Saturday, January 5, 2013

Travels With Faith

In an hour or two, I’ll finally have the car loaded.  Like Santa, I’ll check my list twice, not to find out who is naughty and who is nice, but rather to make sure I have everything necessary for ten days on the road. In addition to the obvious things like warm clothes, bedding, food, water, maps and more, bringing Teddy Roosevelt to life means tuxedos and top hats, teddy bears and pocket watches, pince nez glasses and a pile of books to rival TR’s own “pig skin library,” a collection of good books that would be well stained with animal blood and gun oil by the end of his African safari.

I travel the country, bringing my interpretation of Theodore Roosevelt to life for audiences of all sorts.  After a career in Illinois politics, I’m having a great deal of fun and providing for my family.  My father is a professional comedian.  Years ago, he quoted another comic.  “They don’t pay us to perform; they pay us to drive.”  I guess being on the road and entertaining is in my blood.  Interestingly, Jenny’s grandfather travelled the Midwest with a theatre troupe many years ago.

In 1976, the year of our nation’s bicentennial celebration, my mom and dad sold our home in Elmhurst, a Chicago suburb.  With boys aged 15, 13, 11 and 1, they packed a Ford Econoline 250 half full of belongings, topped this pile with a mattress and sleeping bags and headed for a new life in Hollywood, California.  Our trip West included the inspiration of Mount Rushmore and the mystery of the Badlands of South Dakota.  Our first night on the Pacific Ocean is frozen in time in a pastel sunset sketched by my mother, the three older boys silhouetted between the rays of the setting sun and the flames of the bonfire on the beach.  Our Hollywood adventures, renovating a burned out house of ill repute into a rooming house for artists, named Whig’s Place, was the stuff of comedy screen plays.  In true hippie fashion, a baby sister would be born in the upstairs apartment the following year.  The doctor and nurse for the planned home delivery were stuck somewhere in LA traffic.  Mom was a pro and “Baby Joy” made her first appearance with a comedian father and an actress tenant as stand ins for the doc and the nurse.

In 1981, I joined Mom and Dad and my two younger siblings in another cross country journey.  The two older brothers, then 20 and 18 and working in the trades, would stay in California.  This trip was different.  Pops had developed a new comedic persona, The Little Guy.  It was a mix of Will Rogers and George Carlin with a common man’s view of political and social issues as its mainstay.  To promote the character, Pops designed a cross country adventure called “Walkin’ Proud, Talkin’ Loud for America.”  The Ford Econoline was returned to duty, this time towing a large, home built trailer, decked out in red, white and blue.  Our plan was to travel from LA to Washington, DC, to celebrate our country, patriotism and citizenship.  We left LA on July 4 and arrived at the White House on September 17, Citizenship Day, the anniversary of the signing of the United States Constitution.  Along the way we collected thousands of postcards, written in their own words, from Americans, young and old, to President Ronald Reagan, newly installed in his first term that January.  You may remember, there was a rebirth of patriotism and optimism during that year.  As we travelled, Reagan recuperated from being shot, Sandra Day O’Conner became our first Supreme Court Associate Justice and two Libyan jets were downed over the Gulf of Sidra.

Our Walkin’ Proud adventure was a great thrill.  At the age of 16, I was given the duties of advance man and public relations agent.  Our twenty-two state, one hundred and sixty city tour included appearances at state fairs, meetings with mayors and governors, lots of newspaper and local television coverage and, the day before our arrival in DC, a live family appearance on the Today Show.  The next day, I circled the White House driving the van and towing the trailer while Dad tried to convince the Secret Service and the White House staff that we really did have an appointment to see President Reagan.  Unfortunately, by the time we got things straightened out, President Reagan had flown to Michigan to dedicate the Gerald Ford Library.  We toured the White House; got to see the Oval Office and Cabinet Room.  President Reagan sent a very nice thank you letter to us in Palatine, Illinois, where we settled with family, licked our wounds and circled the wagons for the next adventure.

For me, the next adventures were at Palatine High School and, eventually, at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee.  Several times during those college years, I would hitch hike across the country, mostly alone, once with a friend to California and back to Tennessee.  As a cross country runner in college, inspired by the cross Canada run attempted by Terry Fox, I decided to run some ultra-marathons.  “Marathon a Day for the United Way” was a 182 mile, seven day adventure from the Mississippi River at Savannah, Illinois, to Chicago, zig-zagging through the suburbs.  Team-mates joined me in Tennessee for 60 mile one day and 100 mile two day runs for multiple sclerosis.  In many ways, I was expressing my own love for the road, for sleeping beneath the stars and for seeing America up close.

