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1966 — Off to College

Off to College


By midsummer of 1966, two months after my final escape from the gulag of high school, I found myself in the frightful predicament of having nowhere to go to college. The war in Vietnam was heating up. I would be eligible for the draft on my18th birthday that coming October, and the prospect began to look more and more like a possible death sentence. 

     That summer after high school I had a job out at the beach, Fire Island, where my mother and stepfather had rented houses for years. But luckily I did not have to stay with my them. I’d found a nice situation working as the kitchen slave and sole general factotum for a Catholic beach club and real estate association a half-mile down the beach from the town proper. The property had once been a coast guard installation, and the Catholics, virtually all of them Irish, used the old station as their clubhouse and sales office — only about half of their fifty-acre tract was built on. On weekends, meals were served there, and the older generation hung around the bar afterward under a battered old stuffed marlin, rather than mix with the predominately Jewish crowds back in the bars of Ocean Beach. When I’d applied for the job, I hadn’t advertised the fact that I was a Jew and they hadn’t asked. I was blue-eyed and, back then, fair-haired.
     I had a room under the watchtower of the old station and lived there alone most of the week. My duties were to fetch deliveries of the weekend food and liquor orders off the freight ferry in town, and to keep the place tidy, and to assist the old lush of a chef who came over from the mainland to work the weekend dinners. The cash salary over and above my room and board — I could eat anything in the walk-in fridge — was just enough to pay for my prodigious beer drinking that summer, which I did in the company of my many teenage chums on the island, who included several offspring of the Catholic clubbers.
     I was painfully aware, however, that my friends all had colleges to report to in the fall and I did not. The reason was two-fold. One, my divorced parents, who detested each other, used the issue of paying for my college as a way to continue their neverending hostilities. Each insisted it was the other’s obligation to pay (a rather swinish position on my father’s part, if I may say), but whatever moral and ethical conclusions might be drawn, the upshot left me out in the cold.
This quarrel between them had heated up, like the war, through my senior year of high school, and so while my classmates were sending away for applications and cramming for the college board exams, I sank into a demoralized funk and barely went through the motions. Consequently, my scores on the crucial SAT test were abysmal, in the moron range. I did bestir myself to obtain some applications, to Syracuse, Tufts, and George Washington U, but I couldn’t even scare up the $20 processing fee for each one, and I sent them back with wiseacre answers to the various questions and photos of heavyweight boxer Sonny Liston clipped from The Ring magazine pasted in the box reserved for a picture of yourself. None of them accepted me, of course, though perhaps I got some laughs in the admissions offices.
     I managed to put off thinking about my predicament through July because I was having a good time at the beach, but by August the other guys began talking about their anticipated returns to campus, and the war was all over the radio, and some of my more level-headed pals actually took the trouble to advise me to do something to save my ass from the draft, so I started sending out letters to various branches of the State University of New York, the SUNY system. By some miracle I had actually scored decently on the NY State Regent’s Scholarship exam months earlier, and I began to understand that this might get me into a SUNY college and even cover part of the expenses, despite the fact that my parents were not poor.
       Three colleges replied briskly within a week: two of them, New Paltz and Oswego, sent applications. The third, Brockport, sent me a dormitory contract. I was frankly confused about what this meant, but a long distance phone call — still a big deal back in those days — confirmed my suspicion that I had actually been admitted on the basis of my letter of inquiry. It was a fantastic relief, though I knew next to nothing about the school, not even where within the great hammer-shaped Empire State, it was located.
     My mother was relieved, too, that I had found such a cheap place to go to college (her only criteria) and she suspended her war with my Dad to write out a hundred dollar check for the dorm deposit. The tuition turned out would be $250 a semester, of which the Regent’s scholarship covered half. To my own shame and discredit I confess that I managed to save almost no money over the summer, and I packed out of the beach in the last week of August with about $30 from my final paycheck.
      I had only a few days, mercifully, back in Manhattan at Mom’s to prepare to leave home forever. A consultation with the Rand-McNally informed me that Brockport was located about as far from New York City as it was possible to get and still be in New York state — way up near Lake Ontario in a mysterious rural void between Rochester and Buffalo. And so one oppressively hot morning that September of 1966, I caught a taxi down to the Port Authority bus terminal and climbed on a Greyhound coach bound for far distant lands.
     It took forever. Well, all day long. We stopped in Binghamton and Utica and Syracuse, industrial towns then just about to enter their long, agonizing economic death-spirals. They were seedy but not ruined as they are today. The rolling farm country of the Finger Lakes and central New York was as yet unscarred by strip malls and the other symptoms of the suburban sclerosis to come. Rochester, when we finally got there late in the afternoon, looked like the prototypical Anycity USA out of a Twilight Zone Episode — a handful of “skyscrapers” in the 10 to 20 story range downtown, department stores, and sidewalks bustling with men wearing suits, but all on a comically small scale. It was still a prosperous manufacturing town, headquarters of Xerox, Kodak, and Bausch & Lomb, high quality, high-skill stuff. But for some reason I’d expected something more like a Currier & Ives lithograph and was amazed that anything like this even on the small scale existed outside New York City.
