It had been a long-standing dream of mine to drive Route 66 from its beginning in Chicago to its end in California, and in September of 2017 my wife Carolyn and I set out on that wonderful adventure from our home in Cortland, Illinois. However, we began our journey in “stages” prior to hitting the trail for the long haul.
Because we reside relatively close to Chicago, we found that it was simple to break the Illinois portion of the trip into three segments, picking up each time where we’d stopped on the previous drive. (Day 1-Chicago to Dwight; Day 2-Dwight to Bloomington-Normal; Day 3-Bloomington-Normal to Staunton.) We were accompanied by John Weiss’s New, Historic Route 66 of Illinois (8th Edition), an easy-to-follow guide which made each of our segments in Illinois interesting, fun, and on track.
By doing it this way, we could make a “day” out of each segment, enjoying—unhurriedly—the many places and historic spots along the old highway. And so when we were ready to get out on the Mother Road and drive it the rest of the way to Santa Monica in September, our starting point was in Staunton, a short distance to the Chain of Rocks Bridge and the Mississippi River.
I had been eager to visit the Chain of Rocks Bridge, having never done so before, and I was particularly interested in seeing the odd sharp turn it makes near the Missouri side. Unfortunately, because the access to the bridge was closed to access, we could only see the bridge from a distance as we crossed over the I-270 bridge, westbound to St. Louis and beyond.
I was disappointed but knew that sometime down the road I’d be able to get to the Chain of Rocks Bridge, which we did in June of 2021, where we actually got to drive over and back on the bridge with our group, The Route 66 Association of Illinois, during its annual Motor Tour weekend.
Once we crossed the river, I had a feeling that our journey was now “officially” in play! So many miles and unfamiliar territory lay ahead. It was a wonderful feeling of freedom on the open road with so many little towns and nooks and crannies for us to see and enjoy on The Mother Road!
The one-story school building had that “summer-cleaned-ready-to-start” look and smell, which I quickly picked up on the moment I scurried inside out of the downpour.
It was nighttime now, and the interior of the place was dark, with the exception of the small office directly ahead of me, and the library a couple of doors down. It wasn’t hard to figure out that this would be where the board meeting would be held, and the sound of voices from there confirmed this for me.
I didn’t have time to stand around and assess the situation, as a short, slightly balding man approached me from the school office. He smiled and introduced himself and said that he was glad I’d made it all the way from “up North.” He told me to make myself comfortable in his office until they were ready for me, and he’d come get me when they were.
Like waiting in a doctor’s office, a million thoughts coursed through my mind as the minutes seemed to plod on like molasses. Finally, the principal came and got me, and we headed the short distance to the library where the superintendent and the entire board of education were seated around a couple of long tables in the center of the room. In front of them was a single chair, no doubt for me to sit in and perform to the best of my ability, if I wanted to secure a teaching position—my first—in their school. And as I managed to put on a “happy” face and look relaxed (I was anything but), I eased myself into the chair and took a couple of deep breaths, all the while noticing that each member seemed to be studying me very closely. A few friendly nods of heads were extended my way, but most were stoic, serious demeanors.
I don’t recall after all these years exactly how long the interview lasted, but it seemed as though it was much longer than it really was. Throughout the whole ordeal, I could hear the rain pounding unmercifully on the roof, which made hearing difficult. When the interview had come to a close, and I was still a functioning human, I had a pretty positive feeling about it all. I seemed to have handled all of their questions–unexpected ones as well as the “usual” type. If nothing else, I had gained a valuable bit of experience in the interviewing process—and with the whole school board, superintendent, and principal, to boot!
Afterwards, the principal told me that he thought I’d done well and that the board seemed to be impressed. Of course there were other candidates to interview in the days ahead, but I could expect to hear from him—one way or another—by the first of the next week. He wished me luck and reminded me to travel back home safely that night.
And so, I returned to the car where dad was waiting, and the rain had eased up a bit. I gave a quick rundown of all that had taken place and how I felt about things. I knew I’d spend many miles on the ride ahead, rolling things over in my mind of how I could have done better, and I was awfully glad that my dad was with me on that dark and stormy night.
But now, we needed to get ourselves northbound, as it would be very late when we got home to Western Springs. Without further delay, we pulled out of the school parking lot and turned back to the interstate to head a short distance eastward to Vandalia where we’d connect with another old and famous highway to begin our travel north.
