Sergeant At Arms

If you take the time, you will find that you can meet the most interesting people. Recently I made a stop at the Freedom Rock north of Greenfield, Iowa to see the most recent version. The Freedom Rock was started in 1999 to honor the men and women that have served our country. Each year, Ray "Bubba" Sorensen II, paints a new mural on the rock prior to Memorial Day.

John Porter talks to a visitor at the Freedom Rock near Greenfield.

John Porter talks to a visitor at the Freedom Rock near Greenfield.

As I pulled up this year I found  John Porter raising the Stars and Bars over the memorial. Porter, a three-year veteran of the air force with a stop in Vietnam, was quick to fill me in on the history of the rock and tell his story about working with Sorensen over the years. Porter described himself as the sergeant at arms for the memorial and it is a job that he takes very serious.

"I was cuffed and stuffed several years ago," Porter said with a smile. 

He said the one and only time someone messed with the memorial ended in Porter punching him in the face. Porter said he found out someone painted graffiti and anti-flag rhetoric on one of the early versions of the rock. When he found out the identity of the man that did it he wanted to have a friendly conversation with him. One thing led to another and Porter found himself in jail.

"It's okay. The local veterans groups paid for my bail and court costs," he said still smiling.

Over the years nearly 80 veterans have reportedly had their ashes mixed in the paint and added to the memorial. Making Porter's job of keeping an eye on the memorial all that more important. I left him as he talked with his wife and others that were visiting the Freedom Rock. A great guy that has dedicated his life to his country.

To read more about the Freedom Rock follow this link: https://www.thefreedomrock.com

 

Smokey D's: Putting Iowa BBQ on the Map

By Joseph L. Murphy

Any way you slice it, American barbecue is one of the most debated food topics. Some will claim Kansas City or Memphis barbecue is the best. And states like Alabama, Texas and South Carolina always find their way on top 10 lists. But more people are adding Iowa to those lists. Or at least they will if Darren Warth gets his way.

Sherry and Darren Earth are the only team to win the American Royal Open, Jack Daniels World Championship, King of the Smoker and the Houston Livestock World Championship.

Sherry and Darren Earth are the only team to win the American Royal Open, Jack Daniels World Championship, King of the Smoker and the Houston Livestock World Championship.

Warth, owner of Smokey D's BBQ in Des Moines, is familiar with all the arguments and best-of lists. But he says the best BBQ in the country is in Central Iowa, and he has the hardware to back it up.

"I walk in every morning, and I just love barbecue. Barbecue is 100 percent of our life," Warth said. "I go barbecue to get away from barbecue. My relaxation time is sitting over a pit on a Saturday during a barbecue competition."

That passion is paying off for Warth and his wife, Sherry. The duo is the only team to win the American Royal Open, Jack Daniels World Championship, the King of the Smoker and, most recently, the Houston Livestock World Championship. Add to that 82 state championships and 800 individual category awards, and you start to build an impressive resume that simply can't be touched by anyone else.

"It’s a balance," Warth said while explaining why his barbecue is so highly rated by judges. "It’s meat, it’s smoke, it’s spice and it’s sauce. It’s not one of those things overpowering the other."

In 2007, the former vice president of transportation for Ruan Trucking in Des Moines, walked away from a lucrative career to focus his full-time attention on championship barbecue competitions and a catering and takeout business.

"It went crazy," Warth said of a catering and takeout business that started in his driveway in 2005. "I was on the road 60 percent of the time. I was traveling everywhere."

That led the couple to open a location in the old Polk County Sheriff's building and eventually in the skywalk in downtown Des Moines. Today the Warths own three locations in the metro while still competing across the country in barbecue competitions.

"When I look at a restaurant and see how it runs I don’t think like a normal restauranteur," he said thinking about his start in the trucking industry. "I think about how efficiently I can get food to the customer and how I can have better customer service. If I can make a customer happy, the rest are just details. Everything is a process to me.”

Those details paid off on the tournament circuit and for his restaurants. He is quick to say the quality of pork, beef and other meats are just as important in a barbecue contest as they are in his restaurants.

"We use one word around here, and it’s 'consistency,'" Warth said. "It’s the consistency that really keeps bringing people back. We bring the consistency and quality that we have in competition barbecue to the restaurant business.”

To do that they use meat suppliers like Smithfield when purchasing their meats.

"We look for a heavy meat cover on ribs with as much marbling as possible," he said. "That ensures it will be a juicy product at the end, whether you are cooking for judges or customers."

Smokey D's business received a boost when famous food "judge" and traveling customer Guy Fieri, host of “Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives,” featured Warth's wings on his television show. Warth said even though Fieri featured his wings, most customers know Smokey D's for their ribs and burnt ends.

"If you think about Smokey D’s, you're thinking about ribs and burnt ends," he said. "People come here for ribs and burnt ends. There’s not much profit in them, but it is what brings people through the door.”

Any given day, Smokey D's will serve up barbecue to thousands of people. They’ll typically sell about 1,200 racks of ribs per week and serve 125,000 pounds of pork and beef per year.

