If you're on the road from Milwaukee to Madison, you can't miss it. These days, it's almost suburbia. The last exit before Delafield holds a four-corner-wide shopping center, the last one you'll hit, so if you need a Wal-Mart, the next one on I-94 will likely be in Madison.
Truth be known, I've never stepped a foot in Delafield, Wisconsin--Delavan, often enough, even gave a speech there once upon a time, wrote a story about a wonderful, and much beloved old woman. But I've never been in Delafield, even though those looming, green highway signs beckon, as they always have.
Years ago, on my way to Monroe, Wisconsin, where I took my first teaching job, I used to pass the town quite often in a kind of awe, really. These days, forty years later, I don't see those signs so often anymore; but I did on Wednesday, when we came back from my eastern Wisconsin homeland. "Delafield"--those signs say, and no matter how long I live I'll think of what never happened there.
I think I would have been a bad fit at St. Johns Military Academy. I'd just graduated from college, jobless, had just returned from a anti-war march on Washington, and had, not long before, failed my draft physical. I had no experience with a military school. Even though my father spent four years jockeying destroyers around the South Pacific during World War II, he never brayed much about the military, never went to Legion meetings, or walked in Veteran's Day parades. Military service was no rite of passage in our family, and I honestly couldn't imagine what life at a military school would be like.
But once I'd flunked that draft physical, I had no job prospects. None. My recommendations as a student weren't that hot, I knew--by community standards, I wasn't a poster boy for the Christian faith. Besides, I wasn't sure I wanted to hang around "my people" any longer. I'd had more than enough of their rigid self-righteousness and putrid political conservatism. I was brash and cocky. I wanted to stamp the dust off my feet and trash the wooden shoes forever.
So I read the Milwaukee Journal's want-ads every Sunday, looking for teaching jobs, and I spotted an opening for an English teacher at St. John's Military Academy, Delafield, WI. I applied, as I did at two other schools, one somewhere up north--I don't remember the town anymore--and the other way down on the state line, southwest Wisconsin, South Wayne, Black Hawk High School. It was already July, 1970.
I wasn't desperate, but after two or three weeks of laying sod on the steep open soil of the exit ramps of the new highway--I-43--I knew I didn't want to do that for the rest of my life. It was, without question, the worst work of my entire life. I read the want ads religiously.
I swear I remember the letter. I may even have it yet. On fancy school stationary, they said no, sweetly. They'd looked through their applications and decided on some other schmo. Rejection is rejection, and I can't say theirs didn't hurt. But I did wonder, right then, smack in middle of the horrors of the Vietnam War, whether I was cut out to teach in a military academy.
That question will never be answered, even though it's 40-years old. But it steps front and center into my consciousness whenever I-94 takes me past Delafield, Wisconsin, as it did Wednesday.
"God has a plan for your life" is the kind of spiritual cliche that has all the heft of Hallmark card, or so it seems to me. Yet, every time I pass that town, I wonder what I would have become had some administrator not tossed my letter of application on the pile of losers. If they'd said yes, I would have taken the job. I didn't have one, after all. I would have gone. I would have become a teacher at St. John's Military Academy.
And then what? My whole world would have changed. I would have had different friends, met different kids, found different joys. I would have bellied up to a whole set of different conflicts. I wouldn't be who I am. Somebody on that campus once dumped my application letter and that simple act has made all the difference. I wonder who he was. He's likely dead.
There are ways to chart all of this out. One is to say, simply, God didn't want me there. That seems somehow simplistic and even wearying. When Col. Gordon or Lieut. Ralph or Sgt. Mike or whoever reviewed those applications, was God almighty right there over his shoulder, directing his hand toward some other flimsy sheet listing some other applicant's many wholesome features? Did God tell some butch-cut administrator to file that one from Oostburg in the also-rans?
I don't know. I'm a Calvinist. To most who recognize the word, the designation means I believe in something called "predestination." It's an odd word and a weird doctrine really, something I remember fighting about in catechism, as a matter of fact, because it seemed so preposterous in such a willy-nilly world.
I still I buy it, I guess, but only in a rearview mirror. Predestination is near madness, or so it seems, unless you're looking behind you. Only then does it make sense. How did C. S. Lewis put it?--I was dragged, kicking and screaming, before the throne. That's what happened. When I look back, that's what I see. Something like that.
God has a plan for my life all right, but just exactly how that plan unfolds from day to day isn't something I'm privy to until day-to-day is well behind me. Then, when I'm on I-94 and I pass signs for Delafield, Wisconsin--then, and only then does it make any sense at all that some guy in a uniform tossed that application from the kid with two As in his last name. And what on earth was the weird name of the college he attended again? Dirt?
I don't know where God was that night, whether he was on campus at St. John's or south and west in South Wayne, but I know what's back there in my life and what isn't. Even yet, I'm a traveler on a road map that's forever taken me past Delafield, Wisconsin--but I've never been there.
Never. Not once.
*Two roads diverged in a Wisconsin woods. . .
And I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere forty years down the pike:
because somehow I--I got myself directed south
to the swiss cheese capital of Badgerland,
to the swiss cheese capital of Badgerland,
And somehow, willy-nilly as it seems--
that has made all the difference.
Maybe. Of course, I'm still on the road.
*Heartfelt apologies to Robert Frost.