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Safe Passage

August 24, 2003|Cathy Singer | Cathy Singer is a producer for "Dateline NBC." Her son Benjamin Petuchowski attends USC.

CHICAGO — Last week, in a rite of passage that millions of parents and their offspring traditionally share this time of year, I accompanied my son Ben from Chicago to Los Angeles, where he is starting college. We bought extra-long sheets, Band-Aids, laundry detergent and enough shampoo to last the year. Then I helped him move into the dorm.

Things were different when I went off to college in 1973. For starters, my parents didn't drive or fly with me from Milwaukee to Amherst, Mass., where I was starting at Hampshire College. We were middle class and relatively close, but for some reason it never occurred to me that they should take me.

Back then, you could call certain radio stations and the deejays would announce a list of people offering or seeking long-distance rides. It was essentially prearranged hitchhiking in a time when being frugal and sharing resources was hip, or, as we said, groovy. I called my local station's "ride board" and soon found a guy headed to Boston. It turned out he was in Milwaukee visiting someone I knew from high school, which was enough to make him seem safe. He came to my house and I loaded two small trunks containing all my college-bound possessions into his car.

We had expected to reach Amherst in one very long day of driving, but we hadn't counted on bad weather. The driving was difficult, and by 1 a.m. we were only as far as Pittsburgh. My driver, Steve, was exhausted. He needed to sleep, so I suggested we do what had worked for us before -- call a local rock station and see if the deejay could hook us up with a place to crash.

We pulled off at the next exit and walked into a hospital waiting room, where we made our call, thinking it wouldn't take long to find a free place to sleep for a few hours. But two hours of the deejay soliciting on our behalf resulted in nothing. He offered to let us nap at his place when he got off at 6 a.m., but it was by then only 3 and we didn't want to wait another three hours to sleep.

It all seems a little surreal now, but staying at a motel didn't even occur to us, and the homeless shelters suggested by the deejay seemed like a grittier adventure than we were up for. Then I hit on an idea: Why not sleep at the city jail? We got directions to police headquarters and drove over there. I was now overwhelmed with fatigue but still walked into the station, Steve in tow, and asked if we could sleep there. Amazingly, the officer said yes.

I was escorted to a cell in the women's section, with a cot chained to a wall, a small sink and an even smaller toilet. It seemed fine to me. I even had the temerity to ask the officer for a wake-up call at 6 a.m. Despite loud commotions every time a new inmate was brought in, I managed to get some sleep, and at 6 was awakened and taken to Steve. As I walked down the long hallway to where he was standing, I could see he looked exhausted and angry. It turned out the male inmates made noise all night. He got no sleep. After a few minutes of his yelling at me about what a terrible idea this was, we headed out to a doughnut shop before hitting the road again.

We finally arrived at Hampshire College later that day, tired and barely talking to each other. He helped me get my trunks out of his car and then drove off. I settled into my dorm room by myself.

I can't say most of the Hampshire freshmen arrived alone, as I did. I started school midyear, so I just don't know. But I do know I didn't miss my parents as I emptied my trunks and set up my half of the room. And at Hampshire College in the early '70s, to arrive after bumming a ride and then spending a night in jail was not a bad thing.

For many years, that whole experience was just an amusing anecdote I trotted out occasionally. But now, thinking about my son, I wonder if any middle-class parent of my generation would let a sheltered, suburban kid drive cross-country with a near stranger. Deejays today certainly wouldn't risk the liability of matching up drivers and riders, and city police would never let a couple of kids crash on their cots.

I couldn't imagine sending my son off to college for the first time without taking him myself. I wanted to help him organize his room, show him how to do laundry and, against the advice of the parenting guides, make his bed for him one last time. I wanted to see where he would be living for the next four years, so when he called on his cellphone, I'd be able to picture the scene.

We do more for our children today than our parents did for us. We smooth their roads, and they rely on us to do so. I like it that way, and I value my close relationship with my kids. But I've also, lately, been thinking about the downside.

The smooth sailing we provide for our children means fewer unscripted adventures, and when I look back on my life, those unscripted adventures -- whether fun or disastrous -- were learning experiences. They taught self-reliance.

These are the things I thought while helping my son decide which drawer to use for which item of clothing. He's had a much tamer adolescence than I did. On the plus side, that means he hasn't done a lot of the riskier things people of my generation did. But it's hard to know which way is better.

One thing is certain: He'll have to work a lot harder to come up with colorful stories about his teenage years to tell his own kids.

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