Quick! Commit this weekend to words, before life's events overtake it and my memories fade, as they always do!
Rachel and I pulled out of our driveway around 12:30 in the afternoon Saturday morning. Destination: Duke University. She'd thrown together a few sandwiches and packed a cooler with water bottles. We threw our luggage in the trunk, she put a pillow on the back of her seat and we were off. We both took huge numbers of CDs with us. Driving music - very important.
It was the spring break of Rachel's junior year in high school, so it was time to go college shopping. She'd made a short list: The University of Virginia, William & Mary, Duke, and some Ivy League schools so preposterously out of reach I won't even bother to mention them. Some schools she'd already visited. We were going to see Duke and Virginia Tech.
It was a mess getting out of DC. I-95, that ultimate horrorshow of an interstate, lasted about 60 miles, but at Petersburg, VA we branched off to I-85 toward North Carolina's Research Triangle. We were in a fast car with a low profile, cruise control, a sun roof, a kickass stereo, and leather seats. My music began with some BT, Ultra Chill, Ultra Trance, Chicane, and Anastasia.
Rachel slept for a few hours, and then when traffic died down she took over and drove the remaining three hours into Durham, N.C. She leaned more toward emo bands, Dave Matthews, and 80s music. It was bizarro to hear Godzilla and Don’t Fear the Reaper coming through the speakers, but she likes the 80s bands. A male friend of hers made her a mix CD of surfing music, so we listened to that as well.
She is the apple of my eye. I look at her strong profile in the North Carolina sun and see a young Jennifer Garner. She has her mother’s blonde hair and high cheekbones, her mother’s pragmatism, and her father’s wide open love of the intellectual life. She is smarter and more athletic than either of her parents were. She is a locomotive without a governor, barrelling down the tracks at a hundred miles an hour. She can handle what life throws at her.
We pull into Duke’s Campus Commons drive around 5:30, where she’s dropped off at a gothic looking dormitory named Fuqua. A high school friend and fellow field hockey/lacrosse player is a student there now. Rachel is going to stay with her for the evening. Jill is all freckles and auburn hair, easy smile and bubbly personality. The girls hurry into the castle-like dorm. Bye Dad, she kisses me, asks for money, and then dismisses me.
They’ve got a formal dance to go to. Jill’s sorority has a formal. She graciously invited Rachel and arranged for a date, a young rich Brazilian with impeccable manners. He wears a tuxedo, pulls out her chair for her, dances like a dream. The restaurant is upscale. They watch the Duke-U. Conn basketball game, a nail biter until the very end, when the dream ends and Duke loses in the last few seconds of the game. The young men and women dance until 3 a.m.
The afternoon is spent touring the University of North Carolina (UNC)’s Chapel Hill campus. UNC Chapel Hill has about 30,000 students, and has far more extensive facilities than does Duke, especially in the sciences arena.
Lee-Ann Jaykus, a professor at NC State, is our tour guide. My brother was madly in love with Lee-Ann when they were freshmen at Purdue University. He’d always said she was the one big love of his life. Now she has two daughters, married to a man with two sons. She has her same toothsome smile and her outgoing ways. I haven’t seen Lee-Ann since Werner’s funeral. Fourteen years hasn’t changed her appreciably.
I hoped Lee-Ann would be able to see us. Rachel needs to see strong successful academically oriented women like Lee-Ann, who somehow manage to juggle career with family and femininity. They hit it off well. Lee-Ann’s husband Brent is in on the faculty of UNC’s medical school. Over dinner at Four-Eleven in Chapel Hill, Brent asks her the standard questions he’d ask his med school applicants. Rachel’s interviewed again. She’s used to this by now. We have wine. We laugh. It is a delightful evening. I kiss Lee-Ann goodbye and give her a warm hug. She is a connection to my past, and these connections are precious, so precious. It’s good Rachel now knows someone who knew Uncle Werner.
Monday morning Jill’s working at Vin Rouge, a French restaurant close to Duke’s East Campus, so we head over there for a superb French country breakfast. Rachel and Jill look fresh as daisies.
Afterwards we hurry over to the Admissions building, a stone Tudor mansion, where we get a brief indoctrination into the Duke way. The videotape has incredibly poised and articulate students talk about the privilege of a Duke education. Following the film we spend fifteen minutes with an admissions counselor familiar with Rachel’s high school. The woman does a breathtakingly fast but thorough interview of Rachel. To me it feels like she’s been frisked by a complete professional at an airport. But Rachel walks out of there feeling like she held her own. She is nothing if not confident.
