There’s Something Good Waitin’ Down This Road

The first half of August was one of the busier and more memorable periods of my 1989, featuring (literally) cross-country travel. This week and next I’ll try to hit highlights without getting too bogged down in those darn weeds.

On Thursday, August 3, I flew out of Cincinnati, headed northeast (and I do mean northeast). Final destination: Loring AFB, Maine, mere miles both south and west of New Brunswick on the Canadian border. I got there by landing at nearby Presque Isle International Airport, via Boston. The reason? To spend a few days with my old HS friend Frank and his family: Lisa and their two daughters, one of whom was just a few months old.

Frank had gone through AFROTC at the University of Kentucky and was commissioned upon graduation. By this time he was a pilot for the Air Force, in the midst of the slowly unfolding but lengthy series of moves across the years that so many career military folks must grapple with. We’d remained fairly close friends through college and had stayed in decent touch in the three years since we both had left Lexington. The best way for us to have some time to hang together clearly was for me to travel to wherever he was.

Loring existed because of its proximity to Europe as well as the Soviet Union via the Arctic Circle. (The base closed five years after my visit; the end of the Cold War greatly reduced the probability of needing to launch a bunch of bombers toward those places quickly.) The geo-political realities of August 89 wound up putting a crimp in our plans—some threat which Frank couldn’t reveal put him on alert for much of my visit, meaning he had to stay close to his plane for long stretches of time. So on the Sunday I was there, it was just Lisa, the girls, and I who drove four hours each way to visit beautiful Québec City. Occasionally Lisa and I struggled getting the carriage up or down stairs, but it was a completely delightful day—I’d totally love to visit again. I’d had just enough French at this point to think I could try to tell waitstaff what I wanted to order for lunch, but quickly learned that wasn’t the case.

The trip was far from a complete bust in terms of longtime friends getting together. Frank and I did get to catch up and talk—just not as much as we would have liked. We’ve seen each other maybe a half-dozen times in the three decades since, including less than two weeks ago. Our experiences and views about the world are fairly different, but one of the really gratifying things I took from our recent mini-reunion is that he and I still fall easily into conversation. Some things that date all the way back to 82, even earlier, haven’t changed much, and I’m glad about that. (On the other hand, I just learned the infant I pushed around Québec is getting married this fall.)

My Illinois life intervened briefly while I was in Maine. One of my fellow grad students managed to track me down (guess he got my parents’ number from the math grad office, and they gave him Frank’s number—communication was much harder, for both good and bad, before cell phones and email) with an offer. He was recruiting assistants for an experimental calculus class, based on the theories of Uri Treisman. Treisman sought ways to help students from underprivileged backgrounds succeed in college math and science classes. This program would have the students meet for additional time outside of the standard lecture/recitation model, working in groups on handouts; TAs would receive training on facilitating follow-up discussion. Classes of this type turned out to be successfully implemented at colleges and universities across the country during the 90s. I was being given a chance to gain valuable experience with an innovative and meaningful program, and it was extremely short-sighted of me to turn the opportunity down. It’s likely the single largest profession-related regret I have. I suppose I thought in the moment that I’d be busily getting involved in research with my new advisor—progress on that front in 89-90 wound up being much slower than I anticipated.  The reason to say yes would not have been to burnish my résumé, though it certainly would have done that—I expect the experience would have informed my teaching style much for the better.

The two videos I specifically remember seeing on MTV in Frank’s home on the base during the six days I was there are those of Cher’s “If I Could Turn Back Time” and Tom Petty’s “Runnin’ Down a Dream.” Seeing the animated clip for Petty’s song now reminds me how dream-like it is, in that things that make no sense yet might feel plausible in the middle of the night keep happening to our hero and his short, cigar-chomping friend. I bought the Full Moon Fever CD sometime later in the fall, and now I can’t hear the fadeout of “Runnin’ Down a Dream” without expecting Petty to break in tell me he’s briefly pausing the music to even us CD listeners up with folks who have to flip over an LP or cassette prior to “Feel a Whole Lot Better” playing.

The following Wednesday, it was back on a plane to Boston—I took particular note of the Atlantic Ocean both coming in to and flying back out of Logan. But a return to Cincinnati wasn’t the plan; by day’s end, I would also be seeing the Pacific.

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