Thursday, June 21, 2007

my life hit bottom in a cornfield near the bayertown road, in a lost corner of johnson county or maybe even the next one over, and all i can say is that i'm glad nobody was seriously hurt or killed. i got jolted out of my life's downward spiral, and, days later, holding my two-year-old daughter, i realized that i'd been foolishly treading water when i should be doing something useful with my life. facing another round of unemployment without a college degree, i took a trip to cedar rapids and mt. vernon looking for a way out, and found cornell college, which said, no problem, we have funding for poor residents of iowa like yourself, and sure enough, they did. i found myself moving north twenty miles and going back to school. my daughter, i think, understood; i'd been seeing her only on weekends anyway, and was happily hanging onto that chance even though, deep down, i was disappointed that it couldn't be more.

i got a house in lisbon, iowa, next to mt. vernon; this was a rowdy town, home of a motorcycle gang, a legendary mayor, an infamous policeman, and numerous other people who have lodged themselves in my memory. i was only there for a while; i found that i could not maintain independence, given the grants of the college; yet, if i moved into the dorm and worked at the college, i could get through with a minimum of loans. financially, i had no choice. i stored my wheelbarrow and skis, and moved into a dormitory. i was six years older than the other students; i had a daughter. i was reluctant. but i did what i had to do.

i found it tolerable; for one thing, i was studying and/or working constantly. i worked in the dishroom on the conveyor, playing spoons or scraping food off of plates. i played in the orchestra. the college was pretty, small, a tight community of fairly wealthy kids who, in spite of everything, were very nice to me. i loved the teaching; people lived to teach there, unlike the large universities i'd gone to, where they lived to drink or do research. the town was beautiful, the area around it beautiful; the cedar river and palisades park beautiful; jones county, to the north, even more beautiful.

at the last moment, upon enrolling, i faced a terrible choice: go toward being a music teacher, or go toward being an esl teacher. i changed from the former to the latter, literally at the last moment. it was a spiritual decision. i decided to leave music in the part of my soul marked, "untouched by practical or financial concerns." there it remains today, a hobby that i don't need for my survival, that i don't analyze as a matter of course, like i do language.

thus i was a russian major, as that was the fastest way to my goal, and later was able to add on an american history major due to diligence and interest, and having coursework to spend as i wished. i had about two years to go, but they flew by quickly; my problem came in the summers, when i needed a place to live, but luckily was still able to work at the food service. one summer i lived in a trailer out in the country near lisbon, where i was given a dalmation to take care of, and paid very low rent, but this trailer got hit by lightning shortly after i moved out, and the owner still wonders, i think, what happened. the dalmation survived, i think, but a car that i bought from the guy, died in pennsylvania, i had to leave it there, on a trip back to see my parents. the next summer i got a cabin in ivanhoe, a place down by the cedar river; the cabin had no hot water, but that wasn't a problem; one definitely needed money, but i did ok in that way too. i'd just graduated and was taking a breath. i went home for my high school reunion; this was 1982, so it was my tenth. i reshingled my parents' roof when i was home; they paid me generously, and now, i enjoyed buffalo, the summer, the weather, the view from their roof, the blue jays games on the radio. it was like i had perspective.

i have lots of memories from those days, which come flooding back as i write about them. days in palisades park with friends; playing and performing banjo and cello; my best friends, two from africa and one from india, hanging around the college diner; photo taken with friend J.K. out at an abandoned house, with instruments; bringing my daughter up to be there in the town & community; living above the deli downtown; this could have been my senior year; meeting my old friend from iowa city, p.c., quite a bit younger than me, who also had moved up to m.v.; having a 1950 dodge; also an old pontiac whose gas line froze in the middle of the winter; hitchhiking down to iowa city, picking up my daughter, putting her on the bus; taking her back on the bus; hitchhiking back to m.v., all in one weekend, every weekend, until the car was repaired; taking russian on the block plan two months in a row, dec.-jan., of the coldest winter in iowa for years, blizzards and ice all over the place, me mumbling russian, doing my homework, and playing spoons as the conveyor went by; performing in a spanish play, as a bandido. in short i finally got a college experience worthy of the name, not trashed out by my own angry or restless agenda. i was a good student, learned a lot, got my life back in order, to some degree, ten years after i'd graduated from high school.

in the college snack bar, hanging around with my three friends, we were trying to come up with the phrase to appear under their pictures in the college yearbook. their french dictionary was out and they were working with phrases like, life is beauty, elegance is good poetry, or whatever the french equivalent of some profound thing that an author had suggested; one could look it up, i suppose. i grabbed a newspaper on the table, from africa, whose headline was: gaskiya ta fi kwabo- and asked my friend what that meant. she stumbled a little, translating: truth is worth more than money, she said, more than 2 1/2 cents, to be exact. i'll take that one, i said, and used it under my photo in the yearbook.

on the highway from mt. vernon to iowa city: the salvation sign, warning you of what happens to sinners. next to a hollowed out house, corn growing all around it, going through the cycles, golden, bright green, brown, harvested. the road, winding and curving, icy in winter, unrelenting, but, way out there, plenty of stars. by the time i moved back, i'd walked most parts of it, at one time or another. highway one, it was called, beautiful, graced with history and landmarks, not a tourist in miles. sometimes, i had it all to myself.


Blogger Peggy said...

Josie was one cute little dumplin back then! You were such an attentive father. I was just a knuckleheaded teenager but I was impressed by the responsibility you showed when she was around.

4:50 PM  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home