactly the same.
NAR.: The dilemma between my parents and the bank is a sort of Reader's
Digest Condensed version of the Farm Crisis. In the 1970s, prices were going
up and thinking the sky was the limit, farmers bought more land and equipment
and bankers gladly loaned them the money to do it. In the 80s, prices
farmers fell behind on their debt and many farms and some small banks went
under. The arguments about who's to blame are like a dog chasing its tail. In
the 60's, there were six million American farmers, now there are less than two
NAR.: In 1983, my brother Jim and his family were featured in this
cheery article about how tough it is for young farmers to get a start. In a
stroke of Jordan luck, an older farmer read the article and offered to rent his
farm to Jim with a possible option to buy.
NAR.: Jim, Gini and the kids lived on that farm for the next seven
years. They gradually bought the farmer's machinery in preparation for buying
JIM: Are you going to form teams today and actually play against each
GRACE: Probably not.
NAR.: But just as things were getting bad for my parents, Jim was
shocked to hear that his farm was being sold to someone else. He and his
family would have to leave.
MARY JANE (off-screen): All he said was -- he was just sending you a paper in
JIM: No -- I asked him if it would be a good idea if Gini and I ought to be
looking around for another farm to farm. He said it probably wouldn't be a bad
idea. He said he'd probably be sending me notice in August. I took that to
kind of mean that they were.
MARY JANE: Well, but did he actually say he's selling the farm?
JIM: He said they're going to have it sold by March 1st.
MARY JANE: Oh, he did. That means he's not going to rent it to someone
RUSS: Oh, no, no. I don't think he--
NAR.: Even Mary Jane, who can find something positive in the bleakest
situation, could think of very little to say. But Russ had an idea that might
solve Jim's problem and his own.
GREGORY PECK (on TV): I-- I want to get away from here Peggy. Want to get out
of this part of the country. See if we can't find us a little ranch, maybe.
You and me and Jimmy.
WOMAN (on TV, off screen): If only you'd thought of this before...
NAR.: My father knew the surest way to prevent our farm's foreclosure
was to pay off this year's $150,000 loan and the $70,000 back debt: $220,000.
It seemed like the only way to raise that kind of money was to sell the land.
For Russ, that was unthinkable. He and my mother came up with a startling
plan: they would have an auction. They would sell off everything they owned
-- all their machinery, their livestock and even the household goods --
everything but the land itself.
WOMAN (on TV, off screen): When did you get this idea, Jim?
GREGORY PECK (on TV, off screen): Well, I didn't get it, it just kind of came
over me. Like getting older comes over you.
NAR.: For my parents' plan to work, everyone had to totally rethink
their lives. First, Jon decided to get out of farming. He and his wife Kim
had a chance to buy into a successful trophy business in town. After 10 years
of living on the brink, they'd had enough.
Jim, meanwhile, had no place to live and no land to farm. He did, however,
NAR.: According to the plan, after my father sold off all his
machinery, Jim would move onto our farm and work it with his own equipment.
But here's the most astounding part: this would mean that in six months...
NAR.: my parents would turn over the reins and go live in town.
JON: So you have to be out by March 1st. And that would probably mean you
have to be here by March 1st. So that means you have to be out by March 1st.
MARY JANE: So then we'll be having a sale.
JON: Looks like March 1st is the day.
JIM: How do you feel about me coming up here and farming the way I'm farming
RUSS: Well, I-- I've got a lot respect for your ideas and the way you farm,
but I don't necessarily want to just give up all the-- As long as we have to
live off of it. I'd like to have little something to say about what is planted
MARY JANE: Well, we realize that.
RUSS: Yeah. Yeah. Okay.
NAR.: Like a lot of families facing a real crisis, we immediately
stopped talking about it. Things just started changing. Summer came.
NAR.: Jim started working out at the farm more, preparing for when he
would take over, which normally wouldn't have been for another 10 years.
It's a little-known fact about family farms that often the grown sons have to
rent farms somewhere else while they wait for their fathers to retire or die.
My father spent 20 years on a rented farm near the tiny town of Rolfe in
northwestern Iowa waiting for his father to quit.
JIM: Did you get enough to eat?
NAR.: Early one morning we took a trip up to Rolfe to visit that farm.
The farm I grew up on.
NAR.: With six kids in a four-bedroom farmhouse, it was definitely
NAR.: Once when the whole family was in the car, my uncle leaned in the
window and said, Russ, looks like you almost screwed yourself out of a place to
NAR.: Though we didn't own the Rolfe farm, my father put a lot of work
into it. When I was young, I didn't even know it was rented, I just thought it
NAR.: I had the best of both worlds. Older sisters I could copy...
