(The more literate of you may have noticed I ripped on the title of my favorite novel.)

No one but me was there — Lonesome George.  Sometimes people ask me how I got up here in Massachusetts; sometimes they don’t but I tell them anyway. Here it comes.

The short answer is, by bus. The long answer, the rationale, the why?, is harder to explain.

It was one of three things: heritage, a winsome sense of adventure, and/or a bad sense of direction.

The heritage thing: Necco wafers were omnipresent during my youth. My Mother sometimes talked about enjoying the enticing whiffs circulating from the Necco factory near their apartment on Landsdowne Street in Cambridge, where my Father was studying radar before deployment to Europe in WWII. Maybe my sugar craving, and my existence, originated there.

A winsome sense of adventure: I had a decent high school record, but was uncertain about the future. I knew I could get into University of Texas, where my brother was, or LSU, my parents’ alma mater, even applying in August. But I had an inkling about leaving home, going far away, but not past New York. (I had been to New York City on a Boy Scout Jamboree at thirteen.) I scanned a catalog of Catholic Colleges and Universities, and chose Notre Dame, Boston College, and St. Louis University, and sent for their catalogs.

Dad said don’t bother applying (at $10 per application), I won’t qualify for financial aid, they won’t count the fact that he had eleven children (at that time). Mom said if anybody can get a scholarship, he can. (Dad had told me a few years earlier he was making thirteen thousand a year.)

I liked the idea of St. Louis because the Cardinals were my favorite baseball team, and their Triple A affiliate was in nearby Houston. But I didn’t like SLU’s modernistic catalog – no capital letters in their brochure! – and I didn’t apply.

Notre Dame’s acceptance letter offered no financial aid. ND was a seller’s market – maybe eight hundred applicants for twenty-five scholarships. No deal for me.

Boston College was a buyer’s market, and offered a full tuition scholarship. Tuition was on the rise, to $2000 a year. Everyone on my freshman dorm floor was on scholarship.

When I received the acceptance letter, I remember my face turning ashen. Mom had second thoughts and said, let’s talk about this, son. “You’ll go up there and marry a Yankee, and never come home!” Dad had second thoughts and said, take it, son! My face stayed ashen for several days, and then…

The bad sense of direction: I did well in most subjects, the one major exception being geography. Now I looked at a map and discovered: Boston is north of New York! Do I really want to go that far away? Pride concealed fear, and we checked on tickets: $200 round trip by air, $100 by bus. $200 got me two round trips by bus, and I could get home for Christmas. Also, I could catch the bus right in my hometown. (I was an experienced bus traveler, having gone with my older brother the three hundred mile trip between home and Mom’s farm in Louisiana, when he was six and I was five – with instructions to the driver to leave us at some intersection where an Aunt or Uncle would be waiting.) Very early Friday morning: Bon Highway!

First regret: As the bus passed New Orleans Friday evening and approached Slidell, on the coast near the Mississippi border, a weather advisory on the bus radio warned that Hurricane Carla was scheduled to hit Slidell the next day.

Second regret: Carla took a turn for the worst, and blasted my Texas hometown on Saturday.

Third regret: Late night in Charleston, South Carolina, the bus is pulling out around two a.m., and I say to the driver, that’s my foot locker on the cart heading into the station. He replied a lot of foot lockers look alike.

First blessing, Fourth regret: I arrive in Boston, met by Mom’s second cousin who lives nearby, but foot locker is in parts unknown.

Fifth regret: Mom’s cousin asks Bostonians where is Boston College, or Chestnut Hill? No one seems to know. But we get there for check-in early Sunday afternoon.

Sixth regret: Carla destroyed communication lines to hometown. Somehow telegram didn’t reach me, and I have no contact until Thursday. Anxiously and homesickly, I regrettably wish something bad happened so that I will be summoned home. Not so. Our old frame house survived with only small shingle damage, but Dad helped with reclamation efforts in the lower areas near the water – the storm surge took out bricks of some houses, a roof was off and a cow was in another house, snakes all around. One resident asked Dad to empty his putrid freezer; Dad responded by suggesting the owner should be able to take care of that task himself. (That neighborhood is now a bird sanctuary.)

