Tuesday, May 30, 2006

The Julie Nixon Chronicles, Part Five: Rocks for Jockettes and Winter Weekend with Jocks

Like generations of college students, I regarded the introductory geology course at Smith as an easy way to fulfill my science requirement, so I signed up. Julie evidently felt the same way. She had avoided science altogether during her freshman year, but now also opted for geology. We often walked to class together, across the leafy campus to Burton Hall, where Professor Burger, a newly-minted PhD, held forth on the wonders of the earth’s history as told through its rocks.

Having no expectations that I’d enjoy the class, I fell in love with geology. Professor Burger, wiry and energetic, with an engaging smile, exuded zeal for his subject, which included the very terrain around us. He waxed positively poetic as he described the Connecticut River oxbow in Northampton (made famous by Thomas Cole’s painting, The Oxbow, now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York). Over thousands of years, he explained, sedimentary deposits on one bank and simultaneous erosion of the other had shifted the river to form a graceful arc. His account of these processes only deepened my appreciation for the oxbow's natural beauty.

And who wouldn’t be dazzled to learn about violent volcanoes, powerful earthquakes, and glaciers that marched inexorably across continents? Julie, for one. While I lapped up every lecture and adored the labs where we committed the names of rocks to memory (mica, chlorite,quartz, feldspar . . . a near-infinite list), Julie struggled to understand metamorphism and other basic mechanisms that shaped the earth. She was a history buff but her enthusiasm apparently didn’t extend to the history of the planet itself. She preferred to focus on the Founding Fathers.

Back at Baldwin House, Julie often sought me out in the foyer as we waited for Mrs. Nicely to lead the way into the dining room for dinner. Ever solicitous, Julie took her responsibilities as “big sister” seriously and wanted to make sure I was adjusting well to college life. And when Mrs. Nixon came to visit one fall weekend, she surprised me by going out of her way to find me and say hello.

Julie’s discomfort with geology soon showed up in her quiz results. While I was getting A’s, Julie was barely passing. She asked if I would tutor her, to which I gladly agreed, delighted to find a means to repay her continuing kindness toward me. As fall gave way to more wintry New England weather, we began our tutoring sessions and continued our walks to class. One morning, the temperature dipped below zero. Clad in my mother’s old racoon coat, I joined Julie for the hike to Burton Hall, a trek made memorable by Julie’s moist eyelashes, which froze solid in the frigid air—a vivid, if momentary, demonstration of the power of ice to transform the landscape.

After Christmas vacation, as exams approached, I climbed the stairs one evening on my way to Julie’s room. We’d arranged to meet and go over the class materials. Julie was sitting on the carpeted hall floor outside her room, talking on the hall phone (no one had their own phones in those days, let alone cell phones). The phone’s cord barely reached around the corner from its connection point in the little hall kitchenette.

Julie sounded upset. I lingered awkwardly for a moment and was about to return to my room when Julie asked me to wait just a minute. She managed to drag the phone inside her room and closed the door. Even through the door, though, she sounded more and more distressed as the conversation continued. Then I heard her say “Hold on,” and the door opened.

“Are you going to Winter Weekend with Peter?” she asked. I said I was.

“Are you planning to stay overnight?”

“Yes,” I answered.

Looking like she was about to burst into tears, Julie again asked me to wait, retreated into her room, and closed the door. When she re-emerged, she told a tale with a political twist all its own.

Some background: During my freshman year, women at Smith still required parental permission to stay out overnight. However, parents could sign a blanket release allowing their daughters to take overnights at their own discretion. My parents had signed such a release but Julie’s hadn't. Also, women still weren’t permitted to stay overnight in the Amherst dorms. For special weekends, they normally rented rooms from local residents. Quaint as it may sound today, I had made arrangements to rent a room for Saturday night of the upcoming Winter Weekend, whose festivities would extend far beyond the normal Smith weekend curfew of 1 am.

All these restrictions would go out the window by the following year as the cultural revolution took hold, but in the meantime, Julie had a dilemma. David wanted her to take an overnight on Saturday so they could party late into the night along with everyone else. The small supply of available rooms in town having already been rented, he proposed putting her up at the Amherst Motel, on Route 9, a short distance from the college.

When I arrived at her room, Julie was on the phone with her mother, entreating her to give permission for the overnight. While not unsympathetic, Mrs. Nixon saw a major potential problem. Her husband's campaign for the 1968 Presidential nomination had gone into high gear. The last thing he wanted was a story in the newspapers about his daughter spending the night in a seedy motel with the former President’s grandson. No matter that the motel wasn’t particularly seedy and that David would gladly have said goodnight at the door. Even the possibility of scandal was too much to risk. Despite Julie’s avowal that “even Barbara is allowed to stay overnight,” Mrs. Nixon regretfully decided that Julie could not.

