Telling Fortunes

A mother called me this afternoon.  I was sitting in Voss Hall, tending to a few things in my office, when the ringer erupted to shatter the otherwise quiet of the meandering midday hours.  As I am required to do, I answered, grabbing a pen to record a few notes as I visited with this concerned mother with a thousand questions about her son’s’ future.  Only some of them I could answer.

I settled in to answer the barrage of questions: “yes, I truly believe your son could fit in well here.”

“Scholarships, yeah we have those available.”

“No, he cannot bring his dog to college with him, unless, of course, if its a service animal.”

Most of these furrow browed mothers want assurance that their child will be okay.  I do my best to promise them the things I know are true: a nurturing environment filled with personal attention and an opportunity to be successful.  With genial parting salutations, I hung up the phone, stood up from my desk, and stretched my legs as I walked down the hallway.

“I’m no fortune teller,” I thought as I opened the door to the creepy back staircase connecting Voss and Thorson.

As I climbed, I was confronted by a ghost that confirms my musing, or perhaps just a thought that has lingered in the reluctant shadows of that stairwell for a good long while.

That’s the funny thing about thoughts: when they leave our heads do they simply dissipate, or do they float like spectres, hanging in the air until another suitable head comes along?  In that darkened staircase I am often reminded that it is perhaps the latter.

The thought came to me as I treaded up the same stairs once walked by my father several decades ago.  He was also working his first job out of graduate school, his office located at the top of those very stairs in Thorson Hall.  When I was hired on here he was happily filled with nostalgic sentiment, but made sure to give me a few words of advice: “Don’t try to be a fortuneteller.”

I wonder if he eventually came to that conclusion walking up those very same creepy back stairs, the thought floating out of his head and lingering in the atmosphere until this afternoon when it falsely recognized me as him.  We look kind of the same, or so I’m told by those too friendly older ladies at the grocery store who have been around long enough to remember.  Or perhaps there is a more tangible ghoul, the still lingering memory of someone else who once walked these halls, albeit briefly, during the same time as my father.

It was the fall, a little earlier in the season than it is now, and Forest City was ablaze with the oranges, yellows, and crimsons that characterize the autumn.  My father was coaching basketball, or perhaps pretending not to on that particular evening, as he lingered high above the floor of the Hanson Field House watching the players below participate in voluntary preseason workouts from a hallway window.  The rules prevented him from physically being in the gym at that time of year, but as an eager young coach he wanted to see what how his new recruits were coming along.

He had spent the previous year gathering a group of players he thought could be very special, sitting in living rooms across the Midwest with eager mothers and fathers, much like the ones I try to reassure now.  He had foretold of the great success their sons would have on the hardwood and in the classroom, and even eventually in life, if only they would come to this tucked away collegiate campus at the intersection of highways 9 and 69.

When he tells the story he often pauses here, waiting a moment while gathering thoughts that I am not still sure have all been taken from those dark places like the back stairs of Thorson Hall.

As he has described it to me on occasion, he was looking away from the court as the players raucously practiced below, visiting with his assistant coaches about the grand things about to unfold for their program when all of his favorite sounds in the world stopped.

Silence hung in the air.

No bouncing balls.

No squeaking sneakers.

Just quiet, unbroken for a second that must have seemed to stretch into eternity while he turned his head, looked down, and took in the source of the pervading stillness.  Theron Anderson, one of the young men whose parents’ living room he had sat in just last spring, had crumbled to the floor.

The momentary quiet was shattered as he sprinted down the stairs, racing to half court where he knelt, holding this young man whose future had been so bright when foretold on that living room couch just months before.

I wonder what thoughts may still be hanging around those dusty rafters in Hanson that escaped from my father’s head in that moment of panic.  As I think about myself now, of similar experience and age, and how overwhelming that moment must have been, how his thoughts must have splintered until there was only the particles of a million tiny sentiments remaining.  The sinking sensation, all too real, when he realized that the outcome would inevitably be tragic.  A young life taken too soon, one that he had foretold of becoming great.

After the medics were gone and the team dismissed, I wonder if my father lingered on campus.  Making the brisk early evening walk up the hill on I St. his thoughts must have been a muddled collection at best.  I bet he thought about his own children, a son and a daughter, and a third child well on the way, and how he would feel to get the phone call he had just himself made to the parents of the too recently departed.  With heavy heart, I am sure he wondered what his role had been in the young man’s death, although the autopsy report would uncover a previously unreported heart ailment as the culprit.

As he arrived on main campus, I am sure his head was swirling with questions and doubts. Perhaps he walked up those back stairs, regretting the bright future he had foretold to that child’s parents, letting a thought escape through his ears and into the inky, cob webbed darkness.  Unintentionally leaving a thought to find me, concealed in the shadows until I now walk in his footsteps: “don’t try to be a fortuneteller.”

