The original plan was to meet for Free Pie Wednesday at the Village Inn on North Harrison Street in Davenport. But schedules didn’t work out that way and so we found ourselves in a quiet booth of the Village Inn on a Thursday. I ordered pie anyway – blueberry.
But that wasn’t the point of the meeting. Ken Sherman and I were there for another “What They Don’t Know About Us” conversations and he had volunteered to tell me how a small-town Iowa childhood, a long career in and around the military and a happy retirement in the Quad-Cities shapes a man’s worldview.
Sherman is a very political person these days. He checks the news on his phone, writes letters to the editor and walks four miles a day, partly to work off his frustration with how things are going in this country. He spent 30 years as a civilian working in logistics for the U.S. Army, half of those years at the Rock Island Arsenal. Thanks to the Hatch Act, Sherman couldn’t be a political person during his working years. “I didn’t know I was a political person until Trump was elected and I became concerned. It hit me really hard.” Sherman has never supported either party. He votes based on the candidate, he said.
Sherman served in the military at the tail end of the Vietnam War. He then moved to civilian roles within Department of Defense. He said his experience in the military made him an open minded person. “You are more aware of the rest of the world,” he said. “It opens your eyes to all kinds of people and behaviors and cultures.”
Part of what frustrates him about the politics of today is how insulated people are from anyone who is different from them, especially people of different classes.
“People in this country don’t know any poor people,” he said. “We don’t socialize with them or talk to them at church. And that doesn’t work out so good for the poor in the political process. We seem to have a political system now that is redirecting benefits for poor people to big business and the wealthy.
“This is the Midwesterner in me, but I like to think we’re in this together and we need to be concerned about those around us.”
Sherman grew up in Albernet, a town of almost 700 people north of Cedar Rapids. When Sherman was a child, there were closer to 300 people. The school he attended had all grades, K-12, in one building, and all around them in every direction were fields of corn, soybeans, oats and the sounds and smells of dairy and beef cows. There were 36 people in his senior class.
“From the age I could, I was doing chores,” he said. “I fed livestock, picked corn, learned to drive a tractor.” He didn’t hate it, but he didn’t love farming and when he got a chance to leave and explore the world, he took it. “But I look back at the benefits to a kid to grow up that way.”
Sherman was the first in his family to go to college, but when he left after two years to “get his bearings,” he was drafted and got his orders that he was headed to Vietnam. He remembers talking to his mom on the phone on Good Friday before Easter weekend. “I couldn’t get myself to tell them,” he said. And he never had to tell them, because the next morning his orders were rescinded. It was 1971, the beginning of the Vietnam Drawdown. “I was one of the last people to almost go.” He ended up in Kansas as a military policeman instead. “I have a little guilt because I didn’t go,” he said. “So many went. It was the luck of the draw. I felt proud to support the effort.”
Sherman finished his bachelor’s in Botany from Iowa State, graduating in 1975, but the economy was in a recession and jobs were hard to find. When he got an offer for $18,000 a year doing maintenance management of helicopters, tanks and weapons, his father told him to take it.
“I have no regrets about that,” he said about taking the job that launched his career. Sherman said that sentence a few times as we talked about the path his life took.
Growing up on a farm, he said, he was insulated. School was 10 miles away and they rarely saw their neighbors, except at church. “I was not a frivolous child. I was serious. I was always looking for ways to try to grow myself.” He read a lot. “I read for learning. I stuck to serious topics, stretching toward being adultish.”
In some ways, he took the same approach to his career. He was switftly and regularly promoted, moving his family five times before they returned to Iowa. And when he found himself living in Virginia, among the politics of Washington, D.C., he would watch others use the force of their personality and their connections to “grease the wheels.” “We had an individual at the Pentagon who single-handedly provided the sparks when things needed to happen. He was savvy and knew the system. I wasn’t naturally born to do that. I was more hands on, get the job done.”
He moved back to Iowa in 1993 and chose to live in Blue Grass, where he continued to live after his retirement in 2008. “I knew it was time to retire. I didn’t have the memory I used to have. I wasn’t at the top of my game anymore. You have to recognize that in yourself.”
Almost ten years after retirement, he still dreams about meetings he was in where there was a problem to be solved.
When Sherman looks back on a long career, most of it during the Cold War, he’s proud of playing a role in toppling the Berlin Wall. “Hundreds of thousands of us were part of that,” he said. “If we hadn’t done our job, we wouldn’t have looked so strong. Through weapons systems and money budgeted through Congress, we outspent the Soviet Union in a meaningful way that they knew they wouldn’t defeat us.”