Miami Manor was not just a collection of apartments, it was a community of Master’s and Ph.D students, some with families, nearly all from overseas. Children played, jumped, see-sawed and swung in the little enclosure under the watchful eyes of their proud parents. Or they bicycled their way around in complete serenity and safety. In Oxford, nothing ever went wrong; life was idyllic.
(Published in Daily Times, 4 July 2012)
Our first stop after Denver was the unremarkable little town of Hays in Kansas, home to Fort Hays State University, where my very dear friend David teaches history. The visit was very short, but David wanted to show me a church in Victoria, a few short kilometres away. Called the “Cathedral of the Plains”, it was built between 1908 and 1911 by German immigrants who settled here.
With a ceiling 44 ft high and towers soaring 141 ft, this massive structure is 220 ft long and 110 ft wide. A seating capacity of 1,100 persons means that this church can accommodate the entire population of the town, which stands at 1,214. But I doubt if ever the church is even half full for religious service.
While this church is not new, I did see some recent manifestations of “born again” religiosity or, should I say, ostentatious piety now sweeping some parts of America. A massive cross along the I-70 stands as a silent testament to Jesus while a big billboard elsewhere along the highway emphatically declares: “The Holy Bible: Absolute, Inspired, Final.” I recalled that, driving through the Canadian prairies, we had passed a few modest signboards announcing “Bible Study Camps”.
I first met David and Milka in 1983 on the campus of Miami University, he from Middleton, about 50 km away, and she from distant Yugoslavia. He studied history and she had come to study political science. For David, it was love at first sight. For Milka, well, it took a while longer. How long, only she knows. If David was captivated by Milka’s beautiful looks, he impressed her with his heart, for a very gentle soul he is. Not that David’s looks are any issue at all, but he is not exactly dashing.
It will soon be thirty years of their happy marriage, if there is such a thing. It has been said that a successful marriage is one where neither partner has ever considered divorce but the thought of getting rid of the other by strangling has certainly crossed both minds at least once. Being very happily married for over three decades, I can confirm that there is some substance to this definition. Unhappy marriage, I suppose, is when one is compelled by a set of circumstances to sleep with one’s enemy, night after night after night, year after year!
Next we stopped in Lawrence, where it was a delight to catch up with my teacher and friend Jake, who now lives with his wife in semi-retirement. A brilliant mind specialising in military history, he remains active writing research papers and attending conferences, both in the US and overseas.
Driving east, we passed through St Louis and crossed the mighty Mississippi river. Rising in western Minnesota, the Mississippi meanders slowly southwards for over four thousand kilometres to the Gulf of Mexico. It ranks fourth longest and tenth largest among the world’s rivers. Not far from the centre of St Louis, the Mississippi is joined by its mighty tributary, the Missouri River.
A short detour took us to Marion in Indiana. This small town is infamous for the last recorded lynching in 1930 of a black in northern USA. I was there to catch up with my very good friend Jerry, award-winning teacher, prolific writer, a fine man and a dedicated Christian.
Jerry stands out for the last attribute, for I don’t know many Western “whites” who are religious at all. Although I have lived and worked amongst them for over two decades, I have only ever “met” two other devout Christians. One of the two, Richard, came knocking at my door in Sydney to convert me. I dread organised religion and abhor proselytizers, considering them as doubly misguided. But Richard is a fine human being and I am glad to count him among my friends.
Marion is the home of Indiana Wesleyan University, the largest evangelical Christian university in the Midwest. Jerry teaches history there, but with decreasing frequency, for he has little time left from a host of other activities, including administrative and evangelical duties. Lately, salesmanship has been added to his list of portfolios, selling a 217-acre campus in Massachusetts on behalf of an evangelical billionaire from Oklahoma.
How could I drive through the Midwest without visiting my alma mater, Miami University in Oxford, Ohio! Having lived here for about five years in the 1980s, we have some very fond memories. Unfortunately, we only had a few hours to spend there and the only friends we saw were David, a retired professor of history, and Dr Bhattacharjee, who retired from teaching microbiology.
Dr Bhattacharjee and his charming wife, he from Sylhet in Bangladesh and she from Calcutta in India, we remember as a vivacious couple who many times entertained us with some delicious Bengali cuisine. Recognising that Americans struggle to pronounce his name, Dr Bhattacharjee asks them to call him “Battery Charger.” Distorting his haloed Brahmin name for their convenience has to be an act of some personal sacrifice.
As for David, he is one of the finest gentlemen I have ever known. He was kind as always and took us to lunch at an Indian restaurant. Twenty years ago Oxford did not have a single Indian restaurant, now it has three.
It was disappointing that nothing remains of the four blocks of what was called Miami Manor, where we lived during our first stint there with our little son. In their stead now stands the university’s new sports complex. Miami Manor was not just a collection of apartments, it was a community of Master’s and Ph.D students, some with families, nearly all from overseas. Children played, jumped, see-sawed and swung in the little enclosure under the watchful eyes of their proud parents. Or they bicycled their way around in complete serenity and safety. In Oxford, nothing ever went wrong; life was idyllic.
Driving from Oxford to Washington DC, we made a detour to meet Mike and Jo in Danville, Kentucky. Mike teaches history at Centre College and we have been good friends since the mid-1970s, having first met in Moscow. They are avid birdwatchers and pro-active environmentalists.
Alas, our long-planned and much-anticipated trip was nearly over, with just one more stop before boarding our return flight from New York.
By Razi Azmi