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Freedom Songs -
my Journey through 1964
part I - College
I laughed till I was on the floor. Jackson was not amused. He had been telling me that Chief Crazy Horse was a great man, a wise person, a noble leader. So many intellectual epiphanies stand out in memory, moments of awakening to a more informed view of what has oppressed and freed my fellow humans on this planet. It took me a few minutes to realize he wasn't joking. What was he talking about? With a name like that? I started laughing again. He was livid, told me to stay put, and ran over to the library. I spent the rest of the day reading about Chief Crazy Horse. That was the first time I had any idea that American Indians were other than what I'd gathered from the movies, TV, and Dennis the Menace. I didn't really have any horrible negative ideas - beyond the fact that some fought back and some were into torture, but mainly just hadn't thought about it. It was like a two dimensional cartoon had given way to a deep cavern of varied cultures and spiritual paths. I was a freshman in college.
I had no interest in going to college. I was ready to head out to... somewhere. My mother had persuaded me to try just one semester so I postponed my wanderlust and, with the help of a letter of recommendation from my wonderful high school English teacher, L.A. Smith, got accepted to a nearby Presbyterian school with a good reputation, Austin College in Sherman Texas.
I was a terrible student but I learned a lot there - from both teachers and students. Dr. Landrum was a renowned Chaucer scholar who thought that no one had written English well since well before Shakespeare, though he could tolerate Henry James. He was ultra conservative, reminiscent of William Buckley. He'd place strange objects on his desk and give us ten minutes to describe them. In a wide ranging humanities program called Basic Studies, I connected with a theologian, Dr. Franke, as I'd been brought up on a totally non-literal understanding of the Bible. Psychology with Dr. Nussbaum was intriguing. He'd lived and taught in India and was tolerant of my preference for Carl Rogers over Skinner. Mathematics with Dr. Kimes was way over my head but I loved reaching for it. I remember him starting the first class with, "In mathematics, as in any form of poetry..." Genetics was fascinating and hard to follow. I'd get in arguments with the teacher in class like once I brought a magazine to prove that wolves had raised kids but he said Time was not an acceptable source. Required chapel - the chaplain tried hard - but it was simplistic and irritating. I'd ask questions like, what happens if we boycott this mandatory rite on the basis of religious liberty and people would snicker at me.
I had an amazing roommate named Bob and made some friends there that I still see when I go back to Texas - Berry, Warren, Carl, Clay, and Jackson who I spent the most time with, mainly dreaming up insane nonsense out of boredom and youthful angst. It was a dry county as was half of Texas and we'd go to Oklahoma to get beer sometimes, but we really weren't into drinking that much. Cigarettes and coffee more. And occasional talk about marijuana which no one had tried.
One day Jackson and I were in the cafeteria and noticed that there was a thin film of dust on the window sill and we drew up an outraged petition demanding that the school attend to this unacceptable situation. We then spent hours getting people to sign it and delivered it to the president's office.
Jackson and I campaigned for a friend to get elected to the... the... What was it called? The Supreme Court of Austin College? Let's call it the Student Court for now. In our zeal, we made a poster that would later reside on the inside door of the left side closet in my Fort Worth bedroom. The poster had a picture of our friend and boldly announced, "Oh though damned and luxurious mountain goat" Below in smaller letters was: "This quote from William Shakespear's Henry V: Act 4, Scene 4 conclusively prooves that Scooter Merit is the best qualified candidate for Student Court of Austin College."
Jackson hated religion. He said he'd spent his childhood thinking there was a god that approved or disapproved of his every act. Neither agnosticism nor atheism ever meant anything to me cause god to me was just a word that stood for the absolute, the ground of being - whatever it was, but I always preferred atheists to literalists. In that spirit, Jackson and I formed a group, really a pretend group, called Atheism by Faith. Jackson was an eloquent spokesman for it and we used it to amuse our friends and ridicule random devout students. When this wasn't found to be offensive enough for some whom we really wanted to torment, the slogan GED was offered by yours truly. This was an acronym for god eats something I won't put to print for fear that my dear departed maternal grandmother will read it while watching over me.
Warren and I hitched to New Orleans where my sister was going to college. We had trouble getting a ride till he sat on my shoulders with a sign. That worked. Drunk in the French Quarter we talked with a man who printed up fun headlines on pretend newspapers and asked how far could we go? Anything, he said. Really? Yep. After some thought we came back with some suggestions, none of which he would print. One involved Caroline Kennedy, the president's daughter, six at the time, and a horse. We made a coin in a machine with GED stamped on it. It became a sacred object back at school.
One day Jackson and I were sitting in his room bored and pointless.
"I know!" I told him.
"What?" he said in a down tone with a lack of faith.
