I have become aware of the fact that I was fortunate enough to have been afforded a more than adequate, well-rounded, primary education. With the help of my mother and grandmother—thankfully, both my live-in grandparents were functionally-literate—I had actually begun to learn to read and count even before I started kindergarten at Linden Elementary School in South Bend, Indiana. So with that head start, reading, writing and arithmetic came very easily to me, as well as did grammar and spelling.
I used to win all the class spelling bees when we had them. The one word that I missed one time, though, was Fascist. I was totally unfamiliar with the word at the time and had never seen it in print. My friends were impressed because I knew and could spell antidisestablishmentarianism, until I learned a better one: pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanokoniosis! It never occurred to me that the things I was being taught in school might be useless information, so I naturally absorbed and retained everything I was given. Of course, it helped that I had great teachers to guide and encourage me. My second-grade teacher, Mrs. Daniels, and then Mrs. Johnson in the 3rd grade, citing only two, took a special interest in me early on.
Another case of life imitating art, in those days it was apparently all right to practice discipline and corporal punishment when students got out of line, not like it is now, because my teachers at Linden, it seemed, had no qualms about spanking, even beating us. We were particularly afraid of Miss Esma Williams, the music teacher, for she owned a thick, wooden paddle, which contained the engraved inscription, “To Impress You”. She didn’t mind using it either. In fact, I think she rather relished it. She got me a couple of times, too, although I don’t remember what I did to deserve it.
My arithmetic teacher, Mr. Algie Oldham, was not one to spare the rod either. He used to beat me with his pointer stick almost every day. I remember being a good and well-behaved pupil. I can’t believe that I deserved to be hit so often. I was sitting there in math class one day minding my own business when Mr. Oldham said, “Clifford, come on up here and get your daily beating.” ‘What did I do now, Mr. Oldham?’ (We pronounced his name just like it’s spelled, you know, like aged, cured pigmeat.) “I don’t know, but you’re too quiet over there. You must be up to something.” ‘Hunh?!’
I think that some of those teachers just had a sadistic streak about them. They would never get away with such actions today, as it would be considered unacceptable child abuse. But it was allowed in those days, and they sure took advantage of the privilege. Ironically, though, despite their propensity for freewill flagellation, I consider Mr. Oldham and Miss Williams to be two of my best teachers. Mr. Oldham, a big man, years later served as principal at three other public schools in town. He reminds me of actor Chi McBride, who played the school principal, Steven Harper, on TV’s “Boston Public.” Mr. Oldham is now deceased, and Riley High School, where he last served as principal, has named their gymnasium after him.
Here are some distinctions I acquired while I was at Linden. I was awarded certificates for “Outstanding Achievement” in reading, art, the Honor Roll and for “Meritorious Service” on the school safety patrol. Upon completion of the 6th grade, Linden would bestow the titles of “Outstanding Boy and Girl” (sort of like elementary valedictorians), and I was sure that I would get it, as I consistently had the highest grade-point average of any student there. But my homeroom teacher, Edward Myers, who was the basketball coach and later became school principal and who made the choices for Outstanding Boy and Girl that year, picked the less-worthy Gerry Hudson, who happened to be one of his team players. Gerry himself knew that he did not deserve the honor. He had often asked me for help with his lessons. For the graduation and awards ceremony I was the one asked to deliver the address to the class. Uh, why me? I wondered. Shouldn’t that be Gerry’s job as so-called top student? But I did it instead. I recited, from memory, Rudyard Kipling’s inspirational poem If.
One of my disappointments of not being chosen Outstanding Boy was that the winner’s name was added to a plaque, which hung on the wall in the front entranceway of the school. For years after, I hated seeing Gerry Hudson’s name up there in embossed bronze instead of my own. Jean Walker was our Outstanding Girl that year, and I had no problem with her eligibility. It’s all for naught now, however, because the names and plaque are no longer there, since the school was demolished years ago.
I have even forgiven Myers for passing me over. In an article published in the South Bend Tribune some years ago, I learned that Ed Myers was a World War II Army veteran who was stationed in Okinawa when the war ended. And like me, he served as the mail clerk for his unit. He soon discovered that many of the men to whom he delivered letters were illiterate. So he would read the letters to the soldiers who couldn’t read and would even pen a reply to them. That’s when he decided to be a teacher. I can’t help but wonder if he had known that someday I would follow in his footsteps as I did, maybe he would have been more respectful of me. I have more respect for him, now that I know those things about him. As he is dead now, I can’t even talk with him about it.
In my junior year of high school, due to my excellence in Spanish, I was selected to represent my school in the state Spanish Contest, held at Indiana University in Bloomington. I didn’t win anything, as it turned out, but it was my first time that I got to stay overnight out of town. I would practice the language by translating poems and song lyrics into Spanish. I did A Visit from St. Nicholas and several songs from Hair and Messiah, for example. But I think that my most gratifying assignment that I ever did for second-year Spanish was when I translated Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address” into Spanish, memorized it and then recited it for the class. I had quite the retentive mind in those days. My teacher, Mr. Aguirre, as well as the whole class, all were quite impressed, that is, once they figured out what the hell I was doing!
I did have my share of childhood injuries, I am sorry to say. While at Linden–I don’t recall what grade I was in–I fell on a radiator and busted the back of my head open. You know the big metal kind that stands up against a wall or window, and each section of the thing has a narrow, tapered edge? My seat in homeroom was right next to one. These chairs had the smooth metal tips that didn’t provide much friction on the wooden floors. I was leaning back in my chair one day, trying to avoid the advances of classmate Shirley Paige, and it slipped from under me, causing me to fall and bump my head on the radiator behind me. That required just three stitches.
I fractured my wrist jumping out of a park swing, which I used to do on a regular basis. This time I didn’t land on my feet, as I was supposed to. I fractured my arm another time when I tripped over a dog while on my bike. It was running alongside me, but then got in front of my front tire, causing the bike to fall over, and I landed on my left wrist.
I once badly cut my forehead and forearm from going through a plate-glass window. I guess that requires some explanation, too. People frequently ask me, “How did you get that scar on your forehead?” I jokingly tell them that it’s my “ghetto scar,” then I show them my right arm and tell them that they are a set. (“It really is no ghetto scar; what happened was just this…”) I was around 11 or 12, I think. I was over at the Linden schoolyard playing with my homies, and we were choosing who was to be “It” for Hide ‘n’ Seek by racing the length of the walkway that lead up to the front doors of the school building. When I reached the doors, running (I got there first), and touched the glass pane, it shattered on impact. I was initially worried about breaking the window. I didn’t know that I was cut until I raised my head and blood started trickling down my face. That’s when I kinda freaked, and the big boys on the playground ran to my aid—unlike my playmate Nathan Jones, who ran away down the street lamenting, “He gonna die! He gonna die!” If it were up to him, I probably could have.
My mother was soon at my side (we lived just down the street) and drove me directly to the hospital. During the ride I noticed a towel wrapped around my right arm. So I removed the towel and looked at my arm. The flesh was splayed open down to the bone, as if done by a cleaver. ‘Ugh,’ I said, and replaced the towel. I hadn’t even felt the cut. My arm required about 40 stitches and 6 more in my forehead. I don’t remember this injury being particularly painful, fortunately. I guess that the cuts were so deep, they must have bypassed all the surface nerve endings.
