Carroll College is Wisconsin’s oldest college and was established in 1841, even before Wisconsin became a state. The campus is situated in the community of Waukesha, which has grown over the years and has now become confluent with the city of Milwaukee. In 1978, I enrolled as a freshman without any particular reason I can recall, except that my older brother was already studying there. Looking back, I consider this to be a consequence of my heavy use of marijuana, which may have led to an ‘apathy syndrome.’ While there is debate over whether smoking marijuana causes such a syndrome, my behavior in late high school and early college seems like good evidence for it. I partied a lot during my last two years of high school, and my attitude toward life was such that nothing really mattered to me, not even where I would spend my college years. However, since my brother was at Carroll, we could share rides now and then, which was a good enough reason for me.

Rock River, Beloit Wisconsin

College was an easy ride for me. I received A’s in most of my courses, except for a couple B’s in courses that I never really understood the need for.  I remember an assignment to write a poem, and I thought, “Why a poem?  Can’t I make a point without worrying about where each word goes?  And why different stanzas?”  Maybe this indicated that I performed better when faced with challenges and struggled when nothing was demanded of me. Or maybe poetry was just too much for me after leaving Chemistry class.   But I pursued my interests and ended up majoring in Biology and minoring in Psychology.

I didn’t spend too much time worrying about my future, but I knew that I didn’t want to become a physician. The pre-med students were too ’80s preppy’ for my liking, with their fancy clothes and neat haircuts, and not the kind of people who would fit in with the pot-smoking crowd. What annoyed me the most about these pre-med students was that they always seemed so darn happy! Growing up, I had learned to view med students (or any students who came from privileged backgrounds) as Republicans, self-centered, greedy, and only pretending to be happy, or if they were happy, they were happy about all the wrong things.

My dad was a small-town defense attorney who criticized doctors for being money-driven and lacking character. My grandmother in Illinois was the only person in my family who held them in high regard. She frequently talked about her doctor, Dr. Pastorius, glowingly, hoping to inspire one of her grandchildren to pursue medicine. Dr. Pastorius visited my grandparents’ house in Moweaqua before and after clinic hours to give my granddad injections of Demerol to ease his pain as he died from colon cancer. Impressed by the stories, I asked him for a letter of recommendation when I applied to medical school despite never having met him. However, my father was not impressed by the kindness and instead attributed it to greed or a selfish desire to feel important. My father applied the same logic to other professionals like businessmen, celebrities, and even lawyers.

I recall my father describing Frank Sinatra as an untalented singer who was only successful because of his connections with the right people. This implied that my dad practiced law not for money but out of compassion for the criminals that the court appointed him to see. During an argument in my teens, I accused him of favoring the moral code of a black inner-city car thief over that of a white, tithing, God-fearing CEO. His views were not unique, as he believed that the bonds of slavery continued to affect the structure of black families, making it unreasonable to expect decent behavior from them. Meanwhile, he believed that all white people were forever guilty of the sins of their ancestors. I found this argument to be patronizing and grounded in low expectations, which, in essence, are forms of racism.  Isn’t it, really?

When I was in first grade, I was part of the court for the Rock County 4H Fair Queen. Back then, I thought that I had achieved something extraordinary to earn that position like maybe the town decided that I was a special guy.  Now I suspect it was more about being the queen’s next-door neighbor. I remember being interviewed in front of a large crowd at the grandstands, which was quite challenging for a six-year-old. When asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I responded with a rather strange answer: “A school-hater or a bum.” It may seem like an odd response for a child my age, but in the context of my upbringing, it reflected my father’s sarcastic humor and his appreciation for underachievement in an age-appropriate way.

My father’s achievement standards for his children were somewhat ambiguous. We were expected to attend college, perform well, and then establish successful careers. However, my father held in contempt those who possessed large houses in town, believing they had acquired them through dishonesty, avarice, and corruption. Although he would never admit it, on our way back from church every Sunday, he would mutter ‘those bastards’ under his breath as we passed by the country club. Anyone who was a part of the country club was regarded as immoral, without the possibility of redemption. This created a ‘double bind’ situation, where I would ultimately be seen as a bad person regardless of how I performed.

