excerpt 3/4 from


The Death And Life
Of An American Small Town

by Nick Reding

Copyright (c) 2009 by Nick Reding. Published by Bloomsbury USA, New York.

    Meeting Sean and James took away the abstraction that I'd felt regarding meth since 1999. In the wake of what I'd seen in Greenville, writing a book about the meth epidemic suddenly took on the weight of a moral obligation. Around that same time, after a decade in New York City, I'd begun yearning to return to the Midwest. My desire to understand the puzzle of meth had now conspired with an instinct to view the fullness of the place I'd left when I was eighteen. So, too, was the need to consider both parts of the puzzle growing more urgent. By mid-2005, meth was widely considered, as Newsweek magazine put it in its August 8 cover story, "America's Most Dangerous Drug."
    In the end, meth would have a prolonged moment in the spotlight during 2005 and 2006, which can in some ways be traced to a late-2004 series called "Unnecessary Epidemic," written by Steve Suo for the Oregonian, an influential newspaper in Portland. In all, the Oregonian ran over two hundred and fifty articles in an unprecedented exploration of the drug's ravages. Following the cover story in Newsweek, a Frontline special on PBS, and several cable television documentaries, the United Nations drug control agency in late 2005 declared methamphetamine "the most abused hard drug on earth," according to PBS, with twenty-six million addicts worldwide. Even as global awareness of the drug grew, meth's association with small-town America remained strongest. The idea that a drug could take the root in Oelwein, however, was treated as counterintuitive, challenging notions central to the American sense of identity. This single fact would continue to define meth's seeming distinctiveness among drug epidemics.
    In 2005, after six years of trying, I got a contract to write this book under the assumption that meth was a large-scale true-crime story. In that version of the meth story, the most stupefying aspect is the fact that people like Sean could make the drug in their home. Or that Coco, the Mexican teenager I'd met in 1999, would risk deportation for a fourth time in order to come to Gooding, Idaho, to sell the drug. By 2005, many law enforcement officers were being quoted in newspapers predicting that the state of Iowa would soon take over from my native Missouri as the leading producer of so-called mom-and-pop methamphetamine in the United States. For this reason, and because Sean and James had made it clear that they did not want to be written about, I'd been focusing my research on the state from which half my family comes, and which seemed poised to become the newest meth capital of America. One day, while poring over archive newspaper articles in the Des Moines Register, I came across an interesting quote made by a doctor din the northeast part of the state. I called the doctor one afternoon from my apartment in New York City. We talked for an hour and a half, during which the doctor began to change my thinking about meth as a crime story to one that has much more pervasive and far-reaching implications. What struck me most was his description of meth as "a sociocultural cancer." Later that day, I spoke at length to the doctor's twin brother, who was the former county public defender, and then to the assistant county prosecutor. The doctor lived in Oelwein. I made the calls on a Saturday. The following Wednesday, I was driving north on Highway 150, following flights from New York to Chicago to Cedar Rapids.
    The doctor's name was Clay Hallberg. Doctor Clay, as he's known around town, is Oelwein's general practitioner and onetime prodigal son. As his father had done before him for forty-five years, Clay has for two decades delivered babies, overseen cancer treatments, performed surgeries, and served as proxy psychologist, psychiatrist, and confidante to Oelwein's wealthy farmers and poor meatpackers, to its Mexicans and Italians and Germans, its Catholics and Lutherans and evangelicals. Oelwein,, replete with its humdrum realities and unseen eccentricities, passes daily through Clay's tiny, messy office across the street from Mercy Hospital, one block north of the senior high school. Clay grew up in town and had come back following medical school and a residency in southern Illinois. He raised three children there with his wife, Tammy, all the while living down the street from his parents and his two brothers. Really, I went to Oelwein for the reason that Clay and his hometown seemed inseparable to me, in the same way that hometown America was becoming inseparable with meth. I thought Clay could explain to me how that had happened.
