A prompt for my writing group was to recall a road trip and write about some aspect of it. One trip in particular stood out for me. The following is the collected Facebook/Blog posts from January 20-February 14, 2014, that resulted from that prompt.
“Pt. I: Choices”
Newly graduated mid-year with my bachelor’s degree (December 1971), I couldn’t find a job. My fiancée had decided we weren’t meant to be, so I returned the rings to the jeweler to have some spending money. I celebrated my 21st birthday just before Christmas curled up in the bedroom I was using in my parents’ home. Probably goes without saying that I needed a change of scenery. When I told my mother I was going to hitch to Georgia to see an old friend, she looked out the window at the newly fallen foot of snow and told me she’d buy me a bus ticket to Atlanta to at least get me out of the cold.
[The picture at left is me arriving home after my last day of college, December 14, 1972. Warm day, but changes were coming!]
The heater on the bus didn’t work. It was ten degrees in Atlanta when I got there the next day. The girl I hadn’t seen in five years had written to tell me not to bother, but the letter most likely arrived in the mailbox as I was knocking on her door in a little town 60 miles south of Atlanta. At least it was approaching 60° when I hefted my pack and headed back to Missouri.
I met all sorts of people on the trip home, and I made a significant life decision. While camped in a downpour on the median of I-40 in eastern Tennessee after walking across the Appalachians at Rabun Gap in north Georgia, I vowed that as soon as I could return to school, I was going to get my teaching certificate. Dad had often told me that teachers could always get jobs.
After I stood with my thumb out for an hour or so on the side of the road the next morning, the car that finally stopped was a neatly kept little sedan that exuded the spit and polish of its driver. He turned out to be a terrific fellow who was doing some soul-searching of his own. Although he was only in his early forties, he had just retired as the youngest commander of US forces in Korea. He was driving home to a wife and daughter he hadn’t seen in several months, and he had no idea what he was going to do with himself. We shared our stories and our hopes and encouraged one another.
Tennessee is a fairly long state from east to west, even at 70 miles and hour. I think we both made the trip from past to future in those few hours together before he dropped me off outside of Memphis. I’ve often wondered where his road took him. Mine has not been as straight or smooth as that four-lane highway, but I’ve enjoyed the side trips—those blue highways of the everyday—more than any rest stop or tourist trap. Most of all, I’ve appreciated the days when I have felt like I was out on the road again with my thumb in the air and nothing but promise ahead.
“Pt. II: Pharmacopeia”
My road trip to Georgia in January of 1972 provided me with some very interesting experiences, particularly since I hitchhiked home. Despite the fact that I was actually only gone from Shenandoah for about a week, I felt like I’d had a graduate course in sociology by the time I got home.
After leaving Millen and the girl with whom I thought I’d get to spend more than twenty minutes, I headed for Athens and the University of Georgia. I was a college graduate with a degree in English. UGA had and still does have a noted School of Journalism. I thought I’d go see what the place was like.
It was a beautiful day as I headed north for Athens, and I enjoyed my time on the road. I don’t remember any of the rides I had that day, but I evidently didn’t wait long for anyone because I was on campus by lunchtime. First thing I did was pick up a map of campus and locate the J-School, which just happened to have a cafeteria.
I have a soft spot for the state of Georgia. The history of the state is interesting for many reasons. During my junior year in high school I won an essay contest and a trip to Washington, D.C. The headquarters hotel where we stayed, all 900 of us soon-to-be high school seniors from 27 different states, presented me with the largest gathering of my peers I had ever encountered. That’s where I had met my friend from Millen, and it was the first time that I had a firsthand encounter with a real “Georgia Peach.” I can still hear her, and any Southern accent warms the cockles of my heart.
One of the things about the people there is that they’re very friendly. I’ve never felt badly that the girl only gave me a few minutes to talk after I’d come all that way to see her. We wrote one another and talked on the phone for almost five years before that trip! But…she was behind me now, and I was on campus, standing in line at the cafeteria. A couple of students in line with me immediately struck up a conversation when they saw my pack, and they were really interested when I told them where I was from and what I was doing there.
