Jeffrey Miller

A Writer's Life

Tag: Personal

The people who define me — One of my best friends & baseball, football, and political cohorts, Luke McQuade

Yeah Luke, this blog’s for you.

(And I swear you look like Alec Baldwin in this photo of you and your daughter!)

I have been blessed with a lot—especially the people I have met on this amazing, and sometimes strange journey through life—and although I don’t always get around to saying it, (and personally those people who have made a difference in my life) I couldn’t have made it this far without them, like my friend Luke McQuade.

Luke’s become a regular visitor to this blog and leaving some very thoughtful and insightful comments about some of my posts. I would expect nothing less from someone like Luke whose friendship is very dear to me.

I first met Luke back in 1985 when we were both starting Eureka College—Luke as a freshman and myself, a transfer student. We both lived in Gunzenhauser Hall, one of the oldest student dormitories on campus and would soon become roommates for one year.

What I remember most about that autumn at Eureka was Luke and I going over to his brother Kevin’s house every Sunday for dinner and Da Bears. Those were some special times watching the Bears during that championship season. Later, it would be the watching the Cubs as well as attending some Peoria Chiefs’ games.

That was really cool how I got to become very good friends with Luke as well as his brother Kevin when I was going to Eureka.

I have always respected and admired Luke for taking a stance and articulating what he believed in whether it was political or philosophical. Nowhere was this better illustrated than the time Luke hung a banner (actually a sheet) with “U.S. out of Nicaragua” from his dorm window. (Luke had gone to Nicaragua and done some volunteer work with the church group Witness for Peace.)

Hanging that banner outside his dorm window was a ballsy move on his part, especially given the fact that Eureka College was Ronald Reagan’s alma mater and Reagan just so happened to be President at the time and this whole Iran-Contra/Oliver North fiasco was going on.

That first year at Eureka, Luke and I were pretty tight as friends. In addition to being roommates we also worked in the Commons (the school cafeteria) and also were involved in theatre (more so our second year when That Scottish Tragedy was put on by the EC Theatre Department—definitely one of the highlights of my two years at Eureka). We hung out a lot during the summer between my first and second year at Eureka and the summer after I graduated I stayed around for most of it working in the cafeteria again and also helping Luke on the paint crew.

Luke got me that job and what I remember most about it was us working at night because it was so hot during the day. We had to prepare the rooms that were going to be painted by spackling any nail holes as well as covering up the moldings and the windows. We had a lot of time to talk and think about the future and everything that we wanted to do.

At times I think Luke thought of me as another older brother.

We went to Peoria Chief’s games, saw Galileo at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, went to a Cubs’ game (a field trip for the Class of 1987) and listened to a lot of rock and roll.

After I graduated from Eureka Luke and I stayed in touch, but we only got to see each other two times. I came back to Eureka only twice—once for Homecoming weekend in 1987 and in 1989 when Luke graduated (Kevin and I had gone to O’Hare to pick Luke up when he came back from England where he had studied for a year). And then I was off to Japan a few weeks later.

The last time I saw Luke was in the summer of 1990. He came down to the Illinois Valley for a few days. I showed him around the LaSalle-Peru-Oglesby area, took him to the Igloo for a “pork with the works” and finally we ended up going to the Oglesby Celebration Days where we saw Peter Noone (of Herman’s Hermits fame) in concert.

We’ve kept in touch on and off over the years—more off than on—and now, I feel that our friendship has come full circle. I know that as I rapidly approach 50 in one more month I am doing more to re-connect with people I haven’t stayed in touch with as much as I should have all these years. I am happy Luke and I are staying in touch more.

It’s not what you think

First of all, let me make it clear that I am not feeling sorry for myself today.


It’s just that there are certain days when you think about who you are, where you are at now and the things you’ve done—and things just don’t add up the way they probably should have if you had just done things differently.


Well, maybe to some people that might seem like the cosmic tumblers are beginning to click for “I’m feeling sorry for myself” spell. However, there are days—and you probably know the ones I am talking about—when your mind starts wandering and you start wondering about what the heck is happening in your life, especially if you have been having some down time or going through some sort of crisis.


That’s kind of how I felt this morning when I was trudging up a hill—weighed down with my backpack filled with books, a CD player and umbrella—on my way to my morning class of non-communicative and comatose-teetering freshmen architecture students. The hill is a steep climb and about halfway up I hear a car speeding up the hill and quickly move to the side to avoid being hit (it makes no difference to drivers that there is a steady stream of students up and down the hill).