NAR.: And younger brothers I could play Olden Days with. Here we're
travelling across the frontier:
NAR.: Jim's the pioneer mother, Jon's the only surviving daughter.
NAR.: And I'm the father, confused here about whether I'm a cowboy or a
NAR.: Every morning we'd sit on this mattress and decide what to play.
In the background you can see the white painted fence my father built around
the cattle lot.
NAR.: Russ and Mary Jane hadn't seen the farm in 15 years.
RUSS: It's hard to imagine that in fifteen years, anything could deteriorate
quite that much. It really, really is.
MARY JANE: Well, my old clothesline poles are up, still.
RUSS: Yeah, yeah. Yeah, those are our clothesline poles.
MARY JANE: Yeah.
RUSS: Well, this looks really great to me. I don't know why they don't just
go ahead and tear the hell of the rest of it down and get rid of it. Farm it
RUSS: Well, they made some vast improvements in here too, didn't they...
MARY JANE: Yes. My, my. Gorgeous. Tear out things and...
RUSS: Birds have been in here building nests.
MARY JANE: Oh! Oh, my goodness...
JEANNE: Here's my room.
MARY JANE: This was Jeannie's room --
JEANNE: And Janet's room and Judy's room and Pam's room...
MARY JANE: The next one that came along. This is the room where the cat used
to come up and hide.
JEANNE: Remember when I painted this room orange?
MARY JANE: Yes, I do. Yes.
JEANNE: See the orange paint on that door?
RUSS: Oh, it's still there. They haven't covered it up. Well, actually I've
enjoyed about all this I can handle, you know. I've never seen anything that
MARY JANE: Went to pieces so--
MARY JANE: This wasn't a bad house, actually. You know, because--
RUSS: It was remodeled shortly before we moved in here.
THEY WALK DOWN THE STAIRS
MARY JANE: Yeah, it was. The one at the south place was too... A new
bathroom and a new stairway. Everything.
JEANNE (off-screen): That bannister Daddy built.
MARY JANE: Yep. That's the bannister he put in. Little did we know. They'll
probably set a match to it one of these times.
NAR.: My parents stayed away from the farm for fifteen years because
they wanted to remember it the way it was. They only came back because we
asked them to. Maybe some things are better off left alone.
NAR.: When I was little the farm was my entire universe. Everything I
could ever need was here. But from Junior High on it was town that I wanted.
As in, "Mother, can I go to town?" A rough estimate says I drove this road
about six thousand times in the eighteen years I lived here. One of the only
times I was ever alone with my father we drove along this road.
NAR.: I was a sophomore in high school and we were attending "Daddy
Date Night" sponsored by the Future Homemakers of America. In a family the size
of ours, one-on-one contact with our parents, especially my father, almost
never happened. As Daddy Date Night approached, I was so nervous at the
thought of being alone with him that I made a list of things to talk about. I
wrote reminders on my hand: "CROPS" and "WANT TO FARM?" How were the crops
looking, I asked. Did he always want to farm?
NAR.: I don't remember his answers. I do remember that the
butterscotch pie I made for the Daddy Dinner was a total flop, and that we
Daddies and Daughters ended up playing basketball in our stocking feet. I was
very proud of my father. After all, he was President of the School Board and I
thought he looked like Gregory Peck.
NAR.: We're coming onto Main Street in Rolfe. That hole on the right
used to be the Uptown Cafe, later called the Bon Appetite. It's the middle of
a Saturday afternoon and there's not a car in sight. In high school we'd all
be driving up and down this street, listening to KIOA [radio] and
looking for boys.
NAR.: And around the corner is the Rolfe Community School, grades K
through twelve. Scene of Daddy Date Night and almost everything else that ever
happened to me. Here I cheer led fervently for the Rolfe Rams and Rammettes
and served as editor of the school paper writing my incisive weekly column
NAR.: In 1991, enrollment dwindling, the high school in Rolfe was
NAR.: Every autumn I think of this picture. It's my father on the
cornpicker, a piece of equipment notorious for dismembering farmers. It's the
end of harvest, and my mother's taking the picture to document that he came
through with all of his fingers.
NAR.: These days, corn pickers have been replaced by combines, which
are safer, more efficient...and a whole lot more expensive.
Harvest time is always full of pressure but this fall my parents had to raise
$220,000. Their 450 acres of corn and soybeans had never made that much in a
A lot of people think that when farms fail they somehow get bought up by huge
NAR.: Usually, a wealthy neighbor buys the land. Often, the original
family then leaves, the nearby towns with their schools and stores shrink, but
the land goes on being farmed.
MARY JANE: Charlotte? This is Mary Jane. I need to borrow a little money.
