My Hometown Part IV – Donnie Clamwood aka “Clammers” – A Miller’s Hill Wipeout

Posted: August 12, 2009 in Half Truths & Outright Lies About My Hometown, This May Scare You
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This is the fourth installment in a seven part series entitled My Hometown, the chronicles of the Mississippi River town of Muscatine, Iowa.

To read the earlier episodes, click the following links:

Part I – The Man and His Clam

Part II – They Found What in a Ketchup Bottle?

Part III – Check Out Those Melons 

BACKROP

Harry Huttig was a turn of the 20thcentury lumber man in the town of Muscatine.   While other residents were diving for river clams, filling bottles with Heinz Ketchup or making watermelon pyramid stacks on the back of horse drawn carts, Harry was building the town’s infrastructure.  A respected gentleman, Harry had what many thought was obnoxious dumb luck.   His first turn as lucky dog was when he had the good fortune of shagging the beautiful – insert prolifically wealthy here – Kathryn Musser, she of the Muscatine Mussers.  They would marry in 1891. 

But Harry had financial game of his own.  His lumber yard mysteriously burnt to the ground twice, once in 1886, and again in 1900, each time with over $100,000 in damages.  Harry might have been heard to say to an associate during the infernos: “Awe shucks, there hasn’t been a fire that big since Sherman torched Atlanta.  Better dial up the operator and get my State Farm Good Hands Neighbor on the phone.”   

Harry would use the insurance money and the monetary settlement from the railroad company culprits that were blamed for the fires to parlay a new business venture. He formed a partnership with other local high rollers in the construction of the first toll bridge, a half mile long high bridge spanning to the Illinois side of the Mississippi.   This would mark the first time that sleepy, boring, farming communities on the Illinois side of the river would be linked with sleepy, boring, farming communities on the Iowa side of the river.  

The Harry & Kate Huttig Mausoleum - Not Your Average Tombstone

The Harry & Kate Huttig Mausoleum - Not Your Average Tombstone

Harry accumulated so much wealth through his land holdings, construction business, and toll bridge collections that he was the envy of many in Southeast Iowa, but his most noted real estate parcel today is deep within the Greenwood Cemetery.   Sitting like a fortress overlooking the Mississippi and the town’s southern edge, and nestled tightly in the tree lined bluff you will find the near regal burial setting of Harry and Kathryn Musser Huttig.  The Huttigs lay entombed within a mausoleum of white granite and blue plated glass.

When Huttig died in 1935 he would have never anticipated how his life’s accomplishments would soon be forgotten, but his influence in death would carry on in local folklore.   

…And that is because of the Legend of the Blue Angel.  

Observers to the Huttig mausoleum can stand on the third step and peer inside and see two encased coffins.   But what is more remarkable is the figure kneeling atop the vaults standing guard with head looking humbly downward.  It is a figure known simply as the Blue Angel. 

Not actually blue, the Blue Angel gets her color from the reflection of sunlight on blue glass.   Sunlight, and of course moonlight… which is the lighting choice for curfew defying  school kids who peep in on her at night, often on a dare.   It is not a coincidence that the Blue Angel has many more guests during the Halloween tomfoolery season.   It is her legend that draws people to the stoop of the Huttig mausoleum.      

Since Huttig’s death in 1935 the Blue Angel has knelt on her left knee.  She meticulously balances her left hand tucked against right knee.   This gives her the strenth to hold in her right hand a flower facing down towards the Huttigs.

While there are many variations to the story, all of them conjuring chilly, goose bump outbreaks, the one common tale is to be careful when you peak into look at the Blue Angel because should she happen to drop the flower in her right hand at the moment you are looking than misfortune, bad luck, and even death will be your fate.   Most onlookers are careful only to stare in on her for a few seconds, perhaps not believing the tale, but also not taking an unnecessary chance.   

A well known example of the curse occured in the mid 1970s.  It is believed that a group of local high school football players, or Muskies as they are called, took a gander the night before their season’s opening two-a-day practices.   To their shock, a couple of the players noticed the Blue Angel dropping her flower at that precise moment.  Terrified they reported to practice the next day fearing the worst.   But, instead of a calamitous spate of injuries and near death collisions on the grid iron, the Blue Angel instead doomed the Muskies to a losing streak of five full years, the longest record for futility in the nation at the time.

And so the curse of the Blue Angel lived on…of course, this was true right up until a few years ago when someone in the dark of night broke into the mausoleum and severed her right hand with a perfect cut right above the wrist.   Their motive unknown, perhaps they were hoping to save future onlookers from her curse.    And the story of this break-in has never been told before… until now.  

