In 1973, when I was eighteen, I headed off for college with two of my best friends from my hometown– Donna and Pam. We had not done the exhaustive search for a college that students do now. Donna wanted to be an art teacher and she learned from Mrs. Babb, the art teacher at our high school, that she’d graduated from Atlantic Christian (A.C.) College in Wilson–a small liberal arts school. Pam planned to major in medical technology and I wanted to pursue nursing. We asked Donna if A.C. had those majors and when she said “yes” we decided to go together to check out the college. I liked that it was a small school and the pre-nursing classes, including chemistry, would have less than a hundred students–much smaller than at a university. College didn’t seem so intimidating when it was faced with two close friends.
There was a shortage of dorm space and the three of us were assigned to one large room with two small closets in Harper Hall. We didn’t care that it would be cramped because we were so excited to be going to college, expanding our horizon from our hometown of Sanford. Pam and I let Donna take the lead in picking out our color scheme since she was the art major and we wanted matching bedspreads–like girls do. She chose a Mod Explosion of yellow, orange, and lime green– ‘so Donna’ as we remember those warm colors that she loved.
On move-in day, we met the two girls across the hall– Debbie and Kay. They were both only children from even smaller, more rural areas than Sanford. Both were friendly and soft-spoken. Soon we were frequenting each others’ rooms, often sharing snacks and stories from our first days of college. We ate meals together in the cafeteria, including the ‘mystery meat’ casseroles provided for all of us hungry coeds. If the meal was disgusting, we could always walk across the street from our dorm to Tweeties– a grill that made fantastic hamburgers and carried our favorite chocolate candy bars.
Last Friday, Donna, Pam, Kay, Debbie and I returned to Atlantic Christian, which has been renamed Barton College. Our old dorm, is now the Welcome Center and houses many of the administrative offices.
Our rooms on the second floor are now large storage closets. Walking down the long hallway, I saw staff staring at computer screens in rooms that used to be the scene of girls gathering. That one phone booth for the entire floor was now closed off. In my mind’s eye, I could still see us taking our plastic baskets of toiletries, towels under our arms, and heading down that long hallway to the large shower room–hoping no one would pull the fire alarm. If it was one o’clock, you could hear the theme music for The Young and the Restless playing from the televisions in the girls’ rooms. Some were such devotees of the newer soap opera that they planned their schedules so no class would interview with their relationship with Brad– the primary hunk of the show.
After we visited Harper Hall last Friday, we walked around campus, reminding each other how it used to be, the buildings that had been taken down since our time.
It was a bittersweet stroll, wishing we could recreate the campus as we knew it, recognizing that the college had to move forward. We remembered the old gym where Kay had taken Social Dance as one of her PE requirements. I had never seen couples dancing together except the slow dancing of high school parties. The PE classes back then had a recital of sorts, a final exam of doing a performance for the college. I remember thinking how I was too shy then to take that class, too afraid of having to dance a certain pattern. Imagining that old gym that was now a grassy lawn, I chuckled to myself to think of how boldly I dance at sixty-six years old when I was too scared at eighteen.
Eventually we came to the heart of the campus: the cafeteria and student center. We ate in the upstairs dining area that had a great view through the floor-to-ceiling windows of the fountain and campus. Often the fountain was the site of students being thrown in or overnight raids that produced a colored bubble bath. Once, I experienced the humiliation of that pool of water.
I don’t remember who did it, or what I said that got me in trouble, but a couple of guys took me by my wrists and ankles and tossed me in. I had to get out and walk to Harper Hall, my clothes soaked and looking like a wet dog. I can’t remember if it was during mealtime when the audience would have been large, looking out and gawking at the latest victim.
While I’d planned to stay at A.C. all four years, in my sophomore year, I had a change of heart. The nursing program was new, housed in mobile units and would be applying for National League of Nursing Accreditation. It seemed to be a strong program, but we didn’t know for sure that it would receive that credential. When I mentioned that to my parents, they suggested I consider transferring to UNC- Chapel Hill. They were familiar with that School of Nursing since it was affiliated with the large medical center that served our area of North Carolina. It had been hard to leave my friends and the life I’d established at A.C., but it was the right path for me. We passed the brick nursing building that had replaced the mobile units and saw a banner celebrating the hundred percent pass rate on the 2020 board exams.
We continued our campus tour walking down the sidewalk behind our dorm. Our conversation had gone between the life we remembered as coeds and our lives now. Being in our mid-sixties, the ‘young elderly,’ we can’t help but mention our latest ailments and which supplement we’ve added to our medication list. We talked about the stressful days going through the pandemic, the people who’ve died or been impacted by the isolation. Debbie is the only one who still has a parent living; her mother is ninety-eight and lives next door to her. We saw the toll that her mother’s frailty has taken on Debbie and throughout our visit we encouraged her to take care of herself.
In past times, before her mother’s decline, Debbie was actively involved in community theater. We couldn’t believe it when she, who’d been so shy in our Harper Hall days, took leading roles on stage; how Debbie blossomed. When we expressed our astonishment, she explained, “I found I can do anything when I’m in character. I can’t do that if I’m being myself.”
