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Heartland Revisited

Spring 2004

America's Heartland

Travel is a chance to reflect on bits of collective identity. Sometimes the best insights come from the things we notice in passing. Indiana is not the first place I would think of going on a pilgrimage, but epiphanies come where they will.

This time fate called me to the Midwest. I flew into Indianapolis and drove north through farm country in the blossom of Springtime. Got a chance to stop by Anderson College where the venerable Women's Christian Temperance Union used to hold the finals of their Oratorical Contest. As a college student, I was California state champion and took second place at the nationals.

When my speech professor originally suggested that I enter, the fact that the WCTU was still around came as a surprise. They are still at it to this day, and hold the oratorical competition every year. Can't say that I have led a temperant life since then, but it was exhilarating at the time to speak to such a large gathering. It was personally important as a moment when I realized that speaking was a calling.

The reason for being in Indiana again was a return engagement with the Ft.Wayne Friends of Jung. My last visit was five years ago. That time, Dean Frantz, the noted Jungian analyst who is the central figure in the group, took me to see the local tulip garden. It is quite a point of civic pride and probably the most elegant display of the bulbed wonders outside of Holland.

Johnny Appleseed Marker, Ft. Wayne

Jonathan Young at Johnny Appleseed Marker

This trip, I tracked down the grave of Johnny Appleseed (1774-1845). As a boy, I found his story to be an inspiration. He spent 49 years traveling the wilderness by foot to plant thousands of trees. His dream was a land where apple trees were everywhere and no one was hungry. He was a grand example of how one person could do something significant through dogged effort.

On the day after the workshop in Ft. Wayne, I drove to nearby Bluffton for the opening of a new Art Center. It is a grand craftsman-style building right on a small river. I gave a talk on the rewards of dedication to a calling. I called the new building a temple of creativity. It was great to be honoring a place enshrining the inner life.

On the way back to Indianapolis, I found my way to the little town of Fairmount, where James Dean grew up. The family farm is still well-kept. Nearby is the Quaker meeting house he attended. The local motorcycle shop where he got interested in racing still looks the same. Fairmount High School, where he discovered acting, is boarded up now, but a neighbor pointed out the drama classroom.

Dean's gravestone is decorated with kisses and mementos from admirers. Many who saw his performances were deeply affected. Maybe his emotional honesty came from this small town background. The easy sincerity of rural folk seemed to run deep in James Dean. It survived long after he was wrapped in the deadly cloak of fame.

Riley Home, Indianapolis

Jonathan Young at the home of James Whitcomb Riley

Back in Indianapolis, I stopped by the home of Indiana's world poet, James Whitcomb Riley. The big Victorian house is carefully kept as a museum now. Exhibits chronicle Riley's fame as a lecturer on the lyceum circuit with other authors such as Mark Twain. The whole section of town is renovated grand houses from the 1800s. Some of the streets are still cobblestones.

My father had an elegantly bound set of Riley's writings and could quote lines from the famed Hoosier poet, but Riley's works are now largely forgotten. His romanticized vision of a bucolic childhood describes a world that never existed. As emotional touchstones, they do capture a longing for pastoral grace that is a key thread in the American character.

Fort Benjamin Harrison

Jonathan Young in Panama

The last day of the trip was spent exploring an old haunt, Ft. Benjamin Harrison, where I did my military training. Most of the place has now been decommissioned. The elegant brick structures circa 1910 have been spiffed up and have become private homes and businesses. Whole sections have an architectural integrity rare in most towns.

Like many military compounds, these neighborhoods seem to have eluded the passage of time. Generations have made their lives in these buildings without changing them much. Because these posts were outside the commercial pressures to tear down the old and maximize value, they are history preserved. As they are now gradually claimed by surrounding communities, it is as if bits of our past are being returned.

The military journalism school I attended looks the same, but is now a state college campus. My studies were in the broadcasting department that produced the characters in Good Morning Vietnam. Most of my classmates went straight to Saigon. As a reservist, my service was mostly in Los Angeles, with annual duties in the Panama Canal Zone. The picture at the radio controls was taken there, during a coast-to-coast network broadcast - over a grand total of two towers.

Oddly, the biggest change at Fort Benjamin Harrison came to the more recent buildings. The barracks that were relatively new when I bunked there are now in the first stages of being torn down. The demolition crew had quit for the day, so I slipped inside. These were the same halls that had to be squeaky clean for inspections. This time, I was stepping over debris. It seemed like all the young soldiers were still there in spirit, even the ones who did not come home from the wars.

The assembly room at the end of the building was where an amazingly inarticulate sargent would bark at us about trivial matters. I recall that he said that we were to utilize the trash cans for all waste materials. It seemed like an awkward way to tell us to toss trash in the can. I guess a fancy word like utilize seemed more educated. We were college boys and the sarge had not finished high school.

The most pitiful spot in the barracks was the corner where the pay phones were located. The guys would line up for a chance to call family or girlfriends. The brief contact with someone who cared was a high point. We felt like we were in another country. Loneliness still clung to the place.

One fine old building on the base that I wanted to see for sure was the enlisted men's service club. It had been quite the new hot spot during World War II with swing bands playing for dances. During my tenure it was where the sorority girls from Purdue would host tea-time with the soldiers on Sunday afternoons.

Service Club

Jonathan Young at Fort Wayne Service Club

The elegant young women were probably getting community service credit for their good deed. Coming out to the post for these gatherings was a patriotic gesture - a way to support the troops. My girlfriends at college had been mostly in the arts or political activists. These Midwestern beauties were another breed. Their hair and makeup was flawless, despite the Summer humidity. They were gracious and engaging, but very formal. Tea-time with the ladies was clearly a ritual of a tribe to which I did not belong. I'm glad they are tearing down boring newer buildings rather than the architectural jewels. Still, the dismantling of so many posts across the country is a reminder that they are the shards of past conflicts. They were the settings for those romantic war movies that made going off to the front seem glorious. For me, the emotions stirred by such films still seeps into perceptions of the military compounds. As I drove away, the rousing band music that usually plays under the closing titles of war movies was noticeably missing.

So, what did I learn in Indiana? Maybe that traces of the heartland are in all of us, even if we did not grow up in the Midwest. Also, that what we see is colored by how life has unfolded. Joseph Campbell said that one of the qualities of mature years is that everything we look at has associations from past experiences. These layers of significance build up until the whole world is a holy picture. I'm not there yet, but a resonant veneer is becoming detectable - and the edges of my perceptions are starting to take on a slight radiance.