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Moving son to college is event packed with emotion

IT WAS the second time I had packed a kid off to college, and the undertaking still took a toll on my psyche - and on the springs of the car.

Every inch of trunk space and most of the back seat was jammed with my kid's belongings, from T-shirts to computer parts to sundry appliances. Forget the Generation Y label. For me, the college freshman and his cohorts will be known as the "three-pronged-plug generation." Wherever they reside, so too do innumerable electrical devices powered by three-pronged plugs.

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This time around, as our second son headed off to Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., I packed many more heavy-duty extension cords, outlet adapters and surge-protecting power strips than I had three years before when our older son went off to Boston University. It still wasn't enough.

You get a taste of what sending your kids off to college will be like when they are younger and you ship them off to a summer camp. In the past few weeks, for example, as the house filled up with cargo, it reminded me of summers gone by when similar supplies piled up in preparation for a kid's week at Babbit baseball camp in Gettysburg, a stint at Gary Williams' basketball camp in College Park, or a visit to football camp in Princeton, N.J. There are differences, of course, between college and summer camp. Your kids stay longer at college, or at least you hope they do. The fees are higher. And the bed sheets are longer. The burden of assembling all the provisions for the college kid fell on my wife. I suspect that is how it is in a lot of families. The mom gathers, the dad carries, the kid makes the social rounds, saying good-bye to high-school friends.

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A few frantic days before departure, my wife was linen shopping when she bumped into a another woman also in search of the extra-long bed-sheets that college requires. They recognized each other from years ago, when they both served on the board of a nursery school. They also shared a similar predicament: getting supplies for their college freshmen, who were determinedly detached from the provisioning process.

Last Saturday morning, I busied myself loading our four-door sedan. After deflecting the initial "we-need-to-rent-a-truck" talk, I concentrated on consolidating the load. New purchases were pulled from space-eating boxes. Clothes were packed in plastic bags, which were easier to stuff into the car's nooks and crannies.

I devoted myself to the geometric challenge of getting all those college-bound shapes to fit into the car. Time and again, I thought I had finished my task, only to find yet another college-bound bag sitting near the back door. Packing the car, though, insulated me from the waves of emotion that washed through the household. Moreover, I had a deadline. In order to get the dorm-room key, my passenger and I had to roll into Carlisle, about 90 miles away, by noon.

At a little before 10 o'clock I waited in the alley with the car engine running, as farewell embraces were given to his girlfriend and his mother, and a handshake to his older brother. Once the kid was in the car, I took off and promptly made a wrong turn. I blamed the mistake on the construction crews working on the Jones Falls Expressway. "They keep closing my entrances," I explained to my son. But in truth the wrong turn was a sign of parental nerves.

In a storybook world, the ride to college would be a time filled with meaningful father-son dialogue. In reality, we listened to Car Talk on the radio, talked a little football, but mostly the kid slept. He and the other players on the Dickinson Red Devils, a Division III team, were arriving on campus several weeks early to get in shape for the football season.

By the time kids go off to college, they have found many sources of wisdom and competence other than their parents. I was reminded of this as soon as we rolled into Carlisle. The kid's cell phone rang. It was his new roommate. Unbeknownst to me, the two had arranged a rendezvous so that the roommate could move a few things in the dorm, then head off to the beach with his family. At the dorm, the two strapping youths carried the heavy stuff - including a small refrigerator and a television set - while the roommate's mother and I handled the lighter loads. A thunderstorm threatened, and we all quickly became beasts of burden, repeatedly toting supplies up several flights of steps - 30 steps to be exact - that led to the second-floor dorm room. After about the fourth trip up and down the stairs, I made a mental note to tell parents of high-school seniors that when they look at colleges this year, they should be sure to see if the freshman dorms have elevators.

The kid had to report to the football stadium, so while he was gone, I unpacked. I assembled lamps, got the microwave oven working, and arranged clothes and school supplies in drawers. I also went to a hardware store and bought a cord that connected the television to the dorm's cable hook-up. Much to his chagrin, the kid has grown up in a cable-free home. In the days leading up to his departure, he had crowed that in college he was finally going to have access to cable television. The quest for higher education, I told him, has its rewards.

Before leaving, the roommate and his mother left Gatorade, snack foods and some extra electrical outlet adapters for my son. This relationship looked promising.

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I left the college boy in the dorm, with the cable TV, the fridge and the window-unit air conditioner humming.

A few days later, he called complaining that his feet hurt from his new football shoes and his body hurt from football practice.

My wife has already shipped him a batch of chocolate chip cookies. I shipped him some of his old football shoes. I am not sure he will wear them, but like most parents of newly departed college students, I hope my kid retains some fondness for things old and familiar, including his mother and father.


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