A Piece of the Banner. Ch.# XII- College as a catalytic Experience- draft 3
Chapter XII- College as a catalytic experience
It was the middle sixties when I first arrived in the quiet, rural community of Geneseo, New York, to attend the State University of New York at Geneseo. An aptitude for taking tests had won me a New York State Regents Scholarship. That had enticed SUNY Geneseo to take me in as a promising student. It just goes to show that good scores on tests aren’t always reliable predicates for determining academic performance.
I knew no one in the student population and was apprehensive as to what I might find there. The four-hour bus ride through the verdant countryside seemed to take me further and further away from the concrete sidewalks of urban Buffalo. Batavia, Rochester and points in between passed by the bus window in an unceremonious array. I had left the pleasant womb of South Buffalo with all of the friends and families that wrapped me in a familiar and comfortable embrace. And I was beginning to wonder what I was getting myself into. Though Geneseo lies only seventy miles from Buffalo in distance, it was for me something similar to entering another plain of existence.
The Trailways bus dropped me off at the corner newsstand in “downtown Geneseo.” I saw the copper bear sitting atop a fountain in the center of Rte. #39 and wondered what story lay behind that strange apparition. I was to discover the significance of the bear to the town later, when two good friends actually abducted the bear one night and made off into the night with the bear in their car trunk. They did that is until the State Police apprehended them some miles down the road. Luckily for them, all charges were dropped when the bear was properly restored to its ancestral focal point on top of the fountain. The local citizenry were not much amused by the antics of its “college kids.”
From the corner, I lugged three bags down the long and winding series of hills to a three-story brick dormitory named Erie. It was the cloistered abode where I would make my home for the next two years. Most of the other newly arrived students were in the same boat. They didn’t know anyone either. My roommate was from suburban Syracuse. He later said when he first met me that I looked like a “hick.” Unperturbed, I reminded him pointedly that when we first met I had been wearing bass weejun loafers, blue cord slacks with a cavalry belt, and a button down aero shirt, while he had been wearing “sneakers, jeans and a tee shirt.” Such is the stuff of lofty college debates formulated. We all settled into the Erie Dormitory and got acquainted with the rest of the budding scholars who roomed there.
As the year progressed I got to know and befriend many people from all across the state. To date, I had never traveled outside of Western New York and Southern Ontario. Now I was rubbing elbows with kids from far away New York City and Long Island, then exotic places to me. They turned out to be pretty much just like me. The New York City kids were sometimes even more insular than I was. Several reported stopping their cars along rural Route # 39 to get out and look at a cow or a horse standing in a field on the way in to Geneseo. Cows and horses were exotic creatures to those bred in the concrete canyons of New York City.
We approached our studies as most freshmen do. That is to say that some of us were total goof offs and did as little as possible those first few semesters. Euchre and pinochle games ran on all day at the old College Union in Blake Hall. We dutifully attended our assigned classes and then carried on a rather active social life for the rest of the day. I was working five nights a week helping the college janitorial staff in order to meet expenses, so my days were full and moved quickly. The ranks of budding young scholars thinned considerably after the first two semesters due to poor grades. Those unfortunates were immediately drafted into the big green machine and sent overseas.
College was a new experience for most of us. There wasn’t any hectoring by well meaning teachers demanding that your assignments be turned in on time. Here, you were given the assignments for the semester and you were on your own. If you studied and turned in most required work, you got by. If you were disorganized or inclined to be a major goof off, you were soon a candidate for the draft.
College professors are a decidedly different breed of cat. Most had no formal training in presenting their material. A good high school or elementary teacher was much better prepared to present subject matter. All of these men and women, who taught at the college level, were well educated. Some were veritable scholars in their field. But like mining for silver or other ores buried deep in the ground, you often had to dig for what valuable material was available. To be fair they sometimes felt like they were tossing pearls before swine. I guess it was a learning experience for all of us.
