I took the conventional path when I was in college.
I wore argyle sweaters, pleated skirts and a necklace with a mustard seed pendant around my neck. I dated my now-husband, who wore button-down shirts with loops on the back and a herringbone jacket. He sported mutton chops and smoked a pipe.
When we walked on the wild side, we listened to Joan Baez and Buffy Saint-Marie, and once or twice we went to a coffee house (where they really did serve coffee). We thought about leaving convention behind completely, maybe heading west, but that is as far as it ever got.
Boomer Jerry Mark of Fox River Grove, on the other hand, did what we only thought about. Jerry hit the road.
Having an interest in literature, art and contemporary culture and a father who had very different ideas for him, Jerry found it easy to break out of convention. He had a friend in high school who had never met his father but had an address. The missing dad was living in California, so Jerry and his friend celebrated their new-found freedom after high school by heading west.
Of course, it did not work out quite as they had hoped. After a week, Jerry was sent packing without the convenience of a car or a bus ticket back to Chicago. Jerry hitch-hiked east. He made it through California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas before he ran out of money in Arkansas. There, he befriended the owner of a small restaurant and struck a deal. The owner would feed him as long as Jerry would paint a mural for him on the restaurant’s walls.
So it began. Jerry, it seems, was born to be a traveling painter, writer and philosopher. The fact that he later kept a roof over his head and food on the table in a more conventional way is only incidental. Jerry is now what he was as a daring teenager. The one difference is that experience has made him a better painter, writer and philosopher.
I first met Jerry when I joined an all-women’s book group that used to meet at Borders. The story I heard was Jerry frequented the store and one day approached the ladies and asked if he could sit in. From that day forward, it was an all-women plus one man book group. Jerry is the token man, but, even more so, he is the resident sage and renaissance man. We have yet to reference an artist or intellectual about whom Jerry cannot give us some background. If someone mentions Faulkner but draws a blank on what he wrote, we only need to turn to Jerry.
It was when my husband and I visited Jerry in his home, however, that the pieces I knew about him came together. He and his wife, Elaine, showed us Jerry’s space. It was busy with photos and paintings hanging everywhere, a long bookshelf taking up one wall, a big stack of vinyl records piled to the side, a cluttered desk, an exercise bike and canvases everywhere. But it was a mint-condition cover to a Thelonious Monk record, a book about Jack Kerouac and some of Jerry’s paintings of women with hauntingly large eyes that really attracted my attention.
I have to confess that when I got home, I had to Google Thelonious Monk and Jack Kerouac to refresh my memory about these icons of the past. The first was an advant-garde jazz pianist, a pioneer of the new jazz. Keroac was an author who wrote “On the Road,” a novel based on his ramblings across America. Kerouac’s writings won him a title he never wanted: “father of the beat generation.” These were the men who inspired the young Jerry.
Yet, there is one more piece of the puzzle that makes up Jerry. Her name is Elaine. Jerry makes no bones about saying she is the most important piece. “The love of my life.” You might say Jerry’s life with Elaine, three children and their grandchildren is conventional, but conventional is not a word that I would ever use to describe Jerry. He may live the settled life in Fox River Grove, but in his heart, Jerry still is and ever will be “on the road.” As he would say, “The end is nothing, the road is all.”
• Sue Neuschel shares her experiences as a Baby Boomer, offers unique places to visit in and around McHenry County. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.