Second blessing: Peg Cowhig (Aunt of one of my high school classmates) picks me up to acquire foot locker from bus station the next week. (They say it’s been there since Sunday.) She also takes me to Raymond’s discount store, where I acquire a reversible ski jacket for $8.99, which lasted about thirty years. Peg is from Dorchester in Boston, and her four brothers were football players who followed legendary Coach Frank Leahy from Fordham to Boston College to Notre Dame. The only two people in my hometown who had ever heard of Boston College were Jim Cowhig (Fordham) and my pastor, Father Kennedy, who knew of a renowned BC librarian, Father Connolly, also from Ireland.

First encounter with a Yankee male: The most refreshing shower of my life was Sunday evening, after my sixty-hour bus ride. Only one other dorm mate was in the communal shower at the time. He wasn’t tall, but was built like a bear. At our welcome meeting, we had heard much about the football team and legacy at BC, former national champions, so I opened the conversation with, “You must be one of them football players?” His response was, “Padnme?” I responded, “What did you say?” He: “Padnme?” Me: “I said, what did you say?” He: “Padnme?” Me: “Pardon me?” He: “Padnme?”

First encounter with a Yankee female: Trying to be cool at first freshman mixer: “What is your name?” She: “Kathy McCaaaaathy.” Me: “Kathy McKathy?” She: “No – McCaaaaahthy. McCaaaaaaaaahthy!” Me. “Kathy McCarthy?” She, giggling: “McCarthy! Ha! Ha!” I hadn’t heard pahk yah cah in Hahvahd Yahd yet. Somehow these natives seem to get by on a twenty-five letter alphabet.

The next lesson (after geography) was meteorology – specifically, weather. I soon learned that snow was merely precipitation, thus erasing my fears that the shoulder-high snowfalls I had seen on tv were not permanent residents in the winter scene. The first snowfall, early, floated down gently, majestically, around October 17, and was gone by next day. I survived the first semester.

Home for Christmas, I learned the family could survive without me – a tremendous disappointment! Mom said I don’t have to return north if I don’t want to – I replied with the only direct lie I remember ever telling her (the others were mere diversions or misdirections) – “Oh, yes, I want to get back up there.”

Adaptation became progressively better, then worse, then better, then worse, mostly due to encounters with more members of the northern female species. And then… and then… and then, nearing the end of junior year… the ultimate blessing… Maureen Reilly.

Whatever it was – gentle, quiet, unassuming – I’m not exactly a good listener, but whatever she said went straight to my soul. She was one of the best listeners ever, and she heard between the words. I may have been recounting the “forty-eight dozen donuts” family legend, and maybe she launched a pre-emptive strike. She happened to work at a bakery, and she started bringing donuts when we would meet in the cafeteria! I didn’t have the heart to tell her that, back home, all donuts were light and fluffy and sugar-coated. She brought northern heavy cakey donuts, plain, powdered, cinnamoned, some barely glazed with sugar. The thought counted more than the calories. I ate them anyway, so she wouldn’t know.

Senior year, I was very happy for the northern excursion.

In subsequent years, I learned the sixty-hour voyage I started with on the local bus could be reduced to fifty-two hours on the express. My college round-tripping history included six by bus, one by air (for one Christmas, when I wasn’t feeling well), one by train (for fun), another by air during ROTC summer camp (a weekend leave for my older brother’s wedding), and one by car senior year, for Easter (with three students from nearby Emmanuel College, one of whom had just moved into my hometown with her family, and another of whom owned the car).

In fairly recent years, I heard from younger siblings that Dad’s encouragement, “Take it, son!” was based on a calculation – with my leaving home, he wouldn’t have to enlarge the house for the arrival of the new brother, who had just attended my high school graduation in utero.

But I still can’t figure out, how did Mom know? She was wrong that I would “never come home” – many road trip adventures with the family from the north in future posts; but she was outright right about “marry a Yankee.” The best compliment I ever received from Dad, after many letters of chagrin at many stumbling, bumbling, and fumbling attempts at impressing the northern female, when he came north for graduation and met Maureen, was: “You learned more than I thought you would in college.”

Advertisements