I have an embarrassing confession to make about starting the job with Van Kampen Merritt in the late summer of 1980. On the first day of work, I was scheduled to show up at 208 S. LaSalle, the office headquarters for the company. I put on a suit and tie, drove to the train station in Geneva, and rode the train into the city. Not knowing much about city life, I tucked my wallet down the front of my pants just to be sure that I wouldn’t get robbed.
The absurdity of that action given the way I’d driven all over the inner-city the previous year is obvious. Somehow I allowed naivete to consume my brain in the moment. But once I walked to the office and saw all the other businesspeople bustling around the Loop, I stopped worrying and started to embrace this new life I’d discovered.
Not long into my job as a graphic designer in marketing, I was taken under the wing of Ralph Van Kampen, the elder brother of Robert Van Kampen, the firm’s owner. Ralph was a huge fan of architecture, and Frank Lloyd Wright especially. The Rookery in Chicago was his pride and joy. He took me on a walking tour during the lunch hour, effusively pointing out the finer points of the building. Ralph also lived in Oak Park, the home of the Frank Lloyd Wright studio and many other fine examples of homes and buildings designed by the famous architect.
To that point in life, I had not thought much about architecture other than what I’d read about in Art History class at Luther College. At one point, I wrote an ignorantly contrived paper about the play of light in European Cathedrals, a missive that my art professor John Whelan firmly returned to me with instructions to take up an entirely different topic. I’d based my paper on photos in art history books. That’s about as idiotic as claiming the moon is made of cheese.
Much later in life, I’d take a greater interest in the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, touring properties the Robie House in Hyde Park, Taliesin in Spring Green, Wisconsin, the Fallingwater and Kentuck Knob homes in Pennsylvania, the Johnson Wax building and home in Kenosha, and finally Taliesin West north of Phoenix. I grew to appreciate and even love Wright’s incredible vision of prairie-style architecture. But at 23 years old, my education was just beginning.
The joyful and humorous part of this story that relates to running is that in 1983 and 1984, I won the Frank Lloyd Wright 10K in Oak Park. During the first race, I held a big lead over 3,000 other runners, and who should burst off a lawn and run beside me for fifty yards? It was Ralph Van Kampen. He shook his fists and cheered. I can still see his excited expression and his eyes wide beneath his wire-rimmed glasses. He thrilled to the idea that I was winning a race in the locus of his life’s interest. I was proud to give him that moment as well.
The daily commute to the city was not my favorite aspect of the job. But it did give me time to write, and I began to compose a book titled Admissions, writing out chapters on yellow legal pads in my capital letter handwriting. I’d mapped out the plot and wanted to look into the future with the book. I’d learned so much about the admissions process in that single year of recruiting that it seemed like a topic ripe for exploration in a book of fiction.
Remember that I was writing the book in 1980. I conceived a place called the University of Wisconsin-Dells. The college was funded by tourism rather than corporate money, tuition, and alumni donations. All the students were employees of the college rather than just students. The campus drew on the same markets as the Tommy Bartlett Water Show and other tourist attractions popular in central Wisconsin.
The main character was a young man named Sean whose impatience with his first job out of college as a park ranger led to his getting fired. His father landed him a job as a pressman working at a Vietnam War buddy’s printing business in Chicago. From there, the adventures began. His boss at the printing plant was a seemingly abusive floor manager named Eugene Tierney who ran a clandestine porn business out of the back of the plant. Sean could see that the profits were good enough for this dad’s buddy to justify that seedy side of the company. But Tierney mocked Sean’s innocence, stuffing copies of the magazines in his locker until Sean eventually begged to move into sales. His wish is granted thanks to the fact that his dad once saved his buddy’s life in Viet Nam, so Sean feels like his life is about to take a turn for the better.
To compose the book, I sifted through ideas on my nightly runs. I’d get home from the commute out of Chicago, shift into running gear and blast away for a few miles. I’d sort through the plotlines of the book while running, and try to imagine what life would be life in the future so that I could write about it. I wanted the book to predict the future while taking the characters through twists and turns––the way life itself seemed to do. I also wanted to write the book in freestanding chapters dealing with cultural and political themes linked together by the characters and the plotline.
