Fortunately, I lacked common sense that fall day in 1957 when I jumped on a Greyhound bus in Chicago's Loop and headed for Lafayette, Ind. My escort was a large suitcase filled with clothes, $100 in cash, and blind optimism.
I registered in the electrical engineering circular at Purdue University, the home of great quarterbacks and the Golden Girl. Driven by the desire to escape my lower-middle-class neighborhood home in Cicero, the industrial center of dead-end factory jobs, I was determined to make my fortune as an engineer.
Rash decisions are easy to make for an idealistic 17-year-old. I had enough money to pay the out-of-state tuition of $320 per semester from my savings, and my mother paid the room and board bill for the first year - but made it clear the well was dry. My father passed away when I was 14, and with my three younger sisters the family finances were tight.
I had a shot at a scholarship, but nothing was firm when I got on the bus. I knew I could earn enough in part-time jobs for books and personal expenses but needed something to happen to be able to continue after the first year. The era of the easy student loan had not yet arrived.
I became a book hermit and got the grades necessary to obtain a merit scholarship that paid for tuition in my second semester. At the end of my sophomore year, because of continuing good grades, I received a larger scholarship grant from the Magnavox Corp.
But even with savings from working summers in construction and working part-time jobs on campus, the dorms were not affordable. In those days, very low cost housing was available off campus in buildings that would have been condemned in today's great society. The $19-a-week rent (including utilities and cockroaches) split two ways with my roommate allowed me to stay in school. Thank God for slum housing!
Our food budget was tight. Homemade pork-and-bean pizza, make-do soup, hot dogs, canned goods, and food scrounging comprised our core menu. Scrounging included raids on the Purdue experimental farms for veggies and fruit, attending parties where food was served, and making the right connections so that the leftovers from the parties found a home in our refrigerator. It was not unusual to find 4 or 5 pounds of hot dogs and a partially filled pony keg of flat beer behind the white door. Accompanied with many bags of potato chips and stale buns, we enjoyed the good life.
Occasionally we couldn't eat the hot dogs fast enough. (We never had that problem with the beer.) A light green film would appear on the "older" dogs. Nothing to worry about - fine sausages often grow mold in the aging process. We found that when the casings were washed with a foaming solution of baking soda and vinegar, they were as good as new. Living better through chemistry!
I had no money, no car and no student loans to pay off when I graduated. But I did have several paid invites to visit various corporations as well as several firm job offers in hand. The early '60s were free of government market and value distortions. Incentives and rewards fueled individual effort, and the resulting economy boomed.
I was raised before it was fashionable for political bureaucrats to promise you that they would fight to do things for you that you would be better off doing for yourself. Success was done the old fashion way - it was earned. The individual and the country were better off for it.
I lived my dream as a successful engineer and retired. But recently I was saddened to see what happened to Cicero. Most of the industrial plants are gone, replaced by large expanses of broken brick fields of desolation - or turned into shopping malls. The great Western Electric Hawthorn plant, responsible for much of our telephone infrastructure for over 50 years and a key strategic manufacturer in WW II, now is a series of malls where you can buy a taco or sub, or shop in a Chinese goods dollar store.
The globalization of the industrial base is part of it. But we have lost sight of the value of individual effort to solve problems, relying instead on the magic of federal government to do it. Globalization is but another cold war to be won by individual effort driven by potential rewards. It cannot be legislated or wished away.
The kids graduating today, many trained for politically correct jobs that don't exist, are loaded down with loan obligations but no job offers. National policies that consistently destroy incentives by "spreading the wealth" and fantasizing future progressive utopias are creating equally poor Americans, both economically and morally.
Only a few among us are doing better - the political elite and their cronies who are thriving in the New America of their making. They never had it so good.
Me? I rather have green hotdogs - and give Washington to the Chinese to help pay off the debt.