Hills


Illinois is a rather flat state. When I ran races in California, the race entry form would describe the race course as either flat or hilly. And by hilly that usually meant some steep incline. I once ran a seven-mile race that was uphill for the first half of the course. When I returned to Chicago and started running races here, some race courses were described as hilly. In California, these types of hills are called “flat” by some race directors and “gently rolling hills” by others.

When I started running cross country in Donaldson, Indiana, we never ran any hills because the terrain is relatively flat there, too. Occasionally, there were some slight inclines, but there were no real hills per se. In Chicago, there are no hills either. When I ran with the Marquette Park Track Club, coach Jack Bolton would have us doing “hill work” by running up the sled hill in Marquette Park or running to the “Nabisco Hill” near the Nabisco cookie factory. They weren’t real hills, but that was the best way to train for the “hilly” races in Illinois.

Image
This picture doesn’t truly capture the grade of this hill in Glen Ellyn.

In México City, they have mountains, not hills. I once went running with my cousin through the mountains. We ran for about an hour, but I was surprised that I could keep up with him. I think he was trying to run me into the ground.  Afterwards, he told me that since I was from Chicago, he didn’t think I could handle the hills or the altitude, México City having the elevation of 8000 feet.

So now that I’m running in “flat” Illinois again, I found some “hills” in Glen Ellyn that for my area of Illinois are “hilly”. Of course, I’m not as young as I was when I ran in California or México, nor am I in top form physically anymore. However, I’ve been running these hills for the last year or so trying to get back in shape. I think back to some of the hilly California races I ran and these hills I’m running now don’t seem so steep now.

A few weeks ago, I was running up this Glen Ellyn hill, seen in the picture above, and struggling to keep running at the same pace. This hill on Prospect Avenue goes up for about a half mile. I’ve seen other runners stop running and start walking up this hill. I always continue running up the hill. It’s funny how I only remember running uphill, but not running downhill. Anyway, I’m running up this hill, when suddenly I hear footsteps behind me. I could tell it was another runner by the pace of the footsteps. A female runner passes me up and I say, “Good morning” to her. I make it a point to greet all runners I meet in order to share in the camaraderie of running. She runs a few steps past me and turns back to look at me. She tells me in a firm voice, “Attack the hill!” So, I attack the hill and pull up alongside her. I’m pushing myself harder than I would have had I been all alone. I’m struggling to keep up with her, but I actually feel good that she came along and pushed me to run faster. Her running form is smooth, but she’s huffing and puffing with each step up that hill. I, on the other hand, am not huffing and puffing, but you could tell from my form that I’m struggling to get up that hill. When we get to the top of the hill, we part ways and I shout out to her, “Thanks for the motivation!”

I guess I enjoy the challenge of running up hills.

Vanity license plates


This is not my vanity plate!

Vanity of Vanities! Everyone seems to have a vanity license plate. Everywhere I look on the road, I see a vanity plate.

I give up! For a while there, I was taking pictures of clever vanity license plates, although I must admit that some vanity plates weren’t so clever. People are more than willing to pay extra for these license plates, whether or not they’re clever. There are just too many vanity license plates for me to photograph!

I quit taking those pictures for safety reasons. Occasionally, I would take a picture of vanity plates while driving and a couple of times I almost got into an accident. Is my life worth risking for the sake of documenting people’s idea of “wit”? Will I further humanity by continuing to risk my life? Will anyone notice that I’ve stopped taking these pictures on the road while driving?

Lately, I’ve noticed that there are so many vanity license plates in Illinois. So many that I’ve reached the conclusion that we must be the vainest state of the Union when it comes to vanity plates. Every time I drive, I see at least one vanity plate. When I drive to other states, I don’t see as many vanity plates. Okay, I did see quite a few in California, but not the other states I drove through. But I’m sure that other states will catch up with the growing popularity of vanity license plates.

Hollywood Marine


2509 W. Marquette Road

I don’t know why, but I always wanted to join the Marines since I was little. The Marines, the few, the proud. They were real men. As boys, my friends and I always talked about how tough the Marines were with great admiration. So, I eventually enlisted at age 22, much older than the normal age of eighteen or nineteen. My father was afraid that I would get killed in action, even though there was no war at the time. My mother was so proud of me! But I’m not sure why since she was so disappointed when I left the seminary and didn’t become a priest. Perhaps she would have been happy if I had become a chaplain in the Marines.

U.S. involvement in  Viet Nam ended in 1975 and I joined the Marines in 1978. That means that I didn’t see any combat action. I trained at MCRD (Marine Corps Recruit Depot) in San Diego for boot camp. That made me a Hollywood Marine. After boot camp, I went to 29 Palms, California, where I studied electronics for a year and a half for my MOS. By the time I was trained as a telephone and switchboard technician, I had already served more than half of my three-year enlistment. However, I could not serve any time overseas because I only had a little more than a year left of my enlistment. No one was sent overseas unless they had at least two years of service left.

I was transferred to Camp Pendleton near Oceanside, California, where I became a real Hollywood Marine. I actually spent a lot of time in Hollywood watching movies! The people who watched movies in Hollywood really loved movies! I didn’t see any combat except in the movies. The closest I ever got to the battlefield was watching Apocalypse Now! at the Pacific Cinedome in Hollywood.

Another memorable movie that I watched in Hollywood, and I still vividly remember, was Monty Python’s The Life of Brian at Mann’s Chinese Theater. My brother Danny and I saw it together because he was also in the Marines and stationed at the Tustin Marine Air Base. Luckily, we went early in the afternoon to buy tickets. The next two showings were sold out and we couldn’t get tickets until an evening showing. We actually had time to see another movie and eat dinner before the Monty Python movie. Everyone loved the movie! I had never experienced such great enjoyment of a comedy movie before, or since. There was a long line to enter the theater, so I told my brother we should sit near the front. In 1979, before the era of surround sound, the only speakers were located behind the silver screen. And it’s a good thing we sat close to the front because the non-stop laughter continuously drowned out the movie soundtrack!

When I didn’t go to Hollywood to watch movies, I would go to Newport Beach, California, to watch movies. There was a movie revival house that always showed classic movies. I used like reading books and then going to see the movies based on them. I remember reading Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 and Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five and then seeing the movies versions of those novels. Unfortunately, the Marines didn’t award me any medals for my deployment to the movie theaters. Nor did I get any medals for my reconnaissance missions to Disneyland! Oh, the long lines I had to endure

Long after I completed my enlistment, I received an application in the mail to join a group called the Veterans of Foreign Wars. All I had to do was check the box of the war that was ongoing while I was serving in any of the branches of the U.S. Armed Forces. As luck would have it, there were no wars while I was in the Marines. I’m not complaining, in fact, I feel very fortunate, but I couldn’t join the VFW! Viet Nam ended in 1975, long before I enlisted. The next eligible conflict was the Beirut barracks bombing in 1983, which occurred two years after I was discharged. Of course, I don’t deserve to belong to the VFW. I was a Hollywood Marine!

UIC SOS


The international symbol of distress.

Teaching is very rewarding in many ways, but just not financially. My alma mater and present employer, the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC),  is suffering from budget problems. Well, the whole country is suffering from these hard economic times. UIC is suffering because the state of Illinois isn’t paying UIC what it is owed and therefore hirings of new faculty and staff have ceased. Faculty and staff have to take unpaid furlough days to meet the budget shortfall–in addition to the budget recisions already implemented over the past few years. Illinois has one of the worst budget crises in the country, second only to California.

Of course, my job security is also on the line. My contract as a Spanish lecturer with UIC expires on May 15, 2010. Will I be rehired next year? No one knows with any certainty. We’ll see. The good news for me is that I don’t have to take any unpaid furlough days. The bad news is that I don’t earn enough to take furlough days. I feel the budget cuts in so many ways. I can’t call anyone on my office telephone outside of the Chicago area codes. Every year I’m allowed to make less and less copies for student handouts. Luckily for me, Spanish is the foreign language most in demand at UIC. Unfortunately, gone is the golden age when everyone who earned a Ph.D. would more than likely get a job in academia!

00000.0


My Pontiac Vibe

Or perhaps I should write 77777. You’re probably wondering what the heck I’m talking about, right? Okay, just pretend that you are.

