Observations: Looking ahead from behind

Published on: April 19, 2012

A full moon rises over Lake Okabena in Worthington, Minnesota.  Perhaps it was the moonlight that made me look back to see just how good things are now. Mitch Traphagen Photo

A full moon rises over Lake Okabena in Worthington, Minnesota. Perhaps it was the moonlight that made me look back to see just how good things are now. Mitch Traphagen Photo


It was a big deal when the Holiday Inn came to Worthington, Minnesota in the 1970s. The small town on a big road between Chicago and nowhere had only recently opened a McDonald’s fast-food restaurant. Good things were happening in Worthington, and those who had long believed that someday Worthington would be something and somewhere probably felt somewhat vindicated.

The Holiday Inn was special. It was the first modern hotel in town, the first that wasn’t a marginally restored strip motel from the 1950s. It had a restaurant and bar and an indoor pool. It just looked like luxury in the eyes of a person from a small town in the 1970s. The definition of luxury, of course, has changed a lot since then.

In 1980, during a moment of adolescent optimism and bravado, I agreed to meet a girl who was two years older than me (she was a senior!) in room 123 of that hotel on July 1, 1999. We agreed that we would meet regardless of where we were or what we were doing. It was a pact, and an exciting one that brimmed with adventure and romance for an adolescent, idiotic teenager. Besides, standing in 1980, 1999 absolutely sounded exotic. I had little doubt that by then we would have flying cars, cities built in the sky and commercial flights to the moon. I never imagined that the Holiday Inn would be anything less than what it was while I was in high school in 1980.

Things changed of course and over the years the Holiday Inn changed, too. After a decade or so, it wasn’t even a Holiday Inn anymore. A succession of owners tried to make a go of it, but people, habits and preferences were changing, too. Before long, it was just a big, somewhat shabby hotel that was built for a different time.

The Holiday Inn is now a Travel Lodge and though it is showing its age, it is again a nice enough place to stay. The indoor pool is still open and there is still a bar and restaurant.

I missed the date with the girl from high school. On July 1, 1999, my wife, Michelle, and I were busy preparing to sail off into the Caribbean for six months. Michelle is very understanding, but telling her, “Honey, I have to fly to Minnesota to meet a woman in a hotel and, oh yeah, she was very cute in high school,” might have crossed a line or two. Besides, if the truth be told, I forgot all about it.

Over the Easter weekend, Michelle and I checked into the former-Holiday-Inn-turned-Travel-Lodge. On the first night, I walked by room 123 and remembered. I felt certain Sue never did show up in 1999; I’m sure she had forgotten all about it as well.

The next day my time travel was more vivid.

Michelle took my Mom shopping in the sad, nearly empty little mall in town. It wasn’t always sad. About the same time the Holiday Inn had arrived, the mall was being built. Back then, the mall, too, held the promise that Worthington had arrived.

As they picked out clothes, I walked out to the front of the mall to get some fresh air and take in the spring sunshine. As it often does up there, the wind was blowing hard and I took shelter from it at one corner of the mall. I noticed a cheap, silver chain on the ground, the sort of chain that a teenage boy might give to a teenage girl. I felt a weird tingle go down my spine, and suddenly I was transported back to July 1976.

The mall was nearing completion then, but it was not yet open. On the very spot that I stood hiding from the wind in 2012, my first-ever girlfriend and I peered into the mall still under construction in 1976. I felt what I’m sure I felt then, and it was a truly remarkable experience. Gena was special and it was a fun trip back in time. I wonder how I would have felt had the reverse happened; if I had managed to get an image of myself on that spot in 2012. Would I have been disappointed?  That question is a guide for how I should live my life going forward. I should not be disappointed. There should be no what-ifs or regrets. Within a few moments, I was back in 2012 with a warm feeling, but also with the stark realization that time passes far too quickly.

Lately, it’s been a good time for looking back. Sunday was the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. No survivors of the tragedy are alive today, but the event is still a fixture in our collective minds. Like the Holiday Inn in Worthington, the Titanic was a new definition of luxury and some of the world’s wealthiest people were on board for the maiden voyage. In reading various accounts of the disaster, I have been struck by many stories, some were horrific and some were inspirational. One moving story was that of Isidor and Ida Straus.

Isidor and Ida were aristocrats in a gilded age. They were passengers in First Class, which meant that in today’s dollars, their tickets for the voyage might have run as high as $50,000. The 67-year-old Straus was the co-owner of Macy’s Department Stores. He was rarely apart from Ida, his wife of 41 years. According to those who knew them, they wrote to each other daily in the times they were apart. When they were together, they were often seen holding hands.

On April 15, 1912, when it became clear that the unsinkable Titanic would soon in fact sink to the bottom of the cold Atlantic Ocean, Isidor and Ida walked to a lifeboat station where Isidor presented Ida for boarding to safety. Despite the call for women and children first, Isidor was also invited to board the lifeboat to accompany his wife. He refused, stating that he could not board as long as there were still women, children and men younger than he was who were still aboard the rapidly sinking Titanic.

Isidor was man with a great deal to live for. He was wealthy and had a life of comfort. He loved his wife deeply. He left a young grandchild behind in England, a toddler who took ill before the voyage, so the decision was made to wait for better health to make the crossing. Yet he refused to save his own life, by all accounts a great life, at the expense of others.

Upon Isidor’s refusal to board the safety of a lifeboat, Ida also refused to board. They were inseparable, and so they would remain. They were last seen sitting on lounge chairs on the boat deck of the ship as it submerged, before a wave carried them away. They were holding hands.

Their bravery and selflessness are striking. None of us knows how we would behave in the midst of such an incredible tragedy, but I certainly hope that if I am ever unfortunate enough to face such circumstances, I’ll remember Isidor and Ida Straus.

In the 100 years since the Titanic, other ships have sunk, other lives have been lost, births have created joy and new motels (including a new Holiday Inn Express) have been built in Worthington, Minnesota. Life goes on, it moves forward relentlessly, ever forward. The things that seem so important, perhaps even life changing today, invariably become mere blips in the history of yesterday.

I think it is good to look back; it is good to remember. Glancing back, I can see what has brought me to where I am today. I can see what changed and shaped my life, and that makes the path ahead more unambiguous. Standing outside a small shopping mall in Worthington, Minnesota, I saw Michelle carrying shopping bags and smiling in her way that brightens even the spring sunshine. I walked over to take some of the bags and to take her hand. Good things happen in Worthington, Minnesota.