Nostalgia Blast: Growing Up Riker

Northwestern’s spring quarter officially kicks off this Monday, and while NU has yet to officially decide about whether classes will be online for the entirety of the quarter until mid-June, all signs point toward a full quarter of remote work. To boil that down — my physical freshman year, my year of living in Evanston, Illinois, is all but in the books. 

Going to a school halfway across the United States really punctuated the major transition of moving from high school to college, and from my house to another city (half of my stuff is back in my dorm room now). Freshman year often felt like an entirely different world. My schedule looked a lot different — I switched from distance running to working out at the gym, spent time covering the Wildcats for the newspaper, and had to make an entirely new group of friends. I still maintained communication through texts and calls with family and friends back home, but the difference was stark. 

From time to time, I would pull out a box with about 100 5×7 printed photos and just cycle through each picture. Each one would conjure memories, remind me of past activities and give a sense of that specific moment of time. With a photo, the image is enduring and can’t be changed — a comforting sense of security amidst a time of great change.

There are also some experiences that a photo can’t totally recreate, and photos certainly aren’t the only way to relive fond memories. This concept of capturing and preserving an environment and experience has always been a driving force when I was making movies with my siblings and friends, and it is also central to my writing.

In this edition of Nostalgia Blast, I will write “snapshots” from my childhood (roughly chronological) that reminisce and attempt to capture the magic of the people, places, and feelings that I look back on with a smile. Some are specific instances, while others were recurring practices that I mold into one coherent snapshot. I hope my words can bring these scenes to life and commemorate these moments, even as they fade further into the past.