I do credit the faculty for my first official involvement with the Democratic Party. This was after all Geneseo, rural, blue-blooded horse country and agricultural in nature. It was a profile of classic “Republican Country.” Democrats were an alien species except to the college crowd. One of my Poli-Sci professors had organized a Democratic caucus that met in the Geneseo Village Hall. Twelve intrepid souls met somewhat irregularly while the portly and cigar-chomping village Republican Mayor stood in the back of the hall observing. Whether he felt a proprietary interest in all things political in his feudal fiefdom or was just plain curious as to what a Democrat was and how they thought, we never figured out.
Bobby Kennedy, Hubert Humphrey, Gene Mc Carthy and others began to ramp up the collegiate interest in effecting change through the political process. The academic involvement would increase and multiply for the next forty years until legions of committed college students would help elect Barack Obama to the presidency in the far distant future. In retrospect, most of the ideas we formulated in college came to fruition many, many years later. Quality faculty helped inculcate these ideas into our consciousness. Their intellect and the ideas they instilled in their charges are the most important value of any college experience. Bricks and mortars are sexy. Ideas are more long lasting and valued.
Much of the more prosaic educational process took place in the college dorms and cafeterias where any subject was up for review, sometimes viewed through the amber lens of a 12 ounce beer bottle. Woe to the luckless soul who presented a thinly researched argument. The ridicule could be considerable. It made one aware of the idea that before engaging one’s mouth, you needed to first use the brain and think things over first. This was a novel concept for most of us. We had been exposed to people all of our lives that opined on every subject under the sun. Usually the less an individual knew about something, the more they asserted their expertise on the subject. I was to find this a standard operating procedure in politics and government years later.
Even conversations in the bars became impromptu forums for debate. Sports, politics, female anatomy and all manner of topics received the endless appraisal of students who soon became masters of “shooting the shit.” Naturally this casual form of dialogue carried over into our written assignments. Patient teaching staff gently reminded us that the use of established facts and the proper attribution of sources made for much more powerful arguments than “somebody said,” or “I heard this someplace.” Maybe an education was helping in the transformation of parochial rascals into thinking and rational beings? Nah! Not yet anyway. That transformation usually occurred during the senior year of college. That’s when the fear of having to go out and actually make a living, or join the military, sobered all of us into a clearer and more rational pattern of problem solving. The real idealists and dreamers just kept going on to higher and higher levels of graduate school to avoid the painful assumption of assuming their roles in the “real world.” Some lucky few ended up teaching college and avoided forever the ice water bath awakening of living in the real world.
After the first year of life in our new existence, some of us joined fraternities and sororities for more interesting social experiences. I never really thought about the oddity of all of our shenanigans until years later when I watched and laughed through the movie “Animal House.” Though written about another university in the northeast, it captured much of what we lived through in the Delta Kappa Tau Fraternity in that crappy old house at 24 Wadsworth Street. The movie said it better than I ever could. We had the same number of “unique and colorful characters” that the movie did. As goofy and outlandish as some of them were, most went on to fine careers in education, law, medicine and public service after college. There is a unique quality of people from this era that is hard to categorize but has elements individuality and strength of character that I much admire.
I was managing the fraternity house in my senior year. I remember boiling all of the silverware every few months to avoid poisoning my roomers with nasty bugs from improper washing of eating utensils. Cleanliness was never high on our agenda at the DK house. We did have a lot of fun however.
I did make a number of great friends, some of whom I have shared friendship with for forty years. I have lots of tales to tell of that Delta Kappa Tau experience, but decorum dictates that they are best left for another vehicle when all the participants have made is safely into the great beyond.
Somehow, most of us survived academically and even became interested in our studies in our junior and senior years. Political Science was my field of interest. It held an emotional and ethnic appeal to me. I had been raised in the tradition of several generations of Irish American politicians and the area of study seemed to come easily to me like it had to generations of my family before me. I was to later use many of the disciplines I learned at Geneseo in the formulation of political campaigns and carry them over into decision-making techniques in many local government departments. Sound academic theory really does precede rational decision making in many environments in the real world.
