Posts Tagged ‘College’

Both of my sons are avid runners. For them, every week involves something — a fun run, a few hours on the local streets and trails, occasionally a marathon or half-marathon.

Me, I never got into running. I consider walking and hiking to be more genteel ways to exercise. I especially like the serenity of being on the trail, alone, with plenty of time to ponder any topic my brain selects.

Running undoubtedly has great benefits, but I’ll never know. If I switched to running at my age, my knees would not take kindly to it.

There was a time, however, when I was quite capable of sustained running — as well as capable of a mighty burst of speed when necessary.

In fact, I can remember two times in my life when I ran so fast that my legs began to outrun the rest of my body, and I was in danger of falling over backwards.

One of those times, I was in college. I had just caught a pass from the University of Georgia’s star quarterback and was racing for the end zone. No, I didn’t play for the Bulldogs. It happened one Sunday in a game of touch football on a frat house lawn.

The other time, two decades later, I was running for my life to get out from under a falling tree. Which I had just cut down with a chainsaw. I did not escape by much.

I remember both events as if they happened yesterday.

The Pick-up Game

Up through high school, practically any inept kid can participate in sports. From elementary school on, anyone can wear a uniform. To compensate, sports teams have two rosters: the starters and the benchwarmers. All kids know the difference.

Did I just use the word inept? That certainly describes my athletic ability as a kid.

Growing up, I was a blah outfielder in Little League baseball. In high school, I warmed the bench for one season of football. (I was an “offensive tackle” in both position and performance.)

The next year, I played junior varsity basketball; I had a hot hand in exactly one game. It was a sublime moment of glory.

By the time you reach college, however, all that equal opportunity stuff  comes to an end. College sports are for the elites. It might as well be the pros. Come to think of it, it pretty much is the pros.

With so many used-to-be athletes around, it isn’t surprising that flag football and touch football are popular campus pastimes. That was the case at UGA when I was a student.

In the spring, if you drove down Milledge Avenue — which was, and still is, Greek Row — you would pass four or five such games in progress. As you might expect, the rules and the quality of play varied considerably.

One fine spring Sunday in 1963, my junior year, I went to see my friend Al at his fraternity house on South Milledge.

Al and I were best buds throughout our college years. (In 2009, I wrote about Al and his friendship with a group of Thai students.) Sadly, he and I went our separate ways after graduation, me into the Air Force, Al into matrimony.

Anyway, when I arrived at the frat house, Al and a few others were sitting on the front porch watching a touch football game on the lawn.

To my surprise, playing on one of the teams was Larry Rakestraw, UGA’s starting quarterback.

Rakestraw was a genuine campus superstar — a superb quarterback with an outstanding record. He was Georgia’s starting quarterback for three years straight.

To refresh my memory, I looked up Larry’s record. He passed for over 3,000 yards, was an All-SEC player twice, and was Senior Bowl MVP. Against Miami in the Orange Bowl, he had over 400 yards passing. He broke three SEC records and one NCAA record. He went on to play three seasons as QB of the Chicago Bears.

On top of that, Larry was a nice, friendly, modest guy — the kind who would roll up his sleeves and play touch football with the little people on a warm spring afternoon.

Being one of the little people myself, I did not travel in the same lofty circles as the football players, but I knew some of them from various classes.

I wrote about one, Richard Brooks, in a post in 2012. Another was Larry Rakestraw. For a while, we were fellow cadets in Air Force ROTC, and we both graduated from UGA in 1964.

So, there I was, sitting on the front porch of a frat house with my friend Al, watching a casual game of touch football being played on the lawn, four to a team, and the quarterback of one of the teams was the famous Larry Rakestraw.

Before long, one of Larry’s teammates got tired, or had to be somewhere, or whatever, and left the game. Larry surveyed the spectators in the porch and pointed at me.

“Rocky, you’re up!” he yelled. “Get in here!”

A wave of dread washed over me, but I got to my feet and trotted with a grin toward the scrum of players.

I got over the dread soon enough. I wasn’t exactly a great addition to the team, but I ran and grunted and sweated and did my pedestrian best.

And then, my moment arrived.

Our team had the ball. In the huddle, Larry told me to go downfield, then cut left and stop. When I looked back, the ball would be waiting for me.

And it was. When I turned, Larry’s perfect spiral was whistling toward me, mere feet away. Somehow, I reacted quickly enough to grab it and hang on.

That was the first miracle. The second miracle came when I took off down the left sideline, running as if my life depended on it.

As I ran, all four members of the other team were in pursuit, as hell-bent to intercept me as I was to score.

One by one, they failed. With a few yards to go, I only had to elude one last man.

Mentally and physically, I was in overdrive. Until that moment, I had never run so fast. It was exhilarating.

At the same time, I had the unsettling sensation that if I did not slow down, my feet and legs would literally outrun my head and torso, and I would crash with disastrous results.

But by then, I was over the goal line. The last player missed touching me by inches. It was a magnificent personal victory.

Of course, in the overall scheme of things, my astounding feat of athleticism meant nothing. It was just one touchdown of many that day. The game continued, and my epic run promptly was forgotten.

But, oh, how sweet it was.

In my next post, I will describe an incident in which I ran as if demon-possessed to avoid being sent to Glory by a falling tree.

A pick-up game at UGA, 1962.

Ace Georgia QB Larry Rakestraw in 1963.

Read Full Post »

In the early 1960s, when I was a student at the University of Georgia, Candler Hall on the north end of campus served as an overflow dormitory for freshmen students. Each year, as demand required, Candler housed either men or women. This was in that quaint era before coed dorms were invented.

Students assigned to a room in Candler had no reason to celebrate. Majestic in its time, the building had become old, tired, and down at the heel.

By contrast, UGA had just opened a series of gleaming new dormitories — modern structures of metal and glass that made older dorms like Candler seem even more like throwbacks.

Candler Hall housed male students until 1966, when the building was remodeled for the umpteenth time and converted to office space.

While doing some UGA research recently, I learned that the old place has a surprisingly rich and interesting history…


Candler Hall, constructed in 1901, was named for the Governor of Georgia at the time, Allen D. Candler. It was built to be a third men’s dormitory to ease crowding in nearby Old College and New College.

Because of the building’s general appearance, the residents of Candler referred to the dorm as “Buckingham Palace.” They called themselves the “Barons of Buckingham.”

