(Happy birthday, Leslie! Lisa and I missed you at reunion. Here is your present: a bunch of pictures of what you might have seen. We each had a “cyclone” in your honor at the Dari Barn on the big day.)
“More lovely is the land that lies ‘tween rivers than any land I know. O, Iowa! My pride, my home!” So went the advertising for Iowa’s sesquicentennial in 1996, the same year as Grinnell College’s 150th birthday. Lisa and I graduated a year later. Since then the college got a new president, the endowment passed a billion dollars, the town turned 150, and the college embarked on a massive building campaign.
As I’ve mentioned before, it seems that nothing really changes in Iowa despite all evidence to the contrary. This morning after seeing several of the same (non-Grinnell) people on our outbound flight that were also on the plane headed into Des Moines with us on Thursday, we decided that Iowa is the physical manifestation of the great American novel. You can close the book, and when you reopen it everything is exactly as you left it. Same characters, same words, same plot line. It’s just that sometimes the characters don’t know they’re fictional.
As soon as we arrived in Iowa, time stopped being linear and spread out in all directions like the prairie. It backtracked on itself around every bend of the highway. I think it was Thursday for three days. Even the college — perhaps the most non-Iowa place in the state — falls victim to this déja vu. All of the buildings smelled the same. There were new people and familiar faces in new roles, but everything seemed more-or-less as it was before, exactly as it was supposed to be. Nothing was out of place.
Even I seemed to slide back into the Iowan/Wyomingite role that I occupied around graduation. Despite having gathered all of that “streetwise savoir faire” that New York Dave said I would get after going to the Bay State . . . despite acquiring a patronizingly dismissive air toward most things . . . I still felt that peculiar insecurity and knowledge of our inherent inferiority that most Iowans are born with &mdash our original sin — when talking to a lot of people that I (sort of) knew from my undergrad days. “Why didn’t I get to know more people when I was actually a student?” (Lisa gently helped me gently toward the answers: I studied all the time and had a deeply Iowan/Calvinist priggishness.) Remembering my own malleability made me feel much better.
And the College and the town actually have changed, too. The college opened a bookstore downtown to serve the community. The movie theater has three screens. The Wal*Mart became supersized and moved out of town. The John Deere dealership grew and moved toward the Wal*Mart. The Louis Sullivan “jewelbox” bank became the chamber of commerce. . . .
The campus looks quite different, too. The science building is double what I used to wander in the wee hours of the night. There’s a beautiful new student center. The fine arts building has a gallery and the beginnings of a collection. The old Darby Gym is gone, but homages remain in the rafters of the new athletic center and the façade of the science building. A beautiful new “prairie modernist” building houses admissions and student services. And four new dorms appeared on the east side of campus, allowing the school to add 300 students.
Those current students and new graduates working reunion appear to be nice and smart and earnest, just as I would expect from Grinnell. Even the hippies from the classes of ’70, ’71, and ’72 and the slackers from ’91, ’92, and ’93 share a familiy resemblance with the two or three dozen people from our own year that Lisa and I knew well. We talked about the old times and our current lives, and the long weekend was not as nostalgic as I had worried it would be: Everyone seemed pretty capable of being present. (The classes from the ’50s and earlier did their own thing and didn’t seem to pay much mind to those of us who weren’t required to wear ties or dresses to dinner and who didn’t have a core curriculum or ROTC. They were unfailingly nice in that way of most older Iowans.) Once again, somethings change almost completely but not at all.
Perhaps the right way to end this dispatch is with another tractor picture: