Hiram College was entirely about education. To that end, it brooked no distractions for freshmen. To that end it had two unbreakable rules. First, all freshmen were required to live on-campus; no exceptions. Second, no freshman was permitted to have a car on campus; none, never, not ever would a freshman receive permission to keep a car on campus. There were no possible exceptions, because no dean or officer of this institution of higher learning was ever going to sanction such a thing.
I had a sanctioned car on campus from day one. There were limits to its use, but I had permission to keep my green-on-green ’49 DeSoto Coupe on campus. In fact, I was not permitted to keep it in student parking at the bottom of the hill (not for nothing was Hiram College known colloquially as “The Hill”) by the football and soccer fields. I was required to park it behind Bowler Hall. The theory being that the fewer upper classmen who were aware of it, the better, and few of them would see it behind the old wooden dorm that was Bowler Hall.
Why did I have a forbidden car on campus? What made me special? Well, aside from the obvious (polishes fingernails on shirt and blows off imaginary dust), as one Greek Club denizen put it, “We don’t take local farmers’ kids.” That seemed to apply to the college as well. I was the only “local farmer’s kid” in my class who wasn’t attending on at least a partial scholarship. Chickens and eggs, a steer and eight years of gardens, four sheep, a half dozen hogs and years of caddying, corn picking and farm labor were paying for my first year’s tuition, fees and books. The Old Man was paying room and board plus a twenty dollar monthly allowance and three cartons of Camel cigarettes. I had two part-time jobs evenings and weekends, one an evening job at a grocery store in Streetsboro, about fifteen miles away – three miles beyond my parents’ house, the other a weekend day-job mowing lawns in Garrettsville, a couple of miles south on State Route 82. Without them, I could not have attended Hiram College.
Despite misgivings about the impact on my grades the first year, the College ultimately approved the car, but restricted it to driving to work evenings and home if I wished on weekends. I cheerfully agreed to these restrictions, and then pretty much ignored them. Turned out the College was right to worry about my freshman (and sophomore) grades, but wrong about the reason.
I found that my ability to achieve “B’s,” “C’s” and the occasional “A” by attending class and reading the material didn’t play well in a college called the Harvard of the Midwest. Actual studying was required, and I was not terribly good at that. Besides, college life was far too entertaining to miss hidden in my room studying. The problem was that, aside from one freshman seminar class and a required course in comparative religion, college courses were actually difficult. Even back in the ‘50s schools were teaching to the average. My way of dealing with the inevitable boredom was to do only “hand in” homework, and ignore the idea of studying. My GPA floated between B-minus and C-plus. The College Board tests got me into college.
During the ten days or so that covered the end and beginning of the months, checks arrived for the scions of doctors, attorneys and other men of wealth and privilege. For that few days each month I taught a course in probability in the Bowler Hall attic. My text consisted of a “book” of fifty-two small pages kept in a box. Each bore stylized drawings of various items, and some bore pen and paint drawings of royalty. These pages were carefully randomized and then distributed among five or six persons. As tuition, I charged only what my students were willing to put forth on the chance that they held the better of a pre-determined hierarchy of combinations of items and royals than I did. If they did not, I kept their wager. I began each month with twenty dollars. By the end of the monthly series of lessons I had as much as five or six hundred dollars early on. By the end of the year, I was down to less than half that. What I did not do during that week was study.
Saturday nights after mowing lawns all day, I would gather several friends and we would all pile into the DeSoto and head for “Th’ Road,” The Village of Hiram was dry, but within three to six miles, depending on direction, there were any number of watering holes willing to welcome college students. Technically, from the age of eighteen to one’s twenty-first birthday only a watery concoction called “three-two beer” could be consumed. This pathetic beverage, produced by all breweries, contained only three and two-tenths percent alcohol, no more and no less. Ordinary beer contained “up to” seven percent, although it was usually sold at about five percent (and sometimes as in the case of a couple of local beers, as low as three point four percent).
The reality for us was that there were three or four bars that served Hiram students whatever we asked for, without question, an unofficial policy that came back to haunt them more than once. After all, “Townies versus Students” was a game played in every college hangout in America. Having big farm boys and factory workers decide to tee off on the sons and daughters of New York and Boston doctors and lawyers made for short but violent brawls. One afternoon, my kid brother Giles (born but twenty months after I was) arrived to spend the weekend. He brought an air mattress and a sleeping bag and camped out next to my bed. Came Saturday night, I grabbed a few folks, including Giles, and cranked up the DeSoto. We headed north on SR 700 “Th’ Road,” in this case a roadhouse in Troy, a crossroads town consisting of the Troy Roadhouse (our designation) a gas station, an IGA grocery and little else.