Candler Hall.

Buckingham Palace.

Candler Hall stands at the north end of Herty Field, which in the old days was UGA’s athletic field. Old College, New College, and Candler Hall fielded intramural sports teams, and intense rivalries formed.

The rivalries were not friendly. All three buildings suffered regular damage as the residents launched surprise attacks and revenge attacks on the other dorms.

Fistfights, broken windows, and smashed banisters were common. Animals regularly were set loose in the buildings.

The most infamous clash came in 1926 between the freshmen of Candler Hall and the sophomores of New College.

One night, the sophomores stole a poster of actress Myrna Loy from a theater in downtown Athens and displayed it proudly above the entrance to New College. The poster was promptly stolen by the Barons and taken into Candler Hall.

Knowing an assault to retake Myrna Loy was imminent, the Candler freshmen raided a nearby construction site for materials and barricaded the entire first floor of the dorm.

The sophomores attacked, throwing rocks, assorted projectiles, and bottles filled with ammonia. In the ensuing mayhem, every window in Candler Hall was broken out. When University Chancellor Charles Snelling tried to intervene, he was doused with ammonia.

The sophomores failed to rescue Myrna Loy.


1918 was the year the University finally allowed women to enroll as full-time students. The Barons of Buckingham were outraged.

To express their displeasure, they began the practice of dumping buckets of water from the dorm’s upper floors onto female students walking below.

The practice of dousing women persisted. The student newspaper reported in 1926 that “Slickers are considered a necessity among co-eds when passing Candler Hall.”


In 1942, the U.S. Navy took over Candler briefly and used it as a pre-flight training school. The Navy moved out in late 1943, and Candler became a dorm again, this time for women students.

That year, a sailor stationed at the off-campus Naval Hospital, who had worked at Candler the previous year, began a bizarre ritual: waking up the dorm residents every morning.

Each day at 7 AM, the sailor appeared in front of Candler Hall and walked up and down, shouting to the women to wake up.

After a few days, the women answered with barrages of water, oranges, and shoes. The sailor countered by showing up on a motorcycle to make himself a moving target.

Coeds in Candler Hall, 1943.


In 1910, Georgia and Alabama played a football game in Columbus, Georgia. The Crimson Tide had won every game since 1902, so, when word reached Athens that Georgia had won, the students rejoiced.

As reported in a history of Herty Field by John Stegeman, eyewitness Charley Wall described what happened:

A telegram told us of our victory and immediately put about two hundred of us boys to building a bonfire between Candler Hall and New College in the middle of the football field.

We went over the downtown area in groups of eight or ten and found flat-top drays, for hauling goods, on the side and back lots. We then piled them up with all sorts of boxes and excelsior thrown out by the merchants, and hauled it all to the pile accumulating on the field.

The last load to come was one with a wooden barrel of gasoline some of the boys had located. Someone knocked in the top, and then they started handing up buckets of gas to boys high up on the pile of goods, boxes, etc., who threw it over the pile.

The band was playing Glory to Old Georgia, with a snake dance going on around the field. An Athens boy named Michaels struck a match to set off the bonfire, and boy, that was it!

The gas-saturated air went off like gunpowder, and blew out every window pane in New College, Moore College and Candler Hall, and also some in the Beanery downhill from the field. I was in the snake dance and was bowled over but not hurt. Michaels was hospitalized for a long time.

Herty Field, 2012.


A ghost reportedly haunts Candler Hall.

Reports say the ghost appears every four years, dragging a chain and brandishing a dagger.

On one occasion, the ghost materialized in a first floor dorm room, frightening a group of students who were playing cards.

On another occasion, a student reported passing the ghost in a stairwell. He saw nothing, but heard the sound of chains being dragged down the stairs. The student passed out in fright.


1966 was the last year Candler Hall served as a residence hall. Since that time, it has been occupied by a succession of University offices and departments.

Since 2003, Candler has been home to the Department of International Affairs. In prior years, it housed the Affirmative Action Office, the African Studies Program, the Equal Opportunity Office, the Gerontology Center, the Institute for Higher Education, the Office of International Development, and the School of Social Work.

Candler Hall today.


I have my own modest tale to add to the story of Candler Hall.

When I arrived at UGA in 1960, I was assigned, like most freshmen, to Reed Hall. By my second quarter, I had met a number of students living in Candler Hall, the freshman overflow dorm, and I stopped there on occasion to see them.

One acquaintance who lived in Candler, I believe as a proctor, whose job was to keep an eye on the residents, was Richard Brooks from Griffin, Georgia.

Richard was an upperclassman, a football player, tall, trim, and athletic. He was quiet and a bit stoic, but a friendly and pleasant guy.

Richard proudly claimed to be part Cherokee, and he did, indeed, look somewhat Native American — at least, based on my understanding of the typical characteristics.

Richard had black hair, high cheekbones, a dark complexion, and (he always seemed to be lazing around shirtless) minimal body hair.

As everyone knew and could observe, however, Richard was not completely hairless. In the center of his chest — a fact to which I can attest — grew a single black hair.

Richard was very proud of his lone chest hair.

One night during Spring Quarter, while Richard slept, the inevitable happened. Someone, most likely his roommate, used tweezers to deftly pluck the hair from Richard’s chest.

According to reports, Richard awakened instantly, bellowing in rage. Shouting and cursing, he pursued his assailant out of the room, down the stairs, and across the campus into the night.

The assailant escaped. Although the roommate denied responsibility, most people believed he had done the deed. Richard suspected him, too, but was never sure.

The chest hair did not grow back.

Richard Lamar Brooks, 1940-1998.

Read Full Post »

Athens, Georgia, population 115,000, is an interesting place.

For one thing, the University of Georgia is there, which adds 35,000 more to the population.

Athens has a handsome downtown, a lively bar scene, a well-established music scene, and a growing bike culture.

Demographically, the city is a four-legged stool.

One leg is the African American population, heavily weighted on the poor side — a sad fact wherever you go.

The second leg is a sizable segment of the white population that is either profoundly poor or barely getting by — another sad fact of life. These folk are Southern and, yes, solidly conservative.

Leg number three is the more well-to-do of the Southern white conservatives. In this group are white-collar workers, members of the establishment, old money, and some University students and faculty.

