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An Engineer in the Woods, Installment 16: Howard and Kristen’s First Non-Date

Saturday, September 1, 2018


My wife Kristen is the chief decorator, furnisher and planner of our home and it’s her attention to detail including the wall colors, plumbing fixtures, kitchen design, room layout, bath design, cabinetry, furniture, area rugs, artwork, switchplates… and much more, that really make this house special.  We work as one, often completing each other’s thoughts and supplementing each other’s designs.  That occurs whether at the office, raising a family or remodeling a house – and we’ve been working that way for a LONG time! She and I began our lives together in first grade at Troy Craughwell Elementary School, about 1,500 yards from our current home in the woods. 

For our entire school lives we were often in the same classes, and, though friends, we were more competitors than buddies.  I guess that’s really not a true statement as I was no competition to her.  If I earned an “A”, she would get an “A+”.  She was always first to raise her hand, I tried (and failed) to be “cool”.  In high school, I was National Honor Society Treasurer, she was President.  At Hamilton Consultants I’m President, Kristen is Chairman-CEO and my boss.   She’s even a step ahead of me by blood type; I’m A-, she’s A+.

Even though we often hung-around each other as teens, the closest we came to dating was senior year prom.  We double-dated.  She with my best friend Larry, me with her best friend Laurie.  Even though she wasn’t my date, seeing Kristen that evening in a pale green prom dress that accentuated the sparkling green of her intelligent eyes made me begin to think of her in a different, less competitive way. 

After graduation, Laurie started dating my buddy Keith (married and still our good friends 37 years later), and Larry moved to Florida.  When Kristen and I got our dorm assignments at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) I hatched my plan.  She would be in Hopkins 432, only two doors and a stairwell from me in Hopkins 438.  I was single, she was single, and there was no way that she could be that close and resist me. 

Turns-out, she could resist quite well.  My often-repeated tale is that I spent my entire first semester at UIUC trying to get Kristen to date me, the next semester trying to keep her dating me, and the next two semesters at Joliet Junior College trying to get my grades back on track.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

As new freshmen engineering students at UIUC in the fall of 1981, Kristen and I were inseparable friends, but she would not go on a “date.”  I devised numerous successful opportunities to spend time together, but most times it was in a group, and any feeble attempts at affection were quickly rebuked.  Too young and sure of myself to be discouraged, I developed the ultimate “non-date.”  We had both been good students and leaders in multiple clubs and activities at Joliet West High School (West), which is 4,200 yards from our home in the woods.  So, I was sure that our Alma-Mater would receive us with open arms if we came to the Homecoming dance in October. I called the school, bought the dance tickets through my younger sister Helen who was a senior at West, and “suggested” to Kristen that we could go to the dance together as “friends”.  She agreed!!

The morning of the dance I picked-up my three-piece pale gray wool suit from Country Club Cleaners, polished my oxblood loafers to a high-gloss and laid-out my Oscar De La Renta red and gray striped tie.  I ironed and starched my only white dress shirt and hung it carefully next to the suit.  Then, staying away from Black Road as it was under construction, I drove Mom’s 1981 silver-green Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme to Hillcrest Carwash on Gaylord where I spent the next two hours waxing and polishing every inch of the brand-new vehicle, including each spoke of the shiny chrome wire wheels.  On the long way home (avoiding road construction) I swung by Labo’s florist shop and picked-up an orchid-strewn wrist corsage that I had reserved.  What fair maiden could resist!

I had made 9:00 reservations at a “very nice, very expensive” seafood restaurant that is long gone and long forgotten, near Fox Valley Mall in Naperville.  This was where I could shine with my knowledge of cuisine and haute-culture.  The dance was just the warm-up.

