What did you enjoy most about your childhood? Least? What was your favorite Sunday dinner?
Summer afternoons in the old swimming hole on our farm with the many kids who biked or walked from town are the most pleasurable memories. I also liked roaming the woods. Forty acres of pasture gave other kids and me an ample playground for games of war. I generally disliked the endless routine of daily chores and really hated fixing fence. I enjoyed feasting at Mother’s bountiful holiday meals—Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. She always made Sunday dinners special with mashed potatoes, gravy, corn or peas, rolls, real butter, homemade jam and jelly, a variety of pickles, and either chicken, ham, beef or pork roast. Roast chicken was my favorite. She browned it first in the frying pan. My brother and I claimed the drumsticks. I recall the legs and thighs of these free-range chickens as being much larger than what we now buy in supermarkets.
At the end of your book, you return to Elkader for your 50th high school reunion. What has changed the most since you graduated? What has remained the same?
The town has about two hundred fewer people. Severe Turkey River flooding in recent years has caused the removal of about twenty-four homes on the south end. Instead of three or four groceries, drug stores, car dealers, and hardware stores there is now only one of each. Theis Clothing and McTaggart’s Furniture—large retailers of my youth—are gone. The hospital, public library, public school, and several churches remain. The residents’ affection for small-town living still endures.
Writer, researcher, professor: you’ve had a long, successful, and fulfilling career. Is there any other path you dreamed of taking? Field naturalist, restaurant owner, Arctic explorer?
Novels and movies fueled my fantasies of adventure, professional sports, and space exploration without stimulating any realistic career goals. My parents realized early that I did not have an aptitude for or an interest in farming. Until I became a high school junior, my main ambition was to become a senior. Compelled to consider life after graduation, I attended Iowa State Teachers College with plans to become a high school social studies instructor because I had always enjoyed history and school. During a first semester humanities class, I decided I wanted to be a college teacher of history. I’m glad that worked out; I don’t know what I might have done otherwise. My success has been quite modest. Still, I’m grateful for my academic career. A surplus of doctorates and a shortage of positions in the seventies pushed many of my graduate school friends into other lines of work.