I grew up in a smelly,little industrial town on the Mississippi River called Clinton, Iowa. Our three-bedroom ranch home with white siding and red shutters was 1/2 mile from a rendering plant, yet somehow also right across the street from a country club. Rendering plant? What the hell is a rendering plant? When I was growing up, we called it the Road Kill Factory. The smell of rotting animal flesh left out on the road on a sweltering August afternoon permeated the entire South side of Clinton. It was a stench that lasted the whole year, though it was especially bad in the humid summers. Clinton Country Club- I can just imagine the distinctive aroma of road kill wafting over and mingling with the freshly mowed grass of the greens. When you grow up there, however, you are accustomed to it. It’s just the smell of the air. But if you leave for awhile and come back, the odor mingled with the heat hits you like a wall and makes you gag.
My Uncle Gary and Cousin Dave both worked at the plant and they told me that they processed dead animals there, whatever processing meant. The smell got into everything. When Dave left work, his clothes stunk of the plant, which would stink up his car. He had to buy a beat-up junk car just for work. As an adult, my friends busted on me all the time about it. I can just hear our friend Cy exclaiming, “There you go, bragging about your family money! Your cousin bought a special car devoted just to drive to his high-flutin’ job. You and your rendering money.”
Then there was the stench produced by ADM, Archer Daniels Midland, a sickening sulfuric smell of what was once known as Clinton Corn. ADM and the rendering plant were just two of the numerous industrial factories located in Clinton. The townspeople were happy to have those factories as they employed a lot of people, then the recession hit. There was a major recession in farming in the 80s. Think John Cougar Mellencamp’s famous hit “Rain on the Scare Crow.” Major farming corporations bought all of the little family farms that people had owned for generations. I remember that International Harvester planned to build an enormous 100,000 square-foot facility about an hour away from Clinton. All of a sudden, construction just stopped. They left that skeleton of a structure up for years and years to come. Driving by that as a kid just made you have a deep sense of instability. As if no one was immune to bad financial hardships, not even huge corporations. Not that Clinton was ever a wealthy community, it certainly hadn’t been in recent times, but it took a nosedive in the 1980s. Everyone lost their jobs, many of the educated people left and everything spiraled downwards.
I grew up definitely lower middle class although I never really had a sense of this when I was a kid. I don’t know if it was because it was a different time, or the area in which I grew up, but nobody cared. My friends and I never even really knew what a BMW was until we were 16. In that way, it was kind of a utopia. Money was never why you liked someone because you were all in the same boat. It was usually an old, rusty boat. You were liked for who you were, not the clothes you wore or if you had a trampoline in your backyard. There was none of that. You were popular if you were nice, funny, a good student or a good athlete.
My grandfather was among many in our town who worked at Clinton Corn and ADM since the end of World War II. His character was symptomatic of someone who grew up during the depression. When he died, he left behind close to half a million dollars that he saved over the years. He was a picker in Iowa long before those guys from American Pickers in LeClaire, Iowa, became famous for it. For at least ten years before he died he couldn’t even fit his car into the garage; there was so much stuff in it. He never paid full price for anything, but would buy a toaster for a dollar and sell it for eight. We found upwards of seven toasters in his garage after he died. My grandfather smoked, he drank, he was diabetic, and he was cheap. He would go to Hardee’s every morning at 9:00 AM and order a cup of coffee. He waited there; drinking that coffee and getting it refilled for free, until 10:30, when the restaurant stopped serving breakfast and gave away their sugary, cinnamon biscuits. The biscuits were certainly not at the top of the heart-diseased, diabetic “Ok’d” list, but hey, they were free! He had open-heart surgery in his late 60s after suffering a heart attack and I remember he told my mom that if he had known how badly it would hurt, he would have just died. He died when he was 72 of another heart attack.
My father’s mother was a farmer in rural Missouri and she had the equivalent of an eighth grade education. My father graduated high school and when he turned 18, they pulled out every single one of his teeth. Rather than attending to his dental problems, they figured it would be far less trouble to remove them and give him dentures. He was an 18 year old with false teeth. He and my mother were both smokers. They never did any form of exercise. I remember if he ever saw our neighbor Loraine out on a jog, he would stop and offer her a ride. When it came to exercise they didn’t believe in doing more work than you had to. But they had trouble conceiving, so they adopted my brother. They adopted me a year and a half later and even before my adoption was finalized, my mother gave birth to my sister.
Stating that my parents were smokers is like saying Bill Gates dabbled with computers. They really loved to smoke. In the 1970’s their brand was Raleigh Cigarettes. They had little tickets on the back of the packs and cartons you could redeem for prizes. We “won” all kinds of camping gear, tents, radios and other grand prizes. To say we had an excess of Raleigh Coupon prizes is an understatement.
My mother was born in 1941 five months before Pearl Harbor. Her father left for the war and came back to Iowa in 1945. He never discussed the war. He dealt with the pain of the war by not dealing with it and drinking too much. Men who came home from the war didn’t have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. There was no mention of therapy, of abuse, or anything like that. It was 1945 and you better be tough.
I often think about the way my mother was raised and the time period she grew up in so I could understand her choices. Once my mom found some old books for women from the 50’s and 60’s and showed them to me. They were guides that gave women instructions on how to be a domestic goddess. You were supposed to put lipstick on before your husband came home from work. You should have the kids ready to greet him, dinner already prepared, and in no way could you ever complain about any of it. You were told to be a demure house wife and answer to your husband even if he was an abusive alcoholic, which my father was.
My mother graduated high school in 1959. She didn’t go to college and stayed in this little town in Iowa her whole life. Leaving, even to go to Chicago by herself, was completely out the realm of possibility. My mom grew up when things were becoming more automated. You didn’t have to detassle corn anymore, you were supposed to stay at home, and so a sedentary lifestyle became normal. Then, all you had for physical activity was cheerleading and swimnastics really. There was no Title IX. 1928 was the first time they allowed women to run in the 800-meter race in the Olympics. Nine women competed, one of whom collapsed at the finish line. The take home message from that event was that 800-meters is too far for a woman to run. There were eight other women who crossed the finish like, but they said they were all collapsing left and right.
So both of my parents were sedentary, heavy smokers. They not only hated to exercise themselves, they would make fun of people that did. My Dad drank too much and my mom ate too much. How I became a healthy fitness professional is nothing short of a miracle in this life.
Although I was eventually able to divert myself from many of the health choices of my parents, my fitness story really starts with gymnastics and my childhood coach, Mr. Douglas.
*Portions of this text written with the assistance of Pauline Shypula