FRESHMAN YEAR —1967-1968 Chapter 1—"The Times They Are A'Changin"
I do not like beginnings.
On the first day of first grade, the teacher sent me to the corner for blowing a sheet of paper around the table I shared with three other girls. They started it. The teacher caught me. Standing in the corner, I wet my pants.
On the first day of fifth grade, I tripped up the stairs to school, skinning both my knees. The boy I loved because we shared the same initials laughed at me.
At the beginning of middle school, I got my first period. The blood soaked through my skirt.
At the beginning of high school, a friend of mine died after falling off a horse. Three months later, President Kennedy was assassinated.
I really do not like beginnings.
It was September, 1967. I stood at the window in my dorm room at Lake Forest College, thirty miles north of Chicago, and watched my mom and dad in the parking lot below.
I wiped my eyes with the Kleenex my mom gave me moments before, “Always use Kleenex brand. No cheap imitation will do,” she said. My mom had a way with metaphors. She was telling me to be my best and only accept the best.
My dad took my hands. “Don’t forget to be yourself,” he said. Dad was direct. He didn’t need metaphors. He let go my hands to brush the bangs out of my eyes. Then he kissed my forehead.
As I watched them drive away, I wanted the beginning to be over, to have it be the middle, to know what the end would be.
The benefit of having a dad who taught religion at a small college affiliated with the Presbyterian Church was that I got free tuition at any Presbyterian college in the country. I chose Lake Forest College because of the name. It sounded like the perfect place to spend the next four years of my life—a half-mile from Lake Michigan on a hundred-acre campus covered with a forest of trees. Being close to Chicago was also a war protester’s dream, and I opposed the war in Vietnam.
More importantly, Lake Forest College was 400 miles away from home and I desperately needed to get away from home. I loved my mom and dad but I had to figure out who I was.
Before I arrived, my roommate came and went, leaving the ashtray on the desk full of cigarette butts. I was on my own to find my way across campus to registration. I took a deep breath, left my dorm and headed to the tables on the patio outside of the student center, known as Commons. Orientation week. Four days of discussions, testing, and getting to know what college was about.
I got in the line marked H-M. “Rebecca Jamison,” I told the upperclassman sitting at the registration table. He searched through the box, gave me a nametag and an information packet, the name of my advisor on the front—Tom Garson, Sociology Department.
“You’re lucky,” the upperclassman said, as he passed me the packet. “Garson’s the best.” I released the breath I had been holding.
“Great. I need all the help I can get.” I pushed the bangs out of my eyes. I started growing them out after high school but they weren’t long enough to stay tucked behind my ears. In Teen Idol magazine Patti Boyd, George Harrison’s wife, said it was time for her to develop a more mature look so she was growing out her bangs. If it was good enough for a Beatle wife, it was good enough for me.
He pushed the hair out of his eyes too and said with a grin, “Don’t worry, you’ll figure it out.”
“Thanks.” I turned to walk away. “By the way.” I turned back but he was already assisting the next person in line. For some reason, I wanted him to know I go by Becky.
Our orientation group met in the shade of a sprawling oak tree on the lawn outside of Commons. Dr. Tom Garson wore blue jeans and a corduroy sports coat. His long wavy hair covered his ears, a dark out-of-control mustache covered his top lip. Garson looked us over, perused the nametags we wore, glancing down at his advisement list matching names to faces.
He finally said, “I’m Tom Garson, Sociology Department. Please call me Tom. Nothing formal here. We will spend the next four days getting to know each other, figuring out class schedules, talking about what college means and discussing the life-altering implications of our Freshman book, Catch-22.” He held up the book.
I knew it well, having read it over the summer. Best book I ever read and the first book that made me laugh out loud.
“We’ll start discussing it tomorrow. Today, three questions. Who are you? What event in high school shaped your life philosophy the most? Why did you choose Lake Forest?”
Garson turned to me. “You first.”
Of course. I never won raffles or lotteries or door prizes. But when it came to the stuff you didn’t want to win, like going first, I always did.
I took a deep breath. I didn’t want to blow it. “I’m Becky Jamison from Danville, Kentucky. I chose Lake Forest College because I loved the name and I love Chicago.” I didn’t want to reveal that I also wanted to go far away from home to escape my dad’s reputation. In addition to teaching religion, he was a minister and gave the ‘don’t have sex until marriage’ talks at high schools all over Kentucky.
“Most significant event?” Garson asked.
“Freshman year in high school. President Kennedy’s assassination. It was so unexpected. It transformed the way I viewed the world.”
“In what way?”
