Graduating from college is exciting, but the worst thing is now you have to find a job. You can’t sign up for another fencing class, because it’s time to get up and out in the real world. I’m a drama teacher, so that kind of specialization does limit your potential employers. Drama teachers tend to keep their jobs a long time, and when I graduated there were no jobs available in the state.
So I called about 300 places in California to see if there were any jobs. I found three or four potential interviews. But I really needed something to make me stand out, so the people interviewing me would have something to remember.
Then I recalled that my step-father had an uncle who was the acting president of Westminster College. They were looking for a replacement, and he really had no experience in running a college, but he had great business connections. He was retired from other leadership positions. He was really doing a great job for them, and if I could only get a recommendation letter from the acting president of another educational institution; that would really be a feather in my cap.
I had already interviewed this man for a radio class I had taken earlier in college, so I really didn’t think this was going to be a problem. I brashly walked into the administration building without an appointment and asked to see the acting president. The secretary paged him, and when he found out it was me, he let me right in.
This was way easier than even I ever thought it would be. So I went right into my pitch. I was graduating. I was looking for a recommendation. I paused.
This guy was a master. I mean, he had negotiated multi-million dollar contracts; he'd led important organizations, even had his life threatened a time or two. He didn’t get where he was by writing recommendations for people who were about to graduate from college. I was sure that he would say he didn’t have the time.
Well, he turned and looked at me and simply said, “Sure.” And then he smiled a bit and he continued. “You write it, and I’ll sign it.” He gave a few sheets of letterhead with Westminster College and the official sounding title of “Acting President” on it.
I was dumbfounded. I was to write my own recommendation?
He just sat silently and stared at me.
I mumbled a “thank you” and told him I would be back in a couple of days.
I don’t know if you have ever been asked to write a recommendation for yourself, but it's more difficult than it sounds. I’ve already mentioned this is a guy who has been around the block a few times, and if I try to pad my resume, he’s going to know it. I also have the delightful opportunity to try and describe what I feel are my strengths without sounding too egotistical. And I am also responsible for making sure it sounds like he wrote it, when in fact I really wrote it myself. I have to be good enough at this that no one who reads it will think I wrote it myself and had him sign it.
I struggled and struggled to find the right wording for sentences and descriptions. I tried not to slather on the praise too much. I worked harder on this single page of about three paragraphs than I had ever worked on any writing assignment in college.
I worked even harder on this than the one I wrote for one of the few English classes I took. The sad part about that twenty page paper is it was the entire basis for the grade in that class. I went to every class, read the books, commented in class; I thought I was the best student in the class. Little did I know that I was writing the paper in a completely wrong manner, and I got an F in the class. It was a great surprise to me when I read the comments of the teacher on my twenty page labor of love. He wrote “I have no idea what you are trying to say in this paper.” There was a large “F” on the front page, too, but I don’t remember if it was a big red “F”. I just remember it was an “F”. It’s okay; I didn’t need it for credit.
I was actually repeating it since I had signed up for the same class earlier with my wife. She had prudently dropped the class, while I had lagged behind until the drop deadline had passed and I received an “F” that first time, too. So the second “F” wasn’t such a big deal. But on my transcript there is an “F” crossed out and replaced with another “F”.
I didn’t put that in the recommendation letter.
The acting president signed it and never even read it.
"A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Dane Allred"
Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
The flying cloud, the frosty light:
The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.
Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.
Ring out the grief that saps the mind
For those that here we see no more;
Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.
Ring out a slowly dying cause,
And ancient forms of party strife;
Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws.
Ring out the want, the care, the sin,
The faithless coldness of the times;
Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes
But ring the fuller minstrel in.
Ring out false pride in place and blood,
The civic slander and the spite;
Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.
Ring out old shapes of foul disease;
Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.
Ring in the valiant man and free,
The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.
This story takes place more than three decades ago, so I probably shouldn’t name cities. Things might have changed, and I don’t want the people of Cincinnati angry about something that happened in the ‘70’s. I was in Ohio for a national meeting of high school students from all over the country, having just become a recent high school graduate myself. I spent a week there, and I was preparing to go visit my great-grandmother in Kentucky for the very first time. The bus ticket had been purchased, and as I sat in the Cincinnati bus station, I decided I was hungry. Delicious aromas were wafting from the diner at the bus station, and one of my favorite breakfasts is a Denver omelet.
