RURAL AMERICA — My idea of heaven continues to shift.

These days I have scaled my expectations down to stuff that cosmically doesn’t matter to anyone but me.

On Sunday afternoons, heaven is sitting under a tree with a small transistor radio at my side, a radio tuned to WBBM out of Chicago. In the old days, it would have been WGN, but things change. Anyway, I put it up to my ear, dialing through the interference until hearing the announcers of the Chicago Bears. Once dialed in, it is only a matter of closing my eyes, imagining the game, listening to water murmuring and purling through the hollow below, and sipping whiskey. That, my friends, is heaven.


Late last month, a great Chicago Bears running back named Gale Sayers died, and as soon as I read about Sayers’ death, I was sitting in the back seat of an Oldsmobile station wagon in July of 1964 driving across Illinois, WGN on the car’s AM radio. And it had nothing to do with Sayers, but his death reminded me.

This was a routine trip for my family, traveling back and forth between suburban Iowa and suburban Chicago, where my parents were from. I can’t tell you where I was when we landed on the moon, but I can tell you precisely where I was when the great Chicago Bear running back Willie Galimore died in a car crash. I was traveling with my family on two-lane Highway 30 halfway between Morrison, Ill., and Clinton, Iowa. As a boy growing up in Iowa, I had odd heroes and Galimore was one of them, and I’m still sorry he’s gone.

I got out of the woods a couple of times last week, once to purchase gasoline at a convenience store, always an interesting journey. Six feet in front of me waiting to pay for his purchase was a guy probably in his mid-40s, maybe 50. Smelling his cologne, I almost started laughing. I pictured him starting on his cologne journey when he was in eighth grade.

Here’s the thing, every eighth-grade boy smells bad, and at some point a well-meaning aunt or grandmother gives the boy some cheap cologne, which he embraces and continues to dab the rest of his life. It’s a practice that should be outlawed.

The other time out of the woods was to take trash to a transfer station before it’s taken to a landfill and then driving across the county to visit the Mississippi River, brown and rolling fast toward New Orleans. Riding along the ridges heading east, one can’t help but take note of the number of Trump vs. Biden signs in the yards of rural Americans. Based upon this anecdotal, unscientific tour of my county, it appears Trump will do well out here. Don’t ask me why.

A couple of weeks ago, my oldest friend joined me in a pleasant repast, sitting on green plastic chairs on the drive. You’ll remember her, the one with Alzheimer’s. On this day, the air was warm and it was both breezy and occasionally windy. She lay back in her chair, her hair dancing on her shoulders and she seemed to be letting a long, prosperous, generous life flow over her. You could hear it moving first through the upper branches of the forest trees down in the hollow, and then over the two of us, two old people looking for the smallest thing to make us smile. And this was the thing, and it was beautiful.

Ullrich is a free-lance writer who resides in rural Jackson County, Iowa. His book, “The Iowa State Fair,” is available from the University of Iowa Press.