The summer before my Junior year of high school, I was signed up to go to Cross Country Camp at SDSU. Yes, Cross Country Camp. Camp for running... it exists. Get over it. Looking back at that week and the next year when I went to the camp again, I have the fondest of memories of the people I met from all over the region and of my time getting to know the campus of SDSU which helped me to make my decision to attend that school the spring of my Senior year.
But that first attendance was filled with nerves and uncertainty. I knew I was a good enough runner to keep paces with the others that were going to be there, but I wasn't completely concrete in those beliefs either. I wasn't sure how much running we were going to be doing. I was bit nervous about meeting students from places that I didn't know. I had a history of bad first days at camps in the past (look for these stories in future chapters under the category "Shetek"). This first year signing up didn't include anybody that I knew firsthand other than the person from Baltic that had signed up with me: Jamie Rydell. And we didn't even know each other that good other than we ran against each other often in Cross Country meets and in Track. We were actually going to be picking him up and taking him to Brookings with us.
In the days before cell phones and internet, this was quite the exercise in trust. We talked on the phone a few times leading up to day we were to head up there, but we didn't talk long or very often. I do specifically remember asking if he played tennis as our family did and on many summer nights my brother and I and maybe a couple friends would go to Brandon or to Valley Springs and play tennis under the bright lights at their courts. Jamie did play and I told him to bring his racket so we could play.
The other preface for going to this camp that I have to set the stage for is that earlier in the summer, my brother Chris and Robbin had gotten married up in Clear Lake, SD and at their dance at the VFW, I met a cute blonde there who was a year younger than me and classmates of Robbin's little sister, Karleen. This cute blonde was with a few friends and showed up at the dance to have some fun with their friend and classmate in that steamy and loud little town's VFW. Mogen's Heros were playing and we were all dancing up a storm. I was still looking sharp in my white tuxedo and had even gotten up to sing with the band and my brothers (I think we sang "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling" ala Tom Cruise in Top Gun).
This cute blonde and her friends were standing in a group near the front of the dance hall in the middle of the pack talking to Karleen when I came upon them. I think there four girls in that group but I was immediately drawn to the cute blonde that was wearing a white miniskirt and a peach top. Karleen did her best to introduce me to all of them and I think I shook all of their hands but everything went fuzzy and sounds went numb and I had NO idea who was who or even what the cute blonde girl's name was. I stood their awkwardly trying to think of something fun or cool to say to keep the conversation going. I know I was hot and sweating so I suggested we go outside so we could talk where it was a bit more quiet. We all went outside and in the cooler air, I got a better look at the girl I would learn who's name is Stacy. I was immediately smitten. The band was on break, but I asked if we could dance. She had a tight curfew (I learned later because of some trouble she had gotten into just days before). Eleven o'clock was falling fast and the band would be playing until after that time. She said that she should really just get home. Because I was the youngest of the brothers and cousins there that night, and because I just didn't drink back then, I was the designated driver for anybody that needed it. I was holding the keys to my grandma's car that we had driven up and I offered my services to give her a ride home. Me not really knowing how far she even had to go but she agreed to a ride and we walked over to the car and I held the door for her and then drove her to her house.
I was incredibly nervous and I can't remember what I even said to her other than that I hoped we could exchange numbers and addresses and maybe be in touch following the weekend. By the time I had initiated the conversation, the ride was over. She lived just over 3 blocks from the VFW. I would've been smarter to offer to walk her home. I would've got more time to talk to her! I drop her off and made sure she made it up to the door before pulling away, and then I returned to the VFW to some friends of her's that were smiling and some guys that I didn't know that seemed to look me over and give me a look that seemed to say "Way to go!". I wasn't sure what to make of that and found Karleen and the other friends who I then learned were Shawna and Kelly. They were able to hang out for a while at the dance and I had fun getting to know them even though all the while I kept wishing that I were getting to know Stacy better.