“JFK energized the country. I fell in love with him and everything he stood for, particularly the part about giving back to the world. The world seemed pretty bleak after he died.”
A guy sitting across from me rolled his eyes.
Garson went around the group asking questions. Most significant event? Getting elected cheerleader. Winning the state baseball championship. Being valedictorian. Flunking out of Phillips Exeter and going to public school.
“You’re next, Joe.” Garson pointed to that guy across from me, dressed like the athletes did on game day in high school—loafers with no socks, blue casual pants, a long-sleeve dress shirt open at the collar, sleeves rolled up to the elbow, a tie with the knot loosened.
After he introduced himself as Joe Scott, I couldn’t help thinking that his last name could be his first. Joe Scott. Scott Joe. Like Benedict Arnold. Forever after I thought of him as Joe Scott Joe.
Joe Scott Joe pulled a Marlboro out of the hard pack he kept in the pocket of his shirt and lit it. He inhaled, exhaled dramatically. “The summer before my junior year I went to Martha’s Vineyard for vacation and developed a true appreciation of alcoholic beverages. I guess you could say my first drunk was the most significant event in my life.” I rolled my eyes back at him. I detested his type
He went on. “I’m here because of Garson’s name on my registration packet.” Joe Scott Joe laughed. We didn’t “Seriously, I figure if I stay in college I won’t have to go to Vietnam. Not that I’m against the war. I’ll leave protesting to the long hairs. I don’t want to get hurt or killed.”
“If you’re not willing to do something to stop it, why shouldn’t you have to go?” Garson asked.
Joe Scott Joe didn’t respond. Instead, he looked over at the one person who hadn’t talked yet, a guy with a red bandana around his head, wearing an army jacket, sitting up against a tree, his arms wrapped around his legs, eyes lowered. On his left arm was a hook where his hand should be. His orientation packet sat on the ground beside him. “You against the tree. Your turn,” Joe Scott Joe said. “By the way, you ever kill anybody with that hook?”
The guy slowly unwrapped his arms from his legs and stood up, leaving his orientation packet on the ground. He glanced around, stepped over Joe Scott Joe and walked through the group, patting Garson on the shoulder with his good hand as he passed. He never looked back.
As he walked away, Garson said, “Dennis McKinney, Vietnam veteran.”
“Shit. He probably did kill someone.” Joe Scott Joe grinned as he put out his cigarette on the ground and left the butt there.
“Shut up, Scott,” one of the guys in the group murmured. I wish I had said it.
Joe Scott Joe said, “Well, he shouldn’t have gone to Vietnam.”
“Maybe he didn’t have a fucking choice,” Garson said to no one in particular.
My dad never cussed. He never wore blue jeans. And no student ever called him by his first name. Times were changing. I looked at Garson. He caught my eye and smiled. I liked him already.
After the meeting ended, I watched Dennis McKinney, Vietnam veteran, walk away until he went into one of the two men’s dorms next to Commons. Joe Scott Joe walked toward the same dorm, his arm draped around a girl, an unlit cigarette in his mouth.
The next day we took placement tests in Math and English and registered for classes. I wrote a check for $96 at the bookstore in the basement of Commons for my books, a college pennant and a sweatshirt. Walking back to my dorm, carrying two bags of books, it happened.
Just past where our orientation group gathered, halfway to my dorm, a guy jumped out of a tree in front of me. He somersaulted to his feet, rubbed the leaves and dirt off his brown leather jacket with the Kawasaki patch on the sleeve and said, “Under that baggy shirt is a body I would love to get to know.”
If my two hands had not been carrying bags of books, I would have grabbed my shirt to hide whatever was under it. Nothing would ever be the same again.
His eyes, like magnets, focused on mine. Mine, like metal, couldn’t pull away.
“Tonight. Commons. Snack Bar. 7:30,” he said and walked away. He must have sensed me watching him because he turned back, grinned and nodded his head.
My roommate thought I was crazy. “You don’t even know his name,” she said.
So why did I go? Throughout high school, my pillow stayed damp from crying every night wishing someone, anyone, would ask me out. Here was my chance.
When I arrived at the snack bar, he was sitting at a table half way across the room, leaning back in his chair, his arms crossed over the brown leather jacket, a slight grin on his face. When he saw me, the grin turned into a smile. He waved me over. “I don’t know if you like éclairs or not, but I got you one. And a coke.”
“I’m pretty much a fan of anything sweet,” I said. The éclair he gave me changed my life.
I was always easily changed. When the Beatles came to America, my life changed. When I worked at a camp for children with disabilities the summer before my senior year in high school, my life changed. When I was selected with twenty-four other young people in Kentucky to develop a conference on juvenile delinquency, my life changed. My life changing over an éclair wasn’t out of the question.