Then only a couple of weeks later, while my arm was still bandaged up, I was struck by a car while on my bike! When I think back, I don’t even know how it happened. My brother, Earl, and I were on our way to the movie theater downtown on our bikes. And as we were crossing to the other side of the street we were on, a car appeared seemingly out of nowhere, and just like in the movies, time sort of stood still for a moment, or at least slowed down. I remember trying to pedal to get out of the way of the approaching car, and my bike would not move! I was just suspended in place, as in a dream. When the car hit me, I was knocked up into the air and landed on my head and shoulder (I‘ve never worn a helmet, then or even now). I then must have been rendered unconscious for a moment, because the next thing I knew, there was a bunch of people standing over me. I remember thinking, Where did all these people come from so suddenly? I wasn’t seriously hurt, as it turned out—just a bump on the head—but my poor bike was a twisted wreck! The white man who struck me, out of kind remorse, I suppose, did have my bike replaced.
Earl Jr., too, was sustaining some injuries of his own at about the same time as I was. While playing Little League softball, he broke his ankle sliding into home plate. He had a cast on his leg for weeks. Another time during our annual summer church picnic at Potawatomie Park (South Bend’s near equivalent of NY’s Central Park), Junior called himself entertaining the crowd gathered there; he was really showing off. He lined up a bunch of park benches, ten, I think, one behind the other, and decided to try to jump over all of them. Well, Evel Knievel he’s not. In his attempt he didn’t quite make it all the way across. His foot kicked the last bench, causing him to hit his right arm on one of the benches behind. This resulted in a dislocated elbow–it was knocked around to the front of his arm! This, too, required a cast on his whole arm.
So, between the two of us, we were accumulating a lot of medical expenses, and it was our father who was footing the bills, apparently. Dad came over to our house one day (he didn’t live with us) and reprimanded us with, “Don’t y’all break nothin’ else…not even a toenail!” Actually, we both fared well after those few mishaps, and I didn’t require any more medical care until I was well into adulthood, and any incurred expenses therefore became my responsibility.
Linden and then Central Junior High and High Schools all had chorus classes, and from the 4th grade on, I was always enrolled in one. It was Miss Williams who taught me my first song in a foreign language (Latin): “Panis Angelicus” by Cesar Franck. Even earlier, like in 2nd and 3rd grades, I had a homeroom teacher who made us sing in class all the time. Mrs. Ades was quite gaudy. She wore too much makeup and lots of jangle jewelry, but she was fun. We’d do things like “Under the Spreading Chestnut Tree” and other action-participatory songs. My junior high music teacher, Mr. Daniel Miller (he was too fine!), offered some music appreciation, as well, in his chorus classes.
(# Bill! I love you so, I always will… #)
But it was Mr. William Chapman, the faculty head of the chorus classes and the glee club at Central, who, I came to realize, was my greatest inspiration and favorite teacher. I can attribute most of my musical knowledge to what I learned from Mr. Chapman. I lost contact after high school and didn’t know where he moved to when he left Central and South Bend. I wanted so much to let him know how I turned out and that I hold him directly responsible for my career and success in music and being where I am today. I tried people search engines and locator services to no avail. I had a database list that contained 300 William Chapmans in the United States alone. I certainly wasn’t going to contact each name until I found the right one.
After so many years passed, I had about given up hope to finding my mentor. He’s probably dead by now anyway, I had concluded. Well, as luck would have it, when I received the Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia (music fraternity) Alumni Directory that I had ordered earlier in the year (2007), I looked up Bill’s name on a mere whim. I didn’t know if Bill was a fellow Sinfonian or not. But there he was, listed with his home and e-mail addresses and phone number! Of course, I called right away to confirm that it was he, and Bill answered the phone. I told him who I was and was relieved and pleased that he was still alive, first of all, and that he remembered me. I told him what his musical training and tutelage has meant to me, which he told me made his day. He was retired from teaching and living in California. We remained in regular contact for the next ten years until he died in 2017 at the age of 92. His wife of 50 years had died the year before. I am glad that I found him before it was too late.
Central High School was really located right in the center of town and consisted of three separate buildings—the high school, the junior high and the vocational building, which housed the auto, drafting, electric, machine and wood shops, and all were connected by aerial ramps between the buildings. Central served the several other, what they called, “feeder” middle schools of the surrounding areas, so the student body was made up of kids from every neighborhood and section of town.
I truly loved Central, its facilities (we had two large gymnasiums, two auditoriums, a swimming pool and cafeteria), its comfortable, spacious classrooms, its faculty and students. The cafeteria served daily “plate lunches” for 35 cents! Can you believe it? And they were big meals with real nutritious food, too! And those little half-pint cartons of milk cost just 3 cents!
We had a full curriculum program, including foreign languages (French, German, Latin and Spanish), shop classes, the full gamut of athletics, music (Chorus, Band, Orchestra, Music Appreciation and Theory), art and drama. Two electives that I now wish I had taken when I had the chance are Chemistry and Physics. I didn’t realize my interest in science until later on. Although I liked and did well in math, I had had my fill of it after Algebra and Geometry, so I also passed on Trigonometry and Calculus. As I said, I was an honor student all through elementary, but I did slack off a bit when I got to junior high school. I did okay in all my required subjects in high school, except U.S. History (which I’ll discuss later).
There definitely was a high incidence of “old maid schoolteachers” in those days. Most of my female teachers at Central were unmarried—Miss Dienhart, Miss Korb, Miss Kruckel, Miss Matthews, Miss Smoger, Miss Waterman—and I am sure that there were some sapphists in the bunch. Kruckel and Matthews, for example, both short-haired “stompers,” were the girls’ gym teachers and seemed to be very chummy with each other. Many of us kids suspected that they were probably lovers, or at least “brothers.”
Central’s Glee Club was particularly fine (at least I thought that we were at the time) and provided the singers for all of the school’s musical productions. Our drama teacher, James Lewis Casady, was very competent and put on quite ambitious presentations. One year they actually did Mozart’s The Magic Flute and the next year, Lehar’s The Land of Smiles, in which I appeared. Slew-footed Mr. Casady used to call me “Clarence”; he apparently could never remember my right name. Or maybe he did it on purpose; I’m not sure. He did have a phenomenal memory for direction anyway and wouldn’t allow us to deviate. When he blocked a scene, he remembered exactly where he told everybody to be. “Uh, Clarence, you are in the wrong spot. You should be one step to your left.” Damn! How did he remember that from last week?! Being rather exacting myself, I admired his perfectionism. We did some fun shows with him, high-quality all the way.
There was a separate, storage space next to the high school building that housed Casady’s massive collection of costumes from his many years of producing shows. He would take us students in there to be fitted for the appropriate costumes needed for his plays, and he knew where everything was. He would waddle through rows and rows of the thousands of garments, accessories and props and find just the right item he wanted.
There was a rumor around school that Casady had been offered directing jobs in Hollywood, but he always turned them down. He told them that he was quite content staying where he was and working with us kids. It could have been, too, that being a “mama’s boy” and bachelor, he didn’t want to leave his dear, old mother, who was ailing and probably did not want to move way out there. He still lived with her, only a block away from the school, and they remained together until she died.
Our glee club also was selected to perform on local TV every year at Christmastime. Every year in the fall there would be a regional teachers’ conference held in South Bend, and for entertainment they would form a mass choir to sing, made up of all the choruses from all the high schools in the district and county. South Bend itself had five schools at the time. I’m talking many hundreds of singers here, okay? Then they would call in a guest conductor each year to direct the festivities. Of course, I participated every year, and it was great fun. We sang under Chicago conductor Margaret Hillis one year.
In junior high and high school, my extracurricular choral activities consisted of the All-City Chorus as well as smaller ensembles. My brother Earl, some friends and I formed our own makeshift doo-wop group for a short while, although we never got to perform publicly anywhere. I was the only real aspiring “star” in the group. The others weren’t serious about going public. They didn’t want to work. I did, however, participate in some more serious endeavors with my singer friends who were more accomplished in music. I formed a barbershop quartet (trained and coached by Bill Chapman), variously known as The Manuels and the Deluxe Barbershop Quartet (the name inspired by my next-door neighbor, Herbert Barham’s tonsorial parlor), that got to appear on local TV a couple of times.
