Parentage, Boyhood, and Early Education

I was born to Alfred Morris and Alma Olney Van Allen on the 7th of September 1914, the second of their four sons, in Mount Pleasant (population then about 3000), Iowa, the county seat of Henry County. My mother grew up near Eddyville, Iowa, on a small farm which her father had inherited from his father who had moved from Ohio to Iowa in the mid-1840's. My paternal grandfather, George Clinton Van Allen, was the oldest of 11 children of Cornelius and Lory Ann Van Allen, the former a ship builder in Pillar Point, New York, at the eastern end of Lake Ontario. He attended Wesleyan University in Connecticut for two years and later studied law and became proficient in land titles and surveying. He passed through Mount Pleasant in 1862 as a member of the survey party that was laying out the route of the Burlington and Missouri River Railroad, which later became part of the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy (now the Burlington Northern) Railroad. [Several of my prized possessions are the magnetic compass and the drafting instruments that he used.] In late 1862, with his wife of five years, Jane, he settled in Mount Pleasant, built a small house, and established a law office. My father, an only child, was born in Mount Pleasant in 1869. He attended the local public schools and Iowa Wesleyan College; then studied law at the University of Iowa in Iowa City and received an LL.B. degree in 1894. He joined his father as a practicing lawyer and continued in the practice of law for the remainder of his life.

My boyhood activities were all centered within our closely knit family which had a strong resemblance to that of earlier pioneer families.

The virtues of frugality, hard work, and devotion to education were enforced rigorously and on a daily basis, especially by my father. My mother exemplified the pioneer qualities of affection and nurture for her husband and their children and of comprehensive self-reliance: cooking all meals from scratch, baking delicious bread twice a week, washing clothes with a wash board and tub, maintaining a meticulous standard of household cleanliness, canning large quantities of fruit and vegetables, and, most important of all, ministering to her children through health and frequent sickness during the many epidemics of those days. Before her marriage she had taught in one-room country schools near Eddyville and had attended the Iowa Wesleyan Academy for two years.

My earliest clear recollection is waving a tremulous farewell to her as I set off on foot to kindergarten a few days after my fourth birthday. Two months later, my older brother and I went with my father to the public square in Mount Pleasant to witness the celebration of the Armistice of World War I by a horde of raucous and exuberant people of all ages. The culmination of this celebration was the burning of a huge straw-filled effigy of Kaiser Wilhelm.

I enjoyed school work greatly under the guidance of devoted teachers, most of whom were unmarried women who had gone into teaching as a durable profession. Our father read to my brothers and me for about an hour after supper nearly every evening -- from the Book of Knowledge, An Illustrated History of the Civil War, the National Geographic Magazine, and, occasionally, from the Atlantic Monthly. Then he shooed us off to our respective corners to do our homework for two or three hours. Our chores varied with the seasons. We raised a large flock of chickens year round. In the summer we planted and cultivated a one-acre vegetable garden and a large apple orchard, and in the winter we split wood for the cook stove, shoveled snow, ran errands, fired the furnace, and tried to keep warm. We had a car but seldom used it, even during the summer. During the winter, the car was set up on wooden blocks in the barn to "save the tires". For the most part, we walked everywhere.

I was intensely interested in mechanical and electrical devices. Popular Mechanics and Popular Science were my favorite magazines. I built elementary electrical motors, primitive (crystal) radios, and other devices described therein. Two highlights were the construction of a Tesla coil which produced, to my mother's horror, foot-long electrical discharges and caused my hair to stand on end and the complete disassembly and re-assembly of those mysterious "black boxes" -- the engine and planetary transmission of an ancient Model T Ford which my older brother and I had bought for $25 (later recovered on resale)

In high school my favorite subjects were mathematics including solid geometry, Latin, grammar, and manual training (wood working). As a senior in 1930-31, I had my first course in physics, with many opportunities for laboratory work, a memorable experience. During the same year I edited the senior annual The Target. I graduated from Mount Pleasant High School in June 1931 as class valedictorian. My valedictory oration was entitled "Pax Romana -- Pax Americana", based on my study of Roman history in school and on my father's tutelage. The thesis of this oration was that America, by virtue of its economic, cultural, and military strength, would dominate world affairs and enforce world peace for a limited period of history but would then lose its influence because of its preoccupation with "bread and the circus games".