Another Year and More Reflection–But Anyway, Happy Pride 2014, Houston!

 

OK, so even out here in the suburbs, we can show our pride.

OK, so even out here in the suburbs, we can show our pride.

It’s that time of year again–LGBT pride month.  Really, it’s all about the parade, which is going to happen today in Houston–8:15 down on what we used to call lower Westheimer (well, maybe lower Westheimer is really beyond Montrose Avenue).  The festival is today also and starts at 11:00 AM.  Get any info about these events and all other Houston Pride activities here.)

I seem to always get reflective this time of year.  It’s hard not to.  It’s the 45th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots in New York City, which in a way was the start of the concept of “Gay Pride” and the point (at least in the U.S.) in time when some gay people decided to “stop taking shit” from the cops and others for just being who they were.

I only know about this from reading about it a number of years later.  At the time, I had just finished my sophomore year at Fort Hays State University out in western Kansas and had a summer job working for the Union Pacific Railroad (other posts about that here).  I might have heard something about Stonewall on the TV news, but if I did it just got mixed together with all the anti-Vietnam War protests that were happening in other places in the country, and were a rarity (I do remember at least a couple that happened near campus) in rural areas.  In fact, for me, at that time, isolated as I was, I had no idea about me, or anyone else, being gay; it was a totally unknown concept. (But all of that has to be left for another post.)

I attended my first gay pride after I had returned to college.  Some friends and I from Kansas State University drove to Kansas City and marched in the parade there.  I say “marched” but groups were not all that organized, so it was more like we “snaked” through the downtown streets of KCMO.  The year was either 1979 or 1980, but my memory leans toward the earlier year.

I’m pretty sure that the first pride parade that I attended in Houston was in 1984.  I’ve missed some–but not very many along the way.  After moving out to the suburbs, it’s always a decision whether it’s worth the drive back into the city and the struggle to find a parking place.  However, that decision has already been made.  And like last year, I’m picking up a friend and we’ll go down to Montrose to enjoy the pre-parade people-watching and then the actual event itself.

There is something new though this year: lawn chairs.  It’s time.  It is just too much to go early to find a not-too-far-in-the-boondocks parking place, walk to find a good spot on the parade route, and stand waiting and then stand watching.  So into the car trunk the folding chairs will go.

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VW Bug–College Life: The Selective Service and Student Teaching (Chapter Five in the VW Bug Chronicles)

draft-lotterySometime during my junior year in college (69-70), many of us guys sat nervously around the radio, waiting to hear what our draft number would be. I’m not sure how the Selective Service had determined the order of eligible young men to be called up for military service prior to that time, but at the end of the 60s, a lottery system was put into place, and the order a date of birth was pulled from the jar determined how high or how low a guy’s chances of being called up would be. Therefore, if you had a low lottery number (under a 100 at least), your chances of being drafted were very high. If your number was larger, say in the 300s, your chances of not being drafted would much better.

There were other factors involved also. Each county had its own draft board, which received a quota for the number of young men that it was required to send (probably based on the population of the county), and a guy’s lottery number within that smaller county pool might also determine whether he would be called up or not.

I don’t recall anyone in my group of friends or even others on the Fort Hays campus that were very “gung ho” about going, but if someone had a low number, he was surely resigned to his fate of either being drafted or enlisting. There were a few anti-war protests and counter-protests on campus; however, in reality, there were more students who chose to be onlookers, rather than participants for either side.

By this time, the Vietnam War had been going on with U.S. involvement for more than seven years. Everyone had seen a lot of the fighting and other images of the war on TV. (Here we are forty-some years later, and what we can see is that there was a lot more openness in what was shown of the war then, than is shown of what is happening in Iraq in this war. Every day the names of the soldiers who were killed and where they were from could be found in the newspaper. (These days unless it’s some local soldier who has been killed, the rest of the country has no idea whose life has been sacrificed. And everyone–both those for and those against the war– knew there was a sacrifice in fighting a war–something the Bush government has always seemed to want to hide from the American people.) Many of us had brothers who had already gone off to the military, and, very likely, to Vietnam. If not brothers, at least, we new of other relatives or local guys who had been called to service.

