Ron Lurey was right! Mitchell easily won the contest and became the first Jewish Mister Freshman of Wright Junior College.
But it was a hollow victory that he did not enjoy because, after all, no one really knew him and, to him, it was nothing more than a beauty contest and he, oddly, actually felt degraded by it.
Miss Freshman was an eighteen-year-old, big-busted, blonde-haired beauty by the name of Maria Slywka, who happened to have a well-muscled boyfriend by the name of Vince Malczewski, who kissed Miss Freshman… and glared death at Mister Freshman
The $50 prize was split between Mister and Miss Freshman. The pre-paid date was secretly given to Maria and Vince, and Mitchell didn’t really care too much because no, not even Miss Freshman of the class of 1952/53 was Susan.
The day after being crowned Mister Freshman, Mitchell did not go to Wright. Instead he drove to Talman Avenue, stopped in front of Susan’s building, looked at her bedroom window, drove to the corner, made a U-turn, passed the building without a glance, went east on Peterson, north on Ridge, east on Howard until he found the building, then stopped, parked, put three pennies into the parking meter and walked through the door of a one-room, storefront office.
“…A test? I’ve got to take a test?”
Tapping the eraser end of a pencil onto the desk-set blotter, “That’s right.”
Mitchell looked about the sparkling clean office.
Centered on the wall behind the desk were two flags: one, the Stars and Stripes; the other, deep blue with a gold, nautical emblem. Between the flags was a picture of President Eisenhower. Hanging on the wall were a number of black and white photographs of ocean-going vessels. On an easel to the left of the high-sheen varnished desk was a large poster of a sharp-prowed ship slicing through mountainous seas.
“So, you in?”
“Yeah,” straightening his back. “Yes, Sir, I’m in.”
“Good. You won’t be sorry.” Opening the top drawer of the desk, Chief Petty Officer Brian Walters removed a sheath of papers. “We do the paperwork here, then tomorrow you go to Civil Service downtown for the physical exam and written test, and if you pass ’em both—” Walters looked at the young man over his glasses, “and I can’t imagine why you wouldn’t—you’re in the United States Coast Guard… You do know the term of enlistment is for four years?”
Four years away from his home.
Four years away from his family.
But Mitchell could not stay here! He could not stay in this close proximity to Susan and not be allowed to see Susan, to love Susan.
He could not!
“Four years… Yes, Sir.”
“Name: last first, first name, middle initial.
“Lipensky, Mitchell, M.”
October 8, 1952, 5:06 a.m. to October 9, 1952, 0749 Hours.
Finding it all but impossible to sleep on his last night at home, sleeping but a few hours, awakening before dawn, he already felt the anticipated loneliness as a factual weight in his stomach, and upon his heart. With hands crossed behind his head he stared into the shadowy darkness until daylight began to mottle the ceiling and walls, then, coming off the bed, sitting on the floor before his dresser, taking it from the bottom drawer, removing it from the plastic bag, holding the luxurious folds of the cranberry-colored cashmere sweater tightly across his face, he closed his eyes, and the emotion of the past four months, along with the knowledge that in two hours he’ll be leaving his home and all that he loved, ripped through Mitchell Lipensky as dynamite upon a floodgate. Sitting cross-legged on the cold linoleum floor with the softness of Susan’s sweater held against his face… Mitchell cried. Mitchell cried until there were no tears left to cry, then, carefully putting the sweater back into the plastic bag, he replaced it in the dresser. Lifting himself from the floor, going into the bathroom, he brushed his teeth and washed and shaved.
Back in his room… No! His room was no longer his room. His room was now Larry’s room and would only be loaned to him when he came home on leave.
He dressed in Levi’s, a long-sleeved, oxford-cloth shirt, and his dirty, white-buck shoes.
His orders were to take one change of underwear and toilet articles only, and these were packed in the same canvas bag he had used when he’d visited Frank Rizzo, a lifetime ago.
Hung in the middle of the long walk-through closet, his clothing was covered with a bed sheet.
At 6:40 a.m., five days after taking a physical exam and a written test, after signing papers and swearing to defend the United States of America, Mitchell gave his car keys to his mother, and after tearful hugs and kisses goodbye to her and his brothers—although he was certain that Larry was overjoyed to be rid of him so that he could have his own bedroom and could hardly wait until he was out of the door and on his way, which, actually was pretty much the way it was—they waved goodbye from the curb of the pie-shaped lot, and Mitchell, carrying his canvas bag in one hand and a manila envelope containing his indoctrination papers in the other, was driven to Union Station by his father.
Waiting for the “All aboard” call, they stood on the same platform that Mitchell had stood on four and a half months ago when he had waited for the train that was to take him to Rochester for the entrance exam that inadvertently brought him back to this exact place, at this exact time.
The father and son waited in silence. Each smoking a cigarette, both tried to think of appropriate words to say to each other.
“All aboard! All aboard!”
Dropping their cigarettes to the concrete, they ground them under the toes of their shoes.
“Yeah, Dad, I guess…”
Suddenly, as though pushed by some unknown force, their arms wrapped around each other and Mitchell felt the roughness of his father’s unshaved cheek against his. His eyes moistening, “Dad, I love you.”
Saying what he had never said, “Me, too, Mitchie. I love you, too.” Breaking the hold of their arms, “Take care of yourself.”
“I will, Dad.” Picking up his bag and manila envelope, he turned from his father, but turning back, giving him one last, fast hug, Mitchell saw something he had never seen before: his father’s eyes were bloodshot and watery… Turning away, without looking back, he ran to the train, up the steps, and into the coach.