The fourth leg is a mixed bag of non-conservatives — the young, social and political liberals, and assorted free spirits, almost exclusively white. Some work at or attend UGA. Others are connected to the music scene and the culture that has grown up around it.

The existence of that fourth leg is uncommon in the South; rare are the cities with a progressive element large enough to register on the radar screen.

To me, the presence of this group is one of Athens’ most endearing qualities. As a liberal dude myself, I find it quite encouraging.

It’s also a frequent source of amusement and entertainment.

Consider what I discovered recently on the trails at the State Botanical Garden of Georgia.

The Botanical Garden consists of 300 wooded acres on a hill above the Middle Oconee River on the south side of Athens. The property is hilly and steep and laced with numerous small creeks and ravines leading down to the river.

The trails cope with the terrain this way:

And they cross the creeks and ravines this way:

The footbridges, by the way, are fairly new, built in 2001 as an Eagle Scout project. Thank you, Josh Ketchie of Troop 149.

What I discovered was this, writ in black, on one of the footbridges:

On the next footbridge, I found this message:

Clever fellow that I am, I concluded it was the work of a phantom tagger of the pro-environmental persuasion.

When it comes to environmental activism, this is not very high on the mischief scale. Haydukery, it isn’t. Call it Hayduke Lite.

I don’t know if the messages are new, or if I simply hadn’t been paying attention. In any event, when the tags caught my eye, I decided to document them.

Here are a few others.

Inside a rain shelter (also a Boy Scout project), I found this:


And on a post at the intersection of two trails was this:

In case you can’t read the scrawl, the tagger wrote “privilege” below the word “white.” Someone took offense and scratched it out.

At the next spot, a newly-installed bench, the tagger apparently ran out of original material.

Probably the most interesting tag — and the most ill-advised, since the tagger wrote it on a brick — is this one at the ruins of an old farmhouse beside the trail.

“Timshel” is a Hebrew word that roughly means you may rule over it. 

The word implies that nothing compels us to do good or do evil; rather, we have the power to choose.

It’s good for a tagger to have a literate side.

Timshel, y’all.

Read Full Post »

In my previous post about the early days of the University of Georgia, I introduced you to the iconic cast iron fence that separates the UGA campus from downtown Athens.

The iron fence, which was built in 1857 to keep livestock from wandering onto the campus, is now being repaired and restored.

When the fence was built, its centerpiece was a massive, three-pillared, cast iron arch facing downtown Athens. The Arch was intended to be, and still is, the formal entrance to the campus.

The Arch is a replica of the Great Seal of the State of Georgia, whose three pillars carry the words of the state motto: “Wisdom, Justice, Moderation.”

(An ironic choice for a state that had to be dragged into modern times, and for a university that for its first hundred years admitted only white men. I’m just sayin’.)

In the old days, the Arch featured two iron gates that were swung shut at night. The gates disappeared in 1885, probably stolen by pranksters.

In 1946, the Arch was moved back about six feet inside the perimeter of the fence and placed at the top of a set of limestone steps. There it stands today.

In addition to being one of the most recognizable symbols of the University, the Arch also plays a major role in campus tradition.

According to UGA legend, when student Daniel Redfearn (Class of 1910) arrived on campus, he quietly vowed not to walk under the Arch until he had earned his diploma.

Redfearn didn’t say much about his pledge, but eventually, one of his professors found out and was so impressed that he announced it proudly to his classes.

As an undergraduate, Redfearn kept his word, even during hazing rituals, and he never walked under the Arch until after he graduated.

From that incident, a campus legend emerged that today has several forms.

One version is that no undergraduate who walks under the Arch will ever get a diploma from UGA.

Another version is that freshmen who walk through the Arch are doomed to academic failure and will not graduate on time.

Another is that freshmen who walk under the Arch will become sterile.

Take your pick.

Even though the legend is still well known, it isn’t followed as strictly as in the past. Spend 15 minutes watching students walk by the Arch, and you’ll see that about a quarter of them go through it, not around it.

But in the limestone steps on which the Arch stands, there is clear evidence of past adherence to the tradition.

Over time, the steps on each side have been worn down by foot traffic, showing where generations of undergraduates have detoured around the Arch.

But back to the iron fence and one final detail about it.

Actually, make that one finial detail.

For many years, each fence post was topped with a finial — in this case, a cast iron ball slightly larger than a softball.

The finials were screwed in place. I know this because over the years, most of the balls were unscrewed and spirited away as souvenirs, leaving a telltale threaded bolt pointing naked to the sky.

By the time I was a student at UGA in the 1960s, only about a dozen of the old round post-tops survived. Probably, they were rusted in place and thus stymied even the most determined of souvenir-hunters and inebriated fraternity boys.

As a student, I yearned deeply to possess one of those beautiful orbs. I dreamed of having the strength to unscrew one, and of having the courage to abscond with it in the dead of night.

What I would do with it, I didn’t know. But I wanted one with every molecule in my body.

That dream, as you might suspect, was never fulfilled. Whether to my credit or discredit, I never even attempted to swipe one.

But others did, and they succeeded. Today, not a single cast iron finial remains. I can attest to that, because I recently walked the perimeter of the fence to be sure.

Alas, if I had possessed enough fortitude as a youth, one of them would be mine.

So — now you know some interesting trivia about the old iron fence, the Arch, the UGA campus, and Athens.

You’re welcome.

Workers dismantle a section of UGA’s historic cast iron fence along Broad Street. The metal will be stripped, repaired, and repainted, and the sections will be reinstalled before classes resume in the fall.


Read Full Post »

Right now, a project is underway at the University of Georgia to dismantle, repair, and repaint sections of the stately old cast-iron fence that separates the campus from downtown Athens.

The fence, erected in 1857, is a handsome thing, but admittedly is showing its age.

The University says repairs will be made using a more modern, longer-lasting formulation of cast iron. I guess they’re hoping it will last a while this time.

In this spot, the fence has been glommed up by a massive water oak. The University wisely decided not to mess with this section.

I’ve always been fascinated by the old fence and its role in UGA history. In fact, the entire “origin story” of UGA — how and where the site of the campus was selected and how UGA subsequently grew and evolved — is a tale worth telling…

In January 1785, the Georgia General Assembly granted a charter creating the University of Georgia as the country’s first state-supported university.