Okay, I need a hundred and sixty dollars for electricity and two hundred and
fifty four for feed.
NAR.: Although she'd never let on, Mary Jane knows exactly how bad
MARY JANE: Correct. And we have sent a load of hogs, so I'll be in with the
NAR.: Where my father can go out to the field and work off his tension,
my mother tends to stay in and fret.
My brother refers to her as the Designated Worrier.
STEVE (off-screen): Everything's okay?
MARY JANE: Just fine. She said there was plenty of room for that. To borrow
NAR.: These days, mother's got lots of company when it comes to
worrying. My brothers and sisters and I have taken to worrying individually
and in groups.
JIM: That's the injustice of the whole situation. I mean, the bank is butting
into their life, making their life miserable, to
-- on their own criteria or on their own--
NAR.: This used to be a family of farmers. More and more it's a family
of ex-farmers. My sister Judy and her husband Joe sold their farm after years
of losing money. My sister Pam and her husband Jiggs were foreclosed in 1988.
JUDY: And the thing is, what they've been going through for the last two
years. I mean, mother going with furrowed brow into the bank, week after week
after week, salvaging the whole operation, just kind of by a shoestring. You
know, this is supposed to be over.
JIGGS: The politicians and the bureaucrats have all decided that the Farm
Crisis is over. Well, it isn't over. It's just got a band-aid over it.
NAR.: Every year during harvest there are a rash of UFO sightings.
Farmers out on their giant combines seem to attract like ships from other
galaxies. My father always hoped he'd see one --anything to relieve the
relentlessness of getting in the crops.
When you're out there day and night there's a lot of time to think. I spent my
time thinking about the bank. Why, after all these years, had they lost faith
in my parents? Was it really just a computer formula?
NAR.: Though I had absolutely no proof, I kept obsessing over other
theories. Because my parents had turned seventy? Because the bank president
my mother taught in grade school had retired? Or was it my father's
NAR.: In 1985, my father was diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease and was
selected to take part in a national drug research study. Russ sees himself as
a medical pioneer.
NAR.: He comes to Iowa City every few months so his doctor can see if
the tremor in his hand has changed.
RUSS: How was your trip to Hawaii?
RUSS: Wasn't it kind of hectic?
NURSE: No, not where we went.
RUSS: Oh, it depends on where you go, I guess.
NURSE: We were like the only people on the road.
RUSS: Was that right? Did you rent a car and drive around? See the volcano
NURSE: It wasn't real active that day...
RUSS: Well, hopefully we talked about Hawaii long enough to get my blood
pressure down to normal.
RUSS: I think I'd be better off if I didn't look at it.
MARY JANE: Why, honey?
RUSS: Oh, I didn't realize I was getting old. I thought everyone else was
getting old and I was escaping it.
NAR.: Thanks to his treatment, Russ has had remarkably little
NAR.: But I kept gnawing away at the idea that my father's Parkinson's
had been the last straw for the bank. My parents, on the other hand, were well
beyond conspiracy theories...
36:38INT. KITCHEN - DEAN EILTS & RUSS & MARY JANE
NAR.: They scheduled a meeting with Dean Eilts, a local auctioneer,
about preparing for the sale.
EILTS: I like to have a good long month to get it advertised. We can do it in
a lot less time than that. Don't get me wrong.
RUSS: We've got that much time. Because we're thinking, maybe about the last
of January. I'm going to need a little time because I've got a lot of stuff to
EILTS: Yeah, a fellow wants to get it kind of shook loose before it freezes
RUSS: Yes, that's right.
NAR.: Thanksgiving. It was my folk's last one in the house.
MARY JANE: Let's bow our heads. Our father bless this food to its intended
use, watch over us and guide us at all times, for Christ's sake. Amen.
NAR.: The chaos isn't helped by the fact that almost everyone here has
a name that starts with the letter J. I'm Jeannie. There's Judy, Janet, Gini
and Jim. Then there's Jon, Joe, Jan... Jiggs, Jenny, Jenna... James, Jesse,
and Justin. To name just a few.
JENNY: To me, it seemed like it was like this huge herd of cattle riding here
NAR.: There's a way that growing up on a farm is like growing up on an
island. Civilization feels so far away that your family becomes your world.
Jammed together in a too-small house my brothers and sisters and I took turns
keeping each other sane and driving each other crazy. We were in each others'
faces for so many years that their faces seem like mine.
People that grow up near mountains or the ocean can never live far from them
without feeling bereft in some way. The farm is that way for us.
