RAMBLINGS • The Best Friends I Have

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I caught her again.

When daughter Dawn was an upper classperson at Hillsboro High, she and I had different standards for her conduct. Her mom had always been a goody-two-shoes (so much so that one of our acquaintances at the junior college we attended would direct a bit of ridicule in our direction if we were out together. Peggy would bow her head, clasp her hands under her chin as if she were praying, and snicker at us).

Partially because WWJC was a church-related, conservative school, I don’t think there was much drinking among the students. The legal age to drink beer then was 21; since it was a junior college, not many of the attendees were even 20. There were no keggers; the majority of the soccer players were from overseas and a few of them were probably over 21, but I personally only knew of two incidents when a kid had alcohol in his room. One of my friends, a local, claimed to have a mason jar of shine in his room, but I never saw it. 

The soccer team seldom took overnight trips. When I was a freshman, we went to UNC and Duke to play their freshmen, and as a sophomore we rode in coach-driven station wagons to Buffalo, N.Y., for a national tournament (we finished third), but we hung together in whatever accommodations we were offered, and no one drank.

Smoking was a different matter; students could, and many did, smoke in Gladfelter, the student lounge. I didn’t. I wanted so desperately to be athletic that I didn’t want anything in my body that would slow me down. Judy didn’t. Her dad lit up a pipe when thinking pensively and her brother smoked cigarettes, but not until I wasn’t around him much. I suspect he picked that and other habits up when he attended Penn State. Judy’s mom was a sweet lady who probably never did anything wrong, and Judy and her three sisters seemed cut from the same cloth.

My dad smoked, and it killed him. Judy’s dad, Dean, and her brother quit after seeing what it did to him. My mom was like Judy’s mom–a good example of how one should live a conservative life-style for her kids. My sister, whose soprano voice was pure enough to earn her recognition beyond high school, did smoke after she left home; she no longer smokes, nor does she sing.

I suppose couples paired off for sexual experiences at WWC, but I wasn’t conscious of it. I have been called naive before; not only do I admit that, but I consider it a compliment. Judy shared that naivete; the college had a No Display of Affections rule that seemed to me to be open to interpretation–hand-holding was acceptable, but that was as far as Judy and her friends, at least most of them, would go; and I was okay with that.

She and I revisited WWC once when Dawn was looking for a college home; by then it was a four year school. Several observations jarred me on that visit, but the beer bottles sitting on the curb outside my old dorm was perhaps the most upsetting. There were more dorms, more students–and the one who gave Dawn the campus tour was a hippie from Chicago. When I went there, it was primarily mountain kids whose life-style mirrored mine. I also wasn’t happy with the way half the members of the baseball team (eating a pre-game meal in the dining hall) turned to leer at Dawn when we walked in. I also began to think of the geographic mountains between us if she called and needed us if/after she decided to attend there.

The choice was hers, as it should have been. She attended a math class (we were there over Easter vacation during her junior year) and came back unimpressed; the math class she had here (Mr. Roger Reeves was the teacher) was far beyond what that college class was.

WWC is still a relatively small private college nestled in the Smokies just outside Asheville, NC, but it no longer has a church affiliation and no longer attracts the same type of student it did in the early 1960s. It’s academic reputation has risen steadily, but I’m thankful I was there in simpler times.

I’ve been back two other times. When elder granddaughter Kaylyn had her driver’s permit, she and I took the Thunderbird on a road trip to WWC. I thought she needed interstate highway driving experience, and I wanted to visit Pat and Ernst Laurson. Ernst had been the farm manager (and thus my work boss) for the two years I attended. For some reason, yet to be understood in my mind, I was so into a farm life-style that I needed a way to transition into the world of academia, where I have since convinced myself that I belonged. He was also the school’s basketball coach, and I became the scorekeeper who traveled with the team to keep the book. He served too as the gymnastics coach; we didn’t compete against other schools but did put on tumbling exhibitions for organizations in Asheville and its environs. Because I could run and jump, I was all right on floor exercises (mat stuff) and a box called the vault, but I was useless on the apparatus we had. Parallel bars, on which he could perform well even at an advanced age (if I were 19/20, he was 32/33–funny how that doesn’t seem like an advanced age now) struck fear into me that lead to a life-lesson on my part which he was too gracious to mention. In short, he was one of those people I needed to meet when I did to go onto live the life I’ve lived, and I’ll always be grateful.

