(Author’s note: This chapter has multiple pages. Please click the number at the bottom to continue reading the next page)
Mom dropped me off at the bus station, kissed me lightly on the cheek, said to take care and left. Dad was not home and didn’t come. Said he had to buy some tools. He was a carpenter. The real reason was that both were mad at me for deciding to go to an out-of-state college.
“You can stay home. Save money. Why go to another college far away?” Dad had said.
Well, for Dad going fifty miles out of Phoenix was far away. I was planning to go to Oklahoma, not some far away foreign land.
Mom worried that I will stay hungry or get sick.
“I’m old enough now,” I said.
“You don’t know anyone out there,” Mom said. “Where’d you stay? Who will cook for you? Wash your clothes?”
“Mom,” I said, “I can take care of myself. Don’t worry.”
She turned away, not convinced. Frankly I wasn’t sure what I was going to do either. But I hoped everything will work out.
I didn’t know why I selected the University of Oklahoma. Maybe, I thought it was in the south and warm like Arizona. I liked their football team. I applied for the graduate engineering program and was awarded an assistant-ship. I had lived at home during my undergrad years. Now was the time to get out there and explore life outside.
It was January 1963. When I got down from the Continental Trailways bus on a Thursday, I shivered as I waited to get by luggage. It was chilly, around 35 0F, something I was not used to in Arizona. Not having any friends or acquaintances in Norman I had reserved a room at the Holiday Inn on North Interstate Drive.
I woke up early Friday and went to see the dean of students. When Ms. Sterling, his secretary, said I couldn’t see him that morning I felt a bit stupid. It was partly my fault. I should have made an appointment rather than just walking in his office and asking to see him.
“The dean is out-of-town and will be back Monday,” said the secretary. “He will certainly meet with you then.”
“Fine,” I replied.
“What did you say your name was?” she asked.
“Ashley. Ashley Wilkins. I’m a new grad student. I was hoping the dean would help me find a place to stay.”
“Certainly. Why don’t I put your name on his calendar? Ashley Wilkins, did you say? Would 9.30 am be o.k.?”
Now that seeing the dean was not possible, I had no idea what to do next. The thought of spending the whole weekend alone in the hotel was depressing.
I crossed the campus and came upon a busy street. There was a red neon sign flashing the word “Rickners” on the other side of the street. It looked like a diner, but turned out to be a bookstore with a coffee shop in it. I figured I would have a sandwich and coffee or some light snack. When the light turned green, I crossed the street, my nose and ears turning numb from the cold.
The store wasn’t crowded. I walked up to the counter and started to read the menu. I was in no rush. A young, freckle faced, red-haired waitress was cleaning the counter.
“Well, well. Isn’t someone waiting patiently for a cup of coffee?” I heard a voice behind me. For a moment I thought I was obstructing someone wanting to proceed along the line. But there was no line. I turned and noticed a young man wearing blue wranglers, a heavy winter jacket and a maroon baseball cap with the letters OU on the front.
“Hi, I’m Owen. New here?” the man asked, extending his right hand. The way he said his name in his Oklahoma drawl sounded like “Oh Wayne”. I shook his hand as I wondered how he knew I was new in town. Perhaps I looked lost.
“Ashley,” I said. “Ashley Wilkins.”
“Not Ashley Wilkes, the proper gentleman from Gone with the Wind?” Owen said with a wide grin.
“Not even close,” I said. “Arrived from Phoenix yesterday.”
I ordered a grilled cheese with coffee and Owen ordered just coffee. We found an empty table and continued our conversation.