NAR.: When Steve and I arrived in early January the sale was 10 days
away. The family had mobilized. My brothers-in-law had taken the week off to
help. Everything my parents owned -- every tractor...chair, book, and memento
had to be sorted and labelled: "KEEP", "SELL" or "THROW AWAY". My Mother just
happens to be the Queen of Mementos.
NAR.: There's her blue glass collection, her cup and saucer collection,
her thimble collection, her bell collection, her collection of all things
having to do with President Kennedy, her bird collection, her bird plate
collection, her pink Depression glass collection and of course her spoon
collection. We soon realized that our challenge was to convince mother to put
anything in either the SELL or THROW AWAY piles.
MARY JANE: I use that. That is mine.
JEANNE: Okay. Alright.
PAM: She's ready to do battle here.
JEANNE: That definitely can not be given away.
PAM: "Outgoing" and "incoming" here.... What about this?
NAR.: For Russ it was easier. He only collects old tractors and he was
selling almost everything else.
JIM: Are you guys laying on it or what?!
MARY JANE: Wait till you've been married fifty years.
JEANNE: Well, I'll be dead when I've been married fifty years.
NAR.: When the bank heard that my parents were going to have an
auction, they took Tim Wolf off the account and a man named Sid took over --
basically they switched from Bad Cop to Good Cop. I was hoping no one from
the bank would come to the sale. But when the woman my mother always calls to
borrow money showed an interest, Mary Jane seemed pleased.
RUSS: She's got two days off. So she'd just like to come.
MARY JANE: She said she'd see some of my household things. She's interested.
We've talked about it.
RUSS: Right away.
MARY JANE: Well, anybody can come to the sale. It doesn't mean anything.
RUSS: I wouldn't even kick Sid off, but I was happy when he said he couldn't
MARY JANE: Charlotte has-- it's nothing to do with her job, Russ.
JEANNE: Well, she is a bank employee, mother... And they are watching you like
hawks. And the fact that Sid can't come, and that Charlotte can come.
RUSS: She calls up and happens to have a couple of days off.
MARY JANE: I called her.
RUSS: Oh, and told her to come?
MARY JANE: No. And was borrowing some money.
RUSS: She asked you, if she could come.
MARY JANE: She's- I said that I'd bring the hog check in...today and she
said, "Well, I won't be here. I have a couple of days off."
RUSS: Oh. "And would you mind if I come to the sale?"
MARY JANE: Now, I don't want anyone to be distrustful of Charlotte.
RUSS: No, I'm not!
JEANNE: (Laughs) Heaven forbid!
JUDY: The posture mirror.
JEANNE: I did this with lipstick and now it's hardened and congealed. And my
posture's still bad.
MARY JANE: Okay. This is all sale.
JEANNE: The sale room.
JUDY: Except that trunk.
MARY JANE: Except this trunk. Let's move this to town
JEANNE: Why are you keeping that trunk?
MARY JANE: Because I want to keep it. In the basement.
JUDY: That's mother's justification: Because I want to.
MARY JANE: I think that's reason enough, actually.
JUDY: She doesn't care about walking around in her house in town.
RADIO ANNOUNCER: [Music: KJAN, Radio Atlantic]
The Russ and Mary Jane Jordan farm auction is set to start this Friday at
10:30. Farm machinery being sold will include tractors, combines, planters,
mower, plus a 8 x 16 Jay-Kee Gooseneck trailer. There will be household items,
antiques and livestock equipment and miscellaneous sold. That's the Jordan
farm auction. Friday. Dean Eilts, Bob Blankenship and Allen Smalley
NAR.: In the days before the auction, neighbors came to help, without
even being asked.
JIM: What's that person doing sitting over in that car?
NAR.: And then there were the total strangers, who came to size things
up. They came by the dozens, and they had this way of looking through you like
you were part of the merchandise. It got to be a running family joke.
JIM (off-screen): I was real nice to that guy in that car that drove up...
JIM: Interested in the post driver.
JIGGS: What got into you?
JIM: He actually stopped and asked me if it'd be all right if he'd go over
there and look at something.
JIGGS: He's the first one.
JIM: That's the first one.
RUSS: I was on the road one day, walking along, and the guy passed me right up
and drove right in there.
JEANNE: Excuse me, I just live here...
NAR.: There were ways Steve and I had dreaded coming back to Iowa for
the auction. This wasn't exactly the highpoint of my family's history, and we
were expecting people to be in pretty grim moods.
JON: Put it on there but it won't cut....
JOE: He's holding his teeth in, you know. His false teeth...
RUSS: Somebody else?
JIM: We're going to have to go out there and ride herd on this crew....
JEANNE: Pick ups coming in and swarming...
JIM: Pick ups coming in and cars...
JOE: All hell is breaking loose.