But this worked out because I think I was making a good impression on two of Stacy's best friends. The night closed out later as fairly uneventful and I gave rides home to a few of the wedding party and then made it to bed in the hotel in Clear Lake where I stared at the dark ceiling and thought about this new girl that was going to be on my brain for many nights to follow.
The next day, we sat around Robbin's folks' place where they were opening gifts which quickly wore out it's novelty on me and Karleen and I went out on the front sidewalk and just sat in the sun and talked when a pickup truck pulled up with three familiar girls. Kelly, Shawna and.... Stacy. What followed was something that I was thinking was going to be awkward and weird but instead was very comfortable and natural. We talked about the previous night and how much fun we all had and that it was too bad that Stacy couldn't have stayed longer. But we did exchange numbers and addresses and while I was a little worried that in the light of day, my first impressions of this cute blonde might get dented up a bit and realize that I have been overly zealous with my memory, I was very relieved to find out that my first impressions may have been a bit conservative if anything. We all sat around and talked for a while and by the end of the day, I was entirely hooked. We drove back to Garretson and I couldn't wait to communicate with Stacy.
Communications DID continue and we had many conversations on the phone and by mail. Phone conversations were tricky: long distance phone calls were a touchy topic for both Stacy and I. Our parents both watched the bills closely and long chatty conversations were a no-no.... but also inevitable with myself on one end of the phone. We'd try our best to make sure we only called after 7pm and after 10pm as those were the times when the rates were WAY cheaper. Phone calls could easily rack up bills of over $10 or more for whomever made the call.
By the time I made it to camp at Brookings, we had talked enough to where we thought we could maybe try to meet up while I was in a town that was only 30 miles from Clear Lake.
Then, days before I was going up to camp, in the middle of all my excitement in preparation for getting to see Stacy and hang out with her again, there was tragedy in Clear Lake and there was a death of one of her classmates and fellow cheerleaders. Where our plans were originally that Stacy and maybe somebody else would drive down to hang out at some point, now I wasn't sure if I'd even get to talk to her on the phone.
And there came the first problem... now that I was on campus and living in a bare dorm room, the only phones I could use was the pay phones in the lobby. This was before prepaid calling cards were even a thing. My only option for reaching Stacy by phone to see if we were actually going to meet up was for me to call her collect. I didn't necessarily want to get her into trouble, but I so terribly wanted to see her again.... so I called her collect. I hoped for the best that SHE would answer the phone and not her parents. What happened was almost worse: Her older brother answered and the operator asked "Collect call from JT, do you accept the charges?".... his response was golden: "Who?"... ha ha ha ..... I had to blurt out to the operator "For Stacy for Stacy!". She added to him"...for Stacy" and he relented with an "I guess" and he called out for Stacy. So my first impression with her brother was that I was a cheapskate.
Stacy said that she would be going to the funeral tomorrow and wouldn't be able to come down to Brookings. I was disappointed but then looked at my schedule for the next day and realized that MAYBE I could figure out a way to get UP to Clear Lake. It was only 30 miles... maybe one of the guys that drove to camp could give me a ride and chill with us.
So that's what happened. One of my friends at camp that I was worried about getting along with stepped up and whole-heartedly agreed that this new girlfriend who is grieving the loss of a friend would want me to come up to her. The next problem was that I didn't really bring any nice "date clothes". Not that this was a date, but I didn't plan on making a 'call on a lady'... most (if not all) of my clothes were running clothes. I brought this up to my other running companions and another kid stepped up and offered me some of his clothes for my "date". He had a very cool vertical striped Chaps shirt that sort of resembled a sailor's shirt. I had my guess jeans and my boat shoes so I was set.
I felt the need to get her something considering the crap she was dealing with, so I went to the book store and found a cute little stuffed Jackrabbit that had one ear wrapped and a tear coming out of one eye and his name according to the tag was Bunny Boo Boo. I also got a card for her and that with a couple of letters that I had written and one silly note from one of my running friends that asked her for help because I was being mean to him. HA!.
