Rite of passage buffers leap to future

Michael Carey

A couple days ago, I had breakfast with a young man about to leave for his freshman year in college. He was preparing to depart the following morning and appeared excited but uncertain. The word "college," when he used it, seemed to have a question mark after it.

The more he talked, the more I felt like I was looking at myself -- the skinny young guy who left Fairbanks for his freshman year at Ithaca College almost a half-century ago.

In September 1963, I flew to New York City and took a commuter train to my Uncle John's bar-restaurant-motel in Westchester County. I managed this without getting lost -- an auspicious start -- but felt occasional disbelief. Me? The kid raised on moose meat at the ticket window in Grand Central Station?

On a cool, gray morning, my uncle John pulled out of his driveway into the Post Boston Road and drove me upstate to Ithaca. He said goodbye in my dorm room after I wrestled my duffle bag and a suitcase up two flights of stairs to the third floor. Before departing, he handed me a small envelope. He didn't say what was in it, but I could guess. A check. John Sullivan, my mother's older brother, was a big man with a big heart. He could have put me on a Greyhound bus, but he insisted on making the drive, which took almost six hours each way.

The dorm was new in 1963; it smelled freshly painted, recently scrubbed. I was probably the first student who had ever been in that room. Linen was neatly piled on the bed. There was no sign of my roommate.

I sat on the edge of the bed and stared over my duffle bag and the suitcase toward the wall. I knew, however incompletely, I had assumed a serious responsibility. My parents were spending good money -- my mother borrowed most of it -- to send me to school five time zones from Fairbanks. I wouldn't be going home for Christmas -- too expensive. I wouldn't be talking to my family on the telephone -- too expensive.

This room, about the size of my father's trap line cabin in the wilderness west of Mount McKinley, would be home for the next eight months. This room contained something invisible to me as I stared at the wall, yet I sensed its presence: my future.

When breakfast was over, I did for the young man what Uncle John did for me: Gave him a check and said good-bye as he made ready to embrace his future.

Michael Carey is the former editorial page editor of the Daily News. Email, mcarey@adn.com.

Michael Carey