I told him I had a card trick that would amaze him. He gave me a deck of cards. I asked him to pick one and just look at it and not tell me and then to shuffle the deck as much as he wanted. He shuffled and cut it over and over and finally handed it to me. I threw it across the room, cards scattering everywhere.
"I know that one. It's called fifty-two pickup. And you're gonna have to pick all that up yourself. "
"Not if I get your card," I said.
"Fat chance," he said.
I walked across the room, reached down, picked up a card, said, "Is this your card?" while I slowly turned it toward him.
Jackson freaked. He screamed, "No! No! That's impossible!" He continued like that for a while. He begged me to tell him how I did it. For once I stayed silent, played it cool. Walked out smugly, just as amazed as him. I'd done that stunt many times and had to clean it up while people snickered at me saying, "That was stupid.". I never tried it again.
The dean of men talked to me about sacrilegious and other attitude concerns and the fact that in downtown Dallas I'd suddenly bolted from a school-chartered bus, having opened the door myself at a red light, and hitchhiked to Austin to rejoin other representatives to the Model United Nations. I was totally unprepared and had looked up the address of the Egyptian consulate in Big D - or maybe just an information office. As a result of a conversation in that office and materials received, I gave a well-received talk to a vast audience of youth and some adults lambasting Israel using only sexual analogies such as that they'd raped Occupied Palestine etc. Two days before I'd never heard a critical word against that young struggling country.
The Dean further said I'd been suspected of starting a fire in a trash can in the hall of my dorm because I'd been so quick to respond to it and put it out. Some girls had reportedly shrieked seeing me peeking into the basement of their dorm, having learned of the underground tunnel between the two. There was a rumor I'd had trysts with a girl in the little twenty-four hour prayer room adjoining the chapel. I had poor attendance and grades. It didn't look good. And there was a comment about trouble Jackson and I kept causing such as the incident when I put his bicycle in a tree and the next day found my mattress even higher in branches.
But it wasn't all silliness. Clay, Carl, and I had a little folk group and were on TV and sounded good. I remember young girls looking at me with longing eyes. I wrote two poems that I submitted the night of the deadline to the faculty sponsor of the school poetry book, the Harlequin. He told me later I was the only student with two poems and that my two were the best. I'm proud now, but I wasn't then. It just wasn't a time for discipline - or writing for me. I'd been writing poetry and stories and songs for years and had concluded that to move to the next plateau of my development, I had to stop writing. Also, stop acting. I'd been the lead in every play in junior and senior high and had, as a matter of course, joined the college drama club, did props for a Moliere play.
The leads weren't because I was a great actor. It was my voice. I remember the first time I tried out for a part in a play in the eighth grade. I was going for a bit part. After I'd read the lines the teacher backed up and asked me to read them again. She repeated that a few times till she was against the back wall. The next day I looked to see if I got the part and was surprised to see I'd gotten the lead. It was my voice. It carried. All my life people have told me to be quiet - except in theater. I could memorize lots of words quickly and was dependable onstage. I memorized the Raven in the seventh grade (and reused it in the tenth) and the very long Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner in the ninth. Though the plays' quality weren't that good, I could nail the lines. But I quit theater then and unlike writing never went back. I wasn't really a good actor I don't think - and I didn't want to be - or a performer. I didn't want to say the same lines or sing the same songs over and over. The last poem I wrote was called Threnody which means a mourning for the dead. It was a funeral for my writing. I wanted to go beyond myself. I was such an idiot, but it was not a bad idea. I have the same idea right now.
As the opening paragraph indicated, I was also getting a social and political education. There were articulate students who would discuss disarmament, pacifism, socialism, sexual liberation including homo and bi-sexuality, liberalism, civil liberties, eliminating poverty and segregation. Lots of serious talks, new ideas. In art and music too.
I was hanging out with friends who turned me on to the likes of Dave Van Ronk, Joan Baez, and especially Bob Dylan. This was the fall of '63 and his second album had just come out a few months before, The Times They Are a-Changin' was January of '64. I had been familiar with Woody Guthrie in high school from listening to and singing folk songs. Now I was learning union and peace songs and freedom songs from the People's Song Book and other sources.
There had been earlier radicalizing influences - I'd been reading Mad Magazine since grade school, in high school Walt Whitman, Chicago columnist Sydney Harris, Hugh Hefner, and the summer before college, discovered the wondrous Realist and Paul Krassner. My open-minded mother never discussed politics but I grew up in an affluent part of town and anything other than so-called conservative thought had to come from somewhere else. I remember a pivotal moment - sitting up all night at the age of fifteen listening to election returns and when early the next morning early Kennedy finally won, realizing that I was glad he'd won.
