Howard Hwang arrived in North Carolina with a crate of biochemistry textbooks and a full head of shiny jet-black hair. Six weeks later he was bald. This was intentional, although hardly pre-planned. He was from Korea (via Los Angeles) and had perfect SAT scores. The summer prior, he spent memorizing words like “capricious” and “furtive” in a Korean boot-camp for aspiring perfectionists. According to Howard, his family tree was a perennial bloom of genius, with high expectations for the future. In the summer of 2003 our fates aligned in Durham County. We were the subjects of an experiment in academic overload. This was carefully designed by our parents, who’s dreams of Ivy League acceptance letters caused them to salivate.
We gathered on the barren remains of Kilgo Quad, in dormitories that still smelled of cafeteria food and disinfectant. Together, we comprised the best of America’s academic future (or at least that’s what we were told). A horde of obedient overachievers, forsaking a perfectly good summer to pad our resumes. The things they carried were unusual. Valerie brought a full-sized harp, which had to be moved by men with certificates. Mike brought his custom-built desktop computer fully equipped with a liquid cooling system that glowed in the night. Hwan had an elaborate collection of “machine guts”—motherboards and hard drives, none of which served a distinct purpose on their own. Chad brought a hockey stick, Kedar brought an expensive set of ping-pong rackets, and of course Howard had his textbooks. It was clear from our luggage that life was still uncertain, yet there were notable exceptions.
Hunter and Bobby never really “arrived” on campus like the rest of us. No one saw where they came from or how they got to Kilgo Quad in the first place. We weren’t even sure if they had parents. Something about normal family structure seemed too uncool for them. They weren’t related, yet everything about them seemed perfectly coordinated and yet completely reckless. Their shaggy hairstyles were held in place by backwards trucker caps with things like, “Davenport Plumbing” on the front. They wore leather-thong flip-flops with tie-dye T-shirts and ripped jeans. They spoke in long southern draws and said things like, “Who’s got my headie buds y’all?” They were country boys from the deepest depths of the south who loved good times, hard laughs, and Tom Petty.
Hunter and Bobby spread the Petty-bug like a plague across every inch of Kilgo Quad. Every hallway, laundry room, and ping pong table echoed that unmistakable silky-smooth voice. If they were moving, they were singing—and they only sang Petty. The southern duo would burst into song anywhere at any time. They certainly covered many of the hits, but there was one song that reigned supreme. “You Don’t Know How It Feels” played on an endless loop and became the summer anthem, whether we liked it or not. As the boys would flip and flop down the halls of Kilgo Quad (boombox in hand), Petty’s opening harmonica riff would ring out. This meant a duet was about to ensue. Hunter usually took the first verse:
Let me run with you tonight
I’ll take you on a moonlight ride
There’s someone I used to see
But she don’t give a damn for me
Because of their recreational habits, the chorus was usually given special emphasis, and sung in unison.
But let’s get to the point, let’s roll another joint
And turn the radio loud, I’m too alone to be proud
You don’t know how it feels
You don’t know how it feels to be me
Surprisingly, these frequent outbursts didn’t seem to annoy any of the poindexters within earshot. As the weeks went on it almost seemed as though the Petty tributes helped loosen the stranglehold of expectation that our parents so lovingly placed upon us. Thanks to Hunter and Bobby, Petty’s voice was a constant, and stood in utter contrast to the high-brow academic culture of Kilgo Quad. Perhaps that’s why when Hunter told Howard to shave his head, he agreed without batting an eye. In an instant, a dozen four-eyed Harvard-hopefuls crowded the bathroom of our dormitory to watch Bobby take the electric clippers to Howard’s fragile skull. As we watched the metal teeth mow down large rows of delicate Korean hair, Hunter began to sing:
My old man was born to rock
He’s still tryin’ to beat the clock
Think of me what you will
I got a little space to fill
When the deed was done, all that remained was a tile floor covered in millions of strands of Howard’s DNA. The rest of us stood in awe and envy at the sight of our rebel roommate. It seemed like the ultimate act of defiance. Whether Tom Petty had anything to do with this was uncertain. One thing was for sure, however—a weight had been lifted. After years of regimen and containment, Howard Hwang had been given the gift of free choice. There was an exciting buzz that followed and, as if by magic, Howard seemed to adopt a new sense of confidence and charisma that was nothing short of contagious.
For the residents of Kilgo Quad in the summer of 2003, Tom Petty was more than a voice. He embodied a carefree mantra that we all were groomed to reject. “You Don’t Know How It Feels” was a teenage battle cry of resistance against summer school, and traditional haircuts, and conformity. Looking back, Hunter and Bobby were lightyears ahead of us when it came to sucking the marrow out of life. Those backwoods boys from Alabama didn’t have all the answers, but they had the spirit of Tom and his music, and it transcended all of us. For one summer, Tom Petty was the soundtrack of my life, and for that, I’ll miss him.