     At the Rochester bus station, I switched to a local coach. A little less than another hour later, we pulled into the old Erie Canal town of Brockport where my new college was. Coming in from south of town, you passed through a modest ‘gasoline alley’ which turned into a conventional Main Street composed of solid 19th century brick buildings. On one corner near the heart of the business district stood an art deco movie theater, all blue-black mirrored glass, with a sporty triangular marquee. Instead of movie title it displayed the message “Welcome Class of 1970.” It shocked me: 1970! What a futuristic date! Would life be different in the far-off seventies? Would we wear jet packs and fly down the street…?
     The bus deposited me in front of a luncheonette with a very large suitcase and a Smith Corona typewriter in its hardshell carrying case. I called a taxi from a pay phone — after inquiring inside the luncheonette whether the town even had taxi cabs. By and by, I was motoring down a street of modest 19th century vernacular houses to the campus. Until only a few years earlier, the school had been a dinky and remote state teachers’ college. Governor Nelson Rockefeller had been pouring huge sums of money into the SUNY system, and Brockport was morphing into a more broad-based liberal arts school, though the transition was far from complete when I got there
A building boom was underway. My dorm, Harmon Hall, had just been completed and we were its first occupants. It was designed in the “International Style” so dear to Governor Rockefeller, the wannabe avant-gardist, and it was supposed to signify decency and democracy, but the three-story flat-roofed box looked more like a provincial office of the Soviet ministry of mines. A vast lounge was filled with Space Age naugahyde furniture that still gave off that factory-fresh smell. My room upstairs was shockingly small, compared even to my room back in the Manhattan apartment, and there was, also shockingly, an extra bed in it.
     This shortly proved to belong to an awkward, sebaceous, and nearly mute fellow freshman named Frank from Buffalo, who turned up twenty minutes after I arrived. Compared to me, with by enormous bulging suitcase, Frank seemed to travel like a hobo, with little more than a change of clothes and a can of Right Guard deodorant. He proved to be a deeply anti-social clod and within a couple of weeks, I moved into a different room with a more congenial sophomore named Bruce, who was known to one and all as Pussyface, or Puss, because he had both a car and a girlfriend and he was renowned for using one in conjunction with the other.
     If anything truly amazed me in those first days of college, it was the discovery that one had to attend so very few classes, three on Mon-Wed-Fri and only two on Tue and Thursday — as opposed to high school where one was sentenced to seven class periods a day each and everyday. I thought: this has got to be a joke. Since I had loathed high school and never did any homework, it never occurred to me that those vast open stretches of time between classes were supposed to be occupied by study. Therefore, I spent them exploring.
     I was much more fascinated by the old small town than the Modernist campus, with its mire of construction sites, and I spent those great blocks of free time poking around the back streets of 19th century houses, the downtown, the cemetery, the little freight yard, and hiking the warm late afternoons down the old Erie Canal towpath, which ran clear from Albany to Buffalo and was miraculously empty of other people, and with the purple asters in bloom in the September light looked as pretty as a canvas by Claude Monet. 
     Weekend nights I haunted the bars, trying to meet girls. The drinking age was eighteen then, and though I was yet seventeen — and looked even younger — I had no trouble getting into the joints. Security was lax to nonexistent. Draft beers were fifteen and twenty-five cents. The only drawback with my somewhat child-like appearance was that girls didn’t take me seriously when I tried to pick them up. Anyway, there would have been nowhere to take them because the dorms were gender-restricted to an extreme degree. You simply could not visit each other’s rooms, at any time, under any circumstances.
     Anyway, by midnight on any typical Friday or Saturday night that fall, I would be halfway in the bag or worse and I began to attract a rather different kind of attention. I must pause here to explain that the student body at Brockport State College in 1966 was still composed mostly of education majors, and of those a very large number of physical education (PE) majors. The place had only just entered its transition from a teacher’s college to a liberal arts school, and practically everyone above sophomore level was in the old program. and since so many of them were training to be gym teachers, then naturally a large percentage were musclebound blockheads, and of these a substantial fraction were vicious, sadistic musclebound blockheads. These were the people whose attention I attracted. Mostly, they wanted to beat the shit out of me for being a city slicker.
     It wasn’t so much my appearance, though that probably set things off. Until then, Brockport State had been a virtually regional school. Most of the students came from the rural backwater between Rochester and Buffalo, and many of these from farm villages too tiny to have a soda fountain. They could barely receive the television signals out of the upstate cities, National Public Radio didn’t exist, and the movie theater was an hour’s drive, so they were pretty ignorant about what was going on in the country — specifically the counter-culture revolution already underway. They had vague intimations that some elements of society were not totally gung-ho on the Vietnam war, but these were just “beatniks,” “weirdos,” and “probably communists.” The word “hippie” had not entered into general circulation that far north yet.