After a more deliberate drive around the small town of Mulberry Grove that didn’t seem to have much life to it, we did come upon the junior/senior high school, a low buff brick building that appeared to be well tended to and very pleasant looking. Just seeing this nice-looking school, I felt so much better and slowly began to look forward to my upcoming interview there in a few hours from now.
Dad and I found our way back out to the main intersection where the small gas station/restaurant was located. We discovered that we could get something to eat here, but since there was still plenty of time to “kill” before I had to be at the school for the board meeting that evening, we decided to see if there was anything outside of Mulberry Grove where we might eat and do a little exploring.
An elderly gent behind the counter of the service station told us we could either go west about five miles to Greenville or back east about the same distance to Vandalia. We decided to see what Greenville had to offer.
As I wrote previously, this was totally foreign territory to me, so it would be good to get a feel for the lay of the land. Greenville, a much larger town than Mulberry Grove, had a college and a lovely town square with various businesses on all sides. We leisurely drove through many residential neighborhoods, always ending up back at the town square.
In a while we came upon a restaurant that specialized in chicken dinners, and we could go inside to relax and eat. We both agreed that it was good to be out of the car for a while.I can still recall the hot chicken dinner with mashed potatoes and gravy and corn and cold iced tea that Dad and I enjoyed on that long-ago afternoon.
The day had certainly been long and tiring, and we both felt rejuvenated after the southern Illinois-style meal. We must have spent well over an hour and a half in the restaurant, eating, chatting, and pondering what might lie ahead that day and night. Dad, in his special way, managed to encourage and calm me in preparation for the upcoming interview. Once again, I realized just how glad I was that he was along with me.
Before we realized it, the sun had given way to heavy and dark clouds that hung low overhead. The typical summer humidity in southern Illinois seemed to intensify. The rain that had been in the area early in the day seemed to be bent on returning. Distant thunder rolled off in the west. Without a doubt, a storm was imminent for that evening.
I had one special task yet to do before heading to the school that evening. I needed to change back into my shirt and tie and sport coat that I’d worn to the morning’s interview in Munster. Thankfully, I’d been able to change out of that outfit at a rest area facility on our way south. We returned to the gas station/restaurant on Mulberry Grove’s outskirts and I used the tiny men’s room there and finagled my way into my “interview outfit” once again. Fortunately, I’d brought my shaving kit along and was able to have a quick shave and also to brush my teeth.
After changing clothes and freshening up, I was ready to wend my way to the school. Of course, my stomach was turning circles and my nerves were working overtime as I anticipated the various questions that would be thrown my way later. And to add to the mystery of things, the imminent storm had arrived and a steady and unrelenting rain hammered down.
Dad and I sat in the school parking lot for an interminable length of time, relaxing as the rain poured relentlessly. Once again, I hoped that this gloomy monsoon was not a harbinger of things to come, since I would be going inside shortly, and I closed my eyes and thought a million thoughts, waiting for any kind of easement of the storm so I could go inside. Dad would wait for me in the car, and he wished me luck one more time, and I quickly opened the door and made a mad dash through the rain and on into an unfamiliar school!
( In my previous post, I wrote of my attempts to land my first teaching job. The story continues here.)
My dad, God rest his soul, offered to take a day off from his work and spend the day with me visiting Munster, Indiana, and then down through “parts unknown” to the Mulberry Grove, Illinois, School Board meeting that same night!
And that’s exactly how it went, on what turned out to be a very memorable and important day and night in my life. As for the morning interview at the Munster school, I never heard from them again afterwards—although the experience seemed positive, unlike my first one a few weeks before. I didn’t have time to stew about anything since we had a long trip ahead of us in order to reach the 7:00p.m. school board meeting that night.
While I’d been with the Munster High School principal, Dad had planned out the route we’d take to get to Mulberry Grove. The closest and most convenient route from where we were at the moment was US Highway 41, at one time the major route between Copper Harbor, Michigan, and Miami, Florida. Of course, it would later be replaced by Interstate slabs, but at the time, Highway 41 would serve us well, getting us to Terre Haute and I-70, where we’d turn west to get to the town of Mulberry Grove way down in Bond County in south central Illinois.
With the Munster interview finished, we set out on the next leg of our “job interview” adventure, southbound on Indianapolis Avenue—U.S. Highway 41—through a drizzly, dreary July morning. Dad drove; I sat back and closed my eyes, pondering what lay ahead miles down the road, hoping that the rain that had set in that morning, as we made our way south, was not a harbinger of things to come.
