I love Iowa. I know nothing whatsoever about today's Iowa: my infatuation is wholly based on one long summer, the summer of 1970, when I rode the bus for 24 hours from Ohio to Keokuk, Iowa, to be a student intern at the town's little daily newspaper, the Daily Gate City.
When you're a geezette like me you get to the point where you remember more about the past than about what you did last week. My mind is full of memories about Keokuk. I lived in a hot, dark walkup apartment with the Daily Gate City's city editor, Eleanor Waterhouse. She was from Hawaii and had graduated from Punahoe, but there she was in Keokuk, having the time of her life cranking out dead-on, devoted community journalism.
As long as I adhered to her exacting journalistic standards, she let me do anything I wanted, even teaching me how to develop black and white film in the high-ceilinged darkroom. She was about five years older than me and kindly cleared out a corner of her living room, where I slept all summer on a rollout single bed. We cooked on a little gas stove and parceled out yogurt by combining it with jello to make it go farther. You could smell the graineries around town -- a burned, nutty smell. There was a factory that made rings for pig's noses. I interviewed a rock band and for about a week was one of their groupies: Ellie ran the story.
Almost every day after work we'd go to the city pool and swim. The Chamber of Commerce motto that year was "Life is Good in Keokuk" and people all over town drove around with that declaration plastered to their bumpers. We mocked that motto, but we too were having an excellent life.
And of course, there was the river. Keokuk is in the so-called "tit" of Southern Iowa that dips into Missouri, right on the Mississippi. Yes, emayessessayessessaypeepeeaye. There are locks in Keokuk and on steamy moonlit nights we'd go down to the river, sit on a bluff, and watch barges go through. I loved that river, and even now, whenever I fly over its massive brown curves on my way from Michigan to California, I gaze down in reverence and awe. In the summer of 1970, I knew I was having an American Experience.
Context: this was the summer after the Kent State shootings, when four died and nine more were wounded by National Guard gunfire in front of Taylor Hall, then the home of the journalism program. My program. I was in another campus building when the shootings happened, but I got there shortly afterwards and saw the blood. A guy I was dating then was the R.A. in a nearby dorm. He saw Sandy Scheuer, a speech therapy student caught in the crossfire, dying as he watched, helpless and shocked.
I wasn't political -- I didn't know anything about politics, or particularly care back then -- and I wanted to get away, not knowing till much later that there is no way to fully escape the effects of tragedy -- the effects of seeing blood everywhere, the young Guardsmen firing on people their same age -- all of us naive American Baby Boomers. Something had gone terribly wrong. And I thought Keokuk would be a fine place to avoid it all.
In some ways it was. Ironically, I met and eventually dated the son of a local brahmin. He'd graduated from Princeton and came into town for -- yes, I'm not kidding -- National Guard duty. I smoked pot for the first time in his little Porsche parked in an overgrown hideaway on the river, lush water collecting in verdant shallow pools about a foot from the headlights. It was if nothing else mattered -- no Vietnam, no Kent State -- only the river and this good-looking boy and kissing in the cattails.
And I covered a visit to town by Sargent Shriver, at a Democratic fundraiser that was so much fun I believe it was the first time I considered joining the Peace Corps. I remember only that he was handsome and charming and willing to talk to a kid reporter and that the Democrats under those hot Midwestern tents were a lot more fun than their GOP counterparts, whom Ellie and I also covered.
I'm remembering all this today because of a Slate piece on Christopher Dodd, an RPCV who, of course, is running for president. Incredibly, though his poll numbers put him near the bottom and he's WAAAAYYY behind "Obamilary," it sounded as if he was having fun there -- appearing with Paul Simon and introducing himself as Art Garfunkel. Then the two of them warbled a series of Simon and Garfunkel hits. That's what Iowa does for you -- makes you happy and maybe a little crazy after all these years. I love Iowa.