That Corn-Fed Spirit

That Corn-Fed Spirit

By Chris Erskine
Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES ~ Our tour of Midwestern universities gets off to an excellent start when – I think it was at Purdue – the little girl inquires as to whether they have “you know, a high-end spa here?” Then one night in Chicago, I have a cheeseburger so huge that I will be working it off forever. It is lodged next to my gallbladder like some new internal organ. No, doc, that’s not a lump. That’s just last week’s lunch.

The Middle West is certainly a bountiful place. The soil back here is as rich as dark chocolate and always wet and moist and full of worms. The red-breasted robins swarm the big, wide lawns, 10 or 12 at a time.

Everybody seems happy to see the sun here. A few days after the fact, there is still a lot of Easter in these folks’ faces. It is April, and they are pink and cheery over the rebirth.

Posh likes the city; I like the country – no surprise there. My wife looks out at the wind ruffling the corn stubble and longs for the noise and stench of Chicago’s Loop. Conversely, I wander Michigan Avenue in search of someone who will look me straight in the eye.

Needless to say, it’s been an interesting marriage in that regard. As I may have mentioned, I was a mail-order groom. Such unions rarely work out, though there are moments. Sometimes late at night, she looks at me hungrily, like I’m a big Easter ham.


And 88 years later, here we are traipsing across the heartland looking for an institution where the little girl can put the crowning touches on her childhood. At the Union Club Hotel at Purdue, a stately sort of place with fat leather chairs, I can’t seem to get a wireless signal, but the room comes with a full breakfast and the waitress with a corn-fed smile.

Farther along, at a waspy little campus in Ohio, the students all look the same to me, blond prairie princesses with spray-on tans.

This I’m used to, for teenagers have always looked pretty much the same to me – boys and girls, jocks and geeks, it doesn’t matter. Same person, as far as I’m concerned. It’s not till they’re 20 or so that our young people reveal any sort of individual identity.

What makes them seem the same, I think, is their body language. Teenagers’ feet never seem to leave the ground, unless they are sitting on the sofa with their shoes on Mom’s coffee table.

Yet, I admire their spirit, spotty as it is. When we enter Lafayette, Ind., sort of the Paris of the Midwest, the little girl is immediately smitten. On the main drag, she spots a sign offering root beer and gleefully shouts, “Root beer? That’s my favorite soda!”

“Isn’t this nice, Daddy?” she asks after an hour on the Purdue campus.

The middle of the Midwest might very well be her kind of place, though there is that little issue with the high-end spa, and after a day at Purdue, the little girl notes that she has encountered only one pair of designer dungarees on the entire 30,000-student campus.

This she finds a little troubling. It’s no wonder we sometimes refer to her as Mini Posh.

Purdue may not be Mini Posh’s eventual destination, though she adores the campus, and the students are so friendly – Midwestern farm friendly – that they stop to give you directions even when you’re not quite lost.

“Can I help you find something?” they are always asking.

“New York?” answers Posh.

“Do you,” I ask, “have some sort of student union here?”

“Come on, I’ll show you,” the kid says.

In the Windy City, we don’t really have that problem. No one offers help unsolicited, and the students are careful not to look you in the eye, for fear that you’ll not find them edgy-cool. It’s almost like being back on Melrose.

So it is here in Chicago that Mini Posh will likely land, I suspect, with a Barneys six blocks away and the Milky Way of Michigan Avenue beckoning a few miles to the south. Like every parent who sends a child off to college in Illinois, my hope is that she won’t eventually be indicted.

Certainly, there’s a foggier sense of right and wrong here, and I think that appeals to the little girl. What’s a college without a Bohemian spirit and an underlying sense of anarchy?

I always found college to be an excellent place to howl at the moon and make the best, funniest friends you’ll probably ever have. Forget the smell of fresh cotton sheets – that’s soooo your parents’ life. Give a college kid a stale beer and something to argue about, and she’ll be delirious for hours.

College, what a triumph.

College, the best spa of all.

Erskine can be reached at

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