I’ve suddenly realized that I’m getting old enough to be nostalgic. It’s a little depressing.
Two of my best friends have sons or daughters going away to college in a few weeks and that started my current trip down memory lane. Oddly enough, I didn’t dwell much on the memories of when my kids went to college. I guess not enough time has passed for that to qualify as nostalgic. Instead, I started comparing how it is today with how it was when I went to school.
Beyond the fact that we had to use a piece of charcoal and a flat rock to take lecture notes, there were hundreds of other glaring differences between now and then. But, the one that struck me the most was how easy it is for kids today to communicate with friends and family.
Today, if you’re not in touch with someone, it’s because you don’t want to be. Between cell phones, texts, email, Skype, facebook, FaceTime, twitter, Snapchat and a host of other internet or mobile phone derived methods, there’s no need to actually go somewhere to see or talk to someone. Well, there are some viable reasons, but it’s certainly not as urgent.
When I went to school, there was really only one person I wanted to stay in touch with as much as possible…that was my girlfriend (she’s my wife now, but at the time I was still on the free range and hadn’t been roped, tied and saddle broken). Linda went to Edinboro College near Erie, Pennsylvania. I went to one of the University of Pittsburgh Campuses about sixty miles away. The internet didn’t exist and its nascent predecessor, ARPANET was just beginning to crawl. The closest telephone was a pay phone (for you youngsters, that’s a telephone that required coins to operate) located in the student union a ten minute walk away. So, if I wanted to talk to Linda, I had two options: use an aforementioned pay phone or travel sixty miles to her school.
Wednesday was a big day. That’s when I walked twenty minutes to a nearby park with three dollars in quarters to use a secluded pay phone to call my girl. Three dollars bought me thirty minutes. You learn to talk fast and not have much dead time when you have to pay for your calls on the spot with cold hard cash.
Friday was a bigger day. Friday was the day I blew off my afternoon calculus class (the Prof let me trade time missed for grading the tests) and hitchhiked from Pitt to Edinboro. No one hitchhikes anymore and with good reason. But, I grew up in a different time when hichin’ a ride was a universal and regular mode of transportation. Heck, we even wrote songs about it.
I left my dorm room with a duffle bag at 1:00 for a 1:15 English class that I couldn’t miss. By 2:45 I was on the road heading for Edinboro. I ran for the first twenty minutes because if I could get to the main highway by 3:15 I could count on Ellen picking me up. Ellen was an older school teacher who spent every weekend at her lake house in Erie. The first time she picked me up was on a rainy afternoon in September. She went by me at first and then I saw her brake lights come on as she stopped. I ran a couple hundred feet to her car and tugged on the door latch only to find that it was locked. While I stood in rain with what I’m sure was a pitiful look on my face, she reached across the seats and rolled the window down about an inch.
“You aren’t some drug-using, psychotic serial killer are you?” she asked.
“No Ma’am. I’m just a very wet engineering student from Pitt,” I answered.
She hesitated for a minute before unlocking the door and saying, “Get in.”
I opened the door, threw my duffle on the floor and crawled into the car. “Thanks Ma’am. It’s really raining hard out there.”
“Well, just so you know, I have a trained attack dog with me.”
I looked in the back and saw a small Benji-type dog sleeping on a blanket on the seat. “Is he off duty right now?” I asked.
“Pretty much. It’s the overtime thing. Where are you going?”
“To Edinboro to see my girlfriend. Where are you going?”
“To my lake cottage. I can take you as far as Union City, but you’ll have to take Rt. 6 on from there and I’m staying on Rt. 8.”
“That’s fine Ma’am.”
We talked for the forty-five minute drive to Union City and learned a lot about each other. Her children were grown and gone and she was getting ready to retire in a few years. I told her about school and Linda. When we got to Union City it had stopped raining. As I got out she said, “I come through town that way every Friday. If I see you, you’re welcome to a ride.”
“Ellen, my name is Ellen,” she said as I closed the door and she drove off.
If I got to Edinboro in time, Linda and I usually went out to get something to eat. It had to be somewhere close because we walked. After we ate, we’d head to the student union or back to her dorm room to relax. The dorm had rules though and I had to be out of her dorm room by 11:00. Finding sleeping arrangements was sometimes an adventure. My typical plan involved slipping into a male dorm as if I were going in with someone. Once inside I’d find a couch in one of the common rooms and try to blend in with the students who lived there. Most of the time, it worked. When it didn’t, well, then I had to get inventive. We won’t go there right now.
