I spent my first two years of college at the University of South Carolina Aiken (USCA). Aiken wasand still isa pretty little town with big pine trees in the front yards, shading the kalmia, azaleas and dogwoods. When I was there, the town was mainly populated by privileged horse-owning folk, and engineering types who worked at the nearby Savannah River Plant. We called it the Bomb Plant. All the free world's plutonium was made right there at the Bomb Plant.
For many years, Aiken was a "winter colony," which means the town filled up with rich Yankees every winter. One of them was Richard Howe, who built a grand slate-roofed mansion called Banksia (named after the rose bush) around 1930. In the '50s, Banksia was turned into a boarding house for the workers who built the Bomb Plant. By the '70s, it had transmogrified into the first home of USCA. It was an unusual place to go to school. Not many South Carolina kids get to start college in a house with cathedral-tall ceilings and oak-trimmed rooms big enough to hold a locomotive.
Like many colleges at the time, USCA had two student clans: The buttoned-down, hair-sprayed, shoe-shined preppies, and the same-jeans-for-a-week, longhaired, FM-listening hippies.
I was in the latter group. I was the hippie who played loud guitar for a living and wrote for the school literary magazine, but didn't smoke marijuana. That made me unusual and mysterious, and gained me a little cult following around the school.
In the fall of my sophomore year, the student governmentwhich, don't you know, was composed entirely of preppiesdecided that the school needed to elect a Miss USCA, to represent the school at the Miss Regional Campus pageant in Myrtle Beach. Every other school would have a dolled-up, big-haired, panty-hosed girl at the pageant, they said, so we should have one too. Problem was, the hippie majoritywhich included girls who eschewed upper underwear and face makeup, except for a little around the eyesfound the idea of a beauty pageant to be a little sickening.
The student government compromised: We wouldn't have a pageant, we wouldn't dress any girls up, we wouldn't make 'em parade around on stage. We'd just put a ballot box in the student lounge, and send the winner to the Myrtle Beach pageant in February.
The day the ballot box was deployed, the hippies started planning mischief. One of the English-major kids walked over to me and asked, "If you got elected Miss USCA, would you actually serve? I mean, what better way to ridicule the beauty pageant than electing a boy?"
"A boy who hasn't had a haircut in five years," I replied. "It'll just kill 'em. Heck, if y'all have the balls to elect me, I have the balls to serve."
Well, I won. I didn't expect to win, I didn't want to win. In fact, I wanted Rita Pittman to win. Rita Pittman, who had to suffer the indignity of being first-runner-up Rita Pittman, was an old friend from my high school. She was sweet, modest and beautiful. I'm sure that she would've taken the big prize in Myrtle Beach. But once I said I had the balls to serve, heck, I had to serve.
So, a few days later at a school dance, the president of the college met me on the stage, and instead of crowning me and kissing me like he'd done with previous beauty queens, he handed me my tiara, shoved a dozen roses at me, and snuck me a quick handshake under the roses.
I went to the Myrtle Beach pageant. On Saturday morning, I went to my beauty-queen interview, in a beachside motel room. A panel of judges asked me a few questions, and they seemed to have fun doing it. When they finished with me, I headed out for a stroll on the beach.
I stopped to watch a beach volleyball game. There, I struck up a conversation with a delightful girl from USC Allendale. She had sun-streaked reddish-blonde hair, sparkly mossy-green eyes and a smile brighter than a fireworks finale. Just from the looks of her, I decided she'd be a load of fun, so I asked her to come fly kites with me. I guess she liked the idea, because she came along, and we spent an hour or so dipping our plastic kites into the waves, then pulling them back up into the clear winter sky. While we were at it, I told her my whole beauty-queen story. I confessed that I'd gotten a little tired of the job, and I'd decided not to go to the "queen walk" that night. "I won't have it," she said. "You've got to go. I'll go with you."
Right then and there, I decided I had to love a bright-eyed girl who'd fly kites with me, then spend our first date cheering on my queen walk in a Myrtle Beach gym. I've been with that girl ever since. She's wife Brenda now.
Oh, in case anybody's wondering: I didn't come in last in the Miss Regional Campus pageant. Of the eight contestants, I came in seventh. I beat the dolled-up, big-haired, panty-hosed girl from Brenda's school.