My real interest lay in the field of International Relations. I hoped to someday join the United States Foreign Service. I studied Russian assiduously for three years, hoping to prepare myself for the field. I found the rest of the real world to be a fascinating place in which the United States was a sometimes troubled and envied partner. “The Ugly American” was a well written chronicle of how not to relate to our co-inhabitants on the planet. I thought I might be able to help change things for the better.
A principal faculty advisor gave me his best advice
“Forget it. The Foreign Service only selects people from wealthy backgrounds,” he said. “You wouldn’t stand a chance.”
‘Thanks,’ I thought to myself, ‘you miserable prick, for stomping over all of my academic aspirations.’
Maybe he was right. It did seem like a stretch for a kid from a working class background and a state college to mingle with the Ivy League crowd in the State Department. In any case, that was the last of my attempt to join the consular ranks of the U.S, Foreign Service. Like most of my colleagues in this “teacher’s college,” I turned my attentions into getting certified for a degree in secondary education. The study of history was a life long interest. I thought I might be able to present the wonderful narrative of our past to those malleable minds of younger students. Several substitute-teaching opportunities in surrounding schools convinced me that I didn’t have the proper temperament to deal with the many behavioral vagaries of the “little monsters.”
There was a rather fresh and inspirational idealism that raged among all of us young scholars at the time. We wanted to save the planet, end poverty and sow peace and love through out the world. Boy, were we all in for a wake up call.
Some things did go according to plan though. The very first Earth Day occurred on campus in the spring of 1970. Publicity from Rachel Carson’s graphic novel “Silent Spring” had propelled many in academia to take up the torch in leading a Conservationist Movement. Students and faculty passed out handbills, held educational meetings and provided information that began to turn the tide in the public perception of our accidental despoiling of the planet that we lived on.
Meanwhile, the Viet Nam War raged around us and was featured daily on the nightly news. The casualty lists ran up from one hundred soldiers killed in action per week in the mid sixties, to two hundred and fifty KIA a week in the early seventies. By then, the enemy’s Tet Offensive of 1968 and continued battle losses had taken the heart out of America’s will to fight in its decade-long national nightmare. There was little support for the war left, though thousands of Americans continued to die for our involvement in this far away jungle land. This was a different attitude from just four short years before when most of America supported the war. “Victory in Viet Nam” posters were seen everywhere, even on college campuses.
The early seventies was the era of massive student protests across the nation. In the spring of 1970, a nationwide student strike shut down many college campuses across the country to protest the war in Viet Nam. The various faculty members were pretty good about attributing grades to the missing students, particularly the graduating seniors.
The Students for a Democratic Society and other then radical groups urged dissident students to action. I remember well the time “Chicago Seven” member Abbie Hoffman spoke at a student rally on the Geneseo campus. The rhetoric was classic 1960’s agitprop and the student crowd was enthralled. As Hoffman started to leave the campus, various police agencies moved in, threatening arrest. A cordon of Geneseo students surrounded Hoffman and escorted him off campus until he could effectuate his safe departure. Things have changed little since the storming of the Bastille in 18th century Paris by radicalized students. It didn’t take much to set off a riot when emotions ran this high. The police were wise in their discreet actions that day. The whole student protest movement reached its emotional denouement with the death of four students at Kent State University in Ohio, shot down by armed National Guardsmen.
In 1970, the first draft lottery was held in America. Tags were picked in a nationally televised lottery. Each number drawn represented one of 365 possible birthdays. If your number (birth date) was selected for those needed that year, you were drafted into the armed services. In my year, the numbers being called ran up to 245 out of a possible 365 days. My number was 273 and thus I was exempted for that year.
