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The Midwest Starts Here

The first in our 4th of July Week series on the land we love. #WeLoveTheMidwest

To be a midwesterner is to be part of the great and endless debate about what the Midwest means—of where it begins, of what it contains, and of who can lay claim to Midwestern provenance. This debate is, by definition, one that is light on emotion and heavy on polite platitudes, because that is the way of things in America’s great Middle West.

Make no mistake: the Midwest begins in Ohio. From there it extends westward to the bountiful center of this vast and varied continent of ours, swept by ceaseless wind and pockmarked by the smoldering craters of MAC coaches who dreamed too big. The Buckeye state stands as the eastern redoubt of the old Northwest Territory, where the helter-skelter Colonial landscape yielded to thoughtful surveying and bloody scrapes with Tecumseh. The Northwest Territory gave birth to the Midwest, which itself was the start of the second chapter of America.

As a boy, I would travel to my family’s longtime home to spend the summer with my grandparents. They lived in a beautiful old house in the village where my father and his siblings were reared, only a few doors down from the house whose front room hosted my grandfather’s birth in 1923. Three centuries prior, his ancestors of the same name landed in Connecticut. Their descendants headed west to the Firelands, a tract of the Connecticut Western Reserve staked out to make displaced settlers whole after the Revolution. There they stayed.

For a kid born in DC, small town Ohio was an idyllic wonderland—a speck of bucolic nirvana where the B&O crossed the AC&Y in a lazy X. In those days, when good union jobs weren’t so hard to find, it was the place where the steam whistle at the locomotive shop marked the passing a summer day, and a 20-minute trip to the Ben Franklin might net a boy a new squirt gun. Treehouses must be defended at all costs, and the aqueous firepower of a bright yellow plastic Uzi was just the ticket.

When my family moved back to Ohio and settled not far from where I’d spent those Calvin-and-Hobbesian summer days, Ohio ceased to be anything close to magical. To be fair, nothing about the place changed other than that it suddenly and unexpectedly became “home.” Home is where the hum-drummery of life happens. The nirvana of summer lives elsewhere, and by elsewhere I mean somewhere you can’t inadvertently encounter your music teacher cutting grass for the parks department on your way to buy a Redpop. That’s why the Camp Anawanas of the world exist—to get away from home.

I couldn’t truly appreciate the Midwest again until life took me elsewhere. Few are immune to the foible of being largely unappreciative of that which surrounds us. The quotidian events of Midwestern existence—church Bingo, fish fries at the American Legion, and freezing your loins solid at a late October football game—are easily spurned for the promise of life nearer to those enticing coasts, or the heat of the desert Southwest, or golden California. We all know someone who bolted at the first opportunity. Perhaps that someone (like me)...was you.

Only in leaving the “bland Midwest” that I decried in my teenage years did I discover what it meant to be Midwestern. Back then, I’d have likely told you that the only thing that binds the Midwest together is Cream of Mushroom Soup. Thankfully, the razor-sharp clarity of hindsight has granted me a more nuanced view of culture in the place where the News From Lake Wobegon carries an air of familiar believability.

First and foremost, people in the Midwest are nice. Southerners like to crow about their hospitality and manners as though they’ve copyrighted how to be inviting, but the Midwest is no less warm and welcoming. We just don’t feel the need to brag about it like we discovered please and thank you. Nonetheless, I defy you to find a more congenial group of Americans—the kind of folks who sincerely hope visiting fans “have a nice time” and apologize in advance for Runzas being “an acquired taste.”

Secondly, this place is big in a way that cannot be easily grasped by someone from Rhode Island or New Jersey. Don’t believe me? Drive Illinois from Chicago to Cairo. Joking aside, space is its own brand of luxury, and we have enough room to spread our wings, but not so much that we can get away with not knowing our neighbors. We’re the just-right geographical porridge, and a country mile isn’t an expression but a useful measurement.

But above of all, and what I miss most about the Midwest, is that people there are really from the Midwest. Living in trendy cities (and all around the country through the service) has meant living among a crowd that is forever asking and answering the foundational questions of modern urban life: Where are you from? How long have you been here?

If nothing else, I come from where my people are from—a trait not at all uncommon in the “flyover states” that peripatetic urbanites have spurned in droves. By and large, if you live in the Midwest it’s because your people live there, too. You have roots. You know your parents’ friends, and your cousins, and the mailman, and that the car wash down the street used to be a bank, and that Mrs. Fackler was your dad’s favorite teacher and she’s fading into dementia. The farther you get from home the more that kind of knowledge becomes a set of anchor points that keep you tethered to your values. Those tidbits are waypoints to remind you that there’s more to a good life than money.

Last year, I stood in the cemetery in that same village, having just laid my grandmother to rest. The old house is sold. The folks who remember the best days are going or gone. Peering out over the rows of headstones, I counted the ghostly ranks of an army of German settlers. Once upon a time, people who traveled halfway around the world with all their possessions stopped here and made it home. For them, this was the closest thing to nirvana. Land. Water. Non-spicy foods in various shades of white. They loved it here, spent their lives here, and died here.

Perhaps you grew up among your Midwestern people, as I did. Perhaps you left, as I did. Perhaps someday, you will go back. Perhaps I will, too.

#WeLoveTheMidwest2017 is our effort to offer a respite from the onslaught of team coverage in the form of some Midwestern harmony. Feel free to write a Fanpost and we’ll hang it on the front page. -Management