Tuesday, April 8, 2008

College before the Revolution

At first campus life looked like a raw deal. I’d expected Syracuse University to be a liberated zone, with "hip" people and definitely no parents. But no one warned me about "frosh beanies," the blue and orange caps that all freshmen were supposed to wear like dog tags, or about having to play serf to upper class frat brats. For most of those entering college in 1964, in that ancient era of Barry Goldwater versus Lyndon Johnson – before Woodstock, massive anti-war protests, or the ME generation – it was a disempowering rite of passage into society's fast track. We were merely trading in one set of parents for another, and quickly had to learn a new set of rules.

I’d barely unpacked my albums, a combination of progressive jazz, classical, and British Invasion rock, when I heard that students – even the seniors! – couldn't have members of the opposite sex in their dorm rooms. Nor could they consume a beer on campus property, since this fountain of knowledge was "dry." That took some time to change; in fact, three years later the student government president, a fast-talking Tau Delt with a Honda cycle, was stripped of his elite privileges for taking a protest drink in a dorm lounge.

One of the first lessons of higher education was that freshmen had no status. Upper class boys manipulated us till we caught on, and the system itself was designed to keep us herded together. At home football games, for instance, freshmen were supposed to sit in a special section and hold up placards. I soon stopped attending games and "lost" my beanie. But there was no escape from jocks and rude rituals. At Syracuse, football was both a holy cause and a business. With stars like Jim Brown, SU sometimes made it into a bowl game, and always raked in money on admissions.

The freshman football squad lived in my dorm. These huge gladiators, many of them attending on scholarships, traveled in packs, ate together on their own schedule, and talked of little but drinking and the last game. Not that all jocks were animals. Across the hall was a sensitive halfback who could name most classical pieces on the radio within the first few bars. Unfortunately, he didn't make the varsity cut and later dropped out, while bears like Larry Csonka hung on.

Csonka was one of those people who could injure a classmate during morning scrimmage and not blink an eye. Unable to fully grasp the concept of practice, he just knew about winning. Because my roommate, a small Oswego jock, became mascot for the freshman team, and I had a set of weights, Csonka and friends sometimes did their heavy lifting in our room. They especially enjoyed hoisting long barbells with one arm. For comic relief they’d run pass plays out our fifth floor window. Fun guys.

Jocks weren't the only animals by a long shot. Animal was "in." Many people were only attending school for the degree, to satisfy dad and mom, or to avoid the draft. Most women, went the conventional wisdom, were working toward an MRS. degree. As a result, being a serious student didn't win one many points, and mob psychology was an acceptable substitute for common sense. Good fun, for instance, was "pennying in" your dorm-mates – sealing them into their rooms at night by forcing pennies into the doorjambs – or going to Mt. Olympus on a panty raid.

Mt. Olympus was a complex of women’s dorms perched atop a hill. One thousand steps separated the men and hundreds of coeds. Once in awhile, a horny gang would lure bored underclassmen out of their dorms at night for a charge to the top, there to invade the dorms and capture booty – in this case, underwear. Veterans of an Olympus raid would proudly hang trophies from their lampshades. Not a very serious group, but what did we know? This was 1964, after all, and we were an unconscious elite – middle-class American college kids. Being in college conferred the vital 2-S draft deferment status on males, and gave a license to delay growing up to everyone. On the other hand, we were all on notice. During an orientation rally, the Chancellor attempted to instill a sense of competition (and fear) when he said, "Look on your right, look on your left – one of these people won't be here next semester." Another fun guy.

If you didn't rush for a fraternity, you could say goodbye to a career in student government. The Greeks had a stranglehold on the political process and, hence, the social purse strings. Frat houses with acronyms like DU, SAM and Tau Delt put up slates for student government posts, and the winners of these popularity contests dutifully appointed their "brothers" and "sisters" to the key committees that allocated money for parties and other social events. With their large houses and budgets, the Greeks dominated the undergraduate social scene. It wasn't always a dry campus, and if you wanted to meet someone, a frat bash was often a better bet than a dorm mixer. The rest of us – about two-thirds of the undergrads – were consigned to dorm life until senior year, when off-campus housing became an option.

This wasn't a political time at old SU. Most of us knew little about the issues except that George Wallace, the "Vietnam conflict” just starting to make news, and the military draft were a drag. The big campus protest of 1964 came in December, when 5,000 students marched to the Chancellor's house to protest the late start of Christmas recess. He ignored us. Mainly, the administration treated us like cattle. Fatten 'em up with facts and forget about any real counseling. Students either fit in or were weeded out. Class work was often judged on an impersonal, statistical basis, and opinions were rarely solicited. If you made the grade, your reward was a few elective courses – about the only meaningful academic choice left open.

I quickly made my escape from that large black hole, the College of Liberal Arts, into the smaller School of Speech and Dramatic Arts. At least some of the drama students seemed serious, and the courses could be relevant. I dove into mass media, writing and performance as an act of rebellion. After a draining romance with an “older woman” – a Junior year theater major and real-life drama queen – I retreated into poetry, film, mythology, the Lost Generation, and my own scenarios of surreal devastation. In the land of the Greeks, you could still go Beat.

Part Five of “In the 60s: Education of an Outsider.”

Next: New Journalism & the Underground Press

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