MARY JANE: I know the house is small, but I don't really care if it's small if
I get rid of enough stuff... That's what's depressing is that I do have to get
rid of so much. Not that I need it, but I've lived with it for so long, you
JEANNE: Are you going to watch them sell stuff?
MARY JANE: Yes. Some of it. No, I'm not going to be over there all the time.
I want to see what some of really nice antiques bring.
JEANNE: What do you think will bring the most?
MARY JANE: I think my-- Oh, I don't know. The Ethan Allen furniture -- will
bring a lot, but I think it will bring a fairly good price.
JEANNE: Yeah, maybe.
NAR.: Three days before the machinery and household auction, my parents
had to sell off their cow herd.
My father went out to feed them for the last time.
He's had these same cows for almost ten years. They've given birth to hundreds
of calves, many of which Russ helped deliver himself.
The cows didn't seem in their usual hurry to get to the feed bunk.
JOHN WAYNE (on TV): Take 'em to Missouri, Matt.
NAR.: The cows were driven to a sale barn in Audubon, Iowa --home of
Albert, the world's largest anatomically correct bull.
NAR.: The cows would be sold in groups of ten, but farmers would bid on
a price per cow.
AUCTIONEER: Can I have your attention here? We're starting on Russel Jordan's
cows. There's 80 some head of these cows. Russel, where are you sitting
there? Right there he is. Looking at you and couldn't see you. You're so
little! Boys there's 80 some head of these cows, Russel's selling out. We've
got his farm sale three miles south of the interstate and 2 1/2 miles east.
That'll be Friday at 10:30. A lot of antiques, household and then the usual
line of machinery. Got a good line of machinery: tractor, combine, everything.
Anyway, Russel's selling out. Otherwise, these cows wouldn't be here. He's
selling out, going to move to town and one of the boys going to take over the
farming operation and doesn't want the cows. All right. What are we going to
get for them?. You betcha. Nice set of cows they are.
I got 885. I got 885 I need 895. 895. 895. I got 895. 895. You don't get a
chance to buy that good a cow everyday. Black baldies and five- and six-year
old cows. I got 895 here. I need 900, 900. ... Here's 900 here. ..905, 905.
Sold cows. $900.
Twenty-one, I think that's what we got. Number 14.
NAR.: $900 a cow was a good price. But that didn't make it easy to see
NAR.: My parents bought their first Ethan Allen furniture in 1963 when
we still lived in Rolfe. It was one of the only times I remember us buying
STEVE: We should put it on the side probably...
STEVE: The end of the living room...
STEVE: End of the living room...
JEANNE: Yeah... (laughs) Stop...
NAR.: On the last afternoon before the sale, it was time for finishing
touches in the shed.
MARY JANE: Not going to have to go buy one after having this neat thing...
NAR.: Mother found one last thing she absolutely had to keep.
NAR.: That night, Jim was the last to leave.
The farm was on the edge of an uncertain future -- and everything depended on
what would happen tomorrow.
The thing about history is it's usually silent. Enormous changes can be so
gradual you hardly notice them. I think we were all afraid we were on the
wrong side of history -- that the time for a small farm like this had
NAR.: Sometime during the night it started snowing.
RADIO ANNOUNCER: Fifteen minutes away from 7 o'clock...
RADIO ANNOUNCER: and we need to, of course, take a look at our lunch menus on
this Friday morning. And we're going to do that. At the Atlantic Community
NAR.: It would be a few hours before we'd know if anyone would turn out
in the bad weather.
RADIO ANNOUNCER: ...apple wedges, blueberry coffee cake and milk. At the
Harlan school for breakfast this morning, orange juice or apple juice, a choice
of cold cereals, toast with butter and jelly. In Harlan, for lunch, oooh!
Lasagne. Yum!. And school-made garlic bread.
NAR.: They started arriving at 8:30. A steady stream. Maybe bad
weather's good for a sale, since people can't do anything else. Or maybe some
of them just came for my folks.
NAR.: Right before the sale began, my brothers and brothers-in-law
paraded the tractors out to the field. A little theatrical touch.
AUCTIONEER (off-screen): Give us what you will for the merchandise, we'll
thank you kindly in advance for your attendance.
AUCTIONEER (off-screen): Russ and Mary Jane told me now, "Be sure and thank the
people for coming out." It's a little bit chilly, but by golly they're glad to
have each and every one of you here today. They've been good neighbors and
good friends in this community for a long time and I'll tell you what, the
community sure benefited by their presence. That's for darn sure. A nice
family, by golly.
