EUGENE, Oregon – Me and motel rooms…
I am writing this from one of those non-descript inns that circle college campuses like wagon trains. The mini-fridge is making howling sounds, which is really nothing compared to what’s going on in my head right now.
“Go Ducks!” they like to say up here.
And so he did.
I don’t cry openly any more. Too old for that. I prefer to melt from the inside out, like a big Irish atomic reactor.
I mask any tension I’m feeling by snapping at the people I love unnecessarily, a little life trick I picked up from my late wife Posh.
“Dad’s very fragile right now,” my daughter Rapunzel explains.
All good, trust me. Smartacus is ready as a race car. I noticed his broadening shoulders the other day at home, as he stood at the sink washing dishes, and I thought, “Who is this man? And why did he suddenly decide to wash a dish?”
Now Smartacus has landed in this Utopia of green and yellow and orange. He’s the last of his friends to leave for college, so deep into September that the trees are turning.
O golden month! How high thy gold is heaped!
You remember fall, right? They do it pretty well up here – the entire town turning into a giant Halloween extravaganza. I like it here — more tractors than Teslas. Best of all, the rivers framed by the famously lush Oregon grass.
“So, so exciting,” one of the Chardonnay Moms texts Smartacus. “Go get ’em, honey!”
“Damn, I wish I was you right now,” I tell him.
For this, he is fully prepared. His shower kit contains Abercrombie & Fitch cologne and a boat load of Tums. Might’ve been some toothpaste in there, too, who knows.
His sisters handled many of the details. I just got him here, though there were a lot of preliminary steps to clear — tutors…teachers…test prep…applications…portals…passwords…fees…health records – and finally a five-figure fall tuition.
Once we arrived, with a carload of useless stuff, we had to immediately run out to buy more useless stuff, at the Store of Useless Stuff, a busy box container operation in nearby Springfield.
Top of the list? Sheets, which were ordered online and didn’t arrive on time. I suggested something with baseballs and footballs, or Bart Simpson.
Rapunzel snagged the last set of XL’s on the shelf, with what appears to be squiggles on them, some form of protozoa. A good look. The duvet cover is overly plump, a big Egyptian cotton trampoline.
Of course, the dorm mini-fridge they bought is too big (as predicted), and nobody from dorm operations “lofted” the bed (as requested).
Lofting is the equivalent of putting a bed up on stilts, so as to create useable space beneath — a critical maneuver to maximize dorm space.
Meanwhile, move-in day turned out to be a car-line catastrophe — the total frantic wad of chaos everybody had feared. The University of Oregon usually nails such logistical challenges, but they muffed the dorm-key distribution big time. Folks were 3-4 hours in the car line.
Many parents liked it, for it gave them a few bonus hours with the kids. But the kids were anxious, and there was a class picture pending. Some made the mad dash from cars to fetch their room keys in person. Eugene was barely big enough to contain all the angst.
Onward, you Little Einsteins! Go Ducks!
Two days later, everyone is pretty much moved in, and there’s a home football game tonight, in that spaceship stadium across the creek. Everything looks like a spaceship here. In many ways, this is the sportiest school in the nation.
Everyone’s a zombie till the Ducks win, and usually they win, at which point mayhem ensues. Good, joyous, raucous stuff. Cymbals and car horns…it’s almost Seussian. In one win, they celebrate all the good things they missed a year ago.
Sure enough, this fall term is fraught. The kids have been in near-isolation for 18 months, and now find themselves is this social whirlpool, a little gobsmacked by it all, many struggling to adjust.
The parents feel it too, having spent a lockdown year with them around the house.
Parents can’t help remembering holding their hand on the way to first grade, wondering how they’d do amid all the newness. Same feeling. Except now they’re pulling to let go.
The good news: Somewhere in this scrum of imperfect strangers are a handful of funny friends who will last Smartacus a lifetime. Sometimes, they change your life.
In Rapunzel’s case, she met a guy during freshman year – the rugby-playing rocket scientist. A dozen years later, on move-in day in Eugene, Oregon, he lifted Smartacus’ mini-fridge over his head like Zeus, as two stoners in a truck pulled in next to us and scooched our bumper.
See, you meet all kinds at a great university. Some brilliant, some ordinary, some somber, some kooky. And those are just the professors.
The undergrads are a pretty interesting bunch too.
And under a harvest moon, we now leave this freshman class, who grew too fast, too soon. We leave them with their precious phones, and their too new shoes. Our voices quaver, our eyes leak.
“Just my allergies,” I tell Smartacus.
“You don’t have allergies, Dad.”
“I do now,” I say.
We deposit them here, these sons and daughters of America, at the mercy of their dreams, their anxieties and their kind and open hearts.
Ouch, these thunderstorms of the soul.
Yet, how high thy gold is heaped.
Next: Wheels up, heading home.
Helen Hunt Jackson penned the lovely old poem “September,” from which “they gold is heaped” is borrowed here. I pretty much penned the rest. I mean, how do you sum up 18-years of parenting, with a kid who’s as much a sidekick as a son? Did the best I could. Damn allergies.