As a graduate student attending Utah State University, an old-line land grant agricultural and mechanical college in the most insular state in the Union, I had quickly become aware of certain realities. To begin with, I was not a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, known in short as the LDS church, and most commonly as the Mormons. As “not a member,” I was, outside the classroom and my little band of Ground Squirrel specialists, pretty much “not a person.”
And I was OK with that. We (the Mormons who made up 80% of the non-foreign student body of USU and 95% of the population of Logan, the little mountain town in which the university resided, and I) cordially ignored each other. I wanted nothing but beer, shotgun shells and groceries from them. They wanted nothing but money from me, and when they accepted it for my purchases they had a way of taking it as if there was no one holding it. I cared not a whit. Th’ Luvly Laura, on the other hand, was a social being. Living in isolation and having nearly everyone around her pretend she wasn’t there began to wear on her spirit quickly.
The second reality was that at an elevation of 3,000 feet, Cache Valley, 30 miles wide and 90 miles long, in the center of which sat the City of Logan,was subject to vicious cold, howling wind and deep snow. The University sat 500 feet above the village on an alluvial shelf on the east side of the valley. The cold was colder, the wind screamed louder and faster and the snow came a week earlier and stayed later. We lived at University level.
Outside Our Window - First Day
We came to Logan as a married couple January 3, 1968, and moved into an ugly concrete block apartment complex built originally to house unmarried students in groups of four. The University wanted the money these students were spending on apartments down in Logan, and thought this would be a fine way to get it. Upon opening for rent, the Triads so-named for the uneven triangles in which they were grouped) attracted exactly zero groups of single students… or single students of any stripe for that matter. What they did attract were married students. Graduate students, of course (we had a terrible habit of marrying between undergrad and graduate school), but also an astonishing number of undergraduates. It took a while to figure that one out, but the light of the obvious finally brought me out of bed at two o’clock one fine mid-February morning.
“Missions! They go on missions, and when they come home, they marry. That’s why this place is full of undergrad married couples.” I was sitting bolt upright in bed, proclaiming my great and blindingly obvious truth to a world that couldn’t hear me. But Th’ Luvly Laura could.
“Mrmph!” she said into her pillow, and rolled over. “Chuck, whatever are you shouting about? And what time is it?”
“It’s about two o’clock,” I said, and I began to tell her in appalling and bloody detail exactly how I had been obsessing over the mystery of the married undergraduates. Thirty seconds in, she shushed me.
“You could’ve asked me.” The amused exasperation in her voice was tinged with something a lot darker. “I asked Julie (our very nice apostate Mormon downstairs neighbor, divorced and shunned by all right-thinking Mormons – we’d had her up for dinner a couple of times). The guys go on missions, and when they come home they get married, like soldiers do.”
“Um.” I was stumbling here. “Yeah, that’s what I figured.”
“At two o’clock in the morning?”
“Uh-h-h… well yeah, I guess so.”
She began to cry. Just like that. No warning, no choking back tears while she spoke, no nuthin’. Just fell into me and started bawling into the hollow of my neck. And, as usual, I hadn’t the foggiest notion what this was all about… so I asked her – and she pounded my chest and bawled louder. I asked again. More bawling and pounding. I shut up.
After a good fifteen minutes of steadily increasing decibels, she began to hiccup and weep more softly. I had learned that Laura’s way of weeping was to sob incessantly and ever more loudly, refuse to respond to solicitous behavior on my part, and eventually calm down and go to sleep.
I decided to ride this one out, but once she had ceased bawling, and the hiccups were few and disconnected, I asked her again. And as she seemed to be preparing for another round of bawling, I said, “Nah Babe, just answer me. What’s goin’ on?”
To my astonishment, it worked (but almost never again). She sat up, made a little business of straightening the blankets, faced the foot of the bed and said, “I want to go home. You don’t have to deal with these horrible people and I do… except they won’t let me. It’s awful. You go over to that damned school every morning, and you stay there all day. You’re in class or lab, or you’re studying with your squirrel group. Me? I just sit here. I can’t even go outside because it’s almost always zero or colder. I’m from Virginia, and I thought it was bad when Hiram’s temperature dropped to zero for a day or two. It’s barely ever been above zero since we got here six weeks ago.”
