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It’s All About the Suntan

imagesBeach towel. Spray bottle filled with water. Transistor radio. Baby oil and iodine. History textbook. Everything I needed to get a perfect tan. Actually, I didn’t need the textbook, but as a college student I carried it along just in case the mood to study struck while I soaked up the sun.

On sunny spring days in the late 1960s, the narrow yard between two dormitories and concealed from Dixie Avenue by a brick wall was filled with Tennessee Tech coeds wearing bathing suits. Like an overcrowded beach during vacation season, we laid towels in rows, side by side, and saved spaces for friends. Some places were like Sunday morning church pews – reserved, but unmarked. Ideally, spring quarter classes were scheduled around sunning time, early morning and late afternoon classes. Midday was for sunbathing.

We didn’t protect our skin from the sun’s rays; instead, our goal was a perfect tan. Who dreamed up the notion that baby oil with a few added drops of iodine made good suntan oil? We smeared oil all over our bodies and lay for hours, or until our next class, baking our skin and we sprayed water on ourselves when we got hot.

The yard wasn’t the only place to sun or lay out, as we said. As a freshman, I lived on the 5th floor, the top floor, of Unit B dormitory, now M. C. Cooper Hall. Jill* lived in a single room across the hall and her room had a small dormer window that opened onto a flat roof over the building’s wide porch. One night Jill, and two other friends, Ada* and Kara*, and I decided to climb onto the roof.

We moved Jill’s desk under the window, removed the screen, and climbed as if we were heaving ourselves out of a deep swimming pool. The stars were close and the air cool. We could see and hear people, but no one knew where we were. We looked across Dixie Avenue, above the treetops, to the eagle atop Derryberry Hall. And then about mid-March, we realized the roof was the perfect place to get a tan and we could wear whatever we wanted. That black roof was closer to the sun and much less crowded than the sunbathing yard.

Only about fifteen girls lived on 5th floor, but we four friends didn’t share our sunning hideaway. We locked Jill’s door so no one, or so we thought, knew about our escapades. We whispered to each other, never played our radios, and even pretended to study. We weren’t scared of the height, but we were scared of getting in trouble. We stayed close to the window and left it open so we could climb inside quickly. Actually, we sunbathed on the rooftop only a few times. That black roof was miserably hot!

Thinking back to those days of sunbathing, my friends and I should have been scared that we were damaging our skin. I’ve had several basal and squamous cell non-melanoma skin cancers removed, most likely a direct result of overexposure to ultraviolet rays. But we had great tans, kept each other’s secrets, and I’m confident we were only four of many, many coeds who ventured out onto dormitory roofs.

During this year of TTU’s Centennial Celebration, it’s been fun to share some of my experiences as a student. Thanks to all who planned and carried out the many events. I hope the current students cherish their memories and appreciate their education as I do.

*Names changed because I promised my friends I would.

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Walk to Ralph’s

Screen Shot 2016-03-31 at 8.35.25 AMIt’s about a mile from Tennessee Tech to Ralph’s Do-nut Shop. Close enough to tempt students – especially those of us who lived in the dorms. It seemed that donut cravings hit strongest late at night.

When I was a Tech coed, my friends and I sat memorizing history dates, late-night-before-the-test cramming, and the more numbers that swirled through my brain, the more I craved sugar. Sugar mixed with flour and eggs and milk and butter, and then fried in hot oil. Finished off with a sugar glaze. One mention of donuts and we all closed our thick textbooks, tossed our notes aside, and united in a plan: To Ralph’s!

We threw on our long Villager raincoats, or off-brand copycats, over whatever we wore. Pajamas or t-shirts and shorts, or sweat pants – no need to really get dressed. And we put a few coins in our pockets and headed out the dorm’s front doors to the railroad tracks. Yes, to the railroad tracks that led almost straight to Ralph’s.

Someone might have carried a flashlight, but most often not. The moon, stars, and streetlights provided enough brightness to illuminate the metal rails. We walked on the wooden crossties, careful to avoid tripping on uneven beams or slipping on the muddy ground between. It was a short walk, less than fifteen minutes, and then one block south at the train depot, right down Cedar Street.

We could pool our money for a dozen plain glazed donuts for 60 cents or splurge on individual choices. For less than a quarter, I chose a chocolate covered, creamed-filled donut. My friends and I took over one u-shaped countertop. Drinking chocolate milk and our favorite late night treats, we completely ignored the fact that at 8:00 the next morning we’d face a history exam.

The walk back along the railroad tracks took longer than going. That’s when we’d talk and giggle and share secrets that can be told in the dark when you can’t see anyone’s expression. We’d stop to marvel at the stars, locate the Big Dipper and try to identify at least one other constellation. We’d look for the North Star and wish for falling stars and meteors.

Recently, I told my 7 year-old Grand about walking the railroad tracks to Ralph’s. “Why didn’t you drive?” she asked. No one, except June, had a car and it was fun to walk. “That wasn’t safe!” I never saw or heard a train when we walked and we could jump off if a train came our way. And we traveled in groups – never alone. Things were different 50 years ago. “Did your mother know you were walking on railroad tracks?” No. “Was it really late?” Yes.

“Did the donuts taste the same?” Yes. When my college girlfriends spent the night with me recently, the donut cravings hit about 10 p.m. Thankfully, not many people were in Ralph’s and heard six women giggling and arguing about which donuts were the best. Coconut cake. Apple fritters. Chocolate covered creamed filled. Twists. We each chose our favorite, a carton of milk, and sat at the same u-shaped counter.

We agreed on a few things. The donuts tasted just as good as we remembered. We were glad we didn’t have to walk home on the railroad tracks and we didn’t have to study for tests. And those late night adventures to Ralph’s helped cement our friendship.