Before I spent my first summer in Boston, I assumed I would spend every weekend out on a beach somewhere. Not in a "I need a sun tan" sort of way, but rather a "I want to sit and listen to the sound of the ocean because I still find it amazing" sort of way. Unfortunately I only made it to the water’s edge twice that summer. Once to sit out on Revere Beach one night specifically because I had not been to the beach since moving, and the second to go boating on the Cape.
The Cape. Only tourists call it Cape Cod.
See, after being from the Midwest all my life, the differences between us and New Englanders fascinates me. I wonder if they are more high strung because they never had time as a kid to ride in the cars for hours on hours without having anything more to look at than the open landscape of the Great Plains. I wonder if they would get frightened or nervous in the quiet of the night in the country and all the stars that can actually see shining above. Of course, people from the Midwest know that the countryside is far from quiet at night and see the irony of that statement.
I grew up in Iowa. Not Minnesota, the land of 10,000 lakes, but Iowa- the land of corn. I can count on two hands the number of times I was on a boat as a kid. And most of those were up in Minnesota. In Iowa, my boating was limited to 4 rides in a canoe, 3 rides on a paddle boat, 2 rides on a pontoon boat and one ride on a speedboat. Iowa isn’t what I would call a “water recreation” sort of place.
For a kid from the Midwest, going boating on the cape sounded nearly as exotic and exciting as cruising down the Nile. I started talking with one of the women out with us that day and she asked if there was much boating in Iowa. I laughed. She then asked me what we did for recreation.
All I could come up with was “Well, there’s a reservoir outside of Des Moines. I think some people go boating or fishing out on that.”
A few months later I went to see the movie About Schmidt. With the first pan of the camera across the city I knew it was set in the Midwest. After having 23 years to acquaint myself with it, I have a keen eye for spotting it. My second clue was the Helen, the main character’s wife. Total Midwest matron. From the blonde that wants to be gray hair, to the sweater under her blazer, to the lapel pin on that blazer, Helen screamed Midwest.
My suspicion was confirmed when they showed the pictures of the prize winning Ak-Sar-Ben heifers at Schmidt’s retirement party.
Did you know that Ak-Sar-Ben is Nebraska spelled backwards? I when I first realized that About Schmidt was set in Omaha, I wondered if it was by the same guy who directed Election- an Omaha native. Turns out it was.
I have to admit, the movie made me a little homesick. I spent a year living in Council Bluffs, the Iowan city right across the river from Omaha, where About Schmidt is set. Usually when I see places I have been to in a movie, it is from movies set in European cities.
Oh! That’s the market down the street from my sister’s apartment in London! Oh my God! I have a picture of that exact same street preformer! You know, that whole “Look kids! Big Ben! Parliament!” scene in National Lampoon’s European Vacation is a total lie. There isn’t a rotary there!
When Schmidt’s replacement at work said “I have a business degree from Drake. That’s gotta count for something‘!” I was the only one laughing. It was the first time I have ever felt a kinship like that with a movie set in the Midwest.
I noticed the Robert’s Dairy product that he pulled out of the trash. I noticed the Loess Hills in the background when his car broke down at the Omaha airport. I noticed he was on I-80. I noticed the Ogallala squad car. I noticed the Phillips 66 gas station and thought how I didn’t see nearly as many of them out here in the land of Citco.
Very few of my East Coast friends- the ones who have lived here all their life, have been to the Midwest. And for those who have been to the Midwest, their relationship was usually limited to cruising down I-80.
For them it is easy to see the movies that depicts Midwesterners as crazy famers who dig up their crops to build a baseball field, or a farm wives who fall in love with a visiting photographers while her husband are away at the State Fair, or a place where small towns become overrun by blood thirsty children.
It is no wonder they get a look of fear anytime I mention them taking a trip to Iowa with me. Just like people from the Midwest can sit back and believe that South Central LA is nothing by gang bangers and drug dealers and corrupt cops.
