Those of you who have read my columns of years past know that I like to reflect on my rural upbringing. Some of you may have questioned the relevance of my childhood experiences to Rotary or “Service Above Self”. My answer would be that it is our childhood experiences that largely shape who we are today, and my Rotarian friends are the finest people I know. I’m a curious guy, and I wonder a great deal about just what made them that way. Although I can’t claim to measure up to the very high standards of the Club, I do enjoy sharing life experiences that had much to do with making me the way I am.
A major influence for me was, and is, travel – which I have missed very much during this pandemic.
Some of my earliest memories are of making the automobile trip from our northern Illinois farm to the southeastern corner of Missouri where my parents and my aunts and uncles lived before they all migrated to the flat corn country 80 miles west of Chicago. There were flat tires, rivers running over the roads, and other such events to punctuate the trip, but, finally, the foothills of the Ozarks and the smell of burning hickory, a fragrance unknown back home. Missouri was different: there were hills, forests, giant springs. People “talked different”: “pop” was “sody”, “Well I’ll be” was “Well I’ll swan”. But it was all good – not better or worse than home – just different and interesting.
The years right after World War II were profitable for corn farmers and my dad deserved his good fortune, as he had worked the night shift at a defense plant while running a good-sized corn farm all during the war. I can’t remember when he slept or how he found time to tend to all the livestock.
Then there was no more rationing, manufacturing was converted from military back to consumer goods, and we suddenly had a new Dodge grain truck, new farm machinery, and a new 1947 Dodge sedan to replace our 1937 Plymouth.
Thus began our family quest to visit all 48 state capitols, all the Canadian provinces, and all the national parks (there were only 25 at the time). In a decade, our summer vacations in unairconditioned Dodges and DeSoto’s did take us to all 48 states, all the Canadian provinces except the Maritime, and we missed only two or three national parks, including Big Bend. (That place is really remote.) I don’t recall how my mom, the navigator, planned our trips, but I believe she and dad spent many hours after my sister and I were in bed studying the Rand McNally Road Atlas and the various brochures my mom requested from state tourism departments.
Now to my point: This was an important part of my education. Mom and Dad were curious, not just to see Yellowstone, the redwoods, the Everglades, and the Grand Canyon, but to see how other people lived, what they ate, to meet them, and talk with them. As we cruised across prairies and deserts, and up and down mountain passes, mom and dad were constantly pointing out things that were different from home, which was pretty much everything we encountered to kids living in the middle of a cornfield.
We met people with all kinds of skin tones, speaking with all kinds of accents, eating all kinds of food, and listening to all kinds of music, and we liked them all. In rural Quebec, we couldn’t communicate in words with the French-speaking innkeepers, but we enjoyed them and appreciated their hospitality. My parents never judged people, or their choices in food, or manner of speaking, or their music and led my sister and I to do the same. We were amazed at the skill of the Greek sponge divers in Florida, we were humbled to be invited to a sacred snake dance in the middle of the Arizona desert, we loved the food in New Orleans, and admired the skill of the barbers in Quebec City as they achieved the cut they wanted by pulling steel combs through the hair of their customers, then burning off the ends – smoky, but I think there was some benefit.
Needless to say, Alyce and I have continued this travel tradition and my adult children have amplified it. And none of us have yet met people we don’t like, or tasted someone else’s food that was bad, or been to a country or a state or a town that was ugly. What we have found are neighbors – sometimes we need their help – sometimes they need ours. Sometimes they are across the road – sometimes they are on the other side of the world. And that pretty much defines “Service Above Self.”