Robert Gallagher, Wake
The College Drive
It's always late at night and dark outside the windows. We lean back in the car, our faces and hands lit by the green glow of the dashboard. My father is talking about philosophy or maybe sports. Or I am. We trade theories on the consequences of technologies, the details of self-actualization, binomial pyramids, recent changes in baseball lineups, or the perfect height for a pitcher. This is the image that comes to me when I think about how we spent my drives to college. We sit side by side, looking at the road in front, seeing the distant possibilities.
My father liked to travel at night to avoid as much traffic as possible. So did I. Sometimes we traded naps. Neither of us slept for more than two hours out of the eight. Sometimes neither of us slept. We talked.
"Why are they still teaching chemistry using rote memorization?" On the drives back from college to home, he was full of questions about what I had learned. "There's no need for that."
"Yeah, I know. And my professor kept telling me that my questions about atomic mass numbers being wrong were physics questions."
"Not her type of chemistry. She's used to students who want to be doctors."
He questioned everything from teaching methods to grading, from lab layouts to linguistic textbooks. In some areas, he was delighted to hear about the progress being made. In others, he seemed scandalized to hear that parts of his old college lore had been deemed irrelevant.
"Everybody should read at least one Plato book," he insisted.
"I read parts of The Republic at home," I said as I remembered. "At school, I read the whole Symposium in gay literature. The class talked about it a bunch."
"You took a gay lit course?"
"We read Plato, Sappho, Lorde, and Baldwin. The books weren't all great but the discussions were pretty good."
"That's different from my college. But I guess it's not totally different."
On the first half-dozen drives, we talked about infinitesimals and what they meant to calculus, debated the progress of the Maryland college basketball team, revisited the geometry of Roman aqueducts and bridges, and practiced tricks in approximations. We discussed Sugar Ray Leonard's boxing, Jack Dempsey versus Gene Tunney, Joe Louis versus Max Schmeling, and Muhammad Ali versus everybody. My father insisted that Joe Louis was the greatest of all time because of his comeback victory over Schmeling. He remembered the radio re-broadcasts and the sense of American vindication over the un-American idea of a master race.
This was a bit unfair to Schmeling, who was not a Nazi and was brave enough to defy the Nazis during their rise to power in his country. It's true, however, that the Nazis held him up as their ideal warrior and promoted him as proof that they were the masters. They also held Schmeling's family hostage in Germany while he traveled to fights to keep him from defecting.
On the other side of the fight, the pressure that Joe Louis felt was immense. He had heard from the Negro community after he lost to Schmeling in their first match. He knew how disappointed everyone had been. He felt burdened by how much his loss had affected civil rights and civic pride.
"He and Jesse Owens were so great," my father insisted. "They didn't just win. They won at the most important times and in the best ways."
In retrospect, I wonder if he didn't look forward to trading ideas. At the time, it didn't occur to me. The discussions were just something that happened. We let our minds drift through the night, conversation after conversation. I think he maybe looked forward to the drives for that reason. He was disappointed when I took off for a semester, saved up money, and bought a used car.
"I could take out another loan," he said. "I could pay more."
"I don't want more of your money. I want to pay. And I want to drive."
"Why do you need a car in college?"
A car saved as much as an hour on a round-trip to different campuses, so it was handy. Plus I wanted it as much for taking girls on dates and I'm sure he realized that. His resistance, maybe, was that he felt our opportunities to talk were slipping away.
They weren't. The talks in the car set the tone for our next thirty years of discussion.