Beauty is a cruel mask when the earth rolls right up to the edge of the interstate, freshly turned. When the rosebud trees are bleeding into pinks and magentas. When the evening rain is soft as lanolin.
And yet . . . five students from Iowa State University killed themselves during the past academic year. Why? Nobody really knows.
It's almost as if acute stress were an infectious disease in Iowa, like pinkeye in cows. A blooded humming presence in the sweet-smelling air. People can just reach up now and touch it.
This past March, in a place called Strawberry Point (population 1,463), men with mud on their boots sat in St. Mary's Catholic Church and wrote names on small pieces of paper. Maybe it was the name of the person in the Federal Land Bank who killed their loan. Maybe it was the auctioneer who sold off the family possessions as if they were bingo cards. Maybe it was the smart-ass from John Deere who had said, sorry, this time he'd just have to have cash. How are you supposed to get your corn in when they won't give you credit?
One by one, these proud, humiliated men got up from their pews and walked to the altar and deposited their slips of paper into a coffee can wrapped in tinfoil. Then they set it on fire. What they were trying to do was burn away their bitterness and anger before something worse happened. Yes, it was symbolism, but it was also an expression of community grief. The priest who ran it said it was an effort to find a spiritual dimension to so much suffering and loss.
A month and a half ago, a man near the town of Osage told his wife he'd be back by supper. He had recently sold out, and the sale didn't go well. He and his wife were renters on the land, and the land had turned sour as gall. All five of his children were dead. (Four of them were killed in the same car crash years ago.) Maybe it was the lousy sale; maybe it was the lousy world. A priest said he just walked out into an open field and shot himself. He was in his sixties. There was no note.
A farmer up near Mason City was digging a coffin-sized hole behind his house a while back. His wife rushed up.
"Oh, my God," she said, putting her hands up to her mouth. "What are you doing?"
"It's not for me," he said and kept on digging. "It's for our banker."
They got him psychiatric help.
All over the state, it is happening, and has been happening, and few want to talk of it. Neighbors avert their eyes. But it isn't only suicide and murder, or the threat of it. Less savage gods are loose here, too: wife beating, alcoholism, child abuse. All of it is alarmingly up, say social workers and psychologists and ministers.
What is the explanation? A desperate economy is much of it, of course. The rest of it is eerily devoid of logic. But violence, self-directed or otherwise, isn't chained to reason.
Maybe we've been living too long off old myths. Maybe Meredith Willson and "The Music Man" died a long time ago.
Statistics won't tell this sad story, but here are several chilling ones:
* A farm goes down in America every six minutes.
* In Iowa, according to a poll in Farm Journal this past winter, 42 percent of all farmers are thought to be "sliding toward insolvency."
* One-third of all Iowa farmers are facing foreclosure. What this means, in the jargon of agricultural economists, is that their debt-to-asset ratio is 70 or higher: 70 cents or more on every dollar they're worth is owed to a pale figure in a slack suit behind a big desk in a bank.
* According to a sociologist at the University of Missouri, the suicide rate among midwestern farmers is 30 to 40 percent above the national nonfarm rate -- and rising.
And yet, farmers have always had a way of defying odds. Many have found credit this year when all the betting went the other way. The spring crop has gotten in the ground, after all.
Says Paul Lasley, director of the Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll at Iowa State: "We know suicide is happening. All the signals I get tell me it's happening. There's a lot of despair. I don't know -- mark it from the last 18 months. But how do you count? Let me give you an example of the problem: Occupation is listed on Iowa death certificates, but they don't put them in the computer that keeps track of vital statistics. You'd have to go through by hand and try to figure out which ones were farmers."
The first Iowa State suicide occurred last fall. He was a good kid from good German stock. He shot himself on his parents' farm in a bucolic little spot at the top of the state named Buffalo Center. He was in love with things coming up out of the ground. He left his dorm one night, rented a room in a motel, drove home several days later. The neighbors spotted his car by the side of the road.
"He was just lying out there in the corn," says his ag-ed adviser, pulling lint off his sock, unable to look up.
But here is the mystery: His parents' farm wasn't going under. It is doing fine, in fact. The flash point was elsewhere.
Last year, three teen-agers in Storm Lake committed suicide. One was the basketball coach's son. They say he just walked past his parents into his bedroom and shot himself. A psychiatrist was brought in from the Menninger Foundation in Topeka, Kan. He talked to a lot of people and ran some tests and told the town its problems were pretty normal. What happened might have been just a statistical quirk.
In Harlan (population 5,357), on the western edge of the state, three farmers killed themselves in 18 months. The American Psychological Association sent a writer out earlier this year and residents hinted darkly that the actual number was higher than that.