My Hometown Part IV – Donnie Clamwood aka “Clammers” – A Miller’s Hill Wipeout

In the summer of 2006, Muscatine was busy playing host and finish line for the record fifth time to RAGBRAI, a week long cycling party that meanders across Iowa from the Missouri River to the Mississippi.   Among the thousands who have rode in RAGBRAI over the years, there have been cycling legends like Lance Armstrong, various no-named/never-in-your-life will they be President politicians wanting to make names for themselves before the Iowa Caucus, guys like Bruce Babbitt and Dick Gephardt.    And usually there are at least a half dozen or more college sophomores wearing just a diaper outfit for seven straight days.   When grilled, usually the diaper wearers will admit they attend Iowa State. 

One person who has never been on RAGBRAI but who feels right at home when it swings through town is local legend Donnie Clamwood.   That’s because Donnie rides his bike every day of the year.   Whether it is his current BMX style ride or his previous garage sale bargain ten speed and banana seat bikes, Donnie always has two wheels and will travel.

An Unconfirmed Sighting of Kenny Crabtree - A Confirmed Sighting of a Pittsburgh Steelers Air Freshener (A S. Whitacre Photo)

A Rare Photo of Donnie Clamwood (Or some other guy on a bike. Who can tell with that Pittsburgh Steelers Air Freshener blocking the Clamwood Head?)

Photographic evidence of Donnie Clamwood – also known as Clammers –  on bike being hard to come by, the Small Ball Report recently put out a bounty and came back with only one Sasquatch caliber photograph from a contributors’ cell phone.   Zapruder he was not, our contributors Pittsburgh Steelers air freshener mystically covers his head just as Clamwood pedals past down the wrong side of the street.  By the way, to Donnie the middle or wrong side of the road is also known as the right side of the road.

Donnie’s status as town legend is part and parcel attributed to his bike, his unknown age, his deep voice, and his uncanny knack of showing up at town events and doing unexpected things.   He is a fixture in the Fourth of July Parade, normally riding by himself at the end just after the guy who always drives his riding mower.  (Look kids, there is is guy on his lawn mower!!!) 

You might also catch him taking a ticket at a carnival ride or stirring lemonade barehanded without a spoon at the County Fair concession stand.   Donnie is hard to miss, and it is safe to say that every town has a Donnie Clamwood.  

With RAGBRAI coming to town in 2006, Donnie had plans to check it all out.

Boys of Summer

Tommy Duggendorf was 14 and full of rebellion in the summer of 2006.  His parents, Tom Sr. and Katy Sue had been slightly distracted by the arrival of their sixth child, Timmy, just a few weeks before.  During the last weeks before Timmy’s arrival, Katy Sue had been confined to bed rest.  

Doctors had said that Timmy was sure to be an active, outgoing kid based on the way he was thrashing about in the womb.  They decided to take extra precaution and get Katy Sue off her 220 pound frame and into bed rest.  Tom Sr. and Katy Sue hadn’t even gazed into Timmy’s eyes or clutched his tiny hands, and they knew he would be a natural in the sport of Mutton Busting one day on the county fair circuit.

Meanwhile during this time older brother Tommy’s schoolwork had tanked.   He became at times distant, confrontational and defiant, and to his parents it seemed, he had begun to run with the wrong crowd.  They had reluctantly let Tommy out of the house to spend the night with his friend Wally Matthews the night before the RAGBRAI finish in Muscatine. 

Tommy and Wally had taken off on bikes to explore the Greenwood Cemetery.  Wally had promised to show Tommy the Blue Angel as he had only been told about it.   He had never seen it.   There was a couple hours of daylight left, so they wanted to get there quickly to check it out.     

As they entered the cemetery through the 100 year old Greenwood Chapel’s arched driveway they could see the tree line deep within the cemetery that formed the upper edge of the river bluff.   It was in one of those back cut out of trees, the farthest to the west, that the Huttig mausoleum sits with her nightly slumber party guests, the bodies of Harry and Kate, and oh yes, the Blue Angel.   The boys parked their bikes nearby and walked up to the white granite mausoleum.  They slowly eclipsed the three steps to the blue plated glass door.  It was there they noticed a Master Lock padlock keeping onlookers from entering. 

They peaked in…   

“See, look at the flower in her hand,” said Wally.  “How in the world is a statue made of rock supposed to drop a flower.   What a ridiculous tale.”    

Tommy spent just a few moments checking her out, relieved to not see her drop the flower.    Tommy thought too himself that the legend probably wasn’t true, but what a sinister looking statue and image that the Blue Angel cut, especially with a little bit of darkness beginning to set in.   He was glad when Wally agreed to move along. 

After spending the next ninety minutes pedaling through the various pathways and playing various “Name Games” with the tombstones of their dead hosts,  they decided to ride their bikes back to the treeline to a section of graves just to the east of the Blue Angel.   They had decided of course, to find the famous Greenwood Cemetery steps, all 208 of them descending through thick wood to Hershey Avenue below.  The steps had been around for years, but were falling into such disrepair that the City closed them to the public. A Green sign with white letters saying “Closed – No Trespassing” stood to the left of the top step.

