(This is part 13 of a multi-part series. If you wish to start at the beginning, click here)
Our 2014 maroon Honda Odyssey is loaded, but not really full. It shouldn’t be. mrs. gokstate has already made two trips and back Sunday to Manhattan, Kansas, her carefully arranged, procured, and packed items destined for Mr. Beans’ dorm room selected from countless hours of research and work this summer, if not the previous 18 years.
I’m exhausted. Just coming off a work shift and only bringing about 4 hours of knifed-sleep to this gunfight. My body feels like death and I wish to just go back to bed, but that gets pushed aside. The stakes are high. It’s the day we leave our disabled child at college.
He’s earned it. A final HS GPA pushed north of 4.2, an ACT in the top 5 percent (multiple digits higher than his mom or dad), a portfolio of scholarships that will drive the final tuition bill down to a fourth of what we thought it would take to attend.
This is different, though. He’s not been left to fend for himself before. There’s construction all over turning electric wheelchair friendly sidewalks into dead ends and drop-offs. COVID has turned a normally friendly atmosphere into tense masked anonymity. Rules are strict, enforced, and changing on the fly. A bevy of emails is flooding the inbox of his newly purchased laptop with hastily cobbled plans—attend here, zoom there, classes changing to another building. Read this, do that. It doesn’t make sense to us as parents, let alone an 18 year-old trying to handle the sensory overload of newness.
The dining center is closed. It was under renovation but COVID broke out among the workers. There’s another one close by. It’s closed on Sunday. There’s another one, but it’s on the other side of campus. There’s a bus schedule. The new map just came out this week. It goes all over the city. The colored map is dizzying and the print is small.
Most of the unloading is done, but then comes a flurry of instructions from us as well: “This is how you program your Roku,” “I’m putting cortisone cream here. Use it for mild rashes.” “This is how you can put your ice tray in your dorm freezer with one hand.” “Here’s how to open a bottle one-handed. Nope that didn’t work.” “Here’s how to plug your wheelchair in. Do it every night. Yes, it’s hard. Go slow, Line up the prongs like this.” We’re making a lot up on the spot. The wireless printer won’t connect to the Wi-fi. We find a tech support number and advice is dispensed. It still won’t work. We make an appointment for help.
It’s all starting to sink in….for all of us. We’ve been talking, planning, joking, serious about it, but it’s different when it finally arrives. Every piece of information now seems important. Tomorrow, it’s all on him.
We’ve been at it for several hours and without food. Pumpkin Pancakes (our daughter) and I volunteer to hit the McDonald’s drive-thru. We set out and I remember the route. Pass by the Taco Bell which was always the latest eatery open when I was here years ago. I can hear the echo of an old fraternity brother, Diego (“Boo”) calling it “Toxic Hell, Make a Run for the Toilet.” Making the same joke 2-3 years later, he could still usually elicit a laugh from someone in the room.
We give our order and ease around to the pickup window of the MCD. And then the ghosts flood in a little more. Pumpkin Pancakes jokes how we’re protected from “chin COVID” where the mask currently resides of the worker who hands us the bags. I laugh, but I’m also looking over to the parking spaces across from the window. 28 years ago, I was sitting in that space in the MR2 on my first day here.
I feel like that scene in the beginning of Saving Private Ryan where the camera zooms in on the eyes of Old Matt Damon as the scene dissolves into the D-Day beaches of Normandy and the Higgins boat landings.
Arrived on campus without too much stuff. I was pre-warned I’d be sharing a room with two other guys in the fraternity. Dad came with the bulkier stuff in his Jeep Cherokee. The Mr2 held some clothes, a desktop tower, and a CD changer that barely fit in the trunk. I met my roommates and learned one of them was a senior who managed to also be the owner of the house dog, a Dalmatian (now we are 4 to a room). The room was small, but I had a little desk space, shelf and closet to my belongings. Dad gave me a brisk hug, a look of confidence, and some good words to call him for whatever was needed. He left.
Unpacked some clothes and wandered down the hallway to another room. There were about 4 guys huddled around someone’s PC playing a popular 90’s golf game called “Links.” I enjoyed a good computer game and settled in to watch as introductions were made. New faces came and went. A small cooler of beer was present and it was offered to anyone who wanted one. Drinking beer at 11am was a new experience for me.
Got hungry after a while and the house kitchen was not yet open. Feeling a bit on ‘new person overload,’ so I hopped in the MR2 and went to the local McDonald’s.
