HAWARDEN, Iowa – I recently had an opportunity to recapture a little slice of time, four years lodged in my memory of this little Iowa community. That slice is book-ended by the first and last days of high school. It was the mid-1950s, historically considered steady, placid, uncomplicated times while the nation regrouped after World War II and lay back, preparing for the 1960s when all hell broke loose.
Hawarden is a farming town, about 2,500 people then and today. My father ran the local dairy, so I delivered milk bottles door-to-door until they invented the carton and drove us out of business. It also was a railroad town, where the Chicago Northwestern and Milwaukee Road crossed, providing east/west and north/south passenger service every day. Irish and Italian immigrants built those railroads, and some dropped off to live here, giving us the only Catholic school in Sioux County, which was otherwise settled by Dutch and German Protestants.
The local paper runs a feature called “Days of Yore,” little items drawn from the news of 25, 50 and 100 years ago. One item from way back, probably the early railroading days, said: “We welcome the (ethnic slur deleted), but we wish they would stop leaving their fruit peels on the streets.”
High school then was much like today; you’re much more absorbed in what’s happening to you than what’s happening in the rest of the world. All the boys had draft cards, but it was long before Vietnam. As I prepared for this trip, I realized that I could tell you how our basketball team did senior year (we lost 16 straight) and that Eisenhower was president the whole time, but not much else. So I did some research to recall what really went on during those years.
Freshman year: Joseph Stalin died; IBM created its first computer; the aerosol can was invented; Playboy and TV Guide magazines began publishing; TV dinners arrived; and L&M cigarettes’ marketing slogan was “Just what the doctor ordered.”
Sophomore year: Brown v. the Board of Education mandated the desegregation of schools; Elvis made his first recording; McDonald’s sold its first hamburger; the first Sports Illustrated was published; RCA introduced color TV; and civil war broke out in Vietnam. The last event definitely escaped our notice.
Junior year: Ford Motor Co. introduced the Thunderbird; Ann Landers began her column; Disneyland and Colonel Sanders opened; Ike sent federal troops to Little Rock, Ark., to quell the school desegregation riot (while 11-year-old Bill Clinton watched from down the road in Hot Springs); Don Larsen pitched the first perfect World Series game; and Khrushchev told us, “History is on our side. We will bury you.”
Senior year: Eisenhower was re-elected; Russia launched Sputnik; John F. Kennedy published “Profiles in Courage”; the Frisbee was invented; Visa introduced the first credit card; the Giants and Dodgers both left for California (devastating New York City); and first-class postage was four cents.
All these things! Back then I hardly noticed. Of the most enduring events and inventions, many were second-class news, buried in the back pages.
So what does this all mean? Not much maybe, but why don’t you pick your own historical snapshot of time, perhaps your own high school years, and look in the library for James Trager’s “The People’s Chronology” to see a timeline of those years. What happened then that you never noticed?
To me, although Hawarden still feels like home, the town definitely has changed. Once there were two railroads, two downtown hotels and two movie theaters, and now there are none.
A wave of Hispanic immigrants has found Hawarden. While I grew up, the town was lily-white. Now, perhaps as many as 150 Hispanic families are here, working in the local packing plant or doing farm labor. How many might be illegal is generally unknown.
Rafael Lopez, owner of the new Mexican restaurant, says Hawarden is a welcoming place, especially the schools. His son plays football, and the students voted a Hispanic girl, Diana Rubio, homecoming queen. She is a four-year honor-roll student, is on National Honor Society, and competes on the Quiz Bowl team. Nobody ever forgets who was the homecoming queen.
For some, the change is dizzying. “We’re still in denial,” my friend Charles explained. Long ago he and I got our boyhood dogs from the same litter. Nevertheless, I heard no talk about cracking down on immigrants. After all, that earlier wave of Irish and Italian immigrants eventually worked out all right, didn’t it?
Ken Bode is Eugene S. Pulliam Distinguished Visiting Professor of Journalism at DePauw University.