Once the cross country season was finished that freshman year at Luther College, I experienced dorm and campus life without the daily commitment of early morning runs and afternoon practices. That was liberating, to some degree. It left time open to do and try other things.
Following the winter break for Christmas, I returned to school for January Term. At Luther, that meant taking a single subject for three solid weeks. I chose a life drawing course. Six hours of drawing a day. I loved it.
Being able to focus on one subject like that was both absorbing and amazing. Our teacher John Whelan played classical music, to which I had not been much exposed, and we drew for three hours in the morning and three more hours in the afternoon. I’d never drawn live, nude models before. It was challenging to manage proportions and the subtleties of the human figure, especially women. Admittedly, I’d not seen fully nude women standing before me. Yet I can say that the experience in that environment was not sexual for me at all.
I can’t say the same for my dormitory brethren, who often gathered around my room when I returned from class. “What did you draw today?” I’d get asked. The guys all wanted to see naked women. All I wanted to do was learn to draw better.
We also had male models, but they were rarer. I recall the first day a man modeled nude for the class. I could see the women working their way around the drawing until they were almost forced to draw the crotch. Who can blame them? Dicks are kind of weird, especially when you look at them for a while.
Come January, our indoor track team started practicing. Our distance team ran 6-10 milers daily from the fieldhouse. The gravel roads around Decorah were covered with a layer of crushed snow and ice. We learned to navigate those surfaces even in the dark. We’d head out into the twilight at 4:30 and run as a pack through the gloom. Often the road ahead was quite visible even in near darkness. The cold was a challenge, as our equipment was basic; cotton sweats and layers worn as strategically as possible. One night a teammate forgot to wear nylon shorts underneath his cotton sweats. The sub-zero wind cut through his sweats and he feared getting frostbite on his crank. Not knowing what else to do, he stuffed a hand down his pants and ran that way home for several miles.
Our facilities at Luther consisted of a central set of lockers and a rack of showers around which we’d all stand waiting for the water to warm up. It always took a while on those cold winter nights, so we’d stand there telling jokes or talking about upcoming meets. We never thought much about the fact that we were naked. The locker room environment was not a big deal. I’ve gone back to Luther many times over the last 40+ years. Those basic showers are still in place. The water doesn’t warm up much quicker.
These days, athletes in high school and college often ignore locker room facilities to shower elsewhere. Somewhere along the way, young people were convinced that showering together was a bad idea. What caused that change? Was it fear? Embarrassment? Comparison? Naked lies about some aspect of being naked? It all seems silly.
Well, times change. But in other ways, they don’t. During that era, those life drawing classes at Luther were still a tiny bit controversial. To some people, the idea that Luther students should see naked people every day in class upset the more conservative factions of the college hierarchy. Yet there we were, walking about the locker rooms completely, stark, raving naked. It was hypocritical to object to nude figure drawing. There was apparently particular concern about the presence of male models. And, it was strictly forbidden to have male or female students pose nude for the art department. Our nude models came from the community around Decorah. We got to know their bodies particularly well, male or female.
Modeling is not an easy job. Holding a pose for a long period requires discipline. We grew to appreciate our models for their dedication, and frankly, their professionalism. Still, the guys back at the dorm still just wanted to see them naked.
Yet Luther was not about to stifle the realities of life in the 1970s. One of the weekly movies chosen by the Student Activities Committee to show in Valders Auditorium was the adult film titled Emmanuelle. Most of us had no idea what was coming, so to speak, and the sex scenes were quite illicit. We walked out of the science hall a bit dazed and extremely wound up. We were all a bit wiser for the experience.
We all spilled out into the night a bit horny and crazed after having watched that film. Some knew what to make of it, while others, like me, wondered when something like that woman might enter our lives. The pack of us skinny runners weren’t the top pick of the litter at the bars, but somehow some of us found our ways into the arms of a woman or two. Those efforts were the center of discussion on many a long run. Who got laid? Who didn’t. We all wondered if we’d find our own Emmanuelle.
For me, it was quite a leap from those graphite images that I created on my art room table and the graphic images of Sylvia Kristel on that movie screen that night. Without a woman to bridge that gap, I was left to run it all off and hope that someday a real woman would fall in my lap. Such is the loneliness of the long-distance runner.