As always, I am very careful when walking anywhere in this country—you really do have to walk defensively.


And that’s when I stop and think, “What the hell am I doing here? What the hell am I doing walking up a hill on my way to a class of students who could care less about speaking English and getting paid a fraction of what I used to get paid with much less vacation time?


I was once in the U.S. Air Force and responsible for making sure multi-million dollar jets could meet mission sorties. I once got carte blanche treatment writing for a newspaper here and interviewed diplomats, veterans, politicians, and celebrities.


I could have been a contender.


Wait a minute; I thought I said I wasn’t feeling sorry for myself?


Okay, let me put it a different way. What the hell am I doing here pushing myself up this hill like that fellow in the Myth of Sisyphus? Hmm…that sounds much better and the kind of philosophical underpinning I wanted.


It is getting harder and harder to get up this hill every day.


It’s getting harder and harder every day to come up with a handful of reasons—other than the obvious one, a steady paycheck, albeit a small one—to stay here. There is nothing keeping me in Korea other than that steady paycheck and being close—flying distance close—to On in Laos.


I have no reason to feel sorry for myself anyway—especially with my Mom battling cancer. When I think about what she’s going through, being back home all alone and having to have chemotherapy and radiation treatments, it would be so selfish of me to even remotely feel sorry for myself here in Korea.


If anything I am feeling selfish for all those years that I had my fun running around Asia and convincing myself that I wasn’t doing anything wrong as long as I sent some money home every month.


Now, all those years are catching up with me and I am feeling guilty and disappointed with myself for not doing the things that I should have done when I had the chance. Yeah, that’s what it is. I am not feeling sorry for myself. I am feeling disappointed.


Turning 50 in a month-and-a-half doesn’t help much either.


And it gets harder and harder to get up that hill.

“As long as I have my Cokes and smokes….”

This is what this woman said to me on the Number Nine bus in Hamamatsu, Japan back in the fall of 1989.


I was on my way downtown when she got on the bus and sat down next to me.


She had only been in Japan for a few weeks and obviously—from the reference to Coca Cola and her favorite brand of cigarettes—she was settling in okay.


As long as I have my Cokes and smokes.


What she said that cold, gray autumn day nearly twenty years ago has stayed with me as a reminder of what it is really like about being an expat and some of the sacrifices we might have to make. I suppose that is true about anything we might miss about back home and how we can manage our lives and a decent quality of life while we are living and working overseas.


Sometimes it’s the little things that make all the difference. Stuff we might have even taken for granted at one time or another or things that we would just miss once we were overseas or that might cost more.


I remember before I went to Japan in 1989, my very good friend Kevin McQuade told me to bring a couple of jars of instant coffee with me because coffee was so expensive there. Before coming to Korea, I was told to make sure to bring stuff like underarm deodorant because it would be hard to find once I got here.


Life was definitely tougher here in 1990. Of course there was always the Black Market you could depend on when you missed some of those comforts from home.


We all need a little something to make living overseas easier. I think today expats in Korea, Japan, and Thailand have it a lot easier than we did say 10 or 15 years ago.


Perhaps now, some people might say as long as I have my Krispy Kreme and Café Latte from Starbucks I will be okay.

Eureka, Baseball and Greek Town — Part 1

There are a lot of cool things that a person could do to celebrate their birthday besides just getting hammered or having a party with all the trimmings. Sometimes, you might even end up doing something that you never imagined you would do.

I might not have had the chance to have a big birthday bash, but I have been fortunate to do some pretty cool stuff on my birthday with some people that I have been lucky enough to know on this long, strange journey through life. It’s the people who have defined me that have made everything worthwhile.

In less than two months I will be celebrating my fiftieth birthday. Sadly, I do not anticipate doing anything special for this “golden” birthday. With my Mom quite ill and being away from On and Bia, I have a lot more to worry and think about then what I will be doing come May 28. Although I might be having a rough go this second “tour” of Korea and my life—as I turn 50—kind of falling short of youthful dreams and aspirations, I have much to be thankful for, including some very special birthday memories. 

In May 1986 I had just finished my first year at Eureka College. It had been a bittersweet year, one marred by the tragic death of a close friend of mine in December, just a few days before the term ended. On the other hand, I became very good friends with Kevin McQuade an instructor at Eureka (Speech and Theatre) whose brother Luke was my roommate. I have been blessed throughout my life having known some very wonderful people and Kevin is right there at the top of the list.