The three of us had lunch together and continued our acquaintance. Although they were both still undergrads, they were seniors; the boy was an English major, and his girlfriend was in journalism. When lunch was over, they offered me a place to stay if I wanted. They shared a house with some friends, and I was welcome to stick around. I think it might even have been Thursday or Friday with a weekend ahead.
It turned out that the “house” they shared was an antebellum mansion about five blocks from campus. Four…FOUR…stories AND a full attic. I’m not sure I ever saw all the rooms. Or met everyone who was living there. I remember somewhere around 18 or 20 people at one point, but I have no idea if they were actual residents of the house or, like me, passing through.
One of the reasons the place was so popular became apparent the third night I was there. It was a terrific house, well furnished; they had lots of food; I never needed anything they didn’t have. I’d spent a couple of days exploring the campus and just wandering around Athens. One guy loaned me his fairly new car to make a trip to the countryside to look around. The last night before I planned to head back to Missouri there was to be a party. A couple of hours before dark—start time—I asked one of the girls if I could help with anything to get ready for the party. You know, carry a keg, set up chairs, and she said, “You’re from farm country, right?” Strange question, but, yeah. I’d even worked two summers for a nursery. She grinned and beckoned me to follow.
I had stood across the street and looked at the house at some point. You had to get far enough back from it to see to the top of the place. That’s when I counted floors and realized that the top wasn’t just the roof peak but a full-on attic with even its own porch. My friend led me up several flights of stairs, and I felt as if I was following Alice back up out of the rabbit hole.
Even in January it’s usually humid in Georgia. When I’m climbing stairs…a lot of stairs…I tend to sweat, but I realized that the higher up we got, the warmer and wetter the air became. It also started to smell familiar. Kind of like some of the out-of-the-way ditches around my hometown, or the laundry room at my college some nights.
Finally we ran out of stairs. She gave me a curious look and opened a set of double doors (to the attic, remember) and then parted a curtain of clear plastic to reveal about a half acre of lush, green, fertilized, automatically misted, blue lighted rows of marijuana. Seems a couple of the guys in the house were ag majors. One was also a business major. I think there were a chemist and a botanist in the bunch, too. Nice setup.
My friend needed a hand with some “pruning” and carrying some bags to the basement. The drying racks, cutters, baggers, and rollers were there. After cutting plants, bundling them up, carrying the bundles downstairs, hanging them on racks, cutting and bagging some “cured” product, and just breathing, I have to say I don’t remember if I even got to the party. I do know I had my answers as to how these kids paid for their educations, rented that house, and lived in the manner to which they were apparently accustomed!
It was noon before I left the next day.
“Pt. III: Kids These Days”
The trip from Athens, GA, to that rainy highway median in east Tennessee was a very long day. Since I was on my own time and the weather was still good for January in 1972, I decided to do a bit of exploring. I checked my map—paper then, of course—and headed to the northeast from Athens to Rabun County. I had read and been a fan of Eliot Wigginton’s Foxfire books. He was a high school English teacher at Rabun Gap-Nacoochee School. In order to get his students writing, he had them collect oral stories from their relatives and neighbors in the hills and hollows of the Appalachian Mountains where they lived. This classroom project eventually grew into a dozen books of stories and other pieces—ghost stories, traditional songs, instructions for making all sorts of things. Great reading.
The school is in the mountains up a winding highway. I got a ride at some point to within a few miles of it and started walking. Not many vehicles passed. No one stopped. I’d had pretty good luck up to that point, and it was probably mid-morning when I caught sight of the school buildings. For some reason I didn’t do more than just stand there and look at them and think about the first few volumes I had read. At the time I think only a couple had been published. I hiked on up the road.
[Book One of the Foxfire series. Great reads!]