The distinction of first in that case didn’t mean much. By the time UGA was thought up, the colonies and the young United States already had plenty of colleges and universities. Harvard was founded in 1636, William & Mary in 1693, UPenn in 1740.

Even the University of North Carolina, chartered in 1789, built an actual campus before UGA did. That’s because the founders of UGA took their sweet time getting underway.

It was 1801 before a committee of the UGA Board of Trustees finally selected a site for the campus: 633 acres atop a hill in Jackson County, overlooking the North Oconee River and the small trading settlement of Cedar Shoals.

The hill was notable for a perennial spring that flowed from the ground near the top. In July 1801, The Augusta Chronicle described it thusly:

At least three hundred feet above the level of the river, in the midst of an extensive bed of rocks, issues a copious spring of excellent water; and in its meanderings, several others are discovered.

Southern historian E. Merton Coulter (who spent much of his energy glorifying the Old South and vilifying Northerners, but nevertheless knew his history) described how the site was deeded to UGA:

John Milledge, one of the committeemen, and a friend and follower of Thomas Jefferson, who must have been particularly pleased with the hill and especially with the fine spring of water flowing out of the side, bought the land and presented it to the University.

[UGA President Josiah] Meigs found out that the campus spring would flow 9,000 gallons of sparkling water in twenty-four hours in May or only 7,700 gallons in January.

In 1801, the 633-acre site was remote woodland. Today, that land is underneath the north end of the UGA campus and the considerable pavement of downtown Athens.

Yet, surprisingly, one remnant of the spring remains.

You’ll find it in an out-of-the-way warehouse district on (what else?) Spring Street, where a railroad siding ends in a culvert.

The culvert is tended, but not marked. It houses a small seep, and the spot is lush with grasses and wildflowers that grow year-round, even in the severest drought.

But back to the UGA campus.

After Committeeman Milledge donated the land, construction of the campus began immediately. The first buildings were made of logs, and, as trees were felled, the cleared lots were sold to raise money for additional construction.

By the time the first class graduated in 1804, a small civilian settlement had grown up next to the campus. Milledge named the settlement Athens after the renowned center of arts and learning in Greece.

Georgia’s Athens, however, was renowned for no such things. Among its populace were numerous thieves who pilfered from the University and countless squatters who freely cut down campus trees.

To stop the wholesale cutting, the Trustees made a bargain with the locals in which the University did the cutting and furnished firewood to each home for $8.00 per year.

Athens was incorporated in 1806. Like the University, the town grew rapidly, with cotton mills fueling the expansion.

In 1833, a post-and-rail wood fence was erected around the campus, partly for aesthetic reasons, partly to keep out wandering livestock.

Engraving of the UGA campus from a Boston periodical, 1854. Note the wood fence and the stiles used to cross it.

The fence kept out the cattle and pigs well enough, but it required constant repair; mischievous students and locals delighted in knocking down the rails.

So, in 1857, a new fence of durable cast iron, forged in an Athens foundry, was erected in its place. The iron fence resisted the best efforts of the mischief-makers to tear it down.

Photo from 1858 showing the campus and the new iron fence.

In 1833, the University had established a large botanical garden near the campus. By all accounts, it had become quite a marvel.

The garden displayed trees and shrubs from around the world, boasted a willow tree from Napoleon’s grave in St. Helena, and featured a pond stocked with perch and a token alligator.

But by the 1850s, UGA was having a rough time financially, and the garden was sold for $1,000. Part of the money was used to install the iron fence.

With the campus thus protected at last, and after a fortuitous upturn in its finances, the University embarked on a beautification binge, planting hundreds of trees and shrubs around campus.

That binge probably helped ease the pain of losing the botanical garden. And happily, it has continued unabated down through the years.

More about UGA and the cast iron fence in my next post.

Read Full Post »

Game Day

Jefferson, Georgia — my fair city — is 20 miles from Athens, home of the University of Georgia. This is football season, so on Saturday mornings, all roads to Athens are alive with game-day traffic.

The Georgia-Auburn game was a couple of Saturdays ago (the Bulldogs dispatched Auburn handily), and the traffic through Jefferson that morning was brisk.

I witnessed it personally, having stopped to get gas at the local Kroger, which is out on the Jefferson bypass. There, the football traffic flowed down the four-lane toward Athens like a surging tide, red and black flags flapping in the breeze.

The Kroger gas station has an extra-high canopy, so is a popular stop for tall, motorcoach-type RVs. When I pulled up to my pump, a giant, gleaming coach the size of a Greyhound bus was parked two pumps away.

It was huge and quite intimidating, partly because I can’t imagine maneuvering one, and partly because the cost of fueling up surely must exceed a mortgage payment.

Yes, I know — if cost were a concern, you wouldn’t own such a behemoth in the first place.

The behemoth in question was black with swirly red stripes down the side. It was festooned with Bulldog flags and decals. The driver, a 60-ish man wearing a UGA baseball cap and a red Bulldogs shirt, stood next to the pump, talking to the driver of a Toyota Sequoia.

The Sequoia, which looked puny next to the giant motorcoach, in turn dwarfed my little Subaru. I felt inadequate.

As the two drivers chatted, my eye was drawn to the movement of several tiny heads bobbing inside the motorcoach.

The windows along the side of the coach — about eight or 10 in all — were tinted, but I could see the occasional outline of a small figure dart past. Furthermore, the window next to the driver’s seat was down. Soon, three small heads appeared there.

It was two boys and a girl, ranging in age from about five to nine. They leaned out the window as a group, giggling and grinning.

“Hey, Grandpa! Hurry up!” yelled one of the boys. Immediately, the giggling heads drew back inside the coach.

Grandpa looked up, but the heads were gone. He returned to his conversation with the other driver.

Through the tinted windows, I could see the outlines of the three grandkids running up and down the coach, as if in the grip of a sugar rush.  Laughter drifted through the open window.

Grandpa and the other driver continued their leisurely conversation. The pump continued to pump copious volumes of fuel.

Soon, the three heads reappeared in the driver’s window. They peered down at Grandpa. This time, the girl spoke for the group.

“Grandpaaaa!” she pleaded, “Come on, pleeaase!”

Grandpa looked up at them impatiently. “Y’all quit bothering me!” he snapped. “I can’t make it pump faster! Go watch TV!”

