When I was a freshman at Colorado State College of Education in Greeley, I took long walks to put off my homework, and to avoid learning how to play bridge. During one of those flights, I discovered an enormous multistory home perched on a rise above the corner of 10th Avenue and 17th Street. The huge structure reigned like a queen over all the cottages in the neighborhood. I often wondered who owned it. Obviously, only a wealthy family would live in a place the size of a ship.I had no idea that I would soon live there.
A few years later, I learned that the college had purchased the building. They named it Union Colony Apartments and rented out furnished units to faculty and married students. Denny and I would be eligible for one of those apartments, because we would soon leave Nebraska and the twelve men in Thompson Hall for a move to Greeley, Colorado. Our next job was living with thirty-six women in a girls’ dorm. That’s where Denny would also finish his masters’ degree and start working on a doctorate.
But, our new job didn’t start until September, so during July and August we had to find somewhere to live. Before leaving York, we reserved the last apartment available in Union Colony: number 303. While living there for two months, Denny would prepare for his oral exams in mathematics. At the end of August, we would pack up our belongings again and relocate to Gordon Hall, a girls’ dormitory.
Moving three times in two months would be a challenge, but our future looked better than ever, and my insides were so full of smiles that I felt chubby.
When we opened the door to unit 303, we didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. We settled on laughter because it was easier. Our new temporary home was in the attic and had a far-fetched floor plan consisting of a fifteen-foot corridor with a cubicle on the left side that housed the bathroom and a space on the right for a bed.
The bed was a mere forty-eight inches below the roof. We kept forgetting where we were sleeping. Each morning, we’d throw off the covers, sit up, and bump our heads on the sloped ceiling. We must’ve whacked ourselves stupid a hundred times. My husband said, “I’m gonna be brain damaged before taking my orals.”
Living in our crowded corridor reminded me of playing house in my grandmother’s attic. We cooked simple meals on a two-burner gas stove that had four short legs. The stove sat on a ledge instead of the floor, and we had no oven. The cute refrigerator that stood as high as my waist turned out to be the perfect place to set a dark green fan Denny had rescued from a fire on campus. Nobody had claimed the heavy, old, ugly thing, but it worked, so we kept it.
A wobbly card table with a couple of folding chairs claimed a place next to the attic window. We ate meals there and watched the world go by three stories below. Elm twigs brushed the screen, and the view made it seem like camping in a tree house. That end of the living space became my favorite spot.
Den and I became friends with neighbors, Claude and Anna Schmitz, who lived in 302, a “standard” unit. Claude, who went by the nickname Schmitty, had a wondrous tenor voice and had sung professionally in New York, but he longed to be a teacher. They’d been dying to compare apartments. After a tour of the fifteen yards from our entrance door to the window, I could tell they were stifling either laughter or shock in an effort to avoid hurting our feelings. When they invited us to have iced tea in their apartment, we could stand up straight everywhere. Their ceiling was clearly better than our ceiling. In spite of my envy, we grew very close to Claude and Anna.
We also befriended Hank and Marty, a young couple on the second floor. He had a job in town, and she was studying for her teacher’s credential. Unfortunately, Marty got polio and ended up in the hospital. The residents of Union Colony were like family, so we helped Hank by making meals for him. When his wife finally returned home and had to stay in bed, we pitched in to help feed her, too. A few weeks later, Fern, another woman who lived in the building, came down with sleeping sickness.
Word got around that two other couples in the house were so afraid of catching one of these maladies that they moved away. Den and I had been blessed with good luck and didn’t worry a twit about catching polio, sleeping sickness, or anything else going around.
As planned, my husband spent most of that summer preparing for his master’s degree oral exams. His flair for mathematics, my most feared subject, put me in awe of his intelligence. Just the thought of taking an oral test in arithmetic caused my blood to run cold.
He reviewed everything he’d ever learned about advanced mathematics so he would pass with high marks, and I helped by reading from a long list of questions that he practiced answering. During all the questioning and answering, the only thing I learned about mathematics was that it was over my head. No surprise there.
The evening before the big day, he said, “Let’s go to the movies.”
“Tonight? Shouldn’t you keep studying?”
“Nope. If I forget about it for a while, I’ll feel more relaxed.”
We saw Annie Get Your Gun, a perfect film for getting your mind off exams.
His orals started at 10:00 the next morning. He sat up, bumped his head on the ceiling, flopped back down, and said, “I just knocked everything I knew about math out of my brain.”
“Oh, no! I hope you’re kidding.”
I made a mental note to move the pillows to the other end of the bed, where there was a little more headspace.
After pulling himself together, he ate a bowl of Shredded Wheat and left for a few hours. When he strutted back through the door, beaming, I said, “You’re finished already?”
“I’m finished, and you won’t believe how much fun I had.”
“Fun? How could you possibly call a math test fun?”
“Betty, it’s hard to explain. I’d taken classes from the four professors, so they knew me. It was more like a conversation about the pure science of mathematics than a test.”
“What did they ask you?”
“They took turns asking me to elaborate on certain mathematical concepts. I really enjoyed explaining each topic, pretending they knew nothing about the subject.”
“Did you pass?”
“With high marks.”
Each successful step toward our future filled me with confidence. With Denny at the helm, we would never be as poor as either of our families.
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Story and illustration by Betty Auchard