In the late 1970’s, I started nursing school. Getting from my apartment in Arlington, VA, to Georgetown University proved a daily challenge. The Washington, DC Metro system didn’t service my area, and the GUTS (Georgetown University Transportation Society) minibus didn’t operate as early as 5:30 AM. The cheapest option was to commute by bicycle.
Outside my building, I’d release the kickstand and take off for the twenty mile ride, in my mind. Not exactly. The trek just felt like twenty miles, although it measured 3.4 miles.
Energy from pushing down on the bike pedals powered a tiny generator controlling the rear lights. I had to pedal fast enough to make the lights come on, then more forcefully to increase their brightness. Wanted all those cars whizzing towards me to be able to see me at dawn break. At the time, we bikers engaged in high-risk behaviors: riding against traffic and without a helmet.
Traveling on Fairfax Drive took me past Fort Myer Army Base, up on a wooded hill off Route 50.
My husband lent me his boy scout backpack to carry my books. The Peds, Nursing, and Micro textbooks made the leather straps dig into my shoulders.
Whoosh, down the hill into Rosslyn, VA, across from the Potomac River bordering Georgetown. Cruising through the dense business section, all concrete and metal, feeling vulnerable.
Traveling across Key Bridge was safe as long as I stayed within the narrow pedestrian path.
The Healy Building of Georgetown University stood out in the distance, an imposing granite structure with gothic spires. It gained notoriety in 1973 as the background for The Exorcist.
At the end of the bridge, the terrain changed abruptly. I turned left onto Canal Road, wheels wobbling on the cobblestone streets.
Several blocks down, I encountered the dreaded street going straight uphill. It paralleled the Exorcist Steps where filmmakers padded the stone steps with rubber to cushion Father Karras’ fall to his death in the movie scene. Afterward, joggers began using the 75 steps to strengthen their leg muscles and increase their breathing capacity.
My heart pounded as I slogged up the hill, pushing my bike around parked cars with their wheels turned in. Glad I’d quit smoking several years ago.
Riding a bike afforded me the opportunity to appreciate things I’d miss on a bus. Georgetown’s history fascinated me, and I felt connected to it as I passed a stately mansion bordered by purple hydrangeas and tall magnolia trees in full bloom.
One morning, as I breathed in the sweet scent of lilacs, a construction worker yelled out,
“Hey, Baby, take my temperature. I’m hot – for YOU!”
Geez, every time I wear my white uniform. . .
Upset, I wanted to dismount and confront him,
You can’t talk to me that way, I’m going to be a professional and save lives.
I ducked down an alley to distance myself from the creep. Passing close to a kitchen in the back of a house, the aroma of bacon wafted over me, a reminder I hadn’t eaten yet.
I sped past the quaint 19th century townhouses. In 1957, John F. Kennedy surprised his wife with a red brick house for the arrival of their daughter, Caroline. How sweet. In the future, my husband would bring me pink carnations for the birth of our child.
I crossed the perimeter into GU’s campus. To my left, Healy Hall, named in honor of Father Patrick Healy, the first African-American Jesuit priest. Father became president of Georgetown in 1874 and transformed the small college into a major university.
Behind Healy Hall, Dahlgren Chapel faced the center of the Quadrangle, dedicated in 1893 as the spiritual center of the university.
My husband and I were married in this chapel on campus. Friends and family attended our wedding ceremony while the organist played Handel’s Water Music.
My commute continued on ‘O” Street past the GU baseball field. To my right, peeking through tall evergreens, I saw Georgetown Visitation Prep School. It was a Catholic high school for girls from notable families. I admired the sprawling estate with sculpted gardens and lush green lawns.
My $5K annual nursing school tuition was half Georgetown Prep’s. While I was grateful the GU grants defrayed some of the cost, it still took me ten years to pay back my student loans.
Nearby, in the Glover Park neighborhood above Georgetown, sat the Russian Embassy, a high society enclave with political intrigue. In the 70-80’s, the US government constructed a secret tunnel under the building as part of a sophisticated operation to eavesdrop on Soviet activities. Later, a rogue FBI agent named Robert Hanssen betrayed the existence of the tunnel while making a fortune for himself.
I passed Dahlgren Library where I spent hours in the little cubicles either studying or watching soap operas like The Young and the Restless on TV at lunch.
Georgetown University Hospital, now part of the Medstar system, and St. Mary’s Hall, sat side by side. The hospital provided me with opportunities for clinical rotations in ER, pediatrics, medical/surgical, OR, and psychiatry.
After reaching the School of Nursing, I secured my bike around a cherry tree. One advantage of commuting by bicycle was zero-cost parking. The school charged students $8 per month to park their cars in the underground garage.