My four grandparent's birthplaces covered pretty much most of Europe. All four were here with no shame and no goals other than to make a living and raise families.
I was the first to even consider going to college. I would not be the last. Oh certainly, I had a younger cousin in Boston who was deciding on Tufts or MIT, but those schools were light years away from the hardscrabble Anthracite Belt of Pennsylvania where I was born and raised. Besides, my Uncle Ned, the father of Teddy who was considering a Private School Education, was a guy who thought he was better than the rest of us—bored us with his encyclopedic knowledge of the Civil War at the drop of a hat. My Dad suffered his older brother Ned all his life, and of course, envied him too.
Depression kids, my Mom and Dad, both hard-working, both sure that they should have, could have gone to college, but reality then the war intervened. Stuck in the “what if” time of their lives, I was their surrogate, the one who would go, but almost didn’t during my rebellious stage. I was the Roger Bannister of the family, their last hope.
Those four years in the early 60’s were a wild ride everywhere but Happy Valley, as we called Penn State’s idyllic setting. Beer was still the drug of choice in 1966 as it had been in 1962. Football games made more headlines than national news. They few protesters we saw were on the TV news, not here.
I had come from what seemed to be a big high school, 100 percent Christian and 100 percent White, to a huge college campus where there were a few “others” and lots of Jewish kids. We learned a lot from each other, mostly Yiddish swear words. Bob, from Altoona, was one of my best friends, still is. We laughed, drank, and swore together. Bob made sure that I stayed on track that last year when the pressures of social life got interrupted by the need to go to class.
I felt foolish carrying my square mortar board in the crook of my arm, but then everyone else did too. Four years earlier when I started at Penn State John Kennedy set the trend, going hatless almost everywhere, making the new fashion statement that it was OK to be without headgear anywhere, anytime. Of course, I didn’t have the thick head of hair that he did, never would, so I couldn’t brush it back like Bobby or Jack did for emphasis. They called the hair cut The Princeton Cut and a series of barbers both at home at college tried in vain to make my curly hair straight enough with no luck. Funny isn’t it, how I sweated that little hair detail for at least three of the four years that I was at Penn State?
My mother wanted me to pose for another ten photos or so with all the relatives who had made the supreme sacrifice of leaving a Pittsburgh area zip code, if just for the day. Mom’s nephew and my cousin Steve wasn’t there, needed to prove himself, so he was planning on getting in the army soon. Steve would be dead, killed the first day he was in Vietnam, a year later.
Dad was organizing the family, pointing out, as he always did, the sights and sounds at Penn State. He had adopted the place, liked it as if he’d gone there. He schmoozed with the faculty and students of the dairy science department a lot. I guess he was swapping ice cream stories and secrets since he worked for a dairy company back home.
They could have put 60,000 people in the stadium, but today, June 4th, 1966 it was only filled to a tenth of that. The sun broke through the clouds, making me regret wearing a suit and tie under my heavy black robe. The seats were shiny hot aluminum benches. The thought passed through my mind that my robe might catch fire and I’d be immolated on graduation day, the fiery member of the class of 1966.
Dwight Eisenhower’s brother Milton ran the school. He was the commencement speaker and kept it mercifully short. The Ph.D.s had their names called one by one, came up, shook his hand, got their diplomas, and looked pompous. Next the Master’s degree people got their turn No names read but they filed up by department in the graduate school moving quickly.
Now it was my turn. As a group, 5,000 of us seniors stood and in unison, moved the tassel on our caps from one side to the other. That was it; we were officially graduates, members of the class of 1966 of the Pennsylvania State University, with all the honors and privileges, etc, etc.
In less than an hour it was over. After I turned in my gown we ate packed lunches from a chest in the back of Mom and Dad’s car. Would have been nice to go out somewhere, but that was “out of the question,” as my Dad always said when the topic of money spending was raised.
My white shirt was stained blue-black from the sweat. Mom said she could get it out when we got home. My dad wanted to know what I was going to do for the summer. My younger sister, always in the way, was working on her next bout of car-sickness. Nothing much changed.