An hour or so later I crested the rounded top of the mountain and started down. The sun was west of me then but still high in the sky, and I could see gathering clouds. I knew I needed to get farther north and west, always west. No one stopped for quite a while.
Eventually I got the classic hitchhiker’s ride. A beat up old two-ton truck pulled up in front of me. If it had ever had paint, it was all simply rust then. The tires looked like ring baloney skins. The sideboards were combinations of one-by-sixes and plywood and held a miscellaneous load of five or six kids—two human, the rest goats—a few bales of moldy hay, various pieces of machinery I don’t recall too well, and a dog of dubious heritage that wasn’t sure about me, either.
The driver was an old woman right out of a Grant Wood painting, bonnet included. Four more children of various ages occupied the bench seat in the cab; not one looked to be older than about ten, and one held an infant in her arms. Granny smiled an almost toothless smile and asked me where I was headed. I explained I was eventually bound for Missouri but would appreciate any help in that direction. She spit a black stream of tobacco juice over the top of the broken side mirror and told me she’d get me another forty miles or so. After thanking her profusely, I threw my pack on and jumped in back with the kids.
The dog eventually warmed up to me. I’ve always had a way with canines. The goats were tied to the back on short ropes. The two children, a boy and a girl maybe six years old, were silent in their shyness until I rummaged through my pack for my lunch and gave them a Hershey bar to share. They quickly devoured the chocolate while I went through a package of peanut butter crackers and an apple. We watched one another for a while, and then I settled down to take in the scenery. It was pleasant enough despite the bleating of the goats and the bumpy, springless ride. I’d put up enough hay and spent enough time in barns that the smells didn’t bother me. The Smokeys and Appalachians are beautiful. Much different from the Rockies—they seem older, more settled and maybe more secretive. I recalled the folktales from the Foxfire books I had read, and remembered that some of my ancestors lived for a time in these hills up in the Carolinas. Cemeteries back there are full of stones with COX chiseled in the marble. I wondered who these folk were.
It was a short ride, but it got me down the mountain and into Tennessee. Since leaving the campus at the University of Georgia in the morning, by the middle of that afternoon I felt as if I had traveled back in time and returned. I still had miles to go before I could sleep. The clouds were gathering.
“Pt. IV: Not This Boy”
The early to mid-1970s were probably the end of hitchhiking as it had been done since the invention of the automobile (and maybe other modes of transportation, too). Today it is rare to see someone with a thumb out. The world just seemed to become too dangerous. My trip back from Georgia was the longest distance I ever traveled that way, but we frequently hitched from Kansas City to Omaha and beyond when I was in college at Tarkio. Most of my extended journey that January was fun, educational, and safe. Most….
One of the rides I had before my cathartic night in the rain in Tennessee was short. At my insistence. A harmless enough looking older fellow stopped for me somewhere in the north Georgia foothills after my pleasant ride in the back of the truck with the kids both human and bovine. He was as untidy as the inside of his sedan, however, and—I realized after I got in and shut my door—that he and the care were quite odiferous, as well.
As usual, the introductory conversation included his giving me the once-over just as I was trying to gauge his company. I knew I was going to make an excuse to hop out at the earliest intersection just to get some air, but he soon made my decision more immediate.
“You’re kinda good lookin’ young feller, ain’t ya.”
“You know, my place ain’t too far from here. My wife’s a pretty young thing married me to get away from her pa. She cooks good, but I don’t keep her happy; know what I mean?”
“Why don’t we go let her fix us some grub and then maybe you can put a smile on her face for a while.”
“I, uh, don’t think I’m interested. But, thanks?”
“Well, me givin’ you a ride and all, I think I’ll just drive on home so’s you can see for yourself, anyway.”
I was beginning to have a new appreciation for what “uncomfortable” means. About the time I understood how this conversation had turned, I developed an itch on the outside of my right leg. It seemed to become more aggravating the more he talked, and I was scratching the whole time we debating our destination.