I would like to confess that my confusion over ideals made me get stuck in a prolonged adolescence and that I smoked pot to reduce my anxiety about the future. It seems like a sensible explanation, but the truth is that I started smoking pot in high school for different reasons. Maybe I did it to fit in, to avoid getting bullied, or to have friends. I could make a plausible argument for each of these scenarios, and perhaps each would be at least partially true. But the fact is, pot was everywhere back then, so I smoked it.  The few times we encountered police, they would either confiscate it (for their own use?) or dump it into the wind.

During my first two years of college, I can recall a rare day or two when I woke up and walked to class without smoking pot the day before. I remember how great it felt to have a clear head. As it turned out, I was able to maintain a constant level of THC in my system while maintaining perfect grades every semester. However, that doesn’t mean that I escaped all the negative effects of pot smoking; had I focused more on my future instead of wasting my time being stoned, I might have achieved greater things in my life. Or perhaps I wouldn’t have done anything particularly great but would have learned better social skills earlier. When I eventually attended graduate and medical schools, I was so impressed by the accomplishments of my peers. I recall talking to a classmate from NYC, now a successful internist, about smoking pot while cruising around in Wisconsin.

“Where did you find the time?” he asked. “My day was jam-packed between regular classes, Hebrew school, tennis lessons, and cello practice!”

“I forgot to mention my contribution to society during my freshman year – the hanging roach clip. It was an alligator clip tied to a string and attached to the ceiling, which allowed smokers to pass a joint by simply swinging it to the next person instead of leaning forward to hand it to them. Someone who had only learned tennis and cello after Hebrew school would never have appreciated its beauty.

During the summer before my sophomore year, I landed a job in my hometown of Beloit, Wisconsin. I worked for the Downtown Chamber of Commerce, taking care of the flowers that decorated the tree-wells of all the downtown sidewalks. I was never part of the popular crowd in high school, and I lacked the ability to even pretend to fit in. I don’t know why I didn’t just look at what other people wore and imitate them. Instead, I chose to wear clothes that sufficiently covered my skin, and that was about it.

Frankly, I’m glad I was unaware of what was considered ‘cool’ back then because if I had known, I would have been embarrassed to do my job. The business owner who hired me had set up a cruel watering system. It was an 80-gallon drum attached to a cart with wheels and a handle that looked like it was made for a child’s toy. My task was to fill the drum with water and pull it around the city to water all the flower wells. It was a ridiculous sight, especially when I had to go up and down hills in the downtown area.  The only positive thing was that I developed muscular arms and shoulders for the first and last time in my life.

In late May of that year, after working for a week or two, I took a break from the sun under a large concrete overhang of a parking structure. The structure extended over the Rock River and provided ample parking space for downtown shoppers. I parked my wagon against a concrete wall, turned the wheels to prevent it from rolling, climbed down a small embankment, and slid between the concrete wall of the lower level and the floor of the upper level. This maneuver led me to a dark, spacious area beneath the parking structure next to the Rock River.

Judging by the litter, it was a popular spot for various illegal activities like drinking and drugging. I sat on the dirty gravel and gazed into the darkness, listening to the sound of the river rushing against the concrete pillars. About 100 feet upstream, the river was bathed in sunlight before plunging into darkness under the parking ramp. At that moment, a thought occurred to me: someone was out there in the darkness, in dire need of help. Perhaps they were drowning, and I had to decide what to do. Should I swim out into the dark current and risk being swept against the pillars or pulled under by the current? I held the image in my mind for a moment and then turned to leave, walking back to the narrow opening between the concrete wall and the floor.

I lingered there because it was hot outside but cool in the dark, and so I was in no rush to return to work. Then, I heard a faint sound coming from the darkness of the river, a sound that resembled a human voice but carried no clear message. The sound was heard again, this time it was definitely a moaning sound coming from a female voice, and then suddenly quiet again. I gazed towards the sound and could barely make out something moving with the current through the maze of supporting concrete pillars, now that my eyes had grown accustomed to the dark.

“Hello!” I yelled out, still unsure if something was really there. “Hello?!”