I bundled everything up and had it ready for following the after lunch run when we'd then have a few hours of free time before dinner and then an evening run. We came in from the run, I showered and then Russ from Jamestown, ND gave me a ride in his LTD up to Clear Lake. We had no plans on meeting anywhere in particular or at any certain exact time. I realized that this might make this whole plan fall apart as we pulled into Clear Lake and I was starting to think that maybe I should've planned this better. We drove around a bit and I think he was beginning to think I was maybe make all of this up about this girl when all of a sudden on Main Street we met Karleen driving toward us! I waved at her and she stopped. I thanked Russ for the ride and jumped into the car with her. I made sure that she could get me back to Brookings (which she could) and then Russ took off. Karleen and I drove around a bit and then we found Stacy. She jumped into the front seat with us and I gave her the letters and card and Bunny Boo Boo.
We hung out and drove around and eventually decided that we needed to all go out to eat and we should go out to the little diner a few miles away where Chris and Robbin held their rehearsal dinner. So we did and in the middle of dinner, I started to do the math and realize that the time to finish eating and travel time to Brookings as well as getting ready for the evening run was running out. We snarfed down our last bites and even took some of it with us in the car. We drove like crazy people back down to Brookings and straight to the dorm where I was hoping to run in and get changed for the run. When we pulled up in the parking lot, everyone was stretching for the evening run and were taking off. I slinked down in my seat of the car as everyone ran past our car on their way out on a 5 mile run... I waited for a minute and then said goodbye and snuck back up to the room. I later learned that the girls got home too late and were in trouble too. Oooops.
The rest of camp went off without many problems.... I made friends with people who I am still friends with to this day. Many of them went sneaking into the Brookings swimming pool at about 1 in the morning. I went walking around campus during a beautiful thunderstorm and was awed by nature's light show. I fell in love with the campus as I walked around and sat on the steps to the campanile in the middle of the night. Jamie and I played tennis on the courts over by the library. I logged many miles on the roads of Brookings and got to meet some interesting people such as an Asics representative, a Nike representative, Dick Beardsley (who at the time held records in a couple marathons as well as an American record). The highlight of my camp experience was running a pacer workout (a 400m run at a certain goal speed and then rest for a minute then another 400m run at a slightly faster pace. This repeats and repeats faster and then slower and slower) with Dick Beardsley himself timing them and while everybody was apparently competing to impress Dick with their speed, I kept coming in last... but also right. on. the. exact. time that we were supposed to hit. He even told me that he was impressed that I was hitting the time exactly. I WAS pretty good at knowing my pace, it's something that Coach Sylliaasen instilled into my skillset. I was proud when coach told me to lead the team on a 3 mile run at aa 7:00 pace and we'd get back to the school at 21 minutes flat. Boom. Nailed it.
I went to camp again the next summer, but while I was still seeing Stacy, the adventures weren't nearly as exciting but my comfort with the campus grew and my friendships solidified. At the time, I still had dreams of becoming a Jackrabbit that wore the blue and gold out on the Cross Country course and on the track, but between graduation and fall of my freshman year, that dream had fizzled away. I did become a proud Jackrabbit, but only one who cheered on those guys that I had gone to camp with and also a proud Jackrabbit that knew his campus in and out very well on the first day that I was on campus... Every time there was a thunderstorm I remembered that week of camp. Every time I walked by the tennis courts on the way to the library and somebody was playing, I remembered playing tennis with Jamie. And when I saw people going out for an evening run by Young Hall, I felt the need to slink down in my seat.
When I was in 7th grade and playing basketball, an incident arose that slapped me with a nickname that stuck for a while. This is my defense of that incident.
We were playing at Salem. Back in the time before McCook Central when their games were played in the Armory gym. It was a fairly decent gym to play in. All the bleachers were on one side of the gymnasium so they went up further than we were used to seeing at the little gyms of most schools. The teams' benches were across from the crowd and as the crowd looked at the court, Garretson's bench was the one on the left.