“No, I really need to be moving down the road. I appreciate the ride, and I’m sure your wife is a nice lady and all, but if you’ll just pull over here, I think I’ll get out now.”
“Buddy, you ain’t going nowhere until I say so, and I say we’re going to my place now.”
Boy, did my leg itch. It got so bad about then that I had to pull up my pant leg to get at it…and the .45 caliber Colt in the ankle holster. What? You thought this hillbilly was walking around that far from home with just a thumb?
He almost choked on his chew when he saw what I had pressed against his leg. Luckily, he didn’t slam on the brakes.
“No, sir. I don’t think you understand. You’re going to pull this piece of shit to the side of the road real easy-like. I’m going to get my pack and send you on your way, or you’re going to need a doctor to put your leg back together after I blow it off at the knee.”
And that, children, is why you should not hitchhike. Or pick up a hitchhiker. Even a clean-cut, innocent young fellow can be full of surprises. The rest of the trip wasn’t uneventful, but nothing held a candle to those fifteen minutes.
[Yep. That’s me doing my best Clint Eastwood impersonation. 1971?]
“Pt. V: Roots”
I didn’t stand on the side of the highway too long after convincing my last ride that it was in his own best interest to let me out of his car. Remembering that incident still raises the hair on the back of my neck, and it was the only part of the trip when I didn’t feel safe. Still, it was a learning experience. Just a few minutes later someone stopped. I don’t recall any specifics until I was standing in the rain on Interstate 40 somewhere in east Tennessee as night was falling. I didn’t have much cash left, and very few people back then had credit cards, at least in my family.
Not far away, the median between the east and west bound lanes provided a sparse grove of Russian olive trees, ubiquitous to the Interstate system for some reason, that would shield me somewhat from the passing cars. Strapped to my pack were a small tent and a sleeping bag. I had the means to build a fire, but this wasn’t a good place for that. It would attract too much attention, like the Tennessee Highway Patrol or a carload of hell raisers, and I doubted there was much dry wood anyway. I found a relatively level spot among the trees, pitched my camp, and dug out a can of Campbell’s Pork and Beans and some crackers. I can’t begin to remember the times I’ve had that meal. Hot or cold. Always a staple. The Ramen noodles of my generation.
My tent was relatively opaque, so my flashlight wasn’t giving me away. With my hunger appeased and the rain beating on the walls, I settled in for the night. I am never without something to read. Back then I carried a collection of Frost’s poems just about everywhere I went. He seemed appropriate for my situation.
I lay there for an hour or so, reading and thinking. The last month or two had been cataclysmic. Several major events had occurred. At that moment, I was without a job or prospects of one; my very serious girlfriend had dumped me—hard; my friends of the last four years were moving on with their lives…and I was camped in the rain hundreds of miles from home. I could have felt pretty sorry for myself. The thing is, I knew where my home was and I knew how to get there. I knew that I could go back and have a safe place to stay, food to eat, and advice from the two people I most admired, my parents.
Dad was always my example of “take a chance, follow your heart, do the right thing.” When they got married—he was 19 and Mom was 15—he was working as a drive attendant at a gas station in Bethany. Thirteen months later I was born. He tried working at a munitions plant in Topeka but was allergic to the sulfur in the gunpowder, so it was back to the gas station. He spent the rest of the summer stripping bluegrass in Minnesota. I’m not sure what he was doing back in Bethany when my brother Ben was born the day before my first birthday. When Mike came along about eighteen months later, Dad was just into his first year with the Missouri Highway Patrol and we were living in Chillicothe, Missouri. Then it was Stanberry. Then Albany.
After eight years with the HP, he followed a call to enter the ministry, and we moved to Rock Port. While we were there he earned a BS in English from Tarkio College and taught junior high English in Rock Port while still serving the church. In his “spare time” he coached some junior high football (he never played the sport), drove a bus, and at least one summer was the constable for the city.[My parents on the left. My dad’s parents and his sister. My brothers and me. Grandparents’ 30th. 1958]
Another change of plans and he became the Dean of Students at Tarkio College during my sophomore and junior years. After that it was off to the UCC church in Shenandoah, Iowa. Along the way he earned a Master’s Degree from Northwest Missouri State and taught part-time for Iowa Western Community College.