     Now it was my peculiar fate to be identified with the first wave of this rumored “beatnik, weirdo, and probably communist” invasion to appear in the vicinity. The PE majors hadn’t seen too many people from downstate, let alone from the east side of Manhattan. I kind of stood out. My hair was getting pretty long. Most of my male classmates back at the High School of Music and Art, and all my pals from the beach, had been growing long hair in order to look like the Beatles. None of the PE blockheads had long hair. In fact, the 50s buzzcut was still very much the fashion. It also happened that I came up to school with a seersucker jacket, and enjoyed wearing it around that fall. Apparently this was a garment that had not been seen in those parts before and came to be associated in some of those blockish minds, however inaccurately, with suspected beatnik-weirdo-communism.
     Now, it also happened to be my peculiar nature to be a wise-guy. That is, having attracted unwanted attention from the PE blockheads, I was inclined to mouth off, talk back, tell them where to go, and I was not shy about using profanity, especially when I was drunk. So guys much bigger than me would take a swing, and being drunk themselves wouldn’t necessarily connect, and several times that fall I ended up at the center of barroom brawls. Magically, I did not get hurt, or even get my facial features rearranged.
     Meanwhile, I made a few friends: Thad, a tall, earnest fellow freshman from Long Island, who felt as culturally misplaced as I did, and who left a girlfriend he adored behind back home (who he eventually married and stayed married to as recently as the 1990s when I ran across them in Boulder, Colorado, where Thad had become the newspaper editor.) And Bernie, who really was a beatnik weirdo. Bernie was from nearby Rochester. He had shaved his head and was exploring mysticism and was deeply funny. He had a collection of Jonathan Winters comedy albums, but he had a finely-honed comic manner of his own. I hung out in his room smoking cigarettes and listening to his routines – which had a lot to do with impersonating Nazis – and I hung out in Thad’s room smoking cigarettes and listening to Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde album until the grooves wore out. Everybody smoked back then and you could smoke pretty much everywhere – in the dorms, in some classes where the professors wanted to appear progressive. I smoked Winstons. My room-mate Pussyface smoked Marlboros. Thad smoked Tarrytons. Bernie smoked Lucky Strike straights. A pack cost 35 cents.
     I faked it academically and I got a C in Intro to Psych and actually flunked Spanish. But A’s in English Comp & Lit, American History 101, and Intro to Geography kept me from flunking out altogether. The upstate winter was long and harsh. The wind blew tirelessly across the flat Ontario plains and I never saw such deep snow before. One night before Christmas, I took in the Musical Li’l Abner at the college auditorium, put on by the tiny theater department. It was a lot of fun and I was impressed with the level of professionalism. A little later that winter I followed an attractive girl into the auditorium to find myself in an audition for a dramatic play, The Crucible, by Arthur Miller, about the Salem witchcraft trials of the 1960s. Somebody handed me a script and I read for a part and was rather surprised to be cast in the play. My role was the troubled Reverand Hale who starts the whole witch accusation business and then comes to deeply regret what he has set into motion. I got good reviews in the school paper. The female lead became my girlfriend.
     In the background that spring, the college had received a lot of money from SUNY to staff a full-fledged theater faculty. They hired five new professors, a director, a costumer, a shop foreman. A new theater building was under construction. The chairman, a fatherly fellow with a manner like the great John Geilgud’s, went about energetically recruiting students to be theater majors and I was one of them. It seemed like a good deal – a college career based on show biz. Instead of a lot of dull study, we were locked up in rehearsals most nights for the next three years. It was a lot of fun and very stimulating, though I had a pretty rocky career. It kept me out of the bars. In fact, it kept me out of just about everything but dark theaters for four years.
     Also in the background that year, the college was changing radically. A half dozen new dorms and classroom buildings opened and by the following September the balance began to shift between the old PE regime and the new liberal arts mentality. Brockport also joined the hippie revolution. By the fall of 1967, marijuana had arrived on campus, a long with a much-expanded enrollment of down-staters. Everybody was growing their hair long. The Beatles and Buffalo Springfield could be heard twanging from speakers in the dorm windows those warm fall days, and the college wrestling team became notorious for their use of mescaline. A gang of football players, including some goons who had harassed me in the bars my freshman year, moved into an off-campus house that came to be known as Acid Central.


About James Howard Kunstler

View all posts by James Howard Kunstler
James Howard Kunstler is the author of many books including (non-fiction) The Geography of Nowhere, The City in Mind: Notes on the Urban Condition, Home from Nowhere, The Long Emergency and the four-book series of World Made By Hand novels, set in a post economic crash American future. His most recent book is Living in the Long Emergency; Global Crisis, the Failure of the Futurists, and the Early Adapters Who Are Showing Us the Way Forward. Jim lives on a homestead in Washington County, New. York, where he tends his garden and communes with his chickens.

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