Yesterday, I went running in Hammond, Louisiana. I had to do a 7 miler, and I’m down south for a country music festival. I went to college at Southeastern Louisiana University from 1979 – 1984. I think the population on campus was about 5,000. Now, the enrollment tops 15,000. It’s changed a lot, but I was surprised at how much was the same. The daughter of one of my pals I’m visiting is in college at Southeastern, and I quizzed her about what it was like now. I had an idea that much had changed, but I wanted to see it with my own eyes.
I ran down Railroad Avenue which I don’t really remember being that special back in the day. Now, they have it fixed up as sort of a park along the road with nicely manicured grass and well-groomed trees. It was quite quaint and really beautiful and quiet. It is the sort of town where all of the new construction and strip malls have been added in places far away from the original structures that I remembered.
I ran through the downtown area, and tried to remember what it was like. My heart remembers the bars that were strewn throughout the downtown area where we partied in my short stay there. The main hangout and a Southeastern icon was The Brown Door. Now, the town has several really cute restaurants. I wish I remembered what was there before. A sushi place is right downtown. Rebekah, my friend’s daughter had briefed me on the popular restaurants for students now, so I knew that the sushi place was one of the preferred hangouts. I think we would have thought raw fish was pretty gross when I was in school. Besides, catfish sushi doesn’t sound too appetizing.
I, of course, had to take a peek into The Brown Door to see if it looked the same. It appeared as if someone had closed the doors one night and then just never came back. The half empty liquor bottles still adorned the mirrored bar, waiting for another night of partying with college co-eds. The Brown Door featured quarter beers on Thursday nights. It was THE place to start the night. Dancing would usually be later at the local dance hall, but The Brown Door was a good place the prime the pump, and, often there was such a good crowd that we never left. The back room is where we hung out. The local people – adults – would hang in the front section, and I’m sure they thought us college kids were a bunch of fools, and, quite likely, they were right. The bar looked the same. It was never pretty. I don’t even know how clean it was. But, back then, pretty and clean didn’t mean much. If there were boys, especially football players, around and cheap beer, there was nothing else needed. Those boys were loud, fun and crazy. They were fun. And, whether you were talking to them or not, they added an energy to the room that would drive a college gal nuts.
I turned down into one of the local neighborhoods and ran by Cate Square. We occasionally partied there after the bars had closed and when the night was right. It looked the same too, and many of the old beautiful homes in Hammond were there. I passed by Lee’s Drive In. I had asked Rebekah if she had eaten at Lee’s. Their onion rings and chef salads were my college mainstay. Not everybody had cars back then, so whoever had one would take orders from everybody and bring back burgers and salads and onion rings. It was a good night when we had Lee’s for supper. Rebekah said there was a Lee’s, but it was a hamburger joint. She said she went there but wasn’t very impressed. “Even the onion rings were horrible,” she said. Oh, well. I’m going to bet they are just like I remember.
I ran past the area where my apartment was located my senior year, and it’s either been remodeled extensively or torn down. I drove down the street that splits the cemetery where I used to ride my bike to school. The cemetery looked the same, and I was a bit shocked with the force that my memory came back. I felt like I was pedaling to school once again. I took a left at campus and rode around to where Lee Hall once stood. Lee Hall was the large girls dormitory. Current co-eds would think it was like a prison. We were in lockdown. Boys were not allowed anywhere near the girls dorm. I’m sure some snuck in, but it would’ve taken some work at Lee Hall. It was like a fortress. The boys dorms were a different story. There were gals up in there all the time. Not that I know, Momma. I heard people tell about it. 🙂
Lee Hall was a large square fortress not unlike the forts you tour from the Civil War. It had a huge interior courtyard. 800 women filled space with its cinder-block walls and twin beds cemented to the floor. We called the courtyard Lee Hall Beach because as soon as the sun came out and started warming the Louisiana air in February or March, we donned our bikinis and went to our own private beach to suntan. Music, food, talk of boys and plans for spring break filled the air as we filled time between classes. Tan was in, and the rule was that whoever dies with the best tan wins. I was a contender. It was a serious quest. I ran through the parking lot where our courtyard was located and then began the run to the old Humanities Building.
The Humanities Building was a popular place the first couple of years I was in college. Everyone had English, History and Criminal Justice classes in the Humanities Building. The front steps were a popular hangout. Now, I remembered those steps as being similar to the steps that Rocky Balboa runs up in the first Rocky movie. I was surprised to see that they were very small. In fact, it has 3-4 steps leading up to a very small entrance. That was the place to be. I can remember distinctly sitting among friends in the dorm room as someone came back from classes. Who was hanging out at Humanities? we would ask. Oh, the usual, was the typical answer. Benoit, Hartman, Vickers, you know, same old, same old. We never cared which girls were there, and nobody ever thought we did. It was always about the boys, and the cafeteria and the Humanities Building were the places to see them. I remember those football boys. I was about 115 pounds, and the linemen weighed in at about 300. I always liked the big guys. Just being around them made my knees buckle, and when they’d all come in the cafeteria – and we knew what time football practice was over – it was showtime. I was a nervous wreck, trying to be perfect. What I didn’t know at the time was that they were just as nervous around us as we were around them. They were just boys. They weren’t the gods we thought they were.
The Student Union is getting a facelift. Livingston Hall where Rebekah lives is a new building. When I was on campus, Livingston Hall was the female athlete’s dorm. Robin Roberts, the now famous newscaster, lived there, and I covered the lady’s basketball team, so I would visit every now and again for interviews. When I was a freshmen, I had my biggest heartbreak in front of that dorm. I was totally infatuated with this older student who was from the Boston area. He was an intellectual, and I worked with him at the school paper. I’d never met a guy like that. I was used to country boys. This guy came from a musician’s family, and he was super intelligent. He took me to fancy restaurants and sent me flowers. One day, I was walking past Livingston Hall and busted him kissing another girl. It was a get a room type of kiss, and it broke my heart. I didn’t interrupt them, but I saw him about an hour later at work. I didn’t say anything for awhile and then I told him I’d just seen him over by Livingston Hall. I didn’t have to say anything else. She was his girlfriend unbeknownst to me, and I believe he ended up marrying her.
I finished my run by taking another pass by The Brown Door and got so lost in the memories that I passed right by my car and almost got to the interstate. The people of Hammond have done a nice job with the little town. Even though parts of the campus have changed a great deal, I still recognized most things. As I ran through Friendship Circle on campus with the hundreds of beautiful Live Oak trees, I thought about how those trees had seen me walk past hundreds of times. I was a little thinner, a lot younger and much more naive. That girl does exist inside me. I could feel her waking up and smiling as we drove through the cemetery, peeked in at the brown door, saw the usual faces at the Humanities Building and dreamed of Lee Hall Beach. And, my heart still fluttered a little at the thought that we might pass by a football player standing on the Humanities building steps. Except, this time, I’d be more bold. She didn’t know how good she was back then. Today, would be a different story.