A lesson and legacy left behind11/27/2013
Omega Ranch sits in Dallas County alongside County Road F-90, not more than a half-hour drive from downtown Des Moines. Acreages may dot the surrounding landscape, but Omega Ranch is still rural Iowa. Indeed, a red-and-white metal sign nailed to a post near the homestead’s back door warns: Redneck Parking Only!
Though it is small, Omega Ranch teams with horses, dogs, cats, chickens and a small herd of beef cattle. It used to be even more crowded and noisy when an old Vietnamese pig named Cincinnati snorted and grunted and reigned over the barnyard, but he’s been in hog heaven for some time now.
The owner of Omega Ranch grew up in the city, a Des Moines boy. He earned his diploma from North High and his degree from Drake University. Despite his urban roots he wanted to live in the country.
He always kept a vegetable garden. From very early on he acquired a fondness for gardening from his grandmother. He liked to see plants grow and take shape, and he was generous in sharing the bounty from his garden — broccoli, potatoes, cauliflower, tomatoes and peppers of all kinds — with others.
He also loved animals of all kinds. After much begging, he got his first dog as a teenager. It was a St. Bernard pup. He assured his mother, “It won’t get all that big.”
One day a few years ago, the owner of Omega Ranch had a problem with getting water out of the tap. He found a listing for a repairman who worked in Dallas County and telephoned him. The repairman agreed to come out and see if he could discover the cause of the problem while the owner, wearing a suit and tie, worked at his “real job” in Des Moines.
Walking past the Redneck Parking Only! sign at Omega Ranch the following afternoon, the repairman could imagine the person who — presumably with some measure of pride — nailed it to the post: While “Redneck” can mean different things, it commonly — signifies a white person who has a provincial, conservative and often bigoted attitude.
That night the repairman telephoned the owner. “I found out what your problem is,” he said. “Around here we call it a Niggerhead. Yours is broken. I can replace it if you want.”
“Is that right?” responded the owner. “Hey, can you do me a favor? Can you come out to my place tomorrow morning at 8 and show me this Niggerhead? I’d like to see exactly where it’s located and what’s wrong with it.”
“Sure,” said the repairman. “I’ll see you at 8.”
The next morning he knocked on the back door of the house. The door swung open and the owner introduced himself.
“Good morning,” the owner said, extending his hand. “I’m Mike Carter. Thanks for coming out to my place. Should we go have a look at this Niggerhead thing?”
The repairman shook the extended hand, but said nothing. Standing in front of him was a black man.
The silence was finally broken by Mike. “Listen,” he said matter-of-factly to the repairman, “we can handle this in one of two ways.
“The first way is that I get angry — I cuss you out good and long, and when I’m done we’re at crossways with each other. The second way is that you admit you made a mistake — that you just don’t go around saying things like ‘Niggerhead,’ that you’re a better person than that, that we live in a better state and better country than that.
So, how do you suggest we proceed?”
The repairman chose the second way and, not long thereafter, each man earned the respect of the other.
Mike Carter died recently when the staff at Iowa Methodist Medical Center took him off life support. An accident at Omega Ranch had left him unconscious five days earlier, and he never recovered.
Family and friends could not believe what had happened to a man who, despite a year-old artificial hip, was strong and physically fit at age 61. He was the kind of man seen tossing around hay bales into his 90s.
And yet there he lay in a coma on his hospital bed, suddenly frail and experiencing constant tremors that shook his body. For anyone who knew Mike, who had seen him pump weights at the Riverfront YMCA or walk miles in heavy snow to work his dogs while hunting pheasants or quail, it was a shock to see him that way.
Meanwhile, back at Omega Ranch, the cows, cats and chickens continued on as usual, constantly on the lookout for something to eat. The dogs and horses seemed to know, however, that something had changed, that the black man who had spoken to and cared for them was never coming back. Though fed and watered, they softly whined and whinnied while nervously pacing about.
Bad as it was for the animals at Omega Ranch, it was worse for the people who knew Mike Carter. His smile made them smile. His laugh made them laugh. In the briefest of conversations he could make everyone feel better about himself.
When he walked into a room, he was not alone for long. His childhood friend Karen Lockman observed, “Wherever Mike went, there was a crowd of people.”
He had an active life. In addition to hunting birds, riding horses and playing racquetball, Mike trained dogs, snow skied and played golf.
He traveled with ease among diverse circles – city dwellers and country folk, blacks and whites, rich and poor. When he was Bachelor of the Year in Des Moines he wore a black tuxedo to the award dinner and drove a Mercedes. When he was a cattleman in Dallas County he wore a battered cowboy hat and drove a Ford-250 truck.
He had a soft spot for those down on their luck. Karen Lockman knew that side of him. “One Thanksgiving at his mother’s house,” she recalled, “Mike found out that the neighbors couldn’t afford to have a nice meal to celebrate the holiday. ‘We can’t have that,’ he told his mother Maeola. He invited the neighbors over and squeezed them around the dinner table with members of his family.”
Mike Carter would have laughed upon hearing that America was near the end of racism. He still experienced it, living where he did. Yet he realized there were times when expressing indignation and anger over a racial insult might prove counter-productive.
So when he heard a complete stranger during a telephone conversation use the most inflammatory word in the English language, he chose to use it as a learning experience for the manwho, he rightly judged, was not so much bigoted as insensitive.
He had the rare ability to turn potential confrontations into friendships.
He also had a sense of humor, which explains why he posted the Redneck Parking Only! sign at Omega Ranch.
But, the truth is, he really did welcome Rednecks to his home, along with everyone else. After parking in their designated spot they could talk to his horses, watch him train his bird dogs and go home with a grocery sack full of his vegetables and eggs.
You see, Mike Carter was determined to win over rural Iowa, one redneck at a time. CV
Bruce Kemkes was the late Mike Carter’s neighbor and friend.