One of the things I enjoy about being back home in rural Iowa is the farmer wave. Out here where there seems to be a little less skepticism about the people around you many drivers wave when they meet you on the street or highway.
For many, the "farmer wave" is a simple lifting of the index finger from the steering wheel. For others, it’s a full hand wave. Or it might be a lifting of several fingers from the steering wheel. Whatever the style, it’s a comforting reminder of rural sociability.
After 14 years in Sioux City I had gotten out of the habit of waving at folks when I arrived in southwest Iowa’s Creston in early 1988. On my first day in town, walking from my office to a restaurant two blocks away, several motorists waved at me. They had no idea who I was; they waved anyway. It was heartwarming.
By the time we left Creston 12 years later, I had become a waver again. Then, after 14 years in the Des Moines metro I had to reacquaint myself with the wave when I moved back home to Hamilton County this spring.
I’ve caught on quickly.
My late brother-in-law was a waver. Other than four years in the Navy, Laverne lived his entire life in rural Iowa. When we went for a ride in the country to "check on the corn crop" he waved at everyone we met on the road and most folks waved back.
On a Fourth of July about a dozen years ago he and I were driving around Des Moines. There are very few cornfields to check out in the capital city; I was pointing out different sites he hadn’t seen – new construction, new stores, demolition of a familiar landmark, etc. As we rounded an intersection, a car with two teenage girls made a turn on our left. Laverne gave them a big innocent rural wave.
When they failed to return the wave, my brother-in-law commented, "Boy, they’re not very friendly." I reminded him that in the city young women are diligently taught about stranger danger. "Besides," I asked, "if you had a teenage daughter would you want her to wave at couple of old guys like us?"
Laverne laughed and said, "Absolutely not."
Some 30 years ago the farmer wave confused a Sioux City co-worker. Bob, a rough-and-tumble Chicago native, had married a northwest Iowa school teacher who had a job interview in Ponca, Nebraska. Ponca is about 30 miles northwest of Sioux City.
His wife encouraged Bob to drive her to Ponca and then check out the town while she was being interviewed. Bob did so. As they were heading home after the interview his wife asked what he thought of the town.
"Most unfriendly place I’ve ever been," Bob said.
"Why do you say that?" his wife asked.
Bob explained that nearly every motorist he met driving around town had made a familiar one-fingered obscene gesture at him.
His wife, acquainted with rural customs, asked, "So which finger did they use to make this gesture."
Bob later told me he was confused by her question.
His wife asked if perhaps the fingers he saw raised at him might have been index fingers. Bob conceded that may have been the case.
After his wife explained the familiar one-finger farmer wave, Bob said, "I guess it’s a good thing I didn’t stop those pickups and beat the crap out of the drivers."
Chicago, Illinois… meet Ponca, Nebraska.
The more reacquainted I get with my rural Iowa roots, the more I appreciate them. I thoroughly enjoyed life in the city and will always appreciate the friends I made there and the opportunities I had there. Nonetheless, it’s good to be back home.
The rural Iowa I knew growing up has changed while I was gone. Unfortunately, some of the changes are not good. I am pleased, however, to find that the rural friendliness I knew in my childhood is still present. I still appreciate the farmer wave. There is something comforting about driving down a county blacktop and waving at someone you know. Or don’t know.