So, for a those of us guys there at Fort Hays and other schools across the country, getting our draft number in those days was part of college life, and, of course, the lower the number, the more heavily it probably weighed on one’s mind.

Even before the lottery, the draft system was something involved in our lives, because if you were in college, you had to get a deferment from your local draft board. When you turned 18, you had to sign up with the draft board, and if you weren’t in school, you were eligible to be called up. That meant college guys had to have a deferment, in order not to be drafted, but it also meant that you had to maintain passing grades and be taking a full college course load. The deferment was only temporary, though. When you graduated, you could be called up right away. Consequently, while you were still in school, what was going to happen to you afterwards, especially in respect to going into the military, was never far from your mind.

My number was 156. It was neither a good number nor a bad number. It wasn’t low enough so that the certainty of being taken was there. On the other hand, it wasn’t high enough that it was likely that I would not go. It was a middle number–a sort of “in limbo” number.

College life went on, though, that year or so, with the usual studies, parties, and vacations back home. Mixed into that life, some guys looked for alternative means, if not to avoid the draft altogether, but, perhaps to delay the inevitable. Some decided that getting married and starting a family–earlier than they might otherwise have come to that decision–was their way to hold off Uncle Sam (Think Dick Cheney). A few went into grad school in order to get an extended deferment (Think Dick Cheney again). There were others who chose to commit to the National Guard or the Reserves (Think GWB) because in those days very few guard or reserve units were called to go to Vietnam. However, in those days with so many wanting to go that route, these more local units had limit restrictions on the number of men they could take; consequently, in a lot of cases, a guy had to “know somebody” in order to get into the guards or reserves. (One thing that really irks me about the Iraq War: If the country really had been ready AND WILLING to go to war there, they should have re-instated the draft in order to have the manpower to complete that task successfully and fully maintain the military’s strength all around the world.)

At some point during my senior year, I got orders to go for my pre-induction physical. I had to go to Kansas City by bus, stay overnight, and was given my physical, lined up with hundreds of other guys, at the induction center which was in KC back then. The Selective Service made you take this physical early so that there would be no doubt about your health situation before they actually drafted you.

My final semester of college was my teaching block semester, so I spent part of it doing my student teaching at Great Bend High School. For the six weeks that I did my student teaching, I rented a basement apartment in a little old bungalow near the high school. Some people drove the approximately 50-mile drive each way from Hays every day, but I had opted not to do that. However, I drove my purple VW back to Hays to spend time catching up with my roommates every weekend, and even sometimes during the week when I had meetings or a big basketball game to watch on campus.

I had two cooperating teachers (the real teachers of the class), and for some reason, the one I worked with most, felt threatened by me. I don’t really know why. He was pretty well known among the teaching circles in that subject and had won different honors, and I was just this kid, having just turned 21, but looked even younger. Maybe that was the problem: that I wasn’t much older than most of my students. I learned a lot during that time, for the practical experience was real, and what we had studied in our “block” courses hadn’t really prepared us for the reality of the classroom. On my last day of student teaching, one class of my seniors gave me a going away present–a mini keg of beer–in class nonetheless. My cooperating teacher was just about beside himself–irate is probably more like it, but he didn’t do anything, maybe because it had happened on his watch. Or perhaps in those days, it wasn’t such a big deal. I can’t imagine anything like that happening these days, but, heck, these days they bring guns to school.

I was a bit worried about how that might affect my student teaching report because I still had to return to campus for a few weeks to finish up my courses and get my final student teaching evaluation. Despite my nervousness, the evaluations from my cooperating teachers were good, and there was no mention of the mini keg.

VW Bug and College Life on the Great Plains (Chapter 4)

I went to college in the middle of the Vietnam War years. Though I’d had my VW painted purple and maybe even had a peace sticker on the back window, I was hardly a hippie or a protester. Right at the time I started college, my brother had just come back from Vietnam and gotten out of the army, so I was personally aware of the war and its consequences, but I’d really never thought about whether I was for or against it.