Mom was able to finally get her GED while they were in Rock Port. When she wasn’t Dad’s secretary at the church, she worked in the office of the local Soil Conservation Service—usually she was both. I remember her most, however, as the high school principal’s secretary. (I spent too much time in the office…ahem.) In Shenandoah she also worked for a local insurance group and a podiatrist.
My brothers and I all have college degrees. We were lucky, too, that Dad performed the ceremonies for all three weddings. Mom and Dad got to spoil four grandkids, as well. Not too bad for a couple of kids from the hills of northwest Missouri.
Thinking about my family, reading Frost, listening to the rain on my tent, I knew it was time to head home and see about getting on with my own life. I took out my maps and checked the most direct route. If I could flag down some good rides, I could be home in three days, at the most. It had been an interesting trip and I’d had fun, despite the day’s confrontation.
One of the things my parents taught me was never to regret the road not taken. Just to be as ready as possible and go. I know they were ready for their last road. Doesn’t make me miss them any less.
“Pt. VI: Passing in the Night”
The sun was shining auspiciously the next morning, and it was decidedly warm for late January. My bright red Alpha Sigma Phi jacket was sufficient even shortly after the sun woke me and I broke camp. It was disappointing that I stood there for a long time before I got a ride. I hoped the driver would take me to a truck stop, at least, so I could get something to eat. The general didn’t stop for some time after he picked me up, but I didn’t complain after he told me he was headed for Memphis and would enjoy the company.
We did enjoy our conversation that day. I’ve often wondered what happened to him and if he remembered the kid he drove across Tennessee. He was kind enough to stop for lunch and let me ride on with him, and when we got to Memphis, he even drove across the city and dropped me off where I could easily get into Arkansas and the I-70/I-55 interchange. A few hours and some unmemorable rides later I was in St. Louis.
There I was again, standing on the side of the highway. Not far away and obviously headed in the same direction, a young woman about my age stood next to a pack almost as big as she was. It was getting dark.
I am pretty “Old School,” as many of you know, especially when it comes to my romantic notions of the Chivalric Code. [Laugh if you wish.] I know I wouldn’t want my daughter thumbing her way across the country. Wouldn’t have even back then. Some of my female college friends probably have some stories of their own. On top of that, a sort of unwritten code of the highway was that you gave precedence to a hitcher who was already at the place you were dropped off. She was there first. I headed her way to go on down the road.
She eyed me suspiciously, of course, as I walked up the roadside toward her. I put on a smile and waved with both hands open when I said, “Hello! I’m headed on to northwest Missouri, probably not until the morning.”
I think it alleviated her fears. We exchanged pleasantries. I don’t remember much about her, not her name or even much more about what she looked like. Friendly, at least. We chatted a bit. I told her I was going to grab a bite to eat and look for somewhere inexpensive to spend the night. I could tell from the look in her eyes that the thought of food was a bit troublesome. With as many reassurances as possible that I was harmless (no, really!), I talked her into letting me buy her a sandwich. Can’t remember where that was, either, but next door to the little diner was an old hotel.
These days you have to go out to some small towns—or the seedier parts of cities—to find places like that. The rooms were just for sleeping. Each floor had one bathroom that had a tub and shower. Everyone on the floor took turns using it. I do remember that one night was $10. That was forty-two years ago, remember? My dinner companion had loosened up while we talked over our sandwiches, but it took a good deal more convincing to talk her into sleeping on the floor of my room. I had discovered that she had very little money left and I do recall that she still had a long way to go even if I don’t remember where that was. We had both spent the night before asleep in the rain, but she didn’t have a tent and had sat up all night under an overpass. She eventually accepted my offer—I had told her I had a sleeping bag and would be comfortable on the floor, but she wouldn’t hear of it. She did use my bag as a mattress, however. Her time in the bathroom included doing some laundry in the sink, and she wasn’t in the least embarrassed about hanging her underwear on the furniture to dry or spreading a pair of wet jeans over the radiator. We’d used up most of our small talk by then; we were both tired; she snored.
