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Coincidental Iowa

By Pen Waggener

Because of a National Parks Service program, fourth-grade-graduate Hailey got free entrance to National Parks in 2022. Amy and I thought this was an excellent reason to plan a family trip to Yellowstone.

Since the free pass applied to the whole family, we invited the older brothers along. Evan declined, with plans to work at a fishing camp up north. Oldest brother Graham, however, outlined an ambitious driving itinerary that made maximum use of the free pass, hitting four more National Parks and checking 11 new states off his "visit list" in just under 12 days of driving.

So, on an afternoon in late July, 4/5 of the Waggeners filled up the family Toyota with boots, snacks and phone chargers, and hit the interstate. Davenport, IA, was our immediate goal.

As we were driving into that first night's sunset, somewhere past Normal, IL, I got a phone call from an unknown number with a 319 area code.

I usually answer unknown 270 calls with "Columbia Magazine," but calls from unknown numbers in other area codes get answered with a "Yes?" in order to confuse those robots that wait for your "Hello" to begin a recorded message about car insurance.

Instead, I confused a gentleman named Vern, who asked me who he had reached.

I assumed he was calling to change his address for the Knights of Columbus newsletter or Columbia University's alumni magazine (which are coincidentally also Columbia Magazines), because this is the third-most-common reason my phone rings from out of state.

But Vern explained that he was researching Jane Casey, who is buried in West Point, Iowa, and had come there from Central Kentucky. He had discovered an article about Col. William Casey on our Columbia Magazine, and was reaching out for more information.

As we talked about ways that he might search our online archives on the Casey family, I found out that Vern was retired from the Navy, had settled back in West Point to care for family, and was also looking for Kentucky relatives of the Walker families who had settled in that part of Iowa.

I told Vern that I was coincidentally mere miles from Iowa myself. He said I should stop by to see the historic Casey house, and I promised to try to get to West Point if we passed back through Iowa on our return.

When I hung up, everyone in the car wanted details about the half of the call that they couldn't overhear. I explained who he was and what he was researching, and we marveled that I'd get a random call from Iowa right as we approached the state line.

Graham, who had been reading Bill Bryson's "The Lost Continent" in the back seat, then said, "the book I'm reading starts out in Iowa, and the page I just finished said that 'Every man in Iowa is named Vern.'"

This story was posted on 2022-09-05 11:07:47
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