Sean meets a girl named Charise who works for her aunt’s real estate business in the city. Sean and Charise carry on their relationship in secret because her mother back home in rural Illinois fears for her independent daughter’s safety in the big city.
As the book built out and the storyline broadened, I looked for the plot twist that would set things in real motion. That’s when Tierney messed with Sean by slipping copies of pornography into a presentation he was scheduled to give to a well-known Christian client seeking printing for his religious publishing company.
The meeting explodes when the pornography falls out and the Christian publisher freaks out. In fear, Sean drives out of the city to points west without even knowing where he’s going. He continues north on I-90 all the way north of Madison and winds up pulling off the road out of exhaustion in the Wisconsin-Dells area. From there, the chapters take on an observational tone as Sean links up with a professor of biology at the University and quickly finds out that the college is seeking admissions counselors to recruit students for the all-new school.
But Sean’s recent past follows him. The Christian publisher turns his name over to The Mandate, a moralistic, religiously-driven, quasi-political organization that buys up AM Radio stations all over the country to broadcast its messaging to willing ears.
Again, recall that I was writing this in 1980. The idea of completely biased media channels was still a decade or more away. And the network I imagined used its radio reach to empower citizens to act in vigilante fashion by harassing supposed enemies of the organization.
During 1980, when I was writing the book, an actor named Ronald Reagan began running for President. He would introduce an entirely new level of conservative oppression of competing ideals, crushing unions, cutting taxes for the wealthy, and introducing men such as James Watt, who publicly stated that “When the last tree falls, Jesus will return.”
Sean runs afoul of The Mandate, who at one point track him down to harass him during his commute from the Dells to Chicago. But Sean leans on the life experience of his newfound friend, the professor at UW-Dells, to keep away from his tormentors.
Following Sean in his travels, we encounter a new radio network called the All Beatles Channel. Again, I was writing the book in 1980. The concept of an actual all-Beatles channel was still two or three decades away. But as I did my daily runs, I studied the news and kept thinking “What could happen in the future?”
I wrote about a motel property out in the stick of Wisconsin where Sean stopped to gas up one day. In talking with the owner, he learns that the joint had bec=me a swingers palace. The “wildlife” within the motel was exceeded only by the native wildlife residing in the wetland and swamp formed when broken field tiles flooded the property. But the motel is seized and closed when it is discovered that the liquid underground storage tanks (L.U.S.T) under the property are leaking toxic fluids into the environment.
In his travels, Sean also meets a woman with a unique fetish for seducing team mascots and other costumed characters. Eventually, he connects back up with his Chicago girlfriend, whose running career takes off when she turns out to be more talented than she expects, and wins a major marathon. That brings her into the spotlight, but a photo of her and Sean together, and a reporter’s byline that they are a “couple” following the race again attracts the attention of The Mandate. The pair of them are forced into hiding because Sean fears for himself due to possible legal ramifications from the pornography incident. He reasons that Tierney placed the stuff in his presentation, yet doesn’t know for sure whether the company president would believe him. Charise in turn fears that her aunt will tell her mother about their relationship and she’ll have to give up her life in the city.
So they take off north together, and Sean brings her to meet his professor friend. He is a unique character indeed, the progeny of an East Indian and Native American mother and father. He is an expatriated professor from Eisenhower College in Seneca Falls, New York, a school where he loved to teach, but the school closed for lack of funding. That embitters Jith Lakota, who embraces the commercialized atmosphere of the University of Wisconsin-Dells as a vengeful antidote to the death of his purely academic career.
He schools Sean in the use of new technologies such as the Voice Recognition Device (VRD) that takes voice samples from prospective students and runs them through data analysis to assess and summarize key personality traits and psychiatric tendencies. “Mostly,” the professor tells Sean. “It tells you what you’re not good at. We use it to help people avoid failure and give them a profile of what they should do. Sometimes you have to be stupid enough to know what’s good for you.”