I wasn't sure in my memory banks if this incident happened when we were in 7th grade or in 8th grade. I was pretty sure it was 8th grade, but then I remembered that there was a cheerleader from Salem that we all thought was cute. I distinctly remember that she was older than me and that I wanted to impress her. This was a recurring theme in my thought process in my formative years of 7th grade through college and beyond.
We had a pretty good team. We always seemed to put a pretty good team on the field in any sport. We had a very athletic team and if we had worked at it a bit harder, we probably could've gone to state but we were always just on the cusp of qualifying. We always ran into tough competition in a very difficult region and in our class of basketball, only one team from each region made it to state. I'll save other stories of those challenges for another time. This was our formative years in junior high. Our shooting skills were developing, our ball-handling skills were developing, our communication skills were developing.... our basic basketball rules were developing. This last point is important.
The 7th grade game was always played before the 8th grade game. Coach Sylliaasen was the coach for both the 7th and the 8th grade teams. How he kept us all in line, I'll never know. Both teams and the cheerleaders bussed to all the games at the same time and I don't remember another teacher or chaperone coming along, but MAYBE Mrs. Garry did for the cheerleaders. I'm not sure. Maybe somebody can verify that to me... either way, Coach had his hands full with a couple dozen 12-14 year-old boys.
We suited up immediately upon arrival. The eighth grade boys went and sat on the bleacher and flirted with the cheerleaders and acted like they were watching our game. The 7th graders came out and warmed up... layup drills, shoot around and free throws. Then finally we'd start. Back in 7th grade our starting 5 was usually made up of Loren Vandeberg, Craig Albers, Craig Hillestad, Bruce Vollan and myself. Rodney Kasma would be in there from time to time as well, if I remember correctly.
We were a team that won most of our games at this level and this game was no different. By the end of the first half we were winning and feeling pretty good about our performance as we trotted into the locker room for a pep talk and quick rest. My life was still normal up to this point. I put in my solid few points (as usual) and I was feeling confident that I'd put in a few more in the second half (as usual).
This is where the events get sketchy. We came out of the locker room and warmed up much like we did in the first half. The details of this phase of the story are important. We came out at warmed up on the same basket that we used for the first half. We're supposed to switch baskets. But we didn't we used the same basket. I remember thinking that this was odd, but not impossible. What did I know... I was a fricking 7th grader... there MUST be a reason for the adults to make us do this. Whatever. I'm going with it.
So at the end of warmups I'm thinking, "ok, same basket. Got it." Then we come out for the second half jump-ball and the person making the jump faces THEIR own basket. Bruce came out and the refs had them face their baskets. But now Bruce is facing the OTHER basket, not the one we warmed up on. So now I'm confused a bit. But I'm going with it mentally... in my head, I'm like 'ok, I guess it's now THIS basket... the one behind me'.
The referee throws the ball up and Bruce skies for the ball and easily tips it right back to me. In my view, he's hitting the ball directly towards OUR basket and I'm the only one back here. It's my lucky moment.... if I could slam dunk in my life (ever) THIS would've been a great moment for the most kick ass slam dunk ever. That 8th grade cheerleader would've been like "who's THAT guy?"... I saw this all happening in my next few seconds. What did happen was I made the easiest layup I'd ever made. I was still proud of myself. Our lead went up by two points. I added to my stats. Rock on. Then I turned around after making the layup.
My entire team was sulking, their heads either held with chins up in frustration or hanging in embarressment. Both benches were laughing... their players clapping for me. One player patted me on my back. Coach had his hands tangled in his hair as he tussled it and stared at the ground. I tried to briefly plead my case to the ref then to the guys on the team but the points were added to the home score and not ours. I had to throw the ball in right away to one of the Craigs to bring the ball up. I continued to apologize and plead my case. They just shrugged me off and said "I got this... let's go". Play continued. But I know I was right.