Down through the rural Hoosier land we travelled. I dozed, off and on, and finally was fully alert and awake by the time we reached Terre Haute a couple of hours later. At this point, we’d leave one of the nation’s old, iconic roads and hop on I-70 and travel west. Being the first time that I’d ever been in this portion of either Indiana or, soon, Illinois, the surroundings took on a rather new and special meaning for me. It was my first introduction into south central Midwest. I had only heard or read about many of the towns and places we came upon.
Before too many more miles clicked off, Dad stopped for gas and a “necessary” visit to the facilities. Afterwards, I took over driving so Dad could nap a bit. If all went as expected, we would be in the Mulberry Grove area by mid-afternoon in plenty of time for that night’s meeting.
Of course, I had no idea that the Interstate on which we were driving was the replacement for another famous highway, U.S. 40—The National Road. As I later learned, the majority of its route through Illinois, follows this road. However, on this day I wasn’t at all concerned about any of that; my focus was on getting to the school board meeting on time that evening. Eventually, I’d appreciate the historic importance of these roads I journeyed on at the moment.
As we neared our destination in early afternoon, the rain had abated, leaving a hot and humid day in its wake. Dad and I were both eager to exit I-70, and the large, green sign couldn’t have appeared ahead at a better time!
“Mulberry Grove Next Exit”
As I slowed the car to leave I-70, Dad said, “Well, we made it with plenty to spare. I think we need to find somewhere to grab a bite.” Although I was in complete agreement, that was easier said than done, since we had no way of knowing where anything was–or, if there were any restaurants nearby.
On first driving into Mulberry Grove, I read the sign that indicated that the town was comprised of 700 people. As it turned out, there was a gas station/restaurant just outside the town, which seemed to be the center of any activity. We took a quick drive through the town–didn’t take long!–and I had a rather sinking feeling in my stomach. What a difference from the hustle and bustle of the world we’d left up north that morning! Two words came to mind: Tired & Worn.
I now had thoughts of turning the car around and finding the closest road running north and forgetting this whole idea of going through with an interview in an unfamiliar area in front of total strangers. Dad had a feeling that I was thinking this, and he broke the spell and calmed my churning insides: “You’ll feel better after you relax and get something to eat. You’ve come this far, and you’ll do well.”
Although I was inclined to think that Dad was just trying to put me at ease, I agreed to give it a chance and to get myself ready for the upcoming interview that night. Besides, I was hungry, and we needed to find some place that offered a decent meal. And so that was our next objective!
I have now been retired from teaching middle school kids reading and English since June of 2007, yet I still can recall—with vivid clarity—the job interview back in late-summer of 1973 that helped me get the proverbial “foot in the door” and eventually secure a teaching job. It had become rather a hectic and frantic “scramble” that summer to overcome the loss of a position before I even had the position!
None of this helter-skelter would have been necessary had the job I’d thought was mine had acutally been offered to me. Alas, it wasn’t, and the whole unforeseen experience was a colossal wakeup call, one I very much needed, mind you! How naive I had been to believe that my first teaching position was a foregone conclusion. . . in the bag. . . a sure thing, etc.! I even had delusions of spending most of that post-graduation summer lazing around and taking my sweet time gathering up whatever I would need for my new life in a different town.
Oh, how wrong I was!
When June turned into July, and I still hadn’t heard from the superintendent, who’d previously “unofficially” assured me that I’d have a job in the school system back in my old hometown following my graduation, I began to worry. As much as I hated it, I called and spoke with him directly. After the general run-around, he informed me that the job was no longer vacant and wished me good luck on my future career endeavors. Thus, any thoughts of “lazing around” for the rest of the summer quickly flew the coop!
After a period of disbelief and shock, I came to my senses and knew I had to figure out a way to jump start my situation and get going on a now-crucial job search. During this near-panic-driven stage, I saw an ad in the local paper for a teacher employment agency.
Without hesitating, I contacted the agency and signed up to receive vacancy notices each week, even though I understood that any job I took would require me to pay a fee out of my first contract. At this point, I wasn’t too picky and didn’t rule out any opening that came my way. It was imperative to find something before the new school year was to begin. July didn’t offer me much wiggle room in that regard!
Soon, I began receiving the “vacancy” bulletins, with job listings and contact information. Had we had our computers and iPads and the Internet then, all of this probably would have been solved before it really got going!
