I was born above a barber shop in Muskegon, Mich. My first memory goes back to age 2. Somehow, I had managed to slip away from my parents and toddle out to the staircase landing on the side of the building. Staring balefully at me from the bottom was one of the barbers, a man with a full head of thick, dark hair. He probably was angry at what he regarded at the little brat for creating a racket by continually rocking back and forth in his high chair, causing his parents to worry that he would tip it over and brain himself on the floor. When I was 6, the family left the sandy shores and whitecaps of Lake Michigan for the green cornfields of Iowa.
My parents had grown up in separate Dutch communities in northwest and central Iowa. They’d moved to Michigan from the farm where my dad was reared and they lived following their marriage. They met in the town where he earned his college degree and won an award for top student of American history. An Iowa school district sent a letter to his father, offering a high school teaching job, but he wanted the couple to live on the farm, and never told his son about the letter. Conditions there were intolerable, the father having driven his second wife literally insane, and his son found a job in Michigan.
But he yearned for the rolling farmlands of Iowa, and they returned, settling around Des Moines for a few years, then Newton, the birthplace and longtime home of Maytag appliances. My two brothers and I had carrier routes for the Newton Daily News until the family moved to a small farm, which our dad operated while continuing to work as a state bureaucrat. I learned to operate farm machinery, milk cows, slop hogs, castrate and ring (to prevent rooting) pigs and, once, a bull – tasks that I detested.
Reflecting on those farm years, I have mixed feelings. Nostalgia warms me when I recall those hot summer days, soaked in sweat while making hay on neighbors’ farms, enjoying the camaraderie of the crews. But sadness creeps in when my thoughts turn to the isolation from my school peers and their shared activities at that critical time in my social development. Always an ebullient person enthusiastic about all aspects of life, especially baseball, I entered a dark period of inner turmoil that remained for several years until, freed of the chains of restrictive parents and an unhappy home environment, I embarked on an ever upward course.