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What I could give her as she went to college

Today I wrapped an old dingy, flexible Bible and took it to the post office and mailed it to my daughter in college. If the saying that ''late is better than never'' is true, then I have done a good thing. But I am not sure.

Let me tell you the story. My wife and I had just returned from the 150-mile trip from the college. It was late at night and we were tired. We had left early that morning with our daughter, who had been accepted by the college. Her tuition and her dorm bills and other fees had been sent in previously. She was too excited by the change to need us further, and we drove back home without her. It was the first time in our lives that our daughter had been gone for any length of time. We went to bed, wondering how other people had stood it.

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In bed I thought things over. I began to think of the time I went to college. There were a lot of close parallels between my daughter and me. My father had taken me to college, too. That was a good 22 years ago. There were some differences in the mode of transportation. My father and I rode up front in the farm truck. In the back was the trunk that I had pitched hay for that summer. My mother wasn't along because she had to stay behind and keep the cattle from jumping over the fences and getting into the crops. I, the fourth in a line of brothers, was the first to go away to college. And there were brothers and sisters beyond me to use up shoes and to consume groceries. So we went in the truck, my mother cried and I cried, but after we were out of sight of the farm the new changes made me feel jelly-like all over and I was scared.

The truck was slow and my father wasn't used to highways with oncoming cars and people who wanted to pass us and I was glad. I didn't want to get to the city too soon.

It was, of course, different with my daughter. We had taken her down during the summer just so she could see the school. On this particular day we stopped at a classy roadside place and ordered fried chicken. In bed I remembered how my father and I had stopped by a little stream of water and ate the sandwiches my mother had prepared. And in bed I relived my daughter's day. We toured the town for a while and then we went to the dormitory and my wife went in and talked with the housemother for a while. When she came back she was wiping her eyes with a handkerchief and it wasn't until we were passing through the next town that my wife remarked something about the weather and discovered that our daughter had forgotten to take out the portable radio and record player. I told her that she should have put it in the trunk with the other things, not in the back seat.

And soon we were home with the long trip behind us and a new kind of loneliness before us and now I was in bed just thinking about my daughter's first trip to college and mine and the score of years between. I heard a little sob beside me and I knew that my wife was thinking about the same thing.

My father didn't let me out at the dormitory. We looked into living conditions in college during the summer, and everybody advised me to get a room in a private home. It was cheaper, and besides if a student wanted to work his way ''through,'' he would have a better chance. Dorms and fraternity houses weren't for me. But I didn't have a room. I had to find one. My father told me that we'd leave my trunk at a filling station and I could come for it the next day after I had found a place to stay. We found the station and we toured the town a little, but the traffic confused him a bit, and I told him that maybe I had better go on my own. I opened the door and I had that awful feeling that a body has when he takes his first swim in the spring and he knows the water is too cold but he just must be brave. And I stepped out onto the street. The water was cold, awfully cold.

I shook hands with my father and for a long, haunting moment he looked straight ahead and didn't say a word. I knew that he was going to make a speech. But it turned out to be very brief. ''There is nothing that I can tell you,'' he said. ''I never went to college and none of your brothers went to college. So I can't tell you nothing. I can't say don't do this and for you to do that, because everything is different and I don't know what is going to come up. I can't help you much with money either, but I think things will work out.''

He gave me a brand new check book. ''If things get pushing, write a little check. But when you write the check, send me a letter and let me know how much. There are some things we can always sell.'' The mind flits in memory and I recalled the check book and how it was used. In four years all the checks I wrote were less than a thousand dollars. My jobs with the wholesale grocery company, reading to the blind student, chauffering the rich lady, janitoring at the library, sitting with the professors' kids filled in the financial gaps.

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I gave my daughter a check book, too. At the end of the first nine months, I know the total will be around $2,000. That is in keeping with the American plan. Kids mustn't have it tough the way the parents did.

''I can't give you any advice. There is no need to. You know what you want to be and they'll tell you what to take. When you get a job, be sure it's honest and work hard.'' I knew then that it was over almost - that soon I would be myself alone in the big town and I would be missing furrowed ground, cool breezes, and a life where your thinking was done for you. Then my dad reached down beside his seat and brought out that old dingy Bible that he had read so often, and the one he used when he wanted to look something up in a friendly argument with one of the neighbors. I knew it was his favorite and I knew he would miss it. I knew, though, that I must take it.

He didn't say read this every morning. He just said, ''This can help you if you will let it.'' Did it help? I don't know. I got through college without being a burden on the family. I have had a good earning capacity since then. When I finished school, I took the Bible back to my father. But he said he wanted me to keep it. And now in bed and too late, I remember what he said at that time.

''You will have a kid in school. Let the first one take that Bible along,'' he said.

Now, too late I remember. It would have been so nice to have given it to her, when she, too, got out of the car. But I didn't. Things are different. I was prosperous and my father wasn't. I had gone places. I could give my daughter everything. My father could only give me a battered, old Bible. I was able to give my daughter what she needed....

Or, had I? I don't really believe now that I gave her one half as much as my father gave me. So this morning I wrapped that book up and send it to her. I wrote a note. ''This can help you,'' I said, ''if you will let it.''

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