Okay, if you insist, I’ll tell you. I was driving to school today when I suddenly looked at the odometer and read 77777. My car’s only three years old and I’ve already put on 77,777 miles (My 2005 Pontiac Vibe doesn’t display tenths of miles). And I don’t consider myself a heavy driver.  I seem to spend more time reading books than driving. So how did I manage to drive so many miles? I really don’t know. However, I stopped the car immediately and took a poor-quality picture–as is characteristic of my photography skills–of the odometer to mark this blessed occasion.

Actually, I’m not so sure what so special about 77777. All those sevens mean nothing to me! Really! But when I saw them, I immediately thought of 00000.0 (I’ll bet you thought I forgot about the title of this blog post!) from when I was in the Marines and my Marine friends with whom I lived in the barracks insisted that I drive my 1976 Chevy Nova with them in it (and a keg of beer, of course–talk about an open container of alcohol in vehicle!) until the odometer turned over to 00000.0. They constantly checked my odometer because they wanted to be with me for the blessed event when I drove past 99,999.9 miles. I really didn’t see what the big deal was about driving so many miles. I had bought the car new and I was the only owner. I had driven it to California and back a few times by that time in 1979.

There’s something that I like about driving. Is it the solitude? Is it the time that I have to myself that allows me to reflect about past transgressions and allows me the opportunity to reflect on how to better myself and the world? Of course not! I just love driving–and fast! Nothing feels better than driving on the open road in the middle of nowhere, such as upper Michigan or the Mojave Desert, with the pedal to the metal and not a worry in the world because I won’t see another vehicle for miles! Anyway, I’m with my Marine friends and a keg of beer with our names on it (To my sons and students who may be reading this: Remember this if FICTION! Please see the disclaimer in the right margin!!) in the car going about a hundred miles per hour because they want me to hurry up and hit 100,000.0 miles! In their excitement, one spilled a beer in the front seat, another drank too much and puked on the exterior side of my rear door. Luckily, we were driving in the Mojave Desert, my car had no air conditioning, and it was 120 degrees out. I’m glad he had time to stick his head out the window. It was so hot outside that his vomit dried almost instantly. However, I had to pull him back in when he felt so bad about vomiting that he tried to clean up the mess and almost fell out of the car.

This was also a memorable trip because as I was driving I thought I heard an airplane engine. When I looked in the rearview mirror, I saw that a small airplane was actually closing in on my Chevy Nova. This really happened to me! The plane buzzed us about three times. Actually, it was quite funny. Then came the much-anticipated moment. The odometer read 99,999.9. I slowed the car down to practically a crawl. There were six heads crowding over the odometer. It felt like a slow-motion special effect as we watched the odometer slowly–ever so slowly–turn to all zeros. The cheering in the car was deafening. They insisted that I stop the car so we could christen it. They poured our precious beer over the hood, the roof, and the trunk, and I was about to complain until I noticed that it was washing the puke off my car door. My friends were drunk with pride–and a little beer (it was a small keg)–over my car’s accomplishment.

I still miss that car. I owned it and drove it for thirteen years. It had 163,000 miles on it and it still didn’t burn any oil. The battery lasted about six years because I always added tap water even though I was told to add only distilled water. When I was stationed in the Mojave Desert, I thought any water was better than no water. I planned to keep the car another two or three years, but someone ran a red light and broadsided me. Alack and alas! My Chevy Nova was no more! The car was totaled! It was only about $1500 worth of damage, but that was much more than the car was worth. Of course, in my personal opinion, the car was priceless because it was so dependable. I really miss my Chevy Nova!

I christen thee, Chevy no va ningún lado sin su dueño.

Drive-in


Dr. D. collects souvenirs.

Quick! What do you think of when hear drive-in? I think of the movie Grease! and John Travolta singing Stranded at the Drive-in after Sandy left him.

Unfortunately, there aren’t many drive-in theaters in America anymore. I used to love going to the drive-in. I remember sneaking my friend in by putting him in the trunk so we wouldn’t have to pay for him.