I had success with an enterprising chorus of high-school students who sang around town, in churches mostly, although a good deal of our repertoire was secular, much of it learned in Chapman’s chorus classes. We called ourselves The Chamelons (hard C). I also sang with other amateur community groups, including the Aeolian Chorale and the Juantos. All these groups were good fun and great experience for me. Like all prepubescent boys, I was a soprano when I started singing. I sang alto in junior high chorus class and became a tenor when I started 9th grade. By the time I entered 12th grade, my voice had changed enough for me to be able to sing the bass part in chorus. But rather than my voice shifting downward proportionately as I changed vocal registers, my range increased instead. Now I could sing lower notes that I could not before while retaining my upper notes as well. I could still sing the Queen of the Night aria from The Magic Flute, high Fs and all!
I am aware of the fact that the public school experience in my day was not fraught with the peril that students have to put up with nowadays. We didn’t have to worry about kids toting guns and knives to school and being afraid for our very lives. Central had a very large, racially-mixed population, and on the whole, was pretty much free of serious racial conflict and bigotry (at least, among the students), which is another reason why I appreciate where I grew up.
There were no Asians at Central that I remember. We had a foreign exchange student from Spain, I think, and only one or two other Latinas the whole time I was there. My graduation class (of 1965) alone had 450 students, but we all seemed to get along with each other very well. I met some of these same people at my 35-year class reunion, and they were still just as nice and non-bigoted as they were when we were in school.
One of my schoolmates, Bruce Best, who became my dorm neighbor during my first year at I.U., has organized a weekly Zoom session, by which Central classmates can get together and chat, reminisce and play catch-up on our lives since high school. At present we have about 12 or so regulars and a few more occasional attendees. We discuss current events and reflect on what it was like growing up in South Bend and our impressions of Central. I always thought that our beloved alma mater was bereft of any racial discrimination, but then found out during one of our sessions that the school had sponsored some social fraternities and sororities for the white students only, of which the black students were totally unaware. I don’t know how they managed to keep it a secret all that time. There was even no mention of them in our yearbook.
During the six years that I attended Central (it was my junior high as well), I probably can count on one hand the number of fights or physical altercations that I witnessed between my fellow students. As I was always there and was very socially-active, if there was any trouble, I was there to witness it. And then, whenever there was a fight, it was always minor hand-to-hand combat—you know, slapping, kicking, pulling hair, nothing real serious. The girls, especially, were more into public humiliation and name-calling. Their favorite modus operandi was to rip each other’s clothes off, especially blouses and bras, to expose their opponent’s bare breasts to the eager spectators. The boys, I included, loved it. We didn’t know anything about shooting or stabbing a fellow classmate over some minor, stupid disagreement.
Things sure have changed in 50 years, haven’t they? Nowadays, a kid will kill you if you look at him wrong. “Whatchu lookin’ at, muth’fucka?” BAM! And the girls, instead of ripping your blouse off, now will slash your face with razor blades and box cutters! I mean, what’s a little temporary humiliation when they can ruin your looks and scar you for life?! These kids today do not play!
Central was closed down years ago and the junior high and vocational buildings were demolished and the space made into a parking lot. The main school building was about to meet the same fate, when some insightful entrepreneur got the inspired idea to turn it into an apartment complex instead. All the classrooms, the gym, even the swimming pool, now have been converted into private apartments. There are some alumni residents there now. If I ever moved back to South Bend, which at this point is very unlikely, I would consider living there myself.
It is automatically assumed by people who know me that I graduated from high school in the normal fashion. There is no reason to think otherwise. I mean, I did graduate eventually, but not in June with my Senior Class. My History teacher, Mr. Poorbaugh, chose to flunk me in my last semester, preventing me from graduating. At Linden I was a straight-A honor student. I received my first D in junior high and all throughout high school, some of my grades proved to be less than exemplary. My SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test) scores were good enough to be accepted into college when I applied. My problem with U.S. History was that I just did not enjoy the class as it was, so I did not do the required work.
Ironically, I do like history, in theory, but the kind of history I am interested in—black history, gay history, cultural history, something pertinent to me—isn’t what was being taught at my school. I believe that teaching should be combined with entertainment. I, like most children, tend to retain knowledge if we are allowed actively to participate in the learning process. I enjoy filmed documentaries, for instance, which we didn’t have much of in those days, and playing games is a good way to learn. So there might have been some defiance on my part, plus my dislike of my previous teacher, Mr. Schultz, and then Poorbaugh after him. He apparently did not care too much for me either, considering his actions. This is not so much an excuse than an explanation of the situation.
If I were on a school board and cared anything about the students, I would be suspicious about the teacher involved. This particular student (me) has a history of constantly-good grades, and this one teacher does not want him to graduate because of a problem with one minor subject. How is that even fair? It’s not that the kid cannot read or count or is deficient in any of the more important life skills. It’s only a U.S. History course, for Christ’s sakes! You know, being as bright and as talented as I am, if I am not learning what I am supposed to know, maybe Poorbaugh isn’t doing his job. He’s the teacher. He needs to take some responsibility himself. I would question him to see if he has his own agenda or has something against this particular student. Maybe he is one those closet bigots who won’t express his racist views out in the open but will use his power of passive aggression to hold us back. There were white kids in my class who were far less smart than I am, and they managed to pass!
I suppose that I should not be using the “race card” as I certainly was not the only black kid in my graduating class, by any means. But I shouldn’t dismiss it as a possible motive either. Poorbaugh explained that he was doing this for my “own good.” Yeah, they tried to use that rationale during slavery times, too, telling us that it was for our own good. “You all are getting free room and board, and we are getting that savageness out of you and turning you into good God-fearing Christians.” Well, thank you and fuck you! Poorbaugh sounded pretty condescending to me. He tried to convince me that I needed this History course to get me through life. ‘But, Sir, I intend to be a musician and performer, not a historian!’ Of course, that didn’t matter to him one bit, as he already had made up his mind.
So the bastard flunked me anyway, requiring me to make up the course during the subsequent summer school session. As a result, I did not get to participate in my class’ Commencement exercises. Well, I did, in a way. While my classmates were processing to receive their individual diplomas, I was relegated to the orchestra, which accompanied their steps. It was a rather awkward situation for me–you know, being there but not doing what I should have been there for. But the trouper that I am, I didn’t let it get me down.
It proved to be a great disappointment to my father, which, I suppose, is understandable. If my mother was at all disappointed, she never told me so and never held it against me. She wouldn’t have the right to judge anyway, since she never finished high school herself. At least I did finish eventually and even went on to college. I don’t know my father’s educational history. I know that he didn’t go to college, but whether he finished high school or not, I have no idea. Having not grown up with my father–my parents divorced when I was only three–I don’t know a whole lot about his early years. When we did get together, we always talked about other things.
So that summer of 1965, while I was working for the South Bend Street Department (my first paid job) as a street cleaner and paver, I was going to school to make up the History course I had failed previously. I regret that I had to drop out of the summer’s local theatrical production of The King and I, because the rehearsals interfered with my more-important study and homework time. I did pass the course this time, with a different and better teacher, so I must not have been the problem after all. I received my diploma in August, just a few days before leaving for college.
I learned that actor Martin Sheen and I have this in common. He also was flunked in his senior year of high school and had to attend summer school to get his diploma. And he didn’t turn out so badly either, did he? The unfairness of it all is that teachers all the time still allow students to graduate who are functionally illiterate and are deficient in math and every other subject–some don’t even know where they live, looking at a state map!–but I, who am highly intelligent with an academic future not dependent on sports alone to get me by in life, get held back on one man’s arbitrary decision to deny me graduation.