I went to college in Hays (Fort Hays State) and sometimes drove the 44 miles home on the weekends. Forty-four miles seemed much further in those days, and some of the trips back to school on a Sunday night felt long, especially in the winter. The VWs of the 60s had terrible heaters, and sometimes the car never got warmed up the entire ride, and if there was snow or sleet, it would freeze on the windshield because the defroster had so little effect. I know there were times that it was so difficult to see through the windshield and through the blowing snow that it was only because the car knew its own way that we got back to Hays.

However, being light-weight and having the engine in the back, the car got really good traction. Because of that, if the streets around Hays hadn’t been plowed clean, my roommates would always get me to drive. My last year at Fort Hays, we had gone back for inter-session ( a short 2-week mini-semester) early in January, but there had been such a big blizzard that they called off classes for a few days. Of course, we had to get out of the apartment anyway. We found out that the movie theater downtown was open, so we got into the VW and headed out. With the weight of four guys in the car, we moved pretty well through the snow-filled streets, but sometimes we’d run into a drift in the road and the car would just get stuck; then, the other three would jump out of the car and push it through, jump back in and off we’d go. When we finally made it downtown, there weren’t many other cars out and the crowd inside the movie theater was a meager bunch of the most hardy of souls, or maybe the craziest. I guess we felt something like pioneers for being able to get ourselves through all that snow to watch a movie.

The student population at Fort Hays was very homogeneous in those days. The farm population of western Kansas was already dwindling, but not nearly as much as it has in more recent years. Most little towns still had their own high schools as consolidation had just barely started. Like me, the majority of the students came from small Kansas towns and from a more or less isolated existence. There were some out-of-state students and a few foreign students, but most of us came from the same rural background. The first black guy I met was at Fort Hays, but he too was from a small western Kansas town. (Nicodemus, Kansas was started by the exodusters, freed slaves from the South, who settled in western Kansas after the Civil War.) The people I went to school with were basically nice people, really good people, but I think most of us had grown up relatively naive to what was going on very far beyond our part of the state.

Even so, there were a few anti-war rallies on campus, but they were tame in comparison to most, and certainly there were no campus buildings damaged or destroyed by war protestors like happened at KU and some other campuses around the country.

There was a “head shop” that sold mostly black lights and black light posters, but drug use wasn’t that big. Like most college towns, there were a few bars and clubs that attracted students, but aside from weekends, I didn’t know that many people who drank that much. However, one of my roommate’s dorm friends was a pothead of sorts. Through him, I had my first and only experience in Hays of getting high. He had this stash–and, yes, it was truly stashed. One night four of us went out to the college farm to this pasture testing area. There were some test plots, which had fences around them in order to let the native plants grow and prevent the cows–or maybe buffalo (they had some buffalo out there too)–from eating them. We drove all over the place until we located the right plot, and the guy who had the pot stashed went and dug out this big bag of pot–I mean it was about the size of a bread sack. (I wonder how much that amount might be worth today.) He got back in the car, and we drove to another place there on the college farm, which looked out over the city. (At about 15,000 it was a city to all of us from towns of 300 or so.) He rolled some, and we proceeded to smoke it, looked at the glowing city lights, peered through the swirls on glass Pepsi bottles, and laughed a lot. I don’t know whether I got high from smoking the marijuana or just from the excitement of that new experience, but whatever, it all felt a bit dangerous but nonetheless fun.

My social life was typical of most of the “dormies”. Most of the students at Fort Hays were either dormies, lived in a frat or sorority house, or lived at home and commuted. Of course, like my roommates and I during our final year, some of the dormies eventually moved into apartments.