The drive-in was always a unique way to watch movies. I used to go to a drive-in in Twenty-nine Palms, California, where you could roller skate and watch a movie simultaneously. Well, I was telling my sons about my drive-in adventures and they couldn’t understand what I was talking about. I always like to broaden their horizon, so when I failed to explain to them how much fun we used to have at the drive-in, I wanted to take them to one, but I didn’t think there were any drive-ins left in our area. But I googled “drive-in” and discovered there was a Cascade Drive-In in West Chicago.

I took my sons just so they could see what a drive-in was like. Things were a little different from the last time I went. You can now listen to the movie on your car radio on AM or FM! They still had gray steel speakers on the poles, but they didn’t work. All cars are supposed to drive with their headlights off, but mine stay on whenever I start the engine. I sat on a lawn chair so my sons could sit in the front seats. Boy was I sorry! The compact car next to us contained an entire family. And they were so crammed into their little car that they were complaining during the whole movie.

Well, my sons and I thoroughly enjoyed the experience, but we decided never to go to the drive-in again.

Airplanes


En route to solid ground

Speaking of airplanes, I don’t really like to fly.

The past few years or so–going on about twenty-five years now, if you want to know the truth–I have gone on driving vacations. I really have no desire to fly if I don’t have to. I would fly if the right opportunity came along. All I have to do is forget my last flight from Palm Springs, California, to Chicago back in 1979. Whew! What a flight!

I remember waiting in line to board the plane and just by chance I was standing behind the two flight attendants for our flight. I expressed some of my concerns about flying, such as looking out the windows and watching the wings flex up and down during the flight. I also mentioned how I didn’t like when an airplane would hit an air pocket it lose altitude suddenly. The flight attendants reassured me that that was normal during a lot of flights.  When we boarded the plane I sat directly behind the flight attendants. I asked them to hold my hand if we hit an air pocket. They just laughed, but I was serious. They told me not to worry about a thing.

Anyway, we were flying what seemed a normal, uneventful flight, except when I looked out and saw the wings flexing up and down over the Grand Canyon. The flight attendants smiled at me and reassured me that the wings were designed to flex during flight. They probably thought I was a big baby. Later, we hit an air pocket and the plane fell a little. I tried to show the flight attendants that I wasn’t scared even a little bit during that slight loss of altitude. They just smiled at me again.

Suddenly, the plane started bouncing and the pilot announced that we should all put on our seatbelts. The flight attendants sat down in front of me, put on their seatbelts, and told me not to worry about a thing. Wow, did we ever hit some turbulence! The plane shook like the Millenium Falcon when it reached warp speed. Everyone on the plane remained calm, including me. Then we hit a major air pocket. The plane started falling and it felt like a roller coaster descending the first big drop. But it kept falling for much longer than a roller coaster. I wanted to show the flight attendants how calm I could be during this air pocket. Suddenly, both flight attendants started screaming. That’s when I began to worry and I looked out the window to see if the wings were still attached to the plane. I thought, if these two seasoned flight attendants are screaming like this, surely we will crash. I tapped one of them on the shoulder and asked her, “Does that mean you won’t hold my hand?” They were so embarrassed when they remembered that I was sitting behind them.

Well, needless to say, we landed safely in Chicago, otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this. And that was the last time I flew. But I’m not afraid to fly. Not really.

Is the plane falling out the sky?

Alva


Don't even think about saying anything bad about Texas!
Laredo, Texas

I don’t even remember his first name. But I always think of him whenever I play chess and/or drink a beer.

I met him when we were in the Marines stationed at Camp Pendleton, California. He was your typical Mexican from Texas. A true Texican. Everyone called him Alva. He was short and stocky, what would be called husky in the boy’s department. He was particularly handsome. In fact, he had one eye a little bigger than the other, his teeth were crooked, and he always had a bad haircut. What he lacked in looks, he made up for in personality. He was always the joker and he always had everyone in the shop laughing.

He retained the rank of private because he was always getting into trouble and so he would never get promoted. Drinking was at the root of all his problems. I never saw him sober even once. He was always drunk or suffering from a hangover. When we stood in formation, he would always teeter during inspection. I’m surprised that he never fell over because a few times he was leaning more than the Tower of Pisa. Despite all his flaws, he had a girlfriend whom he had met near the base. That is, until he got into a fight at the club and wasn’t allowed to leave the base for months. So he would drink at the club everyday, only leaving to check in with the sergeant.

