My wife and I recently loaded up the family Truckster with approximately 90% of our earthly belongings, and took the kids on a little road trip from St. Louis to the great state of Iowa (Now with corn AND soybeans!) to see their great-grandmothers, and make a short stop at our alma mater, Iowa State University. In spite of the fact that we were going to be gone for only two nights, the car was loaded to the point that it became the least cool “Low Rider” in history, being weighed down with suitcases, pack-n-plays, strollers, strap-on baby carriers, toys, snacks, more toys, lunches, stuffed animals, bottles, blankets, and finally, toys. The only seat in the car with any legroom was the driver’s seat, as the tide of kiddie crap rose from every other inch of floor space like a flood, until my wife was forced to ride with her knees in her chest, and the back of the car was one uniform, squishy level that was immediately damp and sticky. I don’t even know how that happened. We put maybe 10 craisins in my son’s snack bucket (I say bucket, but it’s really more of a vat), and handed him a sippy-cup that can be literally shaken upside down without spilling an ounce of fluid. The physics are mind-boggling, and yet they are no match for his mess-making skills – which are unrivaled, even in the toddler community.
By the time we got out in Ames, there were crackers EVERYWHERE – like Jesus with fish and loaves, children have the innate ability to create cracker crumbs out of thin air. We will routinely give our two-year-old a handful of Cheese-Its when we get in the car, and then have to frantically shovel him out from under a crumb mountain by the time we get to, say, the grocery store. He actually makes Jesus look like an amateur. I also pitched half a scone (that we were SURE he had eaten), and a smashed banana – that had been jammed deep into the carseat cup-holder, such that there was no way to dislodge it without covering my hand in warm, slobbery banana-mush – out in the parking garage, but then we were ready to go! Ha ha! I am kidding, of course, because we still had to change the baby’s diaper on the car seat, dig out and open the stroller – which of course the boy refused to ride in – unpack and repack the diaper bag, AND help my wife get the baby into the Baby Bjorn ®™(LLC), which was all made even more difficult by the fact that dad really needed a restroom after the long drive. Dancing our way down the halls of the Memorial Union, I couldn’t help but feel a certain nostalgia and longing for simpler times, when the most I had to haul around were a few books that cost a fortune, but were – per strict student codes – never opened. It felt good to be back, though the students nowadays seemed much more tech-savvy than we were 15 years ago, lounging around the MU with their giant monster energy drinks and cups of coffee so large they come with wheels, and studying on their high-powered MacBooks and Surface tablets – by which I mean posting selfies on Instagram. Feeling exceptionally old in this crowd of millennial children, we made one more stop in the most remote corner we could find to feed the baby before setting out to explore the campus while pushing a stroller loaded with everything but a child, and clutching the two-year-old tightly so that he didn’t immediately launch himself into the fountain outside the building (“Daddy! Look at the water mountain!”).
It turned out to be a beautiful day, and the campus looked great. Everything was exactly as we remembered it – wide open fields with people lounging in the grass, sun shining off the grand, columned buildings, and the overwhelming sense of crushing student loan debt in the fresh fall air. We headed straight for the Campanile, where – 15 years earlier – my wife and I had strolled at midnight and kissed as the bells rang. Legend has it that doing so with your special someone will result in marriage and happily-ever-after, and as I struggled to maintain control of my son, I took time to make stern eye contact with the students strolling by, telepathically communicating the message, “Do not take the rumors lightly – this is what happens!” I knew the message had been received loud and clear – even over the din of their fancy Beats by Dre ®™(LLC) Bluetooth headphones – because they all picked up their pace to put as much distance between themselves and that black magic clock tower as possible! My wife on the other hand, unphased by the children and the spit-up on her shirt, wanted pictures and reenactments, so now we’re REALLY stuck with each other. The tour continued with a leisurely stroll around almost the entire campus, past all sorts of buildings where we had one class or another, the strange “art” sculptures we used to make fun of as students (still ridiculous), and approximately 815 hippie-filled hammocks littered throughout the previously picturesque treed areas of central campus. I don’t know who has time to string up and lounge in hammocks during the middle of the day, but I have to believe they were liberal arts students. I also have to believe they were the same people that had scrawled Hillary Clinton logos all over the sidewalks in multi-colored chalk. This all inspired very little hope for our future. But my hopes were salvaged once we made our way back to my old engineering building and saw how many people were heading to and from class, studying, and pulling their hair out over whatever problems they were trying to solve – some of them were even attractive young women! It was a heartwarming sight that brought back great memories of frustrating nights spent at the lab with equally frustrated friends, cursing our professors and our choice of major, and it was inspiring to see how many of the next generation had made the same choices as us. “Keep pushing!” I wanted to tell them, “Soon you’ll be living the dream with jobs at huge corporations that are woefully mired in the past due to stifling bureaucracy and over-regulation, where you’ll get the same mediocre raises year after year until your desire to excel has been completely crushed and you’ll just give up and conform in hopes of riding your career out until retirement – assuming you’re ever able to retire now that pensions are gone, savings contributions have been cut, and insurance plans have been destroyed by rising costs and Obamacare!” Ah, the good life! We also walked through my wife’s old journalism building, which was filled with students that have bright futures in the burgeoning newspaper business, by which I mean two girls who appeared to be watching TV while on their phones.
But there will be plenty of time for the students to worry about careers later! For now a fresh school year full of possibilities has just begun, and there are more pressing matters to focus on, such as college football season. Even at Iowa State, where the football team is perennially “not the best” – by which I mean “Often painful to watch” – students are crazy for game days, often beginning festivities (read: drinking) upwards of 48hrs before kickoff! These kids have school spirit! So much, in fact, that when we stopped at the bookstore and laughed at a table full of red and yellow overalls that looked like giant clown pants, the staff noticed and assured us that they couldn’t keep them in stock – further making the case for stricter college entrance exams. The team ended up taking an unfortunate season-opening loss to the University of Northern Iowa (Motto: Don’t feel bad, no one else has ever heard of us either), and followed that up with an atrocious appearance against the Hawks, but such is life. You have to take pride in your school regardless of the team’s record, which – after walking the campus again – I really did. Though as I returned to the MU carrying my son in my arms – having just shown him Dad’s old stomping grounds with its fancy buildings, wide open spaces, and hallowed halls of higher education – and attempted to exit the revolving door too soon, walking face-first into a glass wall that had been invisible through sunglasses, I wondered how proud they would be of me.