Crossed Phone Lines, Mixed Messages

“How could you do this to me?” I whined into the receiver, fighting to keep my adolescent voice from cracking as saline tears rolled down my cheekbones.

“I thought we could really have something, you know?  I just was always trying to be nice to you, to care about you, and I thought we could really have something that was, uh, special, you know?” I squeaked into the receiver, fumbling that navy blue Nokia brick of a cell phone from one clumsy adolescent hand to another.

Slowly, I could feel the anger welling up inside of me as I moved from pleading with the invisible voice silently breathing on the other end of the telephone line toward outright scorn.  We had never even dated, but her best friend had dated my best friend so we were thrust into a small-town Iowa paradox of awkward nudging from each of our comrades to take an interest in one another.

“What do I have to do to convince you that I’m worthy?” I hissed through clenched teeth, hell bent on avoiding any tangible measure of logic as hormones coursed through my pubescent brain.  I inhaled deeply, trying to regain some measure of composure, trying to calm myself down to a point where the conversation might eventually be salvaged.

“Don’t you remember all the fun times we have had over break?”  I mumbled to the unresponsive presence on the other end of the line.

She had tagged along with my friend’s girlfriend to high school baseball games that summer, always sitting just beyond the third base line dugout on an unfolded picnic blanket with a gaggle of other girls who had taken an interest in those of us participating in America’s pastime out on the manicured field.  After the games she would linger, always extending her hand to me for a high-five before wandering down the long path of cracking asphalt to our waiting jalopies in the parking lot.  The other couples would hold hands, we would just keep our eyes down as we wandered through a minefield of conversational obstacles.

“I just can’t believe you would do this to me!” my voice escalated, cracking again.  My cheeks burning crimson as I rapidly paced across the worn carpet in my parents’ basement.

“Do you even know how stupid and selfish you are being!” I stammered, reaching a point of no return in the conversation I had been hoping to avoid, from which I knew there was no longer any hope of recovery.

For a split second, through the escalating rage, I remembered all of those lazy, open-window spring afternoons in the sun soaked French classroom on the west side of the high school.  She had chosen me as her partner, not the other way around.  She had smiled at me, her jade eyes bubbling with refracted sunlight, giggling as I stumbled through the flashcards I had intentionally failed to study before hand in the hopes that she would have to help me prepare for the exam.

“Do you even care about me at all!?!” I barked into the receiver, failing to realize that I was pushing the conversation beyond its logical endpoint, hell bent on proving my devotion, even if the cost was my dignity.

“I just can’t believe you would lead me on like this!  For months I have been playing along, not realizing I was the one being played!” I stammered, losing all tangible grasp of reality as my disjointed thoughts failed to form coherent sentences.

“Is there someone else?  It’s Nate!  I knew you had a thing for that loser ever since you danced with him during the last song at Spring Fling!  What a joke!  You would pick that dumpy bastard over me!” I continued as I barreled down a hill of poor conversational judgement that was clearly headed for a trainwreck.

I could see the end in sight as my Irish temper paired with hormonal rage to mix a volatile cocktail of chemical impairment within my brain.

“I never want to see you ever again!  Don’t you even have anything to say for yourself!?  I said I never want to see you again!” I thought about hanging up, tracing my thumb over the little red receiver shape stenciled into a button on the phone, lingering in the delusional hope that my tirade had somehow made her reconsider.

A deep exhale came from the other end of the phone, as if someone was about to speak.  Little did I know that my cheeks were about to instantly change shades of red as a voice finally emerged from the other end since the onset of the conversation.

“This is Rachel’s mom, she’s not home right now, and I am not quite sure how to put that all in a message, but I’m fairly certain that you might not be exactly the type of boy we have in mind for our daughter.”

My thumb pushed the button it had been circling as I withered into the couch. Defeated, embarrassed, and wiser for the lesson learned.

13 Years Ago, I Was 13: September 11, 2001

Trapper-Keeper in hand, I bounced down the hall toward second period study hall in Mr. Dole’s classroom.  As I turned the corner I glanced, as was already customary by that point in the fall of 7th grade, over a dividing wall at the television in the Gifted and Talented classroom adjacent to where I was heading.  I remember that I saw the footage, an airplane barreling into the side of the World Trade Center, and thinking: “that looks like a pretty cool movie.  I wonder when it comes out.”  I walked into class, said hello to the study hall monitor, who also happened to be my mother, and found the way to my seat.  For a few minutes everything remained normal: I made fun of the girl who I had a crush on seated in front of me, talked with dread about football practice that afternoon with the classmate beside me.

