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Hawkeye Holdouts

Life's still a picnic for the Iowa Association

September 21, 1997|Mary Melton

"Is this the Kentucky group?"

Howard Genrich, armed with a Michelob Light cooler full of sandwiches and pop, jokingly greets his Iowa Association compatriots at their annual picnic in Long Beach's Recreation Park. At 72, Genrich--former president of the Long Beach Model T Club and World War II vet ("still got some shrapnel in my ankle from the Battle of the Bulge")--is a whippersnapper by Iowa member standards. He's younger than current president Al Kilts, 87, who's from Dickinson County and made oil bits for 25 years at the Smith Tool Co. (as his belt buckle indicates) in Compton. Or Dorothy Graham, 77, from Grundy County, a sweetheart in her lavender housedress flecked with white daisies and poodle brooch, who's been "kind of in a dither lately. My bank account's way down and my blood sugar's way up."

About a dozen club members crowd around two tables. "We could sit on the lawn," says Al Bray, 75, "but we probably could never get up again." Attendance will peak at 18 picnickers this hot Saturday afternoon, an infinitesimal legacy from the 150,000 Iowans historian Carey McWilliams wrote of who would gather in Long Beach during the picnic's peak, in the early '20s.

"I guess we're sort of clannish," says Al Kilts. The Iowans find solidarity in their farming backgrounds, comfort in their monthly meetings at the Colonial Buffet in downtown Long Beach, familiarity in hearing sentences punctuated with "see?" as in "I've got some beans here, see?" and the overheard bits of dialogue that could be lifted from an Andy Hardy movie: "Boy, in the '30s, Roosevelt had a whale of a basketball team!"

Though the Iowans determine their Long Beach arrival date by whether it was before or after the earthquake--and we're talking the one in '33--most vivid recollections begin with the early 1950s picnics, when 50,000 would congregate around one of 99 eucalyptus trees tied with a clipboard to represent their home county. Iowa Day meant Iowa pork chops and homemade pickles and 50-gallon barrels of corn. Today, age and arthritis have taken their toll on keeping passed-down recipes alive, and the Iowans consume store-bought fried chicken and industrial-sized cans of three-bean salad.

Before the picnic ends, they sing the Iowa corn song in unison, raising arms high above their heads for the ending line, "That's where the tall corn grows!" They laugh together, clean up paper plates and lament the picnic's showing, seven less than last year's low of 25. "Next year," Genrich says, "We've got to put the damn banner up."

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