Part One: A boy among men by L.E. Taylor
THE FIRST GLIMPSE Danny got of Western Michigan College was through the rolled down window of a yellow taxi he’d hired at the ancient stone railroad depot (ca.1864). The cabbie had immediately launched into a monologue about the loose ways and easy virtue of coeds. The lout knew all about it, he snortled – wild parties, washtubs of iced gin and rum and fruit juice, and…
Danny tuned out a creepy porn narrative, and concentrated on the quaint parks and churches of downtown Kalamazoo. The kid spoke only once, “How long before we get to the campus?”
In a few minutes, the cab turned off Oakland Avenue and, in second gear, began to climb a winding tree lined lane. At the top of the hill they passed between a brief succession of stately ivy clad halls. At the end of the short cul-de-sac the cabbie slowed and made a U-turn in front of a massive Greek-revival edifice. “That there’s the lye-barry,” he muttered.
The cab slowed to a halt before a bland two story structure designated Health Services Building. Danny paid the fellow and got out. He took a breath and strode up the walk, callow and empty-handed, to his fate.
Danny had been an indifferent high school student. His interests were narrowed to but a few. He was a natural draftsman and self-taught painter, so a major in art was appealing. A couple of years ago, at fifteen, the lad had discovered literature and history; then, apace, some aptitude for prose writing was kindled. Finally, he loved baseball: the meticulous crafting of skills the game demanded, the romance of its history, and the democracy of its solitary challenge on the field, a member of a team but alone.
Academic strengths suitable to each of the lad’s appetites were ascendant at this modest college tucked away in this modest town a long morning train ride from any big city. And Danny very nearly didn’t make it. Only a last minute call from his high school principal snagged him one chance – a longshot. Travel to the campus, now, in mid-August and endure a daylong college entrance exam. Whatever this place would proffer, it would certainly pose an antidote to a mind going fallow in the intellectual torpor of late adolescence.
His father had dropped him at the curb in front of Michigan Central Terminal twenty minutes before departure of the westbound ‘Chicago Limited’. He fidgeted and worried all the way past the whistle stops –
Ypsilanti… Ann Arbor… Battle Creek. The necktie was tight on this warm morning, and the polished shoes mocked him for the pretense they implied.
At a desk in the Health Services lobby, a dour matron searched her log and checked off Danny’s name. She said follow me.
A 24-page College Aptitude exam in one hand and a bouquet of sharpened yellow pencils in the other, Danny entered the bare testing room. A half-wall of hardwood paneling ended waist high and was continued in clear glass from ledge to ceiling. An ominous clock was the only accoutrement on the blank back wall. The woman closed the windowed door with a gentle, though decisive, click. (Had she locked it or was that his imagination?)
He would have three hours to finish. The woman said she would be back in two.
Danny sat at the oaken table on a hard slatted straight-back chair. He opened to Page One and dove in. He found himself calmly focused, energized, and viscerally engaged in the challenge of this self-audit. He was oddly at peace with the moment. Like stepping into a batter’s box to lead off a new game against a big, strong pitcher he’d never faced before. Danny didn’t know anything about testosterone, but he recognized that thrill he’d known on the playing field and in peril on the city streets and playgrounds. It concentrated his mind.
He arrived at page three of the booklet in only a few minutes (a single into left field). Hmm, he thought, this test isn’t so bad. He knew more than he knew.
Nearly half way through the booklet, Danny glanced up at the wall clock. Only fifty-five minutes had passed. He removed his jacket and loosened the knit tie. When the matron returned at the end of hour number two, Danny said he was almost done. She peered doubtfully over rimless spectacles and replied, “Check all your answers twice and come down to my desk.” The door was not locked.
* * *
THE COLLEGE HAD two campuses. This one, charmingly nestled at the top of a forested hill was the “Old Campus.” After The War many colleges doubled in size to handle returning veterans. The New Campus was a complex of male and female dormitories, multi-story classroom and administrative facilities, a tall glass-faced music building, and a serene non-sectarian chapel. The architecture was utilitarian, brick and glass boxes in the 1950’s style. There had been no time yet for new trees to rival those of the Old Campus.
While authorities scrutinized Danny’s test booklet in some Health Services sanctum, he set off to investigate both campuses. Walking was in his Scots Irish genes so the trudge downhill and across a great field to the New Campus one mile distant was a pleasure. On the lower level of the Administration Building, he discovered the College Book Store. Tee shirts, book binders, caps, all with the big gold “W”, shouted out to him: college! Oh Lord, no, he breathed; do I really want this? Am I up to it? For four years? Why?
In the course of the next ten months, his answers found him. The first answers were all yes. But, why? Because here was the fresh exciting new world he’d hungered for without knowing it.
Danny passed the entrance exam with a high score and arrived in September of 1953 with his tuition check for $190.00, a suitcase of sweaters and khaki pants, and his baseball glove and spikes.
The fall semester was packed with literature, composition, and history. Instruction by good teachers was inspired and inspiring. Christmas break was spent at home writing term papers, studying for mid-term exams, and reading from the extra-credit lists.
Back on campus for the second semester, Danny found a quiet winter’s refuge in that massive antique Library on the Old Campus. He discovered a couple of overstuffed maroon leather chairs placed before a fireless hearth in the building’s great hall. At least one chair was always unoccupied. He read… snoozed… read some more. And he thought.
Veterans of two wars were everywhere among the student body. Older than Danny by up to a decade, they projected a confident worldliness. They showed an appreciation for studies that came with having seen violent death and the coarse sinfulness of men – and having escaped the grasp of at least one of these. They smoked cigarettes and drank beer off campus. And they studied earnestly.
To pal around with guys who’d been dogfaces under fire was an unexpected gift. He’d known a few vets during summer work back home, but those louts were more like the cab driver from the train station last August. These fellows were more like Danny, eager to learn, and ready to frisk like colts, but they were men. They had an experienced perspective that showed. Danny enjoyed them and soaked it up.
Most veterans were enrolled in pre-professional studies – med, biz, education. Still in their twenties, they’d escaped with their lives, but at the cost of their youth. The older survivors had come home to jobs and pre-war careers left hanging. Some of these older freshmen were married. That showed, too.
One day Danny went downtown and bought a pipe and a pouch of tobacco. A couple of cold nights later, he strolled up to the Old Campus. In the shadows next to the Library, he packed the fat bole of his new toy, clamped down on the stem, and struck a match. Puff, puff, inhale. Cough, puff. A breath of frigid wind caught the sweet fruity smoke, played with it, and blew it back into Danny’s face. Delicious. Danny walked the Old Campus sidewalks in thought, puffing robustly and feeling manly. The dizziness crept in slowly and unexpected; in the shrubs on the majestic old library’s dark side, his dinner came up. Also unexpected.
Two semesters of Elementary Design, Art History, World History, Rhetoric, Composition, Comparative Arts, and ROTC drills jostled for a new home in his young brain. Danny approached the end of the school year changed. Though his worldview was still far from seasoned, his sensibilities had been seduced. He put away his mitt and spikes carefully. And his pipe. The idea of a long summer of idleness or grunt-work seemed unthinkable.
He looked over the academic requirements for the coming sophomore year and decided a six week stint in summer session would be a smart move. And maybe fun.
Little did he know.