A small-town kid on campus
Higher Education | Studying life at the liberal University of Texas of the 1960s
by John R. Erickson
Posted 10/01/16, 08:38 am
Pigeons and rats
My first year at the University of Texas wasn’t fun or easy. I had always been a slow reader and a lazy student, and I spent most of my first semester in cold fear that I was going to flunk Spanish and algebra. It didn’t help that UT was an enormous, impersonal campus with a student population more than 10 times the size of my hometown.
That first semester, I had little social life. After class, I went to Batts Hall, checked out tapes in the language lab, and spent hours listening to Spanish conversations. When the lab closed at 10 o’clock, I walked back to my dingy little apartment to resume my war with algebra, or to read bleak short stories for my course in American literature.
I had tried dating, but it hadn’t gone well. Surely, in a student population of 40,000, there must have been a few young ladies who weren’t odd, but I hadn’t found them. In 1963, oddness seemed epidemic in the College of Arts and Sciences, maybe even a requirement. (This was decades before anyone had heard the cry “Keep Austin Weird!”)
About halfway through the semester, I awoke to the fact that I was unhappy, not a normal condition for me. I had heard that the Student Health Center kept psychologists on staff, so I made an appointment with one of them.
At my first session, the doctor tapped his pencil, stared at me for an hour, and said nothing. The most obvious and helpful advice he might have given (“Why don’t you join a church and meet some people?”), he didn’t offer.
He expected me to talk, so I talked. I was a small-town kid, adrift in a huge university, living in fear of failing two courses and needing some female companionship—all of which I had known without any help from him.
This pattern persisted through five sessions, and I began to realize he was never going to say anything. At that point, a thought flashed in my mind: The doctor was in worse shape than I was.
I stopped going to counseling and didn’t set foot in the Student Health Center until a month later, when, early one Sunday morning, I had to deliver a friend to the emergency room. Like me, he was a small-town guy and was having his own kind of girl problems. He had found a girlfriend, but they had just broken up, and Bill had tried to drown himself in a bottle of gin.
He almost succeeded. Bill had been raised Southern Baptist and had never spent any time thinking about the chemical properties of a Tom Collins. All he knew was it tasted good and helped numb the ache of his broken heart.
As I was lugging him into the emergency room, he muttered something I couldn’t hear. I asked him to repeat it.
“I’m suppose to sing a solo at University Baptist Church.”
“This morning? The 11 o’clock service?”
He nodded. I began to wonder if that was going to happen.
At 9 o’clock, his eyes were crooked and his chin rested on the rim of a Health Center commode. At 10, he was stretched out on a gurney, ash-faced and clammy of skin, wondering why nobody back in Louisiana had told him that, when taken in large quantities, gin is a toxic substance.
The nurse gave him a shot of something (not gin) and sent him home. He missed the service, and I doubt that church officials ever heard the real story. And he didn’t get his girlfriend back.
Bill and I didn’t have much luck at the Student Health Center, but it occurred to me that a course in psychology might give me some valuable insights. Perhaps a young blade’s best hope of finding a girl at this huge place was to broaden his understanding of human behavior.
I enrolled in a course that sounded promising: Introduction to Psychology. The professor was a delightful man: alert, intelligent, cynical, and funny. I enjoyed his lectures, and if I had been dating pigeons or white rats, I might have put his knowledge to good use.
To my amazement, he had nothing to say about human beings, only rodents and birds, and how they responded to food pellets and electrical shocks.
So I trudged on with my university career. The years passed. Then, in the middle of my senior year, I met Kris. She just showed up, like wildflowers after a spring rain, and she wasn’t odd, angry, or unhappy. I found her without counseling, food pellets, or gin, and she was such a delight, I married her.
That was 49 years ago, and it must be true: God really does look after country boys and fools. I hope things turned out as well for Bill.
The Lonely Mad Artist
During my senior year at the University of Texas (1965-1966), I got a job writing a weekly editorial column for the campus newspaper, The Daily Texan, which was regarded as an example of high-quality student journalism.
It was also a trumpet of political liberalism, and I made good use of it, writing columns that were shrill and disrespectful to figures of authority. I enjoyed lobbing cans of hair spray into quiet fires, but never paused to think, in maturity, I might hope nobody ever poked through those ashes.
A writer’s greatest fear should be that the words of his youth might actually prove to be immortal. If I read those pieces today, I would blush.
The 1960s were a time of social ferment, and I rebelled against some of the values of my parents, but I didn’t drift as far from my roots as some of my contemporaries who seemed to have severed all ties and were sailing into waters beyond the horizon.
I was never that angry about whatever we were so angry about, and I learned not to trust Marxist radicals. Whatever the flaws of the Southern Baptists back home, I would have preferred being stranded in a lifeboat with a bunch of evangelicals than with anyone who belonged to the Students for a Democratic Society. As a group, they struck me as dishonest, arrogant, manipulative, bitter, self-absorbed, slightly crazy, and bent on some sort of destruction.
I knew several who thought of themselves as writers and poets. They appeared to be following a paradigm we might call “The Lonely Mad Artist.” I don’t know where it came from (Friedrich Nietzsche, jazz culture, leftist politics, the Beat Generation of poets, Ingmar Bergman movies, or all of them rolled together), but Che Guevara and Ernest Hemingway were the most conspicuous icons.
These Artists cultivated the appearance of devil-may-care rebellion, and drinking was an important part of the process, as it had been for Hemingway. They wrote angry poetry that had no rhyme or meter, because rhyme and rhythm suggested there might be some sort of meaning or pattern in human experience. They regarded traditional poems as nothing but sops for bourgeois sheep.
They had their own tables at the student union, where they puffed unfiltered cigarettes, flicked the hair out of their eyes, and glared at the engineers and business majors who were marching toward regular jobs and life in the suburbs, and who didn’t understand that they were ALL GOING TO DIE!
I never became part of their group. Even though I was creeping toward the idea of becoming an author, I retained a small-town kid’s wariness about blowing up bridges and diving off into dark places. I didn’t hate my parents or my country, and I already knew we’re all going to die. I had learned it in a Baptist church, though I dared not whisper that news on campus.
I had a feeling that the Artists were better at drinking than writing. Writing is not something you do at a noisy table in the student union or at Scholz’s Beer Garden. In later years, I looked for their names in bookstores and on lists of Texas authors, and never saw one of them mentioned.
It was a bizarre paradigm, the Lonely Mad Artist. I can’t imagine flying in a commercial jet with a Lonely Mad Pilot. “Good morning, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to Flight 405 to Dallas. We’ll be flying 30,000 feet above a godless planet, and I want you to know you’re all going to die, if not on this flight, then maybe the next one, so enjoy your peanuts.”
I wonder what became of them. Maybe they became Lonely Mad English Professors who roared and foamed about the stupidity of the middle-class boobs who paid their salary. Or maybe they just died young, proving that they were right all along.