Fifty Years Ago

Fifty years ago tomorrow – December 12, 1970, also a Saturday – at a about 4 in the afternoon, I left my Marquette University dormitory, McCormick Hall at the corner of Wisconsin Avenue and 16th Street in Milwaukee, and walked 12 blocks east to the bus stop at 4th and Wisconsin, outside the side entrance to Boston Store, in order to catch the westbound 57 Center bus.  The University’s semester class schedule had just concluded; final exams were to begin the following Monday.  I was (hopefully) bound for the home of my date, in Wauwatosa, WI, a bedroom community immediately adjoining the city.  I was significantly weighted down; the bus fare was 40 cents, and I was carrying 24 dimes – four to get me to my companion’s house, eight to get us both back downtown, eight to subsequently get us back to her house, and four to get me back downtown at the end of the night.  Our evening’s primary activity was to be watching Coach Al McGuire’s national powerhouse Marquette Warriors host the Nevada Wolf Pack at the Milwaukee Arena; I had secured her ticket to the game from a dorm mate who had opted to spend the night studying for his upcoming finals. 

I had met my evening’s companion the preceding August, before the start of my very first Marquette class.  I had signed up for 8AM Spanish – incredibly naïve and stupid scheduling for a college student lifestyle; I never took another 8AM class – and when I reached the classroom door, I surveyed the scene, went and sat down next to the best-looking girl in the room – sparkling dark eyes, stunning very curly dark brown, almost black, hair, bright smile – and started talking.

Spanish class met four days a week, and we ended up talking much of the time.  She was a townie – living in Wauwatosa (“The next city over,” she had to enlighten my Chicagoland consciousness).  Both of us had a free hour after Spanish, and ever more as the semester went on, I walked her from Spanish to Marquette’s Union, frequently staying to visit further before we separated for the day.  Sometimes, because I couldn’t study in the racket that is any men’s college dorm, I would run into her at the end of the day in the lobby of the Marquette Library, and wait with her until her brother came to pick her up.

Shyness around women has never been one of my prevailing traits, and I liked this girl.  At the same time, she was — as my dorm mates frequently noted – a townie.  They pointed out that there were literally hundreds of coeds living on campus within a five minute walk from our dorm.  Half the people in my classes were women, and – at a point when Wisconsin’s legal drinking age was 18 – the campus bars teemed on the weekends.  I obviously had no car, and those that know me won’t be a bit surprised that my male dignity, however inapposite, would never allow for the suggestion that my Spanish classmate could drive us on a date.  Heeding my dorm mates’ advice, I ventured out with several charming Marquette women during the semester; although those outings were fun, I was in Spanish four days a week, and couldn’t escape the fact that I really liked … this girl.  While we had gotten well acquainted, she had never indicated whether she was dating anyone (although one conversation made clear that she had had to sequence a series of prom dates the preceding Spring – not exactly a boost for a young man’s morale  ;)], or dropped any veiled hint that I should ask her out.

As the semester drew down, I was torn:  I was running out of weekends in the semester.  There was really no longer time for dating; I needed to study to do well in finals.  There was always next semester to ask her out.  I certainly did not relish taking a Milwaukee city bus for the first time for what I was pretty sure wouldn’t be a short ride over dark and cold (Milwaukee gets cold in winter) unfamiliar night terrain.  And yet … I liked this girl. Even then, I understood that Marquette was big; we didn’t share a major, and our paths had only crossed because we had happened to take the same general language elective during the same idiotic early morning slot.

At the beginning of the last week of class, I made up my mind, and made the leap:  I asked if she’d like to go with me to the Marquette game that Saturday night.  She immediately said yes.  She offered to drive (I found out later that she had gone on dates during the semester in which she had picked the guys up at the dorm).  I said that I preferred that we take the bus; how did we do that?  I could tell:  she liked that.   She told me what the fare was – that they only accepted exact change — where the bus stop was, where I could get a schedule, and that it was going to be about a 45-minute ride.  She gave me her address in Wauwatosa, told me what stop to get off, and the directions to her house from the stop.  We were on.

