Excerpt: 'Generally Speaking'

With four children and an Army salary, my parents were saving every dime they had for our college education. The trendy pleated skirts from Neiman Marcus were out of the question. Nobody asked me to the prom. In fact, I didn't have a single date that last year of high school. For some girls, that would have been a tragedy. I decided to concentrate on my classes. And I read a lot for fun, mostly biography, which I'd enjoyed since grade school, then branched into Ayn Rand and Dostoyevsky.

We had already decided that I would attend my mother's alma mater, Southwestern at Memphis, a small co-ed liberal arts college founded by the Presbyterian Church in 1843. My mother's family had a long association with the school. Both aunts and one uncle had attended, and my grandfather had taught math and coached football there. Another advantage of attending Southwestern was I could live with one of my grand-mothers. Daddy had promised all the children four years of college, but after that, as he always reminded us, "You graduate from college in four years, get a job, pack your bags, and live on your own. You'll always be welcome home for brief, pleasant visits." His emphasis was on brief. That was the Army colonel speaking.

The start of my freshman year in August 1965 coincided with the true beginning of the "sixties," the social cataclysm that shook the Western world for the next decade. Even though Southwestern was a Southern campus where weekly chapel attendance was mandatory, it was viewed as liberal in comparison with the local state college. Anti-Vietnam War demonstrations and protests over dorm rules and fraternity and sorority culture became commonplace during my college years. But in Memphis, retaining its Old South civility, these events lacked the strident tone or violence found on larger, more radical campuses. And many of the students simply remained aloof, preferring traditional college pursuits and confining their probing of deeper issues such as the civil rights movement or the war in Vietnam to intellectual expression, rather than taking the debate to the streets.

Although I joined the Kappa Delta sorority, I was hardly a leader: My most memorable responsibility was keeping the Coke machine filled; somebody else even emptied the dimes and delivered them to the vendor. I eventually opted for a philosophy major because it was interesting and permitted the most electives. And my father was dubious: "Just exactly what kind of job do you plan to do with that degree, Claudia?" That was hard to answer, but I had come to enjoy acquiring and synthesizing diverse knowledge for its own sake, valuable traits for a future Army intelligence officer. My big treat each month was taking myself to McDonald's, where I could afford two out of three items: a small burger, small fries, or a small Coke.

Join the Discussion
blog comments powered by Disqus
You Might Also Like...