  • Grandparents’ Meals — Grandparents are a lot of fun, and the frequent drives up to Pennsylvania serve as a sure source for fond memories. To specify the scene and channel all of the love and awesomeness into one snapshot, I’ll go with the meals I shared with each of my grandparents. Devouring warm, buttered bagels at the bar at my Grandma Angie’s house, each of us kids happily perched on a stool. Sitting around the kitchen table consuming load after load of Pa’s homemade applesauce, whether during a football game, a Thanksgiving dinner, or a waffle-laden breakfast. Gleefully downing sugary treats in my Grandpa Stu’s living room as the adults talked. And, outside of the warmth of their homes, sharing meals at go-to establishments like Baker’s Diner and Friendly’s. I loved going to Pennsylvania to see my grandparents, and I could count on two things — feeling full and feeling loved.
  • Reading SI Kids, Star Wars in Elementary School Media Center — The most magical place that I can’t go to now is the library of my first elementary school. Early on in my kindergarten year, I read a Magic School Bus book to a librarian, one of the kindest teachers I have ever met, so I could gain access to the whole library. We could visit the library before school and during breaks and special media center sessions. I took advantage, perusing the shelves amidst the bustle of fellow students, and many of my enduring loves were born there. I read nearly four years of Sports Illustrated Kids from the magazine stacks, launching my love of sports. I read through every Star Wars book, making the universe come alive in my mind (and giving me access to the movies I couldn’t watch, like Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith). The Harry Potter covers, which I didn’t open until third grade, became etched in my mind in the height of the Harry Potter craze. I became proficient and prolific at computer gaming on the computers lining the library’s perimeter, while I spent many early mornings battling against the smartest kids at Chess Club (I never did break through). In the cozy confines of the library, I became many things (a sports nut among them), but number one, the library instilled in me a love of reading. 
  • Playing at Adventure ParkThe diverse scenery of Montgomery County is something that I have really come to appreciate (Chicago is flat, and if you see a tree, odds are someone bought it). As a kid, I enjoyed the beauty of Montgomery County through playground expeditions, and the number one playground was Adventure Park. The park, located on acres of open land and rolling green hills, blew far beyond the bare bones of the modern playground. The centerpiece was a giant wooden castle, replete with slides, bridges, and ladders, while a multi-layered wooden ship also stood tall on the far side of the mulch. But the builders didn’t stop there, adding little houses, cars, swinging saucers, world maps, a rock wall (one I doubt I could scale today), musical instruments, and seesaws. There was no coherent theme, and that’s what made it awesome. Each visit felt novel and unique. Today nearly half of the features have been stripped away, a necessary task given safety concerns and the age of the structures, but Adventure Park was a fantasyland in its heyday because it followed the lead of imagination — it had no limits.
  • Playing in Snow — It all starts with the anticipation and speculation of a snowstorm. Then, the earth-shattering news of a snow day. It’s a win-win — no learning, and a whole lot of play with the greatest toy there is. All bundled up in winter gear, my brothers and I would trek up to the park by our house and mold a path with our plastic sleds down the hill, aiming for the most thrilling, jaw-dropping experience possible. One year while I was in elementary school, we had multiple weeks off in a row, and it was well-spent sledding, digging tunnels in our front yard, and playing games like “bully”, which literally consisted of us pushing each other over into the snow. Physically and spiritually, the winter wonderland of snow days felt soft, like an escape from the real world.
  • Intercepting the Opponent in Flag Football — I can see it today. I’m in my blue and white mesh football jersey, teeth sunk into a mouthguard, flags tied around my waist. I’m standing on the recently mowed football field on a breezy spring morning. Flag football was my favorite sport in elementary school, but in trying to distill it down to one peak moment, there’s a clear winner — catching an interception. My coach calls from the sideline for me to play cornerback, and I slide over to the wide receiver. As the quarterback drops back, my ten-year-old self watches the receiver for a second, then cheats, maybe even gives him some tantalizing space, and looks back at the quarterback’s eyes. Arm cocked, the quarterback throws, and my eyes widen as I come to the stunning realization that the ball is coming toward me. My teeth bite into my mouthguard. Even better — the underthrown pass (they’re always underthrown in little-kid football) hits my arms and I clutch the football. Then, I take off toward the end zone and celebrate a tide-turning pick-six with my teammates, mouthguard bobbling. There’s no greater high for a young kid on the gridiron.
  • Ripstick-ing in the front yard — My family had a great front yard growing up, so it’s no surprise that “can you move the car out of the driveway” was a common refrain. We had the flattest driveway of all of our neighbors and a generous basketball hoop, making it the perfect court for all kinds of basketball battles. But the driveway served many other purposes as well, some more “extreme” than others. After school, I would buckle my helmet with my brother Jeffrey and neighbor Jordan and ride our collection of Ripstik boards and Razor scooters around the yard. There was rarely a set game, but usually we ended up trying to knock each other off our boards or to land a jump on Jordan’s ramp. He would also bring over his speaker, and I regret to say this, but we would blast songs such as (I really wish I could rewrite history here) Baby by Justin Bieber. Back then, there were no activities or homework besides the occasional sports practice. Time seemed unlimited, and there was always fun to be had. The festivities would go on beyond sunset, until our parents had to pry us off the driveway. We’d always be back.  