My father told me he had read a review saying that the film was making fun of the Midwest. I don’t think the critic had picked up on the subtleties of Midwestern culture that the movie honed in on.
In Northern Iowa there is a county. Winnebago county, which is home to none other than the Winnebago factory which is owned by Winnebago Industries which was incorporated under Iowa state law on in 1958. The first Winnebago rolled off the assembly line in Forest City, Iowa. We couldn’t navigate the sea, so we decided to conquer the land from the constant comfort of a home on wheels. The Midwest fucking grew those 35 foot long beasts. People lust for a Winnebago, not a Recreational Vehicle. Thank you Road Rules and the Winne.
And people say that nothing good comes out of the Midwest.
That afternoon on the Cape we sat around on the dock for awhile eating and relaxing. As a child I can remember heading out to the RV park with my Grandparents so that we could visit our cousins who were staying there. Our cousins lives 15 miles away from the RV park. But it was a social thing, sort of like hanging out on the dock.
I grew up in a small Iowan town. And when I saw small, I mean 3000 people. Not the East Coast concept of small being a few ten thousand people. The only national fast food restaurant was Dairy Queen. We had to get our pizza from the gas station unless my mom brought it home after work from Ames, the larger town of 25,000 people. To get any place of importance- the doctor, the dentist, a mall, we had to drive at least 20 minutes to Ames. It wasn’t to say that there weren’t doctors or dentists in our town but my siblings and I all had asthma and we had to see specialists on a regular basis. Since the doctor was 20 minutes away, the dentist might as well have been too.
Both sides of my family had settled in Iowa when they had first immigrated to America. My great-grand mother’s first job was cleaning houses in central Iowa. Her last was cooking at one of the Iowa State University dormitories. My dad moved to Iowa from Canada when he was a small boy and his father got a call from the Lutheran church for a position at a parish in Southern Iowa. Within a few hours drive my whole family’s American history. This is how Midwest I am.
My mother’s parents lived on the same road as they did when my mother was young. They built their home on a hill just up the road from the one they rented while my mom grew up. It was an hour north from where we lived and traveling there meant both time heading North on I-35 and also time on the back roads.
From my grandparent’s farm it was a good hour to any sizable town and they were at least 2 hours from anything that resembles a city. I can remember when our town first got cable and I can remember that my grandparent’s house only got 5 channels, 2 of which were both the same network. It is one of the few places where you can drive for more than 30 minutes, passing through towns, and still not come across a McDonald’s.
By the time I was old enough to drive we had relocated to Des Moines. There was a vastness that stood between me and where I needed to be. 2 hours to Iowa City. Two hours to my Grandparents. An hour to Ames. 3 hours to Omaha. And yet there was nothing in that vastness. And as the man from Wisconsin and Schmidt discussed their various vessels, I finally understood the appeal of motor homes.
They give Midwesterners the feeling that they have conquered something. That something just happens to be the land because that was what we were given to navigate.
Out on the Cape, my friend who invited me to go boating with her family was allowed to navigate the boat. She approaches cars with the mind of a man more so than that most women. You are less likely to hear “Oh! What a cute little car that is!” and more likely to hear “Woah. Look at that big truck! It goes really, really fast!”
When I asked her later how it felt to be steering the boat. She talked about the frustration of being behind the helm and not being in control at first and the feeling of power when she started to get a handle on things. She told me that at one point she realized that one day she was going to need a bigger boat.
Farm kids learn to drive before they can tie their own shoes. Permits come at 14. School permits at 14 if you have taken driver’s training and you have no other way to get to school. Licensed to drive at 16.
I was part of the last generation to be wrapped in a tank at 16. We drove the last cars made of real steel into the ground. We Didn’t have shoulder belts in the back seat. We only had AM radios. Our first cars would be classics if the Winter salts hadn’t eaten them away. The “old” cars they put kids in these days, they are nothing compared to what we started with- we were driving boats to school.
We invented the Winnebago because we realized one day we were gonna need a bigger car.