One day, he went to the club to watch Monday Night Football and later returned emotionally distraught. He told us that the game was interrupted for a special announcement: John Lennon had been shot! None of us could believe it. But Alva was the one who was the most depressed by Lennon’s death. Alva seemed to drink less after that shocking assassination.

Our superiors really came down hard on Alva. They controlled every aspect of his duty hours. We all thought they went beyond the call of duty. Finally, he told our commanding officer that he was tired of being harassed and he wanted everyone to leave him alone. He wanted to everything to go back to the way it was. He even told the CO that he had written his congressman. Why did Alva feel harassed? He would have to check in with the sergeant every hour just to make sure he was still on base.

It was during this time that I learned about his special talent. He could play chess. That was surprising because he wasn’t the type of person who exuded intelligence of any sort. One day, he challenged all comers. He walked into the radio shop where we worked and announced, “Who’s the best chess player here? I challenge you to a chess match!”

Somehow he had heard that I used to play chess. It might have been from me because I used to like to tell people I used to like to play chess. I might have said that I used to play when I first arrived at Camp Pendleton and Alva remembered. He had a good memory. At first, I didn’t want to play because I hadn’t played since high school and I was afraid that if I started playing again I would get addicted to play chess again. But I couldn’t control myself and I accepted Alva’s challenge. Anyway, Alva won every game easily.

Eventually, I played chess with Alva regularly and he always beat me easily. To add insult to injury, he was always very drunk when we played. Okay, I was hooked. I wanted to beat Alva at chess. We played chess everyday in the shop. Whenever he made a particularyly good move, he would say, “Don’t mess with Texas!”

I never beat him until I finally figured out his strategy! He had no strategy! He was always so drunk that he would only play the best move for the position. With each game we played, I improved my game. Finally, I figured out that if I planned my strategy at least five moves ahead, his best move for the position wouldn’t help him. Eventually, I was beating him on a regular basis. He wasn’t used to losing even though he never studied or practiced chess formally. He was truly amazed that anyone could beat him. And I was surprised that anyone so drunk could play chess so well. Oh, yes, and Alva’s congressman called up our commanding officer and Alva was no longer on restriction.

I challenge you to a chess game!

Despedida mexicana


Why are these tequila bottles so blurry?

There are good-byes. And then there are Mexican good-byes. By this, I mean that most people say good-bye and then they leave. Mexicans, on the other hand, say good-bye and think of many reasons for staying un poquito más. Such as telling the story they just remembered on the way out, upon touching the doorknob. Or, because they haven’t seen each other in such a long time, like since last week. I, too, of course am guilty of these long, extended good-byes. Perhaps, I didn’t say everything that I wanted because I couldn’t get a word in edgewise or the stories told were so good that I didn’t want to interrupt them.

While I was in Mexico, every good-bye was a despedida mexicana, but one long good-bye especially comes to mind. I was staying at my cousin’s house and we were going to visit her sister. My cousin, her husband, my aunt, and I went to my other cousin’s house. We would leave about three o’clock in the afternoon in order to avoid the afternoon rush hour traffic. I agreed because Mexico City’s normal traffic is horrendous and traumatic, even if you’re just a passenger, let alone driving during rush hour. So we visit my cousin, we eat at a restaurant called California, we go back to the house of the cousin we just visited, look at some old family pictures, and talk and talk and talk over old times since the last time I went to Mexico, which was twenty-nine years earlier. By the way, we started up the conversation right where we left off the last time I was there as if I had just left a few days before.

At 3:00 p.m. sharp, my cousin announces that we’re leaving immediately in order to avoid the rush-hour traffic. My cousin’s husband says that we can’t leave his house without first drinking some tequila together. That would reflect poorly on their hospitality. Besides, how could I go to Mexico and not drink tequila?