At the dance, we exhibited the graceful maturity of high school graduates (having left this school a full 4 ½ months earlier), and we were having a good time.  Teachers were pleased to see her, though they seemed puzzled that she would be with me.  Underclassmen were pleased to see her as well.  I was pleased to be seen with her as I was definitely “non-dating-up.”  I’m still pleased and blessed to see her every day! 
I glanced at my stainless-steel Seiko digital wristwatch (the epitome of 1981 fashion, and my 18th birthday present from my parents) and noted that it was just past 8:15, CRAP! Even without road construction, Fox Valley Mall was 45 minutes away.  We bid our adieus and strolled side-by-side, not touching, to our awaiting shiny carriage.  I unlocked and held her door open as Kristen floated onto the gray leather seat.  I closed her door, walked around, popped into the driver’s seat and noted that the green LED dash clock read 8:25, CRAP, only 35 minutes left! 
I fretted as we sped west on Glenwood Avenue, and as the Cutlass rolled to a stop at the intersection of Glenwood and Fairlane I had to make a decision.  Turn left then right to take Route 52 west to Route 59 north, adding several minutes to the trip, or turn right then left and drive through what I thought was a mile of construction of Black Road between Essington Road and I-55.  When I had left for school in August, Black Road was dusty but passable. Being a construction “expert” after almost half of a semester of freshmen engineering studies at the country’s top civil engineering university, I was certain that two months later the work had to be approaching completion. More concerned with time than safety, I turned right.

What I didn’t know was that the day Kristen and I had arrived in Champaign two months earlier it had begun to rain in Joliet and it had rained nearly every day since.  The work on Black Road had not progressed much and the roadway had been transformed by the rain from a mile of dust into a mile of knee deep mud.  We were now stopped at the corner of Black and Essington facing a wall of orange and white striped barricades with bright orange flashing lights.  The polished headlights of our classy ride illuminated not one, but two large white signs that proclaimed, “ROAD CLOSED” in bold black letters.  I boldly drove around them and immediately the car plunged, and the wire spoke wheels sunk to the axles into brown ooze.  “CRAP!”

“Don’t worry, I do this all the time,” I smugly lied to my non-date as I moved the PRNDL lever to L. We moved forward maybe a foot before the rear wheels began to spin. 
I chose R. Back only a foot before the once shiny doors began to be coated with sickening thuds of mud from the whirring tires.
L. Forward a foot and a half.
R. Back two feet.
L. Forward three feet.
R. Back four feet, the rear, mud-coated bumper nearly touching the pavement we had just left and sunk below.
L. We were moving! I chose D and accelerated to get some momentum (momentum = mass x velocity, p = mv, freshman physics). 

We fishtailed back and forth but we kept going.  What a ride! Sliding side-to-side our forward progress remained unhindered for a mile as we approached the paved overpass at I-55.  A stone ramp at the frontage road made our transfer to civilized pavement a cinch and I noted that the time was now 8:32. We’d be a little late to the restaurant, but we’d make it!  We crossed over I-55 at 35 mph and continued onto the bridge over the DuPage River.  I glanced at Kristen and, though beautiful, she appeared tense as she screamed, “CRAP!” Eyes back on the road I realized that the pavement was about to end into another sea of mud.  Too late to brake with muddy tires, I accelerated, Dukes of Hazzard style, and we launched into the muck – but we didn’t stop! 

More fishtailing, but I was getting good at this as I could feel my face stretching into a huge grin.  After a few moments, I could see dry pavement on Black Road just ahead at the intersection with Baskin Drive in Wellington Heights Subdivision. I just had to keep the Muck-Mobile moving three more blocks to get there…we went past Bronk Road, keep moving…we were past Bailey Drive, slowing down…across Schock Drive, less than a block left to Baskin and getting slower…only 40 feet left, 30 feet, 20 feet… stuck.
R. Whirrr!
L. Whirrr!
R. Whirrr!
L. Whirrr!
R. Whirrr!
L. Whirrr!
I turned off the engine.

In 1981 there were no cell phones (I didn’t get my first bulky Motorola bag phone for another 9 years).  We needed help, but we needed a phone to call for it.  We could get out of the car and wade through the mud to the adjacent neighborhood and borrow a phone, but we were both dressed in our best duds, and they would get ruined – so…
I took off my overcoat.
I took off my suit jacket.
I took off my shoes.
I took off my socks.
I took of my pants.

I tossed them into the back seat.
I left my shirt on to cover my tighty-whities, along with my tie so that I looked respectable.
I avoided eye contact with Kristen.

I tried to open my door, but we had sunk too low into the mud and it wouldn’t budge.  I turned the ignition key to Accessory and pushed the buttons to put my and Kristen’s electric windows down.
“What do you want me to do?” she asked.
“Stay put and I’ll come around to get you.”
I crawled through the driver’s side window and jumped into the mud, sinking to mid-calf. 

