“Hey Ron,” Barb called out to me. She sat under the shady trees in the park with friends. “Are you going to the Walk for Development?”
“What’s that? A protest march.” I was on probation but anxious to get back in the Revolution.
“Not exactly. The Young World Development Committee is a group that’s raising funds for worthy causes like the Havasupai Indian Project.”
Jill, one of her freakier friends added, “You’ve been to Arizona, right, Ron? That tribe lives on a remote, cramped reservation at the bottom of the Grand Canyon.” She nodded with enthusiasm. “Then, on a local level there’s Project HOPE, Homes of Private Enterprise, a nonprofit organization based in Wheaton, buying, and rehabilitating older homes in DuPage county for families on welfare. It’s Sunday May 3rd, jeez, that tomorrow, isn’t it? Do ya wanna come?”
It was 1970. I’d been crashing in their girl’s college dorm since April 22, the very first Earth Day. The gals were pretty, but, sad to say, our relationship didn’t progress beyond the platonic. It had been a long dry spell for me, and I needed a touchy-feely girlfriend. Maybe I’d meet some cool chicks along the way on this walk.
It was to be a thirty-mile trek through several Chicago suburbs, from the start line at Willowbrook high school in Villa Park to Wheaton via Lombard and Glen Ellyn, making several loops through Elmhurst to end up at the start line. That shouldn’t be a problem for me. I jogged between my parent’s place in Wood Dale to Elmhurst College on a regular basis and considered myself in excellent shape.
“You need to get sponsors,” said Barb. “You know, businesses, like grocery stores and such, to pledge a sum to donate for each mile you walk.”
“Cozying up to business owners isn’t my forte, Barb and it’s tomorrow, right? That’s too late. Maybe if I heard about it beforehand…”
My pal Bob shook his head when I told him. “Thirty miles? Are you fucken crazy, man!”
“Well, Bob, some people would rather grab some adventure then spend all day smoking dope and listening to Rock and Roll. Dig?”
At the student union they were running a carpool shuttle to Willowbrook high. I joined the milling crowd behind the start line shortly after seven a.m. They were all strangers to me. Clunky combat boots were my only footwear. I wore jeans and my Army surplus jacket against the morning chill, even though I’d have to carry it as the day and the exertion made me warmer. When I approached the table to sign in, they asked who my sponsors were.
“Uh, well, I don’t have any.”
She looked at me funny. “Well, you need sponsors to sign in.”
“Ok,” I walked away from the table, an undocumented participant.
The crowd grew, estimated at between 15,000 and 20,000, so many people that they decided to turn us loose four minutes before the official start time at 8 o’clock sharp. We took off walking elbow to elbow in a giant herd that soon began thinning out along the road. Most of the chicks I met in the first few miles claimed to be with someone. Then I got lucky, falling into easy banter with a petite brunette and her none too ugly blond girlfriend.
“We’re high school students from Western Springs.”
“Oh, yeah? If I hadn’t dropped out to join the Revolution I’d be graduating as a senior this spring.” I started a long rambling dialog, hoping to wow them with tales of my heroism facing the Pigs on the streets of Chicago last fall, but noticing their lack of enthusiasm I cut it short.
By the time we made it to the first refreshment station we three seemed to be good friends. There were twelve checkpoint stations set up along the route where registered walkers had to check in and grab free sandwiches along with fruit juice or water in paper cups. I’d not had much to eat and was glad for the food, and gobbled whatever they offered, even when it was bologna on white bread, not my preferred fare.
Bathroom relief was another comfort offered at specially marked houses along the route. Kindhearted family members stood outside to direct us to the John. I patiently waited for my two ladies to finish, shrugging off the temptation to forge ahead as I watched with envy as fitter couples blew on passed. I thought it was darn gallant of me to move at their pace.
The girls were smiling more at my jokes, and I saw a flicker of interest cross those lovely brown eyes. I was plugging for the brunette and walking between them, took her and her friend’s hand too. A guy had to hedge his bets, just in case, because you never know.
The brunette suddenly dropped my hand as we approached the third check point.
“Oh, shit, that’s my dad!”
“How are you holding up, honey?” Her Dad waved, smiling at his precious brown-haired girl.
“I’ll make it.” She assured him, grabbed a juice, and continued on without introducing me. He was waiting at the next one too and then each check point thereafter, so she brushed away my proffered hand to go it alone. Gradually, this girl who’d entered my daydreams, was flagging and becoming cross and irritable with me. Maybe I’d bet on the wrong horse.
