God, Country, Notre Dame — and 'Baywatch'
By MIKE VANEGAS
They did not match. Those purple socks did not match.
But seemingly without a care in the world, 1983 Notre Dame alumnus Ryan Ver Berkmoes pulled off the mismatch with his vibrant personality and expansive memory. This energy allows him to tell stories with prideful ease, knowing full well that the tales he shares are sunken treasures, waiting to be discovered by lonely contemporaries who want only to smile, and maybe laugh out loud.
While speaking with Ver Berkmoes, and subsequently while transcribing his words, the value of his entertaining chatter rose exponentially. Born in Santa Cruz, Calif., Ver Berkmoes was able to learn early the diversity in peoples and ideas which presents itself throughout the world, a world he would eventually conquer as a modern-day Magellan — he is currently a travel writer for Lonely Planet Publications. In retrospect, he also realized through Santa Cruz a universal motif for the concept of home.
"[It's a] strange little town. Beautiful place, absolutely gorgeous," he said. "And growing up there, you don't really realize it's beautiful. It's like wherever you grow up; it's your home. I go back now, and it's sort of jaw-droppingly beautiful, and at the time it was just: `It was neat, and the beach was across the street.' Really, it was where you were a kid. You didn't go to some suburb in Iowa and say, `Ooh, this isn't very nice here.' But you weren't really aware of it."
Ver Berkmoes noted, though, that the allure of Santa Cruz ultimately was not his personal connection to the city as home, but that socially and politically, it was perhaps the most happening place in America.
"It's possibly the most liberal city in the U.S., where if you're a liberal democrat, you're considered a Fascist," he said. "The free weekly paper — my poor mom has never gotten over this — in the mid-'70s did a big cover story ... very graphically illustrating how lesbians could get pregnant using turkey basters. When you're 15 and you grow up in that kind of environment, it broadens your mind in ways. It was a town filled with gay people and radicals and freaks and hippies and you name it, and I'm very happy it was."
While at Notre Dame, he discovered the opposite of what he had grown up knowing. He recalled a situation in which two members of the underground group of gay students at Notre Dame went on PBS for an interview, apparently discussing their homosexuality.
"People just went nuts ... the incredible fear and anger that there could be even one gay student at Notre Dame caused people to go berserk," he said. "And I was like, `Hey, man, where I grew up, you know ...' sitting there wearing Birkenstocks, and to me it was like, `Well, whatever.' People just went berserk, like throwing rocks at Howard, going and putting graffiti on everything: `Faggots out.' ... I think the guys had to leave."
Clearly a liberal thinker brought up in a liberal town, Ver Berkmoes still chose Notre Dame, a decision he can't regret in the wake of the happiness he's found as a Domer. And though he won't deny that some of his classes under the Dome were helpful, he openly admits it was his work at The Observer and WNDU, along with the social environment at the University, that guided his future most effectively.
"I learned 90 percent of what I use today [at Notre Dame]," said Ver Berkmoes. "And 90 percent of what I look back on my college years having provided was outside of class — it was working at The Observer, it was working at the TV station, it was being just very involved with a lot of different groups of people ... Interpersonal skills and broadening your mind and think[ing] a lot of different things. It all comes from that."
In learning the wisdom of college life, Ver Berkmoes never shied away from assuring his stories under the Dome would be captivatingly fleshy. With his laid back attitude, yesterday and today, he proved that Notre Dame could fit any personality.
For three semesters of his five-year stay at Notre Dame, Ver Berkmoes lived in Fisher Hall, a place he now refuses to visit — not because it is the bane of his existence, but because the years he spent in the dorm weren't too pleasant. He said that back in the late '70s, Fisher was made up of only singles, "cells" he called them. And the residents were mainly football and basketball players. The lesson he learned, basically, was that "It's a lot more fun living off campus."
But living off campus didn't mean that Ver Berkmoes was separated from the typical Notre Dame experience. In explaining his hatred for bowling, he uncovered an SYR story for the ages.
"My one great bowling experience was on some wretched screw-your-roommate here with this woman who lived in Breen-Phillips," he said. "We hadn't known each other that long ... Her roommate called — `Oh, you wanna go on a bowling date with Lynn?' — and I was like, `OK' [a very drawn-out `OK,' as if he were agreeing to complete an unwanted chore]. I went and it turned out my bowling was very inferior. She like blew up and was screaming.
