“What we really are matters more than what other people think of us.”
Thirty-one years ago, Dead Creek ran through my back yard. A stench from neighboring Sauget, Illinois stung my nose, but I didn’t mind. Neither did the towering cottonwood trees which lined Falling Springs Road. Unaffected by toxic runoff, they thrived. The saplings, on the other hand, struggled.
I drove by pollution-spewing refineries and chemical plants on my way to Parks College. A dream come true. Moving into my own apartment was the dream, not earning my degree. College was a given, a milestone. I could be anything I wanted to be even though I had no idea what that was. I didn’t care if I ended up being a housewife. An education was an essential element in my quest for self-actualization.
My modest two-bedroom apartment overlooked the campus. The linoleum in the kitchen looked clean at first glance, but filth, ground in from prior tenants, remained. Two crammed carloads of stuff furnished my abode. I squeezed in the essentials—a twin mattress, clothes, television, pots and pans which I had been given for Christmas, a small dresser, a radio and a travel iron. Milk crates served as shelving, tables, baskets, and general storage, the finishing touch.
My parents could have paid for my schooling, but didn’t. Folks from Midwest America didn’t hand things to their children on silver platters. Since I graduated from the Harvard High School in Harvard, IL (“Milk Capital of the World”), I was a subset of those Midwestern American children and received things on plastic McDonald’s trays instead. The money I saved from part-time jobs wouldn’t last long. Until I found a roommate, alleviating costs, I enjoyed my own place, watching what I wanted on my four-inch black-and-white TV when I wanted, and fixing whatever my heart desired in the kitchen, without worrying about anyone else. Free at last. Camryn Johnson had arrived.
Parks’ cozy tree-covered campus sat a few miles southeast of the St. Louis arch. Rich history infused the red brick World War II era buildings. Cadet specters roamed the halls and populated the adjacent grass landing strip, taking off, one by one on their training missions. Parks is the only Jesuit aviation college in the world, its heritage probably held over from the Crusades, something that surely warmed Mother’s heart. At least she didn’t criticize my choice for higher education, which was the closest I’d get to praise.
Females represented just ten percent of the one-thousand-member, aviation-loving student body. Most course offerings centered around male-dominated aerospace engineering or private pilot curriculums. The men on campus felt shortchanged and the women had a school to fish in.
I enjoyed travel; so not knowing my career goal in life, I chose the Bachelor of Science TTT program. Travel, Transportation, and Tourism—which had a disproportionate number of girls—was essentially a travel-focused business degree and would surely take me somewhere.
Some people accused me of selecting this particular venue of education for the male population factor, an adjunct circumstance, the last thing on my mind. In love with Reese, my high school sweetheart, I focused on commencing a life together with him even though I had not seen him in quite some time—nine months and two days, to be exact.