Upon meeting Sean’s girlfriend Charise and learning about her marathon success, the professor grows excited. “I will put you in touch with some tribes in northern Wisconsin,” he tells her. “They have created a process using petroleum to suck the toxins out of your system. It has been shown to improve athletic performance by as much as 7-10%. Think about what that could mean to your running!”
Then he takes Sean out to show him a new car prototype that the University’s experimental automotive division has created. “Look,” the professor says, opening the hood. “The engine is replaced by a set of oppositional magnets in a coil,” he explains. “When you magnetize the two coils, the force of opposition is transferred to the drive shaft. No emissions. No pollution. And every vehicle on the road can be retrofitted with this technology.”
He sends Sean and Charise north for her detoxifying, and Sean drives the magnetic car up and back. “Think what this will mean for the automotive future,” the professor enthuses before they drive away.
Following the treatment, she and Sean head south with the intention of arriving back in Chicago. Charise reasons she needs to inform her aunt of her whereabouts. But somewhat along the way, Sean is spotted by a member of The Mandate, and they are pursued by a convoy of vehicles with AM radios blaring, all the way to Chicago.
They use back streets to escape and park in the underground garage of Charise’s apartment. Sean tells her, “I’m sick of this. I need to get this figured out. I’m going to meet with Tierney and the President. What about you?”
“I’m going to get in touch with my aunt,” she admits. “I’m tired of hiding from everyone.”
Sean runs on foot over to the printing plant, and enters the building through the back. There he immediately encounters his nemesis, Eugene Tierney. “Sean,” he says. “I’m glad you’re here. Come with me.” Sean balks, but Tierney assures him in a tone he’s never heard before. “Seriously. We’ve got important news to tell you.”
They meet with the President, and Tierney lays it all out for the three of them. “Listen, Sean,” he begins. “I admit that I put that porn in the presentation to the Christian publisher,” he says.
“I knew it was you,” Sean says bitterly.
“But I did it for a purpose,” Tierney continues, glancing over at the President, who stands up from behind his desk and says, “Sean, we had a plan all along.”
“That operation in the back, the porn plant?” Tierney explains. “All of that is funded by The Mandate. It’s their profit center. And that Christian guy you met? He’s the operational head. Their whole organization is a hypocritical farce. They claim to be high on morals, but actually, they’re really scummy people who exploit women through porn to advance their political agenda. We needed you to draw them out and create a way to expose them.”
Sean stands shocked. “You used me.”
“But we knew it would work,” Tierney says. “And we’re on solid legal ground. Because actually Sean, I’m not really a press floor manager by trade. I’m an attorney. A prosecutor. Your father and I also served in Vietnam together. He saved my life too.”
“So, my father knows about all this too?”
“He does, Sean. And he’s really proud of you for staying out of trouble while we made all this happen. The newspapers are breaking this story tomorrow. The Mandate will be destroyed, or at least in its present form. You’re really part of a heroic tale, kid.”
And that’s the plot of the book I wrote back in 1980. It predicts many things that came true in the future, some of them decades away. I conceived it all while out running, and wrote is all while commuting back and forth to the city in the fall and winter of 1980-81.
A few years later, having transcribed the book from handwritten legal pads through an IBM Selectric, then a Swintec typewriter with 10KB of memory, I attempted to enter it on magnetic floppy disks on an Apple computer my wife brought home from school. That was abortive, because the disks kept fillingup or failing. I finally copied it all over to a Macintosh Powerbook 540c laptop. Where much of it sat for several decades.
Recently, I received a tool to transfer files from floppy disks to my current laptop. I saved the files first as Raw Text, then loaded them onto a set of floppy disks I’d kept all the years, and plugged the transfer tech into the USB of my Mac laptop. I’ve saved the entire book now in Word form, and plan to edit and publish the thing someday because, as I’ve stated, it predicted so many things correctly about the future.
It may be a labor of love that only I appreciate, but what the heck! I love writing as much as I love running, and so much of what I write comes to mind while out on a run, or a ride, or while swimming. They all go together. Why not honor that even if it was years in the making?