My adventures and education at Sewanee and the beneficence of the Thomas J. Watson, Jr. Foundation gave me another amazing chance to travel and explore.  In 1987 and 1988, I travelled to Costa Rica, South Africa, Italy, the Philippines and South Korea, interviewing members of the national parliaments in each of those countries.  My bride Jenny joined me part way through in Italy after she finished a teaching contract.  She missed the 600 mile hitch hike from Cape Town to Johannesburg, but we were successful in putting our thumbs out for a round trip Rome to Florence.

Settled back in Illinois for graduate school and careers, we did things a little differently.  In the rural countryside of DeKalb County, we purchased an old country church and lived in the building while family joined us in renovations to make it a beautiful home.  Informed by the Whig’s Place adventure and inspired by Dad’s coffee table book “Converted into Houses,” a photographic collection of schools, barns, depots and churches that made lovely homes, we jumped in.  We were young.  We didn’t even ask what it cost to heat the place.  The church had gone broke trying to heat the place one day a week.

The old church in Fairdale was home for nearly twenty years.  Amazingly, five years before we purchased the church, I had stopped next door for a drink of water on my cross Illinois marathon.  My younger brother and sister joined us there to finish high school.  Our daughter Sam spent her first seven years there.  Buying the old commercial property next door and launching an antique mall and a business incubator was the next adventure, and the endless list of maintenance and yard work took its toll physically and financially.

 In 2005 and 2006, I spent thirteen months running the campaign of a Republican aspirant for the Illinois governorship.  The campaign cycle previous to that, I had been a candidate for the Republican nomination to the State House.  Both campaigns were exhausting, competitive and losing efforts.  I bumped through 2007, launching a taxpayer organization that helped defeat a new tax for a new layer of government.  Late in 2007, as a favor to a friend, I took a contract to assemble and lead the Illinois delegation for presidential candidate Mike Huckabee.  Three months with very little sleep for very little pay.  As the presidential primary concluded in Illinois in early February, 2008, my wife and I finished the last of our thrown together plans for a great, new adventure.  With our daughter and our golden retriever, Faith, we would travel the 48 continental states in an RV, celebrating the 150th birthday of President Theodore Roosevelt and the final centennial year of his historic presidency.  I would research TR along the way, visit the places associated with his life and legacy, and, where possible, engage performance opportunities that might help make ends meet along the way.

Like the experience at Whig’s Place, the Great 2008 TR Tour has all the stuff of a comedy screen play.  Adventures and misadventures abound.  Of course, the trip culminated with a live entertainment in the East Room of the White House for President and Mrs. George W. Bush on TR’s 150th birthday.  We celebrated in our DC hotel until 4AM.  At 8AM, I was showcasing for the US Forest Service in Northern Virginia.  After the tour, we settled in Sewanee, Tennessee.  We haven’t looked back and the adventures continue.

As a family, we took a test drive of the TR Tour in late 2007, travelling to the Northeast.  Now, with a schedule for 2013 that is already busting at the seams, I begin my fifth straight year of TR touring.  Wife and daughter have real lives now and join me when the schedule allows and when the climate and location offer sufficient enticements. 

Today, as I finish packing for a ten day adventure to the Grand Canyon and back, something is different.  I’m taking Faith, our golden retriever with me, despite the protests of wife and daughter who stay behind for work and school.  My travels with Faith begin.  I’m hoping that having Faith along will remind me to hike some of the trails and swim some of the lakes along the way.  I’m hoping that Faith will help me to see each new day with the enthusiasm and energy that she still shows at the age of nine.  Soon, she’ll leap off the back porch and give chase to that squirrel who knows just how fast to run and climb to survive the charge.  Never discouraged, Faith leaps into the day.  Travels with Faith.

Yes, Travels with Faith is a tribute to Travels with Charlie, John Steinbeck’s late in life travelogue featuring his poodle Charlie.  I’m hoping that Travels with Faith will also provide me with opportunity and discipline to write some stories, from the past and from adventures yet to come.  Thanks for reading through this.  I hope to see you down the trail.



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