Why I Prefer the Word “Fib”

In my first semester at college — what I laughingly referred to as the real world — communication with my parents was sparse, as the times demanded. There was only one Sunday afternoon phone call because Long Distance struck fear into my parents’ thrifty hearts. My mother and I wrote letters the rest of the time. Hers have not survived, but because she saved any piece of paper that might possibly shame and embarrass me in future decades, mine have.

And here I’d like to call into service the word fib for what went on in my letters. It’s a fine word. By relocating to a state college 250 miles away from home, somehow I felt I’d moved to a different planet. I was living a life I knew my parents could never understand. So a little fiction was called into action so they wouldn’t worry. It was for their own good.

* * *

By October I was stretching the word fib to its limits. This letter preceded a weekend trip home, fall of freshman year.

My Letter:
I’m not sure if I’ll be able to leave for home on Friday night or if I’ll have to wait until early Saturday. Dr. Tomlinson is telling us tomorrow whether we’ll have class that afternoon.

The Truth:
I hadn’t been to Dr. Tomlinson’s class since the first week of the semester. I had no idea if we had class on Friday. I couldn’t have identified Dr. Tomlinson in a lineup.

* * *

Apparently, in the middle of all my other tall tales, I told them that lots of boys were asking me on dates, but I was putting schoolwork first. They chided me a little, saying that I should go out more and have more fun.

My Letter:

I really think studying is more important than boys right now. Sorry I’m not dating or dancing on tables as much as you think I should. That probably sounds snotty but it wasn’t meant to be.

The Truth:

I’d known a lot of dancing. I’d conquered a few tabletops.

And it was definitely meant to sound snotty.

* * *

Early on, I fell in love with a lacrosse player. He was sort of a legend.

My Letter:
I don’t think it’s fair that you’ve judged Nick without meeting him yet. Lots of boys in college have nicknames. He’s not wild! He’s a good person.

The Truth:
His nickname rhymed with Nick. If you’re doing it in your head, any one of the possibilities will work.

* * *

Finals went on first semester in spite of my prayer for a tornado to touch down on the Old Main building the night before. I didn’t want anyone to get killed, of course. Just enough of a funnel cloud that my professors’ grade books would be destroyed for all time.

My Letter:
I can’t believe how hard I’m working! I studied all day Saturday and most of Sunday. I’ve really turned a corner. If all goes well, I’ll have an A in at least one course!

The Truth:
Dear Parent:
Enclosed you will find a copy of the Low Grade Summary Report sent to your son/daughter. He/She is already aware of his/her standing in these courses and will be instructed to meet with his/her advisor. You may be assured that we are concerned, and we hope that the quality of your student’s work will improve.
Sincerely,
Maxwell O’Donnell
Assistant Dean

[Dear Reader: I’ll be back next Thursday, July 16th. Thanks for being here. Really.]

Freshman Year in College. What could go wrong?

After I was all moved into my college dorm, my parents took me out to eat before they braved the five-hour trip back to Long Island. My father made a little speech that I thought contained too much advice I wouldn’t need. Then they got in their station wagon, and I waved to them from the sidewalk. I was on my own, a college freshman, negotiating through one of the most turbulent years in American history — 1968. What could go wrong?

Once all the college orientation exercises were over — after we’d been on campus a few days — classes started. I was afraid that might happen.

Let’s be clear. I wasn’t against learning. I simply had other priorities, and there were just so many hours in a day. I seemed to be driving young men crazy, a new phenomenon for me. The more I attracted attention, the better I got at it. It was almost mathematical. Or — to put it another way — I probably would have been picked first or second in Square Dancing if such a thing existed in college. Definitely in the top five.

Although Cortland was still steeped in traditions like fraternities and panty raids, the undercurrent of social change was undeniable. I first noticed it inside the classroom.  I’m sure my parents thought they could count on strict rules about attendance and grading in exchange for the tuition money they were shelling out. But the old rules weren’t resonating with younger teachers who were walking into class, their hands in their pockets and humming Dylan tunes.

