We were here10/14/2015
“Kilroy was here.” It’s simple enough, a slogan that accompanies a crude drawing of a bald head and eight fingers looking over a wall. Whatever its actual origin, it was graffiti that inspired hope and humor for GI’s in World War II. If Kilroy had already been there, then it was possible to go forward. Somebody marked the way. A friend. Not unlike the trail-marker trees bent to point the correct direction for Native Americans, to guide those who followed. Or the pile of rocks at a fork on the trail, showing by sheer mass those who have taken that path. Kilroy was there. Obviously.
The middle of another Iowa summer at the downtown Des Moines Art Festival. The couple laughingly sits at the table and paints. Focused on the job at hand, they work on their designs, self-consciously aware that they aren’t supposed to be artists. But here they are.
Not far from them, a giant bird rests tilted with wings outstretched in the middle of Grand Avenue. Smaller birds are aligned on tables under a large tent. Folks are donning white gloves, dipping into the paint and adding their marks to the large bird as they pass by.
The artist, Bounnak Thammavong, living in Swisher, Iowa, conceived of this unique idea of a large bird sculpture trailed by a group of smaller birds — a piece he calls “Birds of a Feather.” All to be hung during this month of October at the Des Moines International Airport in the baggage claim area. The clever twist by Thammavong? We were all invited to paint these birds during the Des Moines Art Festival. Thammavong made us all artists.
“I thought it was a neat idea to be part of something that was going up in the city,” said Rhonda, bemused at the entire endeavor and making no claim to greatness, but happy to be a part.
Ron also made no bones about his skills.
“This is a simple idea. And a lot of people will get to be a part of it. I thought it was just a neat idea. But I am no artist.”
They both laugh at the obvious. At least to them.
But Rhonda comes to his defense, the good wife.
“Well, you might consider him an artist in wood. He’s a carpenter. I, on the other hand, am in accounting. I followed him here.” Rhonda pauses, thinking about the implications of what she just said.
“Oh my goodness, what are we doing here? I’ve followed him here, just like I have for 46 years.” They both laugh. “Last Monday was our anniversary.”
Arms around each other, they agree to pose over their creations and the creations of many other folks who stopped to leave their mark. And, by the way, the creation of a 46-year-old marriage. That’s something that says, “The Karrs were here.”
Later in the summer, at the Iowa State Fair, was another opportunity. The large wind turbines sat near the southwest gates. On their side. And people climbed a ladder to sign their name to the giant wings or profess their love by initials and a heart. And now during the months of fall, somewhere in Iowa, those turbines are turning, proclaiming to the geese flying south — “Bill loves Annie.” It’s good to know. A mark has been left.
One theory has Kilroy being a rivet checker at a shipyard during World War II. He would make his sign in chalk to show that he had actually checked the rivets. “Kilroy was here.” Whatever the origin, the message became popular with American soldiers. Robert Capa, a World War II photographer, wrote of the rescue of GIs trapped near Bastogne, Belgium, during the Battle of the Bulge. When Capa pulled into Bastogne, white chalk on the charred remains of a barn wall announced: “Kilroy was stuck here.”
So we leave marks. On birds high above baggage claim, on the blades of a wind turbine, or on a barn in Belgium.
We were here. CV
Joe Weeg spent 31 years bumping around this town as a prosecutor for the Polk County Attorney’s Office. Now retired, he writes about the frequently overlooked people, places and events in Des Moines on his blog: www.joesneighborhood.com.