Monday, May 16, 2011

Damning cancer, praying for a miracle and bidding a loving farewell to Red Oak's finest, my friend, Uncle Moose

The thick-chested (some say thick-headed) guy with whom I shared some of life’s great adventures is sleeping most of the day.
The cancer has spread to his spine.
I’ve written before about my Uncle Moose -- aka Steve Mainquist -- and his fight with cancer. He’s an Iowa farm boy… well farm owner, big cheese, top wrangler of the massive Mainquist spread outside Red Oak ….
I can’t remember the last time I mentioned him. But I believe it was a few months ago and he was going outside to sit, reflect on his family, soak in the autumn sun and pet one of his cats.
He’d been too weak to help with the harvest last fall. And the two or three falls before, as the cancer ate away at him. But his friends and neighbors jumped in to help. There is a kinship to life on the Great Prairie.
He was, he told me, determined to live. His son, John, was going to graduate May 21, 2011 – that's this Saturday – and he wanted to be there. He also, I believe, had just purchased John a car.
Moose has been sick a long time. His battle has been hard-fought and vicious. Perhaps there’s a miracle there.
But I’ve lost too many friends over the years to believe much in miracles. Life’s a roll of the dice. Miracles happen in Christmas movies.
I met Moose back in the middle of August of 1969. I was a young guy, an incoming freshman, moving into Storms Hall at Iowa State University.
I guess I didn’t meet Moose until the upperclassmen showed up. He was a junior. He was a farmer. He wouldn’t show up until the last possible minute, because there was too much work to be had on the farm.
But there was something about this big guy that I liked. I don’t know exactly when I met him. Perhaps it was in a flying chest bump in the hallway of Hanson House. The big Nordic fellow enjoyed that. Or more likely it was at the cigar store down on Lincoln Way.
I’d stop there to buy a couple of good cigars a day from the twin brothers who ran the shop. One would be for smoking during the mile walk back to the dorm. The other one would be for the evening.
Perhaps our friendship really was cemented on the first round of finals I had at Iowa State. I ran out of cigars in mid-study. It was the middle of the night, so I went down the hallway to find Moose studying as well. I asked if he had a cigar I could buy or borrow.
Nope, so he accompanied me to the cigarette machine downstairs, where I bought a 50-cents pack of Camel straights, the beginning of my long addiction that ended perhaps 13 years ago.
But this really isn’t a blog about smoking. I’ve written before about the nasty habits of my early life and have been fortunate enough to get rid of them, to live through them. I hope.
Moose and I watched the draft lottery together. I drew 280. He drew 4.
As soon as he left ISU, he was drafted and spent six months trying to get out. It wasn’t so much an anti-war statement – I was the radical among my friends – as it was survival of the family farm.
His pop was dead and he was the sole proprietor of the farm and he took care of his mother.
Of course he opposed the war, most of my friends did … even those who went on to fight and die there…
But mostly all he wanted to do was to be allowed to go home to Red Oak, take care of the farm and his mom. Maybe one day raise a family.
In a momentary lapse of idiocy, the Army relented, giving him a personal hardship discharge just a few weeks shy of sending this big strong man to help his Uncle Sam in Vietnam.
I could talk all day about Moose. We haven’t seen each other in a few … well, way too many … years.
But we’ve been in each other’s hearts. Every once in awhile, he’d write me a long and long-winded draft, in his nearly impenetrable handwriting, which detailed -- in florid and insane language worthy of Ivanhoe, Groucho or Dr. Seuss -- his adventures.
True? Did somebody’s baby brother really “get et up by the hogs?” Were there really horsemen with sombreros riding spaceships just outside the south gate?
Oh, I can’t remember all the stories. Those two above are just examples and I probably made them up as a way of illustration.
I have a way of coping with life and for the most part it is to shut the door behind me as I pass through. “Excuse me… I’m done with this chapter.” Spares me emotional baggage and mental clutter, I guess.
But for some, the door is always open. Perhaps it would be two years between phone calls, but we’d connect. And we’d laugh.
He’d tell me about his farm life. About his family.
We told each other about our mothers’ passings.
I reminded him that his mom always was someone I cherished. I can remember the 5 a.m. breakfasts out at the Mainquist spread. And the ham sandwiches at lunchtime, washed down by lemonade and accompanied by those cookies that had the chocolate-covered marshmallow on top.
I guess my only long visit there was in 1974 or ’75. I went back out to Iowa to visit some friends on campus. And once the weekend frivolity ended, I climbed into the 1965 Falcon and drove to far southwest Iowa, to a special spot in the universe called Red Oak.
I helped with the corn harvest there for about a week. I suppose I really got in the way, but I ran the elevator, filling the silos up with feed corn after he’d combine the rows.
