When I was young, probably in the late 1950s, my eyes were glued to author and poet Jack Kerouac’s novel, On The Road. Kerouac’s tale told of adventures as he and his pals, described as the Beat Generation, traveled across America and Mexico.
While Kerouac’s adventures and behaviors push beyond my conservative behavioral ethics, Kerouac imbued in me a curiosity and wanderlust about this land of ours called America.
During my first 20 years, I never left Washington State. Following high school graduation, a string of impactful circumstances surprisingly catapulted me into a student seat at the University of Puget Sound. Two of my UPS professors, Dr. John Prins and Dean Tom Sinclair, backed my bootstrap education efforts by nominating me for a full tuition scholarship covering both my junior and senior years.
Accepting the scholarship required I travel from Puyallup, Washington to Chicago, Illinois to work as an intern at the James S. Kemper Insurance Agency in the downtown Chicago, in an area known as The Loop. Kemper paid me $350 a month during the summer, in addition to the tuition grant.
While I could have returned to a $500 a month summer job back home working for the West Coast Grocery Cash & Carry, when I factored in the tuition scholarship, I was compelled to pack my bags and head to Chicago. Did I say, “Pack my bags?” I packed bags and trunks taking way too much stuff. I travelled heavy.
First travel life lesson was next time, pack light.
Starting at age 15 1/2 I had always enjoyed the independence of owning my own car. I did not think a car would be practical in Chicago, so I sold my 57’ Pontiac 2-door hardtop choosing to use the Chicago bus system and elevated rapid transit railway system called the Chicago L or “L” for short.
I scraped up $83 for a one way train ticket to Chicago, that included 3 1/2 days of sitting up in a train car full of noisy kids and rowdy adults.
My first night in Chicago was spent in a scary YMCA tiny sleeping room that included a humped up lumpy mattress.
After reporting in the next day to my place of employment, I was paired up with another Kemper Scholar, James O. Singer, from Chatham, New Jersey. He was nice kid, but we were totally different. I drank pop on the West Coast. He drank soda on the East Coast. Each thought the other talked funny.
We thought the smart thing to do would be to find an apartment we could share close to our office. It did not take long to discover we could not afford any of the close-in downtown housing options.
We ended up way out of town in a rough transitional neighborhood called Old Town. It was a row house walk-up with two sleeping areas, a kitchen with a small refrigerator and a gas stove. The community bathroom was down the hall, which we shared with other people in the building. While the bathroom was not foul, there was a funny smell my olfactory nerves had never experienced before or since. This place was not like home.
Decades before cell phones, we had a pay phone in the hall to be shared with the other people in the building who could afford a roll of quarters. The pay phone and the postman were my only connections with my girlfriend back home.
We paid the landlord $15.00 a week for rent or $7.50 each.
While James S. Kemper Insurance Company was most enthusiastic about awarding scholarships to college students interested in the insurance industry, the mid-level manager I was assigned to, was not. He took me around the office on my first day and told everyone, “Yaa, this is Joe Boyle, Kemper Scholar. He is going to be working with us this summer, but we have not figured out exactly what he is going to do.” That was 1965. 50 years later, and I am still waiting for my summer assignment.
He stuck me in a hot windowless room reading big thick boring insurance manuals while he went off for a 4 dry-martini lunch in his effort to work out my summer assignment.
Just before I cracked and headed off to a mental institution, a young guy named John W. Hannon, Junior, “administratively” rescued me. This would be the first time Jack rescued me, but not the last.
Jack asked if I might like to help the pro-rate department clear their huge backlog. He showed me to this room where there were sky scraper size piles of files generated by Insurance clients calling in to add and delete cars, boats, drivers and houses. Once I figured out how to operate this nifty cardboard pro-rate calculator wheel I started chewing through those piles of files. My task was to calculate how much premium was owed to the company or was to be refunded to the customer.
At this time, Jack was not a manager, although later he became the President of a Kemper Agency in Indianapolis, Indiana. He could see that I was going to be abandoned by the manager and needed to be rescued. I cleared the entire backlog.
If we fast forward to May 29, 2015, decades later my continued cross county travel finds me dining in the ghostly shadows of Ernest Hemingway in one of his favorite places, Key West, Florida only 90 miles from Cuba.
Chicago. Illinois in 1965. Key West, Florida in 2015. My life between Chicago and Key West, half a century later, is filled with many miles of travel, people, sights and Jack Kerouac-like adventures.
If you would like to follow along, I plan to share my story with you in the form of several short story segments.
My next segment will cover the dismal failure I experienced when I tried to hitch-hike to Washington D.C. on the 4th of July weekend, 1965.