"We have a weird demographic," Warth admitted. "You have grandma and grandpa sitting here and next to them is a Harley rider with tattoos down his arm and a screaming kid across the way. And it doesn’t seem to bother anybody because it is Smokey D's."

Over the past decade, Warth has built a business and championship pedigree that is tough to beat. Those endeavors paired with other fantastic barbecue restaurants across the state have put Iowa barbecue on the map.

Is it the best? It might be a solid claim for one of the most-debated food topics. One way to find out is to try Smoky D’s for yourself. For locations and other information, go to www.smokeydsbbq.com.

Originally published for the Iowa Food & Family Project

Winter sunrise

What do you get when you mix ground fog with the rising winter sun. Until recently I wouldn't have had a clue. But luckily on my way to work I kept a close eye on the fog and how it mixed with the woods until I came upon this scene. It was a light at the end of the tunnel to see this magnificent scene after so many months of grey weather.

The morning sun cuts through ground fog at Saylorville Lake.

The morning sun cuts through ground fog at Saylorville Lake.

Cali Sun stroll

What does a land locked Iowan do when he has few spare hours on a short trip to California? Considering I left the state at the height of a crippling ice storm the answer was clear. You do anything you can to embrace the sun and the ocean.

Surfers pause to judge the waves before making their way into the surf.

Surfers pause to judge the waves before making their way into the surf.

After googling surfing and San Diego my choice was clear. I would soak up the last hours of daylight on Sunset Cliffs Boulevard outside of Ocean Beach, California. If that didn't give me a shot of sunny vitamin D to replace Iowa's winter grey I knew nothing would.

True to planning my two mile stroll along the cliffs relaxed me and gave me the opportunity to take some photos while meeting some great people. The following images are a few of the sights that I absorbed along the way.

Richard Aguirre relaxes in his vintage Volkswagen van while enjoying the last rays of the sun on Sunset Cliffs Boulevard in Ocean Beach, California.

Richard Aguirre relaxes in his vintage Volkswagen van while enjoying the last rays of the sun on Sunset Cliffs Boulevard in Ocean Beach, California.

Ozzy a self-described volunteer homeless man plays guitar as friends listen near the water at Ocean Beach, California. Ozzy has traveled across the country via auto, train and foot. Last night he was happy to be reunited with old friends that he had accidentally crossed paths with again.

Ozzy a self-described volunteer homeless man plays guitar as friends listen near the water at Ocean Beach, California. Ozzy has traveled across the country via auto, train and foot. Last night he was happy to be reunited with old friends that he had accidentally crossed paths with again.

Finding the higher ground

 

Standing on a ridge looking over the terrain mixed with rolling hills, open fields and valleys a decision was made. At all costs and for as long as possible that ground was to be held.

Looking back, over 150 years removed, that decision doesn't seem all that important. After all, the person that made the decision was a trained military leader and had years of experience fighting Indians on the western frontier. It turns out that the decision was crucial to the success of the Union army during the battle of Gettysburg and some will say crucial to the success of winning the Civil War and preserving the United States of America.

General John Buford was responsible for that decision, but more importantly, he was responsible for knowing the terrain and understanding that the “higher ground” was crucial to stopping the main body of General Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia just long enough for the Union soldiers to secure their positions. Thus giving a battered Union army a slight advantage that would prove to be the difference in winning the battle.

Last week during a business trip to Gettysburg, I was able to stand on the ridge and survey the ground that Buford looked at on the evening of June 30 1863. It was a powerful moment to look over the terrain in front of us while thinking of what happened there a century and a half earlier.

Much has been written about the battle of Gettysburg. Bufordwasn’t a flashy person seeking glory and attention. Instead, he believed in himself and through leadership and the respect of his peers was able to make crucial decisions.

At the time and for decades to come not much was written about Buford though. Flashy names like Grant, Lee, Stewart, Sherman and Custer grabbed the headlines and the attention of historians. But it was the resolve and understanding of Buford that nudged history towards a victory for the Union.

To further demonstrate the power of that decision, it needs to be said that in modern sports terms the Union was having a disastrous season. Any team going through and 0-8-1 season would be questioning if they could ever win. Today coaches would be fired, fans would fill the airways with opinions on how to turn the tide of season or just give up for the year all together.

And that’s exactly what was happening during that time. The people of the north were tired of the war and President Lincoln had already fired two generals that weren’t getting the job done. Lee was trying to capitalize on the disillusionment of the Union by leading a campaign in the north to win a major battle and hope for an end of the war. All of these variables collided on the grounds just outside of the small town of Gettysburg. Making the decision by Buford that much more important.

Buford of course didn’t single handedly win the battle or the war. But his actions and heroic efforts delayed the Confederates long enough for the main body of Union troops to grab the true high ground on Little Round Top and Cemetery Ridge.

It has been said that the United States of America was born in Philadelphia in 1776 and preserved on the battlefields of Gettysburg in 1863.