Although I was not very familiar with much of Illinois outside of suburban Chicago, I was willing to go just about anywhere if there was job security and a pathway to a worthwhile career in the mix. I think it was kind of the beginning of my interest in setting off to previously unheard of spots. Of course, being twenty-three, I’m sure I didn’t always think things through all the way, but I had to go about things a different way now.
The first opening that looked “possible,” was at a high school in a small town in central Illinois, not far from Champaign. “Might as well get things going,” I told myself. I arranged for an interview with the principal there. I’d like to say that the two-and-a-half hour drive through the cornfields in typical summer heat a few days later, paid substantial dividends.
Quite frankly, it was a complete waste of time from the very beginning. The lethargic principal seemed merely to be going through the motions, not really showing any interest in what I might have to offer as a member of the teaching staff. Disappointed, I went back out into the hot and humid air and headed back northbound, thinking about what my next opportunity would be, or, perhaps, what other field of work I might consider.
I didn’t have to wait long to find out. The next job bulletin I received included a couple of potentially rewarding positions, and I quickly contacted the appropriate people at the two schools to arrange interviews.
The first one, in Munster, Indiana, just southeast of Chicago and not a far drive at all from home, would be with a high school principal on a Tuesday morning a week from my phone call.
The second one, in a place named Mulberry Grove, in south central Illinois, would take place the same evening of my Munster interview.
Two interviews in one day. . . Hundreds of miles apart. . . Could it be done, realistically?
I had no idea, but at this point, I was willing to give it a try. After digging out my Rand-McNally Road Atlas, I figured that it would be about 350 miles between the two places. When I mentioned this situation to my parents, they were glad I was getting some leads for a job, but they thought my plan wasn’t a wise one to attempt alone.
I don’t really recall where I first became intrigued with all things “Route 66,” but I’m thinking that it probably came about during the many times I actually drove lots of miles on a great portion of the Illinois segment beginning back in the 70s. Of course, at the time I really didn’t realize the significance of the highway’s history between Chicago and St. Louis.
Upon graduating from Kent State in the summer of 1973, I was ready to head home to the suburbs of Chicago and while away the days until I heard from the superintendent of schools in an Indiana town in which I was certain I’d be teaching in one of the middle schools.
After all, I’d met with him a couple of times, and there had seemed to be a mutually good feeling between the two of us, and, more importantly, that he seemed eager to offer me the position—sooner than later—as soon as I had all of my requirements and a degree all secured. Now, everything had finally come together. It would only be a short time before I received the call with all of the details, the contract would be in the mail for my formal signature, etc., etc.
I’m still waiting!
The famous line, “The best laid plans of mice and men, oft’ go astray,” was about to be perfectly illustrated as the summer wore on. I didn’t worry too much through the rest of June, but when the 4th of July came and went, I began to have that queasy feeling that things weren’t quite right. What was going on?
Realizing that teaching positions were probably being filledpretty quickly in preparation for the new school year, I had to step up and find out exactly what was going on. I placed the long distance call from my parents’ home in Illinois to the superintendent back in Indiana.
When I reached him, I didn’t want to sound overly concerned—although I was all of that—so I simply told him that since I hadn’t heard anything pertaining to the teaching position we’d discussed earlier, that I was calling to find out where I stood in being offered the job.
The silence on the other end seemed to extend for a long, long time. In reality, it was only a few seconds before the superintendent replied that the position was being given to another candidate, and I wouldn’t be offered one.
Even though my stomach now had churned itself into a total maelstrom of sickening nausea, I managed to eke out a question as to why I had been passed over, especially since I had been led to believe that I would be getting the job during our previous two, positive meetings.
His answer was something about my student teaching evaluation (another story for another time, by the way!) and that I wasn’t right for the English teacher position after all. He didn’t care to go any further to clarify for me any of this, and when he wished me luck in my future endeavors, I was left confused,shocked, and worried.
This late in the summer, would I be able to find something, especially since I was pretty much unfamiliar with any of the school systems in the state of Illinois? I only had lived there during summers after we’d moved from out of state after high school graduation. Whatever lay ahead, I knew I best get cracking and begin a search for SOMETHING.
And so that’s kind of where my travels on Illinois’ stretch of Route 66 comes into the picture. I vividly remember thatfirst time out there, in unfamiliar territory, driving the five-hour trip back from southern Illinois through a steady rain storm with my dad, following a job interview with the principal, superintendent, and the entire Board of Education earlier that evening.
