Published in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Friday, January 10, 2014.
Spend enough time around universities and the beginnings of semesters bring visitors that demand to be let in. And so, with Marquette University’s spring semester beginning on Monday, I’m opening the door for the Marquette spring I missed.
January 1960. I skipped that spring of my sophomore year at Marquette, sold my car, caught a Greyhound headed for Portland, Ore., with no plan except getting out of Milwaukee. After Minneapolis, the winter plains were interrupted in eastern Montana when my seat mate, a rancher, offered me a job.
He’d boarded in North Dakota. We talked. I needed a job. He offered one. I thought about it. The bus stopped to let him off in nowhere dark, where a car waited. I rode on to a job pumping gas at a Chevron station at Broadway and Columbia in Portland.
While winter became spring, I thought often about the rancher, but pumping gas and washing windshields in downtown Portland was easy, stultifying work and so it would be a while before I delved heavily into those might have beens.
I worked the night shift at the Chevron station because it paid more. By August, I saved enough to go back to Marquette, where I’d been accepted again. On the other hand, I coveted an MGA sports car. When you’re crazy 19, deciding between an amorphous career and a real car is not easy. Then one night, driving up Broadway to work, I saw “DICK CONTINO TONIGHT” on the marquee of a lower-tier club a couple blocks downhill from the station.
If you grew up in Milwaukee in the 1950s, you may have heard of Contino. If not: Contino was born in Fresno, Calif., in 1930, sang, played the accordion feverishly and apparently appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show” a record 48 times. An accordion plus the Sullivan show equals Milwaukee impressive.
That night shift rolled on as always: The editors and pressmen from the Oregonian across the street retrieved their cars from the station’s lot, and nearby bars disgorged die-hards. By 2 a.m., quiet ensued. Enter Contino.
He drove in for gas aboard a Cadillac convertible and sat there alone, sprawled across the driver’s seat. To come close to what I saw that night, at 3 a.m., find the YouTube video of Contino, shirtless, playing “Beer Barrel Polka” and “Lady of Spain” on the accordion in Toronto in 1999. Closer still is my take on Contino after he played a sepia gig sitting in a dinged Cadillac, a tableau that gave me a glimpse into choices, consequences and time treading life.
I went back to Marquette. A few years later, I graduated, went off to fly for the Navy and a string of experiences that, on balance, I wouldn’t trade, even for a restored MGA. Nevertheless, without the epiphanies prompted by encounters with the Montana rancher and Contino, the beginning sentence of this paragraph would not, in all probability, exist.
What advice would I give Marquette undergraduates pondering spring semester 2014? The rancher is probably gone. Pumping gas for a paycheck is a semester break you cannot take. Contino is 83 and said to be in Vegas. Given those, my advice is to take no advice, unless it’s yours. If taking a semester off fits, buy it. Say “What do I have to lose?” and you just might hear from all that you have to gain.