I recall in the 4th grade Mrs. Harvey talking about the shock she felt when JFK was assassinated.  She explained how the whole nation forgot politics and mourned as a group, students bursting into tears after the principal had come into the classroom to explain what had happened.  On that fateful Tuesday, Mrs. Knight came over from the adjacent classroom that had the television turned on, eyes rimmed with tears as she explained what had happened.  As prepubescent middle schoolers the gravity of the situation swirled well over our heads, the somber mood of the teachers rippling through the students to create a great feeling of unease, but no tears from what I recall.

As 2nd period dismissed the halls were electric with rumor.  “The White House is on Fire!” one red headed student claimed, running down the halls to sound the alarm.  “My Dad is at the Sears Tower right now, I hope it isn’t next,” confided one girl to another.  The rampant speculation resultant from the juxtaposition of national tragedy meeting 7th grade imagination created a firestorm of misinformation.  Our classes were largely interrupted throughout the day, television sets tuned to Fox News or CNN, clearly delineating the political leanings held by the head of each class.  Time progressed, details became more clear, and our youthful resiliency helped to move us into the future.

However, it wasn’t quite that simple.  From educators, church leaders, and parents there was a chorus of, ‘this is a day you will remember for the rest of your lives.’  For our middle school minds it was just an event in a far off place, the gravity of the situation escaping comprehension.  With shame I remember waiting for parent pickup outside after-school church choir practice the following afternoon, jokes flying from one misunderstanding middle school mind to another about those trapped in the rubble ordering delivery pizza.  Maybe we were innocent, perhaps we were cruel.  However, that particular joke still stands out in my mind as having gone too far, even in that circle of immaturity.  We couldn’t grasp the enormity of the moment, already desensitized to the violence through years of media sabotage.

The airspace above North America had been closed, leaving the wide-open blue skies of September on the Great Plains unbroken by trails of exhaust.  Vividly, I recall laying on the ground in football pads, legs elevated to strain my abdominal muscles as the coach counted, peering up at that unbroken sky through a football face-mask.  Then, suddenly, a silver plane trailed across the sky: Air Force One carrying the President eastward over the flyover states.  In our small-town way we had seen the President, breathlessly explaining this to parents who just smiled and shook their heads.  Things were moving back toward normal, even if it was a slightly altered version of traditional Midwestern life.

In the mind of a 13-year-old boy one thing helped to provide scope and scale of the tragedy: Commissioner Bud Selig postponed baseball for six whole days in the middle of the pennant races.  If baseball could be halted, I thought, this must be as big of an event as everyone is making it out to be.  The following Monday, however, games resumed with the President seated next to the Yankees dugout after tossing the first pitch over home plate and toward normalcy.  The nation, or at least one prepubescent boy in the heartland, rejoiced at the return of America’s Pastime.  According to the news reports life had been filled with drastic changes, but in the middle of Iowa life moved on relatively unchanged.  The dreaded reality of middle school football practice still haunted the end of each day, there were still girls in class to have crushes on.

As I grew older that day lingered.  Not just in the sentimental and emotional ways that had been promised by elders from the outset of the tragedy, but in more concrete ways.  The political and economic climate of my adolescence and teenage years were constantly shaded by international conflict: passionate debates in government class about the mounting casualties in Afghanistan and Iraq, eager minds pretending to fully grasp geopolitical intricacies of long-seeded conflicts in a distant land.  Some of us became hard-line detractors of war, and, as it dragged on into our formative years, some others even ended up in those faraway places, fighting a war we were young enough to joke about during those cataclysmic moments after the towers fell.

In the aftermath of September 11, 2001, the official reports indicated that 2,977 total casualties had occurred.  As the War on Terror unfolded in Afghanistan and Iraq, 6,802 members of the United States military would fall, giving the ultimate sacrifice to a sometimes grateful nation.  On the other side, the numbers are more hard to come by, but the generally accepted number of civilian casualties resultant from the United States military operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan since that fateful day sat around 174,000 as of April 2014.  We went, we toppled regimes, and even now we train the sites of our bombers on targets determined to be creating terror in those far off lands.  Perhaps a mother is looking up at sky, observing an American warplane high in the atmosphere, eyes filled with terror as she holds onto her child.  Terror aimed at the terrorists by the terrified.

There are no easy solutions to complex problems, a presumption built on coming of age in the post-9/11 United States of utterly polarized politics.  We can debate, threaten, and argue until we are red in the face, but the truth of the matter is that until we, as humanity, quit chasing our own tail out of fear we will never have peace of mind.  I will leave you with the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. from a speech delivered in 1958: “Hate begets hate; violence begets violence; toughness begets a greater toughness.  We must meet the forces of hate with the power of love.”


We had arrived at the airport early in the morning, bright eyed honeymooners overly eager to begin the long awaited break that was desperately needed after the months of planning and preparation for the big day that had so recently passed.  We removed our shoes, scanned our bags, and waited in the pink glow of the early morning that spilled from the tarmac through the giant plate glass windows.  On that first flight we were able to share a set of two seats, up and down into the air so quickly that the small seat-belt light above the tray tables never flickered off.