"At this damn screw-your-roommate, this woman is screaming at me because my bowling skills are terrible. I haven't gone bowling since. To me, bowling means bad tempers and being harangued by crazed women who value their bowling skills. She was from some cold-weather place, so I guess they bowled there. There are no bowling alleys in Santa Cruz. That was one of several romances that didn't blossom."
Now married, Ver Berkmoes cannot credit his marriage to the any college romances that did blossom. Instead, it was a chance encounter at The Observer's 25th anniversary reunion in 1991 that gave the Notre Dame family marriage stereotype some more fuel — one sign that in many respects, Notre Dame is unchanging.
So with Ver Berkmoes visiting South Bend and Notre Dame often (his parents live here), he has firsthand knowledge of the unchanging nature of Notre Dame, something he noted as he read Friday's issue of The Observer.
"You see the same stories," he said. "The student senate and student politicians are up to some sort of nonsense and having secret meetings. And all that stuff never really amounts to anything, because the administration has always been really smart. They know that in the rare cases, somebody's here, at most, five years. As long as you can put off any student that gets upset for a couple of years, they're gone.
"There was this big thing — they were announcing they were gonna build the first dorms in about 20 years. Since they finished Grace and Flanner, no dorms were built in the '70s. So they were gonna build the first of those two low-rise cheap things over by Grace and Flanner — the Pasquerillas — so there was this big movement to have one of them be coed. The administration just humored it all along and announced a 25-month study project, knowing that all the people behind it would be long out in the real world before [construction was completed]. The same thing always goes: no matter how upset the students get about anything in particular, they're gonna go."
But Ver Berkmoes also noted that some things have changed drastically as well, for better or worse.
"When I was a student, the ratio was two-and-a-half men to one woman. That was governed in part by the dorms," he said. "Now they have open admissions ... which I think is a great thing ... It's so stupid — it was artificial quotas and all that kind of stuff, which was nonsense. And you do notice now, it seems a little more like a normal population in that sense.
"Because I'd have classes where even though the ratio was two-and-a-half to one, it was just sort of luck of the draw; there'd be 100 guys and three women. And there was definitely a whole lot of institutional sexism going on. You had teachers that were openly sexist ... class action suits had yet to come to the forefront then."
But not everything Ver Berkmoes noticed was so controversial. The recent addition of franchise restaurants to the campus also sparked some interest in the writer, as he sipped on his jumbo coffee from Starbucks.
"The burgers at the Huddle were so bad when I was a student. They were so wretched, they were so pitiful, that the Burger King burger has to be a better burger, as bad as the Burger King burger may be, 'cause the Huddle ones were just, you could not eat them, they were just crap," he said.
"It's the franchising of America, and you can't get anywhere where it's not a brand name, and that bugs me," he added. "When I do travel writing, I travel around the world and write books about where to go, and it's just such a shame to see individual character being lost."
So when he was first introduced to Burger King at the Huddle, Ver Berkmoes could only react with a crazed astonishment.
"When I saw the Burger King, whenever it opened, I came on [campus] and I called my wife that night, that's when we were in Germany: `They put a f***in' Burger King on campus, can you believe it. Nothing is sacred!'"
As Ver Berkmoes travels around the world for his Lonely Planet research, discovering the simple and sacred pleasures of places ranging from Peoria, Ill., to the Arctic Circle, he indeed widens his world view — a view grounded in liberalism, taken for a short, five-year ride on conservativism and now coasting along in whateverdom — at every stop along the map.
But to abandon the freewheeling spirit of his current life would be to abandon the greatness of humanity: the ability to communicate, to tell a story. And Ver Berkmoes certainly can tell a story. For this reason, what follows are miscellaneous comments and stories the purple-socked Ver Berkmoes willingly put forward in his colorful interview, each with its own unique spirit, concerning life at Notre Dame and beyond.
On the Eck Center:
"As a parent, I'd just be like, `Jesus, we're gonna have to sell the house.' It's like, add another zero to the estimated budget for sending your kid here."
On Notre Dame football:
"When I was a senior in high school, they were No. 1, which was great fun because I went to a little school in Santa Cruz, and people were all like, `Wowwwwww, very cool man.'
"And then, the first year was still Devine [his fourth year], and he lost like two games. Losing two games, people were painting out his parking place, throwing crap at his house. The next year, he went 8-3, which was just considered an abomination. People were really still so victory-hungry. They'd been No. 1 in '73 and they were No 1 in '77. The fact that he could do something such as lose three games in a season was outrageous.