As the DeSoto passed through forty-five miles an hour heading for sixty, a shuddering began in the car. It rapidly increased in intensity and noise, but abruptly ceased the instant the speedometer passed fifty-five miles an hour. I never did find out what that was all about.
“Thought you were gonna get that fixed, Chuck.” I could hear the smirk in Giles’ voice. He’d bet me I couldn’t fix it, and he’d been right.
“Nobody can figure it out.” I was exasperated. “I’ll buy your first drink tonite.”
“Betcher ass, ‘cause I’ve got three dollars to my name. Hey, you ever find first gear?”
Well that perked up the ears in the car. “Well?” Female voice from the back... “Did you?”
“Yeah, I found it.”
Geez! Couldn’t she leave it alone? “On the gearshift.” You know how guys won’t stop for directions? Well, turns out we won’t stop at a dealership and ask where first gear is either.
“Chuck... don’t be an ass.” Giles wasn’t privy to my discovery. “Tell her.”
“Behind reverse. I found it the hard way.”
“Oh... gotta hear this.” Giles was suddenly all ears. “What does “behind reverse” mean?”
So, I explained. The ’49 has a clutch, but the gearshift is mounted like an automatic. However, the driver must use the clutch to shift for the first run through the gears. From then on, until the engine is shut off, the car runs like an automatic. My problem was, first gear was not marked, and I couldn’t find it... so I had to slip the clutch to get it going, which made for a slow start and a lot of wear and tear on the clutch. I knew it had a first gear because once I hit a stop, the take-off went through three gears (she wasn’t the smoothest shifting automatic I ever drove).
Anyway, there came a day when I sat in the car in our next-door neighbor (a quarter-mile away) Mrs. Nelson’s front yard, the grill about a yard from the front steps, talking with her son Charlie. Eventually I had to leave. I stepped on the clutch, grasped the shift lever and shoved it toward the dashboard and lifted it left in one motion as I turned to look back over my left shoulder, shoving the car into reverse. I grabbed the steering wheel in my right hand, stepped on the gas, lifted my foot off the clutch... and rammed the grill into Mrs. Nelson’s front stoop! I had found first gear!
The trick to first gear was shoving the lever toward the dashboard. Usually to put the car in reverse, I pulled the lever toward me and lifted it left. First gear was in exactly the same position on the shifter dial, but “behind” reverse. To get there, the shifter had to be pushed forward and lifted left, which I had done. I bought Mr. Nelson the lumber (he was a carpenter) and he built a better stoop than I’d destroyed. He thought the whole thing a great joke. Mrs. Nelson did not.
I finished the story to a round of laughter as we reached the Troy Roadhouse. An hour later Giles had discovered a taste for something called a Tom Collins (vodka, lime and other stuff over ice with a parasol in it). An hour after that, he made a pass at a townie girl whose boyfriend made the mistake of swinging at him. Even sixteen and drunk, Giles was too fast and too dangerous for him. I didn’t get to him until he’d thrown three solid punches, and I could see the bartender on the phone. I grabbed one of my riders and we grabbed Giles and frog-marched him out of the bar. We put him in the back seat of the DeSoto, and I sent the other guy back to the bar to fetch the other riders. Minutes later he, three girls and two other guys showed up. I hoped we had everybody. I wasn’t drinking (even then I thought drinking and driving was a remarkably terrible idea), but I’d forgotten who and who many I’d brought.
We headed out of the lot with people piled two-deep in the back seat. As I got up to speed on the southbound side of SR 700 sirens and gumballs passed us traveling north. I maintained a steady fifty-five miles an hour. The last thing I wanted was for a cop to find a sixteen-year-old boy in my rear seat, drunk and bleeding from the knuckles. Two plus two would add up to a nice solid four if one did. But we had no trouble getting back to the dorm. I pulled the car around to the rear and apologized to the girls for making them walk to their dorms, but I wanted the car off the street. A two-tone green, heavily chromed ’49 DeSoto was not a common sight, even in 1960. The car was distinctive if nothing else and I didn’t know what the yahoos at the bar might have seen.
Giles spent a while worshiping at the porcelain alter and finally came to the room. He spent much of the night groaning in his sleep, and when he awoke Sunday morning there was some expression of a desire to have died the night before. Eventually he noticed the cuts on his knuckles and asked about them. He couldn’t believe he was unable to remember having had a fight. I took him home later, and admonished him not to mention the bar run. He looked at me as if I were daft. So far as I know, he never did.