Disembarking into a maze of persons with places other to be than an airport in Minneapolis, we checked our watches and stopped for a drink, disregarding that it was still barely mid-morning.  We had a long day ahead of us, classic travelers eagerly crossing trains, planes, and automobiles off our checklist for the day.  As we arrived at our gate we were beckoned forward, no need to wait when the timing had worked out so well.  I smiled at my new bride as I handed her a boarding pass, promising that I would take the middle seat on the way back from the Pacific if she would make the sacrifice on the way out.  I ended up being untrue to my word, but that is perhaps a story for another time.

Our seats had been carefully selected online months prior to the trip, but after the wedding preparation process paying attention to minute details was no longer maniacal.  What we had not been able to prepare for was the drunkard who would join us on our trek to the Pacific Northwest, an apologetic boy with a scraggly goatee who explained his pungent odor as a side-effect of his nerves at flying for the first time.  I did my best to distract my wife, my efforts unsuccessful nature revealed by her whispering about how I would undoubtedly be positioned in the middle seat on the return flight.  The usual preflight rig-a-ma-roll ensued as the pilot introduced himself and the flight attendant went through her choreographed routine.  Wheels up, out of Minnesota and into the atmosphere in a flash.

As we soared above the plains I tried to put my undergraduate coursework in geography to the test by speculating about the true identity of rivers and cities that slipped by soundlessly below.  Every once in a while my musing would catch the attention of our seatmate and he would chime in, offering little in the way expertise but too much conversation.  As the stewardess dropped more mini-bottles on his tray table I could tell both his presence and the day were beginning to wear away the patience of my traveling partner.  We did our best to avoid any confrontation, curtly answering any questions in a way that would have made a more sober person demure and flip through the in-flight magazine quietly.   Mercifully, Mt. Rainier finally appeared above the clouds, signaling our arrival into Seattle while ensuring our approaching freedom from our new acquaintance.

The aircraft dove through the clouds above Puget Sound as we approached SEA-TAC, allowing us our first views of the city which was partially illuminated by a breaking in the clouds to the west.  Thousands of house windows blinked in the early evening twilight as we barreled toward the runway, combining with the reflection off the water to make the entire metro glitter. Tray tables up, wheels down, up the concourse and into the late afternoon sunlight streaming through the windows of the baggage claim we went.  Our bags met us quickly, ensuring that we were not able to fully gain our bearings before embarking out of the airport and toward the train.

SEA-TAC is the end of the line on the Central Link Light Rail, and we clutched our checked bags as the empty train car rumbled off the platform north toward downtown.  The clouds had fully broken, and new passengers streamed in with the sunshine as we passed through Othello Station.  As we inched closer together we sailed past Safeco Filed, home of the Mariners, and plunged into the darkness of the Pioneer Square station.  Our stop had arrived, and we disembarked up the grimy stairs to the humid sea air of south downtown.  Noisily, the wheels on our rolling luggage bumped against our heels as we hastily fought the steep gradient on our way down to the waterfront, bums laughing from a bench beneath a totem pole at the country bumpkins exchanging stressed looks with one another.  One glance at my wife told me she was not pleased.

Finally, we arrived at our hotel.  Exhaling as we tried to shake off the hurry up and wait mindset that always seems to accompany travel, we got our room keys and found our way to the elevator.  The boutique hotel I had chosen as a surprise underwhelmed, but we were grateful for shelter after a day spent shuffling through crowded thoroughfares.  Our fresh faces of the morning had been lined with exhaustion as we quietly changed our clothes and scanned the map of restaurants provided by the clerk at the front desk.  Starved and weary we agreed that we would head the block to the waterfront after participating in the complimentary wine hour provided at the hotel.

Lightly buzzing yet unrefreshed we disembarked from the art-deco lobby and headed for the waterfront.  Boats were milling about the Sound, many of our fellow tourists were quickly getting trapped, and an overwhelming number of vagabonds were begging on nearly every spare bit of pavement.  We stopped at a promising looking restaurant, asked to see a menu, then immediately left without really exchanging a word after eyeing the offerings and price points.  Back into the rapidly fading twilight we went, lost in the confusion and weariness that come with traveling in an unknown city with no agenda.  After a couple more unsuccessful attempts to find a restaurant, a bit of a scare from a disheveled woman who bursted out singing in a scraggly voice behind us on the sidewalk, and a heated exchange about which direction to head we decided to climb back up the hill toward the hotel in the hopes of finding some place or refreshment.  

