The Spring of 1974 was my last term before graduation from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. The 43 Springs that followed have done little to dim my fond recollections. While rummaging through some old storage bins I came upon one that held pictures and artifacts of that time. Digging deeper within I found THE photograph. The event it depicts is only part, but proof, of the story.
My survival as a student is a tale in itself, but after successfully negotiating the minefield of my first few semesters I settled into being a passable student. I majored in Administration of Justice and became the president of the undergraduate AJ Association at SIU. Among the fruits of that position were an office in the AJ faculty building and first shot at a semester long internship with the Carbondale Police Department. My hair was cut, my cheeks clean shaven, and as testament to my respectability I even carried a briefcase.
That Spring on the campus of SIU, as upon campuses across America, a sort of budding insanity had come into full blossom. It was the era of the “Streaker”. That Spring even provided the inspiration for Ray Steven’s Billboard hit song, “The Streak”, which was released in March that year:
“…I’s standin’ over there by the tomaters, and here he
come, running through the pole beans, through the fruits and vegetables… Nekkid as a jay bird. And I hollered over t’ Ethel, I said, “DON’T LOOK, ETHEL!” But it’s too late, she’d already been incensed.”
One afternoon I was walking across the campus Commons area with my friend Donna. She was the Secretary of the undergrad AJ association and the object of my not so secret but oh so intense crush. I settled for the friendship that she willingly shared.
The craziness was in great form. a few thousand students had gathered in the Commons. It was a park like setting with large established trees, manicured green space, a small brook, a pond and a network of wide meandering sidewalks. Sunbathers congregated in the places where the sun shone through to the grass below. Landscape boulders provided perches for others and gave an arena like air for the events unfolding.
A group of students in various stages of undress splashed in the pond and were encouraged by the chorus of shouts to “take it off!”. Here and there the crowd responded with heightened enthusiasm to the random flashes of naked butt cheeks suddenly appearing and as quickly disappearing. It was like watching a meteor shower of flesh.
Donna and I stopped to take it all in. I watched with fascination the show that was unfolding. Donna instead observed the emotions that played within me.
“You want to do that.” She stated with matter of fact frankness. “I can see it on your face.”
I merely mumbled a half hearted acknowledgement that it looked like fun, but… . At which point she stopped me and continued with, “You know you will never get a chance like this again, and you might always regret that you passed it up.”
She was right, and as if she continued to read my mind she took control and hatched the plan for me. “Just step into those bushes behind us, take your clothes off, hand me your briefcase and clothes, run, get it out of your system, and I will wait here for you.”
She had thrown down the gauntlet, but it was my gauntlet! I was trapped between my desire to do the unthinkable and my fear of being seen by her as a coward. Action replaced hesitation. In an instant I was standing in the small clear space between three spruce bushes trying not to get needled in my precious parts. I put all my clothes except my pants and shoes in the briefcase. An observant bystander would have seen an arm emerging from the bushes, handing shoes and briefcase to a blond pixie-haired co-ed. Rolling my pants up tightly and thrusting them under my arm I leaped from the bushes and dove into the deep end of momentary insanity. I RAN, and Ran, and ran….
I was vaguely aware of voices and shouts, my footfalls over grass, soil, and concrete, and the flashes of light and shadow as I passed through the Commons. Like so many first “coming of age experiences” it was over almost before it began. My heart pounding, I stopped past the point where most people were taking in the afternoon and put on my pants. In the presence of onlookers it occurred to me that I was more embarrassed by the act of getting dressed than I had been in running naked before their eyes. I walked back to where Donna stood waiting. She smiled a smile that might have been the pose for Leonardo DaVinci’s Mona Lisa.
“Done?” she asked, as if I were a boy just finishing his desert. I accepted the return of my briefcase and shoes, smiled back and gratefully nodded.
I was a bit unsettled to see that my roommate, Steve, was seated on a landscape wall staring at me with what appeared to be a mixture of disbelief and disgust. Later that evening he, a psych major, would launch into a tirade about how I had allowed myself to be seduced by the mass hysteria which was infecting the campus. My reply that it “Looked like fun”, merely fed the fire of his indignation and drew the response that just because jumping off of a cliff looks like fun does not justify doing so! He didn’t quite stop short of wondering if I and those like me should not be considered dangerous. It was not the first time that my conservative roommate of 4 years had to stretch his understanding of human behavior to accommodate my latest “surprise”.
The next day I entered the Administration of Justice building to go to my office and do some studying. At the reception station I was accosted by three young ladies, at least one of which was a secretary there. They asked if it was true that I streaked yesterday. I was unprepared for my newfound notoriety but quickly and happily admitted the deed.
“WHAT WAS IT LIKE?!?”, they asked in unison. It has since occurred to me that this is a question that I have been asked many times throughout my life and in so many different contexts. Perhaps this is a fitting epithet which should be carved upon the monument of my final resting place.
“Well, it was really pretty cool!” I confidently replied.
“Would you do it again?” asked one of the young ladies.
There was something in the way that she posed the question. I had not really noticed her before and I did not know her name. She was attractive, a student holding a work/study position, and she was looking me dead-on in a way that demanded both my attention and caution. “Well…”, I slowly answered, “It would have to be something more interesting than just running naked again.”
“Would it be more interesting if you did it with me?” she asked. I about swallowed my tongue. She quickly continued as if I had just said yes, “Of course, I would have to wear a mask because I can’t lose my job. Maybe we can wear costumes!” “Yeah!!!” the other girls chimed in, “Costumes!”. My second gauntlet in two days had just been cast down, again by someone else. I had just run out of gauntlets.
