Cornfield Meet

Things collide here.

1989: Point of origin.

I’m a big fan of exploring how things are connected in almost unnoticeable ways, how paths turn, how events and people link, and the resulting unpredictable chains.

And among the events of 1989 is the first point on a particularly important, if convoluted, line in my life:

See, as that year began, I was just beginning to seriously date the German exchange student at our high school.

Because of that, I met my wife Jenn – almost five years later and a thousand miles away.

Here’s the deal:

In July, 1989, I stood on the observation deck at the Akron-Canton Airport and watched this girl’s plane take off as she headed back to Germany. Yes, it had been inevitable; yes, I took it hard anyway.

The next month, I began my freshman year of college at Bowling Green State University, and while that semester is full of its own 1989 mile markers, here’s the one relevant to this story: I still wasn’t over my German girlfriend.

So by the time the school year ended in spring, 1990, I was already planning my first trip overseas.

I went home from BG intending to work my ass off and save every penny for an airline ticket and funds for a month-long visit to Germany in July.

At the time, I worked at the big Children’s Palace toy store at Belden Village mall, my holdover job from the previous summer and two Christmas seasons. Mostly I stocked and straightened shelves, but I worked shifts in the warehouse now and then, and occasionally donned the Peter Panda mascot outfit during big sales. Problem was, Children’s Palace wasn’t close to a full-time job: Shifts were mostly four- or five-hour afternoon stints, maybe three or four days a week. It was all they could give me, but the paychecks I was getting weren’t going to come near to funding my trip

So I swallowed my pride and did what I swore I never would: I applied for a job at McDonald’s.

From the time I was old enough to work, I had vowed never to do fast food. Between the ages of 15 and 19, I worked as a summer camp counselor at the YMCA, did mini-golf groundskeeping and batting-cage maintenance, held two busboy jobs and then landed at Children’s Palace.

But never, I said, McDonald’s.

Yet here I was, desperate for the cash to reach Europe, and needing it now, since the summer vacation clock was already ticking.

I told them I could work as many hours as they had to throw at me, whenever they needed me, and I could start right this second.

That’s how I found myself pulling a dime past minimum wage, working mostly the opening shift, 5 a.m. to 1p.m. five days a week. I came home afternoons feeling shellacked in grease and smelling like french fries.

But I was socking away the money I needed for that trip to Germany.

I can imagine nothing else that would have gotten 19-year-old me to work at McDonald’s.

So flash forward another academic year, and now it’s April or May 1991, and my best friend Ivan and I have decided that we’re going to get an apartment and stay in Bowling Green for the summer, since I’ve got some classes I want to take.

Before we’ve even told our parents, we have gone out and found a place to rent, though neither of us has work lined up. There are enough weeks to do that, I’m guessing, before the end of the school year, and I figure my parents will be OK with the idea as long as I can find employment to support a few months’ worth of rent and utilities.

As the school year winds to a close, I am failing in this quest.

After the last day of the semester, I am heading home for a week before I have to return to BG for classes. We have signed our lease, and I have no job.

The desperation kicks in again, and I stop at the McDonald’s at the eastern edge of campus, walk in, and ask for the manager.

“I need a summer job,” I tell her. “I’ve worked at McDonald’s back home since last summer, I know grill and drive-thru and register, so you won’t have to train me. I signed a lease for an apartment this summer and I can’t go home without telling my parents I found a job, and I can start next Monday.”

She hired me.

What happened at this McDonald’s was that I met another girl. And we started dating at the end of summer, just before school resumed. This is, in fact, That Girl from the “Dark Times” chapter of Collect All 21!, and while the next few years of my life will mostly suck, the key role she plays here is that our move to Florida in March of 1993 is totally her idea.

Oh, I wanted to go someplace after I graduated in December of 1992, but never Florida.

And yet that’s where we moved in March 1993, after a weekend scouting trip to Orlando where we both got nowhere with job interviews at Walt Disney World, but she got hired at a McDonald’s where a former co-worker was managing.

I walked into another McDonald’s just down the street from the apartment we’d picked out, gave nearly the same speech I had in the BG store a couple years before, and walked out with yet another job waiting for me.

After we’d been down there a few months, I took a second job at a local buffalo wing restaurant, quit my job at McDonald’s to help a new owner run the wing place full-time, and then began a part-time job at Disney World, having landed a job as a tour operator at the Disney-MGM studios.

That’s not important to the story, really, but this is: The wing company’s new owner wasn’t able to keep his financial promises, and when I realized it wasn’t working out and that I couldn’t survive on just my two or three days week at Disney, well…

I walked into my fourth McDonald’s in as many years – just a couple miles from my previous one, to which I did not return due to some bad blood over my departure – and put myself up for hire, no training necessary.

And again, the manager brought me on board immediately.

And it was here, at the McDonald’s on Lee Road in Orlando, where I found myself working regularly with this crazy funny cute punkish girl with these shining eyes and bizarre sense of humor and a laugh that just weakened me every time she let it loose.