I heard her get around the next morning, but I only let her know I was awake to wish her well and safe travels as she left. I followed not long after. I think I had about five dollars left. With my fingers crossed, I headed for the highway again. I knew we were headed the same direction, but she must have had good luck catching a ride that morning because I never saw her again. The sun was shining brightly behind me and I was headed west. Home stretch.
I flipped over the plywood sign I had been carrying. One side said “Missouri.” This side had “Tarkio” in big red letters. I knew from experience that drivers were more likely to stop if they had a general idea of where you were headed. Not far from the Mississippi a beat up boat of a car pulled over. Two young ladies leaned out the passenger side window. “Is Tarkio anywhere near Nebraska City?”
Yep. I was going to be home very soon.
“Pt. VII: Blow Out”
The final leg of my journey was a real blast. The two girls who picked me up were going to Nebraska City to see the driver’s boyfriend. I don’t remember where they were from or much else, either, except that it was “rock on down the highway!” They were going to Nebraska to party, and they weren’t waiting to get there to start. After the usual preliminaries, we were all the best of friends, singing to whatever was playing and telling one another the most believable lies we could invent.
We hadn’t been travelling more than an hour or so when the girl driving, who owned the car, asked me if I knew how to get where we were going. Yeah, I know. She’d already asked. Next thing I know, she was pulling over at a rest stop so I could drive. Fine with me.
She got in back with her friend, pulled open the tab on a beer, and lit up a joint. It was almost 70 degrees. I cracked my window open and drove.
“No, thanks. I don’t smoke.”
“Nope. Don’t drink and drive, either.” Besides, back then my fraternity brothers called me “Two Brew.” I wanted to get home in one piece.
The adventures weren’t quite over, however. The battleship on wheels I was driving had seen better days, and I’m sure she was wondering what the hell she was doing making 70+ mph on the Interstate. The worst thing, though, was that the old girl needed new shoes. Just west of Columbia, with a sound like a gun shot, she broke a heel, and the next thing I knew, I was watching her rear end slide onto the shoulder and trying to keep her from falling down a rather steep bank and hurting herself…and us.
I managed to get straightened out, slow down, miss at least one sign, avoid the other lane of traffic, and come to a dusty stop. I realized then that the terrible noise I had been hearing was my two travelling companions screaming their lungs out. By the time I got the car stopped, they were both in the floorboard behind me, one on top of the other, soaked in beer, and trying to put out a roach that was in one girl’s hair. I had to laugh. Couldn’t help myself.
Everyone managed to get out of the car without further embarrassment. We were all laughing by then. Relief does that most of the time. I received all sorts of congratulations and a hug or two for managing to keep from killing the three of us. Both girls said they never would have been able to control the car in that situation. They had no idea what to do in a skid. Turns out, they neither one knew how to change a tire, either. Luckily, however, the driver’s papa had made sure there the trunk contained a decent spare and a scissors jack for his little girl. I was really happy to see an X-wrench instead of the usual knuckle buster, because I the lug nuts were welded on with rust and road grime.
After about an hour of dirt and sweat and swearing I finally got the tire changed and the trip resumed. The party soon cranked up again in the back seat. We did stop for food a couple of times. My luck continued to hold, and my new sweethearts popped for my meals since I was doing the driving. It was getting dark by the time we got to Tarkio.
If it had been earlier in the day, I might have gone on a bit north, just pointed them west on Highway 2 to Nebraska City and hitched the remaining few miles to Shenandoah, but I felt like staying in Tarkio that night and opted for directions instead. They seemed almost reluctant to have to drive themselves. Wave goodbye, girls.