These are recent, random headlines from the Suicide File at The Des Moines Register, the state's largest daily:
"Man Slays Woman, Then Himself"
"Sioux City Boy, 10, Dies of Hanging"
"Clive Man Found Dead in Home of Gunshot Wound"
"Officers Say Farmer Left Notes Planning Suicide"
"Jobless Clinton Plumber Shoots, Kills Wife, Then Self"
"Farmer Slays Ex-Fiancee, Then Turns Shotgun on Self"
"Despondent Woman Commits Fiery Suicide"
"Minister Who Drowned Despaired Over Losing Job"
"We had to start a separate file for the first quarter of the year," says the paper's librarian, matter-of-factly. She kindly does a computer run on suicides in the last nine months, and the list is as long as her leg. The file from 10 years ago is scant by comparison, but the comparison isn't really fair. For one thing, until recently medical examiners in Iowa have been reluctant to put the word "suicide" on death certificates. They're still reluctant. The word cancels life insurance policies. But it is more than that. People want to respect their neighbors. The word was and is such a taboo.
So a man is found hanging one morning from a rope in his machine shed. So somebody puts a .410 shotgun in his mouth under a beech tree one evening. So somebody is found crushed beneath his International Harvester tractor. Well, you put it down as "accidental." Either way, somebody didn't have to watch the sheriff come out and nail signs on his land. Everybody can tell these stories now.
In the town of Spencer, up near the Minnesota border, it is not uncommon for 75 families a week to walk into the Northwest Iowa Mental Health Clinic. One of the common thoughts that come out is suicide. Four separate crisis intervention support groups are currently operating in Spencer. Breaking through the resistance is the hardest part. "We're past the point of positive pretending," says Joan Blundell, a social worker at the clinic.
Life in rural America was never easy. If it wasn't the ruinous weather, it was the harsh loneliness. And still, the outside world wants to romanticize rural life -- or mock it.
To the naked eye, much of Iowa is doing just fine. Many farms are fat and healthy. So are some city dwellers. The temptation is to say the problem doesn't exist. It's the hard-to-see bottom tier that's hurting. The gap between rich and poor widens in Iowa, as it does everywhere else in America. The midwestern state that helped vote in Ronald Reagan in the last two elections now gives him, in a recent poll, a 24 percent approval rating. In February, the president had a 42 percent approval rating in Iowa. But then, in March, he vetoed farm emergency credit relief legislation.
You land at Des Moines and cows are grazing behind a fence at the end of the runway. You drive out into the countryside and the quiet crashes all around you. It is the contrast between what pleases the eye and what burdens the soul, but you don't have to live in Iowa to feel that. People have long suffered at the hands of their place's beauty, whether in Northern Ireland or South Africa or Appalachia.
There are no easy answers to any of this. The five Iowa State suicides this past year, none of which occurred on campus, are thought to be the highest number of self-inflicted deaths of any college in the country. That report went out on National Public Radio in April. The university would like to think it is an isolated phenomenon, freakish as lightning in a rainless summer sky. And, in fact, maybe it is.
But several weeks ago, the Office of Student Life at ISU released the final results of a March "Student Stress" poll. More than half of the 212 students polled -- 54 percent -- said their anxiety was indeed related to the state's farm crisis. One in every four polled said they felt that "life was not worth living." Extrapolated to the total campus enrollment of 26,000, that would mean more than 6,000 students are walking around with suicidal feelings. That number blew the lid off the poll.
Maybe the questions were phrased wrong. Maybe you'd get that response on any campus in the seemingly placid '80s.
An outsider dare not make something more than it is. The five ISU students (two from the same dorm) conform to no particular profile. One was in preveterinary. One was a new transfer into entymology. Two had no farm background at all. Overall, the links in these five student deaths to the state's rural stress seem tenuous. And yet one would be a fool not to think something is terribly awry in the middle of the country.
"It would be a mistake to think that ISU is an island of psychological depression," University President Robert Parks told The Des Moines Register. The Register broke the suicide story. "This may be part of a sad nationwide condition."
The university is in the town of Ames, in Story County, in the richest agricultural belt in one of the richest agricultural states. The land is so black it almost hurts your eyes. You stand on the steps of the massive student union and watch kids fishing in Laverne Lake, right on campus. The bells in the carillon toll every 15 minutes. Lovers drift head to head. It feels like a 1940s movie starring William Holden as Biff Baker, with June Allyson on his handlebars. In the library, students sit near a mural engraved with words from Daniel Webster: "When Tillage Begins, Other Arts Follow."
"I wouldn't argue the right to cover the story, no, no," says Dave Lendt, the university's public information director, a nice man who of course wants to put the lid on. "We're all First Amendment freaks around here. I do know that these are not flaky people. I do know that these are people who have values, who do not come here without anchors, without family ties. These are people who do not believe they can take up a space in the world without giving something back. What you've got here are center-of-the-road, corn-fed, land-grant type of students."