I didn’t want to eat in front of others, so pulled in the parking space right after the pickup window and sat there. Seemed surreal. Meeting more new people in 2 hours than I usually did in 6 months, wondering what this place would be like. Would I fit in? Would I make friends? Would I do well enough in classes to achieve career goals? This fledgling bird was out of the housenest, and not expected to come back a failure.
Young and shy, everything was a bit overwhelming. It took that first semester to find a groove and get comfortable. Although inefficient to drive 2 ½ hours to do laundry, I found it refreshing to pack up the MR2 on free weekends, take a couple loads, devour some home-cooking, and absorb some family love, especially from Mom. These retreats spaced out as time went on (I didn’t even come home the second summer), but I needed the MR2 to make those “gasolined getaways.”
Once, during that fall, all of us freshman fraternity pledges had to scatter from the house for a weekend “sneak” retreat. The game was played like this—if senior members “captured” any of us, we would be held for beer ransoms, or (likely what the older members really wanted anyway) to have to take them with us on our trip (we went to OSU in Stillwater). We were told to pack our bags early in the week, because once the word got out, we were homeless until we left. The word “spilled” the Thursday before we left and I had to take the MR2 anywhere to escape. I managed to grab some food that afternoon and head out to a rural stretch outside of town where I was certain no one would notice me. The MR2 was my fortress of solitude and the Konza Prairie outside Manhattan looked particularly striking that fall.
The MR2 made for a pretty serviceable pack mule, if one was creative. I utilized every space in it (trunk, frunk, passenger seat) to jam clothes, computer, printer, laundry basket for shuttle to and from K-State. Loaded down, the car could still make pretty good speed (65mph limits at the time on I-70) as long as the terrain was level. Going uphill required a little forethought, or Two would struggle to keep above 60mph. Fine in a four-lane interstate, but testy to drivers behind me on the two-lane stretches.
It was dead reliable though. Being car maintenance ignorant, it got very little love. Oil changes? Usually, but somewhere past the time suggested by the sticker in the corner of the windshield. Tires? Once or twice. New battery? I think so. It only let me down once, and it tried to give me plenty of warning before doing so. Early sophomore year: I was making a weekend getaway to Chicago to see a high school friend at his university. Flights to Chicago were cheap out of KC. A fraternity brother also headed to Chicago that weekend caught wind of my travel plans and hopped a ride in the MR2 with me. Somewhere along the route, I saw the red battery symbol lit up on the dashboard. The car seemed fine and we both had flights to catch. Didn’t think too much of it and we both jetted off to our destinations. We met up Sunday night and started the trek back to Manhattan. The light was still on, but the car seemed to be doing fine.
About halfway back I noticed the headlights dimming. We debated the cause back and forth about a dying battery and decided to conserve power. Turned off air vents as well as the radio. Lights continued to dim. I was a bit worried about my line of highway sight given the dimming and otherwise dark interstate, but we were only about 40 minutes from our destination. I decided to ride the tail of another vehicle ahead of us to utilize their light’s glow. Then I turned my headlights down to just parking lights. This would’ve worked for at least a few more miles but the lead car took a rural exit. I flicked the light back on but it was incredibly feeble and the engine started to miss. With my passenger leaning out the window and guiding me to the shoulder stripe (now impossible for me to see in the dark), I eased the car off the highway and stopped. Where it promptly died.
Thankfully, there was a gas station about ½ a mile up the road (the only one for at least 30 miles in either direction). We hiked over to it and I called for a tow (also thankfully, Dad had me on his AAA plan). After about an hour wait, the tow pickup gave the Two and us a ride back into town. Now pushing early morning hours, and we both had early classes to get to that day. It wasn’t a good day.
If you haven’t already guessed, the local shop diagnosed a bad alternator. I was quoted a cheap price to rebuild it and a more expensive replace. I went with the rebuild.
Literally, this was the only problem I had with this car (driven to 130,000 miles). I was thoroughly impressed with its reliability, and it branded me a Toyota fan for life.
A state college campus is an incredible oasis of thousands of people your age, literally at the peak of youth and beauty. There’s a derisive joke that some people attend college simply to get their “MRS” or “MR” degree, but it undeniably presents some of the best opportunities to meet many unique people, and even perhaps date some of them.
My freshman dating was pretty lame. Still in braces for the first half of the year. I remember we could get into some of the bars in Aggieville, but typically the carding bouncers would draw massive “X’s” in black magic marker across the backs of the hands of minors—a prominent “scarlet letter” to easily identify those who were too pup to have a beverage in their hand (and also easy for the police to spot and dole out “MIPs” or minor in possession citations). If you were lucky, a 21 year or older friend would slip you a shot to throw back with nobody looking, but the threat of MIPs or getting thrown out (the bars got fined along with the MIPs police caught) always loomed. Some of the desperate would even disappear into the bathrooms, frantically trying to soap scrub off the permanent marker ink and emerge “of legal age.”
