CHAPTER 26 Hiram College Redux - Back to College
Back at Hiram after three years as a soldier, my reception was erratic to say the least. Vietnam was beginning to make the news, the draft was beginning to hit students who couldn’t stand the gaff in college, people were starting to die (American people – the Vietnamese people had been dying in an unending war for generations) and students and faculty couldn’t seem to separate soldiers from policy-makers.
Some of the younger students seemed as awed to see an honest-to–the-bear soldier on campus as we had been three years earlier to see “The Marine...” who, of course, was gone, graduated I presume. Others, particularly kids from the liberal east and west coast bastions of New York and San Francisco, were less impressed. They had discovered that they might actually be sent to places where people were actively trying to do them great harm. As a consequence, they viewed my presence on campus as “provocative.” There was actually a short-lived petition drive aimed at my removal from campus. But things were not yet as they would be in the not-too-distant future, so upon being presented with the petition (a petition with embarrassingly few signatures, I was told), the administration simply told them, “No... that’s not going to happen,” read them a lecture on what it meant to attend a “liberal arts” school and sent them on their way.
Once the petition had been rejected, sentiment, both pro and con, faded. For the most part, my presence on campus became an irrelevancy. Still there were a couple of incidents. A slightly built young freshman sporting a head of short golden curls spat at my feet one day as I passed him on the sidewalk. I stopped and looked at him, more than a little bemused. He was wearing a standard issue fatigue blouse (shirt) and fatigue jacket (light polished cotton canvas dyed a pale olive drab) covered with all sorts of military patches. I pointed to it. “Your Dad’s?”
“I bought it, if it’s any of your business.”
I stepped a bit closer. After a rather stretchy moment or two of silence while I enjoyed watching him learn the physical definition of “fidget,” I suggested he not spit at his betters again and walked away. He never did, at least not at this one. I’d been on campus less than a month. “Welcome back, Chuck. Just as if you’d never left, isn’t it?”
As a freshman, I had not been “rushed” by any of the Greek-style “social clubs” on campus (real national fraternities and sororities had been banished decades earlier). As one club officer told me, they didn’t want “local farmers’ kids.” But that was then and this was now, and things were not as they seemed. I got an invitation to a rush party from every club but one. I didn’t bother to ask why they had held out. I was after all, soldier or not, still a “local farmer’s kid.” As I moved from club to club on rush night, watching the girls from the linked sororities (and fending off more than a few), I listened to the stories the members told over and over. Most of them had to do with humiliating pledges.
Not being a fan of humiliation, I was rapidly coming to the conclusion that I wanted no part of such shenanigans when I started hearing legends about the paddles hanging on the walls. Each pledge was required to manufacture a paddle. Should a pledge misbehave (an absolute inevitability – pledge hazing was designed to funnel pledges into misbehavior and consequent discipline), he would be bent over a chair arm and administered a number of swats determined by either tradition (if it was a common infraction) or by a club court assembled from those present, with his own paddle. After listening to stories of blistering, skin breaks and bleeding, bone bruises and broken fingers, my conclusion was fixed... I wasn’t joining a club.
When the actual invitations to join were issued, I received only one... from the “jock club.” As was expected of rushes declining to pledge, I took the invitation and my letter declining the invitation to the clubroom and handed it to the club Treasurer. There was some unintelligible gabble from pledges and members standing around, but the gist of it was that they wanted to know why.
“I would have a condition. I don’t believe you’ll accept it.” I offered nothing more.
“Pledges don’t make conditions,” came from a corner seat.
“What is your condition?” Someone I hadn’t seen was speaking.
A gaggle of geese started yammering in the hallway. I headed for the door.
“You afraid of a paddling?”
“No. But I don’t let people hit me, especially not for their own entertainment.”
The geese were loose again. The word “tradition” came up a lot. I stood against the wall and waited for quiet.
