Full Circle 

A mandala of Moscow and mink oil

A funny thing happened back when I was a college freshman 43 years ago. It wasn't so funny at the time, as it involved me being accused of shoplifting. But in retrospect—especially after what happened this week—it's funny. OK, not so much "funny" as "strange." Better yet, let's call it "ironic." And now that I've found the right word, please allow me to start over.

An ironic thing happened back when I was a college freshman. Only, the irony didn't become apparent until a couple of days ago, when my wife and I moved our daughter into her dorm room. And if I seem a tad distracted, please allow for that, too. But this is the first time since I started writing this column in 1995 that I haven't been telling my little girl to go pester someone else because I have writing to do, or turn down that gawd-awful crap she's listening to because I have writing to do, or wondering when she would get home from some movie or date, so I could stop worrying and get on with the writing I have to do. As I write this, she is 300 miles away, and there should be no further distractions from her. There's not a gawd-awful CD playing in the house, there's nobody left to pester me, and if she's at a movie or on a date, I don't have to worry about when she gets home because she's not coming home. Not tonight.

Still, I am distracted. I'm not sure why, but I'm having one hell of a time keeping my mind on what I'm writing. Maybe if I start over yet again ...

Yes, an ironic thing happened back when I was a freshman. I went to the U of I, where my daughter is going. Good old Moscow. About everything great that's ever happened to me happened for the first time in Moscow. My first love. My first ... wait! Uh ... some great stuff happened to me there for the first time, that's true, but I'd prefer not think about it right now—not two lousy days after we left our girl all alone in Moscow. So if you don't mind, I'll skip straight to the shoplifting part. You don't need to know about the great things that happened to me in Moscow. And neither does she.

One of my dorm mates was from New York, Chris Lampe. I don't think he'd mind I tell you his name ... wherever he is. Chris was the first New Yorker I ever met. He talked like a New Yorker, acted like a New Yorker, looked like a New Yorker, and get this ... he was a forestry major. Wanted to be a forest ranger.

A recommendation for forestry majors 43 years ago was that they should own a pair of good boots. Sturdy, dependable boots to go rangering in. Chris bought himself a pair of top-notch boots, the sort of boots that you must treat with respect, or don't expect them to be there when you need them. One of the first things you do to respect boots like that is to waterproof them, and for that, he needed mink oil. (Let us not dwell on how they get oil from a mink. I don't want to think about that, either.)

Moscow was not then, nor is it now, a big town. And 43 years ago, I doubt if there were more than a couple of mink oil outlets in all of Latah County. One was a big general store close to the campus—carried everything from sporting goods to small appliances. Myself and two other dormies went with Chris after the mink oil, just for something to do. The three of us were from Idaho, and it was great fun to watch Chris walk like a New Yorker.

It was winter, so we were all wearing the heavy coats our parents sent with us. Once inside the store, we spread out, each of us examining merchandise in a separate section. Chris found and paid for his mink oil, and once we were all together again, he took the little bottle from its bag, showed us, then put it in the pocket of his coat, all occurring with what turned out to be a store cop watching. The moment we walked out the front door, he nailed us.

He escorted us to the manager's office and told us he would call the police if we didn't confess. Oh yes, I was scared. I knew I hadn't shoplifted anything, but I wasn't so sure about the other guys. Especially Chris. He was a New Yorker, after all. But when it became clear that it was a second bottle of mink oil we were accused of stealing, I relaxed. Why would anyone steal mink oil, especially after buying some?

The store cop and manager didn't see it that way. They had to let us go because they never found a second bottle, but that doesn't mean they weren't convinced we'd stolen it. We left without an apology, and I don't believe I ever went back to that store. Not until Tuesday, the day we moved our little girl into the dorm.

Her room is on the fourth floor, and it is as far from the elevator as it can get and still be in the same building. We humped everything she had up a narrow stairwell, and she had a lot. I was thinking I might die there, stricken down in Moscow from carrying my daughter's entire world up those stairs. To make matters worse, it seems someone forgot to turn off the heat all summer. The dormitory felt like a pizza oven. And as it turned out, the only thing she didn't bring with her was a fan.

So when the humping was done with and my pulse returned to normal, I went shopping for a fan. I wasn't sure where to go—been a long time since I shopped for anything in Moscow—but as soon as I left the campus, there it was. That same store. And they still carried small appliances. Nothing seems to have changed about that store in 43 years. And while I was there, I decided to buy something else for my girl she didn't know she needed.

She's an agriculture education major, and it is recommended that ag. ed. majors own a pair of good boots. She was told she would need them for the work she'll be doing in the barns. That's right. You must know where this is going, don't you? The day before we left for Moscow, she bought herself some sturdy, dependable boots, but no mink oil. Nobody told her about mink oil. I guess that's something they leave for dads to do.

Which is fine. I'm happy there's still some help I can be, some part I can play ... even if it's only to provide her with a few little things she didn't know she needed. And a father could do worse than to keep his daughter's feet dry.

And no, I didn't shoplift the bottle of mink oil. I paid for it, and even told the cashier about what happened 43 years ago. I don't believe he saw the irony, but that's fine, too. Like about everything else, irony is in the eye of the beholder.

OK, that's all I can manage for now. I need to go distract myself out of whatever's distracting me. Maybe I'll pop The Little Mermaid into the VCR and see if it's as good as I remember.

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