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Man of the House by Chris Erskine

After 18 years, this is how they thank you?

Now that they've finally left for college, get a grip, dads. And don't look back.

September 09, 2004|Chris Erskine

Off they go to Duke and NYU, Princeton and Tulane. The freshmen and freshwomen to their precious little finishing schools, clear-eyed and confident, unaware of the voids they've left back home. The Main Street that's a little quieter on Friday night. The holes in their parents' hearts.

"I thought I'd be OK," one dad said after taking his daughter to college. "Then on the drive home, I cried."

Way to go, Class of 2004. You've made your fathers, men who haven't cried since Kirk Gibson banged that home run, spill tears on the way home from dropping you off at that ritzy, overpriced college you just had to have. They may not show it, but your parents are profoundly proud and profoundly sad all at once. I hear one dad blubbered so badly he had to pull off the road. The big baby.

"I'm letting my wife take her up," another father says of a daughter about to start at Stanford. "I'm not doing it. No way."

OK, parents, let's recap: For 18 years, we clothed and fed them. We soothed them when they hurt and argued with them when they were wrong.

When they turned 14, it seemed like all we did was argue. They had more moods than a Florida hurricane. More octaves than a violin. Suddenly, their little friends were smarter than we were. We seemed so slow to them, partly because we didn't talk a million miles an hour while chewing three sticks of gum.

At 15, they started driving, and not particularly well. That's because the notion that kids should drive is an antiquated remnant of an agrarian economy, when it was necessary for farm kids to drive the wheat to town legally and safely.

It has morphed into school parking lots full of luxury foreign cars nicer and more powerful than anything the principal could ever afford. How twisted is that? Wasn't it a misplaced prosperity that did the Romans in?

I digress only slightly.

"Daddy?"

"Yes?"

"I'm going to college now," the older daughter says.

My heart once jumped at such news, and still does, though it is only me I worry for now. The older daughter is 21 and as reliable as a lifeboat.

Entering her senior year, she takes one-tenth of the stuff she hauled off to college as a freshman. In fact, she has reduced her school supplies to a toothbrush and a bottle opener. And sometimes she forgets the toothbrush.

"Don't forget a few pairs of socks," I tell her.

"Socks?" she says.

I've never been a fan of long-distance colleges. I prefer something local, where air travel isn't such an issue and the kids can come home nights for real meals and to discuss which cults they've joined. I prefer the sort of campus Dobie Gillis went to. Easy to get to. A block away from the soda fountain.

Fortunately, I am the minority, a remnant of another era. Each fall, a new batch of teenagers flees our fairy-tale town for opportunities, risks and rewards that lie a good distance away. They leave behind the best comfort zones they'll ever know -- their childhood homes -- and all the familiar things they took for granted. The sound of squirrels on the roof, the smell of mom's spaghetti.

Take solace, dear parents. They aren't heading off to the real world. They are heading off to college campuses -- child-proofed and safe, some of the nicest resorts America has to offer. A college campus is about as far from the real world as Pluto is from Pittsburgh.

At college, they will leave their underwear on the floor and argue till midnight about Mao or Donald Trump. They'll scream for hours about Kurt Cobain or Ronald Reagan. About what mixes best with Southern Comfort. About power tools and Ferraris. They're 18 now and they need to howl at the moon a bit. Best that you're not present.

But these assurances probably won't make their impending departures any easier. September came far too fast, and now you're standing in some college parking lot, surrounded by kids and parents you've never seen before, all unsure of how to say goodbye. It's that first day of kindergarten all over again, except this time your daughter won't squeeze your hand. And she won't be home for dinner.

In this parking lot of bittersweet goodbyes, no one will make eye contact for very long, and the hugs won't last as long as you might have hoped. (Have they ever?)

And when you drive off, if they turn their backs too quickly and don't wave as much as you'd wish, don't be alarmed. They probably don't want you to see them smiling. Or slapping at their own stupid tears.

Be proud, parents. You've raised them well.

The Kleenex is in the glove box.

*

Chris Erskine can be reached at chris.erskine@latimes.com.

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