Up several flights of scraggly wood steps appeared to be a cafe, so we started to climb, recessing from the touristy waterfront.  Disappointment prevailed as we turned the final landing only to realize that what we had been climbing toward was only a coffee shop, one of the dozens located throughout downtown Seattle.  A few more steps and another left turn found us in the bowels of the Pike Place Market.  The vendors had all packed and went home for day, leaving the stalls ghastly and empty as the sun slipped the last few inches into the Sound.  We paused for a moment, both out of breath from the climb, numb from exhaustion, and on the edge of breakdown from hunger.  Both of our eyes were filled with hopeless desperation as we struggled to even push forward up Pike Place further into the city.

Emotions ran high as we glanced down a side street only to not see any viable options, another block and we were both on the verge of tears.  An unlikely savior blazed neon in the evening, the sign for a familiar burrito chain that had been a staple of my undergraduate days.  I pointed, but was curtly shot down by my spouse who insisted on finding something, anything, we couldn’t get back on our familiar Great Plains.  I was on the verge of complete meltdown when we finally turned a corner and saw an open-front bistro with patrons crowded around the bar.  Without thoroughly reading the sign beyond, “Bruno’s Italian” we entered, quickly ushered by an old Hispanic woman to a table in a small room at the back of the place.

Happy to have a seat and the promise of a cold beer in the near future, we both scanned the menu, surprised by the offerings.  Paying closer attention now, I finished reading the name of the place: “Bruno’s Italian and Mexican Restaurant.”  Not quite sure exactly what was to be expected we waited for someone to take our order.  Exhaustion and hunger had pushed us both past common courtesy, just two weary travelers lost in a foreign time zone.  Finally, the same Hispanic woman who had seated us, wandered over to see if we would like to order.  Beer and a calzone for me, fajitas for the lady.

Under the artificial ivy lined trellis, two portly women dressed up in costumes that I surmise were some type of animated characters shuffled in.  The beers arrived and I sank back into the damp, unairconditoned heat of the backroom and took a sip as I eagerly waited for our food to arrive.  After a time my bride’s entree showed up, and I continued to stew in the uncharacteristic heat of the early September evening.  Ten more minutes went by, each adding to the malice that hunger had poured into my veins until at last an old Italian man turned the corner with a plate in his hand.  My eyes surely grew wide as he meandered past the table to place the dish in front of one of the cartoon characters a couple tables away.  As he exited back to another part of the restaurant the percolating frustration inside of me finally boiled over.

In hushed tones I unleashed a rant of surely epic proportions on the disinterested ears of my new wife, her still only a single bite into the fajitas she had ordered, looking down with the knowledge that at this point it was the fault of circumstance that we had arrived at such a sour note on the first night of our honeymoon.  I cannot recall what was said, only that after awhile the old man, Bruno, I assume, arrived again in the backroom to inquire as to what I had ordered.  As he scurried back to the kitchen to “checka the progress” it was evident that the order had been misplaced, and my wife looked at me with a fearful gaze.  

A few minutes later my food arrived with a side of apologies from the man, and my frustration dissolved now that an end to my hunger was below my nose.  With a smile he shuffled off, and I apologized to my bride both for my unpleasant behavior as well as her having to wait to eat her food.  She just shook her head, and I assumed that I had damaged the mood of the evening beyond repair.  However, her face broke into the fainest of smiles as she continued to look at me across the table in the glow of the year-round colorful Christmas lights that illuminated the table.

“What?” I asked.

“They used tomato sauce from the Italian food as fajita sauce,” she replied, shaking her weary head as I chuckled.

In a normal situation we may have sent the food back, but in our exhausted state she just decided to pick at the entree before declining a carryout box.  We were grateful to have had a little sustenance, a place down the street to sleep after our long journey, and the company of one another.  We paid our tab and wandered back out into the bustling downtown district, stopping at a corner grocery to buy a case of beers before our tired steps led us past numerous dining options that had been only a block in another direction on the way back back to the hotel lobby.  We had weathered our first meltdown as a married couple, our night playing out so different than I had imagined when booking flights and hotel rooms months before, much like the experience of marriage would unfold in unimaginable ways in the weeks that would follow.  In both that moment and the months after we were happy to simply have each other, no matter the circumstance.  Leaving the elevator we trudged the final few steps to our room, both collapsing on the bed as the door shut, falling asleep with the unopened case of beers next to the bed.

Missouri River Escarpment

I had arrived in the northern branch of the Dakotas at the beginning of June, hastily dropping my possessions before embracing the nomadic life of the low-man-on-the-totem-pole expected of an aspiring collegiate basketball coach.  By the time I returned in August I had crisscrossed the Midwest several times over, expanding both my professional and personal knowledge with each stop.  Finally, it was time to settle in for the fall semester.