Looking back, the four of us probably could have been classified as nerds, but I don’t think there was such a stigma of being studious as there is today. The three of them were science majors of one kind or another and I was an English major. They studied more than I did, but we all ended up getting good grades. On the other hand, after living in the dorm for three years, we did like to have parties. About once a month, on a Saturday night, we’d throw a party, inviting everyone we knew. Of course, it was always alcohol-centered. If food was involved, there was never anything much more elaborate than some bags of chips. Sometimes, we’d have a “trashcan party”. We’d get some cans of Hi-C, pour it into a big plastic trash can, then everybody would add whatever booze they’d brought into the can. Sometimes, there would be 60 or 70 people inside our small two-bedroom apartment on Custer Drive, with the majority of them spilling out onto the balcony that ran all along the second floor. Well, maybe we weren’t such nerds (and maybe some people did drink quite a bit) after all.

Somehow I got this girlfriend, the first semester of my senior year. I had had a few dates before then, but for the most part, I was scared of girls. Don’t get me wrong; I liked girls, and always had lots of friends who were girls, starting from grade school. Dating, though, was a different matter. In college, I was pretty out-going and involved with student government and other organizations, and lots of other guys I knew were dating, and even getting married, so I guess I felt it was something I should do. I really never felt pressured to do it, for sure not from my roommates, who had less going on in that part of their social lives than I did.

Anyway, that fall, I started dating this girl, who was a year younger than I was. I guess you could say she was on the aggressive side when it came to making the moves. No doubt, she was more experienced than I was, because I had never had any kind of physical relationship with a girl up till then. She seemed to really be into me, so at the beginning I liked going out with her. She liked to come out to our apartment and get me into my shared bedroom, even with the roommates out in the living room, which sort of embarrassed me. There were two things, though, making me reluctant to go all the way: one, I just wasn’t quite as interested in doing it as she was, and second, my mom had put “the fear” in me when I was back in high school about getting a girl pregnant. So while we can say there was sometimes a lot of frenzied action, “no deal was ever completed”.

We soon “started going steady”, exchanging high school class rings and framed photographs. Then not too far down the road, she got me even to look at some engagement rings in a downtown jewelry store. I didn’t think about it at the time, but in hindsight, I realized that this girl was one of those who went to college to get an M.R.S. degree. One weekend, we drove out to meet her parents in Ulysses, where her dad was a school administrator.

Saturday of that weekend, we went around town looking at different churches because the church she and her parents attended would just not do for the wedding she was thinking about; it wasn’t big enough nor nice enough. Mind you, I had not even asked her to get married, but to her it was a foregone conclusion. Sunday morning, we all went to their church, a Baptist church. (Growing up, I went to the Methodist church in Dorrance with my family, and it was pretty low key: a lot of singing of hymns, which I liked, and listening to the boring sermons, which were mostly about how to be a good person, and probably sometimes about how people needed to give more money. When I was about 13 or 14, there were three of us who took catechism classes at the church parsonage in Wilson, taught by the grizzly old preacher that we had at that time. We had to learn Bible verses and other lessons in order to become full members of the church. I really didn’t like going because this old geezer thought that he really had to put the “fear of God” in us. He treated us like we were stupid and primarily terrified us. In the end, I did become a member of the church, but I never liked going after that.) I knew people who were Baptists when I was growing up, and they were no different than any of the rest of us Methodists, Lutherans, Catholics, or whatever. I guess maybe they weren’t supposed to dance, but I think at that time if you were really a strict Methodist, you weren’t supposed to dance either.

But this Baptist church in Ulysses was really different. The preacher was one of those “fire and brimstone” types, and he said that if you weren’t a Baptist, you were going to Hell, but you couldn’t be just any Baptist; if you weren’t a member of that particular Baptist church there in Ulysses, you were going to Hell.

Needless to say, I was beginning to feel like a runner caught between second base and third base in a squeeze play. That drive back to Hays was one that I couldn’t wait to end, and over the next few weeks, I began to distance myself. I knew I didn’t want to get married to this girl, (and somewhere in the back of my mind, I knew that I didn’t want to marry any girl), not because of what had happened during that weekend, but I knew I wasn’t in love with her.

She still had one more card to play; a couple weeks later, she called up and told me that her period was late. I didn’t do anything but worry for a couple of days, wondering how her being pregnant was biologically possible and what I would do if she were. Then finally convinced by a mutual friend, she told me that she had made it up. The one thing I wanted back was my class ring, so I went over to her dorm with her ring and picture. She still had a couple more scenes left in that little drama of hers; when I took her ring and picture back over to her dorm, she started screaming and threw my ring and framed picture down the stairwell at me, shattering the glass all over the place.