At the time, I didn’t pay any attention to the road or what it eventually would come to mean to me. I was only focused on landing a job. Would the one I’d interviewed for that night, the one so far from familiar surroundings, be where I’d begin my career?
After what had happened with the Indiana job falling through, I wasn’t willing to speculate one way or another as we clicked off the miles through the rain on Route 66 to get back to Chicagoland.
In the next post, I’ll explain how that distant job interview came about and how things eventually came together and just how The Mother Road would weave itself through it all.
Not the kind we’ve been used to for all those years, but we made it anyway and had a nice day with friends who were nice enough to include us in their day.
The weekend that followed was pleasant and quiet and perfect for getting the outdoor “stuff” done before the cold and snows of winter arrive. Best of all, there was plenty of time to enjoy college and pro football and some Blackhawks hockey. Without a doubt, I managed to take it all in!
By Sunday evening, though, having had enough TV football and hockey for one long weekend, I happened upon a documentary from CNN titled The 80s-The Tech Boom. And though I don’t usually watch CNN, I realized that this program was made up of actual archival news footage and would be presented in an unaltered and honest fashion. So I watched and enjoyed the hour-long show.
It was fun to see again the “cutting edge” gadgets that would become staples in our lives right on up to today. Particularly interesting to me was the section on the birth of the personal computer and the cell phone. It’s hard to imagine that what was “state of the art” not all that long ago, is so cumbersome and awkward looking by today’s standards.
Seeing young and fresh out-of-the-box geniuses such as the two Steves–Wozniak and Jobs–and a seemingly still-wet-behind-the-ears Bill Gates and Paul Allen was quite amazing. Watching all of this from a 2016 perspective adds an extra-special realization as to how far things have advanced in such a short period of time.
Near the end of the documentary, the focus shifted to the technology involved with NASA’s Shuttle Program, where things were full speed ahead for so many years, until the January 1986 launch of the Challenger, another one of those memorable moments in time for my family.
On that frigid morning, I was teaching a high school English class at Astronaut High School in Titusville, Florida. (It’s not named Astronaut by chance, since the Space Center and Cape Canaveral are located nearby.)
Following our dream to live in Florida, the previous summer I accepted a job in Titusville, and Carolyn and I and our two young kids moved there in time to start the new school year.
January 28, 1986, began as usual, in a pretty normal manner for everyone in those parts. It seems as though most folks had become used to the regularity of the launches and had seemed complacent (?) in a way about the space program, although so many were employees of one of the many companies who worked for NASA in some capacity.
I suppose it’s human nature to take things for granted and not think too much about what could go wrong after such an outstanding long string of successful launches and missions. It’s not that folks didn’t care, it’s just that everyone thought that something terrible would never happen.
But on that cold Tuesday morning in Florida, terrible things certainly did happen!
I was first made aware of the explosion when one of my seniors, Danny, returned from one of his many trips to the restroom (to avoid class time, I’m sure!) with a serious expression and a tone that instantly told me that he wasn’t joking around.
When he said, “The shuttle blew up,” I really hoped that he was, indeed, pulling everyone’s leg as he tended to do frequently. But he was dead serious, and I could now hear commotion in the hallways, as two girls nearly sprinted past the door in tears and panic in their efforts to get to where they were going.
It was one of those moments when everyone seems completely mired in the muck of trying to figure out exactly what has happened and how we should handle things. Soon, a school-wide announcement informed everyone that there had been an accident with the launch and any further information would be relayed at the appropriate time.
As so many others were doing, I hurried down the hall to the east side of the building where large windows provided an open view out towards the Space Center and the Atlantic beyond. And it was then that I saw the brilliant blue sky filled with the snow-like contrails from the Challenger’s explosion, scattered and splattered in all sorts of directions. Anyone who has seen the famous photographs of this knows exactly what I mean.
I don’t really remember much else of the rest of the day other than getting home that afternoon and learning that our 3rd grader, Josh, and the rest of his classmates had witnessed the whole thing on the playground, as had Carolyn, daughter Laura, and my mom, who was visiting from Ohio. They had a pretty “up close and personal” vantage point along the river. It was my mom’s first time to view a launch.
That day certainly played a major role and turning point in our lives, one that would bring our time as residents of Florida to an end. But that’s another story for another time. Suffice it to say for now, though, that the reason I’m writing this from northern Illinois is all because of that terrible day in January 1986.
Now that Thanksgiving has faded and the Christmas and New Years holidays lurk, I know that another anniversary of the sad event on January 28, 1986, won’t be far behind. And I’ll remember…
For so many years, the Wednesday before Thanksgiving was a very special one for the Andersons here in Illinois, and one which we looked forward to with great anticipation. On that day, we would welcome the arrival of my mom and my two sisters and their families—one from Ohio; one from Nebraska.
Our son and family, who live a short distance from us, and our daughter and husband from Michigan would be here as well. Then, there were the nieces and nephews who would trickle in at various times. Without a doubt, the air of excitement for our traditional Thanksgiving celebration hung all about on Wednesday as those we were thankful for began to come in.
Beginning early that day, final preparations for the “big day” would be in full swing, including my stuffing and cooking of the first of the two big twenty-pound birds on the Weber charcoal kettle. The second one would be done on Thursday morning. Wednesday’s turkey would be for the sandwiches and snacking for the next few days, while the second one would be for the big meal on Thursday.
Once turkey number one was on, I’d have to check the coals every forty minutes or so and add briquettes accordingly to keep the heat up to the appropriate level. This would go on for at least six hours, depending on the weather conditions. During that time, my son and I would get the garage set up with the tables that would hold the many snacks and other goodies and leftovers for the next few days.
There was also the keg of beer to pick up from the store, and our son was usually in charge of taking care of that important chore. Since there were always many thirsty guests all those years, having plenty of beverages went without saying!
We couldn’t tap the keg, though, until Uncle Rich arrived from Omaha with “Old #7,” his cold plate beer tapping system he’d built. Imagine our annual “ritual” of tapping the keg soon after Uncle Rich’s arrival. Let Thanksgiving begin!
So many pleasant memories were made in our garage—year after year—before and after the traditional meal in our dining room and the “kids’ table” in the room just next to it. Carolyn always outdid herself, preparing way too much food, but it was delicious all the same. And, of course, my mom’s coffee cakes and pies were standard treats that only added to the goodness of the gathering.
The next two days: Football on the TVs. Kids scooting all about. Women off on shopping missions. Nibbling on leftovers. Cold beer. Nonsense and silliness. The same stories and jokes told before somehow coming to light and being re-told again. Laughter!
And then it’s over.
By Saturday the out-of-town visitors had to pack it up and head back home. And though Carolyn and I were always ready to resume the routine of our lives at that point, there still was a sense of melancholy, knowing that what we’d so looked forward to had come and gone in a flash.
When everyone was younger, it always seemed as though there’d be no doubt that this Thanksgiving thing would go on and on, year after year, and there would always be a Thanksgiving gathering at our place here in Illinois.
Sadly, We haven’t had that gathering here for the past couple of years, and this year is no different. The reasons why no one comes anymore are many, but the reality is that the youngsters are grown and have their own lives— with their own children—and family traditions to attend to.
Be that as it may, Carolyn and I will spend tomorrow having dinner with very good friends back in our old town of Naperville. We’ll kid and joke and try to avoid political disagreements. It will be fun and good and warm. Once back home that evening, I’ll probably imagine just one more trip to the garage for another snack or to refill my Solo Cup, and the memory will make me smile.
I had just turned eighteen that summer, and I my idealism was still rather lofty. I had plans to take it all with me when I started at Kent State in a few weeks. And, of course, it was at Kent that I would once again witness turmoil and violence during the next few years up close and personal all too often. And my earlier idealism would take off in a much different direction during that time.
A few weeks ago I wrote about the time my family and a good friend, who was in for a visit, were caught up in the violent demonstrations/riots of the 1968 Democrat Convention in downtown Chicago. At that moment in time, I was about to begin the next stage of my life that coming fall at Kent State University. What I didn’t realize then, however, was just how much of a “preview” of things to come for me during the next few years at KSU the accidental experience in downtown Chicago that August night would be.
Call it culture shock or a new awareness of the way the world had become, that period of my life was disturbing, to say the least. To put it bluntly, I didn’t care at all for the nasty tone and constant mayhem that had become the norm in our world in the late 60s.
I was a law-abiding white kid, with conservative upbringing and values, being forced to choose between respecting authority or taking it to the streets and shouting obscene slogans and fomenting any kinds of anarchy that would tear the system down! Couldn’t do it.
