Saturday Diary / My winter vacation to balmy Iowa

Up we went to The Music Man land to visit with Dr. Jon

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Winter was closing in fast and early, making it an ideal time to escape the city and head for … The Bahamas? No. Cancun? No. Florida? No. How about Iowa.

Yes, Iowa, where the tall corn grows, and there is Dubuque, Des Moines, Davenport, Keokuk and my destination Iowa City, where, once I arrived, winter closed in fast and early. Some people have all the luck.

My knowledge of Iowa was scanty until recently. I had been there twice, both times briefly, both times in Des Moines, both long ago. Much of what I knew about Iowa came from Meredith Wilson’s “The Music Man.”

I have relatives in Iowa City and never had visited them, but we all agreed it was long past time to change that. They invited me for a weekend anchored by an Iowa Hawkeyes football game against Michigan. I accepted, reasoning it was time to give Iowa a try.

My cousin is Dr. Jon Klein, and though he is no giant in physical stature, he is a giant in his field, which happens to be neonatology. And, yes, I looked up the spelling of the word to make sure I got it right.

Neonatology is a subspecialty of pediatrics that consists of the medical care of newborn infants, especially the ill or premature newborn infant. It is a hospital-based specialty usually practiced in neonatal intensive care units. I looked that up, too. Here is something you can look up. The leading success rate for recovery in such cases in this country is at the Children’s Hospital that is part of the sprawling medical center at the University of Iowa. Guess who heads the unit? That’s right, my cousin. When your name is on the doors in a hospital, you are a giant in my eyes. But enough with the free publicity …

Dr. Jon gave me a tour of the medical center, introducing me to many of his colleagues, one of whom grew up in Washington County not far from the Allegheny County line and is a lifelong Steelers fan with memorabilia and souvenirs scattered about his office to prove it. As it happens, our house is on the last street in Allegheny County and across the street is Washington County, so, in effect, I was meeting an old neighbor.

Speaking of souvenirs, my cousin has many in his office, too, but my favorite remains at his house. It is a game-worn, autographed Baltimore Ravens home jersey. One of Dr. Jon’s patients a few years ago was the child of a Ravens defensive linemen. When the child was released after the usual lengthy hospitalization, the now former player wanted to say thanks in a special way. And so he did.

It was frosty when I arrived that Thursday at the regional airport not quite an hour’s drive from their home. By kickoff time Saturday, the temperature hovered around zero with a windchill of -10. Then, it got colder. And became the coldest home game in Iowa football’s 124-year history. Some people have all the luck.

Fortunately, I came prepared with layers of clothing and some body-warming devices that worked to perfection, so the big chill was less than daunting. Iowa rallied to win, and about 70,000 fans filed out happily.

We had parked more than a mile from Kinnick Stadium. As we walked back, we dodged a lot of traffic. In fact, there was a major traffic jam. I mention that for a reason. Despite the snarl and backups, not one horn honked in despair or disgust, and my cousin assured me that had the Hawkeyes lost, no horns would have sounded then, either. Indeed, things are different in Iowa.

Some other differences: Gas prices were under $3 and there were seed commercials on TV, some for fertilizer, too. And, yes, I saw a lot of cornfields.

The Iowa caucus is the first major political event every presidential election year. The many early candidates stump for votes in downtown Iowa City, and most, if not all, eat breakfast at a particularly popular restaurant. We did, too. We were not seated at the Reagan table or the Clinton table, but the crowded place was warm and lively, the food delicious, the service great, so I was not offended.

We went out for dinner twice, the second time at a French restaurant in the suburbs that was impressive in an unusual way. The owner, maitre’d, cook, bottle-washer and waiter were … all the same man. I have traveled extensively in the United States and Canada, and I can assure you that you do not encounter that often.

His first name was David, same as mine, and we joked about that. There was no laughing at the service or food. Both were top shelf. But he had an accent quite unlike those found in the Midwest. I could tell, even though I wear hearing aids and … well … don’t always hear things clearly.

Turns out our host-chef came to Iowa City about two decades ago to study engineering at the university. He gave that up in favor of his first love, cooking, grew to love the area and never left. Now he owns and operates his one-man restaurant. He mentioned that two days later he was heading home for the holidays.

Given his accent, I asked where that home might be and, much to my astonishment, his answer was Amman, Jordan.

David Fink is a sports copy editor at the Post-Gazette and can be reached at dfink@post-gazette.com.

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