10 August 2009
7 Aug 2008. Northwestern is another brilliantly planned and beautifully arranged campus, crowding the coast of Lake Michigan. Where did the purple wildcat mascot come from? It's hard to say, but I'd like to think it had something to do with a cornbreadus-interruptus safari on the Chicago River.
Young Theodore Roosevelt was riding the rails of the Union Pacific from his fledgling ranch in North Dakota back to his home on Long Island. He sat smiling, extremely satisfied with his recent trip. He had accomplished his main goal, bagging a bull bison, on the final day before departure.
On one side of him was Bill Sewall, a longtime friend and companion on the frontier. On the other side were two men looking at a biology textbook and discussing a local issue.
"By the river? Are you sure?"
"If he said he saw it, he saw it."
"Amazing! With all the raucous construction about only makes it more unbelievable."
TR broke in. "Pardon me, sir, but may I ask the unbelievable event of which you speak?"
"A Northwestern Wildcat has been spotted by the Chicago River! One has not been seen anywhere in thirty years! It had been presumed extinct."
"By the Chicago River, you say? Thank you very much." TR turned to Sewall. "Bill, where are we right now?"
"Chicago! By criminy! Stop the train!"
"The train is already stopped."
"Good, good. How much time before departure?"
"Almost three hours' worth."
"Bill, I feel a bit of residual luck. What say we test it out?"
TR, never at a loss for energy, was determined to bag the cat.
Armed with a textbook illustration courtesy the friendly passenger, TR and Sewall, still clothed in fringe buckskin and armed with flintlock rifles, rowed the urban waterway in a rented canoe.
"These steam powered behemoths are deafening! Keep your eyes sharp, Bill!" shouted TR as they paddled past a cadre of earth movers.
The duo spent the next hour hunting the wandering cat and admiring the adolescent metropolis of Chicago. The constant din of steamshovels made their heads buzz. It also prevented them from hearing the warning cries from the shoreside laborers.
Bill Sewall began to tire of the cityscape. To him it was much duller and more interminable than the giant dirt dimples of the Dakota Badlands. He was about to request they give up on their impulsive hunt when he spotted it. The Northwestern Wildcat was crouched underneath a bridge, muscular and shimmering grey-blue from the sun's reflection.
"Brilliant sighting, Bill. And what a sight she is!"
TR began to load a tranquilizer ball when a piercing whistle sounded.
"Oh no, the train! Bill, I thought we had another hour!"
"We do. That's not the train whistle."
"Then what is it?"
"I don't know."
After the siren stopped, so did the construction equipment.
"That's better. Our ears were taking a pounding," said TR.
Roosevelt finished loading his rifle, steadied it and took aim. A soft mass bounced off his right temple. He looked down and saw a soggy chunk of yellow cornbread.
"What the...? Bill, hoisting rancid cornbread again? Not now."
"I didn't do it."
TR looked behind him. A small crowd of workers were hooting something fierce. One was breaking off pieces of his lunch and throwing it at the canoe.
"Well, they are excited to see the rare cat, but there is no point in assaulting us like pests."
The crowd all started pointing downriver.
"What?? No, the wildcat is here under the bridge. We have him cornered. ...What? I say, just stop all the commotion!"
TR thought of firing a shot to silence them but feared it would scare off the animal.
The men on the side timed their next shout together: "GET...OUT!" The cat ran off.
TR was furious. "What in the name of the devil is the problem?"
Bill Sewall motioned him to sit back down. "Do you hear that, TR?"
Their ears picked up another distant sound, not one of machinery, but of...water. Rushing water. Growing louder. And coming from...Lake Michigan? Everyone standing on the side had scattered by now.
TR put down his gun and took up an oar. "Let us also...make...haste!" he gasped in between strokes.
The canoe was twenty-five feet from the river's concrete edge when they saw the source of the noise. A dirty deluge was crashing towards them, only seconds away from drowning them in a mixture of lake water and typhoid.
TR and Bill Sewall paddled for their lives, homing in on a waterlogged rope attached at the street level.
Twenty feet more till the edge. Four seconds till the wave.
Fifteen feet. Three seconds.
Ten feet. Two seconds.
Five feet. One second.
Bill Sewall was at the front of the canoe. He leaned forward and grasped the rope. TR leaped from the aft, hoping for the rope but coming up with a handful of Bill's rifle strap. They both held on tightly and took a deep breath. The mess slammed into them. They were stripped of all their equipment save for their clothing and rifles. They were hammered with debris. Their nostrils filled up with gunk. Their instinct was to plug their nostrils but realized one hand would not be strong enough to keep them from flying downstream. So they contended with mud migrating up their noses.
The current started to die. It weakened enough that they could pull their heads above water. They gasped and spit and coughed. They made efforts to keep the water out of their mouths while gulping air. In spastic clumsy motions they pulled themselves up onto the street. It took them several minutes to gain the energy to speak.
"Bill, did we get tossed topsy turvy to the other side? Wasn't the current heading east?"
"It was the current that got reversed I think."
"That is very curious. An enviable feat of engineering I should think."
"Pity about the wildcat."
"Yes. But it was a bully good hunt!"
TR and Bill Sewall returned to the train, smellier than ever.
"Oh there you are! We started to think you would not make it back," said the man who lent them the textbook photo. He stared at the puddles forming on the train deck.
"My heavens! What happened to the two of you?"
TR was still breathing heavily.
"Kind sir, can you believe the unbelievable?"