RT and I were living in married student housing in Chapel Hill in late summer of 1966, the year we were married. The little settlement of old army barracks from WWII was called Victory Village, and aptly so. Only a few of those old buildings still stand and it’s easy to understand why. They were constructed out of some type of material related to cardboard. Since we lived on the end of the barracks, RT and his friends thought it would be a great idea to nail up a basketball goal on the outside wall of our living room. Sadly to say, the ball goal didn’t last long. Renters all the way from our tiny apartment to the end of the barracks complained that their dishes rattled and their furniture moved every time the guys played ball. Not to mention that it’s hard to study when one’s body is shaking.
Nevertheless, we had a great time that summer. RT and his college buddies attended a class or two and then played golf, basketball or whatever until twilight when RT would come driving up for dinner with at least one friend in tow. After I washed dishes (By the way, did I mention that I worked at the hospital from 8 am to 5 pm and then cooked supper?) someone usually showed up to make a foursome in bridge. In those days, I could play bridge half the night and still get up bright and early to get to work on time. Sometimes, RT studied but not until he had to. It was a good thing he had a very sharp mind.
Nevertheless, whenever a big test or exam was coming up, RT headed to one of his two favorite study havens: the UNC campus library or the laundry mat which I liked best because he killed the proverbial two birds with one stone. He dumped the dirty laundry in the machine, put in his quarter—yes, a quarter—and then stuck his head under a hair dryer to keep out the noise. For the next couple of hours he focused on his textbook and notes and was only interrupted when the washer stopped and it was time to load the dryer. But the night on which my story occurred, a couple of days before exams, RT chose the mausoleum-like quietness of the vast university library. The plan was that I drop him off, buy groceries at our favorite market in Carrboro, rush back to the apartment, clean and vacuum and pick RT up in front of the library at 10 pm. I happily followed the plan.
If you have ever been to Chapel Hill, you may have noticed that the charming university town is very hilly. If you didn’t notice, perhaps you guessed because of its name. Well, Victory Village was no less hilly than the other sections of Chapel Hill’s city limits. In fact, our barracks on Daniel’s Street was situated on a hill with its backside towards Pittsboro Road and its front facing another set of barracks across a narrow street and down a slight hill. There was very little space for parking and so, early on, we had decided that our stick shift Dodge would be safer parked under a fairly large oak tree up the hill beside our house. And that’s right where I parked it on the infamous night of which I speak.
Marking tasks off my list one by one, I had made it to vacuuming our K-Mart rug when I decided to take a quick break. That’s when I heard all the commotion outside. Curious, I looked out the window and was shocked to see at least fifty people milling about in the street. Talking, laughing and gesturing, the crowd grew at an alarming rate as I peeked out the window. At first I wondered if I had missed hearing about some event in the Village, but on second thought I knew that no one would have planned something for a week night during exams. Married students are pretty serious about graduating.
Finally, my curiosity got the best of me and I went outside. To this day, I cannot tell you how long it took for the scene before me to sink into my consciousness. Although I am very much a visual person, my audio components clicked in first that night. “Whose car is it?” Dozens of people threw that question around from one end of the swelling crowd to the other. One guy yelled, guffawing with laughter, “This is better than The Fugitive!” I think it was when my next-door neighbor walked over to me and soberly asked, “Where is RT?” that the scales fell off my eyes and I saw clearly that our blue Dodge was sitting in the living room of the barracks down the hill and across the street.
I never told a soul the car was mine.
I nodded affirmatively to my helpful neighbor whose husband was in dental school and really needed his rest. And then, I followed her to her car and stared about me as she eased through the masses and carefully drove me to the library where RT wasn’t waiting on the sidewalk because it was not yet 10 pm. Did I tell you how big the UNC library is? And, one cannot call out for one’s husband because silence is the essence of any library, much less one of such noble stature.
I tiptoed along the corridors of the grand edifice and peeked into each room, floor by floor by floor. My silent search took quite a while but at last I found RT with his head in a book, oblivious to the fact that his prized Carolina Blue Dodge had crashed through our unknown neighbors’ apartment wall.
I whispered in response to RT’s surprised expression. “You have to go home.”
All through the maze of wide corridors and long hallways, I struggled to explain what had happened. Understandably, grasping the fact that one’s vehicle is resting in another person’s living room while one is studying in a quiet, peaceful library and one’s wife is vacuuming the floor is quite a feat. RT tried but until we turned onto Daniel’s Street, my story just didn’t make sense.
By that time, the audience was massive. Hundreds, the Chapel Hill paper read the following day. RT edged his way through the cheerful throng and up to the car where all the Chapel Hill and Carrboro policemen had now congregated. Bless RT’s heart, he was the one who had to fess up that his car was the culprit, although he had no idea how or why it had happened considering he was studying in the library the entire evening. He had a good alibi. His wife—moi—however, did not. I was the last person to drive the car and park it under the tree. Therefore, I was quickly placed in the number one spot on the suspect list.
I will have to admit that I had experienced some pretty anxious moments driving that Dodge. As noted, Chapel Hill is very hilly and for some unknown reason, most traffic lights just happen to be at the top of a hill. You haven’t had much fun until you’ve clutched and braked a 1965 Dodge at a red light on top of a hill and then tried to balance your left foot and right foot so as not to roll back down the hill and into the vehicle behind you before you get going in a forward motion. However, I had been driving the Dodge a couple of months and thought I did everything just right when I parked it under the oak tree.
Evidently, I did not…do everything right, that is. Whatever I did, the Dodge backed down the hill all by itself, made a slight turn so as not to hit a tree and ended up in our new neighbors’ house. To top it all off, the neighbors—whom we had never met—had subleased their apartment for the summer to two little old ladies who were going back to school for their nth degrees and, thank God, were not sitting on the couch when the Dodge came through the wall.
All in all, a good portion of the citizenry of Chapel Hill had an exciting night, even the little old ladies. The following day, we met our new neighbors who thought the entire debacle was hilarious. I still feel a little guilty, but then I think of the friendship that was sealed that summer and has lasted for 44 years and I don’t feel guilty a bit. Jan still phones us every Super Sunday and all through the year. It was worth it all.