What does all of this have to do with us today? It is a case study that should help us understand how important leadership is. In my mind, many layers came together to make the Buford's decision a success. Buford had earned the respect of his superiors that in turn allowed him to make important decisions. He had also earned the respect of his soldiers so they would carry out his orders without question. He was also able to see the larger picture and understand the importance of taking action.

Learning about Buford and seeing the battlefield made me survey the landscape of my career. I’ve had victories and setbacks as has everyone. I know that moving forward, I’ll keep Buford’s decisions in mind as I look for the higher ground.

Panama - For richer or poorer

Wealth and poverty. It is all on display in the small Central American country of Panama. During a recent trip to see the Panama Canal and gauge the progress of its expansion, wealth and poverty were the stark contrasts, a situation that is shared by many other Latin American countries.

The flight into Panama City reveals what most wouldn’t expect in Central and South America. Skyscrapers and a bustling modern metropolitan area. A tour guide boasted that Panama City has 109 skyscrapers — more than other major South American cities like Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. It even has more skyscrapers than Los Angeles, Seattle, Miami, and Houston. But like many cities, the gleam of the skyscrapers doesn't always illuminate the struggles that are happening on the streets below.

The main economic driver of the country is the canal — a system of locks that have allowed large ships to navigate a north and south route stretching 51 miles through Panama safely. The route that shaves time and saves money for precious cargo. For instance, ships sailing from New York to San Francisco can save 7,872 miles instead of going around Cape Horn in South America.

Much of the cargo is either destined for or originates from the United States. In fact, 70 percent of the cargo passing through the canal falls in that category.

It is often said that money breeds money and in Panama's case that is just the beginning. The 109 skyscrapers are a result of foreign investments in the country since Manuel Noriega’s dictatorship ended in 1989 and the Panama-U.S. Free Trade Agreement was signed in 2012. More than 100 branches of multinational enterprises including Caterpillar, BASF, Philips, Adidas and Trump International call the country home.

But life stays stagnant for the people in the shadows of the skyscrapers. Neighborhoods near Casco Viejo, the historical beginning of Panama City founded by the Spanish in 1673, can’t hide the poverty that is prevalent. It's a place that is optimistic for change but content with life. In many ways the situation of the people mirrors the geography of their neighborhoods. Stuck between the old city center of Panama and the booming skyscrapers across the bay. With wealth just out of reach.

 

What will help the poorest of the poor in Panama? The outside fortunes of investments continue to help, and a stable government with leaders that are focused on helping all citizens of Panama can go a long way. As I watched shipments of grain pass through the locks of the Panama Canal, I know that the American farmer is doing their part by utilizing the waterway to move their 600 million bushels of soybeans every year.

The toll money paid to the Panamanians for the service of the canal continues to churn a democratic economy that is lately turning its attention to not only expanding the canal for the future but also to helping citizens that have yet to see the benefits of the strong economy. With the more than $5.25 billion investment for the expansion of the canal, the Panamanian government has also dedicated money to improve conditions in provinces like Colon that have seen economic declines and rising poverty for much of the past 50 years. Colon is the port and canal entrance on the Caribbean or Atlantic side of Panama. The area is part of a massive restoration project that began in 2014. The focus is in restoring historic buildings, roads, parks and building housing.

There’s economic evidence that things are getting better for the citizens of Panama. According to Trading Economics, the unemployment rate decreased to 2.50 percent in 2015 from 4.10 percent in 2013. The highest recorded rate was at 16.30 percent during the time period between 1982 and 2015.

Will the light of Panama's economy shine through the shadows and illuminate the country? If the successful expansion of the canal is an indication Panama's economy will continue to thrive and so will their democracy. With some experts predicting unemployment rates trending around 2.06 percent in 2020. The combination of the expanded canal as an economic driver and low unemployment rates will help all of Panama's citizens enjoy the wealth it creates.

Originally published for the Iowa Soybean Association

The welder

If only the lines and scars on his hands could talk. Underneath the oil and dirt a diary of 43 years of lines would tell quite a story. Stories of hard work would be the easiest to see but after talking to Hartford Cooper for awhile earlier this fall those stories would just be the beginning.

Hartford Cooper pauses for a portrait in his rural welding shop.

Hartford Cooper pauses for a portrait in his rural welding shop.

Cooper, a long time fixture of Nodaway, IA, has owned a repair and welding shop off of Birch Avenue for over 30 years. The 78 year-old has welded a variety of projects during his 43 year career. 

His tool of choice and an irreplaceable tool for his business is a Lincoln Motor Generator. The now antique generator from the late 60's still provides stick and wire welding after many decades of service for Cooper.

When I met Cooper he was working on repairing the gears of an old feed wagon. The project took all of his focus and dexterity to line the gears up properly to make the wagon work again. He told me that most of his work over the years has come from area farm repairs but more and more of his time is spent repairing commercial garbage bins. The bins rust through over time and Cooper uses his years of experience to replace the bottoms with new steel sheets.