I dreaded the first time-out after that. I knew what Coach was going say, what he was going to do, how he'd look at me. And I was right. I also got plenty of attitude from my fellow teammates including the bench players that continued to giggle at me and what I had done. Coach first coined the nickname for me at this time and said to the Craigs, "You guys bring it up, Wrongway, you go down and post up".
So "Wrongway" it would be, at least for a while. A few more games... a couple of years probably. We won this game. I learned to thicken my skin. I was probably blushing for a few days. That 8th grade cheerleader must not have been impressed with my layup... or my blush. I got over it. I never did it again... I made sure of that. I do remember that through all my games through all of my years of playing basketball, at the start of the second half, I always clarified with Craig Albers or Bruce or Loren which basket was our's as play started again. I'd point to the basket that I was sure was our's and then wait for the reaffirming nod. It was half joking and half serious as I know to this day that I was right, but I learned that I better check... just in case everybody else once again decided to play the wrong baskets.
A lot of the next things I write are going to have to be fact-checked and substantiated by others, but this is the things that I remember. I think I just wrote the forward to my book.
Coach Sylliaasen taught math to the 7th and 8th graders at Garretson. People seemed to know him best for his coaching cross country and track. His intensity at the meets was unparalleled by any other coaches, he'd often run further at a cross country meet than the athletes, I think. He was known for his effectiveness and spirit. His oxymoronic screaming of "RELAX" seemed to be anything but relaxing, but he was always there on the course where he needed to be. "Catch that guy" or "Go NOW" were phrases we needed to hear at moments when we were lagging or falling back. He kept giving us a task or a goal when we needed it most.
He also coached 7th and 8th grade basketball. But other than the time I scored a basket for the other team, I don't have much to say about that. (I'll save that for another story... I have a legitimate defense!)
But my primary concern right now is Coach's classroom. His lesson often hustled through lesson after lesson at breakneck pace. But having grown up around Coach since my younger days playing with his sons, Brad (who was a year younger than Matthew) and Tim (who was a few years younger than me), I was always very comfortable around him and always felt I could get away with more in HIS classroom than in any others. This didn't always go over so good with Coach.
I was (and AM) very chatty and would often talk in the classroom to the point of getting in trouble for not listening. For a while in school, they used a name on the chalk board and checkmark discipline system and I think my name was on every teacher's board. (After you got a checkmark or two, you'd get detention... I only got it a few times, so I did HAVE some self-control, but often I didn't practice it.)
In Coach's classroom, I think I had my name on the board every day. He did his best to separate me from those that would instigate my chattiness... often it was Peter Caffrey, sometimes, I think it was Mary Koens. He would put me in a desk up in the front of the classroom in the corner and the other chatty person would get a desk in the other front corner. They were reserved seats for Squirrel #1 and Squirrel #2. I would proudly take my place in my little throne. Many times, I was just trying to be the class clown and by putting me up front, Coach was just giving me a stage. I seem to remember the desks for the squirrels eventually were next to him on either side of his desk facing forward to discourage any interaction with others and clowning around.
Coach's chalkboard, besides being used for names and checkmarks, was also used by students working through problems when we'd be in the middle of a lesson. When Coach was lecturing and going through a lesson, he'd use the overhead projector. He would project the screen onto a white pulldown screen that was retractable up into it's metal case mounted at the top of the chalk board. When pulled down, it was held in place with a loop of a rope on a nail or hook or something. I'm sure that early on in Coach's teaching days, the hold-down rope wasn't used but that after an unforeseen and unpredictable immediate retraction of the screen, Coach probably developed his back-up anchor system.
