Sunday, May 29, 2016

the night of my 21st birthday

This prompt is meant for younger writers, I suppose, who grew up after the legal drinking age was raised from 18 to 21. When I was in high school, I easily passed for eighteen, and had no trouble getting into most bars and taverns. So my 21st birthday was just another birthday, as far as I was concerned.

It was a Tuesday, as I recall. Some of us had plans to go see And Justice For All over the weekend. But the topic of my birthday hadn't even come up. I moved through my scheduled classes like every other student enrolled at Pfeiffer. Nothing memorable happened during the day.

At the time, I was secretly serving as editor of a benign but humorous underground newspaper (Cockfeathers) that questioned college administration, and made fun of the regular college newspaper (The Pfeiffer News) which was hopelessly dull and never courted controversy of any kind. We aimed to entertain, mostly, but we didn't object to the occasional poke at a hornets' nest. We tackled tenure, student scandals, teaching styles, rumors about various people, administrative appointments, and college spending. One exposé tackled the redecoration costs of the administration building juxtaposed with a cut in funding to various student activities. Shocking!

I had rented a post office box in the next town so our readers could send letters to the editor, which they frequently did. In fact some of our best stories began with a letter to the editor! I drove over that afternoon to check the box after my last class was done. In the box were three letters. Two were standard letters complimenting us on our work. The third was an article being submitted for publication. I stood there reading it. It was hilarious and I knew we would publish it.

When I got back to my car, I spotted an envelope under my windshield wiper. It had my name written on it. My heart started racing when I saw that. I looked all around. I was alone. Inside the envelope was a note card. (I still have it.) It said, "Please meet us at 6 pm at the VFW." Who was us? Was this a trap? I looked at my watch. It was 5:45. There was no time to go find another newspaper staff member. I had to decide.

I slowly drove to the VFW. When I got there, I found an empty parking lot in front. I sat in my car, thinking. Should I go try the door? I was frightened. Suddenly my harmless newspaper felt dangerous. I worried I might get expelled. I had just about made the decision to drive away when the front door opened and a figure emerged. It was one of my favorite professors. He waved. I waved back. He signaled for me to come in. Behind him in the doorway was a female member of the athletic staff. She too signaled for me to come in.

Confused but curious, I got out of the car and went in. I was greeted by a large group (twenty?) of employees of the college. I was handed a glass of champagne. They all held their glasses up. The highest ranking professor said, "To the wonderful Cat on the occasion of her 21st birthday. We appreciate your editorial work, your courage, your sense of humor, and your service as our voice." Then we all drank. I was speechless. People went out the back door a few at a time, some hugging me before they went.

Finally, it was just me and one instructor. I was still holding my champagne glass. "You okay?" he asked as he took my glass. "I guess. I'm so confused." We stood looking at each other. He offered no explanation. "I've got to lock up now," he hinted. I went out the front door. I heard the lock click behind me. I got in my car and drove back to the campus.

We never set out to be anyone's voice. We were just having fun. But I guess what we did mattered!

(All credit for the origin of Cockfeathers goes to Don Sherrow, may he rest in peace.)

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