“Come on, let’s check it out,” Wally said. “But be sure to step over the poison ivy.” 

The boys dropped their wheels in the grass next to the top step and slowly descend down toward Hershey Avenue. Wally was a talkative kid, not really as bad an influence on Tommy as the Duggendorfs might have thought, but he was full of information… and he talked all the time…he could not shut up. 

“Be sure to count your steps, and remember when you get to the 100th step you are supposed to turn around and look back up to the top.  If you see the Blue Angel standing at the top of the steps, you’re screwed, man”  

“That’s ridiculous,” Tommy argued. “There ain’t no Blue Angel curse about the steps.  Is there?”  

“A yeah, sure there is,” Wally countered.  “My Dad told me that the original story of the Blue Angel curse was about the steps not her dropping the flower.”

Tommy didn’t completely buy into the Blue Angel stories, but with the remaining sunlight quickly being snuffed out by tree cover, he did find himself tensing up with the thoughts and images of the lady he had just seen behind the blue plated glass.  

“27” Wally said as he took the lead downward. 

“29, 31” he continued as he was now calling out steps every time his right foot hit a stair tread.

“Hey Duggendorf, you freaked out yet?” Wally paused, and then he chirped, “51, 53, 55, 57,”

Tommy remained silent unsure how it could have been light out just a few minutes ago, and now, just past 8:30 PM it was pitch dark.

“71, 73, 75,” Wally would not relent, that bastard.

Now in what felt like total darkness, Tommy all but reached out to touch Wally in hopes of keeping track of him as they stepped further down the stairs.  And, for the first time he also sensed the temperature change.   It had eclipsed 85 degrees earlier at mid day before cooling off.  Now, it had in fact plummeted. He looked at his exposed arms and noticed goose bumps setting in.   He wasn’t really sure if they were the goose bumps you get when you are cold or the goose bumps that you get when you are scared out of your mind.  

“93, 95, 97,” Wally was just about done, the last few steps required navigating a trickle of running water that passed at a drips pace over the steps.  

“99 & 100,” and in slow motion Wally stopped and signaled for Tommy to join him on the 100th step from the top.

“OK, let’s turn around at the same time and look back up to the top,” said Wally.

The boys pivoted slowly and looked back up behind them to the top, 100 steps above them.   …And just as they did, an image from the top that they could barely make out darted from their view…They were being watched!

Someone was up there.  Certainly, not the Blue Angel or was it?

“What the hell!” Tommy whispered as his heartbeat raced.   “Who the hell was that?”

***********

Donnie Clamwood was watching the last 50 or so steps of Tommy and Wally’s descent down the cemetery steps.  He had spotted two bikes near the No Trespassing sign and decided to check it out.  Sensing that he had alarmed the boys he decided quickly to avoid direct contact, and in a panic of his own, grabbed his BMX and quickly pedaled off.

***********

A Slow Climb to the Top

Tommy and Wally stood frozen on the 100th step like Everest climbers stuck in the death zone.  They were unable to climb higher, unable to retreat and climb down.   The image that had just darted for cover was not entirely clear.   It seemed to be a person or was it?  It probably wasn’t the Blue Angel, or maybe it was? 

“No way was that the Blue Angel…ahhh shit, what the hell Wally…what the hell was that?”   Tommy belted at a quickened, nervous pace.

For his part, Wally, who was once cool like Fonzie and cucumbers was now really unsure of himself.  “Shit!  Was someone watching us?  What do we do now?”

Their initial reflexes of panic eventually faded.  They now knew that nothing good could come from waiting any longer-  halfway up, halfway down – on the cemetery steps.  They needed to make their move.    So they began to climb up.   

This time Wally remained quiet, he did not tick off the 100 steps in reverse up to the top.  It was all they could both do to remain calm, composed and in control.   As they got closer to the top they sensed that the light that was once the tail end of a days sunlight had been replaced by a mostly full moon.    

Steps away from the top they both noticed the peculiar step pattern which they were oblivious to on the decent.   The steps consisted of three normal two-story house like tread and risers followed by a 36 inch flat section, and then it repeated all the way to the top.   

As they crested the top step they could make out the spoke reflectors on their bikes as they glimmered in the moonlight.   Looking around, they couldn’t see anyone staring at them, but they took no chances and hurriedly went for their bikes.   They just wanted to get out of there.     

“Let’s get our bikes and get out …..”   and as Tommy was in mid-sentence reaching for his bike, be stubbed his left foot on a rock just off the top step in the grassy lawn.

“Where did this come from?” he asked Wally.

“What is it?” replied his friend.