I got a more serious petition going. I'd written the Dallas Morning News a total put-down sarcastic sort of Stephen Colbert like humor letter-to-the-editor and they printed it - minus all the sarcasm. They turned sentences like, "I like your editorials - which cover the front page," into "I like your editorials." It was so humiliating. People were coming up to me shaking their heads and asking about the letter I'd written. I was so furious that I wrote a scathing put-down of the paper. I recall the sentence, We hold that the Dallas Morning News is the skid row of American journalism. The last sentence read something like: Harry Truman has called the Dallas Morning News one of the five worst newspapers in America. We hope that someday your newspaper does not deserve to be called that. I got all sorts of signatures on it and sent it to the paper and drove there with someone to demand they print it but no one would talk to us except some guy at a table in front.
Adlai Stevenson was involved with a nasty event in Dallas. One of the most respected professors at Austin College taught constitutional law. Clay had taken classes from him and revered him, would quote him and praise Justices Douglass and Black. Somehow I got in the car with them, and Dr. Franke and Carl, to go hear Adlai Stevenson speak a little over an hour away. Stevenson was the US ambassador to the UN in the Kennedy administration. Clay told me to keep my mouth shut and pay attention to what my esteemed elders talked about on the ride in. Clay was serious, had a sharp tongue, and was on the outs with the administration for being a rebel and breaking rules. But he'd done a big favor for the school that bought him a lot of slack. There'd been a student who was threatening to jump off a building and everything had come to a standstill with faculty and administrators begging him not to jump and Clay went right out to the guy and barked at him to get his ass off the roof right now and the guy did.
We got to the auditorium early, walked past angry protestors who were denouncing Stevenson and the UN as Communist sympathizers and just plane old Communists, one-world-governmenters, anti-Christ humanists, and atheists, and we went inside and sat up near the front on the left. It was a talk for United Nations Day. There was a US flag and a UN flag and a Texas flag on the stage. We listened respectfully to Stevenson's talk, what we could hear of it, as there were hecklers in the audience, lots of them. Eventually Stevenson stopped talking and just walked off the stage.
We went outside to see Stevenson depart. We had to go through the angry protesters to get near the side door he was to exit from. Waiting for his exit our group of admirers was surrounded by people working themselves up into an outraged right-wing frenzy. As the door opened and Stevenson and some others walked out, there were screams and boos. There was a tall cyclone fence that ran perpendicular to the building. A man dressed in an Uncle Sam outfit was jumping up and down and climbing up on it then down then up and yelling crazily. Stevenson kept his calm, shook hands and exchanged a few words with some people, and then I was there in front of him and extended my hand. The crowd was going crazy but we shook hands and I thanked him for his talk and just as he was beginning to say something polite to me, a man pushed me aside, grabbed Stevenson, spit in his face, and screamed at him, "How does it feel to be a traitor, you asshole?!" Immediately police had the man on the ground, someone hit Stevenson on the head with a poster, supporters surrounded him, and got him to the waiting limousine that drove off as offended, angry hands pounded the windows. That night we drove back in shock. I still recall the shocked look on his face. The next day Stevenson called Kennedy and told him not to go to Dallas.
I was asleep when Kennedy was assassinated. Had been up till dawn doing I don't remember what, got up at noon, went out on the campus and learned about it. If I'd been awake I'd have been in Dr. Landrum's class when someone ran in and announced the terrible news to which the haughty Landrum drolly responded, "What a shame to make a martyr out of such a jackass." I mourned Kennedy's death with my friends, drove to Dallas to the scene of the crime and walked around in a daze.
There was a guy we called Gonorrhea cause his last name sounded remotely like that. He was in charge of Jackson and Berry's wing of the dorm. They were at odds with him. Two bad things happened to him. First, Gonorrhea had received on his birthday a gift-wrapped package with a large human turd in it. I heard his scream from another floor. I had seen the turd. It was large. Then two unknown assailants had jumped Gonorrhea at night, blindfolded, gagged, tied him, and driven him to a secluded woods where they left him in his underwear. Jackson and I were suspected in both cases.
Berry's family was in the Coca Cola business and were patrons of the school so he couldn't have been involved. There was a rule against having even a tiny fridge in your room, but Berry's third floor room had a coke machine delivered the day he arrived. Berry and John and I spent a lot of time together so if any of us had been involved in these crimes, I'd have known it. That's what I told the dorm kangaroo court judges that tried and convicted John and me. The court consisted of a jock guy who was the president of the dorm, Gonorrhea the Wing Dick as we called him who'd been offended, and Ma and Pa something who lived there and were supposed to be like grandparents to us, kindly and strictly keeping us in line. They were also accusing me of starting that fire. I asked why would they think we were involved in any of these bad things? Do they have any proof? No. That's not all. It's also your bad attitude. You're trying us for a bad attitude? No. That's just a contributing factor. They had nothing on us, but they didn't like us and they had to convict us of something, so Gonorrhea brought up something that he'd personally experienced.