“And that’s not all…” I had not spoken, apparently. “When I do go out, they look at me as if this was Mississippi and I were black. It’s true!” I had pulled away a little to be able to look directly at her, but she thought I was pulling away because I doubted her. “Living here is like being black and living in the deep south. I’m from Virginia, remember?”
Well, yes… I remembered. But she was from just outside Washington, DC, and I’d never seen her display any such reaction.
“I’ve lived with people who treat people like this, and I can see it plain as day. You could too, if you weren’t always up at that damned school. I sit in here with nothing to do all day, Julie’s at school too all morning, and I don’t even have a TV. I’ve tried shopping, but I’m so frozen by the time the car warms up that I can’t warm up, and nobody is ever kind, or even pleasant to me. I hate this place! I hate it! I hate it! I hate it!” And she began to bawl again.
The Apartment (with Entertainer)
I pulled her in and laid down. While she bawled and then quieted, I stroked her hair and told her I’d figure something out. Finally she slept. I did not, and I was grateful for the alarm when it finally announced my time to arise. Laura woke as well.
“Give me some time,” I said. “I’ll see what I can do. But you need to understand. I cannot “go home” like you want. If I bail on this Assistantship, there won’t be another. And the prospects for a bachelor’s degree in Biology aren’t good. I have to finish this, and I warned you… it’s two years.”
I got a wan smile and a shallow nod. “Go on to school,” she said. “I’ll be OK.”
I was doubtful, but I didn’t really have a choice. I pulled on my Army greatcoat; a long, olive drab, cloth coat meant to be worn over a uniform that included a hip-length wool jacket (called in military parlance, a blouse). I clapped a cheap western hat over my head, lit a smoke and headed downstairs into the frigid morning. It was a half-mile walk, in part through a cemetery in which all the Sycamore trees had branches that pointed only west, and the canyon wind blew hard early in the day. By the time I reached the classroom building, my beard was solid ice a half-inch thick, as was my moustache, and my eyeballs and teeth ached from the cold… every day.
After my first class I spoke with my thesis advisor. His response absolutely stunned me.
“Chuck, you’re an idiot. I swear, if I’d known how much trouble you were gonna be, I’d’ve told Jim Barrow to forget it when he asked me to accept you despite your early grade average. And if I’d known you were gonna get married, I’d’ve rescinded the assistantship before you ever got here. Wives of non-Mormon students go crazy out here.” He wound up his rant and just sat there.
“OK.” I wasn’t about to bail on the assistantship, “Suppose you think about it for a bit. There must be something she can do to survive this.”
He heaved a sigh that would have done the Old Man proud in his moments of greatest exasperation. “See me tomorrow. I actually have an idea.” He would say no more.
That night, I told Laura I thought things might be about ready to get better, but she’d have to hang on for another day or so. I didn’t think it would go over well, but it seemed she was so happy to have even a glimmer of good news that she believed it was a certainty. I didn’t disabuse her of the notion. If it didn’t pan out, tomorrow was soon enough for her to find out. Besides, she was too busy expressing her gratitude to listen.
The next day, my advisor introduced me to a professor in the Sociology department who was in need of some help organizing and typing up research and papers. He said he would be willing to offer a work-study grant for a 20-hour week, but she’d have to sign up for a class. She got the same in-state tuition rate I did, which made it a pretty cheap class.
I skipped the study group that morning and went to the apartment. Telling Laura nothing, I got her into her coat, started the car and took her to see the professor. Within two hours she was signed up for a graduate course in Sociology and had been assigned a desk in the professor’s office.
For the remainder of the winter, she was busy and happy most of the time, but I began to see hints of the troubles that were to come. Although they came only occasionally, her mood swings were wide and deep when they did come. And her new job would later take her to a place where she saw things that sent her home in despair. But for that first winter, I had given her hope and a way to live there without the ostracism affecting her, and she was mostly happy.
Life was about to become truly interesting, sometimes agonizing and occasionally desperate… but never boring. I would endure the worst of it again today, just to have her here.