  • Trips to BaltimoreI took soooo many trips to Washington, D.C. I can’t begin to count the number of times I went to the zoo or to the Air and Space Museum or the other exhibits at the Smithsonian. But D.C. never captured my imagination in the way that its oft-slighted neighbor Baltimore did. I love Baltimore. Walking along the inner harbor with the Chesapeake Bay right there, touring museums like the spectacular Port Discovery and the unbelievably awesome Baltimore Aquarium (I haven’t been there since I was like, four, and I still remember it vividly). I attended my first sports game at the lovely Camden Yards and my first football game and spring football practice at M&T Bank Stadium, and the hordes of Birdland fans in orange and purple sticks in my memory. I remember at least one school field trip to a boat tour around the shoreline, learning about the rich Baltimore history and Chesapeake ecosystem. And in high school, every state championship in track, the pinnacle of the sport, was held at Morgan State University in Baltimore. Charm City doesn’t have the glamour or national attention of nearby cities like D.C. or Philly. It’s not particularly nice or safe, either, and it fits perfectly with Maryland — a modest, imperfect city for a modest, imperfect state. It was number one in my heart.
  • Primetime + Recaps in the Morning — As an NFL fan growing up, the prime time was Monday morning, literally and figuratively. Before heading to school, I would wake up an hour early (usually around 6 or 6:30), warm a mug of apple cider, make a bowl of oatmeal, snuggle under the heavy warm blankets on the couch of my TV room, and turn on the DVR to watch the last night’s edition of ESPN’s NFL Primetime. With the timeless themes playing, hosts Chris Berman and Tom Jackson would recap each of Sunday’s games, mixing in sound effects, nicknames, and insights as each game recap would roll. The night game, which I was not allowed to stay up to watch growing up, was the lone uncertain outcome and always a highlight for me. And, to say it again, the music — the main Primetime theme sends chills down my spine when I listen to it today. If I could stake myself down to that couch under the covers with NFL Primetime on the screen for all eternity at that time, I probably would. Instead, a long day of school beckoned.
  • Tackle football in the basement — I nod to my brother Nate, who is somewhere between kindergarten and second grade, and we head down to the basement. The contest is a brutal, covert tackle football match. There’s no question who is going to win — I’m five years older — but the point isn’t to win. The point is to tussle with each other and rile ourselves up. A total showcase of aggressiveness and masculinity, or, in other words, just guys being dudes. I’d often go onto my knees as the defender, giving Nate four downs to cross our part of the basement and put the ball across the goal line. When Nate said go, I’d wrap my arms around him, sometimes letting him get a couple feet, or, if I was angry, blast him back into the backfield. Tensions ran high, hits were felt (Nate was an amazingly durable little tyke), knees were tattooed with the pattern of the carpet, but we both enjoyed it and still talk about the fun we had to this day. 
  • Fourth Pres Four Square — Before learning about Jesus, it was all-out war in the church middle school room every Sunday morning. In one corner of the room, four squares sat woven into the carpet, with a bouncy playground ball not far away. What happened inside those four squares meant everything to us. Basically, four square is a simple playground version of tennis, where the objective is to not have the ball hit your square and go out of bounds. Those stakes were particularly high in the middle school room, where the line sometimes stretched to two dozen kids. The line itself served as ample reason for the innumerable heated arguments that ensued and the tempers flared on a regular basis. I sat out during sixth grade, frozen by fear and the sparse, ill-fated attempts to survive the vicious serves of the eighth graders. My hand eye coordination improved in seventh grade, and by eighth grade, I had an arsenal of nasty moves (like the “Death Star”, “Tornado” and “Golden Move”) and I was one of the dictators of the square. I lived inside that square, and it took on a life of its own. Four square became a microcosm of society, with alliances forming, kids gaining and losing power, and the strong preying on the weak. In my eighth grade year, my grade had an unstoppable alliance in which we’d occupy the top three squares, then the server would lob up a ball and the receiver would slam on whichever poor soul happened to be in square four. I could count on a couple things every Sunday morning — a soaked through dress shirt, some wild volleys, a couple new four square enemies, and a ton of fun. Even if I had to go back in line a couple times.
  • Blasting HRs in the Grasslot — One of my favorite movies growing up was The Sandlot, which follows a group of ten kids over the course of the summer as they play baseball, explore their town, and try to get a Babe Ruth-signed baseball from the jaws of a humongous dog. I had my own version of the Sandlot, an irrigation field between my neighborhood and the adjacent one that we called the Grasslot. The high-grass field seemed carved into a baseball stadium, with a trench of rocks on one foul line, a hill on the other, and a trench of rocks in the outfield with a huge hill behind — home run territory. There was even a house at the top of the outfield hill that had a metal fence and a dog (much smaller than the Beast). We played a lot of different variants of baseball in the grasslot, but since we only had one or two other players, the one that worked best was the home run derby. One of us would take a softball bat and throw up pitches to himself to hit, while the others would wait beyond the trench to try to rob home runs. The feel of the ball smacking the sweet spot of the bat, the majestic arc of the baseball into the blue sky and into the outfield hill, the thump of an outfield catch. The grasslot was a field of dreams for us. Thankfully, none of the baseballs cleared the fence and found a home in the neighbors’ yard.
  • Movies in High School — Frequent trips to the movie theater with friends from my cross country team were a testament to one fantastic thing — our newly gained independence. The routine was pretty streamlined. Once a couple guys were interested, we’d drive all our cars (we had just gotten our licenses) down to the spacious Rio shopping center in the evening. After reconvening, we’d spend our money on sandwiches at the Potbelly shop as the sun set, then pick up tickets at the box office. Cars 3, Spiderman, Incredibles 2…no matter what the movie was, it was awesome to soak in a movie with your guys on either side of you. Then we’d walk out of the theater in wake of the movie, take a walk around the lamppost-lined lake, stop by a few stores, and then jump back in our cars and shoot off into the weekend. 
