A couple of days ago, I received an email from my alma mater. It informed me that, owing to a certain global crisis plaguing the United States more than any other sovereign nation, the fall semester at the college would be taught via online classes rather than allow undergrads back on school grounds. I have my degree and no plans to re-enroll, so I guess it was sent as a courtesy to an alumnus. But it was disheartening to think of a crisp autumn day in that small, sylvan Pennsylvania town — only the usually bustling campus is desolate, sparsely populated by a handful of exchange students already locked into spending a semester on-site, some professors who live locally all year long, and a skeleton staff to keep the facility running.
The situation really troubled me, because I know what those kids will be missing. One of the bright spots I’ve experienced while primarily stuck at the pad for months has been a regular Saturday happy hour Zoom conclave of select college classmates, all of whom had ties to The Glimpse — an underground school paper created by some of our number when they weren’t studying or partying. These gatherings with the guys have been like hanging out in a virtual quarantine canteen with over a dozen accomplished professionals. And they are still as witty and engaged in current events and enamored of popular culture as when they were callow, carefree youngsters participating in what one can only call higher education. (Yes, we got high now and then, and some of us do to this very day.)
There’s still a profound bond here — a product of time spent together, muddling through our academic pursuits and a whole lot of extracurricular escapades over the course of a 4-year program. As it’s been said before, the degree is nice, but it’s the journey and the nutters you hang out with along the way that matter the most. That’s my take too. These would-be scholars who are stuck taking classes on laptops in their hometown bedrooms are being cheated of an experience I relished, that enriched me, and that provided serious fun.
BREAKING GOOD AND TREKKING SOUTH
When the Glimpse gang met up online the week after Disney World reopened in Florida amid the spike in Sunshine State infections (all that sunshine apparently failing to kill the virus), our barbed musings on the topic of the Magic Kingdom potentially becoming the Sickliest Place on Earth reminded me of an adventure that four of us had during spring break of senior year. Matt, Steve, Rodney and I clambered into Rodney’s maroon Chrysler 300 as soon as the semester paused for the annual, legendary week of revelry that inevitably inspires college kids, especially from northern parts of the country, to head for warmer climes and get wild. Back then, the destinations of choice were generally the beaches of Florida or California. And we were going to drive south from Pennsylvania all the way to the Florida Keys. It was a coastal commute of a different kind from the ones I do today.
We didn’t have an agenda per se. Instead, it was a vague plan to hit some of the hotspots like Ft. Lauderdale, check out Cape Canaveral and see what NASA was up to, and go to Disney World which had just opened for the season. In a literary frame of mind like a typical English major, I wanted to cruise by some of author Ernest Hemingway’s haunts in Key West for a cocktail, even if I’ve never been much of a drinker. We did have some weed, which may explain why we each remembered some, but not all, of the details of the trip when I brought it up to the other sojourners while Zooming.
In conversation and e-mail, we pieced together bits and pieces of it, like blind men feeling and describing parts of an elephant and each having a different impression of the whole thing. We all agreed that we saw fields and fields of tobacco after we passed the Mason-Dixon Line, and that the coffee at a Stuckey’s was sucky. Most of us recalled stopping for gas at South of the Border — a tourist trap on Interstate-95 in South Carolina, just south of the North Carolina border; hence, the name. South of the Border’s mascot, who was plastered all over billboards on I-95 as soon as we hit Virginia, was a caricature of a Mexican bandito named Pedro — not quite Aunt Jemima or Uncle Ben, but a little problematic in an enlightened world, I’m not certain if the statue of Pedro is still towering over the South of the Border location. It might have already been pulled down.
CAPERING THROUGH MEMORY’S HAZE
I seem to be the only one of us who remembers dropping by to see one of our fellow students as she spent spring break at her parents’ house in Jacksonville. She was an attractive, gregarious young woman who effortlessly transcended the various campus cliques, boasting friends from Greek to freak, and she welcomed us as did her mother and her father. Although her dad was a colonel in the U.S. Army, he didn’t blanch at this invasion of artsy left-wing loons. Of course, we dialed back the stoner vibe while there. As for other memories that I alone recollect, I left the car one night when we pulled to the side of the road next to an orange grove somewhere south of Orlando. While the rest of the gang grabbed a couple hours of sleep before resuming our trek in the morning, I unrolled my sleeping bag between trees in the grove, climbed in and dozed off under a full moon, my olfactory nerves overwhelmed by the scent of orange blossoms.
We briefly checked out the scene in Lauderdale; it was a sea of drunken chaos with waves of delirious frat boys and sorority girls splashing all over the beach. We hit the Cape, where we got a kick out of space-themed businesses like the Satellite Motel, the Orbit Café, and the Starlite Bar. And we made it to Disney World, which wasn’t crowded in the least since everybody else was so busy getting hammered by the shore. We paid the entry fees that gave us access to rides and other attractions, and we covered as much ground as we could. I particularly enjoyed going to the Hall of Presidents and booing the audio-animatronic Nixon. We had no interest in souvenirs or overpriced snacks. As Matt said, “We were probably the first visitors to Disney World who didn’t spend a dime after we got inside the gates.”
After crashing the previous night with friends at a University of Miami dorm, we reached the top of the Keys and went no further. You can only do so much in one week, and our spring break was almost at an end. The clock was ticking. Papa Hemingway and Key West would have to wait. We needed to return north to resume our studies and, grades warranting, graduate.
Our cozy collegiate microcosm, meant to prepare us for the great, wide world, would soon be a memory. And memories can be tricky. The ones of this trip — hazy or not — are comforting. We had fun together, and our alliance was built in person, on campus. I guess that’s why the news about the remote learning gave me pause. For the students’ sake, I hope the situation changes for the better by next semester. The cost of tuition can be obscenely expensive; the camaraderie that can develop at college is priceless.
Michael Snyder is a print and broadcast journalist who covers pop culture on “Michael Snyder’s Culture Blast,” via GABnet.net, Roku, Spotify, and YouTube, and “The Mark Thompson Show” on KGO radio. You can follow Michael on Twitter: @cultureblaster