It’s good to be home
By Mitch Traphagen
“Once there was a way to get back home…”
In April, 2009, I exited off I-75 on the Ruskin exit for the first time in the two years since I had moved to rural Iowa. It was late at night and over the radio I heard the voice of John Lennon singing “Golden Slumbers.” It was a painfully ironic moment. I was in Florida only to pick up boating supplies left in a storage unit. Far, far to the north, a long-neglected, new-to-me sailboat awaited in a Cape Cod boatyard.
The lyrics of the song came together with the late-night hour and the sleeping town I knew so well. Perhaps there was a way to get back home. But I had no home here. I lived in a place so far removed from Florida that it amazes me this could be one relatively cohesive nation. In the eyes of Iowa, Florida is a vision. It is a long beach with a huge population of tourists and the elderly. It is Disney and swamps and a place where the Iowa Hawkeyes football team seems to always land for bowl games. It is crime and mayhem and danger. It is hot and humid. In short, though few would admit it, to many Iowans, Florida is an unobtainable vision of paradise.
Driving into Ruskin that night, I felt very alone and very lost. Where did I belong?
Although the feelings remained, I didn’t dwell for long on the question. Soon I was in Massachusetts enduring a brutally cold spring and preparing to sail away in a boat that hadn’t left the marina in a decade. In almost every way, I belonged there. The boatyard and the marina were much like being at the former Bahia Beach Marina in Ruskin. Even the characters were much the same — from the marina staff to my fellow boat owners.
My intention was to sail home. I earnestly hoped I would find that home along the way.
But, as it always seems to do, life got in the way of my plans. The trip stretched from weeks into months, and somewhere along the line I accepted a job offer to become the Iowa Press Secretary for a United States Congressman. That Congressman is a good and honest man and it was an honor to work for him. At the same time, I felt it was an honor to be employed by the United States House of Representatives. Yes, I know that many people believe that Congress is a band of crooks; but if people really, truly thought about it — the institution, its protocols and ideals — all have survived for more than two centuries through the building and endless rebuilding of the greatest nation on earth.
There was nothing crooked about the Congressman I worked for — the man who represented me. Being his Iowa press secretary was a difficult job in some respects — he had little interest in blowing his own horn. He was drafted into the army as a private and rose through the ranks to retire as a Lt. Colonel. He served two tours as an attack helicopter pilot in Viet Nam, becoming highly decorated along the way. His personal vehicle is a well-maintained 1994 pickup truck. The place he loves most is the house he has owned along with his wife for decades. Like all members of Congress, he occasionally encounters the wealthy and the famous, but his life is in Iowa where his home telephone number is still listed in the thin phonebook of his small hometown. When he offered the job, I asked, “Why do you want to be a member of Congress?” His response was serious and heartfelt. “I want to serve the people of Iowa in the best way I can.” I believed him. I still believe him. Not everyone in Congress is a crook. In fact, I would wager that few are. Perhaps more than ever, now would be a good time to make a little effort to get to know the people who represent us in one of America’s most enduring institutions. You might just be surprised at what you find.
While I considered it a privilege to have my job, there were some downsides. The biggest being the nearly 200-mile roundtrip commute from my home in Small-Town-America, Iowa, to the Congressman’s Des Moines office all driven on truck-infested I-80. In good weather the drive was long and boring. In bad weather the drive was long and terrifying. One night in January, I remained late as the Congressman decided he wanted to welcome home a young couple just returning from earthquake-ravaged Haiti where they had adopted two orphaned children. Blizzard warnings were up for the evening and the snow was already falling in earnest as I made my way to the airport for the event. Afterwards, not wanting to spend yet another night in a hotel, I made my way out of the city at a tenuous 40 miles-per-hour on an increasingly slippery highway. At 40 mph, how bad could it be? Just another hour added to the trip and I would be home.
Within a few miles of leaving the city, the world as I knew it virtually ended. The wind was blowing the snow horizontally into a whiteout and within minutes, all movement on the freeway had slowed to a very dangerous crawl. I didn’t even see the exit to the rest area until I was literally on top of it. I made a sharp right turn and joined dozens of big trucks and cars in seeking refuge from the evil, life-threatening conditions on the highway. I would spend the next 12 hours there, wearing my business suit, burning gallon after gallon of gasoline with the engine running in an attempt to keep warm as the wind howled and the temperature neared the single digits. If Dante was correct in his description of Hell, being forced to spend the night in a suit sitting in my idling car hour after hour in a blizzard was certainly somewhere near the eighth or ninth circle of it for me.
When daylight finally emerged and I was able to resume my long trip home, the carnage along the still icy freeway was staggering. In some places, five or six large tractor-trailers were grouped in heaps, barely off the roadway along with dozens of smashed cars. The vehicular destruction I saw in those 90 miles on that day was far more than I ever saw in all 14 years of living in the traffic madness of Florida. Eighteen hours after I left work, I finally arrived home. In a twisted sort of irony, my wife called a few hours later to let me know that her former employer in Tampa had just offered her a very good job.
Once there was a way to get back home — and that was our way. Tolstoy described John Ruskin as “one of those rare men who think with their heart.” Since 1994, my heart and mind has been here in this place on the eastern shore of Tampa Bay among the warm, friendly, generous, outrageous and dangerous people who live here. In fact, when I think of the people I’ve encountered — the modest heroes in Sun City Center, the selflessly dedicated members of the HCSO, the compassionate people in Ruskin committed to helping others and the warm hearts that outshine the Florida sun throughout the area — I realize that it is an honor and a privilege just to be here.
They say home is where the heart is. Once again, my heart is truly in Ruskin. It is good to be home.