Thursday, June 11, 2009

An Incredible Journey, Part I

Stewart (he doesn't want his last name used in this article, for reasons that will become clear later) grew up in suburban Glenview in the 1960’s and ’70’s as a typical Glenview kid in the 1960’s and ’70’s might. He attended Wilmette public schools until high school; moved on to New Trier West (now the school’s freshman campus) after that. Upon graduating, he enrolled at Northern Illinois University.

Two years into college, though, he had a problem: He had to declare a major. He didn’t know which to choose, and the decision was too much for him. He had difficulty making big decisions like that.

Instead of deciding, Stewart dropped out of college. He got a job working at the Greyhound station in Northbrook. Moved back in with his parents.

Here, it must be said that there’s a girl in this story, too. A girl Stewart had met in high school. The girl of his high school romance.

In 1982, when Stewart had been working at the Greyhound station for two years, this girl was studying at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Stewart missed her. So, he did what any typical 22-year-old guy who’s in love would do: He joined her.

When he arrived in Madison, he wanted to enroll in the university to continue his studies. Only, he couldn’t get in-state tuition until he had lived there for a year. So, he did that. Worked for a whole year in a store that sold children’s corrective shoes. When the state of Wisconsin finally considered him a resident— or, more to the point, considered him eligible for reduced tuition— he started classes.

So, there was the girl, the reason he came to Madison. There was the university, where he could continue his education. But there was still the issue of what to major in.

He wanted to be a dietician, so he started out pursuing food science. When he took a chemistry class, though, he found it too fast-paced; too competitive, what with all the pre-med students. No, the stress of hard science wasn’t for him.

Rather, he thought to himself: The hell with that. I’m going to do what my dad did. I’m going to become a teacher.

Oh, yes— his dad. His dad plays a role in this story, too.

Stewart’s mother had had a hysterectomy to remove cancerous ovaries in 1973. Unfortunately, she succumbed to the cancer in 1985. After his wife’s death, Stewart’s dad moved into a so-called retirement hotel.

One day, Stewart got a call from an administrator there. It seemed his dad had called for an ambulance on three occasions. That was a problem.

The calls weren’t made without reason. You see, Stewart’s dad had Parkinson’s’ disease. The Parkinson’s caused him to fall face down on his bed multiple times. Hence, the calls to 911.

The problem was that ambulances scared the elderly people there (or so said the administrator). The calls couldn’t continue. Stewart’s dad would have to leave.

What was Stewart to do? Would could he do? Only one thing: Bring his dad up to Madison to live with him in the dorm.

And it worked. Stewart's father, then 62 (he was forced to retire at 60), became one of the guys. Everyone liked him. No one asked him to leave. He would nod off in front of the communal television— the only man in the place over 30, let alone 62— and no one said anything.

He stayed there until the following May, when Stewart graduated.

Yes; after five years of classes between two schools in two states, Stewart finally graduated college with a degree in elementary education.

Now he was set with that.

But not with the girl.

She had broken up with him.

And so, after graduation, Stewart and his dad moved to Evanston, where they lived while Stewart worked during the day at Banner Day Camp up in Lake Forest. It was a job that Stewart, then 26, had taken on every summer since he was 17. He worked his way up from counselor to counselor-and-bus driver to musical director.

Ah, yes— music. Music was something Stewart liked. A lot.

He would lead songs for groups of campers. He played guitar, performed for the whole camp at the yearly Bannerama festival. When it rained, he would spend the whole day singing.

Yes, Stewart really liked music.

As the summer of 1986 wound down, he didn’t have a job lined up for the fall. Then, on the last day of camp, he received a call from an official at Milwaukee Public Schools. He had gotten a job teaching eighth grade math and science.

For the next three years, Stewart and his dad lived in Milwaukee. Halfway into that time, Stewart reconciled with his girlfriend. At the end of it, he quit his job. He was going back to Madison.

With his father, of course.

Stewart was now 29. He had been with this girl on and off for 12 years, almost half his life. He had moved to Madison for her not once, but now twice, this time leaving behind a job he enjoyed.

Four months after he arrived, she broke up with him again.

It was the same story— the same story over and over. She would cheat on him; he would take her back. She would cheat on him again; he would take her back again. He thought it cruel, her doing whatever she wanted, knowing that she could, because Stewart would always take her back. (He always did.)

Only, this breakup was different. It would be their last.

Soon after, she married another man.

A man she had been seeing in secret.

Stewart stayed in Madison for two more years, doing substitute teaching. But he was distraught. The breakup was traumatic; very traumatic. He enjoyed teaching, and he loved taking care of his dad. But this… this was too much.

He knew he needed to make a change in his life. A big change.

In the summer of 1991, one would take shape.

Now 31, Stewart was back at Banner Day Camp teaching music. (It was a job he had taken on every summer since he was 17.) One day in the middle of the camp season, he was participating in the daily singing session that took place before campers boarded their buses for home. As the children were gathering, he took the microphone on a whim.

“Is there any staff member interested in joining me on a tour through Europe?” he said.

The idea had been stirring in him for a little while. Stewart was burned out. He felt he was getting old before his time. He thought a vacation in Europe would make him a better teacher; would make for some interesting stories to tell his students when he got back.

Stewart's moves from 1981 to 1992. (Click here for a more detailed map.)    

He also had never traveled outside the U.S. before. Europe’s different cultures, different currencies (at the time), different languages— all of that appealed to him.

So, Europe it would be.

And why not have a travel partner? That would make the trip more fun.

From the crowd, one of the counselors approached Stewart. It was a guy in his early 20’s. Yes, he said, he’d be interested in going. In fact, he also was thinking of making a tour through Europe.

And so it was that at the end of the camp season, Stewart put his dad into a nursing home, gathered his guitar and some other belongings, and boarded a plane to Frankfurt, Germany.

Only, the trip wouldn’t go quite as expected.

Not at all.

Click here for part II

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