Sometime after I had graduated and was already in the Air Force, I heard that she was able to get that M.R.S. degree. Over the years, I’ve thought back on that fall of my senior year and what a miserable mistake it would have been if that relationship had gone any further.

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You may also want to read VW Bug and a Summer Job, VW Bug and a Summer Job, Chapter 2, and VW Bug and Saturday Night in a Small Town.

VW Bug and a Summer Railroad Job, Chapter One

Not Mine But Similar

Not Mine But Similar

I think most guys will remember each and every car that they have owned. I know I do. My first five cars were VW Beetles. I’m not quite sure why I got a VW Bug for my first car; maybe it was because it was during the 60s, and they were a popular symbol of the culture of the time–hippies, psychodelic images, and all that. I know it wasn’t anything about the price of gas.

I just don’t recall exactly when I got that car–somewhere around the time of my sophomore year in college. I know I didn’t have a car my first year at Fort Hays State. I had worked for my sister and her husband at their freight business the summer after graduating from high school and the next summer after my freshman year in college, and I had scholarships my first two years of college, so I had saved up some money. My dad took me over to Great Bend to Marmie Motors–I think that was the name. I don’t know how much we tried it out, but I bought this used 1963 VW for $1200 or $1300 and drove it home. I’m pretty sure the original paint was light green in color. (Because of having owned different ones, a few of the colors have blended together in my head.)

The summers after my sophomore and junior years, I worked for Union Pacific Railroad as a temporary depot agent–I’m sure the official title of the job was telegrapher or clerk or something like that. However, I never learned to use the telegraph; by that time the railroad had its own phone lines to give out train orders and other messages. I spent two months of each of those summers at the depot in Sylvan Grove, Kansas. It was close enough that I drove from my folks’ farm, and a pretty drive at that, because each day I got to pass by (in my VW) Wilson Lake two times.

The depot situation at Sylvan was an unusual one. Sylvan Grove was on the Lincoln Branch Line of the UP, which went from Salina to Plainville. Before those days, even the tiniest little town had had its own depot and depot agent, but by the 60s, the railroad had closed down a lot of the very small stations and were in the process of closing down a great many of the others. (Since then, they’ve even pulled up the tracks on quite a few of the branch lines, but with the price of gasoline, that may have been a very big mistake.) Anyway, the UP had already shut down the Sylvan station sometime during the previous year, but in doing so, they had made an agreement with the town that they would open it up for two months during the summer so that it would be open during harvest.

So for those two summers for two months, I was the Sylvan Grove depot agent. On the first day, I would go to the Lincoln Center (Lincoln, Kansas) depot, which was still a regular station at that time, pick up the key and a desk chair, which I somehow managed to squeeze into the back seat of my VW, and head the 10 or so miles over to Sylvan and open up the depot.

It was a big old musty building, the standard small town, wooden-type, painted green and white. They didn’t even turn the electricity on for those two months, but there were enough windows in the waiting room and the main office room to get pretty good light. I had to keep them opened up to get some air in, especially since June and July are hot months. About one-half of the depot building was a big freight room, which was dark and pretty dirty. It had a big sliding, barn-type door, which I could open up just to take a look around or release the built-up heat. When they had closed up the depot, they had taken everything; there was no desk, no waiting room benches, no freight carts. There was, however, the built-in telegrapher’s desk in the bay window (I know it’s not called that in depot architecture, but it’s all I can think of now) that stuck out so that you could see the tracks and the trains coming, the railroad phone, and the chair I had brought with me. There was still the telegraph, and the depot agent from Lincoln would use it sometimes–I think just to gossip on with some of the other guys who still knew how to use it–but for regular railroad communication, everyone used the phone.

Not that the phone rang much.

