Once the optometrist found the retinal detachment in my left eye, all the other stuff that occupied my mind fell away. I pushed him for information about how the condition came about. Was it trauma? I’d recently gotten hit in the eye by a tree branch that snapped back at me while birding. He said that was unlikely the cause. Was it my steeplechase career? All those water jumps and hurdling? Not likely either. What might have caused the retinal detachment was the rapidly changing structure of the eye related to astigmatism.
So there I was, a 22-year-old kid who considers himself an artist fearing that the vision in one of his eyes might disappear overnight. Thus far, I had not experienced any symptoms such as flashes of light that would indicate a retinal tear. But I was not going to mess around waiting to find out.
“These two days––and the past week, have been a struggle with emotions. The eye appointments, and the brevity of hard truth of eyesight, scared me into a near adolescent state. Silly jokes. Angry silences.”
A friend of my girlfriend drove me up to LaCrosse, but I had mixed up the appointments. Nevertheless, I saw a physician who inspected the eye. ‘The Doctor in LaX let me know the story. I can’t lose my right eye. I love to see too well. My paintings sit here before me. They are right-eyed paintings. Lord, let me keep what I have.”
An appointment for laser surgery to cauterize the retinal detachment was scheduled for the next month. But that scared me. Was it safe to wait that long? Could I go blind in the meantime?
That afternoon, after getting back from LaCrosse, I went for a long run in the summer heat, then stripped naked and knelt down in the cold water of the Upper Iowa river. “I bathed in the river,” I wrote. “Hard and hot, I knelt in the muddy rush. My brown thighs looked strong. I dug my body. I wished she were here to cool off with me. The catharsis of frustration.”
Not knowing what else to do, I was looking ahead. “Running went well this past month. Next week I run the steeple (in a Chicago All-Comers meet). I hope my middle-of-the-road strength and layman’s flexibility will allow me to excel. I can run hard. One more cool, tough session on the track, and go for it all, as best I can.” I planned on sneaking out of town to have some fun back in Chicago. At long last, the admissions work was winding down.
Catching a break
Then came some good news. I received a phone call from a longtime art client to whom I’d sold a number of paintings during my high school and early college years. His name was Robert Van Kampen, and he’d started his own investment firm. The company was growing fast, he told me, and they needed a graphic designer in the marketing department. “Can you do that?” he asked me. Without pause, I said “Yes.” He also wanted watercolor illustrations for the company’s collateral. “That sounds exciting!” I told him.
On June 16, I journaled: “Today, and yesterday, I decided on working for Robert Van Kampen. I asked too many opinions, though I received the same answer. Do it. She and I are really nowhere near getting married. I love her though. I think she’s glad I’m taking this job. As she said, “I had a chance to go on my own. This is a real opportunity.”
My relationship with Robert Van Kampen was interesting all on its own. During my high school years, he’d seen some of my watercolor paintings hanging in Manor Pancake House restaurant in downtown St. Charles. The credit for that opportunity goes to my father Stewart, who framed up my paintings and worked with the restaurant managers to hang my art on their walls. Some of the work featured hawks and owls, and that’s what caught Van Kampen’s attention.
Robert Van Kampen was a hobbyist falconer. He was interested in having some paintings done of his hawks. He owned a red-tailed hawk and a kestrel, and I seem to recall a prairie falcon that was not entirely legal to have. The red-tailed hawk was kept in a cool basement room with a single window. He sat me on a stool behind a stand where a hunk of bright red meat hung from the perch. “Now watch this,” he told me. The hawk flew across the room and landed on the meat with a loud thump. “Did you see that?” he asked. “How the wing feathers don’t separate during flight? Your painting shows them separating, but they don’t do that.”
I replied that I didn’t see that particular detail. He laughed and brought the hawk back to its original perch to fly again. That time, I did see how the wings worked. “Okay,” I replied. “I got it.”
We went upstairs to share a meal with his family, whereupon he walked out with a small falcon on his fist. It was the kestrel––known back then as a sparrow hawk. Painted on its chest was a small black cross. “What’s that?” I wanted to know.