  • Movie Editing Sessions — In middle school and high school, I loved filming and editing short movies with my family and friends. The process would begin late at night, when I would scheme up ideas about funny films, called Riker Films, that I could make around my house. I’d jot down a couple loose notes, then tell all of my prospective actors about my concept. On filming day, I’d pull together all the actors and my family’s camcorder and we would get started. I’m a little ashamed now, but it wasn’t a very democratic process — I’d call the shots and order the actors to do certain actions or say certain lines. Rarely did the filming sessions seem coherent, and I was aiming for quantity because I could pick the best takes. Once the footage was all collected, I’d park myself at the desktop computer and spend hours uploading, editing, and compiling clips. I knew I had all the footage I would need, but it was nevertheless an exhilarating feeling to make the concept come to life. I’d watch the finished film on repeat a couple times just to soak it in, then welcome all of the other actors and family members in for a grand premiere. I watched my audience’s reactions and joined in the laughter in the most hilarious parts, and almost every movie was a hit. The movie would be saved for many future viewings, and it would be on to the next great idea. 
  • Kohl’s Trips — Growing up in middle school and high school meant a lot of trips to stores to get new clothes, and thankfully for me, I had a hidden skill and passion for perusing the aisles of my local Kohl’s store and finding the best deals. I’d get lost in the racks for a half-hour, an hour, and emerge with an arm’s length of shirts and pants on hangers. Having new clothes wasn’t even the best part; the experience of browsing around was a huge part of the fun. My brothers and I even categorized the music (somewhat derogatorily) as its own genre: Kohl’s music. I’d hit the sports jersey section, then the athletic wear section, and, as I grew older and had to spend my own money, the more formal men’s section. Part of the fun was making rash decisions about what to buy and what to leave on the racks, all while trying to stay under budget. I’d evaluate the colors, feel the fabric, and, of course, scrutinize the size and price of hundreds of items. I’d spend a good ten minutes trying to locate my mom in the two-floor department store, then we’d triumphantly check out as I reveled in the deals I’d found and the fine additions to my collection. The process would culminate with bringing the haul back home and folding the clothes into my drawer. About a month later, the process would start over and I’d be back to the racks.
  • Saturday Morning Long Runs — Distance running requires a lot of time and dedication, requiring miles and miles of slogging around town in addition to brutal workouts. But the best part of training came on Saturdays when we didn’t have races, opening the morning up for team long runs. The team would congregate at the track in the mornings, run the mile warm-up by the dew-covered fields, and then the varsity guys and a couple other runners would embark for the 7-10 mile run. My group would pack up and converse about all kinds of topics as we ran, occasionally with a Bluetooth speaker providing the soundtrack. We didn’t have the pressure to hit times like in workouts, but given the phenomenal shape our coach’s training plan put us in, it felt awesome to cruise down the trail at a brisk 6:45-7 min pace. Breaks were frequent, whether at stoplights, restaurants like Dunkin’ Donuts, or the turn-around points. By a couple miles in, the fatigue had set in slightly, but the repetition of the running motion and the pull of the group moving along took the mental strain out of the equation. Many times, our fastest miles would come at the end when the finish was in sight, and the runner’s high as we logged the final mile, drenched in sweat and worn out, was wonderful. With the race-centric focus of the season, the long runs were certainly underrated — they were highlights themselves.
  • Late Night Walks around Bethany Beach — After a day of lounging at the beach or working out at the gym at the beach apartments my family rented in Bethany Beach, Delaware, I enjoyed walking out into the spacious Sea Colony resort just after dusk. I’d walk along the winding streets of the resort neighborhood, which I knew well through my daily runs in the heat of the day, and took it all in: the gentle rippling of the ponds, the soothing sounds of the fountains, the lighted pathways, the beach attire in people’s front yards. And let me just say — it is a really nice resort. With the bustle of the beach day aside, warm night walks provided a prime opportunity to relax and just think, from movie and book ideas to planning out my entire next school year. I always treated these walks as special because I knew they’d be a distant memory during the cold Maryland winters. 
  • Leading the Cross Country Huddle — A lot of these moments are close to my heart but can be replicated today. My favorite part of cross country can’t. Those moments, the precious crucial moments before a cross country race, have no equal. Before my senior year, I told my coach that I wanted to be the one to “lead the troops into battle.” I meant it. Before our biggest races in my senior season, we would lock arms and I would give a passionate, semi-thought out pump-up speech. Prior to DCXC, I highlighted something about each of my six teammates that made them a special runner to make the point that together, we had the capability to contest anyone. Before our country race, I harkened back to the movie we had watched earlier that year, Rocky, and likened our team to the Philly boxer. “The odds are stacked against us,” I said. “And there will be a moment where you will decide whether to let the dream die. I want you to go the distance.” (We then ran inspired for the first half of the 5K and all combusted the second half). For our postseason races, the message was less of a pump-up and instead a call to keep perspective and relax before the big meet. I’d scream the words, huffing after all of our stretches and warmups, and each of the guys invested themselves and focused in. The feeling in those huddles was incredible. Here were seven guys tight together, scared as could be to run an all-out 5K to the max (think being a roller-coaster car, but without the electricity), but united as a squad in pursuit of a common goal that we had worked toward for over four years. Speaking the last real words the guys would hear before we stepped to the line, I felt tremendous power and respect, and I did not take it for granted. After our last race together, our state meet, we huddled together in the 40-degree temps. There was a silence, and I didn’t understand what was going on aside from a post-race hug. A moment passed. “Give a speech,” my teammate Julien urged, and I talked from the heart. I am infinitely grateful to my teammates for giving me that platform, and those precious pre-race moments are among my most treasured memories. Pass me a tissue, please.

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