Remembrance of Enrollment Past
"This is it," my mother said, announcing the obvious.
My father steered our '63 Ford station wagon off Haggard Avenue, through a red-brick gateway, and into the asphalt parking lot between Smith Dormitory and the Duke Building at Elon College. It was about 3 p.m. on the humid, overcast afternoon of Saturday, Sept. 11, 1965.
My old man parked our Ford in a space near the first side entrance to the dorm and set the emergency brake. The car next to us had the windows rolled down and the volume on the radio maxed out on the Temptations' "My Girl." Always a trifle superstitious, I took this as a positive sign, an omen that my sojourn in North Carolina wasn't going to be as unpleasant as I'd imagined.
Even so, I was justifiably apprehensive. Within the hour I would be truly on my own, and my senses were keened up to take in the stimuli suddenly assailing me.
I knew almost nothing about the South. I'd gleaned a few impressions from the Depression-era photographs in James Agee and Walker Evans' "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men" - the gaunt, rag-clad adults, the dilapidated plank houses, the shoeless children - and Edward R. Murrow's documentary "Harvest of Shame" in which an impoverished black child tells an interviewer that she wants to be a doctor when she grows up.
I half-suspected that white Southerners were a mob of racist, pea-brained, pork-fed yokels who did nothing but mistreat minorities and punch each other in the arm.
As I stepped from the car, my attention was drawn to a window on the third-floor of the dorm. A speaker cabinet was tilted against the screen, and Little Anthony and the Imperials' "Tears on My Pillow" was blaring across the parking lot.
My parents and I grabbed my scant luggage from the back of the station wagon and struggled into the first-floor lounge, where a student was dozing on a vinyl couch with the volume on a tiny transistor radio cranked up so loud I could make out the nasal whinings of the Showmen's "It Will Stand."
The lounge was crowded with families embracing and exchanging goodbyes, and the stairwell was jammed with parents and freshmen hurriedly hauling boxes and suitcases up to the second and third floors.
My parents and I made our way to Room 218 and quickly stowed away my few possessions and made up the bed. Then we sat around talking for a few nervous minutes.
"We've got another seven hours to drive today," my father said. "We'd better get started."
He shook my hand and told me to study hard, my mother hugged me and they were out the door.
A minute or so later I remembered that I'd left my Ray Charles album in the car. I hurried to the stairwell and yanked open the door just in time to hear my father say, "I guarantee you he'll drop out by Thanksgiving."
I allowed the door to drift shut, walked to the window at the end of the second floor and watched as our station wagon pulled up to the brick gate. The brake lights flashed on, the car paused and then the lights went out and our Ford pulled back onto Haggard Avenue and disappeared. They were gone.
I knew two things for certain - the first part of my life was over, and I wasn't going to drop out of college before Thanksgiving.
The fall semester at most colleges begins in August these days, and millions of college freshman are undergoing experiences similar to mine. Their senses are keened up to a barrage of fresh experiences - a new place to live, new people to meet, new lessons to learn. I hope they are excited as I was. I hope they feel as renewed.
I hope they realize that this is a discernable moment that will shape the rest of their lives.
Stephen Smith lives in Southern Pines. Contact him at email@example.com.
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