Lorie Smith Schaefer: What I saw in America’s heartland
Between Father’s Day and the Fourth of July, my husband and I undertook a road trip, searching for the roots of our family trees in the Midwest. We trekked to Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, Missouri and finally Arizona to snuggle our granddaughter, the newest little blossom on that family tree.
Between the visits to cemeteries and hometowns we covered 6,000 miles of road, mostly on interstates. Many highway miles were under construction, accompanied by signs crediting the federal stimulus with the funds. We also paid about 10 bucks in tolls on several portions of I-80, helping fund some pay-as-you-go highway maintenance.
We were amused by billboards touting the World’s Largest Rocking Chair, the Vacuum Cleaner Museum and Branson’s “Dogs of the Titanic” exhibit. However, we were amazed to see state after state blanketed with cornfields. And what turned in the midst of those food- and fuel-producing cornfields? Graceful, elegant wind farms. Yes, they looked futuristic, but also beautiful like a Disney diorama for the world of tomorrow. Nearby another billboard announced a 150-year-old Danish windmill. Maybe wind-power isn’t so new-fangled after all.
We were grateful for the gorgeous rest stops along I-80 in Nebraska and Iowa. No, I mean really nice ones. Well-designed, clean, with informative maps and displays about local culture and history. Elsewhere we found many rest stops closed due to a state’s budget cuts. One more example of “you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone” and you’ve got nowhere to … um … go.
But the most memorable thing I saw in America’s heartland wasn’t a thing at all. It was a random act of kindness. A young waitress in Michigan attempted to take the order of a frail old guy at the next table. He was alone. He wore a WWII veteran’s cap and a hearing aide. As she explained his breakfast options, he didn’t seem to understand her. She knelt down close to him, treating him with as much patience, tenderness and genuine kindness as she would have her own grandfather.
When she brought him his meal she said, “Here you go, sir. And you don’t have to worry about the check. Someone paid it for you.”
He looked up. “Who?”
“I can’t tell you, but they wanted to thank you because you’re a veteran.”
That sweet 20-something waitress and the stranger who paid for an old man’s breakfast made my day. They gave me hope that even in a hateful and toxic cultural climate, we can each sow seeds of kindness. Moreover, the world might just be an OK place for my precious new granddaughter to grow.
• Lorie Schaefer is retired.