[essay] An Iowan Let Loose in Europe
Part 1: Looking back, I was a pretty stupid kid…
I was seven years old when I first experienced the sensation of being knocked unconscious. I say first, but I don't honestly recall having been knocked unconscious at any point since then. I suppose it is a bit irresponsible of me to say that I haven't since it is very probable that I have, and just don't remember it. Let's just say that I haven't, and assume that for now. I'll let you know if I suddenly decide to remember things differently.
In any case, I was alone in our barn on the family farm, as I often was, being the youngest of four, separated from my nearest sibling by five years. I spent much of my early years by myself, being reckless and uncouth, and other adjectives old people have for young people. It was 1983, and family farmers like my dad were struggling in the hostile economy, but that's not why I was knocked unconscious. It mostly had to do with the fact that I was playing on top of the hay bales—the really big, round ones, stacked three high. I was playing, as farm kids do, on top of those hay bales, and I made the mistake—the severely misinformed mistake, I later acknowledged—of thinking that I could jump from the precarious stack of hay bales to the window on the far experior wall of the barn.
I'm not big on math, especially geometry. You couldn't have convinced me at that time through the use of charts and graphs, measuring distances and calculating probabilities, that I couldn't make it from the hay bales over to the window on the far exterior wall of the barn. I was a determined young man, and more than that, I was more than slightly stubborn. I passed that quality on to my son.
God, please help him to at least reach the age of eight.
I opened my eyes and looked up at the ceiling of the barn through a confusing veil of hay that had landed on my face. I remember thinking that it was awfully dark for being so early in the afternoon. I stood up, and then quickly sat back down due to the piercing, throbbing pain in the side of my head. I sat for a while, letting thought once again take root in the swirling void of my mind. I looked up at the window, several feet above me. And, in case you are one of those pesky geometry people, I should note that by saying several feet, the actual distance I mean to convey is approximately 12 feet. Needless to say—but I'm saying it anyway—I didn't make it to the window. Also needless to say, it was now night time. I had really only been unconscious about three or four hours.
I know what you're probably thinking: what does this magical childhood memory have to do with a trip to Europe? Well, nothing, really, and thanks for bringing it up. I suppose that the main reason I chose to retell this particular story from my own personal historical archives was because it is my quintessential example of life on the farm. I was an Iowa farm boy, and I suffered for it.
Let's be honest, being a farm kid in the carefree days of the mid-80s meant that you suffered. All farm kids suffered for being farm kids. You suffered for your entertainment, and you suffered from your entertainment. You walked around on the gravel roads and in the forests nearby in your bare feet. You crashed your bike into every solid object within biking distance, up to and including your siblings, not that they're incredibly solid. At least, not after you've run into them a few times with your bike.
Chances are the average farm kid has been the victim of numerous merciless attacks by terrorist livestock uprisings. Or, more likely, you just tortured and taunted the poor beasts into developing a deep, seething hatred of you and your kind. I'm not too proud to say that I've been subjected to several seemingly coordinated attacks from some pretty vicious cows. That's what I get for agreeing to help dad (child labor laws be damned!) by standing in the middle of the road when he and my brother were herding cattle from one field to another. Imagine a young child attempting to be an obstruction to a herd of cows' attempts to be unagreeable cattle. Hilarity ensues. Cue laughtrack. Roll credits.
Despite our parent's best efforts to thwart our continued existence, we all lived. And eventually, we all did very well. Each of our parent's children went to—and subsequently successfully escaped—college. We got jobs. We gained families. We accumulated friends. And at least two of us who had previously decided they wanted to write for a living, ended up working in computers for companies based in Des Moines.
We now look back at our lives as farm kids in horror and humor. We are absolutely astonished that we lived through those reckless years, and confident that we could never get away with half the stuff we did then in today's world.
But this isn’t about my childhood, and it isn't about my family. It's about Europe. And more than that, it's about how my life as the stereotypical uncultured Iowan shaped my perspective on Europe.
As I write this, I'm sitting on the floor of an apartment next to the river Scheldt in the city of Antwerp, Belgium. The apartment isn't mine, it's actually supplied by my company for people visiting our European headquarters, located a half-hour's drive south in the countryside city of Herentals. Belgium itself is nestled between France, Germany, and the Netherlands, and there's also a little bit of Luxembourg touching them on the east, but I don't think they mind.
Part 2 here