The October air was cool and damp.  The mud was cold and wet. I struggled to pull up my left leg to take my first step and my bare foot tugged free from the soggy slime with a slurrrrr..plopp! I took an oozey step and pulled my right leg, slurrrrr..plopp! Slurrrrr..plopp, slurrrrr..plopp, slurrrrr..plopp, slurrrrr..plopp, slurrrrr..plopp!  I stood at the passenger door, lifted Kristen through the window and cradled her in my arms. I forgot the discomfort of the cold, wet mud.  She felt soft and warm against my chest.  Neither of us suspected that I would carry her this way again on our wedding night in 3 years and 10 months, but I was beginning to hope.  I ferried her to dry grass and set her down lightly.

Kristen now had a choice.  She had a cousin that lived in this neighborhood.  Probably on Baskin, but she wasn’t sure.  She WAS sure that she didn’t want to explain a muddy, pantsless, non-boyfriend to cousin George Klima who, by the way, was Pastor of Hope Lutheran Church on the other side of Black Road.  Even though we were closer to Baskin, she veered right and headed to Schock.  I didn’t ask, I just slurped along behind her like the Creature from the Black Lagoon following his unrequited love.

The second house on the right had a bright porch light and the name on the mailbox was thankfully not “Klima”.  She sprinted up the steps to the landing and rang the bell.  I hid in the bushes.  A young wife came to the door.  Kristen explained our predicament.  The woman smiled and welcomed her in, “Your boyfriend can come in too.”
“He’s NOT my boyfriend, and he’s covered in mud!”
I hung my head in shame from behind the bushes.
“Bring him in.  It’s freezing out there.”  It was.

The home was warm and cozy.  Kristen followed the wife to the kitchen to use the phone.  I stood quietly in the tile entry behind a planter box to modestly obscure my incomplete attire.

The husband silently glared at me from his La-Z-Boy in the family room as a glob of mud peeled from the back of my leg and Plopped! onto the glossy white porcelain.   He returned his gaze to the baseball game on his Zenith while I studied the piles of mud on my toes and marveled that they looked like little sandcastles.  Then I considered my Seiko, 8:50.  No fancy dinner tonight – I should call and cancel the reservation.

Kristen appeared from the kitchen.  “I cancelled the dinner reservation and I called your parents.  They should be here in 10 minutes.”  Man, she’s good!

We thanked the wife and I nodded to the husband.  We trudged back toward the sunken vehicle.  The dim streetlights revealed that it was no longer sparkling silver-green but was a camouflage brown of mud globs floating in a sea of muck that came up to the front and rear bumpers.  All four of the once shiny wire wheels had each become home to about 20 pounds of brown chunks of soil and slime.  The front bumper was less than ten feet from the stone ramp onto the pavement of a yet to be destroyed portion of Black Road. We’d made it through nearly 2 miles of mud.   Only ten more feet and our non-date could have continued…I thought I might cry.  I once-again avoided eye contact with Kristen and gazed up and across Black Road to Troy Cronin Junior High School.  To move my thoughts from despair I started to recall some of the junior high and elementary school students that I had taught trumpet to in the band room at that school while I was in high school so many days ago…

I was beginning to shiver in my shirt, underwear and wet legs.  Kristen was wearing a full-length wool coat.  She offered that I should get back in the car and turn the heat on.  “Would you like me to carry you back to the car, so we can sit together?”
“I’m fine here,” was the monotone reply.
Decades before the term “Epic Fail” came into widespread use, the concept seared across my brain and made my eyes water a little.

I slurrrrr..plopped back to the scene of the disaster.  I scooped some of the slurry of wet soil away to unplug the tailpipe and unsuccessfully tried to clean my now goopy right hand by wiping it on my bare peach-fuzz and goose-bump covered thighs.  I continued my muddy journey toward the front of the stranded vehicle and back-flopped through the driver’s window leaving my muddy legs outside of the car as I lay on the seat.  At least the inside was still spotless. 

Using my unsoiled left hand, I awkwardly turned the key in the ignition, closed the passenger window, put the heat on high, and slid a Fleetwood Mac cassette into the tape player.  I hoped that some upbeat tunes might keep a sorrowful pity party from beginning.  After three songs and a few notes into the fourth track, “Don’t Stop,” a pair of high-beams poured through the windshield, temporarily blinding me.  Then another set pulled alongside the first duo.  My saviors had arrived!  I switched off the ignition, gathered my pants from the back seat and slipped out the window and back into the mud.

