50 Years of Running: Packing and unpacking life

Moving back into your parent’s house after four years of college isn’t most people’s idea of a fun time. But given the timing of my return to Illinois to start a new job in the fall of 1980, I had little choice. So I hauled my stuff home and packed it into the garage and bedroom until I found a place of my own to live. I’d make the best of it, I decided.

Commuting to the city got more difficult as the days got shorter. I’d jump on the train in the light of dawn and return with the skies turned dark. It was tough to get out the door and run in those conditions. A bit of misery set in, and I rued the commuting life. Sometimes, I’d connect with running friends but most of it was done alone.

The benefit of the new job is that I was meeting all sorts of interesting new people in my work for Van Kampen-Merritt. I worked in a corner office with three other people. The 208 S. LaSalle building was once an office headquarters for US Steel in Chicago, a firm for which one of my uncles worked in the 1960s. He and I compared notes when he visited my parents and we figured out that I was working on the same floor and in the same office he’d occupied decades before.

With four people now working in 25-foot office space, we tried to respect each other’s need to concentrate. I’d learned enough about office life from the job in admissions to tone down my daily commentary. And yet, we had quite a few laughs as well. One of the women in that office went on an all-keto diet. I was teasing her about it one day as she was sipping on her coffee and I made some wisecrack about her turning into a piece of meat. She burst out laughing and sprayed coffee across my face and chest. That left an outline of my head and body against the wall. We laughed about that every time she brought coffee back into the room.

Fast times

The company was moving quickly on all fronts, as Robert Van Kampen and his team were busy exploiting opportunities in the financial world by developing unit investment trusts. They’d pull together a package of investment opportunities, bundle them up and sell them to investors nationwide. As wholesalers, the company needed an expanding network of retail distributors for their product, so the Van Kampen team recruited a bunch of go-getters in institutional sales to get their products out the door and into the hands of Americans eager to grow their investment portfolio.

Most of the institutional sales guys were former athletes or graduates from big universities. Their leader Bill Molinari was dating one of Van Kampen’s daughters, and he was a key part of the firm for many years. He’d gather their team in weekly motivational meetings. I was called upon to paint a big tiger on the wall to symbolize a predator and its prey.

I’d had my own foray into animal-instinct iconography, having placed a hawk talon talisman around my neck in college. So I summoned up my taste for the absurd and drew the best tiger I could manage. I also painted a big batch of tiger paws in the same tradition as Clemson, where one of the guys attended college. It was all a bit hokey, but the job those guys were hired to do was difficult, and I knew it. So whatever it took to help them out, I wanted to try. All of them went on straight commission once the company was up and running. It was a tough gig as they got on the phones selling product out there in the investment world. Some of them did quite well by making money in that arena.

I was just a salaried guy riding in and out of the city every day. Grateful to have a job with a future, I tried to figure out where I fit in best. To do that, I talked to as many people as possible during lunch hour. Often I’d share my love of running, as many of the associates had athletic backgrounds as well. But running was still considered something of an outsider’s sport compared to the basketball, football, or baseball careers of mainstream American athletics.

The real education

Just as importantly, I talked with the many women who worked at Van Kampen as well. Some were my age, and we formed friendships outside of work, even partying together on the weekends out in the suburbs. We all had similar backgrounds as many of us attended small Midwest colleges. Several came from DePauw in Indiana.

One of those women loved the fact that I was deep into reading books. She kept asking about the authors and topics. When I wasn’t writing my Admissions novel longhand on the train, I read the works of John Irving and John Updike, Tom Robbins, Hunter S. Thompson, Jack Kerouac, and the magical works of Carlos Castaneda. That last set of books fueled my sense of wonder about the mystical side of religion. One could not tell if the books were written as works of fiction or a record of experiences. I mused about the “crack between the worlds” as I went running at twilight with the red seam of a sunset striking the horizon.

Later in life, I completed a pastel drawing by my daughter Emily Cudworth when she was four years old.

My lunchtime meetups with that woman became a regular occurrence. There was clearly an attraction between us, but she was already engaged, so I kept my distance in terms of asking her out on a date. That didn’t stop me from dwelling in the joy of her clear blue eyes and silken voice. To be honest, I’d grown to love her.