The azaleas are all white and purple. The dogwoods are a riot of color. Duke’s lovely campus, its trees and stone work, it’s lovely cathedral, all show spectacularly well in mid April. Rachel wants to attend tomorrow.
The financial commitment to such an education is breathtaking as well. Some combination of loans and grants and scholarships will be needed, should she meet the very tough admissions criteria. She hasn’t gotten her SAT scores back, but they are likely at the very lowest end of Duke’s requirements.
We walk by the cathedral again. It is an enchanting place. The Bryan Center sells campus tchotckies, so we buy a Blue Devils tee shirt. She meets a high school senior there, another lacrosse player. Tina’s been accepted at Princeton, Stanford, Duke, and Rice, and her weekend stay here at Duke is all-expenses-paid. Tina’s an extraordinary student standout in a high school full of standouts. Rachel shakes her head. See, Dad, this is what I’ve been telling you all along… my high school’s hard. Unbelievable.
It’s time for the second leg of our road trip. We head the big car out of Durham and head up toward Virginia Tech, about three hours away. Once again we trade off driving duties. She likes to drive fast. The trucks don’t deter her. She’s got music and sunglasses; she’s good to go. We drive somewhat faster than the maximum tolerated de facto speed limit. When she passes trucks she waves through the open sunroof. The truckers all blink their lights. Too bad her dad’s in the co-pilot’s seat.
We arrive in Blacksburg, VA three short hours later. The vast flat campus of Virginia Tech is quite a contrast to the hilly Duke and UNC campuses. The bluestone buildings remind us of West Point in New York, which we’ve visited a number of times to see family friends. We get a room quickly and a cell phone conversation later, Rachel’s established contact with a Northern Virginia friend who agrees to give us a quick tour of campus later. Two hours later we’ve seen much of the campus and some of the off campus.
Dinner’s off campus. We’re famished and in the mood for steaks, so we find a steak house named for a former star Virginia Tech football player who also played pro football, and we figure that with that kind of background we can’t go wrong. The meals are huge. We talk about Duke and about her future possible timelines.
Gene P--, a high school acquaintance, calls her and asks her over to watch the NCAA men’s basketball game. I don’t know where you live, she says. No problem, I’ll be right over and pick you up. BIP. Fifteen minutes later she’s gone for four hours to watch basketball with a houseful of club soccer team guys. This is her life. What downtime? Who needs downtime?
Gene drives to our motel in the morning and we all have a marvelous breakfast buffet. Turns out Gene's father is chief of staff of the Peace Corps in Washington. Gene and his brother were raised in Africa. Gene is an endearingly goofy slacker. His life is soccer and the outdoors. Class is a bother. He wants to get by with doing the minimum, get a job, and continue to live the unencumbered life. I am old enough to know that life sometimes has funny twists and turns, and that this guy could completely surprise himself and run a startup company and retire at age 30. Stranger things have happened.
Rachel attends a class with Gene. She’s done by noon. I guess Va. Tech didn’t make the cut. We hit the road north along I-81. It’s time to go home. In a few hours we’re at another university, where Rachel’s older sister is in nursing school. The sisters are inseparable. Julie called and wanted to know if we’d like to take her and her three apartment-mates out to dinner. It would be a pleasure.
We get there at 2 p.m. before anyone’s actually home – they’re all still in classes. Rachel and I head over to the apartment complex’s clubhouse. The pool water is just being let in and the deck chairs are all out. It looks so inviting. Rachel works on her physical chemistry homework, however, and I work on a report. In half an hour Julie’s back. She and her one girlfriend spent all night studying for a nursing test and they’re beat. Rather than nap however, Julie and Rachel talk all about Duke and boys and things I’m not privy to. Something’s in the offing with Julie and some guy I don’t know, and Rachel gets the dish.
By 4:30 p.m. everyone’s back from classes, so we drive to a local restaurant for a big pig-out dinner. Two of the girls are 21 already, so they’re allowed to order drinks. Rachel and Julie burn at the injustice, of course. The girls are all delightful. One is a gifted storyteller who tells us about her dysfunctional but incredibly wealthy family. She has us in tears and doubled over in laughter. Julie loves her. Since the girl’s family lives so far away, Julie has invited her to our house for Easter. It will be a packed house with other company coming, but she will be a welcome addition with her humorous touch.
We’re done by six. Rachel and I have loved hearing college stories from these four good looking coeds. Rachel would like nothing better than to be in college already. She selects a bunch of CDs for the car ride home. Two hours and almost a thousand miles later we pull into the driveway.
Rachel – I would do a road trip with you any time, any place. You and Julie are the daughters this dad has always wanted. I am so proud of you.