I won’t rehash all of my college dating, but for the first year and a half, nothing really seemed to stick. Then came along a fellow sophomore in a community service (leadership) honorary I had managed to squeak into called “Spurs.” It started innocently and slowly enough. Her version of the story will differ, but we had a few classes in the same building. We exchanged numbers so we could notify one another when the next Spurs meeting would be (her version would be she already knew the dates of the meetings— the phone number exchange was just an excuse to get us talking). I recall that December our group decided to do some caroling across campus and some nearby neighborhoods. It was a terrible idea as only a fraction of the group could sing (I was in the denominator, not numerator of the singers). But she volunteered to drive and another guy and I sat in the back of her red Ford Escort. I was impressed it was a stick, and we had a car full of people laughing and having a good time, even if the campus president looked slightly perturbed as we caterwauled carols off-key in the middle of the night on his doorstep. I caught this girl glancing back at us in her rearview mirror (couldn’t tell if it was me or the other guy) several times. She certainly looked catching to my eye.
Our little back and forth carried on for another month or two and then we started talking on the phone. You know you have a connection when you can have one-two hour phone conversations effortlessly. Finally, after the second or third of these, on a mild climate afternoon, a light bulb finally went off in my head. I said to her, “Do you want to come over and continue this conversation in person, maybe share a beer on the back porch of our (fraternity) house?” She did. We each drank a Bud Light and watched as the guys played pickup basketball on the back half court. Managed to kill another couple hours in easy conversation.
And it just took off from there. We started dating and found that about as easy as long conversations. She confessed that she had been angling to meet me months before and had been getting a little impatient about how shy I was, obviously not picking up the clues she was dropping. She was convinced I was poor, didn’t have a car, and was too embarrassed to ask her out.
I showed her the MR2 and chauffeured her in it for many, many dates. Sometimes it would be her red Escort (soundtrack: NIN: Closer —racy lyrics, but hey, that was her Escort jam).
Late night study dates at the local Village Inn, where the waitresses were sympathetic to students’ long occupations of booths and meager orders (we tried to tip well). We would leave cute notes on each other’s windshields in the evening if we spotted our cars on campus, stuff that would make our kids groan and roll their eyes, I’m sure.
I remember we once drove to Wichita to attend a friend’s wedding. It was summer, and recall the MR2 had no A/C. No cupholders either. Our road trip started at a local quick shop. You put your cold drink between your legs for the drive and the windows down. That was our climate control.
What was the girl’s name?............... You can call her mrs. gokstate
It’s time to leave. It’s not that we couldn’t further look over schedules, plan, or dispense more advice, but everyone is spent. Mr. Beans is trying to hold things together. He’s strong. 17 surgeries and procedures has brought some of that strength, as well as a determination to prove he can do what others can. I put my arm around him. I’ve been thinking all week of the parting words, but they’re jumbled. I feel low and sad. He looks so innocent and shining and determined. I remember what I felt like that first night; alone and so acutely aware of how comforting a blanket of family love really is. I mutter something about not worrying if things go badly or you get knocked around in the beginning. It’ll get better and easier. I believe I’m right, but there’s thousands of new variables at play here. mrs. gokstate goes and gives him a hug. We get into the Odyssey, start the engine, and pull out of the parking lot.
His college story starts now.
Vehicle: 1986 Toyota MR2
HP: 112 hp @ 6600 rpm
TQ: 97 lb-ft @ 4800 rpm
Fact Side Story #1: Summer after Freshman year, I’m working as a stocker for the produce section of a large grocery store. The job kind of sucks (but this makes for good study motivation). My hours are variable, and sometimes I get off late afternoons. Dad’s house is about 45 minutes away and I start for home in the hot black MR2. I’ve done these hot drives a lot over the years. I usually crank down both windows and loathe red lights (no air flow). I typically drive a little faster and hope that a cop will have a sympathetic ear if he pulls me over for speeding—“Look man, it’s like 100 degrees, I have a black car and no A/C.” And so one day it happens. I get pulled over for speeding on a miserably hot afternoon after a long and tiring shift. My prepared defense springs to mind. The cop who pulls me over is on a motorcycle. He’s in full uniform, helmet, and bulletproof vest. I accept my ticket without saying a word.
Fact Side Story #2: mrs. gokstate kept and still possesses the Bud Light bottle cap from our first date.
Soundtrack: Connected, by Stereo MC’s
Coming soon: Part 14: Jackpot