Now, a Denver omelet has two of my favorite foods; onions and bacon. It may sound strange to someone who hasn’t enjoyed bacony and oniony goodness cooked in eggs, but I would advise anyone who hasn’t tried one to do so before judging. But you may want them to hold the green peppers, which are usually also in a Denver omelet. I don’t like green peppers, so I have the cook hold the green peppers, and everyone is happy.
Now, sitting in a bus station diner was a new experience to me. I had never been in a bustling transportation center before, and as my breakfast was cooking, I contemplated the excitement of travel. I was listening to the noise build in the terminal as the morning travelers arrived. The smells from the kitchen were amazing. As I sat with my mouth watering, waiting for my omelet to arrive, I don’t know if it was the new surroundings,or the fact I was hundreds of miles from home on a great adventure, travelling by myself for the first time, or the combination of all of the above, but I was excited. The omelet arrived; it looked delicious, and I was starving.
Did I mention a Denver omelet has cheese? The combination of eggs, bacon, onions and melted cheese are one of the most delicious breakfasts you could ever have, and it was one of the most delicious breakfasts I have ever had. I sprinkled a little bit of salt on it (since I put salt on almost everything, and yes -- I know it’s not healthy for me).
My taste buds were in heaven. Yes, I love bacon by itself. I love onions and garlic because my stepfather wanted to be Italian and he was a great cook. Everything he cooked had onions and garlic in it. Even some sour cream cookies. What really happened was he liked to put garlic in the sour cream for baked potatoes, but then he forgot about the garlic when he made the sour cream cookies. And they tasted okay, but had a kind of strange, sharp aftertaste.
Anyway, so when that onion taste combined with the bacon, cheese and eggs, I was transported. I can still remember to this day how good that omelet tasted. There really aren’t many times you can have a breakfast you can recall decades later. As I finished the omelet I pushed the plate back in total satisfaction.
Now, to understand the next part of this story, you need to know I grew up in Utah. It’s a desert state, and the combination of the extreme heat and cold winters eliminates a lot of pest problems other places have. You may be anticipating where this story is going, so if you want to skip ahead I don’t blame you.
I looked into the kitchen. Since I was sitting in the middle of the front counter, there was a door leading right into the kitchen in front of me. I seem to remember the floor was a kind of an industrial yellow, not unexpected in a city bus station. As I sat there in bliss, the floor seemed to move a bit.
I wasn’t sure what I had just seen. Then the floor moved again. In fact, a couple of small pieces of the floor seemed to run quickly from one side of the door to the other. And then back again. I was a recent high school graduate, but my education hadn’t included this. Was I having hallucinations from the delicacy I had just consumed?
I looked closer, and the floor moved again. As I focused on a small yellow piece of the floor which had moved, stopped and then moved long enough for me to focus, I realized what I was seeing.
I'd never seen a cockroach in my life. I’d always wondered what they looked like. I really didn’t know much about them, but I knew they weren’t supposed to be in a kitchen. And my stomach turned just a bit, and I'm happy to report that is all that happened. You know, if I knew then what I know now about cockroaches, my response might not have been so mild.
I’ve had Denver omelets since then, but that was the best.
What makes a nation's pillars high
And its foundations strong?
What makes it mighty to defy
The foes that round it throng?
It is not gold. Its kingdoms grand
Go down in battle shock;
Its shafts are laid on sinking sand,
Not on abiding rock.
Is it the sword? Ask the red dust
Of empires passed away;
The blood has turned their stones to rust,
Their glory to decay.
And is it pride? Ah, that bright crown
Has seemed to nations sweet;
But God has struck its luster down
In ashes at his feet.
Not gold but only men can make
A people great and strong;
Men who for truth and honor's sake
Stand fast and suffer long.
Brave men who work while others sleep,
Who dare while others fly...
They build a nation's pillars deep
And lift them to the sky.