The next thing I knew the young ladies were busily (and creatively) devising “costumes” which concealed the secretary’s identity, and nothing more. She would be “Athena” and I would be “Mercury”. The props included:
Mercury: An aluminum pie pan hat with white cardboard wings stuck on top. White cardboard wings attached at the ankles, and a cardboard lightning bolt covered with aluminum foil.
Athena: A white cardboard mask with eyeholes, and a flaming torch!
Apparently, streaking now included special effects. I was at a loss to figure out the torch part, but as if communicating by telepathy the young ladies broke from their huddle, parting in scavenger hunt fashion to procure wire, a long stick, and a few sanitary napkins which they wired to the end of the stick. Lighter fluid completed the “hunt”. To them it was a torch fit for the opening of the Olympic Games. To me it still looked like Kotex on a stick. It was way too late for me to back out.
Costumes completed, the girls located a couple of grad students with a car in the nearby parking lot who could drive us to the other side of the campus Commons area. “Athena”, and I got in the back seat of the 60’s era station wagon for the ride. Our trip would take us through a part of the downtown Carbondale main drag. It was a warm and brilliant Spring noon. Traffic in the community of 25,000, enhanced by a student body of nearly that number was on the congested side. As we proceeded in stop and go fashion “Athena” declared, “Well, I guess we should take our clothes off now!”
Yes, certainly, of course, naturally, when I got out of bed that morning I had predicted that in a few hours I would be in the back seat of a station wagon, in broad daylight, publicly disrobing with a young lady that I had just met… oh, and with whom I had not yet been properly introduced. Our clothes came off. I extended my hand to “Athena” and said, “Name’s Pete, pleased to make your acquaintance!!” She smiled and as if on queue replied in kind with her hand and name.
I regret that I do not remember her name. I have never been very good with names as I am something of a visual thinker. Her name escapes my recollection, but damn little else does! We shall continue to call her Athena.
We held each other’s gaze, but the magnetism of boobs and pubes was drawing our eyes downward. Is it ok to look I wondered? As if sharing my thoughts she laughed and then looked. My focus expanded from her face to the rest of her and then beyond. We relaxed and again became people instead of parts.
It was the eyes that next drew my attention. Her eyes wandering about, the grad student’s eyes in the rearview mirror which meeting mine could be clearly be read to say “You Lucky Bastard!”, and the eyes of the throngs of pedestrians. Most passersby were oblivious to our bit of theater, but here and there a blank gaze would electrify into recognition that we had no clothes on. To be honest, in the insanity of the day we were not the exclusive sight on display. I clearly recall a student on a bicycle slowly passing us in traffic. He was completely naked on his 10 speed Schwinn Varsity. As he rolled by us I noticed the sun play on his ass and that the resulting shadow formed between the bike seat and his “cheeks” looked like a caricature of the Eiffel Tower.
We arrived at the parking lot west of the Commons. The next challenge was getting the head gear on and lighting the torch. That accomplished, and receiving assurances from the grad students that they would be awaiting our return, we RAN!
The Commons was more heavily crowded than the day before. There were throngs of people numbering in the thousands. Whereas in my streaking experience yesterday I was but one of many flickering meteorites, today Athena and I had become Haley’s Comet. We were not part of a show, we had become the show. Voices and shouts announcing our passage rang out around us and were relayed through the crowd. Hundreds of faces lined and finally choked the sidewalk before us. We continued on and as if we were Moses come upon the Red Sea, the waters parting to allow our passage. We RAN, and RAN, and Ran, Ran, ran, ran, jogged, walked fast, and finally just plain walked… naked… among the trees, upon the grass, through the meadow like expanse, becoming oblivious to the shouts, smiles and stares around us. It was extraordinary. We were Adam and Eve before eating the Apple of Knowledge, and Southern Illinois University had become Eden. I don’t recall if we ever held hands as we walked, but we should have. It would have been the right thing to do as one crosses the intersection of innocence.
Our walk continued in a broad circle that took us back toward the parking lot. We approached the Life Sciences building which was next to the imposing structure of the Morris Library and across from Lawson Hall. In the distance I saw that my roommate Steve was seated under a tree and appeared to be studying. At my urging we slightly altered our course to pass in front of where he sat. Steve stared at us in gaped mouth amazement. My pie pan was askew, and our cardboard accessories had not worn the journey well. The torch was extinguished and it looked like we had been roasting marshmallows, negligently allowing them to burn. I said, “Hi Steve, nice day!” He merely stared and then maintained a silence toward me that extended for about two days.
Athena and I dressed at the car and parted ways back at the AJ building. We saw each other now and then, but never created a relationship out of our experience. Steve and I remain friends to this day, and I believe that Donna went on to become a probation officer in another state. The visions of that day might have vanished as wisps of smoke above a dying campfire, but for one artifact that remains.
Near the end of that semester, my last semester at SIU, I visited home. My mother greeted me at the door and as I carried my bag into the house she stated in ‘matter of fact’ manner that she had received an envelope with a picture in it. “I placed it in your dresser Peter Michael.” Curious, I began unpacking my things. I opened my dresser drawer and there was the opened envelope, plain manila, addressed to my mother but with no return address. Beneath it, face up, was a black and white photo of a 20th Century “Mercury” and “Athena”. Mom never asked, and I never offered. The photographer and the sender remain unknown to me. The picture found its way into a box of keepsakes where it has remained for the last 40 years. I recently came upon that box and the picture within. “Mercury” still bears a striking resemblance to me. As my eyes met his within the image I found myself mouthing the words, “You Lucky Bastard”.
Peace Everyone! Pete Schloss