One of them, a young man who taught English 101, would come in late and sit cross-legged on his desk and say, “So, what do you guys want to talk about today?” The answer was hardly ever subject-verb agreement.

Another started the semester like this: “I don’t believe in taking attendance.” Now this was a system I could work with.

Unfortunately, these same professors who seemed so cool still believed in midterms and finals. And in November, when that first exam loomed, I discovered it was much harder to absorb 250 pages of text in one sitting than I thought. I cracked the virginal binding of my Sociology book at 11 PM the night before my 9 AM exam. Within an hour, I was erupting in sobs.

My roommate, Randi, heard me — perhaps the reason I chose space in the hall, right outside our room. She padded out in her bathrobe and fuzzy slippers. She was taking the same course with the same professor but had chosen a different route early in the semester. At first her attention to detail had annoyed me.

After dinner, she’d say things like, “See you later. I’m going to the library.” Sometimes she actually used the word homework, and I’d want to shake some sense into her.

“Come on,” I’d think, as if she were a little sister who didn’t know any better. “We’re in college. There is no homework in college.”

This night made it Randi’s turn to talk. She sat down in one of the lounge chairs.

“I have outlines,” she said softly. They’ll help us. Don’t cry.”

And 47 years later I can see her fuzzy pink slippers.  And hear her say, “Okay, so let’s start with an independent variable…”

For Ron Kovic, on Memorial Day

“I don’t like this,” my mother said as she set the dinner table. “It’s getting to be a bad habit.”

The rest of my family out-voted her. So my brother placed the portable black and white TV on a snack table in the corner of the kitchen.

It was fall, 1967, and I was a senior in high school. Between bites of dinner and sips of milk, my family watched the news unfolding from Vietnam. As a student who thought history was her best subject, I was interested in the logistics of it all, the politics. My ability to watch young men being ripped apart on a 16-inch screen and then say things like, “Please pass the potatoes,” evidently didn’t bother me.

Then Ron Kovic got shot.

Ron Kovic grew up one block over and two blocks up from our house. He and his friends were a staple of my childhood. For one summer I worshiped his broad-shouldered body as he played ball every day in the neighborhood. He was — as were many others — the older boy who never looked my way. For three hot and humid months that year, I made up a reason to walk past his house ten times a day. I hoped for a “hello.” I never got a nod.

I’d lost track of him when he graduated from Massapequa High School in 1964. I had no idea he’d become a Marine. His little sister was at our bus stop on Broadway, but by the rules that governed bus stop protocol, I couldn’t talk to her because she was younger.

And then one afternoon in January, 1968, I saw his sister sobbing on the bus ride home from school, hunched over in her seat. Her friends crowded around her, and I heard one of them say, “Her brother got shot in Vietnam.”

Starting that day, I had two images of Ron Kovic that I couldn’t reconcile. In the first, he wore his letter sweater with the blue and gold M. He had a crew cut and was tan and smiling. In the second — only a few years beyond that — he lay in St. Albans Naval Hospital, paralyzed from the chest down.

 

Ron

In 1976, when Ron wrote about his life in Born on the Fourth of July, he graced the front page of The New York Times Book Review. He was renewed, strong in his anti-war convictions, still handsome. My brother bought a copy of the book for me and walked around the corner to the Kovic’s house and asked him to sign it.

“He was very pleasant,” my brother told me. “We talked for a long time. I asked him, but he said he doesn’t remember you.”

 

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When you’re the cool kid on the block, you don’t recall the skinny 13-year-old in the shadows, even if she is adoring your every move. And that wasn’t the big role Ron Kovic was going to play in my life anyway.

January, 1968, my family stopped watching the Vietnam War unfold on the TV screen at dinner. I no longer needed Walter Cronkite to shepherd me through the Tet Offensive or the DMZ. Ron Kovic — that beautiful boy from Toronto Avenue who did perfect handstands — took over the job.