My roommate’s number was three. He and others immediately abandoned all plans for graduate school and starting their careers. They were headed off to be members of the big green machine. Fear of the draft filled the ranks of the various State National Guard Units to the bursting level. At that time National Guards were never called up for actual combat service but used for any number of worthy local projects.
My own brother Paddy got called up that year and sent to Viet Nam as a combat medic in the Central Highlands. It was not a good experience for him. His platoon was over run and slaughtered. He and a few others escaped into the surrounding jungles and spent a harrowing several days pursued by Viet Cong intent on killing them. Luckily he reached the safety of American lines. He was never the same again and spent the rest of his life wandering the world like a gypsy cast upon the wind. The casualties of the Viet Nam war, like most conflicts where men and women fight and die, would continue to develop for decades afterwards.
I had met my dear wife Mary during my senior year in college. We were both active on the Student Government Council. Five of us got elected campus-wide to represent student interests to the faculty and the administration. It was my first venture into elective politics. We managed to conduct the first faculty/course evaluation ever held. It was to serve as a guide for students in selecting courses. Some of the faculty members were not well pleased with the exercise nor were they appreciative of “their ratings.” I guess they now were reminded of what we felt like on the other end of the marking pen.
It was an eye opener for us into all sorts of “adult behavior.” We sat on the Faculty Senate as student representatives. The banter back and forth there was sometimes just as silly as that heard daily in the college dorms. I laugh now thinking of one exasperated faculty member “flipping the bird” to a colleague that he disagreed with on some forgotten issue du jour.
“Children, children, now behave,” I then wanted to say.
By the end of that year, I had graduated and married this wispy and wonderful young woman from suburban Rochester, N.Y It was the beginning of a 40-year love story that still unites us today.
I stayed on for graduate work in education until my wife Mary received her undergraduate degree the following year, 1972. Then she went to work as an English teacher for the West Seneca Central Schools and I started work as a social worker for the Erie County Department of Social Services. Our combined salary for the next year was $13,500.
It was the era of the failed policy of Vietnamization in Southeast Asia. Turning the war over to Vietnamese nationals to fight “their war” sounded good enough to war weary Americans. It just didn’t work for shit. We were pulling our troops out as fast as we could manage. The specter of those last days of the war was not a good one for the American image. The last Huey helicopters transferred remaining American consular personnel from the roof of the American Embassy in Saigon to waiting American Air Craft Carriers off shore was an image embarrassing to the entire nation. To compliment the image of a hasty departure, film clips depicted bulldozers pushing perfectly good helicopters from the carrier decks and into the sea to make room for other arriving Hueys filled with departing consular personnel. Tens of thousand of our Vietnamese allies were left behind to fend for themselves as the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces surged around and through the city. It may not have been as ignominious as the French defeat and departure after Dien Bien Phu in the 1950’s, but it was an inglorious end to a decade-long American national nightmare.
During the closing days of the Viet Nam War, the whole charade of the Watergate experience erupted upon the American psyche. Days and days on end the media coverage of the Nixon administration’s suicidal swan dive played out in the press. The Congress, the Supreme Court and the Presidency were locked in a Wagnerian “gotterdamerung death struggle” that threatened to undo the republic. Finally, Nixon surrendered and resigned from office. The trauma was almost over. The new president, Gerald Ford, immediately pardoned the former president. A howl arose across the nation, claiming that a deal had been reached between Ford and Nixon. Maybe it had, maybe it hadn’t. Some say it cost Ford his election two years later to Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter. “Jimmy” and his band of anti-establishment youngsters didn’t fare too well in Washington D.C. and exited after one term, losing to an improbable former actor by the name of Ronald Wilson Reagan.
The national turmoil of the late seventies even inspired local insurrections in our area. A little known New York State Senator by the name of James D. Griffin challenged the existing democratic machine for the office of Mayor of Buffalo. After a tumultuous campaign, in which Griffin ran on the Conservative line alone, he won the general election by a narrow margin, defeating both the Democratic and Republican candidates. The times they certainly were a changin’.