I have mixed emotions about my college years. First of all, I originally never intended to go. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to. My family had no money for college, so I had never built up any hopes of ever attending. I had considered joining the Air Force or the Peace Corps as alternatives. But my father came to me one day during my senior year and told me that he would try to make it possible for me to go to college. He didn’t really do anything, however. I myself applied for some local scholarships, but nothing panned out for me. In the meantime, I went on and applied to Indiana University (the Bloomington campus) and to my utter astonishment, I was readily accepted!
It all happened kind of fast. My best friend at the time from high school, Leo Warbington, was more sure about what he wanted to do, and he pretty much told me what I was doing, too. I was still rather impressionable in those days, not as sure of myself, and I would allow myself to be manipulated by stronger-willed persons than myself. So it was Leo who decided for both of us that we would apply to I.U. because of its reputable music department (Is it? I didn’t know), with the intent to enroll in the Music School, with the intent to work toward a Bachelor of Music Education degree, with the intent to what, teach? some day and/or perhaps, secure a position in a major orchestra. At least that was Leo’s initial plan. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do any of those things; I just went along with the program. It was also Leo’s idea for us to room together that first year. He even picked the dorm where we would stay. Leo was a French horn player and my concentration was initially the oboe, which I had been playing for only a year.
As it turned out, college was more than either of us could handle. Leo was more financially secure and did not have to work, whereas I didn’t have that option. Fortunately, I somehow was able to procure an “Educational Opportunity Grant” from the University, which, I suppose, took care of most of my tuition, and I received a National Defense Student Loan of $1,750 for the four years (which I eventually paid back in full in installments, all by myself). Of course, that amount is nothing, considering the price of college tuition these days. In fact, it wasn’t a whole lot even then! But with the few hundred dollars they would give me each semester, I was able to meet my tuition and pay for my books and campus lodging.
Outside of scholarship awards, I don’t think many kids actually pay their own entire college expenses, as I had to do. Many parents start college funds for their children as soon as they are born, sometimes even before. That would indicate that they are already planning their child’s future for them without consulting them about it. Maybe they don’t want to go to college. Shouldn’t that be the youngster’s decision? Then some even decide what college their kids will attend. The teen has no say-so about their own life. “Look, I’m paying for it, so I’ll tell you where to go and what courses to take.” Luckily for me, since I was paying my own way, I could make my own decisions, such as they were.
To supplement my loan allowance and to give me a little spending change, I was put on the school’s Work-Study Program, but the required work time turned out to be disproportionate to the much-more-needed study time. I held various jobs while fulfilling my Work-Study obligations. I was in the library business for a while, shelving books in one and xeroxing articles from non-circulating volumes in others. I liked that job, as it kept me on the go, and I didn’t have to sit around in one place all the time. It gave me the opportunity to learn the campus, too, as I scampered hither and yon retrieving requested material from books and periodicals from the various libraries. I was transferred from my previous shelving job in the Music Library because I couldn’t resist sitting back among the stacks reading the interesting books and scores that I came across, when I was supposed to be working.
For a while I worked as a typesetter and proofreader for the campus newspaper, The Daily Student (or as it was affectionately called, “The Daily Stupid“). I also served for one year as the editor-in-chief and journalist for The Lowe Blow, a newsletter published by and for my dormitory unit, Lowe House, in Wright Quadrangle. This was in addition to everything else I was doing, so I had to give it up as I had little to no time to devote to it. I don’t like to do anything half-assed, especially something creative. Out here in the real world, that would be a person’s full-time job.
I once was hired to type an extensive term paper for one of my off-campus housemates, who then tried to renege on paying me, after all my hard work. This was the days before word processors, when we were still using old, standard, manual typewriters. I rarely had time to do my own class assignments, let alone somebody else’s. He wasn’t a friend; I hardly even knew the man. Did he expect me to do his work for nothing, as poor as I was?
I eventually entered the food service venue and worked as a waiter and busboy for about three years altogether, in the Tudor Room on-campus and the Poplars Hotel restaurant off-campus. At the Tudor Room, I got to serve a few celebrities, namely, the now-deceased, portly opera diva Montserrat Caballé (or as she was known in opera circles, “Monster-fat Cowbelly”), dead songwriter Hoagy Carmichael and the late poet/playwright Imamu Amiri Baraka (formerly known as LeRoi Jones). The latter autographed a page of his play The Baptism, that I just happened to have with me at the time. His son, Ras Baraka, is the current mayor of Newark, New Jersey (as of this writing), whom I got to sing for one Sunday, when he attended a church service in town where I worked.
One day my boss, Mrs. Tower, proudly informed me that one of the people in my serving section was “the man who put the float in Ivory Soap!” I wasn’t as impressed as she seemed to be. I just twirled my finger in the air and mumbled a ‘Whoop-Dee-Doo!’ I also served as a sous-chef at Sully’s restaurant in town, and a kitchen helper for only one weekend at the Pizzaria, which was a popular, off-campus student hangout. They made the most delicious pizzas than anybody. Among my duties at Sully’s, I made salads, ladled the soups and prepared the appetizers for the servers, including deveining the shrimp for the shrimp cocktails.
Well, Leo and I both flunked out at the end of our first year. It wasn’t our music courses that either of us had trouble with. Having had the same musical training in high school, our music theory and literature classes were a breeze to us. In fact, we both tested out of first- and second-year theory. It was those outside, required non-music courses that were our downfall, such as Psychology, Government and English Composition (who had time to read and write themes all the time?), among others. We had no contact with the professors all year, they didn’t even know our names or even who was in their class.
I am the type of person who learns by actual doing, by practical, hands-on application. Don’t lecture me on how something is done. Show me how to do it myself. I didn’t learn math, how to write or type, musical instrument proficiency, computer operation, or anything else, by listening to somebody talk about it. I could not abide lecture classes. That was my problem in high school with History. It was my problem all through college and even in Basic Training. Don’t lecture me! It puts me right to sleep.
I found out that since I.U. is a state-supported school, in-state applicants were more likely to be accepted, so one of the ways to weed out the unworthy ones was to make all freshmen students take all those, in my opinion, pointless mass lecture courses. Other than offering scholarships to kids to pay their tuition and expenses, colleges and universities charge exorbitant fees to attend their institutions, so I don’t understand why interested students have to apply and then to be accepted before they are allowed to go there. I would think that those who are paying their way would readily be accepted, and the school would be pleased to be chosen. Why would they turn down a paying customer? Since it is all about money anyway, why should they care about the student’s academic potential, prospects or why they chose that particular school?
Another major complaint and big disappointment about I.U. was their compulsory curriculum requirement, the school administration arbitrarily deciding which courses every student must take to obtain a certain degree. I consider college itself to be elective advanced education. No one absolutely has to go to college to learn what they want to know. We had a variety of subjects in high school which should have given us the necessary, general education. So the purpose of college and other institutions of “higher learning,” in my opinion, should be to specialize in a particular field of study. A person who enrolls in a beauty college isn’t required to take English Comp. and Psychology along with their Hair and Makeup courses. I wanted to study music, so let me just study music! I had all that other crap back in high school! If I want to take a non-music subject on my own, then let it be an elective, not a requirement.
I mean, for all the money that we’re giving these people every year, I would think that they would let us choose our own curricula. They could sit each student down with a counselor and ask them what their specific interests are, and let them take those courses—you know, customized curricula within a chosen field. I have since learned that now there are colleges that do let enrolled students set up their own study programs, so it seems that somebody eventually picked up on this idea. I wish that I had had that option back in ‘65-’69.