If I questioned what war was, or what it did, my answer was close by now. Two blocks away. At the bus stop. Every morning when I looked into his sister’s eyes.

 

Yes, There Were Panty Raids

“I love being in charge of my own life!” I said these words aloud my first week as a college freshman. I’m so grateful the Internet didn’t exist, so I wasn’t able to carve that sentence into the memory of the Universe for all time.

The details of my newfound freedom? My parents paid all my bills and gave me spending money. The Residence Hall Director made sure I was in my room before curfew. The dining hall staff cooked my food and washed my dishes. Old women, who worked at $1.60 an hour, laundered my sheets and towels. But I was in charge of everything else.

It was fall of 1968, and on other campuses the unrest of that tumultuous year had captured students’ attention. The assassinations, the war, Nixon’s election. At Cortland, not yet.

At Cortland, social traditions that had been in place for 50 years were still holding on. You could count on those customs. Somehow, they promised life wasn’t about to take the severe bump you feared it might.

My favorite was the ritual of getting pinned. He brought his entire fraternity to her dorm, and they assembled as close to her window as they could. They chanted the girl’s name until someone in charge said it was okay for her to go outside. The boys dressed in jackets and ties for this, and serenaded the girl with songs like, “Let Me Call You Sweetheart,” and other tunes left over from the Herbert Hoover administration. Wearing your boyfriend’s fraternity pin meant that everyone knew you belonged to him.

On Wednesday night of my first week at school, a loud group of boys congregated outside our dorm. I opened the window, and heard, “We want Sue! We want Sue!” I ran to the lounge to tell my roommate, Randi.

“Quick!” I yelled, “Some girl named Sue is getting pinned!” Randi was studying, but she obliged me. One week in, and she was on her way to Dean’s List. I had become an expert on a bygone ritual in its last gasp of life.

We looked down at the growing crowd. I noticed the boys were all in shorts and t-shirts, some in bare feet, not the jackets and ties I loved. And they weren’t singing in harmony.

Randi listened. “They’re not shouting ‘We want Sue.’ They’re shouting, ‘We want silk.’ It’s a panty raid.”

 

panty-raid

 

Soon dorm windows on every floor opened, and bras and panties of all sizes (all white) began floating down, like a weird nylon snowstorm. For the second time in days I was overwhelmed at how exciting college could be. First pinnings, now panties thrown out windows. I wondered what miracle Thursday would uncover.

I wanted to be part of the fun, but I suspected my mother had labeled all my underwear discretely somewhere with permanent marker. I couldn’t chance it.

When it was over, boys walked back to their dorms, some wearing bras on their heads as their rewards. They slapped each other on the back and twirled panties in the air.

I wondered what they did with all the underwear.

I had so much to learn. But I’d get there.

The Girl Formerly Known as “Brillo Head”

To understand how surprised I was on my first day of college,

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you needed to know me at 13.

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A lot went on in those five years between 8th grade and my first day as a college freshman. Maybe ours was the last generation to have suffered through so much awkwardness in one lifetime. These days, girls at 13 are adorable. Maybe it’s hormones in the meat or global warming. Whatever it is, I’m happy for them.

All I know is that it took me a long time to climb out of a space where neighborhood boys no longer saw me coming and began collaborating on what name they would shout out. By my 16th birthday, my public humiliation phase seemed to be waning.  I felt I had a future as someone’s girlfriend, but most of that was wishful thinking.

In summer 1967, my mother and I were doing college tours. We were on a country road in upstate New York. We had left one state school (Oneonta) and were on our way to the next (Cortland). The radio reception was pitiful, but I kept trying, my hand on the dial. All of a sudden, there was Jim Morrison singing, “You know that it would be untrue . . . you know that I would be a liar.”

This was a little racy for my mother, and I knew it. I thought of changing the station. But I figured her mind would be elsewhere and she’d be tuned out long before Jim wanted me to light his fire.

No such luck. She was listening, and the lyrics jolted her.