There was just one train that ran on that line. Every other day, it headed out from Salina and went up to Plainville. The next day it came by going the other direction. It didn’t even stop unless it was dropping off empty grain cars or picking loaded ones up. Basically, that was mostly what that train did–bring out grain cars and hoppers for all the elevators on the line and pick up the filled ones. On a rare occasion, it might have brought in a load of farm equipment for Plainville. Also there is a rock quarry at Lincoln, but even in those days, I think most of the rock was taken out of there by truck.

Every so often, the sectionmen for the entire branch–3 or 4 of them–would come through and stop. They were the ones who kept the tracks and railbed up on this line. They would come in and hang around for awhile–kind of smelly guys, from working out there in the sun and heat. They had this little electric car they’d ride up on, and I’d have to let them know if the train was coming so that could move their car onto a side track if it was.

If the elevator had filled wheat cars to be picked up, the elevator guys told me, and I made up the bill of lading, recorded the seal number, and went and put the seal on the car. Then when the train came, I’d give the bills to the trainmen. They never picked up more than a few cars in Sylvan–maybe like 5 or 6 at most, even in harvest time.

That was why having me there to open the depot for two months was pretty laughable. Because when I wasn’t there, the elevator guys just made out the bills of lading, put the seals on the cars, and gave the bills to the trainmen. But the town had made the agreement to keep the depot open for those two months, so there I was. It was a great-paying job for a college kid like me. The railroad workers had a really strong union in those days, and because of that, I got the same pay as the agent who had worked there when the place was open regularly. He had probably had a lot of seniority when they closed the depot, so the pay rate was really good. Also Saturday was not a work day for me, but because the train headed back to Salina from Plainville on Saturday, if there were cars to be picked up, I would have to go over there and I would get time-and-a-half for that. I also had to work one 4th of July, and I got double-time-and-a-half for that! Basically, just to make up the bills and give them to the trainmen. But I sure didn’t mind.

I had a battery-operated cassette player–yes, that was after 8-tracks–and I would take it in the depot and play Simon and Garfunkle’s Bridge Over Troubled Water and Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. I know that I just had a few cassettes that I played over and over. Although the depot sat at the far end of Main Street, there had to have been a few people who heard my music through the open windows, even if it was only the elevators guys. I don’t think I thought much of it then, but now I kind of wonder what those townspeople thought of this 19 or 20-year-old kid coming in to open up the depot. I know I probably looked a lot younger than my age. I always got my ID checked even a long time after that. (Back then you could buy beer when you were 18.) Even though I was a kid and out there at that depot all alone with not much but time on my hands, I made it to work on time and closed the depot at the set time. I took my hour lunch time too.

Sylvan Grove probably had a little bigger population than the 300-400 it has today, and it had a cafe, so I suppose I ate my lunch there. (Weird–I have very little recollection of what I ate, when I ate, or how much I ate when I was on my own, for about 20 or 25 years. I know I shopped for groceries, cooked, and also ate out–but for all that time, I guess it wasn’t that important–must change with age.) But I don’t remember going to the cafe every day, nor do I remember taking my lunch with me. I didn’t have much interactions with too many people except for the elevator and train guys.

What I do remember is taking out in my VW and exploring the countryside during my lunch hour. I’ve always been a nut about geography and where towns are and how big they are–all that stuff. So even though, Lincoln County is not that far from where I grew up, I didn’t know it very well. Some lunchtimes, I’d take out and head to Vesper, Denmark, or Hunter, just to look around the town or even look at the cemeteries. It was a great way to bring dots on the map into reality.

The next year I graduated from college, but I didn’t work since I knew I was going into the Air Force in August. I don’t know how many summers they kept the Sylvan depot open after my two summers, not too many more years, I think.

Having that first car gave me a lot of freedom, I suppose. Getting it though was just a matter of course that I didn’t think about in those days–just what I did because I was the youngest and the others had done similar things–so going to college, working in the summer, going off to the military–even getting that first car was part of it all.

Not so long ago I drove through Sylvan Grove, and the depot is still standing in its same place, but I think they might have been using it as a horse barn.

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If you liked this one, you may want to read “VW Bug and a Summer Job, Chapter Two”.