The heads withdrew, this time minus the giggling. Grandpa had been cross with them. They looked at each other grimly, pouting.

By then, the gas tank of my modest Subaru was full, and I prepared to depart. As I got behind the wheel, I noticed the three heads bobbing again in the driver’s seat.

This time, instead of hanging out the window, they were gesturing and pointing inside the cab. The giggling had returned.

The oldest boy said something to the others. I couldn’t make out what he said, but it was conspiratorial. All three giggled and covered their mouths with both hands.

Then the two younger children disappeared, leaving the oldest boy alone in the driver’s seat.

Quietly, he peeked out the window, looking down on Grandpa’s head a few feet below. Just as quietly, he withdrew into the bus.

And then, with all the authority he could muster, he leaned on the horn.

As it happened, the motorcoach was equipped with an industrial-size air horn, the type you associate with fire trucks, ambulances, semis, and ocean-going vessels.

The horn on the motorcoach was so powerful, it might have been the salute of a newly-commissioned aircraft carrier on its maiden voyage out of the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

Even inside my car with the windows closed, the sound was a horrible, numbing assault on the senses. It split the air like a cannon shot. I could feel the wave of pressure as it passed. No doubt everyone at the gas station rose several inches into the air. I know I did.

Grandpa quickly collected his wits and stormed over to the driver’s window, but the heads were gone. I assume the three children were at the rear of the coach, hiding under something.

“Goddammit, Billy, I know that was you!” Grandpa yelled. His fists and jaws were clenched, his face red. “You come here, right now!”

No reply came from inside.

As I drove away, Grandpa was still standing outside the motorcoach, cursing up at the empty driver’s window, demanding that Billy show himself.

I hope they weren’t late for the game.

Read Full Post »

As one would hope it to be, my college experience was a happy, entertaining, and enlightening time of my life.

I loved the freedom, the challenge, the sheer joy of those years. Every day was fun and exhilarating, not just for me, but for those around me. What could be better than that?

As I explained in an earlier post, those were austere times for the Smith family. Dad had just retired from the Air Force, and he took a substantial pay cut to reenter civilian life.

As a result, my financial situation at college was bleak. I was functionally poor. Chronically bereft of spending money. Always lacking a few extra bucks for a few extra beers.

Technically, everything was under control. At the beginning of each term, Dad paid in advance for my dorm room, meals, tuition, and books. But after that, precious little remained for socializing and frivolity.

I wasn’t alone, of course. Plenty of other students were on a shoestring budget. You simply made the best of it.

And, if you truly were in need, a solution was available. You could get a job.

Later on, I worked various part-time jobs here and there. I worked downtown, for example, serving tables at Ma Dean’s Boarding House. In exchange for working one meal a day, I got three meals free.

I finally had to quit. The food was great, but eating three meals a day at Ma Dean’s was killing me. Half of everything she served was cooked in a deep-fat fryer.

But for my first two years in Athens, I made the conscious decision not to take on a part-time job.

Why? For one thing, carrying a full academic load was time-consuming. I took college seriously and wanted to do well.

Furthermore, at least for a while, I wanted to enjoy the little free time that was left to me. I was willing to forego the money in exchange for the freedom. To me, that seemed like a reasonable and harmless arrangement.

Mom seemed to understand, but Dad was clearly irked. To him, it was evidence that I lacked a proper work ethic.

In Dad’s mind, it wasn’t enough to have a work ethic; you needed to demonstrate that you had it. He communicated that feeling without formally expressing it, as most fathers are capable of doing.

For my entire freshman year, Dad fumed about it. Then, when summer arrived and school was out, he ambushed me. He set me up with a full-time summer job.

Dad probably made the arrangement through a business acquaintance. I don’t know for sure. In any case, the plan was completely unrealistic, doomed from the start. And, after certain unfortunate events played out, even Dad admitted that.

The events of which I speak occurred as follows…

The job was at Flowers Baking Company on the south side of Atlanta. At the time, Flowers was franchised to produce Sunbeam Bread.

Sunbeam — the brand that featured on its packaging the wholesome, angelic image of Little Miss Sunbeam, one of the great symbols of both white bread and whitebread culture.

The bakery was a huge operation, employing hundreds. Production was largely automated. On the giant factory floor, ingredients were mixed, poured, baked, cooled, wrapped, stacked, and shipped out to the grocery stores, all in one continuous operation, around the clock, shift after shift, without end.

My job was in the stacking stage. I stood at the end of a gravity-operated steel conveyor belt. As the wrapped loaves rolled downhill in my direction, I had to place them in stackable plastic trays waiting behind me.

When a tray was full, I placed an empty tray on top of it and filled that one in turn. When the stack of trays reached a certain height, another worker took it away, into a waiting delivery truck.

On paper, it was simple. In practice, it was a nightmare.

First, the bakery was 40 miles from home, on the other side of Metro Atlanta. The cost of gas was going to dent my paycheck severely.

Further, I was assigned to a shift that worked from 6:00 PM to 2:00 AM. Getting to work meant fighting the evening rush hour traffic.

The work itself was not only tiring, but stupifyingly repetitious and monotonous. We had to repeat the same motions, over and over. Loaves came down the rollers without let-up. Unless you kept up, they would be all over the floor. In the eyes of the bosses, surely that would be a flogging offense.

Every hour, we got a 10-minute break. That was my time to rest, to contemplate the miserable working conditions and the pathetic pay — and to endure the taunts of my co-workers.

Ah, yes, my co-workers.

I was assigned to a team of four. The other three, about my age, worked at the bakery full time. Two were black, one was white.

The white kid was an arrogant, menacing person who considered himself the lord of his corner of the production line.

From the very beginning, he went after me mercilessly. He needled me for being a soft, privileged college kid. He ridiculed me for how I got the job. He made fun of my inexperience, my clothes, my glasses, my haircut.

The black guys served as his audience and enablers. They never joined in the heckling, but they laughed uproariously at everything the white kid said.

After the third or fourth break, the white kid went analytical on me. He started in on my inner shortcomings, such as why I was such a snob with such an irritating air of superiority.

All of his wisecracks were expressed as humor, but he meant every word. The hostility was genuine and ominous.

At first, I tried to go along with it. I laughed politely at the jokes and mildly protested. I also tried asking the three of them friendly, benign questions — where they were from, how long they had been at the bakery.