If I hadn’t dated that German exchange student; if I hadn’t been so driven for cash that I walked into that first McDonald’s; if I hadn’t been able to use that experience to land my next summer job and meet that girl who convinced me to move to Florida – then, how in the world would I have ever, ever EVER crossed paths with this fanastic gorgeous creature who tied her hair with a pink scarf and loaned me her coat to sweep the parking lot on a chilly morning?

Of course I married her. Life goes through all that work to make something happen, you don’t ignore it.

August 29, 2009 Posted by | 1980s, eighties, Ohio, Travel, writing | , , , | 3 Comments

1989: More Things That Mattered To Me

In early 1989, the year I graduated from high school, my dad lost one of his kidneys to cancer, which was another one of the things from that year which served as a marking post for pathways to come.

Four years later, Dad passed away due to the re-emergence of that cancer, this time in his lymphatic system. He died a week after his 46th birthday.

I was 22 years old at the time, living in Orlando, and mired in what I wrote about in Collect All 21! as The Dark Times. When I realized how sick Dad was after calling on his birthday, I made the trip back up to Ohio.

And though I didn’t manage to re-track my life overnight after his funeral, saying goodbye to Dad was a sort of two-by-four to the head that hurt like hell, but also opened my eyes and started me thinking an awful damn lot about what really matters.

Bizarre thing is, I’ve never considered it in that way until just this moment. I’d like to think that even if Dad had never gotten sick, eventually I’d have come to my senses and righted my ship, but who knows how much longer I’d have stayed stuck in those bleak, draining years? Too much longer, and maybe I’d have alienated my friends and family beyond the point of reconciliation, and my life now would be very different.

It didn’t happen immediately or easily, but in the year after Dad’s passing, I did start getting my act together and started trying to mend fences and build bridges and apologize and forgive and generally not be a self-involved stubborn jackass anymore.

All this, of course, was four years (short in some ways, bitterly long in others) distant from 1989, but that year is where the roots lie.

I remember not going to school the day of his kidney surgery, spending the time at the hospital where Mom and Dad worked, and talking to Dennis, my dad’s friend and fellow anesthetist, after the surgery.

There wasn’t a doubt in my mind that Dad would be OK. I wish I could say this was some sort of deep-seated conviction or faith, but the truth is, I don’t know whether it was genuine certainty and optimism or simply a refusal to deal with the darker possibilities.

At any rate, for a few years, he was OK, and things were mostly normal.

We went to Orlando that year for Spring Break, as usual, although we stopped along the way instead of making our usual straight-through overnight run. And while we were there, another bit of fallout from Dad’s kidney cancer manifested itself. This one, though, was a good bit: Dad was Corvette shopping.

Apparently, owning a Corvette had been a longtime dream of his, so, fresh off his bout with cancer, Dad was in a buying mood. And we were looking in Florida because, he said, cars down there never had to contend with winter road salt.

He wasn’t looking at the post-1983-makover editions: Dad wanted, you know, one of the cool Corvettes, when they still had the big, swoopy front fenders and the pointed noses.

“Seriously, how freaking awesome it would be if he got one and I had to help drive it back from Florida,” I remember asking my buddy Aaron, who joined us on these trips.

That didn’t happen, but not long after that vacation, Dad got his Corvette: It was an ’82 – the last year they made them in the old-school style.

I remember the first time he let me drive it, out on State Street, on the wide-open stretch west of Alliance. Dad was encouraging me to punch it a little and I was nervous as hell and afraid to blink, but I gave it a little boost, and there was an adrenaline rush and me grinning and grinning like an idiot, Dad sitting in the passenger’s seat watching and smiling.

That year, for either his birthday or Father’s Day, I got Dad a pair of leather driving gloves.

The Corvette was so long it barely fit in our garage, and even though Dad insisted on covering it every night with an old Peanuts bedspread, he was never selfish about the car: He’d let me take it out to get ice cream, or to go pick up my brothers from one practice or another, or even to just go drive around.

Once, just barely creeping out of the driveway, I backed over a toad. I felt horrible. It’s a gorgeous night, friends and neighbors are hanging out, I’m a high school senior with Corvette keys in my hand, and I’m standing in the yard with a lump in my throat over this freaking toad.

The car had removable T-tops and a cassette player and a loud-ass speaker system, and I tell you this: There’s probably nothing you can do on any stereo setting that will ever make music sound as good to me as it did mixed with the wind whipping around while I had Radio K.A.O.S. or The Pet Shop Boys cranked, or, depending on my mood, maybe a little Moody Blues or James Taylor’s Greatest Hits. And if “The Boys of Summer” came on the radio? Hot damn.

I drove the Corvette on prom night and took spins around the block with friends the day of my graduation party. (The block in question was a five-mile route with a couple stretches out among the cornfields, so, yeah: benefits of living a bit beyond the suburbs.)

Eventually, cars became just a way for me to get from place to place, and road trips became about the journey and not the wheels. Every so often, though, I’ll see a silver early-1980s Corvette, and Jenn will notice me looking at it a little longer than I need to.

August 21, 2009 Posted by | 1980s, eighties, Music, Ohio | , , , | 3 Comments


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