I had decided to spend the summer at Eureka working in the cafeteria and making a little extra money as well as catching up on some much-required reading. My birthday that year was my “golden” birthday because I was going to turn 28 that year. It was Kevin who came up with the idea of meeting in Chicago (he was going to be in the city for a few days with his wife who worked for some small company) and taking in a Cubs’ game and having dinner in Greek Town. He would even spring for the tickets! I just had to get up to the city.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have a car, (Eureka is about 150 miles southwest of Chicago) but one of my friends offered to drive. We would be joined by two of my classmates who were excited to take part in my birthday celebration in the Windy City.

The day before my birthday, I had to work in the school cafeteria. Although the cafeteria was closed until June when the college hosted a variety of summer camps, the food service operation at the college did a lot of catering events. On that day, it was a catering event for the Rotary Club, which was having a small fundraiser for the college. As it turned out, it would be one of the sweetest catering gigs that I did while I was at Eureka.

All that another classmate of mine, Sam Harrod (who was a direct descendant of one of the founding members of the college) and I had to do was load up a van with the food (steaks, potato salad, and baked beans) a half-barrel of beer, as well as plates utensils, and other implements of cutlery and then drive to Lake Bloomington a little over an hour away.  

Once there, we would set up everything and the members of the Rotary Club would do the cooking. After the event was over, we would bring everything back to the college, wash all the dishes and put whatever food was left back in the cooler. Like I said, it was a real sweet gig.

So, we get out to the lake, set up everything and then just waited along with the food service director. He was a pretty likable guy and really cool when it came to these events by letting us take it easy when there was nothing to do.

And that is exactly what we did. We were not just going to sit around waiting for everyone to eat their steaks and drink their beer. One of the Rotarians, who lived in one of the lakefront homes, had a boat and started taking other Rotarians for a quick cruise around the lake. With nothing for Sam and I to do, we were also invited along and got to enjoy some of the beer we had brought for the event.  

It’s a good thing we didn’t have to do anything else until the event was over because that beer was going down mighty smooth. Nothing beats some cool suds on a warm, late spring afternoon on a boat—well maybe—like some cool suds at a ballgame with a hot dog smothered with mustard, onions, and relish, but I would have to wait until the next day for that.

When we got back to the lodge where the night’s event was going to be held, a few of the Rotarians had already started to grill the steaks. There was still nothing for Sam and I to do, so we helped ourselves to some more beer and waited until everyone had their steaks. Then, Sam and I could eat and wash down those thick, juicy steaks with more beer.

Once everyone had finished eating, Sam and I proceeded to clean up everything and load it all back in the van to bring back to the college. We had to wait around for a while, but then it was back in the van and on the road back to Eureka. When we got back there, the food service director was really cool about what to do with a lot of the food and beer left over: he told us to take it. That was pretty cool I think.

While Sam and I were washing up the dishes and putting some stuff away, two of our classmates showed up. They knew it was my birthday the next day and wanted to take me out for a few drinks.

In Eureka, there were only two bars, the Chanticleer, which was actually a supper club at the north end of town, and the Outpost on the south side of town. Eureka was (and probably still is as far as I know) a “dry” town, which meant that alcohol, could not be sold within the city limits. However, Eureka’s tiny urban sprawl soon spread past these two watering holes putting them within the city limits. Thankfully, no one wanted to challenge the city ordinance and the two bars were allowed to flourish.

The Chanticleer was our preferred hangout, and that is where we headed. It was nice to get together with a few people (I even had a bit of crush on Kathryn White, one of my classmates who showed up that night) on the eve of my “golden birthday.” I have a lot of find memories of the two years that I was at Eureka College, and many of those memories were the times I spent with classmates and professors at the Chanticleer.

And then it’s February

What happened to January? 

Four weeks ago the year was just beginning and I was in Vientiane with On and now, it’s the first of February already. 

Came back to Korea, taught a two-week teacher’s training camp, followed by a one-week government children’s language camp, extended my sojourn status, and then it’s the end of January. Is it just me or does time really fly by when you are middle-aged? 

The big Five-Oh is getting closer and closer. That’s starting to weigh a little heavy on my mind and soul these days, not to mention my life in Korea, missing my family and On, and all those other life-defining issues as one turns 50 and thinks about the life they have and how to live the rest of it.

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