So my problem in college was that while I was excelling in all my music courses, which I liked, I was flunking all the other shit, which I deplored. I liked being at I.U. enough that I decided to petition the Dean to let me come back the following fall to continue my studies. I was granted a continuance, and I did manage to bring my grade point average up a bit that second year. It is rather ironic that Leo, who at first was more gung-ho about I.U. than I was, did not do anything to try to get back in. So now out of school and back home, he was promptly drafted and went off to serve his two years with the Army Band, spending his last six months of his term in Vietnam.
The first semester of my third year turned out to be my best, academic-wise. Every student (at least, in the music school) is sort of on probation for the first two years. We have to prove our musical worthiness, I suppose. So at the end of our sophomore year, every music student is required to take what is called an “Upper Divisional Examination.” At this hearing we audition for the music faculty, who then evaluate our work to that point to determine whether we have the “right stuff” to continue in our chosen field. Well, apparently I didn’t, according to those professors, or at least one in particular. It was decided that I had not progressed enough on oboe to continue as a major. In fact, I should think about getting out of music altogether. I was wasting my time, you see. I would never make it as a professional musician.
How dare those people assess my entire life for me! They didn’t know me or knew the extent of my talents and interests. Being a virtuoso oboist is not the only facet of music that there is. It was never my intention to replace Ray Still in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra any time soon. Apparently, I was good enough to play in both of the school’s bands and several orchestras before and since. So not wanting to give up just yet, I made a compromise by changing degrees and my concentration for the upcoming term. I then went on to pursue a Bachelor of Science in Music degree with a double concentration in Voice and Spanish! So I didn’t play the oboe well enough to suit those old farts? I dare them to tell me that I can’t sing!
This next semester I was in a sort of curricular limbo, because for once I decided to defy authority and take some courses that I wanted to take, for a change. One of those was Orchestration, a music school course that was not even on my original curriculum. I don’t know why it wasn’t, since I was interested in arranging the whole time I was there. But they didn’t know that, because nobody ever asked. I suppose that their rationale was that only composition majors need to take Orchestration. What would a prospective music teacher need with it? Again, shouldn’t that be my decision? Why should I limit myself so? Maybe this music teacher is also a composer and arranger. Maybe this music teacher is interested in musical theater, acting and stagecraft (another set of courses that were absent from my program). Maybe this music teacher would someday like to produce his own solo record album! I have numerous skills and interests. Pigeon holes are for pigeons.
Anyway, I received straight A’s in my Orchestration course, by the way. It was a cinch for me, and I liked the teacher, jazzman David Baker. There was nothing he could teach me, however, as every assignment that I turned in was perfect. So I guess I didn’t need that course after all. Also that first semester, I took two required Spanish courses. One was a very boring lecture class where the professor conducted the class entirely in español, and we had to read Spanish novels and plays and such. And I thought English Lit was tedious! The other was a Spanish Composition course, in which we had to write themes and answer questions in class. I liked the teacher and she seemed to like me. To illustrate my earlier point, the passive literature-lecture course, I flunked, while the active Comp course, I aced, with no trouble at all. At least this course counted toward my new degree, but there was a whole lot more undesirable crap I still had to take as well.
The next year-and-a-half, though, got progressively worse. I couldn’t keep on taking electives that didn’t count toward anything, but the shit I had to take, I hated with a passion. Anthropology, Classical Mythology, Introduction to Teaching, Nutrition, Public Speaking—it wasn’t so much the courses themselves; I chose them thinking that I could get something out of them–it was the tedious classes with the boring professors that I couldn’t abide. It got so that I wouldn’t go to any of those classes. I would sign up for the course, go a couple of times, then they wouldn’t see me for the whole rest of the term. So naturally, I either flunked everything or was given the grade of Incomplete. I took a French course also that year, which I did attend those classes and did fairly well in.
While at I.U. I did get to take my first series of voice lessons ever, first with a graduate assistant named David Martin, who didn’t know quite what to do with me and my voice, or didn’t care, so I didn’t care too much for him either. Then I later got to study for one semester (I think) with the late opera baritone Pablo Elvira, who was on the I.U. voice faculty at the time. I liked him a little better, but I don’t remember his telling me anything that I didn’t already know. That’s the thing about big universities. There are so many students, it’s virtually impossible to give each one quality individual attention. It’s not like with private tutors and hired instructors whose students pay them directly in exchange for concentrated personal instruction. Their incentive is, if they don’t get definite results or don’t teach their students something, they will lose them as clients, and thus lose the money they were getting from them. Those college professors and other instructors get paid their regular salaries even if they don’t help their students. Some of them didn’t care whether we learned anything or not.
After Pablo, I have never had another voice instructor since. That could very well be a blessing. Maybe the reason that I still have a good voice (it’s stronger and richer than ever) is because I haven’t had anybody to screw it up. Up until about 40 years ago, I never could afford voice lessons. So when I eventually could afford it, I figured that if I have gotten by successfully this long without them, why bother to start at that late date? I can’t have done something for 70 years (that is, singing) and not picked up a few pointers about it. Considering the success that I’ve had with my voice all these years, the durability and flexibility that I have maintained, the many compliments I have received and the pleasure I have given so many people over the years, I must be doing something right.
The college held a campus-wide vocal competition every year called the “I.U. Sing,” and my first year there I entered the contest on behalf of Lowe House, my dorm. Ten of us as a group qualified in the Men’s Choral Division and won, beating out Beta Theta Pi fraternity, who had won the three previous years. Our set consisted of three songs, including “There Is Nothing Like a Dame” from South Pacific. Leo and I both went up to accept the award, our being the co-directors of the group. We were given a trophy but didn’t retain it. We had to share it with the whole dorm, so it was put into the House’s trophy case. I entered the competition the next year, too, but with a mixed chorus this time, Lowe House teaming up with the women’s dorm next to ours. We did not win a second time, however.
One of my class assignments for my music theory course, a movement from a Clementi piano sonatina arranged for string quartet, was chosen to be performed in class. In the first two years as an oboe major, I played in the Symphonic Wind Ensemble and Varsity-Civic Band. I even played recorder with an early music group called Collegium Musicum. All three ensembles gave concerts on campus as well as occasional out-of-town engagements. For a full account of my stint with the Singing Hoosiers, read my blog entitled, On the Road with Cliff.
(# I am a worm…a lowly, slimy, scummy worm…to the men of Phi Mu Alpha. #)
I pledged two fraternities while I was at I.U. I became a member of the Gamma Tau Chapter of Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia music fraternity in my junior year. There was a five-month pledge period, and I was initiated in March. The club operated out of the Music School. Each pledge was assigned a “pledge father,” who served as our guidance counselor and who prepared us for initiation. The other active members would amuse themselves by playfully harassing the pledges and trying to humiliate us in public. We would be called upon to sing “The Worm Song” (above), if there were enough bystanders present, or one of the guys would have us strike a match and recite the Greek alphabet before the flame reached our fingers.
There was this exchange, referred to as “the Time Speech,” which I, personally, enjoyed doing, being the alliteration aficionado that I am. “Hey, Pledge, what time is it?” one of the actives would ask one of us. ‘Dear Sir, I am deeply burned and mortified by the fires of unhallowed shame, but the circumstances are such that the tremulous tintinnabulations that temper the time-telling tones of my tinny timepiece render it errant, Sir. However, to estimate as nearly as possible to that divine computation given to us by the United States Astronomers, through baffling methods and procedures which are far above my mental powers, Sir, I would approximate the time to be thirty-two ticks and twenty-three tocks past the hour of 5, Sir!’ You see, I haven’t forgotten it. I have no idea who created that, but I love it.