Saturdays were fun time. We’d go to a football game, a movie or sometimes an on-campus concert. I saw America and The Steve Miller Band for the first time at Edinboro and watched a lot of movies. At 11:00, I found another common room.
Sundays, we usually studied and, when evening came, I headed back to Pitt. I tried to leave by 6:00 because it was typically a three hour trip home but, young love being what it is, sometimes leaving by 6:00 was a struggle. I remember once when it was nearly 9:00 PM before I walked out her door.
Catching rides on Sunday night was difficult at any time. After 9:00 it was almost impossible. By midnight I had only made it a little more than halfway home and I’d been walking for half an hour without seeing a car. Unexpectedly, I heard the sound of something coming in the direction I was going and I turned to stick up my thumb, the universal gesture for hitchin’ a ride.
What I’d heard was an old beat up Chevy van and the brakes squealed as it slowed down and came to a stop twenty feet away. As I ran up, one of the side doors swung open and a girl with long blond hair tied with a head band popped out and said, “Where are you headed?”
“Pitt,” I replied.
She looked at the driver and he nodded his head. “We can drop you off there. Get in.”
Since the front bench seat was filled, I crawled into the back. The back of the van didn’t have seats, so I found myself sitting on the carpeted floor surrounded by six others. I’m going to use a word that many of you won’t recognize because it belongs to my generation, not yours. I was sitting in the middle of a van full of hippies.
The word “geek” had a different meaning in those days. Certainly it had no connection to the digital and computer gods that it references today. However, if it had been used in that way, it would have referred to me. I was the prototype geek and being stuck in a van full of hippies was not my idea of a good time. That being as it may, I needed a ride home and this was it. I swallowed my fear as the van door closed.
The van stereo was blaring and a pungent haze filled the cabin. Despite the fact that I didn’t actively participate, common sense tells me that, by any reasonable legal definition, I was stoned by the time we had driven ten miles. Apparently that condition has varying effects on different people. Some of the hippies quietly sat in the corners, staring at the windows, contemplating existential life I suppose. Several others were apparently exploring interpersonal relationships near the back of the van. The young lady who had opened the door for me was leaning against me, jabbering away and sharing whatever random thoughts happened to pass through her mind. I tried to focus on her voice. It was actually quite soothing and pleasant.
Suddenly the van slowed and then veered sharply to the left as we left Rt. 8 and went onto a dirt road. That was a bad sign. Getting a ride was tough enough on the highway. If these goobers dropped me off in the middle of nowhere, I could be walking for hours. Also, somewhere in the back of my mind lurked the thought that some or all of these people could be doppelgangers for Charles Manson and his entourage.
“Where are we going?” I asked trying to mask my concern.
“Oh it’s just a short cut to the campus. It’ll save us twenty minutes,” the driver said.
“OK,” I said in a voice that I hoped didn’t squeak.
We drove down the road for several minutes before the blond girl said, “Joey, it’s a full moon tonight, can we put the blindfold on?”
“Blindfold, what blindfold?” I said, no longer giving a rat’s ass whether my voice squeaked.
“That’s when Joey turns off the head lights and drives the van in the dark. It’s really fun,” the girl answered.
I made a vague and possibly slightly profane comment about her sanity and the prudence of such an activity.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “Joey’s real good at driving without lights. He almost always stays on the road. Show him Joey.”
With a push of the light switch, we were traveling at fifty miles per hour on a winding dirt road with nothing but moon light to guide the way. The word fear doesn’t begin to describe what I was feeling. Hopeless fear comes close.
For fifteen minutes we bounced and turned in the darkness. Sporadically, I was able to glimpse a bit of the road but, for the most part, all I could see was the moon and an occasional star peeking through the cloud covered sky.
Finally we came to a paved road and Joey turned right which, if my y chromosome powered sense of direction was active, should point us towards the Pitt campus. Twenty minutes later the van screeched to a stop and the blond girl opened the door. I looked out and, much to my surprise, saw the Pitt dorms looming to the side.
“Here you go, Sweetie,” she said.
As I grabbed my duffle bag and crawled out of the van she added, “We’re going to Florida. You can come along if you want. It’ll be fun. I promise.”
“No, I don’t think so. I’d rather live.”
She giggled, blew me a kiss and shut the door as the van pulled away. I’d learned my lesson. That was the last time that I left Edinboro after 6:00 and I never got into another van.
So, as all you young men and women head off to college where you’ll spend your spare time keeping in touch with friends and family using FaceTime and texting, remember those of us who went before and survived. We almost didn’t.