He’s finally been institutionalized

August 28, 1977… the day that I first stepped foot on the campus of the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University to begin a “four year” program that would earn me a BS degree in Aeronautical Science and commercial pilot, multi-engine, instrument airplane ratings. Yep- it was a “four year” program… and Gilligan started out on a “three hour” cruise too. On August 15, 1988, just over a dozen days short of a full decade I would walk across the stage at graduation- it would be a long, life-changing road and in order to get to the end, I would have to do the impossible and I actually knew that from the beginning. Looking across the campus in those first few moments I decided that there were only two ways I was going to leave there; either with my degree and ratings or in a whole bunch of little Ziploc bags. The objective was not a seat in some airliner looking toward retirement after making a pile of money- it was very simply just to finish what I had now started.

 My quest to get to that campus on that day in 1977 had actually begun many years earlier when the hand of fate reached out and held the bait right under my nose. I was the in the 8th grade at an inner-city dump of a Junior High School monikered “Webber” on the east side of the industrial city of Saginaw, Michigan. Very little real learning took place there as the classrooms were in a constant state of chaos ruled over by the delinquent offspring of LBJ’s “Great Society.” Strong arm robberies, petty shakedowns, and plain old violence too often took the place of education. Making the honor role got me thrown against the lockers and told “Dat ain’t cool professor.” Thus, those of us who didn’t wish to take part in the madness resorted to library passes and classes involving assisting administrators. My 5th hour “class” involved assisting in the office of the school counselor. One day a bundle of fliers intended for the high school was inadvertently delivered to our office. I asked Mr. Barris, the counselor, what he wanted me to do with them and he told me to just throw them away. As I went to do that I saw that they had airplanes on them! Being a rabid space-buff and aviation fan I nabbed one of the fliers for myself. Later in the safety of the library I studied it. It was all about a college with airplanes and it was in Florida close to Cape Canaveral. There was a book called “Astronauts in Training,” in the 629 section of the library and on page 8 was a photo of Astronaut Al Worden preflighting a helicopter and the caption read “All Must Fly.” That school with the airplanes down by the Cape was the place for me! I wanted to fly too and this Embry-Riddle school was the place to go and learn.

 Looking up Embry-Riddle in the library I saw that they were listed as “Highly Selective.” Crap! I’d never been highly selected for anything. I was a working-class Polish kid whose parents were both high school drop outs and I was stuck in the worst part of the one of the worst school systems in the Midwest! How the hell was I gonna get highly selectable? In the end none of that mattered because when I applied in the fall of 1976 Embry-Riddle had decided to double its student population and went from “Highly Selective” to “Can you pay your deposit and are you breathing.” Fortunately, even though I was an asthmatic, I was able to do both and thus became one of the 2,500 new freshmen enrolled for the fall 1977 trimester.

Stepping onto the campus on that classically humid Florida morning I found two large tables set up on the sidewalk outside of the Dorm with about six people standing behind them and a mountain of large manila envelopes. Most of the campus was obscured by trees but there was no question that we were indeed ON what was then Daytona Beach Regional Airport. In fact we were standing just 2,453 feet from the threshold of Runway 24 Right. Aircraft were buzzing overhead like bees. I had no idea that I’d be there long enough for not only the name of the airport to be changed, but for the actual magnetic field of the Earth itself to shift far enough for runway 24 to be renamed runway 25. (Yes, I’m laughing with you). 

In short order my “packet” was found in the pile and my parents, who had driven me down to school, and I were directed off campus and back out toward Interstate 95. My “dorm” would be a place that they called “the RSI.” Because everything in aviation is in acronym, I had to begin my career and aviation education living in one. The RSI was an acronym for a motel in distress monikered the “Royal Scottish Inn.” ERAU had given them a windfall by leasing the entire two story motel which was located right about where Chili's is today on US 92. The place had about 200 rooms and each one was now equipped with three pull-out beds and one “study table” so the facility could be crammed with 600 Riddle freshmen. Arriving there I was issued a key for Room 182 and told to stop at “linen” and pick up my bed sheets, blanket, pillow, 3 wash cloths and three towels. I was the first guy in room 182, but was told to expect two roommates. I picked the back wall rack to sleep in and stowed my trusty 10 speed bicycle “Champagne” back behind the cloths hangar and told my parents and my little brother to “scram.” I’d see them at the BBQ later on campus. Before they could leave my first roommate, Mark Holloway, showed up dragging along his baggage. Mark was from Flint, Michigan and since I was from Saginaw, we quickly became friends. A while later our third roommate, Mike Krkuc showed up. I’d scored the best two roommates that a newbee at college could have. 

That afternoon at the orientation BBQ we got to see the campus for the first time. Compared to the ultra modern ERAU campus of today there wasn’t very much.
Other than the dorm we had the University Center- forever known simply as “The UC”...
the Maintenance Technology building- “AMT,”...
the Gill Rob Wilson building- known simply as “The Flight Line”...
and the Academic Building which was called “A building.”
It never struck me that we had an “A” building, but not a “B” or a “C” building.
Up the road toward the airport entrance was located the expanded World War II surplus Quonset Hut that was our Administration Building.
That was it folks! That was ERAU and the entire area between the UC, A building and the AMT building was a huge parking lot that had once been a runway for the airport. For us 2,500 freshmen, however, that was plenty- because our campus extended into the vast blue sky above and so it was the largest campus in the world.

That afternoon our parents had listened to President Hunt speak about “our” university. If you ever made the mistake of saying “your university” or “the university” in front of President Hunt, he would stop you and correct you by stating, “No… it’s OUR university.” He wanted to engrain into you the mind-set that this place was not left to us by long-dead bearded men with mutton chop sideburns and powdered wigs- it was being built by us- now, at this point in time. Indeed we and ERAU grew up together. Most impressed with the president’s talk was my Mom. When I saw her at the BBQ that evening and we said goodbye she told me, “This is gonna be quite a place for you.” Later, as my Dad, Mom and younger brother drove back toward Michigan she said that she felt as if they had left me where I truly belong- to which my little brother quipped, “Yeah- he’s finally been institutionalized.”
That night I sat in my pull-out bunk at the RSI and scrolled the day’s events into my pocket journal and ended with the phrase, “My God… I’m actually HERE!” I was setting out to do the impossible. “Impossible?” you may ask… and then scoff, “Naaa.” Yet, from my point of view at that time, this endeavor was indeed the impossible. No one back home, and I mean NO ONE, thought I could ever do it. My high school guidance counselor flatly told me that I couldn’t do it and urged me to just go to the community college instead. Relatives scoffed and quipped that, “people like us can’t do that sort of thing.” I’d seen plenty of eye-rolling and heard a lot of doubtful snickers. Hell I left home with a $2,500 student loan for the full year while knowing full well that ERAU would cost me $2,900 per trimester- without flight! Yet I jumped into the meat-grinder anyway knowing that Mom and Dad could not help me and  I would have to work to make up the difference. I had left my long-time girlfriend (who would outgrow me in the first few months and be gone), hockey (of course I really didn’t need that third concussion anyhow), my cozy community of Freeland, Michigan, my home and everything to set out on this new path with all of the odds stacked against me- it was impossible. My goal, however, was fixed in stone and it was very simple- it was just to finish.

1 comment:

  1. Loved the story Wes. Brings back suck great memories. Wow... just wow.