When using the projector, you need to write on a clear piece of plastic. The problem is, if you used one sheet at a time, you'd need to hold it down while you wrote... plus the sheet would fill up immediately and often later parts of a series of mathematical lessons would need to refer back to an earlier part. Finding the sheet that had the part you were looking for would be very difficult if not impossible to find that part. So Coach used a scrolling clear piece of plastic. It was just a long piece of plastic that went from one spool then across the projection screen area then to a receiving roll. Each had a little handle on them for spooling the film in either direction. If Coach had to refer back to some part earlier in the lesson, he could just scroll the film back. Then scrolling back forward again to new clean film he could continue where he had just left off. This was all done with blue or green or sometimes red dry-erase markers, so that when the scroll was all filled and he was sure that everybody had the lessons down, he could go back and erase the entire scroll blank again.
Coach didn't have the best of handwriting, but it was legible and we "got it". But sometimes, we'd need to ask verification is what he wrote was a 1 or a 7, or a 5 or a S, Things like that. But not a big deal. We got it. He made math fun. His preparation for us for upper levels of math (trigonometry and calculus and such) were very helpful, and I remember even in high school that I was able to go to him and ask him for help with whatever we were working on. I knew that his explanation style and temperment was easier to deal with that going to Mr. Olinger, who would come off as a little, umm... intense at times. We often avoided spending more time with Mr. Olinger than we needed to. Don't get me wrong, we enjoyed his classes, but there were times. (If you didn't get Mr. Olinger's sense of humor wasn't everybody's cup of tea... if you got it, you got it... if you didn't, you were lost and probably didn't like his class).
Back to Coach and his scrolling overhead projector. Every day, we knew Coach would do a few scrolling-forwards-worth of lessons. One day, Coach was late getting to class. We never knew where they were, they were just not there. We always just assumed there was a big teacher party going on in the smoke filled teacher's lounge down by the old gym. Some sort of party where they all talked about the bad kids and schemed up plans make our lives hell. Realistically, he was probably just going to the bathroom, but we always assumed the worst. But before he got back to the classroom, Jay Schleuter, went up to the projector and scrolled the clear film ahead a page or two and with a permanent marker wrote the words "Coach is a roach" then scrolled it back.
Fast forward to the middle of our lesson that day and as Coach frantically wrote and talked he scrolled ahead a few times and at some point he was mid-sentence when he scrolled ahead again, stopped (clearly he saw the words) he turned and saw them on the screen, he licked his thumb and tried to quickly swipe the words off. The giggles of the class turned quickly to laughs as the words didn't come off and he tried again to no avail and finally sighed and scrolled the screen further ahead. He let the laughing die down, he eyeballed the classroom to see if the guilty party was maybe laughing louder than the others, but we all laughed terribly loud. There was no clear culprit.
I'm sure he figured it was Squirrel #1 or maybe Squirrel #2. How wrong he was... or was he?
Another writing that I found from a while back. I think I had reminesced about the first day of cross country practice at about the same time that the writing about the first day of track had crossed my mind... so I think was around 1996 or 1997.
The front lawn of the school along Main was still hot, even in the shade of the early August afternoon and the humid air still smelt of strong summer air.... sort of a mix of hot pavement, cut grass, dust and sweat. These were the beginning of the closing days of summer and because we were starting practice today for cross country, I could tell that the end of summer of definitely closing in on us.
The following is from a journal writing I made in the mid 1990's after graduating from college but was reminescing about my cross country career. There wasn't an exact date, but I would guess 1996. The date of my first race was August, 1985.
I was going into my Freshman year in high school and I had decided to hang up my football cleats in 8th grade and move onto the wonderful world of cross country running. I had a lot of my current friends running already and they encouraged me to join their ranks. Mark Bauer, Jeff Johnson, Scott Johnson and Peter Caffrey. They were all there amongst others, and we had fun. The practices intesified leading up to the first meet and I remember that meet vividly. It was the Lincoln Invitational , held at Tuthill Park in Sioux Falls.
I'm just a creative guy that's looking to throw all this spaghetti onto the wall and hope something sticks.