The trek to Bismarck from the east can be treacherous for the soul, a mind-numbing journey across some of the flattest plains the United States has to offer.  Towns are spaced evenly along the old railroad lines, giving a rhythm to the monotony as each town boasts a ‘famous’ attraction.  There are white buffalo in Jamestown, a giant winged steel sand crane in front of the hotel in Steele.  As the final miles pile onto the odometer, the city finally rises with the Missouri River Escarpment out of the tall-grass ranch land, a thousand lights on the horizon welcoming back any traveler journeying west.

Exiting the Interstate I quickly found my way to the address I would call home for the next couple years, carefully following the GPS unit on the dashboard to ensure that I didn’t end up in the wrong place.  The day I had come to drop by belongings earlier that summer it had been daylight, now I had to double-check the address before entering through the garage, equally unsure of myself and my place in this new home.  My room was how I had left it: filled by my new twin sized bed.  Later I would relocate to the basement, deciding that damp conditions trumped overcrowding.  That day however, I simply dropped my bags and fell into a sleep fitting for a homecoming.

Each morning I would awaken on the side of a bluff that held much of the city before making my way into the flatland surrounding the Missouri River, and then back up another bluff to the university.  Originally founded as a monastery, the campus was built with stunning views of the rolling Western North Dakota plains across the giant, snaking river.  If you squinted hard enough you could make out the reconstructed military post at Fort Abraham Lincoln to the south of Mandan while walking across campus, at least until the searing winds of the winter months began to rip across the valley.

At first, I struggled.  The requirement of my work study job with the basketball program were not those asked of a typical student.  Each day I was expected to spend each spare moment around my class schedule crammed into a former janitor’s closet with two other men, one of which was also my roommate.  The tasks asked of me were not difficult, however, lack of direction paired with specific expectations to ensure that I was constantly failing to successfully fulfill my role.  As the year wore on it became more clear to me that I had no interest in continuing down that path, at least in the circumstances as they existed then.

Those first weeks my coursework also provided a challenge.  I had arrived after two-and-a-half questionable years at my local community college, first failing spectacularly before finding a comfortable stride in my initial academic foray out of secondary school.  My study habits had always been less than exceptional prior to that semester, and I was determined that I would avoid any pitfalls by devoting significant attention to my studies.  However, as the first week unfolded it became clear that my motivation would be tested before my abilities.  Several courses worth of credits had failed to transfer in successfully, placing me in remedial courses I had previously passed.  I was discouraged, disenfranchised and utterly alone on the eastern edge of the Mighty Missouri.

As I spent the bulk of my day in class or the retired janitor’s closet, I had little time to provide for myself outside of the $750 per semester of work study and student loan refund checks.  I carefully maintained the balance of my accounts, nearing, and occasionally plummeting below, the minimum required balance.  Each day I would scrape together a meager meal to be eaten in my cramped room, often choosing the fatalistic sadness that accompanies hunger before the shame filled decision to try and plead with loved ones for a bit of assistance.  Eventually a financial savior emerged in the form of the local Biolife Plasma donation clinic, where for the small discomfort of replacing the plasma in my bloodstream with a chilling saline solution I could net almost $60 per week.  Twice a week I would leave that clinic feeling lightheaded and numb, happy to have received the small sustenance that would allow me to keep what was remaining of my dignity.

Each night I would try my best to put on a good tone for a phone call to the young woman I was dating who has since become my wife.  Eventually my voice would break under the weight of circumstance, too brittle to support the hundreds of miles separating her and I.  She was attending another institution, enjoying the experience of making new friends in the environment of a larger university.  At the small school I was attending I had entered in an odd and unfortunate limbo, not quite old enough to find communal relationships with full-fledged staff members, but still viewed skeptically by other students as someone who clearly had professional ties to the college.  Those first few months I made no friends, feeling the truest sense of loneliness I hope to ever endure.

Adding to the hopelessness creeping at the edge of my conscious was the complete disinterest I received from the man responsible for my arrival in the North Dakota capitol city.  A former player and assistant coach of my father, the then current head basketball coach at the university had one day called out of the blue to suggest that I transfer following the completion of my community college studies.  Eagerly, happy to have at least some minor direction, I had accepted his proposition with little thought to the logistical and emotional factors that would play into the reality of personal contentedness as I moved up north.  After the opening of the semester I rarely saw him, always walking on eggshells whenever I would be quickly summoned to his office for the assignment of a task.  I was consistently lost in a cycle of self questioning and doubt that I would be able to summon the necessary gumption to complete the commitment I had made.

One day in the early weeks of that semester, however, everything changed.  I was walking down the hall and the head coach’s door was open, a rarity for a man who had purchased mini-blinds to block out inquiring eyes meandering through the underground hallway stuffed with athletic offices.  As I walked back from the copy machine to the janitor’s closet with a crisp set of our players’ course schedules, he beckoned me into the doorway.  He didn’t have much to say, in hindsight I am sure it was just a random encounter that he would not recall today.  “I can tell you are about to turn a corner,” he said.

