Column: “Breaking Away” sometimes means taking a delightful detour


[Note: The Little 500, the bicycle race at the center of the 1979 movie “Breaking Away,” has been cancelled this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It was scheduled to be run on Friday (women’s) and Saturday (men’s) this weekend.]

Last July, I managed to arrange a phone interview with a Minnesotan named Betsy Hodges.

Maybe 15 minutes into the conversation, Hodges launched into the Indiana University fight song. She sang it through to the end. “Indiana, we’re all for you!”

I did not ask her to do that. “When I meet somebody from Indiana I start singing the fight song,” she told me.

But on that occasion she wasn’t merely being friendly to a Hoosier she just met. Hodges was proving a point: The IU fight song is part of the opening festivities of the Little 500 bicycle race as portrayed in the film, “Breaking Away.”

The point: Hodges was not, as I had thought, mixing up the IU fight song with “Back Home Again in Indiana.”

Her performance was convincing, in part because Hodges is not an IU alum. How else could she possibly know the IU fight song by heart, except by watching “Breaking Away” a few hundred times as a high schooler?

“I memorized the film,” Hodges told me.

As remarkable as that is, her obsession with the movie “Breaking Away” somehow does not warrant a remark in the Wikipedia entry for Hodges.

More important for the authors of the Wikipedia entry is the fact that Betsy Hodges was mayor of Minneapolis through the end of 2017. To me that’s just an interesting footnote to her life so far.

The part of her life that I wanted to hear more about—the reason asked her for an interview—was a mention she made in a Tweet about a trip she once made to Bloomington, Indiana. (I have my Twitter account set up to show me all mentions of Bloomington, Indiana.)

It was 1987. Hodges and her mother were driving across the country from Minnesota to Bryn Mawr in Pennsylvania, where she would be starting college.

Bloomington is not on the way from Minnesota to Pennsylvania. But Hodges convinced her mom to take that side trip:

And my mother, bless her heart, she was like, Yes we can go to Bloomington, Indiana and you can just go see where they filmed “Breaking Away.” And we didn’t have the internet, right? It wasn’t like there was some handout or guide because this was 1987—I was being driven out to Pennsylvania. So there was nowhere to go to look up where were all these scenes filmed. So we just intuited our way around Bloomington, Indiana. We couldn’t find the quarry, which I’m still sad about. And we asked people and they were like, What are you talking about? Because this was 10 years later after it was filmed.

As Hodges then revealed, the point of the visit was not just to look at the places where the movie was shot. She had, after all, memorized the film.

Let’s see, we went to the courthouse and I jumped out of the car, did the whole scene with Mooch and Nancy. Word for word in front of the courthouse.

That meant she didn’t just visit the all the places from the movie that she could find—she recited all the lines, moving around to the spots where the characters were standing. It’s something that came pretty easily to her: “Yes, I was in theater and debate, choir, and quiz bowl. I had the trifecta of nerd-dom.”

The courthouse scene from “Breaking Away” that Hodges re-enacted in front of the courthouse in 1987 comes about halfway into the movie. Mooch, one of the main character Dave’s buddies, and his girlfriend Nancy, go to the Monroe County courthouse to get a marriage license:

Mooch: Sorry I’m late.
Nancy: You look nice.
Mooch: Your hair looks great. What you think they’re going to ask us?
Nancy: Oh, nothing we can’t answer I suppose.
Mooch: I wonder if I have to have a job to qualify.
Nancy: I don’t think so. I think it’s mostly blood and relatives that they’re interested in.
Mooch: Blood and relatives… well, that’s great. I got both of them.
Nancy: Oh, fudge. I only brought four dollars.
Mooch: Well, it’s only five. I tell you what, we’ll go Dutch.
Nancy: On a marriage license?
Mooch: Sure, why not?

Hodges ticked through some of the other movie locations that she and her mom were able to track down, like the IU Memorial Union and the stadium where the Little 500 race is held: “And I cried in all of these places, I have to say for for the record. This was deeply delightful for me.”

Months after that interview, what stands out to me is the grace that made Betsy’s deep delight possible: A mother granting a daughter’s wish take a detour to Bloomington, on the way to a different, more important place.

Doing the things that bring delight is not always about breaking away and getting out ahead of everyone else. Sometimes it’s about peeling off to take a detour to a spot where the rest of the pack wouldn’t think to go.

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