I went to look for my buddies, a cold beer, and good friends for the night. January Term was always four weeks of party anyway. They were happy to see me, and happy to know that I’d be back at school for another semester, too. The next day I’d go on home and see what I needed to do to make that happen. The last chapter starts the next story.
“Pt. VIII: Ever After”
This saga really isn’t complete without this last chapter. Like most stories, though, the end is really just the beginning. Even when I was a kid, I’d get to the “…and they lived happily ever after” and wonder what that meant. Sometimes I’d try to imagine what kind of life Prince Charming and Snow White managed, or the charmed Prince and Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty. Did they live happily? How? Maybe he turned out to be Dorian, instead.
As for me, I knew I needed to find a way to make a living. I had learned that lesson well from my parents. I had always tried to make myself independent. I had my grandmothers and my mother teach me to cook when I was very young. I was making my own pancakes from scratch by the time I was six. They also taught me to do rudimentary sewing. Although I avoided laundry and housecleaning, it could be done. It’s actually much easier than baling hay.
Mom and Dad were happy to see me home safe and sound. I had borrowed a dime and called them the night before to let them know where I was and that I was safe. The warm weather I’d experienced since the morning after my arrival in Atlanta had held in the Midwest, and all the snow was gone. I got home the next day, gave Mom my laundry (see?), and went to find Dad to talk to him about school.
As I mentioned earlier, he had told me often that I should get my teaching endorsement. It would only take me another semester, and that term would begin in a week or so. I had time to go back to Tarkio and get registered. Eight weeks of classes and eight weeks of student teaching. He said he’d help me rent an apartment in Tarkio; since I’d graduated, I couldn’t get student housing any longer and only needed it for half the term. During student teaching, if I could get somewhere close by, I could live at home. Sounded like a great plan to me. Mom was thrilled.
Not long after that decision had been made, I thumbed my way back to Tarkio. It was cold again, but not too bad, and more warm weather was predicted. I headed for the Registrar’s office. Crystal, the lady who had run the office for decades, I think, was surprised to see me, but helpful, as always. I knew what I needed to do. She gave me the forms, and I sat down in the hallway to fill them out.
I wasn’t surprised to hear someone say my name. It was a small campus and everyone knew everyone. What really surprised me, though, was that I looked up to see an old girlfriend standing there. Nancy Fender and I had dated for about a month the summer before I started college and she began her senior year in high school. I hadn’t seen her in four years. She’d finished the two year course at what was then called Christian College in Columbia, Missouri, a fairly uneventful year at MU, and was at loose ends…so much so that she’d accompanied her younger brother to Tarkio when he was thinking of applying. She had to remind me of all of this later because I wasn’t really listening. I was lost. I can still see her standing there in her mother’s old fur coat, a fuzzy brown stocking cap (she never wore hats!) and mittens. The cold had made her cheeks ruddy. Her blue eyes seemed to have light of their own, and just remembering her smile makes me warm.
I do remember that we talked at length and caught up. I told her she should come to Tarkio and finish her degree. She thought she might like to teach elementary school. I had been a student advising assistant for my own advisor for two years, and I knew she could transfer all of her credits. She could be finished in a year, maybe three semesters. I didn’t know if I’d sold her on the idea. I did know when she and David left that I sincerely hoped to see her again.
February 4th was three days into the Spring Term. Another warm front had moved in and almost everyone was out that afternoon, enjoying the sunshine. For some reason I was sitting on the south side of the Student Union and there wasn’t anyone else around. I swear, I think I knew, and I was just waiting.
A bronze Malibu pulled into the Visitor parking down the hill, and Nancy stepped out. She’d decided to take my advice and had come to register. We were together for just a little over two weeks short of forty-one years. The trip to Georgia and back had been a good adventure. My life with Nancy Jane was what “happily ever after” means. Not always easy, but always worth it.
Excuse me. I have something in my eye.
Happy Valentine’s Day.
[That’s my girl not long after we were married.]