CHAPTER Thirty-two: OFF TO COLLEGE

       The Labor Day barbecue at Johnsons was fun. With much the same cast as had been at the Fourth of July get-together, there was good food and much talk about ranching, farming, the sugar campaign, the weather, and the upcoming hunting seasons. Greg and Vic stayed close to one another through most of it, but didn’t really have a chance to talk. They reaffirmed their plans for Sunday morning, then Greg left to check his duck traps.

   The short work week was taken up with duck banding, paperwork, and helping Tim finish up miscellaneous maintenance projects before he went on furlough. The only break in the routine occurred Wednesday when Cal Graham brought his Fish and Game replacement in for an introduction. Todd Holden was maybe a couple years older than Greg. He was a native Idahoan, who had been hired on at Idaho Falls. This was his second assignment.

   After coffee and a little chatting, it was agreed that they would drive through the refuge, and get Todd familiar with the main features. Cal suggested that Todd ride with Greg, so they could discuss general operations, and Cal would meet them at the eastern gate. They would go back to town on the route that Todd would be taking during the hunt season.

   “I’m glad you’re going out that way,” said Chuck. “Jackson and Cora have been asking about you.”

   “Yeah, I planned to stop and introduce Todd, have a hamburger, and say my goodbyes.”

   They made the trip as planned, and Greg and Todd selected a date to get together to post the hunting area and set up the check station.

  

   It was Friday evening, after Chuck left for town, that Greg was hit with the full force of what was to come. He wouldn’t be seeing Vic that night. He wouldn’t sit with Vic on the porch steps tomorrow. They wouldn’t be sharing a bed Saturday night. In fact, after Sunday, he didn’t know when they’d be together again.

      Bereft. He’d used that term when the Andersons had gone off on their vacation. He was certain that’s what he was feeling, again. Something was going missing that was vital to his life. What could he do? Could he marry a girl he’d only known for four months, a girl – well, not a girl, but a young woman who was still only nineteen years old? He couldn’t think of any other way he could keep her with him. But, with Viet Nam still hanging over them, should he even consider that?

   And, anyway, was that fair? Vic deserved college. She would thrive on higher education, more ideas, new vistas. College might be wasted on a lot of people, but not on her. Still, even as he was thinking that, he was thinking about the risk of sending her off by herself. When he’d given that speech that had upset her so – about freeing her to pursue other options – he had to admit that it now seemed he was thinking more about himself than her – preparing himself for the possibility that she really would find someone new, if she had more choice.

   He really didn’t know what to do. It was a long and miserable Saturday.

 

    In town, Vic kept busy most of the week with last minute preparations. But, as they were for Greg, Friday night and Saturday were almost unbearable. Not only was she missing the immediate moments, she couldn’t conjure up any image of them on the porch steps, or in her bed, at any time in the future. She didn’t know how she could stand that uncertainty. She really just wanted to be with him. Coupled with no home on the refuge to come back to, going off to college seemed a terrible option. Could she do it?

    

   Sunday morning, Greg arrived at the house in town with a smile and a businesslike attitude, but a heart in turmoil. He loaded Vic’s belongings in the car. When she rushed back into the house to get some almost-forgotten items, he slipped two letters and three books into her suitcase.  Vic wore a brave fact through protracted farewells with Mandy, Chuck and Alice, but her sadness was barely hidden.

   Then, they were finally on their way, headed east.  They rode in silence, both thinking their own thoughts. Finally, Vic reached into the back seat, and retrieved a manila envelope. She opened it, and brought out some papers.

   “I can’t believe how busy this first week is going to be. You saw this schedule, right?”

   “I did, and you’re right; it is busy. Lots of orientation.”

   “Was your first week like this?”

   “It was busy. I don’t recall it being so organized, but we did have a lot of meetings, and placement tests, and just a lot of getting to know our counselors and fellow newcomers.”

   She read over the schedule, again. “So, in a couple hours, we check me in to the dorm, and you help me get all my belongings into my room.” She stopped. “And then you leave me!”

   He reached for her arm. “I do. I am definitely not looking forward to that part of the schedule.”

   She was silent. He glanced over at her; she seemed about to cry. “I don’t want to leave you, Greg. Why don’t we get married now, and go somewhere and live happily ever after?”

   How did one respond to that, particularly while trying to keep one’s mind on his driving, and while thinking his own similar thoughts? He tried to lighten the moment. “Think about my image, Vic. How could I explain to my friends, my peers – my family! – how I ended up married to an uneducated girl from ‘the sticks’? I mean, they would applaud my taste in beautiful women, but...”

   “I’m sort of serious, Greg.”

   They were just approaching the rest area above Raft River. Greg exited, pulled into a parking space, and stopped the car. They sat quietly for a few moments. Vic began to cry, softly.

   “What’s going on, Vic?” he asked softly. He unhooked her seat belt,  put his arm around her, and pulled her closer to him. “Is this just going-into-the-unknown jitters?”