The memory of the evening itself is a warm glow.  The bus was on time; the fare was right; I got off at the right stop; I found the house.  In a sense more a high school date setting than a college meet, I met her parents.  (I found out later that her father, who I came to revere before he left us too soon, liked me immediately because I insisted on taking the bus.)  On that Saturday evening, she was every bit as open, dark and exciting, as I had come to know her, but a bit more mysterious.  We took the bus downtown, saw the game (it was a blowout), had dinner at a nondescript place afterward that had looked better through the window in early reconnaissance than it was in reality (she didn’t seem to mind), got back on the bus and to her home at the right time.  It appeared … that she had enjoyed herself (a lady, I came to find out later, never lets a gentleman know all of what she is thinking).  She agreed to go out with me again after finals before I went home.  I was … on top of the world.  Finals starting Monday?  No worries.  What brought me back to earth:  standing on a bus stop in Wauwatosa, WI, at 1AM in the dark of December in a whipping wind waiting for the last bus downtown.  I pulled out a dorm mate’s stocking cap that he had insisted I take – I never wore a hat in those hirsute days – clamped it on, and held on until the bus arrived.

McCormick Hall has been demolished.  The Marquette Union has been replaced, the Marquette Library has been expanded beyond recognition.  The Marquette Warriors became the Marquette Golden Eagles a quarter of a century ago.  Al McGuire, on that December 1970 night still years away from his 1977 NCAA Championship, will be dead twenty years this January.  The Marquette basketball team vacated the Milwaukee Arena (now the Milwaukee Mecca) for the Bradley Center “eons ago,” as Coach McGuire would say – and has now moved on again, to the Fiserv Forum.  The Boston Store, long a city fixture, is physically gone, now merely an online brand of bailout owners. The unremarkable restaurant in which we dined that night has disappeared.  She and I never had another class together, and even after she moved to campus starting our sophomore year, we didn’t coincidentally run into each other on the street more than a few times during our remaining years at Marquette.  There is still a bus route from downtown Milwaukee to Wauwatosa, but it is no longer the 57 Center.

I still have the notes I jotted down of her directions to the bus and her house. Those sparkling dark eyes now sometimes look up at me over the brightly-colored frames of her reading glasses, as she lifts her gaze from her iPad galleries of our children and grandchildren.

We have all attended many weddings, and heard many a groom describe the nervousness he felt as he prepared to propose to his bride.  When it came time for me to propose to her, on a December night five years after our first bus ride, a delay born of the extended education regimes we undertook as part of our life’s plan, I felt no apprehension [as a matter of fact, on the night I formally proposed, I think she kinda expected it, as I kinda expected that she would say yes ;)].  The hard decision wasn’t to ask her to marry me; the hard decision – the most important of my life – had come when I decided that I liked this girl enough to risk taking the 57 Center bus.

6 thoughts on “Fifty Years Ago

    1. Thanks, Pat — for me, the last five decades have been easy; I think for TLOML, dealing with me has at times perhaps been a bit more of a challenge ;). You, Mike, your Dad, and the entire Murphy Clan stay safe! A vaccine is on the way, and those of our vintage should be among the early groups to receive it!

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    1. Thanks! So — 50 years later, rather than watching a college basketball game, we were out knocking the heavy snow off our pine trees :). (It was, however, not as cold as waiting for a Milwaukee bus in December.) Stay safe — a vaccine is on the way! Our best to you and Mrs. K!

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  1. Jim, what a beautiful story! Love it! Your old-fashioned charm successfully resists your aging.

    The details in your story and the evident joy of romance remind me so much of my father’s letters to my mother, which he wrote to her as an undergrad (my dad and both of his siblings met their spouses at Marquette). His occasion for writing to her was their summer break hundreds of miles apart. The distance compelled the need to express themselves in the written medium in a way that seems quaint today. Thanks for your writing — which recalls my fascination with my parents‘ courtship and my own thrill of finding romance in the days of my commuter dating.
    Congratulations to you and Chris on your first 50! I wish you both all the best in this new year.
    Dan

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    1. Hey, Dan! I’m glad to hear that someone thinks that SOMETHING about me is successfully resisting my aging — it’s hard to get creakier and creakier ;). Glad that the note brought back pleasant memories for you. Stay safe — hopefully, only a few more months before we can begin to resume our “prior lives”! J.

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