During the spring break, Jackson and I had not gone home. For some ungodly reason, we'd stayed at the school, to sit around and complain, make each other laugh with rivaling absurdities, and talk about all the important and interesting things we could be doing elsewhere. One afternoon, there was, on that whole dorm floor, Gonorrhea, a quiet guy reading in his room, Jackson, and me. Jackson and I were playing a game in the hall which was maybe 200 feet long - playing with a little rubber jack ball and bolo paddles. It was really fun. We stood at each end and hit the ball back and forth. It took a while for the ball to bounce all the way down to the other end. Gonorrhea went out to see what was happening and told us to stop, that we were bothering his studying and the other guy's studying. We refused, arguing that we were hardly making any noise and he was just being a stupid authority figure. The other guy said it didn't bother him. Back to the mini trial. "You mean you're going to put us on two weeks dorm arrest for hitting a jack ball down the hall of the almost deserted dorm?" Yes.
The president of the dorm found Jackson and me walking across the campus the day after our conviction and approached apoplexy in his reaction to seeing us out of the dorm. We told him we quit, we're leaving. Be gone tomorrow. Game's over.
I fell down laughing again in Jackson's room as he packed. I was looking at his notebooks that he'd prepared so perfectly on the first day of the semester, with his name and subject name, and classroom building name and number all perfectly written and ready for notes. Not one note in any of them.
I'd not done well in my classes either. Franke was furious at me. I'd gone to the mid-term exam for Basic Studies and given ridiculous answers like expounding at length how this question is an insult to my intelligence and so forth. One question was, trace the teachings of Jesus from the Old Testament to the New Testament. I drew a maze with an open book at the top with the words Old Testament written in tiny letters on it and a drawing of a bearded guy in robes at the bottom exit, a pencil line traced the path through the maze from the one to the other. Franke was upset with me. He and I had a talk in a hallway, I apologized, and told him what was happening and that I'd really enjoyed his classes and was sorry my test answers were so disrespectful. I wasn't thinking of him when I wrote them. It was thoughtless. I was not really college material at this time and he wished me well. I remember talking to Nussbaum, the psychology prof about what should I do now? Maybe join the Navy. That seemed like a possibility - till about ten minutes later when I was outside walking under a tree.
The highlight of the tests was genetics. The teacher told each of us how our test grades would affect our final grade - so this was at the end of the first semester. When he got to me he said, "Chadwick," - and then, with mild derision, "I'll tell you what. If you make a 100, a perfect score on the final, I'll give you a D. And Chadwick (everyone else was Mr. and Miss), no undergraduate student has ever made an A on one of my final tests." The class broke into laughter. I studied thirty-six hours for that test, to make up for not studying much at all before hand although I'd enjoyed the classes. I remember staying up all night, falling asleep, and being awakened by a lamp falling on my head ten minutes before the test was to begin - really couldn't figure out how that happened. I ran to the class and was the last person seated. There were fifteen pages, each page had a paragraph at the top and in the blank space below we were to write corrections of whatever was wrong. I read through it all. I couldn't find anything that seemed wrong but was unsure about most of it. I made one comment about some ducks that it could also be another way and gave up. I was the first person to hand in my test. The teacher snorted softly. A few days later on the way to class some students came running up to me on the campus and started shaking my hand. Why? Haven't you heard? No, what? You'll hear. Back in the classroom, the teacher humbly noted that I had not only made an A, but a perfect score, 100. I would pass with a D. He had a urge-to-kick-self look on his face. There were no mistakes to be corrected on his test, but, he said, the one comment I'd made was also correct. He noted the now obvious shortcoming of his testing methodology. For me it was truly an academic miracle. But the glow did not last.
One thing all my friends and I were clear about is that we were for integration and civil rights. Integration was just beginning in Texas. Austin College had recently integrated. There were a few African American students at the school. I read about race. I remember one book was Gunner Myrdal's, The American Dilemma. Jackson had shown me materials on Freedom Summer. There were forms to fill out with a group called COFO, the Council of Federated Organizations, made up of civil rights groups that wanted to register African Americans in Mississippi where they'd been denied the right to vote or register in various ways. Jackson and I agreed that registering disenfranchised people to vote would be a noble thing to do. I filled out my form and sent it in. But that was a few months off. We were leaving school going different directions. Dropouts. We'd meet again later. I was eager to hitchhike to the East Coast.
next - part II - Hitchin' East
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