Clearly, fame had its price. Never had obscurity seemed so appealing to me as when I happily packed my bag for my overnight at Amherst a few weeks later. But as much as Julie may have disliked having to sublimate her wishes to her father’s ambition, she also supported that ambition and believed in him passionately.

More about that in my next installment: Catching Rides with Manolo as Nixon Rides to the Presidency

Thursday, May 18, 2006

The Julie Nixon Chronicles, Part Four: The Squash Connection

In 1967, Smith, like most colleges, published a freshman facebook. This collection of photos helped me and other Smith women identify our peers, but it was of far greater interest to the men of Amherst, Yale, and Princeton, who were looking for dates.

The facebook contained shot after shot of modest-looking young women sporting Peter Pan collars fastened with circle pins. My photo, on the other hand, featured me in a sleeveless tee with a suggestively low v-neck. My long hair appeared tousled and my expression was more come-hither than demure. I’d submitted it in all innocence. I hated most pictures of myself and this was one of the few in which I thought I looked decent.

Apparently as a result of this photo, I began receiving phone calls from total strangers asking me out. But I wasn’t even tempted. I already had a boyfriend—an Amherst sophomore named Peter, who had gone to Southside Senior High School with me back in Rockville Centre. We’d even been in the same Spanish class. I’d always regarded Peter as cute but way too immature, despite the fact that he was a year older than me. Then, in December, 1966, I saw him in a whole new light.

Southside had a tradition of inviting recent grads back to meet with seniors and share their college experiences. I’d just been accepted at Smith, early decision. Knowing that Peter attended Amherst, only a few miles down the road from Smith, I was mildly curious to hear his impressions of college. But when he showed up, looking dashing in a brown suede jacket and exuding a newfound confidence, I felt intrigued. With his wavy black hair and crooked smile, he really was handsome, I decided. He’d even grown a bit taller. But that oh-so-cool jacket clinched it. I was smitten.

A few days later, he asked me out and by the time his winter break ended and he returned to Amherst, we were a couple. When I arrived at Smith the next fall, his presence nearby represented a small island of security in my sea of anxieties. I wasn’t about to jeopardize that for a few facebook dates.

The year before, Julie had her own facebook problems. Apparently, on viewing her photo, some men at Amherst and other schools thought it would be a lark to go out with the former Vice President’s daughter. As a result, she got countless calls from guys who probably had no real interest in getting to know her. She could never be sure, but her natural self-protectiveness led her to assume the worst.

Imagine what a relief it was to hook up with Amherst student David Eisenhower. David was equal in celebrity and understood exactly what Julie was going through. Their romance took off. And here’s where the squash connection comes in. David and Peter were both on the Amherst squash team. Hence, Julie and I knew what it was to hover inside the chilly corridors overlooking the squash courts while our boyfriends wacked a hard little ball inside a claustrophobic cubicle.

This connection led to at least one double date and gave Julie and me a common bond. Few of the freshmen and sophomore women in Baldwin House had steady boyfriends and even fewer were dating guys from Amherst. In fact, some felt condescending toward the little college down the road. I remember one senior remarking haughtily that she only dated Yale men. This struck me as odd, since it was a much more arduous trip to New Haven than to nearby Amherst.

I wanted to be with Peter as much as possible. He felt the same way, except for a few things that took priority--squash and tennis matches, squash and tennis practices, hanging around with his Deke fraternity brothers, even schoolwork. Given that I would drop anything to spend time with him, whereas he made time for me only when it was convenient, I was usually the one traveling the nine miles between our two schools.

Before one of my visits to Amherst, Julie asked me a favor. David had a history paper due that day, but was away from campus and had given the paper to Julie for delivery. Could I drop it off at his professor’s office? Of course, I said yes. During the ride over I struggled with the temptation to read what he’d written and, without too much hesitation, gave in. While I can’t remember the exact subject of the paper (something to do with American history), I do remember my reaction to reading it. It was an okay effort, not terribly well-written. I believed I could have written something at least as good, maybe better.

But this was David Eisenhower, grandson of the President! Since famosity had me in its grip even then, I was awed by David’s lineage. Wasn’t he guaranteed by birthright to be a superior student? The realization that he was merely competent bowled me over. For the first time since I arrived at Smith, I felt that I might actually belong there.

Next installment: Rocks for Jockettes and Winter Weekend with Jocks

Thursday, May 04, 2006

The Julie Nixon Chronicles, Part Three: Digression—Mrs. Nicely and other Niceties of Smith College

As I began writing this installment, I realized I couldn't describe my experiences with Julie at Smith without first setting the scene. Hence, the digression which follows.

By the time I left for Smith in late September, 1967, I was a nervous wreck. I anticipated entering a rarified world of cultured young women, many of them debutantes, who would be far better prepared for the rigors of college life than I, and probably far better dressed.