   She was crying harder. “It’s going-into-the-unknown without you! It’s not really having a home to come home to, anymore. It’s leaving Mandy and my folks. It’s being a little scared that I won’t do well at college. Maybe a little scared that I will do well, and it’ll change everything. It’s… it’s all that, but it’s mostly leaving you!!”

   He let her cry, because he felt like crying, himself. Finally, she slept. He sat beside her, and held her. He watched the vehicles come in off the highway, stop for a few moments, then move on to the east or west. After California, it fascinated him that there were interstate highways that barely got any traffic. He watched through maybe fifty cars – maybe a half-hour – until Vic woke up.

   She smiled a sad smile at him. He smiled one back. “Vic, what you said: I had almost the exact conversation with myself Friday and Saturday, and came to the same conclusion. I would marry you in a split second, even though we have only known each other for a little over four months. I’d marry you, but I still want you to go to college and get a degree. You would be a wonderful homemaker, mother, and supporter of whatever my career develops into. But if that’s what you settle for, you will be depriving a mind that is as beautiful as your face and figure. College is wasted on the majority - those who attend just because they think they need a degree for their future life, or because they don’t know what else to do. You, my darling Vic, deserve college. You love learning, and you love sharing. You were made for higher education.

   “There’s another side, too. When I picture our future life, I see kids, and a real home, and a sharing of the duties and responsibilities that go with them. But in my mind, I also see us as work partners – not you at home, and me with a career – but as parents and lovers who combine our skills and knowledge to create some kind of double-barreled business. I don’t know what that business might be. I suspect it will not be on wildlife refuges – but I don’t know that, for sure – and, of course, it will depend on what major you decide to pursue. We might not change the world, but we would be great together in whatever we teamed up to do.”

   Vic hadn’t moved from his side, or commented on what he was saying. “You make it sound very appealing, on several levels,” she finally said. “I think I might like to go to college, with that understanding about the future.”

   “I’m glad. I don’t need to tell you that it’s still going to be really hard on us. We’re used to not seeing each other for a week at a time, but the one time it was longer – your vacation – I almost went crazy. The way you kissed me when you returned, I know you felt the same way. We have to have a definite game plan to avoid those kinds of traumas. I have some ideas that might help. Want to hear them?”

   “Of course. What are you thinking?”

   “Well, first order of business is communication. Our obvious physical attraction to one another is a given, only requiring that we be in proximity. But our secret weapon – the reason we know each other so well after only four months – is the talking that we do. In as little time as we’ve actually been together, think of the subjects we’ve covered. If we can’t be seated side by side on my porch steps every weekend, we’re going to have to create that level of communication through letters. We both have to write often, and – while saying ‘I love you’ or ‘I miss you’ is aways permitted and always welcome – we have to write real substance: what we’ve been doing, what we’ve been thinking, what’s going on around us, what we heard of interest from others, questions we have for one another. It’s sometimes going to be hard work, because sometimes it doesn’t seem like much is happening worth reporting. We have to make it worth reporting.”

   “Well, you know me. I can’t keep my thoughts to myself, when I talk to you.”

   “I know, and I’m going to have to work hard to offer you the same openness on paper.

   “Now, the second thing is actual physical presence. We’re not going to be able to see each other every week, but I really think we have to work toward at least every three weeks. Whenever you come home, we need to insist on our alone time at the refuge. In between, I need to make reservations for specific dates at a nearby hotel, and we need to plan those well ahead of time so they are real dates that we can anticipate. If I pick you up Friday after your classes, we could stay together over Saturday night until Sunday morning. On those dates, we can talk, or eat out, or go to a movie, or watch a football game. Maybe sometimes, we’ll just feel like making love non-stop for twenty-four hours.”

   “Wow! Could you do that?”

   “Well, I don’t know, but I’d certainly be willing to find out.”

   “And if you thought you’re weren’t going to make it all the way, we could stop and start over.”

    He looked at her admiringly. “You do have good ideas.”

   She was quiet for a few moments. “I like what you’re proposing, but wouldn’t staying in a hotel get pretty expensive after a while?”

   “It would certainly be a cost, but I’m a bachelor who lives in government housing, and doesn’t have many expenses except food and gas for my car. I think a few nights with my girl would be a quite acceptable expense.”

   “Okay, I’m in.”

  “Now, I meant it about making it a real date, to look forward to. You’re going to be busy with registration, and orientation, and starting classes, but I don’t want to wait too long. When I was thinking about this on Saturday, I checked a calendar. I could pick you up Friday, October 1st, and bring you back to your dorm by noon, Sunday October 3. Shall I make the reservations?”

   “Yes, please.”

   “Now, one last thing. I want us to be married. I’m sure I don’t want to wait until you graduate, but I wonder about a long enough period to announce a formal engagement, and then enough time for our family and friends to enjoy our wedding with us. In the meantime, we would continue to live as we have been living – feeling that we are, indeed, already married. Does that make sense to you?”

   “I think so, but let me ponder it a while.”

