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
To be cont'd
2 weeks ago