I think it was January or February of 1989. It had to be one of those months because it was ass cold outside as I was standing at a bus stop in Chicago, waiting to catch a ride home with my dear friend. We were wearing dress shoes and our Class A military uniforms (for women, that was a skirt). We were dressed up for the “Dining-In” ceremony with our fellow Army ROTC cadets, and it was one of two occasions every year where we dressed up. I know for sure the wind chill was below zero while we were standing out there. Berber was, still is, our nickname for each other (as in “YEAH, BERBER”). It was that moment, as we were standing there freezing, when one of us said, “Berber, we should move to California.” Our eyes got big at the same time, as we both realized that it was a serious suggestion. I remember going to the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) library the very next day to research schools along the coast of SoCal. It had to be close to the beach. I never wanted to feel that cold again.
Spring break came along in March. It was time for Berber & I to go scout out some college campuses. It was a 2100-mile drive. We had 10 days, a full tank of gas, and half a pack of cigarettes. It was dark, and we were wearing sunglasses. (Hit it!) We got into the Berber Mobile (a 1977 sky blue Dodge Monaco) and hit the road. We drove around the clock, taking turns, and we made it out there in 3 days. We camped in a tent to save money and stayed with family where we could along the way.
One of the nights happened to be St. Patrick’s Day, and it was very late. We were driving along a divided 4-lane interstate stretch somewhere in Arizona. I can’t remember which of us was driving. I remember that we both had the same driving style, which was to always drive in the right-hand lane, use the passing lane to pass, and get back into the right lane. But that night, for whatever reason, we were cruising along in the passing lane. I remember seeing headlights off in the distance, looking like they were headed straight towards us. I also remember thinking there MUST be a curve in the road ahead, that this had to be some sort of optical illusion. There was no curve in the road, and before we knew it, the car came straight at us, then flew past us, in the right lane. Had we been in our usual lane placement, it would have been a head-on collision. I still marvel about that to this day, because there was no reason for us to be driving in the passing lane. But we were, and that is why we are both still alive today.
The first stop was Los Angeles to visit the UCLA campus. I remember driving across the I-10, and at about 100 miles from the coast, we could already notice the salty ocean scent in the air. We kept driving until the road ended and we ran into the ocean with our shoes off. We made it! Next, we checked out Hollywood and Beverly Hills. Everything we’d seen on TV in the movies was so much larger in real life. We camped at Leo Carrillo State Beach just outside Malibu. We bought 2 burgers to grill, but the fire ring only had 3 thin metal bars across it, on which we had carefully balanced the burgers to cook. I remember my heart sinking as one slipped into the fire, covered with ash. Yes, those starving student days. As we were laying there in our tent trying to sleep, someone started singing “oooooooooo-hey-a-mom-away.” Someone else pipes in “a-wheem-a-whop-a-wheem-a-whop,” and before you know it, the whole place is singing the “Lion Sleeps Tonight.” At that moment, I felt in my bones that California was the place where I would belong. On the way down the coast, we made a stop at Long Beach State, and finally down to San Diego State. I had never imagined a campus could be so beautiful. The weather, the courtyard, the Mission/Spanish Revival style of architecture, the people…all beautiful. Berber and I agreed. This was it for us, this was going to be our new school!
Berber and I finished up our second year of studies at UIC. In my time there, I had changed majors twice and seriously considered two others—none fit. For several reasons, my interest in a military career had also dwindled. The conversations I had to have with my Captain and Major, who had been my teachers in the Cadre, were exceedingly difficult. I had been the model cadet, and I’m sure they had high hopes for me. The disappointment I saw in their eyes still haunts me. Because I think to them, they felt I was a “quitter.” It was so much more than that, but how do you explain it? It lit a fire in me, and I was committed to making this pivot in my life. Pivots don’t feel natural, but I didn’t question it. I knew it was what I had to do.
I took about half of my life’s savings and bought a car, a 1986 Ford Mustang stick shift. I had a lesson or two on a stick previously but basically learned how to drive it by clumsily driving home from the car dealership. I’d stalled it on Ogden Ave & 1st Ave intersection, but somehow, grinding the gears, I got our new Berber Mobile fired up and made it home.
Next, Berber & I broke our mothers’ hearts as we announced we were moving 2100 miles away. That was a painful conversation for me to have because I love my Mom to the moon. She was, and is still, my pillar, my backbone, my psyche. It was a calling to this new place and leaving a place where I felt I never really did belong. I had to go on this adventure, and I had to discover my life and purpose independently. I had to answer the call.
We packed up our belongings and had the car loaded to the hilt with all our worldly possessions and a couple of 10-speed bikes hanging on the back. My dad gave me his .38 Special for protection, which we gratefully accepted.
I cried loud and hard as I drove away from 3022 Wisconsin Ave. I’m not good at goodbyes. I remember putting in my Boston Greatest Hits cassette, “More than a Feeling” came on, and I turned it up loud. It didn’t take long for the tears to dry up. I was starting my adventure!
By Dawn D
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