   “Okay, but in the meantime…” He reached across her to the glove compartment, and took out a small box, and opened it. “Would you wear this ‘promise ring,’ just to seal the ‘marriage’ between you and me?”

   She took the rings out of the box, and held them in her hand.

   “They have a little engraving on them,” he noted.

   She checked. “Vic and Greg! I am amazingly surprised, but amazingly happy. Of course, I’ll wear it. And you have one, too! What fingers should put them on?”

   “Because, for us, it’s really a wedding ring, I would say fourth finger of left hand. I hope yours is a good fit. I had to guess, but we can get it resized, if necessary.”

   “Put it on me,” she said. He did. It fit perfectly. “Now, let me put yours on for you.” She did. “So, if there was even a slight doubt before, there isn’t, now. I love you, Greg.”

   “And I you, Vic.”

 

   After a little longer, they drove on to Pocatello, stopping for lunch, then going on to her dorm. Her roommate, Nancy Bowen, was already there. She and Greg had met at Vic’s birthday party. She knew quite a lot about him from Vic; he only knew that Vic and Mandy had lived with Nancy’s family in town.

   He helped carry all her belongings to her room and then, in too short a time, he had to leave them so they could get ready for the evening exercises. After a prolonged kiss at his car – and a stop at a nice- looking nearby motel to make a reservation beginning October 1 -  he was on his way home.

   Vic returned to her room, and Nancy.

   “Are you excited, Vic?”

   “Yes. I’m also a little sad, and a little scared. I got a little nutty on our way this morning, and we stopped and talked for an hour or so. I’m okay now, but I didn’t want to leave him.”

   Nancy suddenly noticed Vic’s ring finger. “Vic! You didn’t get married, did you?”

   “No. It’s a promise ring.” She smiled, and turned the ring on her finger. “More to come.”

   Greg drove home alone, a little sad but happier than when he picked Vic up that morning. Rather than go to the refuge the quick way from the old highway, he decided to go into town and report to Vic’s parents. They’d want to know how it went.

   Mandy opened the door for him. “Greg, you’re back. Did everything go okay?”

  “It’s okay now, but we had a little breakdown.”

  “The car?”

  “No, the sister.”

  “Vic? What happened?”

  “I’m sure she’ll tell you, but I thought I’d give a little heads-up. Are your folks here?”

  “No, they went off to eat and see a movie. But come in, and tell me.”

  They sat in the living room, and Greg summarized the day for her. “We were both feeling pretty bad about her leaving – honestly, I still am! But we sat and talked it through, and things were a lot better by the time we got her to school. It helped that Nancy was there, already. I think we’re over the worst – or, at least, reconciled to going on from here.”

   Mandy was obviously shaken. “My poor lovers! I can only start to imagine how you feel. It’s going to be hard.”

   “It is, but we talked it out, and made some plans. We’ll make it through.” He got up. “I better go. Vic and Nancy have some sort of assembly they have to go to, tonight, so you may not hear from her right away. But I know you two share everything. She’ll give you all the details as soon as she can.”

   She walked him to the door, but he turned back to her. “On another subject – well, the same subject, but a little different aspect of it – I have a proposition for you.”

   She acted scandalized. “Greg Cleveland, you should be ashamed of yourself – my sister (who you say you love) barely out the door, and you’re propositioning me.”

  He was ready to lighten the mood. “As you know, that’s not what this is about. And you shouldn’t even know that word in that context at your age.”

  “Yes, a whole year and a couple month younger than Vic!”

  “So, no proposition. What if I call it a proposal? Will that work?”

  “Proposing to me? That’s even worse!

  Greg threw up his hands. “My vocabulary fails me. Can I start over?”

“You don’t need to, probable-future-brother-in-law. Just tell me, what is it you want of me?”

   “I want you to teach me how to dance.”

   She didn’t know what she expected, but it wasn’t that. “Teach you to dance?’

  “ Well, I can dance, but I want to dance better. Look, I’ve been fantasizing about dancing with your sister since you two went to your junior-senior ball. I’ve told her I want to. When we do, I want to be good enough that we won’t have to think about anything, except drifting around the floor in each other’s arms.”

   “Why, Greg Cleveland, you are a real romantic!”

   He grinned. “I guess I am, when it comes to your sister. So, dance lessons?”

   “Sure. After school, or on the weekends?”

   “I hadn’t thought it out. I’ll talk to you, later.”

   “When is this dance going to occur?”

   “I don’t know. They must have fancy balls at the college sometimes – maybe during the holidays?“ He started out, but turned back. “This is between you and me, right? No telling Vic?”

   “Oh, you’d be surprised what I tell Vic, and she tells me. You’d be surprised what I know about you two.”

   “No, I wouldn’t. I know you share everything.” He kissed her on the forehead. “I don’t mind. I’m glad you have each other. True friends are pretty rare.”

  He had one more thought before he got out the door. “How much is this going to cost me?”

   “A lot! But it will be worth it.”



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