When that didn’t help, I ignored them. Naturally, that didn’t help either.

Finally, at a rest break around midnight, I saw red and got really angry. I told the little punk to back off.

He reacted as if I had stomped on his toe.

He rushed at me, fists and curses flying.

I wasn’t prepared for so quick an assault, but he never reached me. The two black guys, apparently knowing their co-worker well, grabbed him and held him back.

As the white guy struggled and yelled, one of the black guys pleaded, “You wanna get yourself fired? You wanna get all of us fired?”

Soon, the fit of rage subsided, and the white guy stopped straining. For a few long seconds, he fixed me with a cold, murderous look. Then he jerked his arms free and left the break room.

The incident was over. So was my career at Flowers Baking Company. The next day, I quit. I didn’t tell the bosses why.

A day or two later, I sat in the living room with Mom and Dad discussing my run-in with psycho boy.

Mom thought the kid should be reported. He was unhinged, a loaded gun waiting to go off.

True enough. But Dad thought getting him in trouble would only enrage him further. He was bound to lash out, maybe at work, or against his girlfriend, or a family member. I agreed.

Finally, so did Mom. Any action we took probably would backfire. We could do nothing to help. We let it go.

In the break room that night, I came very close to having my butt soundly thrashed. The white guy was a thug and a bully, but I remember him with sadness and pity.

What happens in a person’s life to leave them so bitter and angry? So damaged?

A few days later, mail arrived from the bakery. It was my first and final paycheck, for an insignificant sum. Typed across the bottom of the check was, “Worked one shift and quit without explanation.”

Ordinarily, I care a great deal about what others think of me. Ordinarily, that statement would have been humiliating.

In this instance, it wasn’t. Except for the bosses and some accounting clerk, everyone who mattered understood the facts.

Somehow, when I think back on my brief career at Flowers Baking Company, my first thought is not about my volatile co-worker.

No, Instead of that unpleasantness, my first thought is about the omnipresent, overpowering aroma of baking bread.

And second, I think about the episode of “I Love Lucy” in which Lucy and Ethel are assigned to an assembly line, with predictable results.

I feel their pain.

Read Full Post »

Boot Camp Lite

When I was in college, as I’ve written before, I was in Air Force ROTC. Upon graduation in 1964, I got my commission as a loo-tenant, and I served four years on active duty.

I chose the ROTC route to avoid being drafted as an infantryman, sent to Vietnam, and probably shot. I chose Air Force ROTC to please my dad, who had been a career Air Force officer.

As military training goes, being a Rotsy cadet was pretty mild stuff. It amounted to a few extra hours of classroom training every quarter (called military science and air science), and we wore uniforms on Saturday mornings and learned to march properly.

We cadets even had an hierarchy. The more gung-ho among us became the higher-ranking cadet officers. They could, but usually didn’t, lord it over their underlings.

Gung ho was never in my nature, but I had a good record. I graduated as a cadet major and, to my great surprise, as a Distinguished AF ROTC Cadet. Just thought I would mention that.

On the whole, ROTC was not terribly demanding. It was sort of a sideline, a little extra duty to the main task at hand, which was steering a course through college.

Usually, the idea of military training evokes different images altogether — boot camp, drill sergeants, aggressive physical training, forced marches.

ROTC was more gentle than that. With one exception.

During the summer between our junior and senior years, we cadets were sent away for four weeks of special field training that was almost, but not quite, real boot camp. Call it Boot Camp Lite.

It was STU. The AF ROTC Summer Training Unit.

In my case, STU was held at McCoy Air Force Base, Orlando, Florida. Yes, summer in the mosquito- and cockroach-infested jungles of central Florida.

In mid-June 1963, the STU commander sent out a form letter to the mothers of the cadets, including my mom in Georgia…

Dear Mrs. Smith:

Cadet Walter A. Smith has arrived safely at McCoy Air Force Base, Florida, for participation in the AF ROTC Summer Training encampment.

The Summer Training Unit is composed of 150 cadets representing colleges and universities from all over the country. We have a staff of 10 officers and 3 non-commissioned officers who have responsibility during the encampment for executing the training program. The training will be rigorous.

The program includes aircraft and aircrew indoctrination, flight safety, aircraft equipment and armament, maintenance, survival, defense, and the normal military type functions which are part of day to day operation.

The cadet’s day begins at 0445 hours (4:45 A.M.) and he will be in bed each evening at 2100 hours (9:00 P.M.). His room will be inspected daily, and he will be required to keep it absolutely spotless and immaculate.

We sincerely believe that Walter will benefit greatly from his training here.

It’s true, I did benefit greatly. But when I think back on the experience, the negative lessons seem to emerge first.

For example, I got a taste of how life would be as a low-ranking, wretched foot soldier. I learned with certainty that life as an Air Force officer was by far the better choice.

The 150 cadets formed six flights of 25 each — a flight being the Air Force version of a squad. I was in “A” Flight. Our training officer was Captain Hansen, and we called ourselves Hansen’s Aggressors. A for Aggressors, get it?

We were housed not in an open barracks, but in dorm-style rooms with two beds each. My roommate was Bill Tweedle, a jolly, likeable fellow from The Citadel.

As promised, we were awakened each day at 0445 hours and formed up for a session of vigorous exercises. The culmination of the session was our daily one-mile run. We ran as a unit, in formation. Double time, ladies! Hut, two, three, four, hut two, three, four!

After the run, we had about 15 minutes to shower and dress. Then we fell in again to march to breakfast. Everywhere we went, we marched in formation, usually double-time.

All of our meals were square meals, meaning they were eaten military-style — back straight, eyes straight ahead. You were expected to scoop something from your plate, raise it to mouth level, and pop it in without looking at it. Cage those eyeballs, mister!

After breakfast, we prepared our rooms for inspection. We had been advised to bring duplicates of all personal items — toothbrush, toothpaste, and the like. That way, fresh versions of everything were on display for the inspecting officer.

The lectures and other activities began at 0700 hours. Most of it was quite interesting.

We toured the flight line, the aircraft maintenance shops, and assorted base facilities. We were set loose to explore the inside of a KC-135 tanker and a B-52 bomber. It was very cool to sit in the pilot’s seat of a B-52.

We had marksmanship training on the .38 Smith and Wesson Special, which was the official handgun of Air Force officers at the time.

