Fortress in the City

At 1:30 p.m. on Saturday, exactly one hour late, the Santa Fe Chief pulled into the opulent LaSalle Street Station. Built in 1903, it was used in Alfred Hitchcock’s movie North by Northwest (1959).

Shawn stepped off the train and plunged into Chicago schoolboy-confident, and felt something he’d never felt before—-hot, dripping humidity. His shirt stuck to his skin as he clutched all his worldly possessions (a suitcase and a duffle bag) and waded into a sea of people—parents herding their children, red caps hustling luggage, boys selling The Chicago Tribune. He remembered what his grandfather had said the first time he’d arrived in New York’s Grand Central Station—-“I saw lots of people I didn’t know.”

After a ten-minute Checker cab ride down LaSalle Street, Shawn stood inside CBI’s stone arch, feeling the granite-walled coolness. The train journey had ended, but the adventures at Chicago Bible Institute had just begun.

CBI stood on Chicago’s near north side—-a Fundamentalist citadel of right doctrine and right lifestyle, a solicitous crone who seemed to whisper: “Distrust the world. Seize the old certainties. You bloom best in the old soil.” Gated and ghettoed, the school formed a fortress against Chicago’s secular, sensual, consumerist metropolis. Here, Shawn knew he was shielded from the dangers of the world. (But, confident as he was, he could not know that his greatest temptations would arise not from without, but from within.)

He walked through the arch inhaling the spirit of CBI’s founder—-the 19th-century shoe-salesman-turned-preacher who said, “Expect great things from God; attempt great things for God.” Shawn expected, and was certainly going to attempt. It was 1959, he was 18 years old, and all things seemed possible. He was a bit uncertain about the depth of his Fundamentalist faith, though. Was he here for a Christian education or mainly for aviation training?

On this first day, Shawn walked into a world of rules. No alcohol, ever. No short hair on women; no long hair or facial hair on men. Good table manners, collar shirts, no jeans, shined shoes. Women could wear only a touch of makeup, no short hair, no facial jewelry, no pants. Especially, they must wear their dresses or skirts at least down to the knees. American middle-class lifestyle codes, but CBI elevated them to tests of biblical fidelity and signs of Christian commitment. Shawn took all of this completely for granted—it was the world of his childhood.

He climbed the stone steps into Cromwell Hall’s lobby, tossed his spent chewing gum into a wastebasket and presented himself to the woman at the information desk.

“Hello—-I’m here for the flight camp.”

Her brow furrowed, but she said, “Welcome! Please allow me to check.” She made a couple of calls and then, “Oh… flight camp isn’t here; you’re supposed to be out at the airport.”

“Oh, I didn’t know. How do I get out there?”

“I think we’ll overnight you here, and tomorrow morning the airport van can run you out.” Shawn waited a bit and then, “This is Ma Gamble, one of our dorm mothers—she’ll take you up to your room.”

Ma Gamble wore her gray hair wound in a tight bun at the nape of her neck. As Norbert Hall’s dorm mother, she supervised student residential life, along with their morals—-it was the fifties, and colleges still practiced in loco parentis. Shawn liked her immediately. A woman in her sixties, she quizzed Shawn about his train trip. In many ways she reminded him of his grandmother; he wanted to hug her.

To Shawn, reared in progressive California, Norbert Hall seemed an ancient, dirty, pile of bricks, bleak, without grace, looming above him. They elevatored up to the fifth floor. No other students were living here now. Walking along the hall, he noticed only one common bathroom.

Ma Gamble led Shawn into a high-ceilinged room—-plastered walls, heavy, dark wood trim, and a corner sink with a mirror. “Breakfast in the dining hall is at 8:00!” Then she walked out and left Shawn alone.

Shawn noticed the bunk beds, two study desks, and a globed ceiling light. Hooks to hang his clothing on. CBI prohibited anything electric in the rooms—-coffee pot, hot plate, heaters—-although he later learned that some guys bootlegged them in. He’d never been in such an old building with no telephones or TV, and rusty gas light sconces still protruding from the walls.

The floor squeaked in the empty hall as he walked down to the bathroom to brush his teeth. He thought, everyone I know is 2000 miles away, in California.

The unscreened window stood open, welcoming in the hot, moist air. He leaned out to peer into the courtyard far below where some students sat on cast-iron railings along the basement stairwells. One student yelled something unintelligible up at him. He saw huge piles of coal mounded up in a corner of the small parking lot, waiting for winter’s cold. The Institute was crammed into a single city block, bounded by LaSalle, Wells, Chicago, and Chestnut streets. In its center lay the quad, an accidental space bereft of grace, hemmed in between multi-story buildings, paved over with not a spear of grass. To the east he saw Cromwell Hall (administrative and classrooms); to the southwest the women’s dorm, and to the west a driveway ran out onto Wells Street. Shawn read his Bible a bit, then went to bed early, tossing and turning on sweaty sheets, too excited to sleep.


The next day, the Sabbath sun navigated the hazy Chicago air and flooded in his window. Shawn couldn’t wait to get out to the airport. He walked down to the dining room for breakfast and soon boarded the van to ride out to CBI’s Maple Valley Airport. His stomach churned—flight camp! One single chance to make it into CBI’s aviation program. His whole future would be decided in just two weeks.

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