When I could get a word in, I said, “Told you that you wouldn’t like my condition. You don’t. I’ll be leaving. However, before I go... a recommendation. I’d suggest you reconsider your paddling “tradition.” People are going to start showing up who’ve spent a while killing people who tried to hurt them. They may not all have fully broken the habit. The letter is on the table.” I pointed.
I left. The room was wrapped in complete silence. The tradition was still active when I graduated.
I’d tried a new philosophy in course selection for my return - a mixture of science and arts that I hoped would provide enough variety to maintain interest in all of them. With the exception of Trigonometry (which I flunked), the strategy worked.
One of the courses I’d selected for my first quarter was Entomology, the study of insects. Unfortunately, for purposes of an introductory class, spiders (of which I, a biologist, was terrified) were included in the course. As it turned out, the most trouble I had with spiders was straightening their legs without breaking them after they came out of the potassium cyanide jar. However, we had in our class an erstwhile black widow of the two-legged variety. I arrived late by a minute or two for the first class, and the only seat available was next to her. At the time, I thought nothing of it, although I did notice that she was a very pretty young lady with shining black wavy hair that came below her shoulders. But I wasn’t looking for a girlfriend yet, so I noticed but gave it no further thought.
At the end of class, Dr. Barrow handed out insect nets... some assembly required. There was a very heavy steel wire ring about twenty inches in diameter with two short, straight ends bent perpendicular to the center of the ring, and a shorter leg on each end bent toward each other. This was to be inserted into a fabric loop sewn along the top edge of a gauzy net of surprisingly strong fabric. Finally, there was a wooden handle with a clamp and two holes where the bent ends of the wire loop would go with the short, straight segments lying against the pole and the clamp holding them in place.
Sliding the fabric loop over the steel wire ring without tearing the fabric was extremely difficult, and getting the clamps properly applied to the short ends of the wire ring while keeping the wire from springing open and shredding the net was nearly as difficult. When I had finished, I noticed that they girl I’d sat down next to was just sitting there with the parts of her net lying on her desk. I asked if she’d like some help.
Her reaction was a complete mystery of overreaction. “No.” She fairly crackled. “My boyfriend’s a linebacker, he’ll do it.”
M-m-m-m... kay. I wasn’t touching that one. I didn’t respond, just picked up my stuff and went up to see Dr. Barrow about a trip we were planning (of which more later).
I came out into the hall a few minutes later and saw the young lady with several people. She saw me at about the same time. Grabbing one of the guys in the group she towed him over to me. “This is the guy,” she announced, indicating me to the young man. To me she said, “This is my boyfriend, Bill. He’s a linebacker.”
I stuck out my hand, “Chuck. I’m a soldier.”
He looked at the girl, “Give us a minute.”
She wasn’t happy, but she walked away. He turned back to me. “You try to hit on my girl?”
“No. I offered to help her. She keeps jumping to conclusions, she’s gonna be way over-exercised.”
He nodded, “I think I’m supposed to scare you.”
“You don’t. My advice?” I cocked an eyebrow.
“Don’t let her make you a weapon. And while we’re talking; I don’t want your girl, or anybody’s girl. I need to bring up a bad GPA. I nearly flunked out of this place before I left. Now that I’m back I intend to fix that. Tell her not to worry about me.”
He grimaced. “You don’t “tell” Jane anything.”
I stuck out my hand, and he automatically took it. I smiled, “Good luck with her, then.” I let go of his hand and walked out of Colton Hall. Oddly enough, we did not become fast friends (or slow friends, come to that).
I ignored Jane and spent the quarter in learning an incredible lot about insects, not enough about Trigonometry and that it was great fun to bedevil my literature instructor... my first roommate in Bowler Hall from the autumn of 1960. I called him David. He called me Mr. Larlham. After a while I realized that it didn’t matter what I turned in or how I did on a test. My grade was always an A. To this day I don’t know why, but it perfectly offset the F in Trig, so I was grateful for it.