That time I bumped into Claude Monet

Claude Monet in Lamoni, which is pronounced Le-MON-i.

Claude Monet in Lamoni, which is pronounced Le-MON-i.

Last night was the first night cool enough to survive without the air conditioner in over a month. The air conditioner is essential, but it’s also unpleasant, because it’s a regular room-type air conditioner mounted right over the bed and it doesn’t have any way to direct the airflow, so there’s always a breeze from it to remind you that the racket it makes isn’t the worst thing about it. Tonight, the weather is even better here in south Iowa, one of the few days in any year when the weather couldn’t be improved on. It’s in the low 60s and clear and dry. 

We’re parked on the small campus of Graceland University in Lamoni. I decided to put the bike together and go for a quick ride around the campus. Roo didn’t like it, but I left her in the camper. She won’t go out at night anyway.

Graceland is in the middle of beautiful farm country, about half Amish. This southernmost part of Iowa has low, rolling hills and woods filled with oaks and elms. It's a beautiful place where the good old-fashioned tradition of saluting oncoming drivers is respected. People do that in a lot of places, but it’s always spotty at best. Not here. Here, if you forget to salute someone — an index finger raised from the steering wheel is all it takes — you regret it right away, because they’ve saluted you and forgetting to salute them back makes you something of a heel and in a town this size, it's the kind of thing you might never live down.


You can tell Graceland University stands up for itself, because in the first sentence of their description of themselves on their web site they manage to include the words liberal, in “liberal arts,” and progressive, just to make sure you didn’t misunderstand them the first time. The campus is trim and lovely, with an administration building dating from its founding in the halcyon days of 1858, two years before anyone had any idea how bad the carnage of the approaching civil war was going to be.

I hadn’t seen a single other soul here, unless you count two little kids who starting laughing when Roo jumped in a pond earlier, and they don't count because they were just a couple of little smartasses who could have warned me that Roo was about to jump in pure goose poop soup instead of standing there shrieking with joy like a couple of gargoyles.

So I rode around the campus a little, alone, on the paths connecting the buildings in the quad, thinking what a cool little school it looked like, when who did I happen on but Claude Monet. I haven’t seen him in ages, but I recognized him from 100 feet away. 

Now look, I love Monet’s paintings. Always have. I even have a couple of books of them if my storage space hasn’t already been featured on Storage Wars. But, let's face it, the guy has always been a grouch.

“Monet! C'est vraiment vous? Quel bonheur! Qu’est ce que vous faites lá?!” I said to him when I pulled up on my Moulton. I figured the Moulton might appeal to him because it is built a little like the Eiffel Tower. But not a word. He was too deep in contemplation of the small canvas he was working on. Not a look, nothing. Maybe not nothing — it would have been okay with him if I got back on the bike and kept going.

“Ah, oui,” I said. “Je comprends, mon vieux.” He hadn’t come all this way to be bothered someplace where he was counting on solitude so he could concentrate on the parking lot he was trying to capture. When the painting was done, that parking lot would look like a lily pond, which was the key to Impressionism.

Even if there's nothing you can do that will annoy an artist more, I worked my way behind him to take a look over his shoulder at his canvas. Not one of his better pieces, but if you found it in your grandmother’s attic you would be able to purchase most of the county you live in and have enough dough left over to grease every cop and county commissioner within 50 miles, every judge who might object, and still keep the local congressman on retainer to write your personal tax legislation on an as-needed basis.

I mentioned none of this to Claude. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he did all right, but he didn’t paint for the money. He did it because he was born to. A guy like that can get away with being a little standoffish. 

I left him to it. It was the decent thing to do. Of course I wanted to sneak a shot of him first. He was so engrossed that he didn’t even notice me setting my daguerreotype camera up on the wooden tripod, leveling it with a plumb line and spirit level, throwing the black hood over my head so I wouldn’t expose the glass negative through the ground glass and set a match to the magnesium flare I held high above my head on a wooden pan on a broomstick to illuminate the night scene. He didn’t so much as flinch, though I could feel his eyes boring into my back as I left.

He was the last guy I thought I'd run into in Iowa.