The presidential candidates will be facing off tomorrow night in a place that holds a special place in my heart, Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee
In the summer of 1943, I was scheduled to board a ship for North Africa as a foot soldier. Days later I was in a dorm at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, plucked out of a war movie into an MGM musical on a picture-book campus.
Needing weathermen and translators for the coming invasion of Europe, the Army had decided to manufacture some. I was sent to be trained as a meteorologist.
For the next months there were beautiful coeds, math classes, beautiful coeds, science classes and beautiful coeds. Two dozen of us in uniform lived on manicured grounds among hundreds of women and a few 4Fs, and nearby there was Ward-Belmont, then a junior college filled with rich girls who put on pretty dresses for patriotic Saturday night dances with the servicemen.
At the first one I met her. Joan from Waukegan, Illinois was, like me, away from home for the first time, but she was like no other girl I had ever known, so lovely that when I put my arm around her and she touched the back of my neck, I forgot how to breathe or move. We danced and talked and, by the end of the evening, were planning to meet every Saturday and whenever on weeknights she could slip out of her finishing-school fortress.
We held hands and shared chaste kisses and muted desire. I was James Stewart singing “You’d be so easy to love” to Eleanor Powell. I was poor Gatsby smitten forever by the unattainable Daisy. We talked and talked in a wondrous haze. For a few months, I lived in a romantic movie of my life, knowing the house lights would have to come up sometime.
Before she was to go home for the holidays, there was a formal dance. Someone told me about corsages and, finding myself broke, I stayed up all night doing a classmate’s guard duty to earn enough for a spray of gardenias, chosen when the florist told me white would go with any color.
At the dance, Joan pinned them to her shoulder strap, and I spent the next hours in a delirium of body warmth and overpowering sweetness. By the time we kissed and kissed our farewells, I was left in a gardenia haze that would stay with me always.
While she was away, the college dream abruptly ended. The Army, now needing more foot soldiers than meteorologists, ordered us to pack and prepare to ship out. I went off to fight a war in Europe and never saw my dream girl again.
But when Barack Obama and John McCain face off tomorrow night on the campus where we met and danced, memories will come flooding back of a time when, even in war, life was so much simpler and sweeter.