Most memorably, we had two days of survival training in the Florida swamp.

On the first day, we were taught how to construct a shelter suitable for the local environment. We were taught how to stay cool, how to stay warm, how to sharpen a knife, and how to build a rabbit trap.

We also learned how to chop open a sabal palm and extract the tender core — the heart of palm, aka swamp cabbage. I can still remember the taste of the instructor’s heart of palm soup, made with the local sulfur water.

That evening, the instructors gave each cadet his survival equipment: insect repellent, a rain poncho, a sheath knife, a folding shovel, two cans of survival rations, and a surplus parachute.

I ate one can of rations, cut up the parachute to make a hammock, nicked my thumb with the knife in the process, and slept soundly.

The next morning, we were awakened at 0445 hours for the usual exercises and one-mile run, this time through the swamp. After I breakfasted on the remaining can of rations, we learned how to skin a rabbit, how best to hold a poisonous snake, and other skills.

All of this was 48 years ago, so it isn’t surprising that many of my memories have faded.

For example, looking through my old STU “yearbook” recently, I read about a volleyball tournament in which A Flight placed second. I recall nothing about a volleyball tournament.

I also read that weekends were “open post” for the cadets — free time, no training. I remember nothing about free time on weekends.

Skit Night? No memory whatsoever.

What I remember is sweating all night in a silk hammock, and marching in formation, and running in formation, and eating square meals.

I remember our five-hour orientation flight in a B-52, and watching in amazement as the bomber was refueled in the air by a KC-135.

My proudest accomplishment at STU came a few days before the encampment ended. Captain Hansen informed us that A Flight had just completed its predawn one-mile run in four minutes, 43 seconds. Officially.

Have you run a mile in under five minutes?

As for my most vivid memory at STU, that came at the end of the first week, when my roommate, Cadet Bill Tweedle, was dropped from ROTC and sent home.

Tweedle — even the instructors called him Tweedle — was a large, loud, happy young man who lived life with a swagger. Tweedle dominated the room, but no one objected. He was too engaging, too entertaining.

Tweedle also was smart and competent. He quickly became the best known and best liked cadet at STU.

One evening, after the regular assembly at 1645 hours to lower the flag, Tweedle and I were in our room, getting ourselves ready to go to chow.

Suddenly, Tweedle went rigid. He stood beside the bed, frozen, his eyes wide and staring.

Alarmed, I rushed over to him. He began to gag, spit, and shake violently. I caught him, barely, and we both crumpled to the floor.

I had no idea what was happening. Trying not to get injured myself, I protected his head in my lap as he spasmed and jerked, foaming at the mouth, his arms and legs flailing wildly.

By that time, Tweedle’s eyes were shut tight, and his teeth were clenched. He was breathing heavily and jerking erratically.

As soon as the seizure started, I began yelling for help like a crazy person. Other cadets quickly arrived, but they just stood there, watching Tweedle writhing in my lap. No one, including me, knew what to do.

Then Captain Hansen rushed in. He told us Tweedle was having an epileptic seizure. He said the seizure would run its course, but we needed to be sure he didn’t swallow his tongue in the meantime.

He sent one cadet to fetch a broom. He told another to find a washcloth and roll it up tightly.

Using his fingers and the smooth end of the broom handle, Captain Hansen pried open Tweedle’s clenched teeth. He used the washcloth to pad the teeth and hold down the tongue. He told me to continue doing what I was doing.

Within a minute or so, the seizure subsided. Tweedle’s body relaxed, and he slowly came back to reality, sheepish and exhausted. He was fine. No injuries.

But Tweedle had failed to disclose his medical condition to the Air Force. He knew, and he told us he knew, that epilepsy disqualifies you from military service. He hoped it wouldn’t be discovered, and he guessed wrong.

The next morning, the cadets fell out for morning exercises without Tweedle. By mid-day, transportation arrangements had been made for his trip home. He gathered his things, said goodbye to a group of us briefly, and was gone.

After the STU encampment was over, the instructors stayed behind to grade us individually and rank the members of each flight from best to worst.

In A Flight, I was ranked number 12. Exactly in the middle.

Like I said, gung ho was never in my nature.

Read Full Post »

It was called the draft. Conscription. Compulsory military service.

The U.S. isn’t conscripting its youth right now, because we have an all-volunteer military… if you don’t count all those unsuspecting reservists who ended up conscripted to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan.

We last had an active military draft from 1954 through 1975. According to the Army, the draft was invaluable in maintaining a steady flow of volunteers. They estimate that for every draftee, four men enlisted. In other words, they avoided the draft and had at least some choice about the when and how of their service.

I was one of them.

Although I always planned to attend college, I was well aware that without my college deferment, the draft would have nailed me immediately.

I also knew that after graduation, I would be vulnerable again to conscription. There was only one career path I could follow that would protect me from being drafted into the Army and sent to the rice paddies of Vietnam, probably never to return, and I took it: I enrolled in Air Force ROTC.

The fact is, that choice was not too off-the-wall, inasmuch as my dad had been a career Air Force officer. He, of course, was delighted.

And the ROTC route was fairly easy — one extra class each quarter in military science, plus a few hours each month on the drill field, plus four memorable weeks of basic training one summer in a Florida swamp.

Deep down, I knew the military and I were not a good fit. Which is all the more reason I was shocked to be named one of a handful of Distinguished ROTC Cadets during my senior year. Not too shabby.

On graduation day, a few hours after the UGA ceremony, we Rotsie cadets were sworn in as officers and gentlemen.

Back then, a newly-commissioned officer simply waited to be called up. He or she might be activated immediately, or a year later, or somewhere in between. Usually the latter.

But I had a better idea. I applied to Graduate School at the University of Georgia to pursue a Master of Arts degree in Journalism. If all went well, I would finish in 12 to 18 months. My military obligation simply would be delayed a bit.

At that point, I received good news and bad news.

The good news: I was accepted into grad school effective Fall Quarter 1964.

The bad news: my Air Force orders arrived with lightning speed. I was summoned to duty at Cannon Air Force Base, New Mexico, effective July 31, 1964.

Immediately, I sent copies of my grad school papers to the Air Force and applied for a deferment.

I didn’t get it. The Air Force replied that I missed the application deadline by four days.

Four days.

