Mary Ann called from California with a proposition late last summer. The Hanelts had won a week-long African safari at a charity auction and wanted the Drakes to come along, for next to nothing. Were we interested?
Interested? Interested? More like crazy-ecstatic. I committed before hanging up the phone. “Thanks, but maybe later” are words to be used sparingly when one is turning 60.
I met Mary Ann Huber at the Chi Omega house at Bradley University in the fall of 1964. We were both Peoria girls—“townies” in the lingo of the day—whose families could not afford to pay for college. We were at Bradley on scholarship—mine academic, hers from the Army, which needed nurses for Vietnam. Mary Ann wanted to see the world, and I wanted to write about it.
Planning for the unexpected
Just as one short beer had a way of evolving into one long evening at Si’s in the mid-‘60s, our cheap and simple safari grew into a three-week, nearly 3,000-mile journey through South Africa. Of course, we wanted to see Cape Town, the Paris of the southern hemisphere, and sample wine from the vineyards nearby. We couldn’t pass up the Cape of Good Hope, that stormy point on the southern edge of Africa, which first attracted sailors and traders almost seven centuries ago. Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela spent 18 years in prison, was a must for me. I wanted to see Soweto, the Johannesburg Township that symbolizes both the desperation of apartheid and the hope of renewal. Mary Ann wanted whales, penguins, flowers, baby animals, sunsets. For nearly a year, we planned our trip by guidebook, phone, and e-mail.
We couldn’t plan everything…
We didn’t plan on being charged by an elephant protecting her baby from our Land Rover. Mama whipped around, raised her trunk, bellowed, and came right for us. First in line to be gored, I responded by ducking under the dashboard. You have to appreciate a friend who agrees I didn’t lack courage. I just had good reflexes.
We hadn’t planned on riding an ostrich – and kissing one, certainly not. Then again, I said as I puckered up, I’ve probably kissed worse.
You have to love a friend who doesn’t tell you how stupid you look astride a 250-pound, 7-foot-tall, goofy-faced bird.
We hadn’t planned on awakening in the morning to find warthogs fighting on our patio, or nyalas nibbling from our trees, or monkeys clearing off the breakfast plates. We expected yawning hippos but not giraffes visible over the treetops. We did not imagine a golf course maintained by zebras or an after-dark journey through the preserve, our guide identifying animals by their eyes. We knew South Africa was simultaneously a first-world and a third-world country but did not anticipate how bizarre it would feel to be talking on a cell phone in the remote countryside while driving past women washing their clothes in a roadside stream.
Before we went to South Africa, I told Mary Ann I hoped our friendship could endure that much togetherness. I needn’t have fretted. Much as we had done four decades ago, we shared our hopes for our futures—and our worries. We laughed and talked and traded toiletries we’d forgotten to pack.
We even used the outdoor “facilities” together, in the bush alongside a major highway, shielding each other from the traffic. (And they said we’d learn no useful skills at those fraternity picnics!)
Not once when I trudged across the Bradley campus in the ‘60s did I see myself trekking through Africa at the age of 60 with my college friend. Sorority songs of “friendship forever” to the contrary, I never expected to be hanging out the rest of my life with women I’d met in college. I assumed my career would be permanent and my friends, well, transitory.
I was wrong. When I retired from the newspaper business in 2005, friends I’d made at Bradley were there to celebrate. And why not? For 40 years, whether getting married or blowing out birthday candles, enjoying a triumph or enduring a tragedy, raising kids or burying parents, we’ve been doing it together.
I don’t suppose universities should tell their students to forget their studies and concentrate on their relationships. But I do think relationships are important, in college and after, and they should be cultivated. I suppose that’s true on any campus, but I can speak only of this one.
Mary Ann and I came to Bradley from small worlds, aspired to bigger ones, and counted on the University to get us there. It did. But Bradley is also the sort of school where students tend to sink roots that hold even after the wings they spread carry them away ... to South Africa.
Mary Ann Huber Hanelt ‘68, left, was among the nation’s first 100 recipients of Vietnam-era Army nursing scholarships. After two years at Bradley, she finished her education at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, as her scholarship required. She served the country as a nurse and nursing consultant in Germany, Japan, England, and the United States. After taking a significant role in contingency planning for Army hospitals on two continents, she retired from the Army Reserves as a lieutenant colonel in 1998. She and her husband Peter live in Lafayette, California.
Barb Proctor Drake ‘67 MA ‘82 is the retired editorial page editor of the Journal Star in Peoria. Her work has appeared in Better Homes and Gardens, the Chicago Tribune, the Washington Times, the Rocky Mountain News, and other publications. She and her husband Bernie live in Peoria.