With nothing left but nationals in the 1979 track season, I walked across the stage to pick up my degree with my parents present during graduation. I’d earned a precious “D” in that horrifically dry and accounting-based marketing class that my girlfriend recommended that I take, and took comfort in the fact that I had enough credits to finish a Bachelors Degree with a 3.1 GPA. No, I wasn’t a star student at the college. There were far better students than I. Smart people. Men and women from my class that would go on to become stellar in their fields. Doctors. Lawyers. CEOs. Teachers. Nurses. Coaches.
Two weeks before graduation I received a call from my staff advisor and the head of the Art Department, Doug Eckheart. “I have some good news for you, Chris,” he told me. “Someone gave you some scholarship money for graduate school.” The amount was $1500. I was excited that someone understood my interest in pursuing that as a career. As it turned out, my mother’s longtime friend from college had followed my art career and wanted to help out. She owned a couple of my works and saw some talent in me.
Eager to find out what that money could do, I immediately contacted Northern Illinois University, the school that my older brother Gary attended. I sent a transcript sent over along with a slide or two of my work. They took a look at my studies and said, “You’ll have to start over here at Northern. Take all four years.” They never asked to see more of my portfolio. Nothing. They’d written me off as too literal, since most of what I’d painted the previous four years was birds. Years later, the same University told my daughter that her Associates degree in photography from College of DuPage would not count toward her education either. “You’d have to start over,” they told her. Such are the echoes of history.
But when I heard that news from Northern, I was aghast. It shocked me so badly that I didn’t even inquire at other graduate programs after that. Plus, I didn’t have time to make that type of decision before the end of the school year. Events at Luther were roaring along, and I still had the race at nationals to consider.
Then someone mentioned that several jobs were opening in the Admissions Department at Luther. “You should apply,” they told me. “You’d be a good representative of the college.” My freshman year roommate Keith Ellingson was also applying. I put in my name, and had a job interview the next day. It did not go well. My mind was so scattered from the end-of-year activities that I interviewed distractedly, and told them so as I was leaving. I dropped a note apologizing for that, and was invited back for another opportunity. That interview went much better. I was hired.
That solved another issue in the moment. What to do about my relationship with the girl I loved? She still had another year of college to finish at Luther. Working in Admissions would allow me to keep close, or so I thought. We talked, and frankly fought a little, about my decision to take the job. The entire mood of those discussions was odd. The campus had fallen silent after the students departed following graduation. We felt both wonderfully alone and isolated at the same time.
Meanwhile, my steeplechase teammate and former roommate Paul Mullen was also in discussion with his girlfriend about post-collegiate plans. None of these decisions were easy. We all fought some.
Meanwhile, without much direction in the wake of regular track season concluding, Paul and I trained together trying to keep our fitness going after the buzz of the season was over. We did a week of maintenance workouts and climbed into the college van to head east to Cleveland with a few other track and field athletes. One of them was our top javelin thrower who led Division III that year. We stopped to visit the campus of Notre Dame University and acted like kids running around the football field tossing Frisbees. Then our javelin star threw out his arm trying to heave the disk down the entire length of the football field. He could not compete at nationals.
The weather was typically sullen and dank out in Cleveland. The excitement of track had by then seeped out of me, especially with all that took place at season’s end. We’d only run about 25 miles that week, and later in life, I learned that I’m a runner that needs to keep the engine revving full bore to compete at my best. Thus during my steeple heat, I managed only a 9:31, several places out of qualifying for finals. Had I made it through, it is unlikely I could have competed. I badly strained the sheath between my calf and Achilles in a bumping accident through the water jump. I could barely run the the next day anyway.
But Paul Mullen ran well in qualifying and made it through to finals. He ran a smart race there as well, and I remember the thrill of seeing him in sixth place–– the final All-American spot––while doing the last hurdle on the backstretch before turning for home. His growing fatigue was evident, but he always had an amazing capacity to run through pain at many levels. Yet with 100 meters to go, another competitor closed on him and Paul missed become an individual All-American by a few steps at the finish. Still, 7th in the country is a damn great finish.
And what a race he ran! Through all the events of graduation and the conflicted feelings of finishing college, he ran a 9:14, the time that I wished I’d run at conference two weeks before. In my book, he’s an All-American. That and other Luther accomplishments deservedly placed in in the Luther Hall of Fame.
We drove back from Cleveland and I spent the next week with my girlfriend back at Decorah. She was finishing up some campus project during the final week of May. She’d gotten into reading the C. S. Lewis series the Chronicles of Narnia, and that’s what I did to keep myself occupied between seeing her. Both of us escaped into the fictional tales of a Christlike lion and kings and queens living in another world. Immersing my mind in this stories gave the week a magical feeling. It almost felt like we could walk through to another world as well. Part of me wished that were true.
