So last night I watch this movie, “Into The Wild”, about this young guy who leaves everything behind and heads to Alaska. I sit back in my chair and I cry. I was headed in that same direction in 1972.
In those days, I left my dorm room at Moody Bible Institute one night and walked home. I just kept walking. I walked fifteen miles. I walked from the Des Plaines EL station to Addison, fifteen miles. My mother cried that night. The school called my father. He called his friends. I show up at the house at 10:30 pm. I hugged my mother and I went to bed.
So the next day, my father makes me scrambled eggs and then he drives me back to Moody. I talk to twenty people. I talk to the men’s assistant dean of students and he tells me that men have cycles like women do. I listen but my head is in Alaska. He asks me if I want a new roommate. I say, “Yes. I don’t want to room with someone named Tim.” I tell him that my first year roommate was Tim from Indianapolis. My second year roommate was Tim from Pennsylvania. The school gives me a new roommate. His name is Steve. We become good friends, in fact, great friends. One Friday night, in my dorm room, I get a call from the men’s assistant dean of students. He tells me that Steve was killed in a car accident on the way to his wedding rehearsal. He fell asleep behind the wheel of his car driving in Kansas. I stay at school to finish the semester and then I leave and I don’t come back.
Three months later my dad comes in my room and wakes me up. He says, “You gotta get up. You can’t sleep anymore. You gotta work. You gotta find a job.” So I get dressed, eat scrambled eggs and I walk to the industrial section of Addison. In the industrial park I look for signs in the front yards of factories. “Help Wanted. Machine Operator” the sign says. I apply.
Inside the factory a man tells me my job. “Take the plastic pieces that come out of here and then grind them over here.” So I take the plastic pieces and I grind them but my head is in Alaska. I walk away from the job during my coffee break. The man calls my dad and he tells him that I walked away. I go look for another job.
At another factory a man hires me. He tells me that I will operate a plastic extruder on the second shift. I say “OK” and I show up that night. Someone shows me the end of the extruder. There are strands of hot plastic coming out of the extruder’s die. The strands are pulled under water to cool and then a blower dries them off. Then, the strands are chopped into pellets. The man tells me to keep my hands out of the pelletizer. I remember this. My job is to keep the extruder hopper full of regrind, keep the plastic strands in their path and empty the pellets into a box. I do this until the third shift guy appears. He is a tall, lanky black man in a jumpsuit. He is carrying a Yankee Doodle Dandy Hamburger in his hand.
I process plastic for the next six years. I also get married to someone I meet at church. We have two sons. I tell my bride-to-be that I want to live in Alaska. I tell her that I have collected maps and books about how to live in the wild. She tells her mother. Her mother tells her that I am crazy. Her mother wants her grandchildren to be close. We divorce after five years and two sons. Alaska is on hold until the majority age of minor children.
So I work and I work and I work. I become a designer of plastic machines. I become director of engineering. I become a partner in a manufacturing company and I get married again. I tell my bride-to-be that I want to go to Alaska. She tells her mother. Her mother says that I am crazy. Her mother wants her grandchildren to be close. So, I work and I work and I work. I work night and day as a partner. I make a six figure income. I get a Suburban. I get a company credit card. I have twenty-five people working under me. I work so much that when my wife takes the Suburban on camping trips with the kids she says that she doesn’t know if she wants to come back. I went to work and I came home to an empty house. When she was home and I was home, my wife and I would fight. The way I figured it, she wanted more of what my well-paying job offered her but she wouldn’t stand me at the same time. I worked and worked and I worked until one day I told my partners that I wanted to quit.
So, I left the company I helped to start fourteen years before. I left the partnership and the perks behind. I came home and looked in the paper in the help wanted section. I looked and I looked and I looked but there was nothing. I refinanced our home to pay the bills. After three months my wife tells me, “I want a separation.” I cry.
So, we go to marriage counselors. First we go to a male counselor and then we go to a female counselor and then we go to a male counselor. My wife is convinced that I have something on my mind, that I don’t love her. I don’t mention Alaska. After some counseling, we agree to live to together again. My wife says, “I’ll see how you do.”
So I find a job and I go to work. This time I build electrical control panels. I work and I work and I work but the money is not the same as the partnership money. One day the manager takes me in his office and tells me, “Things are slow. We are downsizing. We are closing this branch. We don’t have any openings in our home office in Janesville, Wisconsin.” I say, “Oh.” I call my wife and we meet at a restaurant because I want to tell her in person what happened. I drink two gin and tonics while I am waiting for her to show up. I look out the window and see her pull up in our rusty family van. She comes in and sees me drinking and she wonders what’s up and I tell her. She asks me what I am going to do and I tell her, “I will look for work.”
So I look in the Help Wanted Ads in the newspaper. No jobs. I file for unemployment. Three months later my wife says she wants a separation. I say, “No.” She says, “Get out or I will force you out.” I leave. I go to a hotel. I get a room and call my kids.
So that night I watch this movie, “Into The Wild”, about this young guy who leaves behind everything and heads to Alaska. I sit back in my hotel chair and I cry. I was headed in that same direction in 1972.
© Jennifer A. Johnson, 2010, All Rights Reserved