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THE GUY CHRONICLES

At Arizona State, Remembering Those Devilish College Days

March 07, 2001|Chris Erskine

TEMPE, Ariz. — So here we are touring our first college campus, a dusty little place that's home to 40,000 students in the warm bosom of the Arizona desert. During the day, there are Harry Chapin songs on the radio. At night, a distant train whistle. Not a bad place to send someone you love.

"Arizona State is a dry campus," our tour guide announces, stunning everyone in our little tour group, most notably the kids who are planning to go here. "There is no liquor allowed in the dorms."

That is not the only stunning thing our tour guide tells us. She gives us impressive stats about National Merit scholars. SAT scores. Grade point averages.

By the middle of the tour, I am fairly convinced that Arizona State is now a member of the Ivy League.

That would mean ASU is the first Ivy to be located in the middle of a desert, which seems strange to me, since most Ivy League schools tend to be clustered on the East Coast.

"Over there, that's the engineering building," our student tour guide says proudly.

We wander through the large but comfortable campus. Off to the left, there is a giant hall designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. In the middle of the campus, an impressive student center. Everywhere you look, lots and lots of bikes.

"This," our tour guide says, "is the Hugh Downs School of Human Communications."

For a moment, I think she is kidding.

"This is where I'm going," my older daughter whispers.

"It is?"

"Yes," she says. "It's very good."

With a name like that, it ought to be. Friendly and apple-cheeked, Hugh Downs has been on TV more often than Bugs Bunny. If anybody knows about human communication, it's Hugh Downs.

"This is where I go," our well-spoken tour guide says.

"That seals it for me," I tell my daughter.

To me, a college campus is almost indescribably special, special in the way that ballparks and mountain streams are special.

There is hope here. Idealism. Clear-eyed optimism about the future. If you're not careful, you could gag on it.

"Do you like it, Daddy?" my older daughter asks when our tour of ASU is over.

"It's terrific," I say.

"He doesn't like it," she tells her mother.

"Your dad just wants you to keep your options open," her mother explains.

"I do?"

"Yes," my wife says. "You do."

Things have changed on college campuses since you and I went. For one, there is electricity now. For another, college has become slightly more expensive.

I flinch like Rodney Dangerfield every time the subject of money comes up. Fees. Room and board. Books. Expenses.

The very idea of out-of-state tuition gives me back spasms. My head jerks to the left. My head jerks to the right. By the time we get to the cost of student housing, I look like a guy being attacked by crows.

"You OK, Dad?" someone asks.

"Fine," I say, my arms flailing at imaginary bankers.

In the afternoon, we take a break and watch the ASU women's tennis team take on Harvard, one of its bigger Ivy League rivals.

It's sunny, about 70. The air, perfect. Fifty or 60 fans have shown up for the match.

"Go, Devils!" the Sun Devil fans warble.

"Go, De-villllllllls!" Like that, they say it, with the accent on the second syllable and rising like a piccolo.

It's pretty clear from the start that the Harvard women are going to have a long afternoon--not so much because of their more-skillful opponents but because of this incessant "Go, Devils" cheer they hear over and over again.

"Go, De-villllllllls!"

The ASU players are tanned and seemingly more fit, with hair spun of copper and gold. You're right, I would never describe male athletes this way. Because their hair would never be spun quite like this.

The Harvard women tend to be thicker and sturdier of leg and foot. All that library time, perhaps, or chill winter nights cooped up in Cambridge.

One day, they will take their revenge with six-figure starting salaries and, eventually, sprawling country estates. For now, the Harvard women are taking a drubbing. Not a match do they win.

"Can we go now, Dad?" one of the kids asks, uncomfortable with this slaughter.

"Sure," I say.

On the way back to the motel, we split up. The rest of the family heads off shopping. I head off to do more research. That's right: I'm checking out bars.

Any good father would check out the bars surrounding a prospective college. Are they safe? Are the parking lots well-lighted? On "The Sopranos," Tony takes his daughter on a college tour and disappears one afternoon to "whack" some mob rat. Me, I just go off to have a beer.

ASU may be a dry campus, but a block or two away you can manage to find a cold beverage. I wander into a place that is quiet and dark on a Monday afternoon. For a moment, I think I may have stumbled upon the ASU library.

"What can I get you?" the young bartender/librarian asks.

"I'll have a beer," I say.

"What kind?"

"Surprise me," I say, because that's how you talk in a bar, like a wise guy about to get whacked.

I sit in the bar nursing my beer and having flashbacks. It's been more than 20 years since I sat in a college bar on a Monday afternoon.

Back then, tuition was low. Streaking was popular. Love was free, or at least affordable.

Back then, everyone on a college campus was pretty much naked all the time, except for some of the more conservative sororities, the Delta Gamma house, for one.

Fortunately, college bars have not changed much. On the fat wooden bar rail, students have scratched dirty sonnets with Bic pens. Along the wall, there are dartboards, game tables. A mighty jukebox.

Stale beer and disinfectant fill the air--good smells, the scents of fun and vigorous hygiene.

"Just visiting?" the bartender asks.

"Actually, I'm your dean," I say.

"Nice to meet you," he says.

"Nice to meet you, too," I say.

"Another one?" he says, eyeing my empty glass.

"Why not."

*

Next week: spring training.

*

Chris Erskine's column is published on Wednesdays. His e-mail address is chris.erskine@latimes.com.

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