'WE thought you wasn't comin'." The man behind the car rental desk looked tired. It was nearly midnight at the small commuter airport in the middle of the dark Iowa farmland. It no longer mattered that my travel agent had scheduled the day to finish at 5 p.m., or that the plan had stretched to midnight. The most unknown part of my journey lay about 20 miles away in a small town I had hardly even thought of for more than 50 years. The faithful car rental man drew me a map.
After the first right turn, I might as well have been on the moon. Yet, for all its loneliness, the road seemed friendly in the dark. The rain had stopped, and as the road curved through the hills, I began to think why I was there. I don't "do" nostalgia gatherings like alumni groups from high school. Looking back never seemed worthwhile. Yet, here I was on my way to this reunion. Somehow I had felt impelled to go and hoped I'd discover my reasons after I got there.
The truth was I never really graduated with this class. Two years before graduation my family had moved to a large city in another state. To me, this had meant new excitement and opportunities, and frankly, I never looked back nor thought I had any reason to. But the reunion committee had traced my movements and sent me an invitation.
The next morning after breakfast, I drove over the railroad tracks and up the hill, past the brick building where my parents' cafe had been, and above it, our home. It was now a sporting goods shop. At the top of the hill stood the town square with the same courthouse, the same bandstand, and the same fountain. But where the old cannon had stood pointing harmlessly down the main street was now the shell of an army tank.
I remembered how in the 1930s and early 1940s the square and the surrounding streets had come alive on summer Saturday nights when the farming families from the surrounding area came to town. The women made necessary purchases and then clustered on street corners talking and laughing. They wore spotless, home-sewn cotton print dresses, and many of them spoke only Norwegian. The men assembled in small groups in front of the bandstand, talking livestock and crops, or bantered with my dad in the cafe over pie. And the children darted around the fountain or the cannon or the bandstand, singing to the music, clowning, scuffling, and dropping popcorn.
Later that afternoon at the country club our reunion group filed through the crowded entry - chatter, laughter, disbelief, embraces, handshakes, and nametags. Nametags got us through. Of course everyone had changed, yet some indelible characteristics remained that still pegged our identities.
After dinner each person rose in his place to say a few words. One man had become an accountant in Chicago who expounded on his love of computers. Another was the principal of a school in a nearby town. The women spoke largely of children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren. By their jokes and camaraderie it was plain that most of them had kept in close touch over the years.
One former school football player, now a salesman and a part-time preacher, rose to remind everyone of the incident in high school when a member of the football team sustained an injury that was predicted to leave him blind forever. "But," he said, "every morning in assembly hall for a month we had prayers for him, don't you remember? And then one morning he woke up able to see."
He asked us all to pray for this assembly gathered in such good fellowship and love. And he led us in prayer.
The next woman rose to tell how she and her husband now delivered recreational vehicles from the town factory to all parts of the country, including Alaska. She reminded us that she had lived far out of town on a farm, saying that in grade school she had been so shy she wouldn't go to anyone's house for lunch - anyone's but mine. "And I remember," she said, "we had ice cream." A testament to my parents' generosity in a time when store-bought sweets were a rarity.
Finally, one tall fellow in the back stood up and said, "Well, I'll tell you, I'm a farmer and I farm out east of town. I've got three children and seven grandchildren, and believe me, there's no better place on earth than this town, and I will never live anywhere else."
He laughed, and we all clapped at his half-comical but earnest loyalty. Perhaps we all longed for such a clear assurance of where we belonged. More chatter and laugher continued. But, to my surprise, I was struck all at once with a whole new view of this group and this town.
What I had sometimes mourned as a place of limitation and little opportunity, I now saw had yielded a unique heritage. This town had given us a set of traditional beliefs to kick against, test for ourselves, and then assimilate in different ways. Suddenly I felt proud and grateful to be a part of this group gathered in that small dining room.
It began to rain again as we all said good-bye and drove away in different directions. The next morning I left directly for Europe. New scenes and new friends nearly eclipsed the Iowa visit until I returned home. In the mail was the inevitable reunion group picture, along with a fourth-grade photo of the same group as children, looking unusually solemn in caps and capes.
The morning after the reunion, as I was checking out of the hotel, the desk attendant gave me a package that someone at the reunion had left for me. It was a coffee mug with a note inside: "To the one who came the farthest."
They were probably right.