Never had I been so overjoyed to be back home on that hot summer day in June. It was the summer I took a job with the Iowa Department of Transportation… for one week. The job was counting cars, and consisted of placing rubber hoses across designated roads and attaching them to an indestructible computer terminal that you padlock to any immovable object in the ditch nearby.
It started on a Sunday afternoon when I headed out of town in the DOT Ford Econoline van full of rubber hoses. I was on my way to a little town called Strawberry Point in the northeastern corner of Iowa. As I began to unfurl hoses across state highways, county blacktops, and gravel roads near the Wisconsin border I was greeted with fine weather and wonderful scenery as I neared the Mississippi River. I crisscrossed my way across the remote county making my way towards the hotel that would be “home” for a week.
The DOT allowed a $50 stipened per night for hotel stays. After I checked into the seedy hotel along the Mississippi, I was greeted by a stuffy room encased in dark wood paneling. After running the window airconditioner on full blast all night I awoke before dawn to a room that was 50 degrees. I got an early start to the day. As the sun peeked over the Wisconsin horizon I found myself in the convenience store next to the hotel (convenient) grabbing the cheapest loaf of white bread, pack of bologna, and block of cheese I could find. I learned this trick from the other rubber layers. The DOT paid a stipened for meals: $5 for breakfast, $6 for lunch, and $13 for supper. So, if you could live off a loaf of bread and cheap meat, you could earn more per week by claiming the alotted meal allowance. The goal was to spend one day’s breakfast alotment and make it last a week. However, traveling in remote areas of rural countrysides eating only scant supplies of heavily processed foods soon proved disasterous. By Tuesday I was very familiar with the county’s convenience store restrooms. I still cannot stand the aroma of Wonder bread.
Now, I claim to have worked a week for the DOT, but technically my first week was cut short. Hollie and I had planned a summer vacation to Chicago with my sister and brother-in-law. I was done with my week and driving home by Wednesday afternoon. I had never been more excited to be coming home in my life.
I cranked up the radio, rolled down the window, and hightailed that Ford van out of Strawberry Point. The blaring radio and wind tunnel I created in the van combined for a deafening drive home. Somewhere between Strawberry Point and Waterloo the muffler dropped off the exhaust. As I barreled through Waterloo on the four lane highway I began to get a lot of stares. I chalked it up to the fact I was driving an old state vehicle well over the posted speed limit. I veered off the highway and continued my beeline for home down a county blacktop. As I approached a stop sign I thought the engine sounded a bit loud and I soon became aware of a horrible grating sound eminating from the undercarriage of the van. I stopped, stepped out, and got on all fours to peer under the van. The muffler was lying on the ground with half of it ground off at a 60 degree angle. Images of my mom grating cheese came to mind. The stares I received thirty minutes earlier began to make sense as a shower of sparks must have been flying everywhere rolling down the highway at 80 miles per hour. I quickly tied the muffler back up with a piece of rusty wire.
I finally limped the van into town and dropped it off at the DOT garage. As I drove up Duff Avenue I had never been so happy to be in a place on God’s green earth in my life. Two things transpired that week with the DOT that changed my life forever. At the age of twenty, I experienced homesickness for the first time in my life. The second realization came when I discovered I wasn’t really homesick, but heartsick. It became abundantly clear that where Hollie was, there was home. I hadn’t really missed home nearly as much as I had missed Hollie, and I admit sadly, for the first time. God used what seemed at the time such a horrid week to open my eyes to see what I really had at home; to really see how wonderful Hollie was in my life after dating each other for six years. That day I pulled into that sleepy college town I knew this was going to be home, and home was going to be with Hollie by my side. After getting back from Chicago I quit the DOT. Instead, I enrolled in summer classes to catch up on electives after getting accepted into the architecture program. I also emptied my coin bank, bought a ring with the proceeds, and asked Hollie to marry me. She said yes, even though the ring was only a slight notch above something from a Cracker Jack box. And, I still look back on that dreadful week with fondness.