The moaning returned, now obviously coming from the object in the water that was directly across from me and moving swiftly downstream so that I had to jog along the river to keep up. All the while I was numb from the sequence of events; the thought that had struck me several minutes earlier about a person drowning in the river was now being played out, almost exactly as it had occurred to me. Up ahead, I was nearing the point where the river re-entered the sunlight. At that point, the concrete structure formed a narrow opening for the river’s exit, and the path along the river came to an abrupt end against a concrete wall. Glancing around, I spotted an exit similar to the opening where I had entered on the other end of the lot, and I ran ahead of the river’s flow and squeezed through the opening, ran up a set of stairs to the top of the lot, and then across the street and bridge that bordered the parking structure. I ran across the bridge and peered over the railing at the river below, and suddenly the floating object appeared beneath me– a black woman, about 50 years old, wearing clothing and possibly a thin coat, rolling over in the water and dropping just below the surface and then appearing again, eyes wide open with fright. I continued watching her as I ran along the bridge until I got to the river’s edge, and then I ran along the riverbank with the current, wanting to get ahead of the woman before I entered the water.

At some point I kicked off my shoes, and then my pants, and then before I realized it I was in the water and swimming toward the woman. I knew how to swim, but this part of the river was quite dangerous; the Rock River runs wide through town but narrows and deepens to the south as it leaves Beloit and flows into a wooded area. The river was high and cold from spring rains, and the surface of the river looked like water had just been brought to a boil, the current coming up from the bottom and then turning downward, the water churning in all directions.

When I got to the woman, she reached for me and grabbed me with both hands, trying to hang on to anything that she could grasp; she was barely conscious and very weak, her body light, maybe 90 pounds at the most.  I pushed her hands out of my way and grabbed the lapel of her coat. I pulled her slowly toward shore, half swimming, half dog-paddling with my free hand. The current carried us toward two young boys with fishing poles on the opposite shore, and when they spotted us they dropped their poles and ran up the hill behind them to town to find help. The woman’s eyes were opened wide, cloudy, grayish-white, staring at nothing, and she moaned with a thick, guttural voice, bubbles appearing at her mouth with the noise. My thoughts raced from topic to topic—will I need to do mouth-to-mouth? Do I know how to do that? Will someone find us? And mostly, please don’t die, please don’t die.

At the river shore, I pulled the woman half out of the water and lay beside her, trying to catch my breath. She continued with a blank stare, but I could find a pulse in her neck and could hear the air gurgle in and out of her as she breathed. An upper denture was loose in her mouth, and I reached in and pulled it out, afraid she would choke on it. I was relieved as time passed, and she began breathing fairly regularly. Then I heard sirens, and finally, the ambulance was there. I was so relieved when the paramedics arrived at her side.

Over the next 30 minutes, a crowd appeared, and the ambulance left; I realized that I was standing in bright-red underwear (what mother buys her son bright-red underwear, anyway?), with a wet T-shirt clinging to my body that read on the front ‘Beloit’s Largest’, and on the back, ‘Locally Owned Bank, First National Bank’. I asked several of the police officers on the scene to help me get back upriver to my clothes, but each time, the answer was the same—let’s not worry about that right now. I was torn between enjoying the limelight of the moment versus being seen in a silly pair of underwear.

That evening, I was smoking pot in the park with my old high school friends when a reporter arrived, referred there by my parents after the reporter called them. The reporter drove me to the scene, took some photos, and asked me to describe what had happened. Over the next week, the newspapers carried articles about my heroics: headlines including ‘Beloit man successful in daring river rescue’, and editorials like ‘valor and selflessness are not dead’, and one story from a local reporter that included my picture, looking into the camera, eyes half-mast, with a big, dumb, stoned grin on my face.

The rest of the summer I entered bars to the shout of ‘hey look! It’s Beloit’s Largest!’ which is not bad for someone who, until then, had no reputation at all.

I learned more about Beloit over the next two months as men approached my water wagon and asked, “Why did you save a black woman?”  Apparently, the woman had schizophrenia and spent her time wandering the streets, sometimes swearing at women as they left the grocery store.

She eventually tracked me down on a downtown sidewalk.  She was still very thin and frail and appeared almost afraid of me.  “Thank you for saving my life,” she said before getting on her way. Some articles said she fell into the water; others said she ‘wanted to see if she could swim.’ 

__________________________

After the drama by the river ended, an officer drove me home, finally wearing pants and a wet T-shirt. My mom listened to the police officer and was speechless. My dad immediately called the local AM radio station and asked them to interview me. I was not prepared and had no idea how to handle the interview. I’d done something well, but should I really be boasting about it? Why was it so important for my dad to secure a small bit of fame?

I understand things better now than I did then.

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