AUCTIONEER: We'll start right here in the shed. We'll sell this merchandise in
the shed. We'll sell whatever is in the shed to you, then we'll slip outside
and sell off the hay racks and be on that machinery just as quick as we can,
around 12:30 or whatever time it takes us. [Begins auction]
NAR.: In the blur of the beginning of the sale, Marge Harold appeared.
JEANNE: That's so nice that you came.
NAR.: Marge and her late husband, Faber had been my parents' closest
neighbors in Rolfe.
MARGE: We didn't get started quite as early we should have...
NAR.: Today, she and her son drove 120 miles in the snow to show
AUCTIONEER: Oh, just one plate Bob. I've got a little depression. Should we
sell a pair? Let's sell 'em choice, Bob. That one's a pretty nice one.
MAN: How you doing? Doing fine?
CLERK: OK. Just wearing out though.
AUCTIONEER (BOB): How many chairs do have with this set?
NAR.: It was time to sell the dining room table. Mother's beloved
AUCTIONEER # 3(BOB): It's got two leaves in it...
MARY JANE: They pull out and it seats 12-13.
AUCTIONEER #2 (ALAN): Folds out? Folds out? Puts a lot of kids around there,
AUCTIONEER #3: Oh, my goodness sakes. A nice kind. Who'll give two hundred
dollars for it? Who'll give 200 for it. ... Who'll give sixty?... It's an
Ethan Allen. That's as good as gold right there. Fifty, sixty. I asked for
$200, didn't ask for a dollar too much. Fifty, sixty. ...It's cheaper than a
broom. It's an Ethan Allen, I swear to goodness. 110. $100. $105 who'd
rather?. I'm going to give 1, 5. I want to give 1, 5. You all through. You
all done? Give me 5 sir. And I have-- Sold at number 4.
AUCTIONEER #2: Bob, here's a couple of tablecloths....
NAR.: By one o'clock they were onto the big machinery. By this time
almost 300 farmers had shown up.
It was hard to tell what anyone was thinking -- They were all wearing the same
overalls, hooded sweatshirts and poker faces.
NAR.: When you're bidding, it's bad form to draw attention to yourself,
so you've got to be subtle. Auctioneers seem to have a sixth sense when it
comes to recognizing the winks and twitches in the crowd... but the uninitiated
can stand right next to a bidder and not see what's happening.
RUSS: That's more than we paid for it.
JON: It was?
RUSS: We paid $1,050 for it.
JON: Is that right?
JON: The digger brought $875.
RUSS: That's about what I paid for that.
JON: Is that right? And then-- Do you remember what we paid for the big
JON: It brought $110.
RUSS: Coming right on schedule.
WOMAN (off camera): It went well.
JON: It didn't owe us anything I guess. No, not bad.
NAR.: Russ spent a lot of time functioning as a kind of good-will
ambassador, selling people on a machine's good points even after they'd bought
RUSS: Get to feel a little bad about it, why, go to John Deere and look up
what the price is on a new one.
NAR.: He seemed to want to reassure everyone that he was Ok.
RUSS: We had four flat racks. My boys loaded them and I'd drive the tractor
and we'd load all those full and get about 400 bales on them. Then next
morning, while it was cool, we'd put them in the barn.
MAN: I'm the driver and he's the loader.
RUSS: That's the way to do it. As long as you can be the driver, you're not
in bad shape.
NAR.: At the other end of the sensitivity spectrum, a couple of guys
started blowtorching a plow into scrap metal on the spot. If there's a book on
auction etiquette, I'm sure this is a Don't.
NAR.: The last piece to be sold was the combine. We all worried that
it wouldn't start in the cold.
JON: Brand new tires. All four tires are brand new. They've got one season
on them. The engine's never used oil -- it's never given us a bit of trouble.
It's a good combine. We've got almost all new belts and she's warm in there.
AUCTIONEER #1: Okey-doker. Sell you the combine and the corn head. Right
there, boys. You betcha. You got any questions there, you time to ask them,
Jon's right here. What will we get for it, by golly. Somebody give, oh,
$12,000 here. A bid $8,000 here. Do we get $9,000 where? ... Eleven five.
Anybody 12, 12, now. Anybody want 12. 12. 12,250. Twelve thousand here. We
AUCTIONEER #3: You're not buying a pig in a poke!
AUCTIONEER #1: 12,250...12,250...Are you done? Here we go? Are you done? Do
you want to give oh twelve thousand here and two-fifty. All in all done. All
through. You want to hit it again. Sold it to you. Twelve thousand two
hundred and fifty dollars.
JON: The books or anything are in there with the clerk.
AUCTIONEER: Yeah, you need some manuals for your machinery that you bought,
they'll be in there with the clerk.
*MARY JANE AND AUCTIONEER #3 WALK OFF
BOB: Well, I hope you'll be very happy.