Then she left for home and my folks arrived in Decorah to bring me back to St. Charles for the first part of the summer until I returned to start the Admission job later on. I’ll admit that I never liked that house where they lived, and I fell into an emotional void. “It is summer and I am haunted by my hormones. You’ve found your dead end, lower limits. Let’s bounce back. There are only rewards in things you can share. Do some.”
Then I got a call from a family that needed someone to drive their vehicle from St. Charles to Ocracoke, North Carolina. I’d never been to that part of the country and the idea of a road trip sounded fun. But when I showed up that weekend to pick up the car, I found out that it was a manual shift Toyota Celica. I’d never driven a stick shift car in my life, so I had no choice but to fake it. I said some ceremonial goodbyes and then kind of eased the thing down the hill from their house to get out of sight behind a thick row of trees. That’s where I practiced how to start and drive the damned thing.
Lurching along at first, I eventually got decent at shifting. Ten miles later I swung onto the expressway for the trip east. At the first toll booth on I-88, I shifted from fifth all the way down to first and the engine roared back like an angry lion. “Well, that’s not good,” I laughed out loud.
Through Indiana and Ohio I went, a young man on a lark. I’d brought along some reading material for the trip, a book by Tom Robbins called Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. It was alternately sexy, hilarious, and philosophical at every turn of the story. The book was about a girl with big thumbs that turned hitchhiking into her life’s adventure, exactly what I needed to read while driving through the initial absurdities of life beyond college.
My first stop going east was in Pittsburgh to stay with an aunt and uncle. Parking on the hills in that city proved frightfully difficult. Then I drove east across the mountains of Pennsylvania to stay at my brother Jim’s house in Lancaster, where I’d lived from the ages of five through twelve.
Then I drove south through Delaware and Virginia. That drive down to Assateague Island turned difficult as rains pelted the East Coast. As I crossed the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, the winds whipped up as a squall covered the road with inches of water. I looked over the side of the bridge that stood high above the bay waters. Suddenly, the Toyota started to hydroplane. The car went sideways and I could do nothing but steer in the direction of the skid and hope that I could avoid going into a total spin. That worked, but after that, I slowed the car to a crawl, inching along in 3rd gear for miles as cars passed me by. When I reached the other side, I got out of the car, walked behind some trees at the side of the road and took a long piss behind some bushes in a grand combination of emotional and physical relief.
The weather finally cleared as I drove over the causeways leading to Ocracoke. I saw terns and gulls and willets flying around, and caught glimpses of egrets and herons in the backwaters. I found the house where I’d be staying and collapsed on the couch with some take-out food and a six pack of beer. I picked up a book they had at the cabin about the ghost of Blackbeard the Pirate, who’d made a life around Ocracoke. I got scared as hell when a storm arrived and whipped the pine branches against the windows, making me think, in my half-drunken state, the Blackbeard arrived to take away my soul. That night, I huddled under the covers and fell into a deep sleep.
In the morning, the air was fresh and salt-tinged, so I drove over to the beach. I pulled on my running shoes and went for a jog up the sand with the waves smashing nearby on the shore. It was warm and humid out, with a liquid form of wind coming in off the water. The further I ran, the less I felt the need for clothes on my body. Well up the shore from the parking lot, there were no people in sight. So I stripped naked, stashed my shoes in the dunes and ran another mile or two up the shore. Finally, I saw a couple swimming in the ocean. They were naked like me, and the white of her breasts and the cheeks of his ass made the whole world seem free and real. I waved, kept on running, and finally turned around to run back and gather my clothes from the spot where I’d hid them in the dunes. Yes, I’d marked the spot carefully.
That week I went birding quite a bit and added eleven new species to my life list. Somewhere along the way, I met a surfer-carpenter dude who lived in an house built on pylons just outside town. He had several female companions hanging out with him, and on my last night in Ocracoke, they invited me to have a going away party. I drank blueberry daiquiris all night long and fell asleep fully drunk back at my house .
The next morning, I was scheduled to fly out of Ocracoke in Piper Aztec plane that would take me all the way back to Chicago. I was still half-drunk. My eyes didn’t want contact lenses on them, so I gathered up my stuff, tossed it in the back of the plane, and sat in the seat next to the pilot. He could sense my condition, and said, “Well, I think we have enough runway to take off.” Then he gave a little chuckle.
I stared ahead with my blurred vision. My head was a fog of blueberries and alcohol. I was sunburnt and astigmatic without my contacts, yet happy from running naked on the beach and having a chance to decompress. I didn’t really give a damn what happened to me that morning. The propeller roared into action and the plane started to whip its way down the runway. As the sounds of sand under the tires bhissed beneath us, we lifted into the air over the Outer Banks. I glanced down at the blue ocean with eyes that could not see clearly and gave a soft laugh. Then I closed them as we banked west away from the sunrise. That’s how my life after college began.