To make matters worse, the morning of my departure from Rockville Centre my father threw his back out heaving one of my over-laden suitcases into the car trunk, adding a dollop of guilt to my anxiety—knowing he had a bad back, I should never have let him lift that bag! He was forced to remain at home while my mother and I drove the three hours to Northampton, Massachusetts.

Baldwin House was an ivy-covered, four-story brick building dating from the turn of the twentieth century. It housed 77 students, freshmen through seniors. On arrival, I found myself relegated to the smallest double in the place. I was told by a helpful upperclasswoman that my room had been a maid's room in the days when students brought their maids along with them to school.

Great. I'd been assigned to the maid's quarters. As compensation, however, my roommate, Gloria, and I had a private adjoining bathroom almost as big as our room itself. The other students on our floor shared a communal bathroom at the end of the hall, no doubt one of the leaking facilities alluded to by Dick Nixon.

Gloria was not at all what I'd expected in a Smith roommate. From Castle Rock, Colorado, she was the first high school graduate ever to come east to attend college. I was hardly reassured when, out of earshot of my mother, she informed me that she'd hidden the LSD carefully, so it wouldn't be found and get us into trouble. LSD? I'd yet to try marijuana.

She also informed me that she liked to do barbell exercises on the floor, in the nude, (while slathered with body lotion, I later discovered). She instantly adored my prized possession, a small llama throw rug my father had bought during a business trip to Peru. She pronounced it the perfect spot for her naked barbell exercises.

As we unpacked, Gloria proudly displayed her latest fashion acquisition, a paper dress. (The concept of disposable clothing was short-lived, even for Gloria. Hers wound up on the wall of an Amherst freshman, Rob Cohen, for whom, I assume, she'd taken it off. Famosity requires me to divulge that Rob went on to become a filmmaker, directing such blockbusters as The Fast and the Furious.) Gloria also raved about the Evelyn Wood Speed Reading technique she'd mastered (and which she later convinced me to try, much to the detriment of my comprehension of Plato's Republic).

Despite her oddities, Gloria seemed genial and at least I didn't find her intimidating. My other classmates, however, were a different matter. Though I later learned that my entering class was an anomaly at Smith—the first class in which a majority of students (67%) had graduated from public high schools—at Baldwin House many of the freshman and still more of the sophomores, juniors, and seniors were products of elite private schools.

My anxiety about how I'd measure up induced an acute attack of self-consciousness. In particular, I became excruciatingly aware of the way I spoke—I'd always prided myself on not having a New York accent, but suddenly my vowels were nowhere near proper enough. And the teenage slouch that had always been good enough for Southside Senior High School seemed totally declasse among my fellow Smithees, who, in my idealized view, all stood ramrod straight.

No description of my arrival at Smith College would be complete without mention of Baldwin's housemother, Mrs. Nicely, whose name apparently predestined her for her role as enforcer of genteel comportment. With her white hair and pleasingly plump figure, she was the very picture of a mother in my eyes. I immediately decided that the rebelliousness which had characterized my teenage years and made my actual mother's life miserable could never be allowed to surface with Mrs. Nicely. A mere whiff of her disapproval, I imagined, would send me into paroxysms of shame.

Mrs. Nicely lived in an apartment on the first floor of Baldwin House and presided over dinner every evening and tea on Friday afternoon. In those waning days of parietals, men weren't allowed upstairs and Baldwin House residents were still required to sign out for the evening with Mrs. Nicely and return by 1 a.m. (11 p.m. on weeknights). Such decorum now sounds quaint, even ridiculous. But at the time, I aspired only to master the intricacies of what was known at Smith as "gracious living," which included wearing a skirt to dinner and properly folding one's cloth napkin after meals and returning it to its allotted cubby.

Among my freshman classmates were some who seemed to embody the cultured upbringing I lacked—Kathy, daughter of a Ford executive and graduate of Miss Porter's School in Farmington, Connecticut, whose family lived in the exclusive enclave of Grosse Pointe Farms, Michigan; Pril, who traced her lineage back to the American Revolution and had attended the Emma Willard School; and Liz, fresh from the Madeira School in McLean, Virginia. They were all lovely young women who became my friends, but initially I was convinced that their impeccable credentials made them superior to me.

In truth, several of the sixteen freshmen in Baldwin House were much like me—nice girls from good suburban high schools. We arrived with our Weejuns, our Villager outfits, and our liberal views. And there were also a number of scholarship students who'd had far fewer advantages than me growing up. I eventually realized that we were a diverse group and that I could succeed just by being myself. But during those first anxious days at Smith, I strained to achieve perfect etiquette.

We freshmen had moved in early, along with a few upperclasswomen who helped with orientation, so I didn't see Julie right away. By the time she arrived, I greeted her as a welcome familiar face. We were delighted to discover that we were both taking Geology 101 to fulfill the science requirement. And we found that we had another thing in common—boyfriends at Amherst College. More on that in my next installment.

Next Installment: The Squash Connection (really!)