“It’s the cross of Christ,” Van Kampen answered. “These birds wear the same colors as the knights of the Crusades. I quickly learned that his Christian faith infused everything he did. After I finished the first two paintings he’d commissioned, he contracted me for a larger project, a bald eagle painting. I worked long and hard on the project, and someone in my family told me, “You should be charging more for that painting.”
So I showed up at Van Kampen’s house with the painting, displayed it proudly, and asked him for more money. “I would like to be paid $120 for this piece,” I told him. A stern look crossed his face. “I thought we had a bargain,” he told me. Then he pulled out his Bible and read a passage about honoring your word, and looked me in the eye. “What do you think about that?” he asked.
“That’s great,” I told him. “And I get it. But I worked really hard on this and I still want $120.” He gave a wry chuckle. “Okay,” he told me and wrote out the check. “But we have a bit more to learn about doing business in the future.”
After the hard year that I’d experienced working in admissions, I was elated when Van Kampen offered me the job, He told me to show up later that summer to start work in the fall. My girlfriend was not satisfied with that approach. She pressured me to call him back and demand a contract. I followed her advice, and he laughed a bit and said, “My word is good. You don’t need a contract.” I trusted him. From that point forward, I focused on taking care of other business so that I’d be ready to start a new job with a company called Van Kampen-Merritt.
The summer still held a number of challenges. I set up the laser surgery appointment in LaCrosse, then sat down to write out some feelings. “I’ve got a lot ahead of me,” I wrote. “The eye appointment. Moving. The trip to Pennsylvania (with my girlfriend). The internship in Minneapolis. The new job.”
On the 22nd of July, I traveled to LaCrosse to have laser surgery done on my right eye retina. They sat me down in a chair facing a large machine. Once dilating medicine kicked in, the nurse slid my seat forward until my eye was an inch from a gooey lens. At that point, I started to hyperventilate and fainted. I was so woozy when I woke back up that I hugged the nurse around the waist and told her that I loved her. She sternly sat me in the seat and again and said, “Okay, we’re going to get this done. Now breathe, normally.”
The green flashes pulsing in my eye reminded me of the lights in a copy machine. Nothing hurt, but the tension of sitting still with an eye was smashed onto a long lens was difficult to handle. Finally, they finished, and I was beyond relieved. “It went well,” the physician told me.
Back in Decorah, my ride dropped me off in town and for reasons only I understood at the time, I wound up going to a dive bar called The Pub in Decorah. My right eye was still severely dilated, and the guy sitting next to me at the bar noticed the big black orb of my dilated pupil, He leaned back and started to ask…”Dude, what’s up with your….”
I blurted, “I’m half drunk.” And laughed out loud.
The whole world felt half-real by that point. All through June and July, I’d been running decent miles to keep my sanity as I wound my time in admissions and dealt with the ongoing vicissitudes of my love relationship. “She was cold on the phone tonight,” I lamented. ” Has she turned off the faucet of her emotions? Our last goodbye was so painful I’m not even sure she wants me anymore. This time apart is so unfair.”
Following the eye surgery, I could not run for ten full days by doctor’s orders. I had a quiet 23rd birthday on the 26th of July and went another whole week with no running. Once the eye surgery quarantine was over, I jumped back in to run 49 miles the week of August 10-16th. I wrote, “I’m really ready to race. Running felt good.” And then, reality came boring down, as I came to the realization that the whole girlfriend thing was coming apart: “She’s out with some guy. We met another time today. I’ve not dated anyone else in so long, why must she? Is this penance paid? Am I subtracting without balancing? I love her so. But I must not take pain for granted.”
Other realities were dawning on me as well. That July, knowing that I’d soon need a car of my own to get around in the world, I’d taken the $1500 I’d been given for graduate school and purchased a bronze Plymouth Arrow from a retired Naval engineer in Decorah. The car was tuned so well that you could not hear the engine running. My father lectured me that I should have consulted him on the purchase because he considered himself an expert on used cars. But the car was almost brand new, and given the fact that my father’s cars often broke down, I made the decision on my own to buy it.
