It was homecoming at the University of Missouri last weekend, and I went. Floats and parades. A big football game. Old grads boozing it up over tailgates in the stadium parking lot. Much joviality and down-home schmoozing. It's really not my style, and I hadn't experienced it for three decades, but last week it warmed me. I felt good to be there.
My weekend in Columbia, Mo., was divided into two quite distinct parts: involving myself with friends and new acquaintances in the homecoming festivities and solitary explorations of the campus where I spent four years of my life--split in two by a world war.
I walked the campus twice, first on a Friday when it was pulsating with young people hurrying to class, and later--and more satisfyingly--on Sunday when I had it all to myself.
On both days, I entered between the stone lions guarding the Journalism School, wondering if their legend has persisted in this sophisticated age, the legend that whenever a virgin walks between them, the lions will roar. I poked my head in the "J" school auditorium where my classmates and I used to pass a paper up and down the row during dull lectures, each adding a paragraph to a highly creative sex fantasy--and where I returned 20 years later as a speaker at Journalism Week, keeping a sharp eye out for paper passers in the audience.
I meditated beneath the graceful, massive columns, all that is left of the first administration building that burned to the ground more than a century ago. This was the first university west of the Mississippi, and the columns have been left standing to honor that distinction and to form the centerpiece of the campus.
I walked past ancient brick buildings that still carry on their facades such quaint nomenclature as "Journalism" and "Geography" and "History." No Communications or Social Studies or Humanities here, an observation that pleased me for some unaccountable reason.
I admired the magnificent dome of Jesse Hall, the "new" administration building soon to celebrate its 100th birthday. I walked its corridors, my footsteps echoing from the tiled floor to the high ceilings. The registrar is still where he was in 1940, when my uncle--a charter member of the good ol' boy network in Missouri--prevailed on his friend, then-Sen. Harry Truman, to write a letter to the registrar saying I was, indeed, a resident of Missouri (which stretched a point considerably) so I could avoid the out-of-state tuition. I quite simply wouldn't have been able to go to school there otherwise.
I tried to put back together the boy who walked these paths and corridors in 1940. He was elusive, amorphous. There would be brief, shining moments of recognition, then a fuzzy amalgam of permutations that have taken place over the years since. He was quite remarkably innocent and unsophisticated, a high school graduate at 16--that I remember--and seemingly ill-equipped to take part in a global war two years later. Yet, in many ways, that innocence served him well in the war and the immediate years that followed. But it was difficult to shed all the intervening years and feel any part of that innocence again.
I stayed with an old and dear friend, for 35 years director of sports information at Missouri, a widower who generously opened his home to me and even fixed it for me to sit in the press box, where I "covered" the Missouri-Oklahoma State football game for the Los Angeles Times.
It had been many years since I experienced a Midwestern fall, the only season I really miss in California. True, we have the season here, but it's a mini-fall contrasted with the panoply and diversity of color and the chill bite in the air in the Midwest. I always looked on winter as the price we had to pay for fall and spring.
I was a week too late for the best colors. Many of the trees were stripped of leaves, but there was enough left to suggest the full effect, and that's all I needed. That and the chance to kick through piles of dead leaves wherever I walked, a sound that has always stirred my soul.
We went to the game early to join the tailgate party of a friend of my host, an old grad who made it big as a small manufacturer and drives an enormous mobile home from Alton, Ill., to Columbia for every MU home football game. He always brings 15 people with him, the cast changing with each trip. He and his wife were gracious to this stranger, and the food and drink were sumptuous--including hot dishes prepared in the kitchen inside the van.
The game, involving two teams with dismal season records, was close and exciting. Missouri lost, 31-30, when it failed a two-point conversion after its last touchdown. I soaked up the press box ambience, a stimulating reminder of other days. Two chairs removed from me was Don Faurot, who invented the split-T offense and coached Missouri through its glory years. He's 87 now, looks 20 years younger, and carried on a sub voce commentary throughout the game. I once collaborated with Faurot on a story for the Saturday Evening Post, and he remembered me--or certainly seemed to--with real enthusiasm.
I even watched the halftime show, something I rarely do. The centerpiece was a stunning young woman named Debbye Turner, an MU veterinary student who had just been named 1989's Miss America. After the game there was more socializing in the parking lot, then drinks and dinner with more old friends of my host, back for homecoming. The whole day seemed light-years removed from the context of today's problems--a WASP tribal rite that I simply allowed myself to enjoy without reservation. These are my places and my people, and I know how to relate to them. And I did.
Reality intruded occasionally. Only a few fraternities and sororities appeared to follow tradition and build exhibits outside their houses; the Greeks are in big trouble at Missouri for a series of date-rape allegations at fraternity parties. The hangout I frequented in Columbia--a dark, dismal, smoky and thoroughly enchanting place called The Shack--burned down last year and has been replaced by a parking lot. The downtown movie houses where I got a good share of my education are gone, moved to shopping center malls. A huge hospital now rests on the ground once occupied by the GI trailers that housed so many of us who came back from the war with families.
Driving back to Kansas City to catch my flight home, I immersed myself in the rolling country of central Missouri and the foliage that thoughtfully waited for me to visit. I was very conscious of the roots I had put down here, roots that I now knew would never die--and can produce a cornucopia of memories when they are watered and nurtured as they were last weekend for me in Missouri.