And then, when the day was done, we’d climb on the smaller tractor, with a flatbed filled with hay and rumble and bump across the pasture to the cattle.
In the evening, we’d go to the saloon in town. I can’t remember the name. All I know is we’d drink beer -- likely Schlitz, Stroh's or Falstaff -- and laugh. He’d be smoking a cigar. Me, well, I was a Winstons man at that point in life.
We rolled through the frosty night back out to the spread.
We sat outside and listened to the coyotes howl. We smoked cigars then and talked about our friend, the great poet and how we had both been astounded and perhaps confused when he performed “Howl” at campus.
Moose also returned to Ames, to campus, to go see Groucho Marx when I was a junior. It was Groucho’s last performance. He was coming out of retirement. He was warming up for Broadway in Ames. He died, literally, when he hit New York.
I have never seen nights as pure and clean as those over the Iowa prairies. I’ve been camping in the Rockies and the Sierras and those perhaps are close seconds. But there was a sense of infinity about standing on a rise by the darkened barn and looking out over the hillsides. Listening to the coyotes. And to the nothing.
I think of those nights in Red Oak often. I even had a Red Oak centennial T-shirt that Moose sent. I wore it until it wore out or perhaps it got lost in life’s storms. If one of Moose’s friends is reading this, I could use another Red Oak T-shirt, XXL.
Red Oak occupies a special place in my heart. And I have other friends there, particularly Leonard Sandholm … “Nardholm” as he was known in college. I think Nardholm is a year younger than I am.
And occasionally I hear from him. Which is fitting, since I was there when he and his now wife had their first date in the upper bunk of his dorm room. I think Inna-Gada-Da-Vida was blasting on the stereo. Nardholm’s room was something of the destination for everyone that night, so the pretty girl joined him on the upper bunk. Nothing wild here, just a kid with a Brillo shock of blond talking with the girl who would be his wife. I like Nardholm a lot too. I’d like to see him again as, they say, sand goes through the hourglass of life.
Anyway, Nard wrote me a note Friday on Facebook.
“Moose not doing good” is all it said.
Which was all I needed to know. I got to Facebook and wrote notes to Moose (he actually never uses his site, but his wife set it up for him), his wife Sheila and to Moose's beautiful sister Linda, who, works for the Maharishi in D.C. (No not the president, the real Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.) I remember her as a wonderful college girl with a charming smile and other amazing attributes.
Linda wrote back:
“Yes, Steve's health has been in sharp decline. About 2 weeks ago, had to be moved into a full care center. It's actually quite homey in that they have their own family suite. He's grown so much in these last three years--opening up to experiences way beyond his identity, "doing" personality. His heart is wide open with a more palpable serenity. He mostly rests while all his friends and neighbors visit and entertain him and then has to sleep for about 24 hours. I am going to see him on Tuesday for a week. It seems that his final transcendence is quite near . . . Thank you for reaching out. I know that Steve is more in his soul dimension than his earthly one, so your loving attention is felt deeply and immediately. You can call the home number and leave yours if you get a message. We can call you back from wherever we happen to be. His son John's h.s. graduation is next Saturday, so many of us are gathering in IA to give John proper recognition for his achievements. He's quite a guy--a leader, singer, loves people. Much love, Linda”
And from Sheila: "Steve is now in the care center as he is unable to walk. The cancer has moved to his spine. He had three bouts of radiation, but things are just moving along too quickly. Right now he is not in a huge amount of pain, but sleeps much of the time. He has always valued your friendship!! I will tell him you asked about him. If I can find your phone number at home and if he is up to talking, I will have him call."
I’d love to have a happy ending for this tale. But it’s not quite over.
Of course we all know how it ends.
But it’s not how he dies that matters. It’s how he lived. And, man, did he live.
I love you Moose.


  1. What a lovely and loving remembrance. Bonus - you made this native Nebraskan homesick for those starry skies and wide open spaces I miss so much. I am lucky to have a sister who live in Granger, IA so I get to visit that wonderful state from time to time.
    Full disclosure - Steve's brother was my Uncle Al, married to my godmother and my Mom's sitter, Winnie. Those Mainquist boys were something else- thank you for the wonderful and evocative remembrance.

  2. SISTER, not sitter!

  3. Tim, you have touched my soul with your writing.
    Your style is haunting. This piece reminds me of 'Lonesome Dove,'
    but you made it your own. Don't ever stop writing.
    Judith, from NYC

  4. Thank you for capturing the essence of a man who dominates the room wherever he is. Steve's personality and deep intellect makes him one of a kind. I am privileged to be a classmate and friend to this gentle giant. There is no one who does not love the Moose.