Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Field of Dreams and Looking for Radar O'Reilly

A detour to Dyersville just west of Dubuque brought me to the place even those who live in the Red Sox Nation, worship the Chicago Cubs, or believe that Yankee Stadium is the center of the baseball universe generally admit is the place that is the cult center of the sport. The field met my expectations.

On the 90-year-old Lansing Farm is the baseball diamond "created" by the Kevin Costner character in the movie "Field of Dreams.” Suffice to say that among baseball fans it is a cult film. The field which was kept up after the movie was finished attracted a substantial tourist trade. It became a Mecca for the purists of baseball. Its simplicity is a reminder of simpler times as the movie was, when the ballplayers played the game very well, yet seemed human, not superstars.

I will only briefly summarize the plot for those of you who may not know the movie. A farmer built the field in the middle of his farm. His neighbors believed him crazy since he took corn out of production to do it. He believed that if he built it his long dead father, who had been a catcher at some level of professional baseball, would return to play there. He believed it because a voice told him. His wife and son were his support along with one other man, played by the wonderful James Earl Jones. When done, many dead greats of the game came and played, as did his father. Only he and his family were able to see them. The teams came and went through the cornstalks that lined the outfield. The movie either originated or made famous the phrase, "if you build it, they will come.” I should assure you that the movie was much better than my explanation.

My short time there was nearly as dreamlike as the movie. It was very early, There was a fine mist which added to this surreal vision which made it seem quite possible to me that at any moment "Shoeless "Joe Jackson or another of the greats of long ago would walk out of the corn stalks and take his place in field or the batter's box. It is a remarkable place, sadly made less so by the folks who "saved" it. There are suits and counter- suits as to who owns what and the rights to what. All rather tawdry and only reinforces my core belief that greed drives the world in far too many endeavors. This greed has now caused the field to be abandoned. My last news has it that will be dismantled. They say it is not popular anymore and that may be true, as the movie was years ago. Yet, it seemed a place worth saving. Many of us still care.

I avoided the unpleasantness and commercialism this weekday morning in light rain. Only a few other pilgrims stood there with me. I came away with no overpriced T-Shirt or hat to proclaim my attendance, just the memory of a verdant place and an uncomplicated field. If ghosts of the greats from the past do come to place to play the game they loved you have the feeling that it could happen here.

A map told me I wasn’t far from Ottumwa, Iowa, home of the mythical Radar O'Reilly from the television series M*A*S*H. Radar was played by Gary Burghoff who is the nephew of a man I worked with for a number of years. The character's special naiveté and bumbling competence, made him memorable to many and hard not to like. He was the company clerk that kept the hospital working in its dysfunctional way and in bandages and whatever else it needed. “Radar,” was a nickname for more than one of my co-workers who had extraordinary powers of anticipation and always seemed to have the right piece of paper to be signed. Radar was the Patron Saint of good staff people everywhere. The story line was that his Mother and Uncle Ed ran the family farm in Ottumwa. Both were portrayed as being a few sandwiches shy of a picnic as the saying goes. There were other equally off center members of his family who lived in town. Eventually, some years into the series, Uncle Ed died, and the conflicted Radar leaves the 4077th M*A*S*H to run the farm. He is, it turns out, less successful in this than in keeping a Mobile Hospital running.

I went to Ottumwa because I had time, was curious about the place, and thought it might be interesting to see what the people there might say about Radar. When I stopped for fuel, I asked where Radar was and where I might find the O'Reilly farm. I got a smile that time, but no comment. As I did my shopping and other errands before going west, I asked a lot of people the same question. Some smiled, some frowned, I was ignored a lot, and occasionally someone would say he was just fine. One lady told me she had known the family for years but they were gone now. Finally a man named Richard in the barbershop reacted as I had hoped and gave me precise directions to the farm, although he said that Radar had sold it a few years ago and had moved to Florida a year or two ago. Richard said Radar was healthy enough for a fellow who had been in Korea way back then. It was an impressive display. He never cracked, but remained as serious as one would be about a real person. Following his directions, I found a farm, which I dutifully photographed. It probably belonged to Richard himself, but I was sorry Radar wasn't there. There was a lot I wanted to ask him.

From my experience, it was clear that I was not the first tourist who had wandered through with these questions about a fictional character. I am not sure that some who asked before me did not believe there was a Radar, a farm, and the rest. Graceland is like that. There was an Elvis, of course, but I remember clearly there were people there who would never accept that he was dead and buried in the backyard of the mansion.

Later in the trip, I told this story to my nephew's wife. I was surprised to learn that Gary Burghoff now lives quite near her parents in Connecticut. He is now a painter of some note. I also met a physician in her practice, who had grown up in Ottumwa and had apparently put up with a good bit of this nonsense in her life.
Ottumwa, of course, is hardly the small town one expects if you take the series literally. It is a city likely smaller at the time of the Korean War, to be sure. It is the "City of Bridges" according to the visitor center on the way to town. Three span the Des Moines River. The town was born a river port town in 1851. Ottumwa means, "rippling waters" in one Indian language or another. One of the bridges, the Jefferson Viaduct, is said to be the longest municipally owned bridge in the state. I will take the Chamber of Commerce's word for it. A carnival was in a park near the river, and on an sunny, early summer's day, made it a fine place to eat lunch and watch people.

I went back north to a less crowded place and headed west. The weather was clear and cool when I made a camp near Kellogg. It was near the Interstate, but uphill and upwind on the edge of a farm. It had electricity, and some lovely old trees. I sat outside watching the traffic, dreaming of destinations for them and watching a glorious sunset. It was then to bed in my own field of dreams. A cornfield came up to the edge of the camp's access road. It was a lovely place, a simple setting to sleep, and dream of baseball games of long ago.


  1. Thank you for posting this, Reamus! I certainly now know more about Ottumwa than ever before. I'm glad you happened to meet up with Richard.

    Wow....I'm trying to recall how long its been since I was at the Field of Dreams. It might be five years ago. My son's class stopped there on the way to the River Museum in Dubuque. The kids played a kickball game on the ball diamond. Sad to say....I did plunk down money for a t-shirt.

    Sad to say, too.....I wasn't a big fan of the movie, although I did choke up when the dad appeared. To me, Kevin Kostner nevers seems to be acting.....he's just being himself, perhaps. Maybe that's the sign of a really good actor.

  2. Ottumwa was fun.

    Funny bit I saw Costner in "For the Love of the Game" on tape here in the rainy campground last night, and I got the same feeling. I think he had some ballplayer in his genetics somewhere.

  3. Hi...first-time visitor here. I came from a link on Jeannelle's blog.

    I have good memories of both the M*A*S*H series and the Field of Dreams movie. I believe the phrase was, "If you build it, *he* will come," (not they). The other two phrases in the movie were "Ease his pain" and "Go the distance." I love that movie.

    Speaking of Radar's fictional status, you might be surprised how many people come to Atlanta (where I live) asking how to get to Tara from Gone With The Wind!

    I enjoyed this post.

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  5. rhymes,

    Thanks for stopping....glad you liked it