Since we were all music students, the pledges were required to perform in a group recital as part of our initiation, and we participated in “Hell Night,” which was actually a party held for the actives, which allowed them to play harmless pranks on us pledges. We were sent on a scavenger hunt as one of the evening’s activities. I don’t remember the outcome of it, but I do remember one challenging item on my list that I managed to procure without much difficulty. Now where would I find a birth control pill?! I must have gone back to my rooming house to locate some of the other items when whom should I encounter but one of my housemates, Paul Cheifetz, and his girlfriend Nella Hunkins (both cello students), there for a night of lovemaking. Well, it won’t hurt to ask. ‘Nella, do you by any chance have a birth control pill in your possession?’ After explaining why I wanted it, she surprised me with, “Yes, I do, Cliff, and you certainly can borrow it.” I think that I was the only pledge to submit one for the hunt.
We didn’t get into the serious hazing like some of the social fraternities engage in, with excessive drinking and sophomoric, sometimes dangerous, pranks. We were too sophisticated to indulge in such irresponsible shenanigans. During my freshman year, however, I did participate in a silly, campus panty raid with the guys from my dorm. One night we all stormed the women’s dormitories, and as we could not enter the high-rise buildings for hands-on confiscation, the girls actually threw down their panties and other undergarments out the windows to us!
The Sinfonians’ idea of hazing was making us take a difficult music quiz. Even if I could remember it, I wouldn’t reveal the proceedings of the initiation ritual, because it’s supposed to remain shrouded in secrecy. (Ooh!)
During my last year at I.U. I was invited, by my roommate and friend of the previous summer, to pledge Phi Epsilon Pi social fraternity (the one to which Leonard Bernstein belonged), but I left school before I could be initiated. I suppose that they wanted to “diversify,” and I proved to be an acceptable candidate. I never moved into their fraternity house, but I used to eat dinner there (it was free!) with the frat brothers (all white) most every night. They all seemed to like me and treated me respectfully.
In addition to my academic woes, I was struggling financially all the while. All the college jobs that I had paid only minimum wage, and everything I earned went to rent and food. Actually, there were many days when I didn’t even have money to eat. When I moved out of the dorm, I was on my own, as far as meals were concerned. Fortunately, there was a lovely diner on campus whose owners, the Tapp family, bless their hearts, would let me eat there on credit whenever I wanted to, and I would always reimburse them when I got my paycheck.
Also, while I was working my various restaurant jobs, I got to eat for free, so that helped. Well, in the case of the Tudor Room, the servers were not supposed to partake of any of the food there. But do you think that I would be around all that good food every day and as hungry as I was, I wouldn’t get any of it? Hah! Think again! If the diners get theirs, I’m certainly going to get mine! The cooks there liked me and were generous with the leftovers and sendbacks.
Do you want to know from poor? Let me tell you what my net income was for the entire year of 1968. $310.26! I kid you not. To this day, I still don’t know how I managed that. The whole time I was at I.U., from 1965-69, my total net earnings was only $3,455.59. My parents were no help to me whatsoever. My mother didn’t have anything to give me. She was as bad off as I was. But my father could have done more than he did. He was gainfully employed with a decent salary. Besides, it was his idea for me to go to college in the first place. I naturally, though foolishly, assumed that he was going to help me financially. I don’t remember his sending me a cent the whole time I was there. Then he reneged on my would-be graduation present, which was to be a car.
Looking back, I pride myself on having made my way financially ever since I left home and have been on my own. I paid my way through college, I moved and then settled in New York, have maintained an apartment alone for 51 years (in midtown Manhattan, no less!), and produced a commercial solo record album all by myself, without taking a penny from anyone, and not breaking the law either. And all this without having a regular 9-to-5 job. I don’t mean to brag, I am just amazed that I was able to do all that.
I was outed in the dorm the first week I was at Indiana. Our classes had not even begun yet. We were still having Orientation and getting settled in. Wright Quad was an all-male student housing facility on campus that was divided into 16 connected units, or Houses. Leo and I were assigned to Lowe House, but we had already made several friends during Pre-registration with other music students, who lived in the adjacent Elliott House.
After one of our evening powwows that first week at Wright, one of the non-music students, named Bill S., invited me back to his room, having been flirting with me all evening. His roommate was not there, so we were there alone when Bill took off his clothes, turned out the lights in the room and got into bed. So following his lead, I slipped into bed beside him. “Hey, man, what are you doing? I don’t play that shit!” Well, excuse me! So, why did you ask me here? To watch you sleep? In the dark?!
I found out later from Leo that Bill had blabbed to everybody on the floor about me, which prompted the gang to hold a “town meeting” to decide what to do about this faggot in their midst. But apparently, my charm and wit had already won them all over (I had already earned the epithet “Tifford Clownsend”), and no one wanted to see my reputation besmirched. So they let the whole thing drop, and nobody treated me any differently the whole rest of the time I was there. So fairness, tolerance and acceptance won out over paranoid homophobia. And then, too, of course I was not the only queer in the dorm or even on that committee, for that matter, therefore most of them didn’t have the right to judge me anyway. If they had given me the business, I would have pulled a “Harper Valley PTA” on their butts and read them all royally.
So college life at I.U. created an atmosphere of homo-tolerant existence. There was a rather large and quite openly-gay contingent on campus. It was quite easy for us to find each other. The Commons was the snack area and meeting place in the Student Union Building where one could always find the gay boys socializing over in the alcove by the jukebox. We could scream and camp to our hearts’ content and no one ever gave us a hard time about it.
There were even occasional publicized and sanctioned dances for gays held on campus. This was the years 1965-69, the few years prior to the Stonewall Riots in NYC. So when people tell me that that is when Gay Liberation really began, I beg to differ with them, since I and others had had it up to nine years prior. Of course, I made many friends, temporary as well as lifelong, at college, but I won’t give you a complete rundown of everybody. I will cite only a few who made significant impressions on me.
My “sisters” and I used to play a little outing game on campus and off, only we called it “wrecking” in those days. It was when one or more of us would attempt to reveal the homosexuality of another one of us, without his consent, to some unsuspecting straight person(s). We all gave ourselves and each other feminine monikers, or “drag names,” by which we referred to each other in private, but would sometimes call each other by these names in mixed public. The degree of embarrassment that we displayed would determine if we were sufficiently wrecked or not. “Ooh, Shasta (aka Dennis Gillom), she wrecked you!” It wasn’t easy to wreck me, because even then I didn’t care all that much who knew about me. After all, I had already been put through the proverbial wringer that first week. So what can they do to me now?
One of the guys at school did make a grand attempt once, though. We were all out at a Fourth of July fireworks display one summer that was being held at one of the campus stadiums. When it was over and we were in the process of leaving the field, this announcement resounded over the loudspeakers: “Will Miss Cliftina Townsend please report to the Information Counter!” My friends all expected me to be quite wrecked, but I was actually flattered that someone would go to all that trouble, and honored to hear my name paged like that. Nice try, “Teresa” (Terry Jackson), but thanks, anyway.
It has occurred to me that I actually was wrecked once, and by my own mother, no less! I was at home in South Bend. It must have been summer break during my college years. Mother and I were being playful that day, joking around and teasing each other. My friend Charles Bryant was there with me. As we were leaving the house at some point, my mother said, “See you later, Clifftina!” What?! Talk about wrecked! This was years before I officially came out to her. How did she even know my private drag name? I was first dubbed thusly by Phil Sneed. Although I never asked Mama where she got it from, I surmised that she must have been snooping in my room at home and found some correspondence from Phil where he referred to me by that name.
Back to school… If we inadvertently gave ourselves away or let someone know our story by our own actions, that was called “spilling [one’s] beads.” ‘Girls, did you hear about Doris (David) Fairfield spilling her beads to her parents when they came to visit?’ If someone made a gesture or said something that might be construed as gay, we would admonish him with, ‘Pick ’em up!’ referring to the beads he just spilled on the floor, or ‘Butch it up, Mary!’ A really gorgeous guy was said to be “out-of-the-night,” sort of equivalent to today’s “to-die-for.” ‘Amy (Mark Eakins), did you see that hunk that just passed through here?’ “‘I sure did. He’s your much out-of-the-night!”