MARY JANE: Oh, I'm sure we will Bob.
BOB: Well, we had a good sale. Good sales for good people.
EILTS: Russel. I want to thank you sir.
RUSS: Thank you, Dean.
EILTS: Good luck in your endeavors.
RUSS: Oh, my endeavors are getting less.
EILTS: Oh, I don't believe that.
RUSS: No, I'm not going to pass on yet.
EILTS: I know you're not. I expect you'll take up woodworking or a hobby of
some kind, won't you?
RUSS: Oh, I've got a whole shed full of old John Deere's, you know. I don't
know if you saw those ...
EILTS: You bet.
RUSS: Going to work on them some ... Not tomorrow or the next day, but sometime
EILTS: Well, we'll get out of your hair, now. Thank you kindly.
RUSS: Okay. And think you for your efforts. You guys did a good job.
EILTS: We merchandised it, anyway.
RUSS: You bet, you bet.
PAM (off-screen): I thought you had a good sale, daddy...
NAR.: After all the months of planning, the moment of truth had come.
When everything was tallied, the machinery and household goods brought $82,000.
With the 140,000 from the livestock and another 80,000 from the grain, my
parents had raised about $300,000, more than enough to pay off the debt. It
was time to call the bank in Des Moines.
RUSS: Well, our sale went good. I've got two figures. One of them was 88 and
one was 86. Yeah. So the auctioneers will take a little cut out of it and
then there's some for advertising. We've been doing a little figuring here and
we've got it down to about 80, but it will all go towards paying the bank and
so forth. We'll have enough to take care of it. We can wipe it all off, I'm
sure. It's a good feeling. Yeah. I think if we hadn't have got involved with
Tim along the way, we would have been about $50,000 better off but you don't
need to tell him that. That's just my opinion. Yeah. Yeah, you're right.
It'll be a pretty good feeling and-- By the way, how's your brother-in-law's
situation? Yeah. Yeah. Well, that's a good thought. Yeah. Okay. Thanks a
lot, Sid. You bet. Okay. Good-bye.
RUSS: How did I handle him?
JEANNE: You were too nice to him.
RUSS: Too nice?
JEANNE: Too nice. By my lights, a whole lot too nice.
RUSS: He was just overly nice. He was telling me how wonderful he thought it
was. How now you can fishing, you can enjoy your grandchildren.
JEANNE: Daddy, that's just guilt, you know.
RUSS: Yeah, I know. That's his problem, it isn't mine.
JEANNE: Well, you don't have to give him so much help, assauging his guilt.
You could be, you know, a little colder. I-- I don't know. It's your
business. But I just-- I don't think he deserves this treatment.
RUSS: Oh, I don't either. I've made it plain, time and again what I think of
them. If they don't know it, they're the most stupid people that ever lived.
I'm a little bit like my dad. I go along kind of easy until all at once--
MARY JANE: He explodes.
RUSS: I pass a certain point and then I react too much in the other way. And
that's one reason why I try to keep on the easy side as long as possible.
Because when I start telling him what's what, he'll know. He'll be duly
notified. Let me tell you.
NAR.: Ever since I moved away from Iowa, trips back are bittersweet.
It seems from the minute Steve and I arrive, mother starts anticipating when
we'll leave again, and starts feeling sad.
JEANNE: Think there's any chance of you coming-- No chance of you coming to
Boston before we come home? I don't suppose...
MARY JANE: I'm afraid not, sweetie.
NAR.: When I'm homesick, I always comfort myself knowing that I can
predict exactly what my parents are doing, since their routine is always the
This time, everything would be different when we returned.
JEANNE: Oh, mother and I always have to get going... [crying]
MARY JANE: Oh, honey. Thank you for everything.
JEANNE: You're welcome, mother. It'll be great for you guys to get in your
new place I think.
RUSS: Well, I'm sure it will.
JEANNE: I love you Daddy.
RUSS: Love you....
NAR.: We came back in time for my brother Jon's annual triathlon. 150
athletes from 10 states come to compete in a race my family hosts. Everyone in
the family has job.
JON (off screen): Have fun. Be careful. It's going to be a beautiful day.
JON: Swimmers take your marks.
NAR.: Some people think it's a little bizarre that we have a triathlon
in the family, but after all we'd been through in the past year, it felt like
one normal thing in a world that was strange.
Jon and Kim now spent their days turning out plaques and trophies for county
fairs all over the state...
NAR.: Jim, Gini and the kids had settled in on the farm.
NAR.: They had torn down walls, repainted and put down carpet.
JEANNE: Oh, my gosh. Oh, gosh.
