I grew up in Greenfield, a small town in rural Iowa. Because we lived on the edge of town, I would tell people, tongue in cheek, that I lived in the suburbs. A preposterous notion, given that a suburb implies there is an urban area nearby. Born at exactly the mid-point of the twentieth century, I am a product of the fifties and sixties. An idyllic time for a town kid, long before “coming of age” was a thing.
It meant lazy summer days spent at the swimming pool across the street from our house, movies at the Grand Theatre on the town square, cherry cokes at the Rexall Drug Store. A special treat was one of those famous loose-meat sandwiches, known throughout Iowa as a Maid-Rite. Finely ground hamburger, pickles, onion and seasoning on a steamed bun makes my mouth water to this day.
I graduated high school in the Spring of 1968, just after MLK was gunned down in Memphis and a month before Bobby Kennedy met the same fate in LA. Prior to enrolling at Drake University, Chicago was the scene for the bloody images from the Democratic National Convention. Detroit was still smoldering from the summer before. The Vietnam War was kicking into full gear. I was beginning to realize there was a world so much larger than the one I had left behind. My age of innocence was over.
A few years later, I met Lou D’Antonio, a fellow doctoral student at the University of Colorado. We became instant friends. Why? We were different. Lou was as Italian as they come, straight from the streets of Brooklyn. I had never been to the Big Apple, he had never been on a horse. We learned from each other.
In my last year at Colorado I met Melissa Komisar, a senior marketing major. Unlike most of her Oak Park High School friends, she chose to be a CU Buff over a Wolverine or a Spartan. How lucky for me. Another case of differences bringing people together. Melissa, the Jewish girl raised in the Detroit suburbs, me the small-town Catholic boy. In one of life’s great ironies, the only Jew I had known up until meeting Melissa was the doctor who delivered me, Dr. Gantz, originally from Detroit Michigan!
Melissa and I started our careers in San Diego, she with IBM and me at San Diego State University. A year later we were married in Southfield, with a toast served up by our best man Lou.
Over our 44 years of marriage, I have been regaled with stories of the “Dewey Gang,” as Melissa fondly calls her buddies from elementary school. We’ve come to realize that my Town Kid days weren’t that much different than those of the Dewey Gang. I rode my Schwinn up and down the streets of my one-mile square hometown. They pedaled their bikes with the banana seats up and down Stratford and Harding, careful to stay between Eight and Nine Mile. I stopped off for a cherry coke, they for a Vernors.
We live in an ever-widening world of polarization. If you are not a bleeding-heart liberal, you must be a red-necked conservative. If you are not an environmentalist, you must be a deer-hunting logger. The list goes on. What I have learned over the years is that even though we all come from such different backgrounds, there is much we share in common. On an episode of Finding Your Roots, Paul Ryan, the former Speaker of the House, discovered he has some Ashkenazi Jewish blood coursing through his veins. For Marco Rubio, there is some Native American DNA.
Whenever Melissa and I are back in my home state of Iowa we make it a point to find a Maid-Rite. A trip to Detroit is never complete without a stop at a deli for corned beef and some seven-layer cake. Both gentle reminders that when it comes down to it we are all not that much different.
Gary Porter is Professor and textbook author and lives with his wife and rescue dog in Hudson, WI.