Going Back


I indicate that for her to do so is in my eyes perfectly permissible. (I do not add that if she grabs me by the collar, turns me around, and kicks me in the pants, that also would be perfectly permissible.) I take matches and offer a light before getting my own cigarettes. They are in their package. On Friday or Saturday nights they will be found in flat gold case snug in jacket pocket. There was never a weekend date of my college career when I was without jacket—and tie. On Saturday or Sunday afternoons students wore blue jeans, rolled up above white socks, and girls wore their fathers’ white business shirts, but such were not seen in class. Our great thick yearbook, The Badger , has numerous crowd shots of students going about the campus; not one is wearing jeans. All are wearing saddle shoes or loafers. How good-looking they are, how neat those shiny boys with short haircuts, how simply overwhelming those lovely, sweet girls in pleated skirt and blouse! So attractively clean-cut. People in the mass have never seemed in the intervening years between then and now to be so good-looking, not to me.

And now a girl who may have had campus equals in appearance, but no superiors, is getting into my car as I hold open the door. I go around the other side, take the wheel, drive about two hundred yards—and crash. A campus cop comes and gives a ticket to the other driver for being on my side of the road. An extremely bum rap. The accident wasn’t his fault, I told my roommate later. It certainly wasn’t my fault either. It was Miss Clark’s fault.

My car, which was registered in my mother’s name, had a dented fender. I called home. My father asked if I had been alone. I told him a fellow student was with me. He inquired about what today would be called the fellow student’s gender. I told him. That was bad, he said. I understood. The car was one of that middling percentage of America’s autos that were insured, and a young and single girl was the worst thing wanted around when your wife’s insured car gets into an accident. The girl’s lawyer points out that an injury impairs her chance to get married, and that means a good settlement and big future premiums for our family’s cars.

“But she wasn’t hurt,” I said.

You say,” my father snapped. “Call her up and find out for sure. Then call me back.” This showed the matter was really important. To send me to an out-of-town college at an annual expense, what with tuition, lodging, food, clothing, car, allowance of some twenty-five hundred dollars, was a matter of no moment—but long-distance calls were another story. They were strictly for big occasions. Some ceremony attended their placing, and serious discussions with operators. On Thanksgiving you could put in the call before noon and it might be late afternoon before the operator called to say your party was on the line. I have sometimes reflected in recent years that beyond casual profanity, music, proletarian-style attire, and long hair, here is the real dividing line between generations: Young people today think nothing of calling California—or even Prague.

My father’s demand was, as the first-graders of the day of that trifling accident would say when they got to college, nonnegotiable. I was going to have to nerve myself up to call the Delta Gamma house and ask for Louise Clark. (Miss Clark did have a first name, although no professor would ever use it, even as to them I was Mr. Smith.) She was always addressed as Weezie.

I dialed the Delta Gammas. A year or so earlier I had taken a shine to one of the girls there, Ginny, had called a few times for a date, and got instead the go-by. We always had a pleasant chat before she informed me that unfortunately she had made plans for the evening upon which I had requested the honor of her company. When, after graduation, The Badger arrived in the mail, I discovered that Ginny was the Delta Gamma president. And Weezie was vice president. There was a set-apart picture of them with the secretary and treasurer below the Delta Gamma group shot. My last contact with President Ginny was sometime before graduation when I was in one of the Quonsets, leftover Second World War Navy training quarters converted to an auxiliary library, and Ginny happened along and informed me that she was no longer just pinned but actually engaged. She was going to marry a doctor. “In ten years,” Ginny remarked, “we will be making seventeen thousand five hundred dollars a year.” I don’t know how she figured the exact amount. I remember the “we.”

When Weezie came to the phone, I told her that my father was very interested in the state of her health. She assured me she was entirely uninjured. That ended the matter.