This Day in History

FRESHMAN WEEK

September 20th

1963 — St. Cloud State College. Beginning of fall quarter. I was back home in Minnesota, on military leave, having just spent 13 months on Kodiak Island. Two of my hometown friends, Dale and Rick, were students at St. Cloud. Dale was starting his 3rd year in college, Rick his 2nd, and I was just finishing 2 years in the Navy. They had both signed up as counselors, or guides, for freshman week. Their duties were to show an assigned group of freshman around, answer questions, and help them acclimate to the campus and college life. Dale did it because he liked nothing better than pontificating in front of an assembly of confused people. (He went on to become a teacher.) Rick thought it would be a great way of meeting freshman girls.

At their suggestion I showed up for Freshman Week. There were indoctrination events and other scheduled activities such as dances and concerts. Since I had nothing better to do I thought why not. There also would be girls and I had just spent 13 months in a place where there were none. Dale lived off campus so I could sleep on his couch.

It was determined the best course of action was for me to pretend that I was an incoming freshman. That seemed reasonably innocent enough. To make it more plausible, Rick suggested I have a major, or at least be thinking about one. A group discussion ensued. I opted for Animal Husbandry. It was successfully argued it might not be the best choice to impress girls. (I’m still not so sure, but…) I think we landed on something safe, like English or History. Next I needed a list of courses I was taking that fall. Dale and Rick picked them for me, then got into an argument over which professors I should take them from, who was the best. I had to point out that, “Ah guys, I’m not actually taking these classes.”

Along with about a dozen or more real freshman, I followed Rick around campus. He had fed me some questions to ask him so he could look wise and worldly, and me insightful. Now as harebrained as this scheme may seem, it worked. I was a very shy young man and nearly paralytic around the opposite sex, but having a phony persona, for some reason, gave me a newfound sense of confidence. I talked, to girls without worrying about being a klutz. With nothing at stake, being I was somebody else, it worked. I met a girl. Medium length brown hair, blue eyes, pretty, Linda was from Little Falls, Minnesota. She asked me my major and what classes I was taking. Prepared by Dale and Rick, I was able to respond. She was excited to find out we had some of the same classes. “We can study together!” She said. I said sure.

I was 19 at the time and going on 15 socially, so this turned out to a very innocent affair. Living in the moment, I played my role as a college student and all thoughts of the Navy vanished from my mind. Linda and I sat together at a concert in the auditorium in Stewart Hall. We saw a folk singing group, I think it might have been the Chad Mitchell Trio. We shared a chaste kiss in front of her dorm at the end of the evening.

Then reality set in. The start of classes coincided with my leave, and my ruse, ending. I had to report back to the Navy. My next place of residence would be a ship, not a college dorm. This cold realization made me revert back to form. My mind became paralyzed. I could not find my way to telling her the truth. The words, “Hey Linda, I’m really a swab jockey, not a college freshman,” sounded so preposterous they could not come out of my mouth. The distance from where she was in life to where I was going grew wider in my mind. And probably due to immaturity, some anger surfaced. Anger at having seen, briefly experienced, a life so unlike the one I had been living.

A year and a half earlier I had been in radio school. At the time President Kennedy gave a speech about those in the military being the cream of the American crop. To us the words rang hollow. We knew the reality of why we were there. Bad grades, trouble with the law, poverty, lack of any other options had landed us in the service. Some had joined for adventure and maybe a few out of patriotism. I remember more a sense of bitterness rather than pride in the barracks that day in response to JFK’s speech. We knew who we were. And we knew there was a life out there, a better life, than the one we were living.

Linda and I were in different worlds. I did not say goodbye to her, I simply disappeared. Dale took me to a highway where I stuck out my thumb to hitchhike back to my hometown. My parents would drive me to the airport, I’d fly to San Diego, and then report aboard the USS Jason. Accompanying me as I stood on the highway awaiting a ride were anger and resentment. The taste of that different world made it harder to go back to mine. St Cloud was a state college, not an institution where children of the privileged went. Yet there was such a wide disparity of privilege between what I had just experienced and where I was going. I think I may have even rationalized that I didn’t owe Linda anything, that’s why I had said nothing.

That divide still exists in America, even more pronounced now. There is a segment of the population resentful of those they see as privileged. Resentful of those who have had more breaks, have gone to college, and presumably in control. It was more than a little responsible for the results of the 2016 election. The American dream has eluded the grasp of many and they are angry, much as I was that day standing on the highway with my thumb out, of those they see as having it made. So they are more than willing to follow someone they think will stand up for them. Without agreeing, but out of experience, I do understand where they are coming from.

Several days after I left Dale saw Linda. She asked what happened to me, where was I. He told her the truth. I would have expected her to be angry, she wasn’t. She simply said, “Well, why didn’t he tell me?” It wouldn’t be my last blunder regarding the opposite sex. And so Linda, wherever you might be, on the remote chance you might see these words, I apologize for my silent retreat back to my side of the divide.

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Gary Jenneke

Gary Jenneke

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Writer, traveler, veteran, miscast accountant except for one interesting stint at a Communist cafe, retiree and blogger.