"When he left after five years, he was run out of town. Everybody couldn't stand him. I used to say little things in a quiet, little voice, `Well, gee, one national championship in five years, isn't that ...' `Ara was better, Ara was better' [in a deep voice, imitating those who disagreed with his sympathetic question].
"So then they brought in Faust, which taught everybody to have reduced expectations. I think his best season might have been 7-4. So I had three years of Faust. He was a very, very nice man ... such a cheerleader, such a ra-ra, and such a terrible coach. He did teach people that 6-5 could occur."
On watching Notre Dame football today:
"The Faust years were so painful ... history keeps repeating itself, `cause the Faust years, one of the hallmarks was having a bad place kicker. I cannot tell you how many times it would come down to the end. ... So when we're watching it on TV, it's like, can't they ever get someone who can kick the ball? It's endless. It's like `Groundhog Day.' It's bad-kicker-at -Notre Dame-Day. I can't believe that these other guys they got could be any worse."
On the current ambiance of Notre Dame:
"The place has gone much more upscale. Even when I was here, you used to see the older alums, who were probably my age or something now. We thought they were just some geezers ... I met a bunch of guys who'd been alums from the '50s ... we were all too broke to go anywhere fall break, so we went out to Michigan, which was still 18 then, and bought a bunch of this horrible Blatz and crap — bad wine and bad beer that you buy when you're 18 and dumb. We were coming back, walking across south quad, and there were these guys, these old alums, who were out walking around: `Hey, you guys got something to drink in there?' We're like, `Yeah,' and they're like, `Hey, we'll give you 20 bucks for that thing of wine.' And we're like, `Well, gee, sir. We paid like three dollars.' `You kids could use the money.' But then we started talking to them, and they were passing around this three dollar jug of Carlo Rossi or something, and the impression I really got from them ... was that the roots of Notre Dame was a very middle class, even really blue collar, place to send your kid. It was working Catholic. Their dream was for their kid to go here. And I don't know what the stats are now , but just the feel of the place does not have a sort of middle class anymore.
"The typical car of the student was the bad Ford Ltd. wagon from the early '70s that was rusty and had been handed down ... What I do think when you kind of go through the student parking lots now ... a lot of people ... have new cars. And I think the character of the place has gone more upscale. Everything is much nicer and richer looking."
On travel writing:
"You need to talk to people wherever you go. Find out from the people who live there what's neat. Talk to average people, just regular folks, whoever you encounter, and just, `What is happening?'"
On his wedge into Lonely Planet:
"Right place, right time."
Part two on bowling:
"The opiate of the Midwest."
Favorite movie from college years:
"`Animal House' — That was a very seminal movie for me — `Was it really gonna be like that?'"
"If I ever hear that song again ... Worldwide, you cannot escape that damn song. You can't escape the movie, you can't escape the song."
On American culture abroad:
"American culture has sort of conquered the world. Really, mass popular culture, it's just everywhere. There's no escaping it. Movies, TV, music, the works. And especially with the British, what they comment on a lot is the sort of hypocrisy of it all, 'cause America's seen as this place riven with fundamentalist Christian arguments, stuff like Notre Dame saying you can't run ads from the gay and lesbian community, yet American pop culture is nothing but juvenile celebrations of sex and violence. ... If Trent Lott gives a speech, it gets equal play, like he's representing America. So they see America moralizing about this, that and the other thing, and then inundating the world with ... `Baywatch.'" [Note: he also calls it "wretched entertainment."]
On `Baywatch' in Germany:
"It's huge. It really, really is. We went there in , and I'd heard it was [big]. Like, was it an urban legend or something? But, no, there was really these pathetic Germans that like David Hasselhoff t-shirts. His CDs, you'd see them on the best-selling racks of CD stores. He really was big."
"When I'm on the road, I try to listen to wherever I am, what they're talking about on the radio.
"I got a ticket in Canada last year. The new Sheryl Crow album had come out. There was one on there in particular, with the guns at the Wal-Mart store, and I was like, `Man, what a great line,' and I started speeding and the guy caught me. I was in the middle of nowhere, and I was like, `Yeah, guns at Wal-Mart: good job.'"
On being a Bulls fan in Chicago:
"You had to be, and sure, why not?"
On Notre Dame when Father Hesburgh was president:
"It was like having an absentee landlord in a lot of respects."
On plans for the future:
All Scene Stories for Monday, October 11, 1999