One of the mainstays of our college days was playing pranks on each other. When we took that path behind our dorm, it was to see the site of one of those pranks.
Outside of Kay and Debbie’s window, there was a three-foot wide ledge that was shared with two rooms beside theirs. When I went home for a weekend, my older sister had this two-foot plastic piece that looked like a vacumn cleaner hose with ribbing called a Chinese wind chime. When you twirled it in a circle, it sounded strange– like a space ship. I thought it was interesting and took it back to A.C.–not having a clear idea of what I’d do with it, but something inside was germinating. I showed it to Pam and Donna and they were impressed by the unique sound. Like most of the pranks, Pam was at the center of the scheme but never carried it through; she was too smart for that. Instead, she would plant the idea, and I was too willing to go with it. Maybe that was the beginning of my adventurous spirit! Or maybe I was just too bored with studying chemistry and would do anything to be free and have some fun.
Anyway, the plan developed that Donna, Pam and I would pretend that we were going to bed early–which was not our pattern. We ended our visit with Kay and Debbie, saying we were really tired and they went to their room across the hall. I had spoken with the girls two doors down from Debbie and Kay’s and asked if I could go through their window–just saying I was playing a trick. After Debbie and Kay’s light was out, I climbed out their neighbors’ window onto the landing. I had on shorts, a tee shirt, and no shoes so I could move easily and not make noise.
When I climbed through the window and put my bare feet down on the concrete, I felt something. Stepping toward Kay and Debbie’s window, I noticed white flecks of pigeon poop dotting that landing and realized that was what was squeezing between my toes. I hadn’t known that I would be invading the birds’ coop.
Kay and Debbie’s window had a box fan in it that was going at full speed. I could hear them talking then it got quiet. I waited a while then moved close to the fan and started twirling the wind chime.
I heard their startled voices, Kay saying, “What’s that?”
I couldn’t understand what Debbie said, and waited to see if they turned on the light.
Their voices settled down and then it was quiet. I twirled the wind chime more vigorously, the space ship sound definitely more dramatic, more menacing.
I heard them screaming and the door opening and later would learn they’d run into our room for help. Soon the light came on in Debbie and Kay’s room and it filled with girls who’d heard the strange noise. The two RAs, both strict, upperclass nursing majors, had come to check out the commotion. The meaner RA commanded, “Whoever’s outside that window come in here!” She took out the box fan.
I thought the window I’d gone through had been closed, that I had no escape route from the ledge. My only choice was to face my captors.
I climbed into the room, holding the windchime and the girls looked at me, shocked.
One said, “Connie, I can’t believe you did that!”
The RAs were not happy. They were real stick-in-the-muds and I’d probably interfered with their studying that the nursing majors were known for.
“We’re going to report this to the House Mother. I don’t know what they’ll do,” the more aggressive RA told me.
I said nothing; I’m sure my face said it all.
The girls quickly returned to their rooms, the excitement for the evening, over.
I went to my room feeling a little scared, a little embarrassed, but mostly hoping my friends weren’t mad at me for scaring them and bringing them unwanted attention.
We all sat on our beds and Debbie and Kay joined us, reliving their experience of something outside their window. Pam and Donna showed their sympathy for my situation.
“We’ll come see you when they kick you out of college,” Pam offered.
“Yeah, we’ll sure miss you when you’re not here,” Donna added.
We all laughed and I wondered just how far the RAs would take it. We were almost to exams and surely they had better things to stew on than my prank; It hadn’t hurt anyone.
Ultimately, I never heard a word from the House Mother. When I saw the RAs, they glared at me with disapproval. I was not kicked out of college but had a memory that would last forever.
On Friday, when we recalled that prank, we fell into a fit of laughter– to the point that Kay made that ‘snorting sound’ as she referred to it.
“I haven’t laughed that hard in a long time,” she said. She’d shared with us the recent death of a close friend, the worry over her granddaughter’s health problem, and the loss of people in her community from COVID.
How delighted we were to see Debbie and Kay acting out their fright as we revisited the back side of the dorm, viewing the ledge that is at the top of the jutted out portion on the second floor. I wonder if there’s still pigeon poop!
That move-in Sunday in August of 1973, before my parents drove me to Atlantic Christian, our family attended church. It’s likely that the choir sang as the benediction song, “God Be With You Till We Meet Again” (written by Jeremiah Rankin in 1880). Thinking of last Friday with my friends, these are the verses that resonate with me:
God be with you till we meet again,
’Neath His wings securely hide you,
Daily manna still provide you,
God be with you till we meet again.
God be with you till we meet again,
When life’s perils thick confound you,
Put His arms unfailing round you,
God be with you till we meet again.
Now, this feels like a fitting benediction for our time together. I don’t know when we’ll see each other again, but given how fragile things have felt over the past year, this is my prayer for us.
I lovingly dedicate this post to my Atlantic Christian Sisters.
Who are the friends, college roomates, military comrades that were significant in your life? If you’ve been able to maintain that connection, how has that impacted you?
What are your fond memories of those times– adventures you shared, pranks you played, new discoveries of life beyond your hometown?