It was everywhere, this “counter culture,” and no more evident than in in the music of the day, which seemed to be all about “drugs, sex, rock and roll…if it feels good, do it!…kill your parents…down with pigs…pigs off campus…start the Revolution!” Anything that would tear down respect for authority was the all-encompassing theme.
I trekked off to Kent, Ohio, that first fall, believing I could eventually earn a degree and be a worthwhile, contributing citizen of this great country of ours–eventually–despite being surrounded by negativity and a different kind of direction in which our country was going.
Of course, for me there were many bends in the road that freshman year. Trying to survive some of the courses in which I had very little interest and figuring out how to curtail the social life that could swallow me up if I wasn’t careful, were prime examples of those “bends.”
Other than the usual distractions and normal challenges, there were also numerous social issues that had found their way onto campus that fall, which seemed to echo the unpleasant tone of the Chicago riots. In November, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), which had organized as a campus group the previous spring, and Black United Students (BUS), held a sit-in for several hours to protest police recruiters on campus.
The next spring (1969) SDS began efforts to get rid of ROTC, law-enforcement degree programs, and to have the Liquid Crystals Institute (funded by Defense Department) removed from campus. And all of this was met with contentious feelings and often violent pushback by the protestors, clashing with the police at the administration building. Soon after, the SDS took over the Music and Speech Building (where several of my classes were) and fist fights among demonstrators and counter-demonstrators occurred. Several arrests followed. After this incident, Kent State banned SDS.
But the stage had now been set for more of this kind of upheaval on an otherwise beautiful and glorious peaceful campus. My previous expectations of what my college life would be about had taken a wild ride that first year, and I couldn’t know then how much wilder it was to become in the years to follow.
It was summer 1964. The railroad had just transferred my dad from Huntington, Indiana, to Ashland, Ohio, and we were in the process of moving. At first I had been enthusiastic about it all, but then as summer rolled around, and my Pony League baseball season with it, I wasn’t so thrilled about the move at all.
As things developed, we had a pretty good team, and I was patrolling center field, making catches that, in distant recollection now, still amaze me! And I actually was hitting the ball more consistently. And it wasn’t only me. Every other player on that team had somehow metamorphosed into steady players and excellent teammates.
It’s pretty much a cliché now to say that we “came together” that summer, but I know of no other way to put it, nor can I think of another group, club, team, or organization I’ve ever been a part of and say the same thing about it. We came together, indeed!
Even practices out at an old rural school several times a week were something to which we looked forward to with the eagerness of the typical fourteen year olds that we were. Often, my good friend and I would pedal our bikes the three or four miles out to the school and meet up with the others. Along the way, we’d have serious discussions about when I was going to have to leave for Ohio and what it would do to our friendship.
As much as I wanted to put those kinds of thoughts out of my head and focus on baseball, there was always something there to remind me about how things were soon going to change in my life. I never wanted to admit that I would be a long way from the friends I’d known most of my life, so I usually tried not to take any of it too seriously.
On the last day of school that year, several parents had a graduation party for us, kind of an “end-of-junior high-getting-ready-for-high school” gathering. During the party, it seems that all anyone wanted to talk about when I was around was how I felt about having to move. I put on a fake persona, one where I shrugged it off and joked about it all, but, truth be told, I was really torn up inside.
And that’s where that summer’s magical baseball season helped. Why we–a ragtag group of basically mediocre ball players–turned into a championship team, is still beyond my wildest sense of reasoning. But we did, winning the championship with stellar pitching, timely hitting, and game-saving defense along the way.
Meanwhile, my parents and my sisters had made the move to our new home in Ohio in early August, but I still had a few weeks left of the season. I was invited to spend those days at my good friend’s house so I could finish out. Plus, I had been selected to be the starting center fielder for the All-Star Game, and I couldn’t miss out on that honor.
Somewhere in my “vault” of treasured memories and other pieces of my past is a faded newspaper article about our team winning the championship that summer. There’s an accompanying team photo with our smiling faces as we hold our trophies proudly and throw out endless wisecracks. We’re all sweaty, dirty, and very happy!
What I recall most clearly, though, was that the day after the photo appeared in the paper, I was on a train traveling to my new home in a strange and unfamiliar place and wondering what lay ahead, and the magic of that team of mine tucked away forever.
We all vowed to stay in touch and get together whenever the opportunity presented itself. For a time we did. But we all grew out of being fourteen year olds and our lives found their own varied paths. Eventually, I adjusted to my new surroundings and made some very good friends there. Yet, fifty-two years later, I still remember that magic summer!