Nov 29, 2007

The Watershed Year 1958/59

I don't think that my growing up in Des Moines could possibly have been as interesting as it was, had it not been for the cultural, intellectual, political, and educational watershed that our family experienced through taking one extended trip together.

Dad was an up-and-coming young professor of Biology at Drake University. His specialty was a phylum of small protozoan fish parasites called myxosporidia. What is special about these little beasties is of no particular interest here; the important thing about them in our context is that there are lots of them in salt water fish, but relatively few in fresh water fish. Thus professor P.A. Meglitsch was best known among marine biologists, being one himself. And what the hell is a marine biologist going to do living in Iowa? There isn't an ocean anywhere near Iowa.

The simple answer is: you gotta travel. In our summer vacations we were used to Dad attending conferences and seminars at marine biological places at like Wood's Hole in Main or Beaufort in South Carolina. But if he was going to get ahead, he needed a research grant on a longer term that would put him somewhere with a lot of Ocean. And in 1958 he hooked a good one - a Fulbright fellowship grant that led both Dad and the rest of the family to Wellington, New Zealand for a year. There he would lecture a little and hunt like crazy for new myxosporidian genera and species. The rest of the family would go to school and do our things in whatever way we saw fit.

In 1958, you didn't just pack your family onto an airplane and fly to a place like New Zealand as you might today. Back then, five round trip air fares to New Zealand would have cost as much as a Fulbright Scholar could expect to make in a year. No, in those days you took a boat if you weren't rich. Getting to Wellington, NZ from Des Moines, Iowa involved packing all our gear into trunks and crates, then migrating to San Francisco, and then taking a two week sea voyage to Wellington.

Our plan was to do the whole round trip going westwards: leaving the US from California, and returning to New York a year later having circumnavigated the globe in the interim. And that's just what we did. On our way over this meant stopping in Hawai'i, Fiji, and Hull Island (a micronesian atoll inhabited only by a handfull of Kirbatians who worked the Copra plantation) before arriving in NZ. On the way back we visited Austrailia, Jakarta, Singapore, Srilanka, Goa, Mumbai, and Aden, before reentering the European world by sailing through the Suez Canal, arriving finally in Marseilles in July thereafter "doing" Europe before returning to New York Harbor sometime in August.

I'm not even going to try and tell the whole story of that trip here, I'll do that another time. The most important points in my present context are as follows:

1. Within my social sphere in 1958, no one I knew among my peers had ever been outside North America. I knew people who had been to Mexico and Canada and the Bahamas, and even Hawai'i, but none my age.

We had met foreign students from all over the world, and knew faculty members who had been to Europe. But none of our friends had ever been anywhere. And none of them had even heard of New Zealand. We were embarking on an adventure of a scope no one else we knew had ever even approached.

However, both before we left and after we came back, I could see that many of my peers couldn't for the life of them understand why we would rather travel around the world than buy a new car to replace the rattletrap 1950 Studebaker 4-door we we had been driving as long as I could remember. Foreign countries were just a lot of trouble ... a trip to Disneyland would be cheaper, more fun, and far more sensible.

That we had lived in a romantic South Pacific island and visited at least a dozen other countries by the time we got back, was interesting, but inconsequential. My gang was far more concerned about us having missed out on all the neighborhood intrigues and conflicts and such that had happened while we were away.

2. In June 1958, I graduated from grade school. I was a normal 11-year-old, 5'2" tall, weighing in perhaps at 75 lbs. In September 1959 when I was back in Des Moines and started in the 8th grade at Callanan Junior High School I was 12 years old, 6'2" and weighed 150 lbs.

The enormity of the physical change in me during that one year had put me head and shoulders above everyone in the old gang but also left me thin as a rail. I simply wasn't the same person as the one who had left a year before I had become a tall gangling, awkward teenager, I had seen a lot of the world first hand and my old gang hadn't - it took me a while to realize that I simply wasn't in their league any more. I could no longer relate to their reality, nor they to mine. That one year had made me a total stranger to my childhood.

3. For a year our family had lived in a context in which we fit in better than we ever had in Des Moines. New Zealand was staunch Labour Party territory - the democratic socialists that McCarthy and HUAC had been pursuing so persistantly back in America all my short life were in fact in power here, and the ban the bomb movement already had significant popular support and political influence.

For the first time in my life, I realized that being a pacifist on the left side of politics didn't always mean you were going to be persecuted by a gang of bigoted, reactionary, white-skinned, red-necked right-wingers. The world was a lot bigger than the USA, and what was taken as "the way things are" in the US, didn't necessarily seem to be either normal or natural in the rest of the world.

4. Some important changes had already begun in American society, that would soon become very important. The fifties were coming to a close, the Ike and tricky Dick era was coming to a close. The Baby boomers were fast approaching puberty. A young liberal Senator from Massachusets was preparing his bid for the presidency. Both on the east coast and on the West Coast, the beat generation had been paving the roads the Hippie generation in a few short years would be traveling.

Of course, in the heartlands of the middle west no direct word of these events had as yet gotten through to the general public. The salient point is that not only had I changed both physically and mentally while were were away, but America had changed, too. For me the sizzling sixties, that I had unwittingly been preparing for all throught the flatulent fifties, started in 1959. For most people in Des Moines they wouldn't start for another five years.

[more to come]


Sara Ransom said...

As you describe your sudden growth spurt (#2) I am reminded of a funny incident around that. We were all in 9th grade and there was a dance coming up. A highly energetic young girl, Carmen Woods I think, called you up and asked you to be her partner.

What your mom overheard, as she was nearby, was your reply: "DANCE! I can't even WALK!"

Steven Meglitsch said...

I'm glad you mentioned Carmen, I was thinking of writing a few words about her from the 6th grade (she went to Elmwood), I had forgotten (repressed?) the particular episode you mention. But Steve, the gangling, awkward teenager was an uncomfortable reality.

Sara Ransom said...

MORE! i keep checking for a new blog entry... Now that the holidays have wound down and it's "just" winter, perhaps you'll give us more memories and descriptions.