JEANNE: Steve, isn't this amazing?
STEVE: Like a different house.
JEANNE: It is. It is a completely different house.
NAR.: And Russ and Mary Jane...? Just around the corner from Van's
"Chat and Chew" and across the street from the Cass County Fair Grounds is the
house my parents rented in Atlantic.
NAR.: Russ had grown a beard. It made him look so much like pictures
of my great grandfather, it gave us a start.
After the farm, I thought the house seemed depressingly small...
but for my parents it was a kind of cozy freedom. They were travelling light,
well, lighter... I never thought I'd be so glad to see my mother's bird
NAR.: It's hard to explain why, but my father's beard made me really
uncomfortable. I was afraid it meant that he felt defeated, that he'd given
NAR.: I made no attempt to hide these feelings from Russ, and he
finally agreed to shave it. I was relieved to see the face I'd always known.
RUSS: These would get so long-- if I let them grow they get so they actually
get into my eyes. I thought about, as soon as I lost my hair, just combing my
BARBER: That'd be unusual.
GIRL: ... Miss Sue, Miss Sue, Miss Sue from Alabama, her name is Suzie Anna.
Sitting in a rocker, eating Betty Crocker, watching the clock go "tick, tock.
Tick, tock, around the clock. Tick, tock, tick, tock, around the clock."
NAR.: If this were a western, right about now we'd be learning that
there really is justice. We'd see the young family settling in for a life of
hard work and rich rewards.
NAR.: But this is a Midwestern. Jim didn't have the bank debt my father
had, but he still had bad weather and low prices to contend with.
JIM: If it wasn't for Gini's income here, it would be absolutely impossible.
It's a stressful sort of lifestyle really. People romanticize about it and
think you're out here on your own, making your own decisions.
JEANNE: Well, the thing is, I mean--
JIM: But the decisions you making are which bill to pay.
GINI: I thought this spring was hard on you. Harder then you've ever had it.
Next summer we'll sit around and...
JEANNE: Yes. See where we are then. Let's hope we have the brains to know if
too many summers go by and we're having these kind of discussions that we'll be
having a completely different kind of discussion....
JIM: Don't worry about that. I'm going to be willing to read the handwriting
on the wall.
NAR.: Everyday, Russ drives out from town to help Jim run the farm. In
one of life's great ironies, my father has become the family optimist. He's
always ready to cheer Jim up and cheer him on. It's a tribute to aging,
NAR.: Russ came to the idea of optimism late in life. The Russ I knew
growing up could give a Bergman film a run for its money in the Moody Darkness
NAR.: But now he'd turned the farm over to Jim with an ease that could
never have been predicted. Transitions haven't always been this smooth.
NAR.: When my great grandfather left the farm to my grandfather,
Warren, a family feud ensued. The siblings all fighting for their share.
NAR.: As for my siblings, we're just hoping Jim can make it.
NAR.: When I was my niece Grace's age, I used to call myself a "Dull
Normal" because I thought I was growing up in the most mundane way possible.
These days it's looking downright exotic.
NAR.: Many things I thought were here forever are gone -- and mostly
NAR.: Nearly every time I go home, my parents and I make the trip to
the Wiota cemetery, where many generations of my family are buried and where my
parents will someday be buried.
RUSS: This-- On this side of the stone Mary Jane is Bertha who drowned in the
JEANNE: In Troublesome?
MARY JANE: Yes. In Troublesome.
NAR.: It is an odd feeling, visiting your parents' graves with them
along. Once or twice they've actually pointed out their plots and we've stood
on them trying to think of something appropriate to say.
Usually we just wander from stone to stone and they tell me family stories I've
heard a hundred times before.
RUSS: Because George made his own tombstone before he died. He made those
NAR.: I feel like I have to memorize them standing here, telling me
NAR.: Every time we leave the cemetery I feel like I've been granted a
reprieve -- I've escaped that future sadness and longing I'll feel for today
when we left together.
NAR.: In Iowa, many of life's biggest moments happen in church
basements: Graduation parties, baby showers, wedding receptions. On an
August afternoon, we threw my parents a fiftieth wedding anniversary party in
the basement of the Anita Methodist Church.
PAM: But now, Mother and Daddy, we would like to present to you, as a token of
love and thanks, for your fifty years together, this king-sized Memory Quilt.
NAR.: We made my parents a quilt. Everyone in the family made a square
commemorating their life together.
MARY JANE: Beautiful!
NAR.: My folks never imagined they'd someday live in a small house in
town. They certainly never imagined they'd be happy there.
NAR.: What are success and failure in a life? How do you know which is
FOR OUR FAMILIES
FOR ALL THE RUSS & MARY JANES