My older sister Jan tells this part of the story best. 
The party at the house was ramping up to full steam, (with the exception of my younger sister Helen who was at the dance, most of my family was at my parent’s home that is now our house in the woods.  My two middle-age siblings, their spouses and children. My parents. My grandparents.  At least one pair of aunts and uncles, maybe some cousins, and, as was usually the case in this house, there were some libations flowing.) 
Mom answered the phone in the kitchen for what appeared to be a mostly one-sided conversation.
‘Dad and Bruce (
my older brother) will be right there,’ and she hung up.
I (
Jan) asked what was up.
‘Howard got the car stuck,’ was Mom’s reply.
‘Somewhere near Shorewood by a school’
‘I’ll get Dad and Bruce.’”

“It took Dad and Bruce a couple minutes to piece together Mom’s slightly-slurred recounting of the story, but their best guess was that the car was stuck on Black Road near Troy Cronin Junior High School. Probably headed east as no one (except Howard) would be capable of, or dumb enough to have travelled west through two miles of mud to get there from the east.  Dad, Bruce and Marsha (Bruce’s wife), Max (Jan’s husband) and I (Jan) grabbed some boots and chains and we took two cars in case we couldn’t get the car unstuck.”

“We drove west on 52 and north on 59 (the way I should have gone) then turned right onto Black Road.  Dad and Bruce drove their vehicles around the barricades carefully and expertly (both real engineers) while we scanned for the car.  The headlight reflectors on the Cutlass glowed in response to the high-beams of our cars.  A discussion started about what the two brown sticks were that were protruding from the driver’s side window. Bruce figured it out, ‘They’re Howard’s boney bare legs, and they’re covered with mud!’  The laughter began and didn’t end for several hours…”

I joined Kristen and we walked together to the cars.  My siblings and their spouses were giggling like drunken hyenas in a huddle next to Bruce’s silver-gray Pontiac station wagon.  Dad surveyed me, smiled at Kristen and said, “Get in the car, it’s cold.” We got into the back seat of Dad’s deep emerald-green Signature Edition Lincoln Town Car, the same one we had taken to Prom five months earlier. It smelled like stale cigarettes, but it was warm, comfortable and luxurious. 
A few minutes later the soiled Cutlass pulled-up alongside, I don’t recall who was driving.  Dad got back in the Lincoln, lit up a Marlboro and drove us home in silence.  I said, “thanks.” He chuckled, “It was easy.  You almost made it.”

Mom used to tell this part of the story best. 
“I was in the kitchen with Mom (Grandma) when I saw the first set of headlights pull into the driveway.  I put down my drink and headed to the front door, but Kristen got there before me.  She walked in carrying Howard’s pants over her arm, but it didn’t really register in my brain that she was carrying his pants.  All I thought was, ‘Doesn’t she look nice.’ 
Then Howard came in and I thought, ‘boy are his legs muddy’ though it really didn’t occur to me that he was not wearing any pants.  Then Bruce, Marsha, Max and Jan entered in a line, no pants.  Then Bob (
Dad) followed, no pants.  By that point the rest of the house had joined us in the foyer and we all erupted into laughter.”

I grabbed my pants from Kristen and scurried to the bathroom to clean-up, leaving Kri      sten to fend for herself with my pantsless, slightly-inebriated family.  When I returned several minutes later, Kristen was sitting on the flagstone fireplace hearth in the living room laughing and smiling in the center of the happy group.  My nephews were glued to her sides, my niece was at her feet, and each of them were smiling at her like she was the best thing they had ever laid their young eyes upon.  I knew I loved her then – but I was fairly certain that the feeling was NOT mutual.

We gave our thanks and drove the Mud-Mobile to Howard Johnson’s for a late-night snack of fried clams and Cokes.  The conversation was easy and fun-filled.  Maybe this wasn’t such a bad first non-date after all.  An hour-and-a-half later I parked the Olds at the front walk of Kristen’s parent’s home in Channahon.  I held open her mud-spackled door and walked Kristen to the house where she opened the front door, stepped in, turned toward me and said, “goodnight.”   A first non-kiss for a first non-date.  I waited another three months for that first date and first kiss and it was worth the effort.  Thirty-six-and-a-half years, 33 years of marriage, and three great adult children later we’re still great partners, still best friends, and still in love…  

I couldn’t find the picture from the dance, but here’s a post-engagement, pre-wedding pic: