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Friday, February 8, 2013

Rebel Yell! A Southern Thanksgiving

With last Thanksgiving starting it’s gradual fade from memory, I am reminded of an occasion 40 years ago when I had a most unusual celebration of the holiday. All stories have a beginning and this one most certainly did:  it began in high school.

Throughout my growing years, whenever I was asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, without even blinking, I’d answer “An actress.”  No…not a movie star, though I did want to work in movies, but a working actress with meaty roles. From the time I was at my youngest and through my public school education, I was in every single play that every class/school I attended held. I was always a lead player, and often as not, the ‘star.’ My family humored me and my Mom would even tell me stories about her own participation in play-readings and speech meets in her rural Maine school. I never once had a single person, child or adult, snicker, laugh at or question my  vocational aspiration. Quite the opposite, in fact: most adults—even teachers-- encouraged me to go for it.

All of this was wonderful, but fast-forward to 1969. I was going to turn 15 that year. I’d hung out with a friend over the summer who was volunteering at our town’s hospital, New Britain General. I’d started to volunteer with her, not for altruistic reasons, but because there were cute orderlies working there!

My Mom was thrilled. Truth be told, she was starting to get nervous about the fact that I was 15 and was still planning to move to Hollywood to become an actress. She’d even had a serious discussion with me:

Mom: “Karen (she always called me Karen because that’s my real name), I’m worried about you and this acting thing. Haven’t you read “Valley of theDolls?”

Me: “No, Mom. You wouldn’t let me. You said it was a dirty book. “

Mom: “See?!!”

My Mom would have been so disappointed to know that my reasons for volunteering were not at all aimed toward the greater good of mankind…and I didn’t tell her. It was nice to have her approval. My Mom would have supported me no matter what, but knowing that she was truly proud of me gave me pause to reconsider my previous plans.

By my senior year of high school my dreams of Hollywood felt as though they were crashing down. I realized I’d not saved nearly enough money from my job at McDonald’s (which I took after I turned 16). My friend, Lauren, and I had planned to move to the west coast after high school was over, but even she had started having other thoughts by the end of summer and now California felt less of a reality. I knew my parents couldn’t afford to help me…so, that meant doing what other students were doing: buckling down and deciding what I wanted to do after high school if the Hollywood thing wasn’t going to happen. My Mom suggested (more than once) that she wished I’d go to nursing school. Her best friend from her own high school years, Marie, became a registered nurse. Marie had always wanted my Mom to go to nursing school with her, but Mom was terrified of blood and gore, so she had 5 children and called it good.

For senior year, I signed up to take a nurses’ aide training course that my high school offered. The class lasted the entire academic year and culminated in a clinical experience in the final months of school. I had to admit that I was enjoying the course. I was learning a lot and found that I didn’t have a ‘weak’ stomach when it came to things that grossed many of my classmates out.  Lauren, my friend, was also taking the course, so it was even more fun! We even did our clinical together on the same floor of New Britain General.

I will never forget the lessons that Mrs. Pavano, an RN and our instructor, taught us, for they served me well throughout my nursing career and in my life. One of those lessons was that the last sense believed to leave a dying person is their sense of hearing.  “Always talk with your patients while providing care—even if they don’t appear to consciously hear you,” she said. 

Lauren and I were caring for the 4 patients on one of the smaller wards of the medical/surgical unit. Mrs. Pavano insisted on patient privacy, so Lauren drew the curtain between our patients so that she could take Mr. Smith’s vital signs.

Lauren: “Mr. Smith, my name is Lauren and I am training to be a nurses’ aide. I’m going to take your temperature. Mr Smith? Can you help me turn you over? Mr. Smith? MR SMITH?!” Then, a long, pregnant pause. A tense, reedy voice could be heard above all the beeps and tvs on in the room. Mr. Smith, I think you’re dead!  ….uhhhhh……..Karen….I think Mr. Smith’s dead!!!“

I ran for help while Lauren stayed with the late Mr. Smith. The nurses on the floor were very kind and assured us that we had not killed him.

It was around February of my senior year that my brother, Tom, on leave from the army and preparing to do a second tour of Vietnam, had a serious heart-to-heart with me. He laid out a plan that was unbelievable. He was willing to pay for my first year of nursing school and all expenses with 2 conditions:  I would need to attend a baccalaureate program (a 4 year degree program in nursing) and I would need to go somewhere out of the state of Connecticut. Both ideas terrified me. I had earlier decided to attend an in-hospital diploma nursing school program (I’d been accepted to 4 of the top programs in the State of Connecticut). And, the thought of leaving my Mom and family scared me to death. Tom had been working on me for a while and actually thought it would be a great plan for me to go into the army following my nursing education, where my bills would be paid off and I would be a Lieutenant on graduating. He even took me on a trip to Ft. Bragg in N. Carolina to show me the benefits of an officer’s life (he was, at the time, a Captain).

One step at a time, I thought. I pored through college catalogues and came up with a list of potentials: The University of Hawaii,  San Diego State, University of Houston, University of Florida and the University of South Carolina.  I quickly applied and was accepted at all, though wait-listed in Hawaii and San Diego. This meant that Houston was the farthest from home I was accepted for the fall semester! That, then, was where I aimed to go!

Tom, in Vietnam for nearly 4 months by the time I left for college, had entrusted me with his yellow convertible-top KarmannGhia. It was a sweet little ride, pretty much brand new and kept in pristine condition. I was the only one allowed to drive it (I was the only one who knew how to drive a stick shift!). I tried to teach my Mom, but she would get all twitter-pated and roll the car backwards down hills. My brother, Ken, was still too young to drive, so he held down the back seat. I elected to do the entire drive myself. So, in August of 1972, we made our way through the myriad states between Connecticut and Houston stopping at every giant ball of string and cavern that the roadside signs advertised. It was a great adventure culminating in my realization, when we first drove into Houston, that cowboys weren’t riding horses down the streets and there was no cactus to be found. Houston, as it turned out was a huge and vibrant city.

My Mom and brother remained with me for the first 5 days in this, my newfound city. We stayed at a small hotel just off-campus, played in the pool, visited some of the landmarks and tried to decipher the thick east-Texas accents. Of course, the native folks had an equally difficult time in deciphering our own rapid-fire, clipped New England speech patterns; the kind that added “r’s” where they didn’t exist (eg; “idear”) and removed them when they did (eg; “kwatah”—that’d be “quarter”).  I met my roommate, MaryLou, for the coming year and introduced her to my family. Everything was just fine until I took Ken and Mom to Houston Intercontinental Airport to board a flight back to Connecticut; then it hit me.

Although MaryLou was sitting next to me, I felt utterly alone. Thankfully, that didn’t last very long. Where I was quiet and reserved, MaryLou was outgoing. We were both exceptionally bright, but we had totally different study habits. MaryLou HAD them, I didn’t. Although I maintained a high GPA in high school, I essentially coasted along. I rarely studied, almost never brought a book home and crammed most everything I should have taken home and really learned into the study halls that peppered my school days. Yet, even with atrocious habits, I managed to eke out good grades; not top-tier, though I suspect they could have been, had I applied myself. On the other hand, MaryLou was very studious. She set strict curfews on her time and really managed her classes well. Conversely, I was skating through by the skin of my teeth. It didn’t start well for me.

When I went to the initial registration session to sign up for all of my freshman classes, I was overwhelmed. First, as it turned out, the University of Houston didn’t even offer a nursing program. What they offered were nursing school pre-requisites, which you could then transfer to any state university. I was extremely disappointed to learn this as I’d hoped to stay at the same school throughout my undergrad educational experience. I located the standard requirements for students who, in their junior years, would apply to one of the many nursing schools in Houston: Anatomy & Physiology, Microbiology, Organic Chemistry, Human Sexuality, Statistics, Trigonometry, 2 semesters of English, Psychology, Physics, Nutrition, Poly Sci, History, Speech, Physical Education. I looked at the list with a good deal of frustration. Had I gone to a diploma nursing program as I’d planned, I’d already be in a hospital doing who-knows-what-to-whom. Here it was going to be at least 2 years before I even saw the inside of a hospital. It seemed like a lifetime! AND, there were no guarantees that I’d get any of the classes I was signing up for, anyway. Incoming freshmen had lowest priority in their choice of classes.

Most of my worry was for naught…I did get most of the classes I’d signed up for, including Human Sexuality, a sophomore-level class.

Human Sexuality was the most popular class on campus. It was taught by Dr. James Leslie McCary, who was on-par with Masters and Johnson in terms of studies and renown in the field. With 1200 students, it was the largest class on campus and held in the Cullen Auditorium. AND, they took attendance, I’d heard. It also happened to be the very first class I would attend in college. I was a wreck. I’d barely learned my way around campus. I still had the clunky outline folder I’d been given in orientation which contained maps of campus. While I came from a decent-sized high school with a 3 year population of 2,000 pupils, nothing prepared me for entering a campus with more than 30,000 students!

I awoke early to be certain I’d have adequate time to get to class. Now, for me, early meant about 9am; I am and always have been a night-owl. I re-checked my class schedule and verified that class began at 10am. I gathered together notebooks, pens and pencils and other paraphernalia. I had no idea what I’d actually need. Then, I nervously showered and dressed only to walk outside our frigidly air-conditioned dormitory building into the oppressively hot and humid August air. Within 3 steps of the dorms, I may as well not have showered at all. I made my way through the winding paths that took me from Moody Towers past the school mascot, Shasta, a beautiful mountain lion kept caged in an air-conditioned space between campus buildings. The University of Houston’s teams are The Cougars, and so Shasta was carted to all big events.

Getting past Shasta, I turned and headed to the Cullen Auditorium. I made my way in past students who were leaving and found a seat mid-way down the center aisles. My strategy was to get a decent seat, but not be up in the front where I might be called on during class. I looked around the huge auditorium, only to realize that it was 10 till the hour and I was one of only a handful of people inside. Well, maybe many students don’t attend the first session, I reasoned. Or maybe they’re mostly coming from across campus. I waited, at first patiently, and then nervously as the minutes ticked by. At about 5 till, I turned and asked a boy sitting behind me if I was in the place where Dr. McCary’s sex class was held. “Yes,” he said. Whew…I guess I was worried for nothing. At about 3 minutes till 10am, I scanned the room. There were maybe 100 kids within…nowhere close to filling the auditorium for such a huge and popular class. I noticed someone had come in and taken a seat a few rows ahead of me. I caught their eye as they turned to look around the room. “Excuse me…” I began. “Is Dr. McCary’s sex class in this room?” “Uh huh,” they replied. OK, I thought…I guess I just need to be patient.

At about 10:01, a man in tight black pants bounded up on the stage.  “Hey y’all, and welcome to class! For those of y’all who didn’t pick up a syllabus, I expect for the guys to wear comfortable shorts and shirts. For the gals, I’d like you to wear tights and either shorts or a loose skirt. I want y’all to be comfortable in all of the positions!” I was still writing the words down when all of a sudden, they took shape in my mind. POSITIONS? OMG, I’m in the Human Sexuality LAB!!!  I was starting to grow clammy and slightly nauseated as he continued…”Next time, y’all, we’re gonna get on down to it! We’ll separate the guys and gals for the first part of class, then y’all’ll (yes, they did say things like that…an abbreviation of a non-existent, abbreviation) come together, choose your partner for the first part of this semester, get comfy and make some magic.” I wanted to sprint out of my seat and run back to the dorms, call my Mom and have her come get me. I mean, I’d barely had a date in high school. This was totally out of my league! For over ten minutes, I sat there, every word more frightening to me than the one before. That’s when he started talking about dance theory and suddenly, everything he was saying took on new meaning. Wait a minute? Hadn’t I asked if this was the room where Dr. McCary taught Human Sexuality? And, hadn’t I checked my class schedule to see that it started precisely at 10am on Thursday? I gathered my things and slid out of the room. I didn’t have my next class for another hour or so. I went back to the dorms, wondering how I could have gotten myself so confused.

The housekeeper was finishing vacuuming my room when I reached the 4th floor of Moody Towers. I skirted around her equipment and went to the desk along the windows and found my schedule. THERE IT WAS!! Human Sexuality—on Thursday—what?!!! From 8:30-10?! Why hadn’t I noticed the 8:30 before?! Great. First class, first DAY of classes and I missed it!

Of course, soon enough I found my rhythm and was actually making most of my classes; AND dating! Me, the girl who no one seemed to know existed in high school, and I was dating like mad! On the first day living in the dorms when MaryLou and I were setting up our work spaces, I turned my high-intensity desk lamp on to be sure it worked and turned it right back off. Immediately, a network of repeatedly flashing lights assaulted us from many of the rooms throughout the 17 stories of the men’s tower.  The light show was promptly followed by a phone call from “Josh,” a junior who’d broken the code for the assignment of phone numbers to the women’s dorm. There were dates galore (but, not with Josh!). The most inventive line I believe I heard was the young man who approached me in the cafeteria as I was eating dinner alone one evening. “New England,” he said as he neared my table. “Um….what?” I asked, not understanding how he knew or what he was getting at. “I can tell by your dining habits.” I looked at him curiously, hoping I didn’t have spinach in my teeth. He was cute. “My dining habits?” “Yes, you’re eating fried chicken with a fork and knife. That just isn’t done any place else. Dead giveaway!” It hadn’t occurred to me that it could be eaten another way. “And, if you say something, I may be able to pinpoint where you’re from”  “What would you like me to say?”  “Hmmm….Southern New England. I can’t tell where just yet.” This was absolutely fascinating to me! He never did narrow it down further. Connecticut can be a tough accent to figure out.

Then, at some point, during my first 30 days, I met Rob. Rob was a VERY tall, slender, good-looking, sandy-haired boy whose family had moved to Houston from Arkansas within the previous few years. I don’t even remember how we first met, but he was such a sweet guy and clearly liked me. While I liked him, too, I wasn’t wanting all this serial dating magic to end just yet. I was enjoying this attention thing (having had 32 dates in my first 30 days on campus!). It was just short of a miracle, to me! Mostly Rob and I just met to talk (as opposed to going somewhere). I could listen to him speak all day. He had the cutest Arkansan accent and a deep voice. One day he was telling me about a bayou that ran past his home; only when he said ‘bayou’ it took on a life of it’s own. Instead of the 2 syllables we’d have used in Connecticut saying ‘Buy-You,’ he’d pared it almost down to one, saying “Baow.” I would ask him repeatedly to say it to me…I had never heard anything like it.  He was so good-natured about playing along with me on this! And, good-natured about me dating other guys, even though I don’t think he was seeing anyone else.

One of the guys I started dating was “Martin.” Martin’s brother owned the tavern across the street from the college. It was the hangout for university students and was packed night-after-night. I’m not sure why I ever consented to date Martin. He was surely the cheapest person I’d ever been with. One evening, he called to ask me to go with him to his brother’s tavern. “Sure!” I said. “Don’t eat, we’ll catch something to eat there,” he insisted. I was on the dorm’s meal plan and had very little free cash for anything other than necessities. Having a meal away from the there would be fun. We entered the restaurant and sat in a booth. This was the sort of joint where you would place your order via a phone set at your table and then they’d call you when your order was ready…hamburgers, foosball and beers…your basic college hangout.  When we started looking at the menu, Martin said, “I hope you aren’t hungry…I only have enough money for one meal.” He never looked at me for a response.  My heart sank into my stomach. I didn’t have any money. I smiled and indicated that it was no big deal, but I was starving…and mad. I could have had dinner in the dorms! I was more prepared the next time we went, having brought a little cash with me. This time, Martin had 2 friends at the table with us: Chuck and "Solomon" and they subsequently joined us most times when Martin and I would meet at Reggie’s. Chuck and Solomon were roommates. I didn’t think much of Sol; he seemed very self-absorbed and spoiled, but Chuck was a genuinely nice guy. As I was quickly learning, Martin wasn’t. Every time a well-endowed, good-looking girl would walk in, he’d excuse himself from our table and follow her to the foosball table. There he’d flirt with her, hunching over, Groucho-style, staring at her…um…attributes! After a few dates, I’d about had it with him, it was late October and Martin just wasn’t a deep enough person. I looked at Chuck when Martin got up to ogle the next girl and said, “The movie “Joe” is playing at the Quad on Thursday, does anyone want to go with me to see it?” I was so hoping that Chuck would answer, not Sol. I smiled when Chuck said, “I will!”

Thursday, November 2nd, 1972, then, was our first date. It didn’t start well. I was late meeting Chuck in the lobby of the dorm (Men weren’t allowed in women’s rooms). Chuck, as I soon learned, was very punctual. I wasn't (and am) not. We got to the movie just as the credits finished rolling at the start. I could tell he was a little bit peeved with me, but he got over it pretty quickly and we had a great time. Although I was still occasionally seeing Rob, most evenings I spent with Chuck. Most days, too, in fact: It turned out we had a physics class in common. And, we took to meeting up at the student union around lunchtime several days a week, with some friends of his. A week after meeting, it was Chuck’s 19th birthday and we spent the evening together. This was going very, very well! However, he let me know that he was going home to Cincinnati for the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday in a few weeks. I was not going to be able to go home until Christmas; I just didn’t have the financial capability.

