Preparing for this month’s 60th reunion of my Davidson College class, I thought about a talk I gave in 1997 to my father’s class’s 65th reunion.
When those men first arrived at college in the fall of 1928, they brought everything they needed in a suitcase or small trunk. The Great Depression began the next year, but these men came from the South, which was just about as poor before the stock market crash of 1929 as afterwards.
There were automobiles in 1928, but they were not so reliable as now. Not every family owned one. Even if they did, the idea that mother and father could leave the farm or the family business for two or three days to transport a child to college would not have occurred to many families.
In 1928, most people traveled distances by train — as they had done since the middle of the 19th century, when the construction and operation of a passenger train system first made long distance travel convenient. By 1928, trains were safe, reasonably comfortable, and much enjoyed and appreciated.
So, when I asked them who rode the train to college that late summer day in 1928, almost every hand shot up.
Along with their upraised hands I could see memories pushing out from their faces and their suddenly clear, bright eyes.
I could tell. Each of them remembered every detail of that break-away-from-home trip.
I wanted to stop my speech and listen to each story — to every recollection of packing the trunks and what was in them, how they got to the train stations in their hometowns, who brought them there, how they said goodbye, what they wore, where they changed trains, whom they met, what they talked about, what they ate, how much money they had in their pockets, how they got from the depot to the college … and on and on.
Then something struck me — something about the connectedness of time when we let it sweep us backwards:
That late summer train ride in 1928 was closer in time to the end of the Civil War in 1865 than 1997 was to 1928.
Sometime during 1928, when these men were freshmen, another college class could have marked its 65th reunion. It would have been the class of 1863. Perhaps a few of them survived the Civil War and the hard times that followed. Perhaps some of that few made their way back to campus — and remembered back in time to the day in the fall of 1859 when they came by wagon or by the newly available railroads to enter college.
There is something else about my father’s class that could connect us back to the middle of the 19th century. Those freshmen of 1928 would have been more comfortable going to college in the 1860s than if they had been suddenly thrust forward to the college life of today.
What was in one of their trunks in 1928 was very much like the contents of the trunk of a young person riding the train to college in the 1860s — and so much different from all the possessions brought to college by today’s students.
I looked out across the faces of the men 65 years out of college. All were more than 85 years old. Memories rose with their uplifted hands and brought back every detail of that train ride to college and were too quickly gone — all gone.
Most of their classmates had already finished their time on this earth, including their friend, my father, whose illness, early onset Alzheimer’s, took away forever my chance to hear the story of his train ride from home to college — and all the other things he would have told me if only he could have been there with them celebrating their 65th reunion.
D.G. Martin, a lawyer, served as the UNC System’s vice president for public affairs and hosted PBS-NC’s “North Carolina Bookwatch.”