That simple phrase became a mantra for me over the following days, and with some persistence I was able to begin the difficult adaptation process.  Although the problems afflicting me did not dissipate, I was able internalize the smallest glimmer of hope that things would be on the upswing soon.  Instead of wallowing in my own misfortune I was able to embrace the little things within the realm of my control: carefully preserving my income, filling my time with exploration, both physically and intellectually, working through processes to gain the credits I had been shorted, and making the best of my situation in the basketball office while knowing that I would be done following the close of the season.  I had learned the ability of adaptive mindset, eventually leaving the situation with the knowledge that when personally tested I could count on my physical, mental, and emotional stamina to help me carve sustenance from relatively dire straits.

No Flying Today

Before I could open my umbrella the small drops of precipitation puddled next to the contrast stitching edging my shoes.  I hadn’t been aware it was due to rain this morning, hastily going to retrieve my rain jacket after my initial sojourn out the front door revealed a lightly falling drizzle.  The creaking old windows throughout the house left open, I imagined that the storm would not intensify, a true mark of my handicapping optimistic character.  I pushed the button on the neck of my duck head handled umbrella and headed out the door, leaving the American flag resting in the corner as opposed to the usual custom of more favorable days.  No flying today.

The gloom of the atmosphere often penetrates the soul on days like today.  Cups of coffee leave the bloodstream rich enough with caffeine to temporarily raise the spirits before the unbearability of the barometric pressure can autocorrect my conscious back to a more somber tone.  It is easy to feel empty on overcast days, confined by outside limitations that often begin to feel as if they will never relent.  The mitigating factors that can be controlled have been adjusted: rain jacket zipped, umbrella overhead, laptop safe in a waterproof shoulder bag.  However, the rain still falls, smearing down the front of my trousers as a reminder that I am not in control as I shut the door, making eye contact with the shaggy dog who whose eyes peek out from too long bangs to ask, “why not retreat back inside?”

My mind is as heavy as the spilling clouds, too many grown up too fast problems competing behind my eyes, ensuring that my nose points toward the ground due to the weight of my thoughts as I shuffle down the concrete.  No other walkers in this small Midwestern town this morning, just a few reticent rabbits peaking out from beneath a neighbor’s front step to inquire as to why one would walk to work on a such a dreary day.  I sigh and shake my head, attempting to physically stir the thick stew of wandering thoughts in my mind.  The rain keeps falling, a little faster as I cross through the open street cutting between the sturdy maple canopy that at least provides a little shelter in the storm.

Leaves mix with trash in a swirling race for the storm sewer as I reach the corner of the congregational church, nature doing its best to atone for the recent erosion of small town pride that has left the streets littered by unvigilant inhabitants. There can often be a cleansing from the rain.  I stop short of the crosswalk, rain now soaking my pants as my boss speeds through the intersection, knowing he will win his imagined race to the office.  We don’t make eye contact, an unspoken agreement by people who have lately been unable to see eye to eye.  

Another car passes before I embark on the final two blocks to the college, the rain intensifies as I trudge through one of the few untreelined stretches of concrete in a city named for its concentration of trees.  The wind stops short of a howl, but the rising breeze cuts through my thoughts to make me aware of the possibility that my umbrella turning inside out is becoming more likely.  I shift the duck’s head from my right hand to left, hoping to control the limited factors that fall within my dominion.  In the face of nature, foolish pride in man’s ability to dictate circumstance is often a forerunner to humbling experience.  I take a deep breath and meander on, keeping the umbrella right side out as my mind continues to remain focused on the small things within my control.

I wait at the corner of 6th and J for cars to pass, noting that the college and courthouse have both elected to leave their flags in storage to align with the suggested decorum.  No flying today.  A gentle soul notices my plight as I stand in the unrelenting rain while waiting to use the pedestrian crosswalk, waving me across with a smile that I can barely see between a mop of permed hair and the steering wheel.  I smile back, grateful for the smallest kindness on a morning seemingly bent to leave me soaked to the soul.  I look back over my shoulder after crossing, hoping to extend the moment, but she has moved on down the street.

I trudge up the stairs adjacent to what was at one time the grand lobby of a early 20th Century hotel, pausing between the three-story Roman pillars to shake and bind my umbrella.  This hotel designed to provide refuge for weary travelers will have to settle for a weighted mind today.  Like the clouds outside of the ballroom windows, soon these heavy yearnings will dissipate, leaving room for brighter thoughts, but for now I wait out the storm.  I take another quick glance back across the porch, tracing the flagpole from its base to the rain soaked eagle at its head.  No flying today.