She attempted an impromptu talk, the kind where I tried to get the car seat to absorb my body and pretend this wasn’t happening. What she came up with surprised me though. It was much different than her lecture after the “Your Changing Body” movie in 6th grade. That talk had zeroed in on what was about to happen to parts of my body I hadn’t yet located.

This one was oddly vague.

Boys could certainly be a problem, she told me, but she didn’t think they would be a problem for me. My mother hadn’t yet noticed that I was no longer standing in the shadows at dances. She was still bracing for some mean boys to call me names connected to smelly zoo animals. Or — their perennial favorite — “Brillo Head.”

And even though my hair was now blonde and shiny, and no one had called me ugly for a long time, I wondered if she was right.

Freshman move-in day at Cortland State –September, 1968 — was sunny and warm, with no inkling that in six weeks it would be snowing. Football and soccer players were given the day off from practice to help freshman girls move in. They were a swarm of handsome, affable types, dressed in jackets and ties.

“Please, let me take that box for you!” His name was Jack. He was talking to my mother.

“Oh, that’s so sweet!” She giggled. Really. My mother giggled. We were getting on the elevator in Alger Hall when he told us he played soccer. By the time we got up to my floor, she was saying, “Oh, you’re a goalie!” There were several trips up and down, during which Jack never let my mother carry anything heavier than a bottle of shampoo.

When we were finished, my father pulled a dollar from his wallet. “Oh, no sir. Thanks, but not necessary!”

Then he turned his attention to me. “You should come to our first game on Saturday. It’s at two. I’ll look for you.”

My parents — off to the side and listening intently — beamed.

Jack shook my father’s hand. My parents looked over at me, as if to say, Well, isn’t he a fine young man. He would never do any of the things we didn’t think it necessary to tell you about because, well, we weren’t prepared for this particular moment.

Their little Brillo Head had finally made it. They weren’t worried. Not one bit.

Before I Was “That” Kind of Girl

When Oliver Hardy would turn to Stan Laurel, square his jaw and then give his tie a little twirl, you always knew what was coming. “Well, here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into.”

Exactly.

Our friend, Brenda, thought anything she could do, Jill and I could, too. This was almost always not true. Brenda had made JV cheerleading, and she was sure we could all make Varsity together. Her overflowing confidence sometimes coursed in my direction, and I would  temporarily lose my mind.

That’s how I ended up at Varsity tryouts. Cue Oliver Hardy.

We broke into small groups with an actual cheerleader directing us. I had expected a few hours of explanation, maybe a film about cheer leading, or some diagrams I could study before I actually had to do anything. She spent a minute introducing herself. (As if we didn’t know her name. She was a cheerleader!)

And then without warning she said, “Okay! Now line up and let me see your split jumps, one at a time.”

With nothing available to stave off the impending humiliation, I jumped.

She said, “Okay! Now you’ve just got to work on getting it in the air.” Her turn of phrase made me question if my feet had ever left the ground.

Jill and I didn’t go back for the second day of tryouts. We tried out for Chiefettes instead, a kick line that performed during halftime at football games. Chiefettes got to link arms with each other and keep one foot on the ground at all times, which worked out better for us.

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Brenda continued to conquer new frontiers. For one thing, she had boyfriends. Jill and I had dates — the sweet, unsullied kind where you went to the movies and then you ate French fries at the diner — the kind of dates our mothers went on.

One night after one of these, annoyed at the persistence of a boy I didn’t like all that well, I got to use the line, “I’m not that kind of girl!” I threw it out there indignantly, the way I’d heard it delivered on television.

The boy (embarrassed, I know now) walked me home in silence. As I was putting my key in the front door, he yelled out his parting shot from the sidewalk. “Oh yeah? Well, guess what? You’re a cold fish!”

