By age nine, I’d attended four public elementary schools, excelling in third grade as the top speller, before entering the school system at Newton, Iowa. Though my adolescent years were not a happy time in my life, I managed to finish high school with decent grades and, after a year of farm work, enrolled at Central College in Pella, Iowa. I was the third in a family of six to matriculate at the small, Dutch, liberal arts school. All five attended for periods of two to four years, and my sister’s two children earned bachelor’s degrees there. It was a church-connected college, and most students were from the devoutly Christian families similar to mine. Almost daily attendance at chapel devotionals was required, and dancing on campus was forbidden, as was about everything else that gives zest to life. After three years, I dropped out and went to work at the old Look magazine in Des Moines, operating addressograph machines while sneaking glances at the comely lasses filing stencils at metal cabinets. I then enrolled in Drake University while continuing to work at Look, happy in the camaraderie of several other students who shared lodging in the basement of an off-campus house.
I received my bachelor’s degree while aboard the USS United States on its way across the Atlantic Ocean to Le Havre, France, dining at the table of a British nuclear physicist and his family returning home during the immensely pleasurable, culturally enriching five-day trip. France was the first stop on my way to Germany, where I planned to immerse myself in the country’s language and culture with the aim of teaching it in college. I’d majored in German, along with English, for two years at Central to fulfill a foreign-language requirement. In high school, I deemed Latin too difficult, but invalidated my low self-concept by later earning A’s in German.
While en route by train to Hamburg, I slept almost free at youth hostels, including one in the northern city, where I bought a used Zündapp motorcyle. At the hostel, a Dutch college student returning from a summer’s work on a farm in Sweden offered to teach me how to drive the thing, since I’d never learned how. The muffler fell off the worn-out vehicle just after we picked up it up, and we spent the day pushing it around Hamburg in search of a shop.
With the muffler finally installed, the bike wouldn’t start, and we pushed it to a gas station for a battery jump, which caused cardboard casing to catch fire. Dousing it, we rode to the train station to retrieve my luggage from a locker, then headed down the autobahn. A furious rain storm stopped the bike short of a bridge, which we used for cover before I managed to restart the “hog” and get us on our way. We traveled all night, holding onto the luggage on a back rack, and reached the Dutchman’s home in The Hague the next afternoon. I somehow made it to a hostel, balancing myself with one foot on the street curbs, and the next day left on the autobahn for Amsterdam. I raced through its narrow cobblestone streets for three days, then hit the road for Belgium. A gear malfunctioned, and I spent a day taking a tram into Antwerp for a part and then having a shop on the border replace it. For five weeks, I traveled through Germany and Holland, then wired my parents for a $250 loan as tuition for an eight-week course at a Goethe Institute for teaching German to foreigners. Eighty persons from around the world attended, and all socialized outside of day-long classes. An attractive young woman from Iran, whose brother-in-law held a position with the U.S. State Department, wanted to marry me so she could come to the United States. I wisely declined. But the cosmopolitan experience at the institute was invaluable.
After three months, I returned home and went to work again at Look to earn money for graduate school. A semester studying German at the University of Iowa left me convinced that my energetic temperament was ill-suited to the sedentary life of a professor. I took a job as a railroad clerk in Des Moines before returning to the university for a year of graduate studies in journalism on the advice of a psychology professor whose class I’d attended at Central. Kurt Vonnegut was the artist in residence at Iowa’s famed Writers Workshop, and he agreed to critique a short story I had written about my experiences in Germany. “A reasonably good piece of personal journalism,” he typed on a slip of paper.
Down through the decades, that treasured artifact has traveled with me on my peripatetic journey. It is safely ensconced in an envelope in my desk drawer, yellowed with age. I must have it framed before it crumbles and meets the same dusty demise as the person whose signature it bears.