According to my Air Force orders, I would be assigned to the “Administrative Officer” career field. Somebody had to shuffle papers, and I was it.

That was more than a little irritating. I had assumed that, in keeping with my Journalism degree, my career field would be “Information Officer” — a publicity and PR guy. The one in charge of the base newspaper and the photo lab. The one who gives talks at teas and luncheons in town.

But that would imply that a thought process was involved. As far as I could tell, assignments were determined strictly by the numbers. Probably still are.

In the end, I did fine in the Air Force. I knew right away I wouldn’t make a career of it. I simply was too independent, and my bullshit detector constantly caused me trouble. But I was a solid officer with a good record.

Well, except for a couple of aberrations like this.

After serving time as an Admin Officer and later as a Squadron Commander, I finally wrangled a transfer to the Base Information Office as the second in command.

I hated it. Within a year, I wrangled my way back to the honest work of being a Squadron Commander.

After my four-year hitch was over, I did not, I regret to say, return to UGA and enter Graduate School. By then, I was married with a kid. My mission was to find a job, make money.

Looking back, it’s clear that being called to active duty so quickly was a major, major turning point in my life.

If, like my fellow ROTC cadets, I had been called to active duty three to six months after graduation, I would have entered grad school, and my life would have taken a different path.

The odds that I would have met my future wife in New Mexico are miniscule. I wouldn’t have my sons, wouldn’t have my granddaughters. That’s a little scary to contemplate.

All because of four days.

Some people think a Master Plan is somehow involved — that we are destined to live a predetermined life.

I don’t think so. I think life is a constant rolling of the dice. I think chance, not design, determines the outcome.

This is what makes sense to me: you try to influence things in your favor, then you hope for the best. In the end, you get what you get.

I’ve been lucky. Serendipity has dealt me a good hand.

Thanks, Serendipity, wherever you are.

Read Full Post »

I loved going off to college. I loved being on my own and making my own decisions. I loved the challenge, the excitement, the people.

A big school like the University of Georgia attracts the prettiest girls, the most popular boys, and countless eggheads from hundreds of little Georgia towns, then concentrates them on one campus.

In September 1960, Athens, Georgia, was a fine place for an eager young fellow such as myself, who wanted to have a good time and learn some stuff.

I think I succeeded in doing both. And if my leisure activities crossed the line now and then, if I sometimes drank to excess or acted the fool in public, I also never cut a class. Not once in four years.

In my day, all freshman and sophomore students were required to reside in university housing. The freshmen, those tender newcomers, were assigned to their own residence halls, segregated by sex.

The largest residence hall for male freshmen was Reed Hall, a battered old place perched on a hill overlooking Sanford Stadium.

I was assigned to Reed Hall, second floor, room 201. My roommate Paul was a boisterous, swaggering kid from Macon whose grandparents were Lebanese immigrants.

Reed Hall had been built in 1953, and the constant abuse from successive classes of freshmen had left it dingy and dilapidated.

But Reed was an institution, and it was organized into “communities” overseen by proctors — upperclassmen whose job it was to tend to our needs and keep us in line.

The day we all arrived in Athens was chaotic. It was a Saturday, and the campus was swarming with thousands of students, parents, and vehicles. The halls of the dorms were packed. The dads carted boxes up the stairs, and the moms futzed irrelevantly with draperies and linens. It was madness.

I must admit, Mom and Dad did well that day. They didn’t fawn, or lecture, or hover for too long. They helped me get moved in, expressed their love and best wishes, and retreated gracefully home. Not all parents were so considerate.

By late afternoon, Reed was beginning to settle down. The second-floor hall was still busy and noisy, but showing signs of what would become normalcy.

Paul and a few other new acquaintances and I walked next door to the Memorial Hall cafeteria for dinner.

The food was awful. Paul had a side order of sliced tomatoes, tasted them, and spat them out.

I reached across the table, speared a clean chunk, and popped it in my mouth. The tomato was virtually tasteless. The texture was a cross between mealy and crunchy. Yikes.

Then Paul added a dollop of mayonnaise and pronounced the tomatoes palatable. I did the same. Wow, mayo made all the difference!

From that meal forward, dining hall tomatoes were known in my circle of friends as test-tube tomatoes.

After a few days, most of us were beginning to get into the routine and hit our respective strides. Life at college was still fresh and exciting, but now it was a known quantity, not nearly as terrifying as in the beginning.

Then, late one weekday afternoon, as Paul and I relaxed in our room after classes, things got crazy.

A terrible scream split the air and echoed down the hall. Paul and I rushed to the door in time to see some guy running at full speed toward us, screaming, eyes wide with terror.

By then, the hall was blocked by six or eight people. Arms went out to stop the hysterical student, and he came to a halt, panting.

“He’s dead! He’s dead” the student wailed. “In my room — he’s dead!”

En masse, we surged down the hall to the room in question. We burst inside, jostling for position.

It was true. On the floor at the foot of the twin beds, flat on his back, eyes closed, arms at his side, was a young black man. He was, quite simply, as still as death.

Someone muttered, on behalf of us all, “Oh, shit!”

The unfortunate fellow was one of the Reed Hall janitors. It was a heart attack, we learned later. The man was overweight, but far too young for such a fate.

Someone knelt down to check for a pulse. Someone else ran to get the proctor. The rest of us stood there quietly.

I can’t speak for the others, but I was thinking about mortality, mostly my own, and the hand we are dealt, and how life is a crapshoot at best. I was thinking, too, that I had never before seen an actual dead body.

The janitor wore dark brown overalls and black shoes, the toes of which pointed toward the ceiling. He had big feet. His shoes were inordinately long, like clown shoes.

He was clean-shaven, and his hair was cut short. He was stretched out as if peacefully asleep.

Moments later, our proctor arrived in a rush. He sat on the floor next to the janitor and checked again for signs of life.

Finding none, he shook his head sadly and spoke the man’s name. I don’t recall it, I’m sad to say.

He looked up at the small group of his charges standing in a circle around him.

“Well, guys,” he said, “Welcome to Athens.”

Reed Hall-1

Architect’s rendering of the proposed Reed Hall, 1952.

Reed Hall-2

View from my dorm room showing Sanford Stadium and the Science Center beyond, Fall 1960.

Read Full Post »

« Newer Posts - Older Posts »