The summer before my first year of college would be spent, partially, at the college in question. WPI. Even the letters make it sound like some sort of 50’s era work program. They offered a three-week summer program to make sure that incoming students like me would be up to snuff on the courses I would be expected to fail at in the fall.
I would be diving into an empty swimming pool. I knew next to nothing about calculus or chemistry or physics. I don’t remember taking any sort of test to give them a heads up that Knucklehead Smith was on his way, but they knew. Oh, they knew.
The day before my father was bringing me up for the program, my best friend Billy got in trouble. He got into another fight with his parents and had taken off and no one knew where he was. So, naturally, I could not go to Worchester. I had to save my friend. Billy had it tough. His angry relationship with his parents always made me appreciate how good I had it at home. Maybe I felt a little guilty that my folks and I got along so well. All that temporarily changed when I announced I could not, under any circumstances, leave town without finding Billy.
I quickly found out there were, indeed, circumstances that would allow me to leave town with Billy still unaccounted for. Those circumstances were my father offering to kill me if I didn’t get in the car. Let’s hit the road!!
I still have the picture my proud Mom took of the two of us that fine summer day. There is a small suitcase at my feet between us. We are both glaring at the camera after what I am sure was a prolonged shouting match. The look on his face would not kill…but it would definitely maim and make you spit up blood.
Worchester was about two hours up the road, past Hartford, on up Rte 84 into Massachusetts. A pretty little town with the big boy college up on the hill and the small Girl’s Junior college nestled at the bottom. Dad walked me through the enrollment process and got me safely into my dorm room. I’m sure we calmed down on the ride up. He was not a big conflict guy. He laughed easy and often and didn’t see the point in a lot of drama. By the time we hit the Massachusetts border I’m sure we were telling bad jokes and shooting at overhead birds with our fingers. The fact that Billy was found, later that day, dead in a crack house really never….I’m kidding. He was fine. He showed up at home later that afternoon and took his punishment like a good boy.
My memories of that summer session are great in some areas…sketchy in others. Too much new all at once. My roommate was a nonentity. No recollection of him at all except that he thought I was the straightest guy he had ever met. (Not totally erroneous.) He once put a plastic bag of oregano in my sock drawer to scare me. He thought I would find it, think it was marijuana and freak out. I never let on that I found it. I was too busy smoking pot with my new friend, Jim, one floor above us, to freak out over an Italian seasoning.
One day in the hall of the dorm I ran into a tall, good looking New jersey boy named Jim Matthews. We became inseparable. Besides having weed, running a thriving mescaline business from under his waterbed and having the best record collection I had ever seen….he was a great guy who, for some reason, decided to work on making me cool and helping to give me a career by encouraging me to play and sing in public.
Our third leg of the stool was Dave. Dave was truly embracing the hippy lifestyle. He introduced me to his amazing record collection. Neil Young, Dave Mason…all the cool singer/songwriters of the day. He introduced us to pot and hashish. We laughed a lot for three weeks.
WPI was all male until that year. Now there were about six girls in the student body. That ratio made them seem like Yetis to us boys. Rare sightings and you certainly never struck up a conversation with them.
The classes were daunting. I was daunted for the entire three weeks. They prepared me for an entire fucking year of daunt. I knew I was in over my head. School was always hard for me but I was up against something crazy hard now and I was already starting to plot exit strategies.
I promptly hung up a hammock in my room to sleep in. At 18 years of age you can sleep anywhere, in any position. Later that became a waterbed. (I later took the waterbed home to Meriden and set it up in my upstairs bedroom where it immediately made a giant crack in my parents living room ceiling. Waterbeds weigh a million pounds.)
I hung my Black light posters on the walls and set up a black light to enjoy them. Without the light…they’re just…posters. My stereo sat on the window sill, new Neil Young records at the ready. Oregano in the drawer. Check.
At the end of the orientation session we all went home for what was left of the summer. Jim headed back to New Jersey, I went home to Connecticut and Dave, being the cool one of the three, went off to a Rock Festival in Toronto called Strawberry Fields.
September came and Jim and I found ourselves back on campus for real this time. After a few days with no Dave sightings, we made some inquiries. We learned that, while he was at the festival in Toronto, he was walking on the sidewalk when a car jumped the curb and killed him. This wasn’t my first experience with losing a friend. In Meriden we had a couple of classmates go camping and they stayed in a small cabin with a faulty heater. Carbon dioxide killed one of them.
Our new third wheel on our hormone tricycle was another Gary. He was quite the hound. He immediately started dating five out of the six girls on campus. What I learned from Jim about mescaline and Dave about music…I learned from Gary about how to make hormones work for you. They worked for him. They never lifted a finger for me.
I struggled with the workload. I tried going to classes. That didn’t work. I tried Jim’s method. Don’t go to class…study your ass off the night before the test and pass with a D. That didn’t work for me either. At the end of the first term I had my exit strategy. I dropped all my tech classes and took every English class they offered. Creative writing. Shakespeare. Punctuation. If it was in the manual…I signed up.
It didn’t help that I was driving home every weekend to rehearse and play clubs with my band. One of the points of going to college is the social bonding that comes with being off on your own with kids your own age. If I was hitting the road every Friday night….then all college was for me was the work.
I coasted my way to the end of the school year and slipped off into the world of community college and manual labor.