By the second week of November, I was starting to become very homesick for Connecticut and my family. The thought of spending Thanksgiving alone in a mostly empty dormitory was not particularly appealing. I was getting bummed out. That’s when I saw Rob in the common area of the dorms. “Karen, you could come to my family’s home for the holiday. I know they’d love it—and you, “ he told me. I was really humbled that he’d asked me to his home. Since I’d started dating Chuck, I hadn’t been particularly available to Rob. His invitation reminded me of how sweet he was. I accepted and felt better, knowing I had a place to go and a family to share the holiday with. I was very excited!

On Thanksgiving day, I went to extra lengths to attend to my appearance. I wore a long dress I’d made while still in high school and made certain my hair looked nice. I was glad to have taken the extra time on my clothes and hair. Rob’s family dressed up for the occasion. His parents had a lovely ranch-style home in a beautiful area just north of Houston. Their large lot was lined with tall pine trees. When we got to the door, Rob’s mother greeted us. She was a beautiful woman, well-kept and elegantly dressed and coifed. Also there were several other family members: Rob’s younger sister, an older sister and her husband, both his parents and an aunt and uncle. Their home smelled divinely of the turkey that was roasting in the oven. There was a cacophony of sounds between everyone talking, laughing, the football game on tv and the sounds of meal preparation from the kitchen.  I glanced around the room—everything was perfectly in it’s place. Their home was simply lovely. Looking out a large picture window to the back yard revealed a beautifully manicured lot with an inviting patio. They even had a flagpole with a….WHAT?!...a Rebel Flag blowing in the slight breeze. I was slightly taken aback, but was soon distracted when another aunt and uncle came to the door. This was quite the gathering!

We enjoyed spending the afternoon talking with and learning about one another. Rob’s family was very welcoming and it was clear that he came by his sweetness honestly enough. At about 4 pm, Rob’s mom announced that we could be seated in their beautiful dining room and we proceeded there. The table was laden with heaping bowls of candied yams, cornbread stuffing, mashed potatoes and green beans. Rob’s dad brought out the beautifully browned turkey and carved it proficiently at the table.  My stomach was growling with hunger. I’d never seen a spread like this, except in magazines or on tv.  Bowls were passed and turkey served. The room quieted down to just the sounds of forks scraping plates and the appreciative gulps and lip-smacking that occur when you’re so lost in the moment, you forget your manners.  But, after the first few minutes, I noticed a strange lack of noise and, indeed,  had that sense that I was being examined and evaluated. I looked up from my plate to find that several family members were staring at me intently. Some politely dropped their gazes when I looked up…but, not Rob’s uncle. In fact, it may have intensified!  I looked at him questioningly. With a very thick Arkansan accent, he said, “So, you’re a Yankee!! (he said ‘Yankee’ in two distinct syllables and with a great sense of distaste). I can’t believe y’all won the Civil War.” I thought he was joking, and gave a nervous laugh. “Excuse me?” I replied, questioningly. He was dead serious. “I simply mean, I can’t believe the Yankees won the Civil War.” 

O.M.G.!!! I was in redneck hell!

Everyone looked at me, awaiting my response. “Sir, wasn’t that over 100 years ago?”

“Well, yes it was. But, the South will rise again, you can believe you me!”  Suddenly, I realized that most of the people in the room shared his view. It was a scene directly out of “GoneWith the Wind.” Not being one for confrontation, I mostly wished that I could disappear or be spirited out of the room. I have never been so happy as when Rob’s mom strategically slipped into the kitchen and brought out dessert, distracting even Rob’s uncle from the direction the conversation had taken.  Dessert was delightfully light: gelatin with whipped cream. Normally, I am not a fan of whipped cream on gelatin, but after the discomfort of the conversation, I put a big spoonful in my mouth, anticipating the soft, silken feel of sweet cream. Immediately after I did this, I was regretful and unsure what to do; I mostly wanted to vomit or spit it out. This was not gelatin with whipped cream! It was gelatin with mayonnaise on it!!! I thought I was going to die. And, now that I’d committed to it, I knew I had to swallow the mouthful of mayo and look happy doing it.  It was truly one of the most awkward and disgusting moments of my life! I really don’t remember much of the evening after that. I’m sure we stayed for a while after dinner and then Rob took me back to the dorms. Rob and I saw one another only a few more times after that. I realized that my feelings for Chuck were the real deal and didn’t want to lead anyone else on. It was the right decision, for we’ve now been together for 40 years, married for 35 as I write this. I surely hope that Rob found similar happiness, perhaps with a Southern girl who understood the Rebel yell and liked her gelatin with mayonnaise. 

 © 2013 Ryb Katz. All rights reserved

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