The waning weeks of summer stir memories from long ago.
Before my parents sent this hotshot child off to college, they lectured me on the perils of wearing dirty underwear (Mom) and of bank overdrafts (Dad). But not about, well, you know … homesickness. That didn’t enter their minds. Or mine.
It blindsided me at the last minute. Just before hitching a ride with Chuck, a high school acquaintance, in his questionable Plymouth Valiant, friends and I sat around the dining room table — them, not me, predicting PG13- to R-rated antics of my college life to come. “Them” were all I’d ever known: lifelong pals and teammates, all really good at feeding my insatiable ego. I don’t ever remember feeling such emptiness before that night.
Then came a quick hug and stiff handshake from Mom and Dad, respectively (their resurrection of, I guess, the timeless kindergarten protocol that when you dropped off your little one on the first day, “Say goodbye. Turn away. Don’t look back.”), followed by an ominous backfire of that Valiant’s engine.
We rocketed into the scary darkness. I was shivering, literally.
She quit on us near Santa Rosa, New Mexico. We nursed her into a gas station off Route 66. The mechanic said he would “see what gives in a day or so.” We walked down the dusty highway and checked into a dog-eared motel, near just about nothing, to wait.
What might have lifted the spirit of others but squelched mine was the televised preseason Vikings game that night. Ever watch a Vikings game in Santa Rosa, New Mexico? Even more gut-wrenching was watching the dreamy “Parkettes,” my high school’s cheer and dance squad who back then cheered at Viking games — those girls who just weeks ago we lusted for (in our hearts) when they squeezed past us in the cafeteria and classrooms. And now I could only catch a glimpse of them on the flickering black and white TV screen in a sad motel — in Toofaraway, U.S.A.
I told Chuck I wanted to go home. He said, “You? Really?” I was that close to answering, “Yes.”
With no guarantees from the skeptical mechanic, we left Santa Rosa with fingers crossed and a lot less money. We crept along the desert highway shoulders and inched up mountains. We coasted down from each summit to cool the engine and save gas (neither of which works). When our gutsy Valiant delivered my deflated body and soul at the dormitory’s rear door, I cried for all kinds of reasons.
A dorm attendant handed me a room key, bedding and toilet paper. My roommate, a local kid, offered a disinterested “Hey. What’s up?” and left to spend the evening with his parents. Then a group of manic first-years barged into my room, recruiting for a touch football game on the lawn outside the adjacent girls’ dorm. They guaranteed that girls would be watching from their windows.
I followed them. Everyone, except me, seemed so good-looking, so confident, so bursting with joyful anticipation.
That night was the “Welcome Freshmen!” mixer. I stuck close to Chuck until he found a girl he liked. He abandoned me on a bench watching the touch footballers flirt with their adoring new fans.
For the first time I came to know how it feels to be utterly alone in a crowd.
Then the coup de grace: The next day my college hosted the U of M Gophers football team. How’s that for coincidence? But now, instead of “ski-u-mahing!” in the U’s glorious Memorial Stadium on a brisk autumn Saturday afternoon, here I was in a stadium in a desert surrounded by things called “buttes” and 50,000 sweating Gopher haters. I disguised my true allegiance by fake-cheering for the home team and razzing my secret heroes Jim Carter, Walt Bowser and coach Murray Warmath’s other tough guys.
After the Gophers (and I) were humiliated 28-46, I contributed my share of “Oh-man-did-we-crush-those-guys” mockeries with my rowdy dorm-mates, who had already christened themselves the “Dorm Troopers.”
Classes started. I wrote a letter to my parents (No such thing as quick-fix texts or Face Timing. Long distance phone calls? Forget it. Too expensive and unnecessary “except maybe in an emergency,” said my dad), planting the idea of leaving at semester break for some bogus excuses about not being “turned on by my classes” and “a boring roommate.” In truth, I missed my friends and home. A man of few words, my dad wrote back thusly:
“Kiss the ground you’re walking on.”
Translated he meant: “You’re not going anywhere, Hotshot. Grow up.”
Somehow, Dad’s nonnegotiable edict got the ball rolling. One day, Professor Lightfoot, my observant Freshman Comp professor, caught me staring at a pretty girl. After class Professor Lightfoot offered to “Miss Foster” my assistance with her “thin” composition. Considering the equally thin piece of dreck I’d written, the professor and I knew I had no business assisting anyone. Nevertheless, I accepted the task because “Miss Foster” was really pretty and because of Professor Lightfoot’s charitable wink and a nod.
Not long after, Ray, a Chicago kid who often ate his meals alone, offered me one of his two Santana concert tickets. The concert was great despite menacing looks from some concertgoers, either because Ray wore his ROTC uniform, or because he was black, and I was white, or all three.
We became great friends for a while at just the right time.
After that, I abandoned my bogus plans to come home.
Many years later, my wife and I would kiss and hug our daughter goodbye at her dormitory on Move-in Day, turn away and not look back.
Easier said than done. It hurts to think the odds are good your hotshot kid will feel homesick — if only for a while.
Dick Schwartz lives in Minneapolis.