Do I believe in love at first sight? Yes, it happened for me that night in 1967 in the snack bar of a small liberal arts college north of Chicago. Maybe this beginning would turn out differently.
He reached his hand over the top of the table. “Hi, I’m Jeff Ledford.”
Never letting his eyes leave mine, Jeff said, “I’m a second semester junior, transferred from Northeastern in Boston.”
“Why did you transfer?” I took a bite of the éclair, licking off the cream that squirted out the other end.
“I’m going to tell you, but first you have to promise you won’t leave. Promise you’ll hear me out.”
“Promise,” I gave him the scout salute, although I never was a Girl Scout. I wanted to join in fifth grade because I thought the scarves were cool. The boy next door, who I vowed to marry when I was older, told me he hated girls in Girl Scouts, so that was the end of that.
“I was kicked out of Northeastern University on a drug charge.”
I inhaled sharply. I didn’t know much about drugs. In high school, while drinking a five-cent cherry coke at the downtown drugstore, a friend warned me to watch out for cigarettes with twisted ends. My dad warned me to watch out for LSD and broken chromosomes. I believed them, but after the ‘Summer of Love,’ when hippies flooded San Francisco, I was curious.
I thought about those twisted ended cigarettes and broken chromosomes. Jeff sensed my uneasiness, reached over and took my hand, sticky from the éclair and oozing cream. “I promise you’ll like me by the time I’m done.” I was willing to believe him. Something about those eyes. I heard the eyes were the windows to the soul.
Jeff continued. “I’m not a doper or a hippie. It was a freak thing. I was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
“What am I doing sitting here eating an éclair with a guy who got kicked out of college on a dope charge?” This éclair affair was getting out of control.
He leaned back in his chair again, crossed his arms over his brown leather jacket. “Just passing time, I guess.” He grinned. “Tell me something about you that would make me want to turn and run like you wanted to when I told you about being kicked out of college.”
“My dad’s a minister.”
Jeff chuckled and at that exact moment I knew I was in big trouble. I had bad luck with guys in high school. Partly it was my dad’s ‘don’t have sex until marriage’ speeches. Partly it was just my lack of luck.
My first love was my older brother’s best friend. I drove by his house a couple times a day hoping to see him. I never did. My love was unrequited. After he graduated from high school he joined up. He died in Vietnam when I was a senior.
I liked a guy from my church youth group. We went out a couple times but then he moved to Virginia.
There was the guy I met at that camp for children with disabilities that changed my life. Don’t know if it was the camp or him. He was the first guy I kissed. As luck would have it, he lived eighty miles away.
I knew nothing more about guys.
“Must have been hard being a preacher’s kid,” he said.
“Not that hard. He was mostly a college professor. Still is. He teaches religion at a small college back home in Kentucky.” I didn’t tell Jeff about my dad’s speeches.
“So, Miss Jamison. Anything else I need to know about you?” Jeff took a bite of his éclair and stared at me as he very slowly licked the cream that squirted out the end. My stomach took a flip.
“I’ve never done drugs, never really tasted alcohol. I graduated first in my class. And I’m not trying to hide anything under this shirt. That’s about it but if you need to know something else, ask away.” I brushed the bangs out of my eyes wishing I hadn’t said any of that.
“That’s all I need to know.”
I didn’t listen to myself and kept talking. “My parents are teetotalers. Dad always told me alcohol tasted like water left in the bottom of a boat for three days. The only alcohol I ever tasted was from a tiny bottle my dad got on an airplane. I agreed with the boat thing.”
Jeff leaned back in his chair and looked me over. “You are unbelievable.”
“Yeah, I know.” I finished my éclair and reached over to the adjacent table for some napkins. I wiped the cream off my lips and fingers and took a drink of coke.
“Why did you come?” He stared deeper into my eyes. It was his eyes. Hypnotic. They immobilized me.
I wasn’t very well going to say that. When I said, “Maybe it’s your eyes,” I wanted the ground to open up and swallow me whole. “Anyhow, Jeff, I’m not your type. I better go.” I got up to leave.
“I haven’t got a type.” Jeff got up from the table and walked towards me.
I pushed back my bangs again. “Growing out my bangs since graduation. My parents hate hair in the face. I guess you could call it my first, but hopefully not my last, bit of family rebellion. If they don’t grow out soon, I swear I’m going to cut them. They’re driving me crazy.”
Jeff took my chin in one hand, licked the fingers on his other, slicked back my bangs and still looking me in the eyes said, “I’ll see you around.”
U.S. Soldier Body Count: 16,461