“I dunno,” said Tommy.  “Why would there be a big rock right out in the grass?”

The Blue Angel.   This girl will scare you - With or Without A Right Arm

The Blue Angel. This girl will scare you - With or Without A Right Arm

And then Tommy figured out what the object was and the scream he mustered could probably have been heard from Kent Stein’s Diamond #1 on the south end to the empty Muscatine Mall to the north end of town. 

It was at that moment that Tommy reached down and picked up in his hand what both boys easily recognized as the perfectly sawed off statuesque hand of the Blue Angel.  A single flower firm in her grip.

Later Tommy would be almost relieved when he replayed the events in his mind.   He was satisfied that his scream was no more sissified than Wally’s reaction.  That’s because when Tommy had peered back at his friend, Wally was in fact wetting himself.   His khaki gray shorts were now a khaki dark gray shorts.  

Not much more than 90 minutes before Tommy had looked for the first time in his life at the Blue Angel.  His concentration was so instensely focused on the right hand and the flower, willing it not to drop.

“Let’s go Wally.   Let’s get to your house!  Now!” he said, tucking the right hand and  flower of the Blue Angel under his armpit.   “Pedal, you prick!”

And pedal they did.  They pedaled without conversation, quickly out to Lucas, and then west to Wally’s house on Dolliver Street.   Tommy Duggendorf didn’t even fully comprehend that he was pedaling the entire mile and a half with the the severed hand of the Blue Angel wedged in his left armpit.

**********

Earlier that night within minutes of the boys leaving the Blue Angel for their 90 minute Tombstone Name Game, Donnie Clamwood had used the cemetary as a shortcut from the top of Miller’s Hill over to Lucas, skipping the half mile of Fletcher Avenue in the process.   As he was riding past the entrance to the Huttig mauseleum he noticed a city cemetary truck parked at the gate.    

City cemetary worker Clyde Johnson was getting out of his truck.   He had in his hand a Dewalt Angle Grinder.   Tommy pedaled up with his typical curiosity.

“What are you doing with that thing?”   Tommy belted out before Clyde knew who it was.   

He casually responded, “I’m cutting off the Blue Angel’s Right Arm.  What else would I be doing with this angle grinder?”

“Why?  What the F—-?”   Donnie countered.    

“Yeah, believe it or not the Kathryn Musser Foundation asked the cemetery to cut off the Blue Angel’s hand once and for all.   They were tired of  all the silly bull shit curse talk about the flower dropping, yada, yada,”   Clyde continued.   “And the Mausoleum has been vandalized at least 5 times in the past few years.   Kids breaking in messing with the statue, turning it backwards, laying her on her side.   They figured they should take care of it once and for all.”   

Donnie spent the next twenty minutes watching Clyde as he produced a key for the Master Lock, entered the small white building, stood on the vaults, and in about 90 seconds time slivered the Blue Angel’s right arm with his Dewalt and the precision of a battlefield surgeon.  

And then when it was over Donnie asked, “What are you going to do with the hand?”

“Here, she’s all yours.   Maybe you can use it as a back scratcher,” Clyde joked, and with that, he gave the right hand and flower of the Blue Angel over to Donnie Clamwood, local town legend on two wheels.   

***********

The following morning Tommy Duggendorf awoke at Wally’s house.   He had slept on the floor next to Wally’s bed.  They were up most of the night reliving and retelling the episode from the Cemetery Steps.  

Tommy reached underneath the bed and there it was in his possession, the right hand and flower of the legendary Blue Angel.  

***********

Donnie Clamwood had left the cemetery right after running into the boys.   He quickly got on his BMX and pedaled off.   His exit point from the cemetery would be the winding, dark, tree covered Miller’s Hill.    He knew that he had startled the two boys, and so that in turn, made him panic, so he had sped off at a pretty good clip to get to the top of Miller’s.    Miller’s Hill is a steep, six degree decline with an initial blind right hand turn near the top.   Then it is pretty much a straight down speed adrenaline rush.    Most of the time, Donnie would use the flatter Houser Avenue to get down to Hershey Avenue below the bluff.   Not this time, he was in a hurry.   

It had to have been right after Donnie navigated that first right turn that he finally realized that in his darting away he had dropped the severed hand of the Blue Angel.   It ticked him off to the point that he lost his concentration for just a split second of time.   It also didn’t help that the City used Miller’s Hill as a dumping area for all the extra blacktop that they would order and not find a spot for during the spring and summer hot patch season.   Often times the city street crew would do less than their full due diligence in getting the hot patch completely rolled out, flat and smooth.     Donnie wouldn’t know it until it was too late, but he found one of the questionable patch spots at the very moment that he had realized that he had dropped the Blue Angel’s right hand.  

The wipeout was epic.  

 

For more half-truths and outright lies visit The Small Ball Report at www.smallballreport.com.

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