The Load Out
Finally, the admissions job ended for real, and the time came time to move out of my little upstairs apartment in Decorah. I grew to love that little place that year, as it was rented from a Luther custodial employee and birdwatching friend named Arnie Rolm. That “home” upstairs was like a little refuge from the world. Yet one night, while sitting in the kitchen with the lights off while talking to my girlfriend long-distance, I glanced across the yard to the house next door to find a woman undressing in her bedroom. I tried like heck to pay attention to the conversation at hand, but as the woman across the way peeled off her top and then her bra, revealing a wonderful set of breasts, I lost track of thought and shifted my attention fully to the event taking place next door. Off came her jeans and panties as well. By then, I was transfixed. After all, how often does it happen that an attractive woman bares all before your eyes. Sure, I was being a voyeur in that moment, but it was not calculated or intentional. What was I going to do, look away?
“Are you there?” my girlfriend asked.
“Um, yeah,” I told her. “I thought I saw an owl outside.” For me, that was a plausible excuse for my distraction. I was always looking at birds.
The last day in Decorah, I collected the security deposit, emptied the bank account in downtown Decorah, and loaded up my car with my most valuable and portable belongings. I headed up to the Twin Cities for one more visit with her before heading back to Illinois and the job in Chicago.
I stayed one night with her at her apartment, but her roommate was fussy about groceries and such, so I drove across town to stay the week with my former college roommate Dani Fjelstad at his St. Louis Park condo. That night, when the car was parked in the condo lot next to a set of railroad tracks, thieves smashed out the windows and stole all my good stuff. Whatever they didn’t take was strewn all over the parking lot. The belongings they did take were heartbreaking to me. The Olympus OM-1 camera and accessories that my parents gave me for college graduation. The deerskin art portfolio that my girlfriend’s parents gave me. My favorite brown dress suit. The tape deck and speakers. My prized Frank Shorter running jacket. All so they could either sell the stuff for cash or keep it for themselves. I seriously wanted to kill them.
The robbery frightened and depressed me. My girlfriend was less than sympathetic. “I can’t believe you let them steal that portfolio,” she said. I wrote in my journal, “Is this God teaching me simplicity? I’m weak for now.”
Hold on, hold out
That summer, I fell in love with the Jackson Browne LP Hold Out. How a guy can write lyrics that relate to so many people always impressed me. But his music helped me process all that was going on in the world of love and loss.
Give up your heart and you lose your way
Trusting another to feel that way
Give up your heart and you find yourself
Living for something in somebody else
Still, I stayed another week in the Twin Cities and even ran a 21:37 four-mile race. A day after that, I ran around the Twin Cities lakes with my former roommate Dani. He got so coated with summer flies that he ran straight into the lake, shoes and all. I stood there on the shore laughing my ass off as he climbed back out. “I can’t stand bugs,” he told me. The next day I ran with my girlfriend, “Nice and slow.” Then I made the long drive back home to Illinois. “Some tears,” I wrote. “Hold out.”
You’ve done your time on the bottom line
And it ain’t no thrill
There’s got to be something more
Keep a hold on still
You know what it is you’re waiting for
Now you just hold on
Hold on hold out, hold on
I knew by then that no matter how hard I tried, things with my former lover would never work out. I recalled sitting with her on a 4th of July night to watch fireworks over a lake in the Twin cities. As we waited for the skies to grow dark for the fireworks display to begin, a massive thunderhead rose to the east of us. A constant show of lighting flashed inside the towering structure of the cloud. The deep sound of thunder rumbled across the smooth water between us. The vibrant light show inside the cloud was more thrilling than the fireworks to come. There was nothing fake or contrived about it. Just the earth’s heat and moisture, rising up to heights of 40,000 feet or more, all while electricity ripped through it all. The thunderhead looked as if love and life were being born within, like the beginning of time itself. I remember thinking that our lovemaking earlier that evening was akin to that thunderhead. The roaring pleasure of inseparable elements. Then, as night came on, the thunderhead calmed and dissipated in the east and the fireworks burst and poured across the sky. A human contrivance replaced all the natural glory that we’d witnessed. So much of life is like that. The glitz and drama of instant gratification too often replace the glory and simplicity of genuine experience. So it was that the towering thunderhead sank into the night. What matters most is whether bearing witness to such events creates a change within us.