Her friend still had energy, but since I’d directed so much attention on the brunette, she’d moved to walk on her far side and her polite smiles didn’t seem meant to entice.
We climbed a steep section at Hill Avenue in Glen Ellyn. Up and up and up we climbed and then trudged downhill as others more fleet of foot passed by. I tried pep talk.
“You can’t give out!” The brunette’s listless glance told me I wasn’t helping. “Here, I’ll carry you!”
And I did, hoisting the pretty lass on my shoulders to straddle my neck. Then her friend and I picked up the pace. Even with her petite weight I got my second wind and felt invincible, jogging in triumph to the crowd’s applause. On we flew through two check points, passing many of the weary couples who’d passed us, and waving at her dad who cheered us on. Could she have been embarrassed about her Dad seeing us like this, or was she only tired of it, tired of me! At the next check she begged off.
“Just drop me here and go ahead,” she urged. “I’ll be alright, my Dad will pick me up.”
“But will I see you again? Can I have your number?”
“Gee, I don’t know. I mean maybe we’ll meet again some time.”
“Maybe?” After all my effort to wow her, I couldn’t let both her and her friend slip away without some hope of reunion. Her friend, who’d been holding up very well until then, gave me a sideways glance. I wondered if I could switch horses in midstream. Not with her friend still astride my shoulders.
“How about you,” I asked her friend. “Giving up with her?”
After a long pause, with her eyes downcast, she spoke. “Oh, I’d better stay with her.” But I knew she’d rather finish the course.
I squatted and dropped off my mount and waved her aboard. “Climb on if you’re tired! You can finish riding on me.”
Her eyes pivoted between me and her girlfriend, as if weighing her options. “No, I’d better stick with my friend. Her dad is my ride home.” Then her eyes lit up. “Sometimes we hang out at the Union or that park in Elmhurst.”
“Wilder Park?” My hope sprang anew. “There’s going to be a concert there in a few days, on May 9th. I could meet you then or at the student Union tonight, or whenever you like.”
“Sure, maybe we’ll see you at the finish line.”
With that vague promise I felt as frisky as a colt and unburdened I jogged onward, passing whole regiments of frazzled walkers who’d been passing us by all day. Some warned me to take it easy, but I knew they were pooped out and sour at eating my dust. I flew passed one check point without stopping, then gulped downed two cups of water at the next and got the heartening encouragement of the volunteer staff.
“You’re almost there, man, pace yourself!”
I alternated between a dog trot and a brisk walking pace. Spectators all along these last miles cheered me, which fired me up even more. With all my trekking between Wood Dale, the West End and Elmhurst, I was in decent shape. I hadn’t let my time in jail sap my will or my wind. The girls would be waiting for me at the finish, I told myself.
As I came up on station number 11, A volunteer yelled. “This is the last check point before the finish line. You’re making it man!” A spectator yelled, “It’s just straight on from here!”
Getting ever closer, I broke into a run as I turned onto Harvard Street and crossed Jackson. The finish line at the school was just ahead and then I was there, my heart bursting from my chest as I joined those stalwarts who’d preceded me and flopped down on the grass, overwhelmed by a combination of dizzy exhilaration and fatigue.
I’d done it! Of the original 20,000 who began only 6,000 finished the full marathon walk. It gave me some sense of pride, some macho hubris, to know that I’d made it. The committee raised over $200,000 for various projects, although, as an undocumented member, I wasn’t in their statistics and earned them zero. But hey, I was no goddamned Suburbanite Middle class American kid. I was an outsider, a Revolutionary, a stranger in a strange land and proud of defying the corporate structure.
When I got back up on rubbery legs, I searched the crowd for my erstwhile companions. There I saw my little brunette beside her dad. She saw me too and gave me a curt wave back so her dad wouldn’t see in that cool, brusque, dismissive way that communicates less than Hello and more than Goodbye. I’d have been embarrassed too. Girls have different relationships with their fathers than guys do, an Electra thing, sort of like an Oedipus complex. Her friend spotted me and waved with a little more vigor, so I approached, thinking I should have been trying for instead.
“Too bad you two didn’t make the finish.”
“Yeah,” the friend said. I didn’t want to miss my ride home. Maybe we’ll see you again someday.”
But it wasn’t to be. The next day was Monday, the 4th of May, the day our sky fell with the Kent State massacre of college students. The fast sweep of events shook America and altered our dreams of love. 1970 was an action-packed year for me, for all of us. Goodbye my dear would be lovers, wherever you are.