I’ve gotten a little behind in my reliving the year 1980, so will try to catch up a little bit here.
In September, I went away to college. Yes, I had done this before—to Missouri University in 1977—but Mizzou was sort of the expected thing to do, and I knew a lot of people there. I had fun during my five semesters in Columbia, but ultimately Mizzou turned out to be just too big for me. I left halfway through my third year and looked for someplace smaller.
I found North Central College in Naperville, Ill. At about 2,000 students, NCC was about 1/10th the size of Mizzou. I didn’t know a soul there when I moved in, but oddly, I don’t remember that fact bothering me at all; instead, I think I welcomed the chance to make a new start.
A big part of my new college experience was going to be swimming. After being on swim teams from 4th grade through high school, I “retired” after my senior year, because there was no way I was going to make the Mizzou squad. But with the change to the smaller, Division III school, swimming was front-and-center again. I was welcomed onto the team, and immediately had a group of people to hang out with. I also offered up my services to the Chronicle, the NCC student newspaper, and they put me to work right away writing articles. So almost immediately, I was immersed in activities that were beyond my reach at Mizzou.
It was a good fall. I was getting to know a few people and was pretty much enjoying the college experience. I rode the BN commuter train into Chicago for a couple of concerts—Jethro Tull at the Rosemont, and the Police at the Aragon Ballroom. I was reading a lot of Hunter Thompson. And every afternoon, there were two hours of very intense swimming workouts; I was getting into the best shape of my life.
In 1976, I had turned 17, still too young to vote in that year’s election. 1980 would be my first chance to vote for a president. Unfortunately, 1980 was also the year that President Jimmy Carter pulled the United States out of the Moscow Olympics to protest the USSR’s invasion of Afghanistan. Now, I’ve always loved politics, but I’ve also always loved the Olympics. That spring, I wrote a letter to Time Magazine registering my protest over the Olympics boycott. “President Carter has lost my vote…” the letter began. I think it’s the only time I’ve ever written a letter to the editor, certainly the only one to a national publication. They didn’t publish it, but I’d made a commitment. And that fall, when it came time to send for an absentee ballot and fill it out, I cast my vote for the independent, John Anderson. I knew full well that my vote would result in the lesser of the major-party candidates being elected, but I wanted to make sure that President Carter got the message.
(Somehow, though, he never got back to me to apologize about the Olympics thing; and he seems to think that the economy was the reason he lost the election.)
I had a class on election night. It finished up about 8:30. I rushed back to my room to start watching the election returns come in. But as soon as I walked in the door, my roommate gave me the news: Carter was already conceding. At North Central, at that time, if you were 21 you were allowed to have alcohol in your room. I’m guessing I had some that night, because I have no memory of the rest of the night. That election, my first presidential vote, was the only time I’ve ever cast a ballot for a third-party candidate, and I can’t imagine I’ll ever do it again.
The North Central swim teams had a tradition of going to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., for a team training trip each winter. The school’s first trimester ends just before Thanksgiving, and the Florida trip is the following week. I took the Amtrak home from Chicago, and then on Sunday, November 30—thirty years ago today!—I took my first plane trip: St. Louis to Atlanta to Fort Lauderdale. Coming in for the landing, I also got my first glimpse of the Atlantic Ocean, or any ocean for that matter. That night, a few of us would run across the road and dive into the water, swim in the crashing waves, figure out how to body surf. My baptism, as it were, at 21 years old.