The other visit came in 2004. I traveled there by Amtrak because I hadn’t traveled by train since a government-paid round trip from Carlinville to St. Louis for my draft physical some 50 years before, and I was curious. So I went to homecoming at WWC because it was the 40th reunion of the team that went to Buffalo. Not many teammates made it back, and I missed the banquet because I had to catch the train back to Illinois, but I did see some classmates I still remember. One of them, who also married a girl from our class at WWC, said he was convinced the cafeteria food was laced with salt-peter while we were there.

I doubt that was true; if it were, it was a waste of a chemical on us. She was a “nice” girl, or I wouldn’t have been interested; I was a “nice” boy, but even so she wasn’t terribly interested. She once asked, “Why would I travel 600 miles to meet my Prince Charming if he only lived a half-mile away?”

I suspect the real reason she wasn’t tempted (besides ignorance of potential bliss –no one taught sex ed in high school, and the fear of pregnancy lurked–remember the pill wasn’t readily available until the mid-1960s) was the shame sex for recreation rather than procreation would bring to her family. The size of her ex-Marine father’s biceps was enough deterrent for me.

The age of innocence in which Judy and I fell in love was long gone by the time Jenni and Dawn were in high school, but Daddy didn’t realize it. I harped to them often about the evils of drinking and smoking; Judy, who was a church-going fundamentalist believer by nature even as I was drifting off to a more humanist stance, and I went to church and encouraged them to go too. I suspect, though, that she never had the “Sex is bad before marriage” talk with them. I know I didn’t because I would have been embarrassed to broach the topic. If we had had a son, that talk would have been my job, but–Judy and I enjoyed each other’s company so much, I suspect so obviously, that our kids knew it wasn’t a bad thing–it’s a human thing. I still doubt my parents had sex; they found me, sis, and Dale under a bush somewhere.

I do know both girls drank before they were 21; I’d stay up checking papers on weekend nights to witness their behaviors when they would come home. Too often, though, I’d be asleep at my desk when they went upstairs. As much as I would rant about the bars in T.S. who were infamous for serving underage teens, I wouldn’t have known what to do–except blame their friends–if I had caught them.

Judy’s cancer was terminal; we all knew that, and she probably reacted better than the rest of us to the situation. The girls and I had no idea what the future would hold, and we reacted inwardly, in our own ways, away from each other. It was a bad time.

Still, I could sense when one or the other did something of which I might not approve. Dawn especially didn’t have facial expressions that would win a pot in a poker game.

A couple months ago I saw that “uh-oh” look on her face again. I drove to their house with a question for Kamryn or Dawn or both; it was the Monday Hillsboro’s baseball team was to play Pana there for the regional title. I thought Kamryn might want to ride along because she and a Topper outfielder are close, and Dawn has become a baseball fan of sorts since we watched Kyle’s senior season together. I say “of sorts” because she’s a Cubs’ fan, which in my mind disqualifies her from full fan status.

Though it was relatively early in the morning, the pair were in the van, looking guilty. After some mental contortions, evidenced by facial grimaces, she confessed; the two were on their way to Belleville to pick up a puppy. Admittedly, the dog in their back yard is older than I am and probably not much longer for this world, but a pup?

Having a pup in the house is like having a child in terms of responsibilities; she knew I’d be opposed. 

I met him later that afternoon; his name is Moose, and not only is it bigger than he is, it’s bigger than he’ll ever be. I feel guilty about being upset; I suspect he and great-granddaughter Emma will become good friends.

To parents who struggle now with teens who do things you wouldn’t have done at that age, I need to say, “Relax; in 30 years or so the kids will be all right.” All my life I’ve been blessed with good friends, but my daughters have become the best friends I have.

I also admit I’d have punched anyone who told me that would happen 30 years ago.

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