Lisa Birnbach, author of "The Official Preppy Handbook," came to Ames a while back and called it Silo Tech and Mule U. Har-har. In Agronomy 600, there are lectures entitled "Water Relationships in Alfalfa" and "Effect of Residues on Maize Growth." The University of Iowa is two hours away, in Iowa City, and over there they like to style themselves as the Left Bank of the Mississippi. Iowa City is where the artists are, Ames is where the hayseeds are -- never mind that Iowa State has a huge engineering college, that it did some of the earliest atomic energy research in the nation, that its National Public Radio affiliate plays Liszt and Mozart. Things are never quite what they seem.
In ISU faculty mailboxes these days are memos about detecting "warning signs."
His name is Pete Kapustka, and his voice is high and reedy, his body trim and muscular. He wears cowboy boots and walks with one hand in his back pocket.
He's thought about suicide, yes, driving his car into a bridge, but he's past that. He's only 20 but now he's head of the family. His father, at 46, is on his back in an Omaha hospital: bone cancer. He may never farm again. In fact, there may be nothing left to farm: The family is threatened with foreclosure -- not just to the bank, that's the half of it. But to relatives who hold the notes.
"I found out last night my dad's family is serving us with papers of forfeiture," he says. "I sat up half the night trying to figure out what to do."
He came home from Iowa State on April 1 to get the spring crops in. College has to wait. He brought home with him his favorite poster and put it on a new wall: "They that sow in tears shall reap in joy."
"Now my dad, without ever telling me to my face, has entrusted me with putting this year's crops in the ground," he says, and there is a sonorous, almost dreamy, quality about the sentence. "From his bed in Omaha, my dad figured out how much seed corn we need. He's been farming down in Omaha for a couple weeks now."
He went to see his dad in the hospital. He had just come out of surgery. There he was, full of tubes and dangling things, with nurses and funny-smelling stuff all around, and all he could fix on was his calluses. He kept saying, "Pete, Pete, come over here and look at my calluses. They're peeling."
The son who has become the man is telling you this in a huge equipment shed on a suddenly glowering afternoon in Barnum, which is a wide spot in the road west of Fort Dodge. His eldest sister is in the house making supper; she has become the mom, because the real mom spends a couple of days every week in Omaha. The wind is racking fiercely at an aluminum roof. Pete's little brother, Tony, who is 10, is skimming stones on a dirt floor. Tony is chubby and in a red satin school jacket. The difference between 10 and 20, between the big brother and little brother, seems as vast as the tilled fields spreading beyond the house.
"I've been to Chicago once, for about 20 hours," Pete says, laughing at himself.
He slaps at the fender of a mud-caked tractor. "This is the staple of the American family farm, a 4020 John Deere."
"I can drive 'er," Tony calls over.
Pete walks around a four-wheel drive with an enclosed cab.
"This is our 8640. We bought it when things were good. It cost $80,000. You couldn't sell it now for $20,000."
"Nah, we don't use 'er much," says Tony.
Pete squints over at his little brother. "I'm about numb to all this stuff. I keep a journal. It's hard to remember when things were normal. But I've always heard, if you think you're crazy, you're probably not."
In the late '50s, his dad came out of the Army and had no choices but to take over the family farm. His own father, Pete's grandpa, had walked out into a winter field just a little while before and split his head open on a patch of ice. He just bled out. By the time they got him into the house, he was almost gone. So the son, just sprung from the service, had all his options foreclosed.
"And in a way, I feel it's kind of happening all over again."
Nights are the roughest. You go in and try to sleep. Often it doesn't come. You're up anyway as soon as the light is pale.
One bad night a couple of months ago, Pete Kapustka wrote a letter to the president of the United States. He wrote it in longhand on Alpha Gamma Rho stationery. Alpha Gamma Rho is the big ag house at Iowa State. The stationery was a kind of classy yellow parchment; he figured that might catch the president's eye.
"I said, 'Sir, we're just a family farm. My dad's dying of cancer, we're losing our land, and you not only rejected the farm emergency bill, but you made a spectacle of it. Please do something, sir, do anything.' "
He never heard back.
In Nora Springs, Mary Beth Janssen and her husband Gary run farm survival meetings. They've set up a computer in their living room. They meet with fellow farmers in local churches. The first thing they do is pray. There is no particular agenda -- people just stand up and talk, get it out. Sometimes Gary accompanies bankrupt friends to the bank.
Mary Beth is telling you this on the phone and she sounds as if she's talking from Ethiopia. "We've been through bankruptcy. We're still farming and sometimes I ask myself, 'What the hell for?' Gary and I lost a farm that had been in the family 80 years. 'We were failures.' You hear a lot of that. When somebody goes down, you hear, 'Oh, he deserved it.' I think people are so afraid that it's going to happen to them next. But Gary and I are through rolling over and giving in. For years we sat on the dumb side of the desk when it came to bankers. What Gary and I are trying to get people to realize is that it's not their fault. It's been coming on for years. That's what happened in the '30s."
Gary takes the line. "I have no degree in anything. Yeah, I've probably saved some lives. To say who, I couldn't give you a name. I don't know who's in the back row. The people in the front row, you don't worry about."