Passing Storms of Early August

We were just kids then.  Bumping up against the ceiling of reality that we had been so oft told that we were not quite prepared for.  However, as the final days of that Indian Summer fell from the calendar we waited in quiet anticipation.  Each too unsure to speak the questioning unease aloud, we laughed, and drank, and carried on as if something wasn’t consistently lurking in the darkness.  At the same time real and abstract, we knew our clocks were winding down in that small Midwestern town, but it always seemed so surreal that in the moment it felt like it would never end.

I slammed the scratched burgundy door to that old Isuzu Trooper, sinking into the seat I had so often visited since this not-so-old friend turned 16.  We had just been kids together, meeting over the water fountain during 4th grade recess.  I had been struck by his odd name, and the mutual employer of our parents helped to make us fast friends.  There were catalogs of memories that could fill a wing of the National Archives if only they could be preserved: shooting apples off the old tree from the porch with the .22, gutting that old school bus, chasing girls that we never had a chance at, a birthday gifted three-piece corduroy suit, and wee-hour conversations under the climbing wall in the barn.  

By the time that last summer came we had no reason to believe the wise words of elder sages suggesting that things would undoubtedly change.  For all of our conscious years we had always been around one another, some seasons driving us closer together, others leaving us farther apart.  However, no matter how distance emerged or what circumstance held, we undoubtedly were always bound to end up lost in a conversation sooner or later.  We were too young.  Too full of sheltered experience to even grasp that our instincts were wrong, but in that moment it felt like it would never end.

He pulled away from the curb, shifting gears in that ancient transmission as we headed out toward the lake.  The forecast called for storms moving in, but fronts always broke when they came up against the enormous surface area of that southern Iowa freshwater reservoir.  As we came under the streetlights of the traditional town square, we noticed the Krispy Kreme donut truck outside the local fill-er-up station.  We stopped, still too young to ever question the necessity of picking up an entire case of donuts for a late evening drive.

Summertime insects dashed out of from in front of the headlights as we gained speed, making headlong out of town for the North Overlook.  Horizontal lightning flashes on the horizon illuminated the edge of the moving front, still off a good ways to the West as we embarked for the shelter house overlooking the dam.  The air was humid and still, only a few lingering lightening bugs flitting above the tall-grass prairie making dents in the inky vale of late evening.  The strange energy that can only be felt in those few moments before a storm filled us, helping to ease the gaps in conversation as we both worked diligently to demolish the box of donuts.

Slowly at first, and then more intensely, we began to hear the drops falling throughout the Black Walnut trees lining the open shelter house.  A slight breeze escalated with the thickening of the rain until, at last, with a force grand enough to make one believe in nature, lightning landed on our side of the lake.  The breeze became a gale as the rain poured in torrents.  More powerful booms echoed as lightning struck first amongst the trees, then openly against the dam on the Des Moines River.  The electricity of the air not only raised the hair on our arms, it could be felt pervading the skin, deeper until it static charged our internal organs.  Each new flash elevated the electricity in the air, illuminating more than the breaking clouds or turbulent waters violently swirling beneath the blockade of steel and concrete.

In that moment it felt like it would never end.  The storm had become so powerful that it became easy to conclude that no force would ever slow it down.  But in a moment, it was over.  The wind dropped and the rain slowed, petering out until it became impossible to differentiate between that still falling from the skies and the residual dripping from the trees.  The humidity hung in the air, pairing with the silence that had overcome our normally conversational selves at some point while the storm front passed over.  We had been borne silent by the enormity of the moment.

Eventually we saddled back up in the Trooper and headed back on those winding blacktops toward town.  Making pledges to keep in touch as the fall semester unwound, marking a new chapter in each of our lives, we tried to believe that the enormity of the moment had passed with the thunderheads.  Self-confident claims of good faith suggested the memorable times we would have together on Christmas break, and we jokingly closed the conversation as I got out and slammed that heavy door for the last time.  I walked across the still rain-soaked grass, admiring how clear the sky had suddenly come.  A thousand stars had peeked out from behind the clouds, filling the sky with new possibilities.

The next morning he embarked for school in Northern Appalachia, marking a point in our journey that time would only prove more divergent than imagined.  A few weeks later, I went my own way; North in a different direction.  We would talk on the phone those first few years every once in a blue moon, a well-earned teleconference between two people who had paid the dues of a decade long friendship.  We did cross paths on that first Christmas break, briefly illuminating a tunnel of interpersonal history that has since gone dark, silent as the moment before a front pushes its way across a lake.

We have both long graduated from those collegiate campuses, survived our own independent tribulations, and grown into men we could have never envisioned then.  We have managed to become disconnected, even in a digital age filled with electronic communications between remote parties and places, two different people with faces once familiar.  But, sometimes, even now, when I sit facing west with a storm pushing in, I think to myself about that moment where it felt like it would never end.