That was a welcome sensation after the relationship drama and demise of love after the two years in which I’d tried so hard to hang onto love only to discover that she’d moved on to another man. On October 31 of 1980, that woman and I officially broke off our relationship. The day after that call, I sat in the cafeteria distractedly trying to read a book while an older woman observed me going through some thoughtful moments. She asked me what was up, and I told her.

“So, how serious was this relationship thing?” she asked me.’

“Well, we were kind of engaged,” I admitted. “Kind of…”

“No you weren’t,” she replied. “You’re too young to be engaged. What are you, 22 or 23?”

“23,” I replied.

Then she invited me over to her table to talk. I put my book down and we talked a while about what getting married really meant. Then she teased, “You haven’t experienced much of the world yet,” she told me.”Have you ever gotten a blow job under the breakfast table?”

I sat back and laughed. “Well, no, not exactly,” I chuckled.

“Then you haven’t lived,” she said with a wink from one of her heavy eyelashes. “You know,” she continued. “I was not always a like this,” she said, shifting her somewhat ample weight around in her chair. “I was hot as hell, and dated tons of men. But at some point, I decided that what men wanted from me wasn’t what I am really about…” she observed, “So I said, ‘fuck it.” Then she shook her thick head of red hair in a show of defiance.

We talked some more about my relationship, and she informed me that she was 27, and not a bit impressed with the atmosphere at Van Kampen, either. “There’s kind of a weird thing going on here with religion and all,” she said more softly. “Just keep your eyes out.”

A Christian covenant

Indeed, I’d already learned that a strain of intensely fundamentalist religion existed at the core of the company. Most of the key leaders were fervently Christian men. Many were also adventuresome in spirit, flying around the Midwest in private planes. Then came a horrific shock. One of the lead guys in the firm by the name of Richard Kessler died when his small plane crashed on a fishing trip flight to Canada. The mood around the office was beyond somber. Kessler was a nice and classy guy, a key leader in his church and community, and his family was devastated by the fateful plane crash.

At the time, I’d been designing a paint job for the airplane owned by Robert Van Kampen. I’d drawn up the colors and even painted them on a model of the aircraft he owned. Up to the point of Kessler’s accident, Bob was excited about the plane project. But when Kessler died, most of the men that owned or flew private planes gave it up. Van Kampen ultimately hired a big turboprop aircraft to fly back and forth between Chicago and Philadelphia, where his partner Jack Merritt ran the eastern wing of the firm. I flew on that plane several times, even sitting in the cockpit as we soared over Cleveland.

Despite the tragedy, the Van Kampen firm forged ahead and grew rapidly. Meanwhile, I kept up my running the best I could while commuting and living at home. Between all that, I joined the local recreation center to work out and meet girls. I even summoned up the courage to ask a few women out on dates.

Then one December night, after a stressful dinner date with a clingy woman that I didn’t really like, I dropped her off and was heading home when I got stopped at the traffic light at Route 25 and 38 in Geneva. That’s when the news came over the radio that John Lennon had been shot and killed in New York City.

Portrait of married musicians John Lennon (1940 – 1980) and Yoko Ono, both in leather jackets and berets, as they pose across the street from the Dakota Apartments, where they lived, New York, New York, November 21, 1980. They were in the process of filming a video for the song ‘Starting Over’ from their album, ‘Double Fantasy.’

I’d grown up listening to the Beatles and had purchased Lennon’s album Double Fantasy that fall. I sat at the light screaming at the radio…”NO NO NO NO!” Tears flowed from my face and I pounded the steering wheel. Finally. someone honked at me from behind and I pulled away from the light and drove home in a state of sunken sorrow.

“Why does the world have to be like this?” I shouted at the night sky after getting out of the car back home. “Why?”

About Christopher Cudworth

Christopher Cudworth is a content producer, writer and blogger with more than 25 years’ experience in B2B and B2C marketing, journalism, public relations and social media. Connect with Christopher on Twitter: @genesisfix07 and blogs at werunandride.com, therightkindofpride.com and genesisfix.wordpress.com Online portfolio: http://www.behance.net/christophercudworth
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