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.

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 had a feeling that the Artists were better at drinking than writing.

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.

John R. Erickson

John provides commentary and short fiction to WORLD. His Hank the Cowdog series for children has sold more than 8.5 million copies worldwide, and in addition to publishing 74 books, his work has appeared in news outlets such as The Dallas Morning News. John and his wife, Kris, reside near Perryton, Texas.

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  •  RodC's picture
    Posted: Sat, 10/01/2016 02:14 pm

    I laughed a lot as I read this article. I realized, though, that we all have different gifts, yet we all need a savior.

    Well done, Mr. Erickson. 

  • Sawgunner's picture
    Posted: Sat, 10/01/2016 05:32 pm

    This brought back a lot of memories. I enrolled in UT in the mid 90s. I had earned an economics/finance degree at UTDallas in 85 and was looking forward to using my post Desert Storm GI bill benefits to pursue a career as a registered nurse. Austin was at that time just on the cusp of the dot com boom.

    The Daily Texan was in those years edited by Clinton-hating conservatives. The editor was actually elected by the students and the op/ed and letters to the editor were ever bit the ideological battle ground in the 90s as they were when Erickson trod the 40 acres.

    The church he referenced is still around. UBC had proudly integrated in the 1950s when the church welcomed an African American airman from what was then Bergstrom USAF base. Even in the 90s they proudly called themselves "Austin's progressive voice of faith" and that fellowship all but imploded in the 90s when the divorced pastor trumpeted the ordination of a gay man as deacon. ( That event along with the pastor's remarriage to a former staffer sped the exit of many theologically conservative students along with the collegiate pastor who had attracted most of them to attend there).

  • Sawgunner's picture
    Posted: Sat, 10/01/2016 05:40 pm

    Two other things were predictable when I was at UT:

    Texas A&M was a short hour's drive away and students from the Longhorn's arch rival school would put detergent in the fountain shown in the photo above. The fountain memorialized alumni who had perished in the Great War aka WW1.

    The other regular event involved alcohol. The Austin Statesman ea fall semester would have a tragic story of an under-aged lad who drank til he passed out. His fraternity hosts typically let the drunk boy "sleep it off" on their couch. By 8am the next day the inebriant would be zipped up in a body bag enroute to a local morgue with death by ethanol the cause of death.  The dead kids were usually youngsters away from home for the first time from Dallas or Plano or some other big city-- top 10% of their graduating class, brilliant potential, organic chem whiz kids already aiming for MCAT with great futures etc.  They reminded me of young paratroopers I had known only a few years before at Ft Campbell-- but paratroopers generally had "battle buddies" there to cut them off from too many rounds at the keg.

  • DakotaLutheran
    Posted: Sat, 10/01/2016 09:18 pm

    Having been saved from gangs in the 50s by never being able to figure out what I was supposed to be so angry about, I attended college in the East about the same time you were at UT. I dropped out after a few years, not being able to figure out what I was supposed to be doing there; went out West during the hay day of People's Park and Haight-Ashbury. It took me years to figure out why I was supposed to be against the Vietam War and for abortion. By the time I thought I had, everyone was gone and I had no one to tell. Alone, everyone having gone back to a life and career they were supposed to hate, I returned to school and found that I loved it. Still loving it, I went to graduate school where I received a PhD. My wife found me alone and returned me to Christ. Now I farm and still trying to figure out what it's all about with three grown children. 

  • Chris Valerie Koetting
    Posted: Sun, 10/02/2016 06:19 pm

    Always enjoy Jr. Erickson's thought-provoking reflections.  Especially in this age of prolonged adolescence, his experience is another strong argument for Christian higher education.  Christ-centered guidance is needed both in and out of the classroom for our young people.  I know I needed it.

  • CR
    Posted: Mon, 10/03/2016 06:48 am

    John, you sound familiar. I went through a similar experience growing up.  I was not a small town boy but I was a lost suburbanite.  I distrusted the liberals who were intent on fleeing the Vietnam war, eager to drop out, drop some drugs in their system, and fight with everyone in authority in order to support pacifism.  Oh, the battles I saw promoting peace and its odd companion, rebellion from authority.  I watched from my private world, trying to avoid the battles, quietly hiding a secret hope that there was something to the Christianity that had heard in church that was true.  I wanted a personal meaning outside of the decay I felt around me.  

    I  hid my hope, not sure if it could survive the brutal attack I felt launched against it by almost every teacher and wise student with whom I dared to talk about Jesus.  I remember the scornful attitude of the skeptics who knowingly assured me they knew better than I did.  I could never feel comfortable being an all knowing cynic. The flippant attitude rejecting Christ just seemed so empty.  Something about the arrogance revolted me. Perhaps, I sensed it was empty, even if I could not explain why.  In the early 70's, I knew I hoped for something that seemed so meaningless or obviously foolish to those in authority around me.

    No beautiful girl rescued me.  Instead, Christ interceded in the form of friends who cared.  Christ penetrated my indulgent fearful world of quiet desolate isolation and showed the power of a supernatural love.  I  gradually learned, taught by that small group of friends and the books I discovered, that I could believe and not just hope that Christ loved me.

    Now, years later, again I know I must trust this Lord.  I sit unemployed, watching my future looking increasingly bleak, my family depending on me and I will soon not be able to support them. Professionally, personally,and politically I see the world as an increasingly discouraging, frightening place where my best hope is Christ  At times the only thing that keeps me going is the belief that God will intercede  in the discouraging chaos around me and will show His presence again.