There was one guy in our circle for a while named Dale Schneck, who we all thought looked like a frog…really. He was short and squat, had pop eyes and walked sort of slewfootedly. So the fellows called him “Toadweena,” but always behind his back, never to his face. You know how youths are always so sensitive of other people’s feelings, right? I never liked him too much, though. Besides being so unattractive, which I would not ordinarily hold against anyone, he was rather insolent with people and often ill-tempered. I entered the Commons one day and joined the gang (all white this time) at our regular niche. Upon seeing me approach, Dale piped up with, “Well, if it isn’t Black Bart!” So the bitch is racist as well! At least for me, being called black was not considered a favorable term in those days. There was some nervous titter from the others, but like Bugs Bunny who also “will not let that action go unchallenged,” I sat down at the table, greeted them, then said directly to Dale, ‘And how are you this afternoon, Toadweena?’ There was less titter this time as they were shocked that I would actually call him by his secret nickname right to his face. He was wrecked. I’ll teach that ugly queen not to get tacky with me! Homey don’t play that! The lesson that I hoped he learned is that if you call people names, realize that they may have epithets for you, too, however unflattering. That was the last time Dale ever disrespected me, at least to my person.
I liked Armand Goldstein from the moment I met him. We were at a pledge party for Phi Mu Alpha, when he introduced himself to me. You see, Armand had a slight stuttering problem. “My name is Armand G-G-Goldstein…with one G.” I thought, This is my kind of guy—cute, with a sense of humor and who can poke fun at himself. We became instant friends and spent a lot of time together, but we never made it in the sack. I never knew if he was gay or not. Armand was a trumpet major from Atlanta, and we were both Burt Bacharach fans. We have been out of touch all these years, but I believe he is still living in Georgia.
Matt Humenick and I became best friends at I.U. and remained close during the following years. He was originally from Hammond, Ind. and after much moving around the country and losing two lovers to AIDS, Matt finally settled in Denver, where he worked as a waiter in a fancy hotel, and where he used to be the chef. He eventually retired, spending his leisure time traveling a lot. He owned the house that he lived in alone. Matt was the one of our group who had his own car, and we went on regular outings together. We would visit the limestone quarries in the area, which were supposed to be off-limits to the general public, but we didn’t care about shit like that.
There was a freshwater pool there, but I never went in swimming. We once found an old, abandoned house in the area which was purported to be haunted, and we actually went inside one night to explore. I don’t know if it really was haunted, but we did hear some strange sounds (footsteps and audible moans) emanating from somewhere within while we were there. Of course, somebody could have been hiding out there and just wanted to scare us away. It worked. Well, at least the others were scared. I’m not as easily spooked. Matt died a few years ago, I don’t know of what.
I discovered the real, gay social scene when I moved off-campus. The Hideaway was a late-hour nightspot just one block from where I lived for a year, but still close to my other rooming houses as well. It was sort of a dive, really. It was not a full-scale restaurant; they served only basic fare: burgers, junk food snacks and soft drinks. There was a row of pinball machines along the back wall. That was it, as far as recreation. There was a jukebox, but no floor space for any dancing. Instead, there were loads of booths and tables to sit at, and the boys took over the place nightly. We mostly came there to play games (Cards, Categories, Jotto, The Truth Game, et al.), to camp and socialize, and even to study occasionally. I was there practically every night until closing (about 0200).
The proprietor of The Hideaway was an unattractive, redneck stoney named Roy Deckard, who was not too pleased that his establishment had turned into a “faggot hangout.” But we were the ones keeping him in business, so he begrudgingly tolerated us for years. He did eventually get rid of us by closing this place down and reopening another joint farther into town away from the campus. But the new place didn’t fare too well, due to the loss of our faithful patronage, I’m sure, and I believe he finally had to close down soon after for good.
Incidentally, the term “stoney” was used to refer to any of the native residents of Monroe County, where Bloomington is located, and surrounding environs. I suspect that the epithet was inspired by the aforementioned limestone quarries that employed many of the residents as stonecutters at one time or another. The name was not used derogatorily, at least not by me. It was just our way of distinguishing the town residents from college personnel, students and employees who were not of local origin. You may recall that in the film Breaking Away (1979), which is set in Bloomington, the term was changed to “cutter,” for reasons unknown to me.
There is a scene filmed at the very quarry that I alluded to earlier. The screenwriter, the late Steve Tesich, was a native Bloomingtonian himself. Other famous stoneys are concert violinist Joshua Bell and rocker John Cougar Mellencamp. Since I.U. employs many Bloomingtonians, it is an open campus with no guards, gates, locked fences or anything around it. So anybody can visit the campus and come and go as they please; you don’t have to be an enrolled student. The local residents are free to patronize the Commons along with the students, no passes required.
Our alternative hangout, only a block-and-a-half away from The Hideaway, was a big, two-story private house in town near campus, rented by graduate music student Robert Ingram. This was our main Party House for the three years until I left. Bob’s Place became so well-known in the local gay circle that he was for awhile listed in the Damron (gay) Guide! Any night of the week, after we would get kicked out of The Hideaway, we’d then go over to Ingram’s and resume our partying. He was always open and willing to entertain. Even if Bob was not at home, the guys would let themselves into the house anyway and start a party. There were always frivolity, music and dancing, drugs, drinking and sex (orgies, even) going on there. We were a real party crowd in those days. There were several others in our clique that had their own houses, including John “Felice” Hartley (who still lives there) and Carlton Higginbotham. So we partied and orgied at their places, too, not just at Bob’s all the time. You could always tell where a gay party was being held, because you would usually hear the Supremes records playing within.
After leaving Bob’s and oftentimes with the munchies, those with cars would then run us all out to The Big Wheel, a 24-hour eatery (similar to Denny’s) on the edge of town, for a late snack and more camp and silliness. The servers there always treated us with respect and non-attitude. On weekends, the place to get away to was Indianapolis, which is 40 miles northeast of Bloomington, and visit Betty Kay’s and Darlo’s, two dyke-run gay bars that featured weekend drag shows. As we had a few of our own resident drag queens in our group, they sometimes provided the entertainment at our local house parties. I eventually grew out of all that sissy camping that we used to do when I was young, but it was great fun at the time. Of course, I haven’t given it up completely; it’s just now reserved only for certain friends and special occasions, and I do use it in my writings; I can’t resist.
I lived in the dorm for the first three semesters, but soon felt that I needed to get away from all the constant “borassing” (student shenanigans and horsing around) and try it alone for a while. So I moved off-campus halfway through my sophomore year, where I stayed in an assortment of student rooming houses for the rest of my time in Bloomington. Even then, I was keeping late hours every night. So it occurred to me, why should I get up early, walk over to the campus to some class where I was going to sleep through anyway? I might as well stay at home and sleep. And nobody cared! My professors certainly didn’t care if I came to class or not. They never said anything to me about it.
So I didn’t care either. I was so discouraged by the end of that third year that I decided to hang up my jock. But a counselor talked me into coming back the next year and giving it another try. But that last year was more of the same. Nothing got any better, but I stuck it out until the end of the school term. Although I had finished all my music requirements for my degree, I still needed 40 hours of other stuff, courses which I had no intention or desire to take. Well, that’s it for me. I’m outta here! I give-a da up!
So I didn’t graduate from college either. But again, I got to play in the orchestra at what would have been my own Commencement exercises. (Always a bridesmaid, never the bride!) After all is said and done, though, I don’t even regret not finishing college. One’s purpose for going is presumably to earn some type of degree, which is presumably required to secure a good, high-paying job when you get out. Although people’s degree credentials do influence some prospective employers’ hiring practices, the bottom line is ultimately, can this person do the job for which they are being hired? If they can’t cut it, the boss won’t care how many degrees they have.
