When I looked at the newspaper this morning, I was reminded that this week 50 years ago I left the only home I ever knew to begin attending classes at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. No, my coming to South Carolina was not the topic of the story, the integration of USC was. Thankfully that was a smooth process and my introduction to college life was uneventful.
Unlike students these days, who make trips their senior year in high school to select a University, except for a whistle stop on a train trip; I arrived at my new home sight unseen. On Sunday evening at 11 PM, 50 years ago today, I boarded the Silver Meteor at Union Station in Jacksonville with two suitcases full of clothes. Come to think of it, “Silver Meteor” was an ironic name for a train that would not get me to Columbia, only 300 miles away until 7 AM the next morning. It is also not lost on me that two suitcases of clothes is nothing, compared to the carload of clothes, appliances and furniture that make the trip with today’s college freshmen.
It was cool and a little foggy when I stepped onto the platform at the Seaboard train station on the corner of Gervais and Lincoln Streets in Columbia. The sun was just breaking over the city skyline starting a perfect fall day. By the time I had hailed a cab and was driven to the Honeycomb Dormitories on the corner of Sumter and Devine Streets, I had a short wait until the Housing Office set up the registration table for arriving freshmen in yard between H and L dormitories.
So, I sat on my luggage and began taking my bearings. Right across the street from me was the Field House where the varsity basketball games were played. It would be a decade or more before the Carolina Coliseum would take over that function. Just past the Field House was the College of Engineering where I would spend many an hour studying courses for my major. I learned that morning that there was a small nuclear reactor in one of the engineering labs there. But being young and immortal at that time, it didn’t worry me.
Cattycorner from my impromptu bench was Longstreet Theater which would be the location where I would meet all kinds of important people, including a future president, Ronald Reagan, later in my life. The "theater in the round" style was a perfect venue for the "Firing Line Debates" on PBS and I would be a part of the production team between 1985 and 1999 when William F. Buckley would retire from television. The show used several venues all over the country including the stage of the Cooper Union in New York City, the same stage where Lincoln and Douglass argued the issues of their day. But Longstreet was my favorite.
Promptly at 8 AM, the lobby doors were thrown open and I was allowed to sign in and get the key to room 708, my home for the next school year. My roommate would not show up until the next day because he lived in SC already. I surveyed the “digs” and chose the right side of the room, with a closet, bed and desk as mine. At the far end of the room was a pair of sliding doors that led to a small balcony between the wall and the shadow block frame of the building. The view over Sumter Street outside was criss-crossed by the cement blocks. From seven floors up, I could see the undergraduate library and Davis Field. I had no idea that I would be standing in the same place looking at the same view three short months when I hear of the assassination of President Kennedy.
My next task was to sign in with my floor counselor, an upperclassman that was stationed there to help us freshmen make our transition to college life. Oddly enough, except for passing in the hall, I never spoke to him again. Then it was off to Russell House to sign up for the food plan and partake of the first of many meals in the cafeteria. It was a far cry from the eating facilities that are in the same location today. It resembled my high school cafeteria in both presentation and food choices.
A month or so later, during a chance encounter with another student in a hallway bull session, I realized that there was a student run radio station on campus located on the third floor of that same Russell House. Being the lover of radio that I was, I quickly accepted his invitation to come visit the studios. When I walked through the door, I knew that I have found my place! Over the next couple of months, I spent time in those studios learning the radio trade; how to operate a radio console, or “Board” as we called them, how to announce and all the FCC rules that apply. I am not sure of the exact date but I am pretty sure that it was Friday, November 8th when my first radio show “Night Owl” aired. I even had a sponsor, Coca-Cola. Night Owl was pre-recorded, as were all shows hosted by novice DJs. It was the last show of the day. The tape was started by the evening DJ and the transmitter was wired to the tape recorder to shut down when the tape ran out.
I have been fortunate to be able to see my dreams come true, to meet so many interesting people from presidents to paupers. I know that I should be slowing down by now and enjoying retirement, but somehow I am happiest when I am flying through the sky at 500 MPH with my hair on fire. Slow down, not me, not yet! Oh MY!