Was I a cold fish? It was impossible to know where I was on the sexual continuum when I hadn’t yet had any experience of any kind. I’d read about “How to Fine Tune Your Relationship” in magazines like Glamour and Seventeen, but those articles were deliberately vague and sometimes alarming. I was petrified of being frigid, something that got a lot of ink. But — from all I’d picked up — it only afflicted married women so I figured I was off the hook.

In every picture I have of high school graduation, the three of us and our parents are all squinting into the sun. Brenda won awards, engraved charms she would put on a bracelet. I graduated #304 in our class of 616, my goal of slouching toward middle-of-the-road now complete. Our cakes had butter-cream icing. Our parents gave us the portable typewriters we would take to college.

typewriter

And then, two weeks later, our phone rang very late and woke me up. I heard my mother answer it and say, “Oh, dear! Oh no!” Then I heard her coming up the stairs to my room.

“Brenda’s mother is on the phone,” she said. Do you know where she is?”

I didn’t.

“They just found a note that says she’s gone away with that guy. To get married!”

That Guy was the name we had taken to calling Brenda’s latest boyfriend. We didn’t think he was going to be around long enough to bother with his real name.

That Guy was someone Brenda’s brother had brought home on leave from the army. Her family had been letting him sleep in their family room until he had to get back to his base and then leave for his second tour in Vietnam. It was supposed to be a week, but now it had been a month and he was still hanging around, lounging on the couch with his guitar all day.

We could see that Brenda was crazy about him, but we didn’t get it. He hadn’t gone to college. He was divorced. He was old (26). Three strikes. And his guitar playing was pretty weak.

Brenda had eloped, just like in the movies but without the whooping and happiness and the old jalopy sailing down the road, with the words The End superimposed on the screen. Two days later, the new Mr. and Mrs. That Guy got up their nerve and resurfaced back in Massapequa, to retrieve her clothes and be on their way to his base in Texas.

Jill and I were invited over to say goodbye. We walked in the front door just as Brenda’s father was begging them to get an annulment. But Brenda was 18 and there was nothing they could do about it. And she was in love, she told them. After the first wave of hysterics subsided, Brenda went into spin mode.

“We’ll have a church wedding as soon as he gets back from Vietnam,” she said. “Tell Father O’Connor we’ll be in touch.”

Brenda had mastered this skill in junior high school. She changed the topic just slightly, adding charming little details to warm up her mother, who was alternately weepy and angry.

“Oh Mom, the Justice of the Peace was so sweet. He sat with us afterwards and told us that he and his wife have been married for 55 years.”

Brenda’s mom said, “Did you at least have flowers?”

“Yes! Of course I did!”

* * *

 

So that fall, instead of her first-choice university, where she already had a room, a roommate, and a challenging freshman schedule waiting, Brenda and her husband drove to Fort Hood, Texas.

Jill and I, now freshmen in college, gave Brenda’s letters a big dose of parsing. I guess we’d spent all those years discussing the ins and outs of what married life would feel like, she figured she’d make good on the investment.

Their apartment on base: “Luckily it’s furnished, and it’s mostly Danish Modern!” Her dinner menus: “One thing I’ve learned cooking for a soldier. Buy plenty of meat!” The part we were most interested in: “I can’t tell you how much I love my late nights and early mornings with my husband.”

We analyzed every line. And we had so many questions we didn’t ask. Did she wear her hair rollers to bed? Did she close the bathroom door? Did they have sex with the lights on? Did she let him see her without makeup? Or did she wake up an hour before he did and put mascara and lipstick on in the dark? (I’d read “Tips to Keep Your Man,” recently and thought it resonated.)

As intrigued as we were by Brenda’s letters, Jill and I just dug in deeper to the way we’d always been. Our goals hadn’t changed much since 8th grade. Pristine, virginal weddings (in June, of course). A college degree. A teaching job. And a house where we’d sew gingham curtains and never think of cooking a meal unless it came straight out of our Betty Crocker cookbooks.

Apparently the news that we were coming of age in the late 1960s had been kept from us until this point.

But not for long.

 

[Up on Monday: A Reunion When I Least Expected It]