A college degree is no indication or guarantee of a person’s particular knowledge or ability. I know people with several degrees, who don’t even know how to program their DVR! Have you heard of the expression “educated fool”? Even now, I have friends and musical colleagues with Masters degrees who often call me to ask music-related questions and want help and advice about how to do certain things. Although I always know the answer (that’s why they ask me, because they know that I know), I ironically and sarcastically tell them, ‘Wipe your assking me for? Cow shit I know?! I’m just a dropout. You’re the one with all the music degrees.’
During all these 54 years of my professional life, I have not once been asked to produce a college diploma for any job–not even when I applied to do substitute teaching–and I am doing exactly what I want to do. As long as I can do what’s required, what does a piece of paper prove? I know my shit and I can back it up with competent application. College turned out to be a big waste of time and money, in some respects. I didn’t learn very much in college, academically speaking. I suppose I might have, had I gone to those missed classes. The reason I did so well in my music courses is because I already knew most of the material, having learned it while in high school. I built up my extensive repertoire of music literature via my record collection and by regularly making use of the public library in South Bend. I have learned more before I went and since I left I.U. then I ever did while I was there.
Since I left school, in my travels I have performed on many college campuses. And by talking with many students over the years, my opinion about the merits of a so-called college education has not changed too much. I would ask these kids, ‘So, what do you want to be when you grow up?’ From 9 out of 10 I would get the answer of “I don’t know.” “I am an Economics major.” ‘What do you plan on doing with that?’ “I don’t know.” Even nowadays when I encounter college grads and ask them that same question, I get the same answer. And practically everybody I meet who has been to college, with degrees and everything, ends up doing something totally different from what they went to college for.
What do the following people have in common: Don Ameche, Andrea Bocelli, Gerard Butler, Cab Calloway, Fidel Castro, Dane Clark, Bill Clinton, Dabney Coleman, Howard Cosell, Bing Crosby, Tom Ewell, Mohandas Gandhi, Vittorio Gassman, Leo Genn, John Grisham, Oscar Hammerstein II, Hill Harper, Sunny Hostin, Star Jones, David E. Kelley, Gene Kelly, John Kerr, Nelson Mandela, Edgar Lee Masters, Henri Matisse, Armistead Maupin, Matthew McConaughey, Clarence Muse, Barack Obama, David Otunga, Estelle Parsons, Cole Porter, Geraldo Rivera, Paul Robeson, Chuck Shuler, Ben Stein, Robert Louis Stevenson, Josh Taylor, Peter Tchaikovsky, Iyanla Vanzant, Bjorn Ulvaeus (of ABBA), Lew Wallace, John Wayne, Billy Wilder and Bob Woodruff? They all studied and/or briefly practiced law before entering show business and other fields. So they spent all that time and money being lawyers and ended up being performers, politicians and writers instead, for example.
I realize that it is common for people to change their minds about their careers. This is my advice for those youngsters right out of high school, who may not know yet what the hell they want to do with their lives. Why don’t they find out first what they want to do and then go seek the appropriate training for the career that they eventually decide upon? I know of many adults who have done just that. They are still going to school well into their 30s and 40s. Why spend all that money to get that degree that you may not even need to do what you end up doing. I knew that music and performing is what I would be doing with my life, and that is what I meant exclusively to specialize in college, even though they tried to steer me in other directions.
The media and society have sort of brainwashed the public with their marketing propaganda. They help parents to impress upon their children that a college education is, oh, so imperative, and that they will never amount to anything in life if they don’t get a degree. And many kids believe that, until they actually go to college and find out how things really are. Then they find out that their earning a degree is no guarantee of a good job or career opportunity. There are perpetually-unemployed college graduates, just as there are those who never attended at all with lucrative careers. The term “college education” is not mutually exclusive, necessarily. Just because one is attending college, it doesn’t mean that they are receiving an education. Some go in and don’t know any more years later when they get out.
What about those genius child prodigies who get through regular school at an early age and then go on to college? If they are that smart, what do they need college for? That’s supposed to be for higher learning, but if they know so much already, what do they expect to be taught with the extra schooling? That notion could actually apply to the rest of us as well. With virtually all human knowledge available to us via books and the World Wide Web, I don’t know why everyone could not educate themselves. If you want to be a lawyer, for instance, just read the required texts. If you can successfully pass the bar exam, which is the ultimate requirement, then why spend all that time and money to attend law school?
The cable TV series “Suits” is based on that very premise. “Mike” is a young man who manages to get hired by a major Manhattan law firm to practice law, although he never went to law school. Mike is very smart and learned all what he needed to know to pass the bar exam. The law partner who hired him kept it a secret from everyone at the firm, but one by one over the course of the series the other characters discovered that Mike did not attend Harvard like the rest of them did. When an ambitious D.A. gets wind of Mike’s deception, she charges him with fraud, calling him a criminal and wants to send him to prison. I don’t understand the objection. What crime has he committed? Mike has not harmed or killed anybody. The law partners accept him because they like him and he is good at his job. So if none of his colleagues have accused him of anything, why is it anybody else’s concern?
I thought that one has to press charges against somebody for law enforcement to get involved. Like when a man beats up on his wife, if she doesn’t report it and press charges, the cops won’t do anything. It must be okay then to abuse your wife and children, if they don’t complain about it. How does that prosecutor on the show even have a case? That would be like somebody telling me that I could not work as a professional musician just because I did not attend Juilliard. If I know what I need to know to do the job I am hired for, what difference should it make where or whether or not I went to a prestigious music school? I told you that I know certain ones with all kinds of degrees and credentials but are far less competent than I am with no degree.
Basically what a teacher does, or should do anyway, is inspire their students to want to learn. But if the kid has no desire to learn, there is nothing that the teacher can do about that. It has to be a person’s own ambition. We all need to take responsibility for our actions and the choices we make in life. Nobody had to force me to read or write or anything. I know how to do what I can do because I wanted to know how to do them.
College has some redeeming values, however. For me, it was my first time away from home, and it gave me a chance to learn how to fend for myself. I got to enjoy a fun social life and artistic outlet. I just wish all the rest of it had been a pleasant and beneficial experience. But I accept that all aspects of my life have their ups and downs. In my opinion, attending college seems like an awful waste of money for just to have a little freedom, a good time and to indulge one‘s self-expression, things which can be accomplished in simpler ways and much cheaply besides.
It’s the summer of 1969, I’m all finished with school, but I don’t want to leave Bloomington just yet to go back to South Bend. In addition, a cute fraternity brother of mine asked me to be his roommate for the summer, so I stayed. That was a real historical summer, too. We were in the midst of the hippie movement, “flower children” and free love. In fact, that year is still sometimes referred to as the “Summer of Love.” There were the Woodstock Music Festival, the Harlem Cultural Festival, the death of Judy Garland, which some believe was the catalyst for the revolutionary Stonewall Uprising in NYC, the infamous Charles Manson murders in Los Angeles, the Mary Jo Kopechne death cover-up in Chappaquiddick, Mass. involving Ted Kennedy, and the Apollo 11 astronauts (allegedly) walked on the moon for the first time.
Also that year Richard Nixon took Presidential office (I did not vote for him), Golda Meir became Prime Minister of Israel, and the Beatles officially broke up. (How dare they!) On December 17, Tiny Tim married Victoria May Budinger (or “Miss Vicki,” as he called her) on “The Tonight Show.” Bob Hope later reported in one of his TV standup routines that Tiny Tim and Miss Vicki were expecting a baby. He said that the couple were planning to name the child after both of them: “Vic-Tim.” (::rim shot::)
[Chronologically, the next installment is My Combatless Tour-of-Duty]