As the guest of honor, he served me tequila in his very own special tequila shot glass that was wrapped in specially treated tan leather with his name embossed on the leather. How could I say no to this shot of tequila? So we all had a shot of tequila as we were standing to leave. Sure enough, we all start talking about when my cousin came to visit Chicago in 1979. As luck would have it, I was in California in the Marines at the time. So we all sit down to hear about her trip to Chicago and how she almost saw snow because the weatherman predicted a snowstorm, but then there was only a light dusting.

Of course, this called for another shot of tequila! Which no one refused, including me because I always try to be polite and eat and drink everything that is served to me. Then it occurs to our host that if you drink tequila you should drink it properly. So he serves us another shot of tequila, but this time he passes around a bowl of lime slices and a salt shaker. That’s how Mexicans really drink tequila! You squeeze some lime juice on the side of your fist, shake some salt on the lime juice, you drink the tequila shot in one gulp, and then lick the lime juice and salt afterwards. Well, we down a few tequila shots the proper Mexican way and then our host said he had to go to work to take care of some business, but when he returned, he would bring back some food for supper.

The tequila had long ago been consumed and we were left to our own devices to entertain ourselves. Actually, for Mexicans like my aunt, my cousins, and I, we merely entertain ourselves by talking about what we did in the past since the last time we saw each other. In fact, I spent most of my trip just sitting around talking to my relatives bringing myself up to date on their lives. Well, it’s after six p.m. and our host still hasn’t returned. His wife calls him on his cell phone and it turns out that he’s stuck in rush-hour traffic. When he finally returns, he returns empty-handed. We’re all extremely famished by this time. So we all pile into two minivans and go to their favorite restaurant in town. We eat supper and spend a couple of hours talking over our food. By the way, we’re still saying good-bye since three p.m.! We eventually return to my cousin’s house about 9:30 p.m.! However, we did manage to avoid Mexico City’s infamous rush-hour traffic! I have to admit that it was my longest good-bye ever, even by Mexican standards. But it was also one of the most entertaining.

Okay, let me just blurt this out and be off. ¡Adiós!

Marquette Park Track Club


Proudly wearing the Marquette Park Track Club colors of black and gold!

When I returned to Chicago after three years in the Marine Corps, I moved back to Marquette Park. I lived at 3006 W. 64th Street for six years before I moved to Bridgeport. I loved living so close to the park because then I could go running everyday. While in the Marines, I began running seriously after I ran a marathon in California. I thought that if I trained well enough, I could become a good runner. I joined the Marquette Park Track Club after running the Roy Bricker Memorial 5 Mile Race where I placed third in my age group. Roy Bricker was the best runner that the club ever produced. All thanks to Coach Jack Bolton whom all his runners adored. The club would meet every weeknight at 5:30 p.m. rain or shine, snow or sleet. Jack never missed a practice.

Jack Bolton came from Ireland many years before, but he never lost his Irish brogue. We all loved it. Some of the runners imitated him lovingly. He was a world-class miler back in Ireland and when he came to the U.S. he coached high school teams in Chicago. He always had great runners running for him.

When I first joined the club in 1981, all the practices began with six laps (one mile) on the cinder track at Marquette Park. Jack would lead the pack and everyone had to stay behind him. This was a group warmup. Jack’s philosophy for this warmup was twofold. 1. Runners learned to run in a pack and 2. Runners learned to run at someone else’s pace, as sometimes happens in a race. In later years, Jack’s ankles gave out on him and he didn’t run the warmup with the club anymore.

Jack especially loved working with younger runners. He was known for the female runners that came out of his club system. In fact, some high school girls would join Jack’s club in order to develop as runners and qualify for running scholarships at the universiiesy of their choice. Most girls achieved their goal. Of course, many boys also received running scholarships, too.

What everyone loved about Jack was his eternal optimism. He always believed that one of his runners would win the race outright, no matter how overwhelming the odds. I once entered a race and learned at the starting line that Jack had predicted that I would win. I wanted to live up to his expectations, but I had a bad day and faded halfway through the race. But Jack was always touting some up-and-coming runner from his club. He was usually right, too.

Click here to read an article that I wrote about Jack Bolton for the CARA Finsh Line the January/February edition of 1985:

http://davidrodriguez.us/docs/bolton.html 

Keep running those sprints. You want to finish the race strong.