    By May 2005, Oelwein was on the brink of disaster. As I stood on First Street in front of the post office, the signs of entropy were everywhere, and hardly less subtle than those in East New York, Brooklyn, or in Compton or Watts, in Los Angeles. The sidewalks were cracked, half the buildings on Main Street stood vacant, and foot traffic was practically nonexistent. Seven in ten children in Oelwein under the age of twelve lived below the poverty line. Up at the four-hundred-student high school, on Eighth Avenue SE, 80 percent of the students were eligible for the federal school lunch program. The principal, meantime, was quietly arranging with the local police to patrol the halls with a drug-sniffing dog - essentially, to treat the high school as a perpetual crime scene. The burned-out homes of former meth labs dotted the residential streets and avenues like open sores. At the same time, the Iowa Department of Human Services, whose in-home therapists serve as one of the only realistic options for dealing with a mélange of psychiatric ailments, drug addiction, and all manner of abuse in Oelwein, was cutting 90 percent of its funding to the town. The meatpacking plant was on the verge of closing its doors. The industrial park sat unoccupied. Unemployment was pegged at twice the national level. For Larry Murphy, Oelwein's embattled second-term mayor, the question was this: How would he keep his town from literally vanishing into the prairie?
    The afternoon that I arrived in Oelwein, Clay Hallberg's friend Nathan Lein met me at the Super 8 motel. For forty years, Nathan's parents have farmed and raised livestock on 480 acres north of town. Following law school in Indiana, Nathan returned home to take the job of assistant Fayette County prosecutor. On our way to the police station, Nathan drove by what he described as several working meth labs on the pretty, oak-lined streets that fill out Oelwein's residential neighborhoods, where the hand-laid stone houses date back in some cases 120 years. We passed Amishmen coming to town in their buggies, the Rent-a-Reel movie rental store, and the farm co-op. Two blocks farther on, Nathan pointed out his favorite restaurant, a drive-in burger joint called EI-EI-O's, which had recently closed. On the boarded-up windows, the owner had scrawled in red spray paint, "Make Offer - Please!"
    The Oelwein Cop Shop, as the police station is known, is a non-descript 1960s-era brick building by the railroad tracks, one block north of the Chicago Great Western roundhouse. Inside, past the blue-lit dispatch station, Nathan introduced me to the new chief of police, Jeremy Logan. Logan had recently been promoted from sergeant by Mayor Murphy with mandates to clean up a force with a reputation for impropriety and to spearhead a desperate effort to get Oelwein's small-time meth manufacture under control. Sitting in his windowless office wearing a bulletproof vest, Logan scrolled through mug shots of Oelwein's best-known crank dealers and most notorious addicts, one of whom had recently been taken from his home along with fifteen assault rifles and thousands of rounds of ammunition - all while his fifteen-year-old daughter watched. Many of Oelwein's addicts and dealers, said Logan, hung out at the Do Drop Inn. The idea was that I would go there and, with the blessing of Logan and Nathan Lein, have free range to meet whomever I could. The further hope was that I would get stories of several addicts and dealers and, with luck, be allowed to follow their lives for the next two years.
    It didn't take long. Two days later, I was in the dank living room of Roland Jarvis's small house, watching TV with the shades drawn against the bright May sunlight. Jarvis, a thirty-seven-year-old former meatpacking worker, had just smoked some crystalline shards of crank heated on a small piece of tinfoil, the vapor of which he sucked through a glass pipe. As we settled in for the denouement of the mobster movie Goodfellas, Jarvis told his story, principally about the night he blew his mother's house up while cooking a batch of meth. That night had earned him three months in the burn unit at the University of Iowa Hospital in Iowa City, and had melted most of his hands and face off.
    Clay Hallberg is Roland Jarvis's doctor. Nathan Lein put Jarvis in jail. On the frigid winter night in 2001 when Jarvis blew up the house, he ran screaming onto the street, begging then-sergeant Jeremy Logan - with whom Jarvis had gone to Oelwein High School in the 1980s - to shoot him. Such was the pain of burning alive. And so, too, is this just a small part of the difficulty caused a tiny rural community by the specter of a drug epidemic, which directs life there in a thousand unseen ways. Nathan Lein and his girlfriend, a caseworker with the Department of Human Services, hardly ever went out to dinner anymore, for fear of seeing people that Nathan had put in jail, or whose children his girlfriend had recommended be taken away by the state. Of Roland Jarvis's four children, one, at thirteen, already needed a kidney transplant, a defect that Jarvis blames on his and his wife's intravenous meth use while the child was in utero. Summing up the damage done to Oelwein one morning at the Perk, Tim Gilson, the former principal of the nearly bankrupt high school, was almost driven to tears remembering the harsh metrics of the job from which he'd recently resigned in order to finish his Ph.D. in education. "We just didn't have the money and the staff to help the kids that needed the most of it," Gilson said, describing the events leading up to asking the police to patrol the halls. "On the one hand, I had an obligation to my teachers, who were frightened of their students. On the other hand, is there anything worse than calling the cops on your own children?" He went on, "We're in Iowa, for God's sake. We don't do that." And yet, he did.

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