Southern Indiana, Community College. 1971.
Living and learning.
I’m floating through the air and a moth catches me.
A huge moth bigger than my mother, like big, with big ass teeth. She eats me and shits me out and I’m immediately flying down that shoot into temporary immortality. At the far end, a light. I sense that is where I will, you, we all need to go. No pressing matter, really.
I snap out of my daydream. Semester exams always mess with my mind.
My old, used bicycle glides along the southern Indiana blacktop. Traffic in these two twin towns is sparse and slow moving. The connecting strip between the two is almost a mile. At the gas station the mechanic said: “It’s gonna be a burner today, no doubt bout that”. Noon day sun’s so hot my tires squelch along the soft tar surface. The smacking and sucking sound not unsatisfactory. But don’t stop or you’ll pick up a cake of hot black shit on your soles.
New tennis shoes, Adidas’. Slipping and sliding along the road, an occasional island of midday shade provided by ancient road side oaks, in those spaces tar holds firm.
There they are playing fuckin tennis! Tennis in this heat, sheit! What’s with those people? Fancy cars parked outside of the court fences. A dairy freeze, one of many, doing fast business to the youth.
My grades are mediocre, and the dean says I could do so much better. She asks me at a ‘meet the dean’ supper held at her apartment. It’s like as though she’s thinking out loud, ‘why is it you don’t ace this stuff?’ Accounting just isn’t a friend to me. Accounting hates me! I can’t make heads or tails of that shit. I can make my way around giving my take on a piece of art on the wall; often much ‘better’ than that offered by the art professor, T-accounts? Maybe to hang from. Once again, to let down my folks. I’ve failed academically forever. They sure have tried for me, that’s for sure. I can’t complain at this point.
There was that visit to us from my parents. They stayed in the motel. My Dad thought it a swell idea to join me in my accounting class. I never thought he was an accounting wizard by any stretch of the word, so I thought it was rather gutsy. My old man sat next to me. The professor, nice guy, and brilliant, or so we students all thought, calls out: “We have a successful Miami, restaurant operator and owner of most of the Black Angus chain, honoring us this morning, Joes’ father. I sink into my chair, ‘oh shit’. Mr. Gibbs would you be good enough to help us by explaining the central concept in using the economies of scale methodology and how that might play in with supply and demand?”
My dad sat there as flummoxed as I was. To this day, I can’t hope to recall his response. I think all he did was squirm. I wish I could have saved him. After an eternity of hanging in silence, the prof graciously rushed in for the rescue. I believe he said something to the effect my dad did well by not hazarding an answer, as the question was impossible to solve. He, of course, explained flawlessly what the point was to his question.
The funniest thing is when those younger students, classmates, asked me to be president of the new fraternity they’re forming. What the hell? What the hell do they see in me, anyway? Hilarious. A mystery.
Not too funny. Especially when it came time to holding a meeting, yeah, a founders meet. You know, meet and greet. Yes, I agreed to one intro meeting. “My name is Joe Gibbs and I’m from Miami. So let’s go around the room with intros. Feel free to go on for a minute about yourselves. Not necessarily what soap you use”, they laugh. Sweet young kids from my perspective, though I might only be a year or two older than most here. They somehow still see me as a venerable aged one. Clearly not too old. This is early 70s we still don’t trust anyone over 30.
Two of the students offer me sweet, secret smiles. They cross pretty, shapely legs. Jesus, I came all the way to southern Indiana to see this. Life can be so… “So where are you from?” one girl asks me, “From Miami” I tell her, “near South Beach, you know art deco…” She responds with slight confusion but still she is all ears.
“So do you surf there?” Another coed coos softly. ‘Have you guys never heard of the California coast’ I say to myself, not unkindly, it’s a sincere query, however. Then again, and not too surprising, we are, after all, in the boonies of south Indiana. It’s beautiful here, the youth are terrific if not a bit out of touch. Not sure she watches news or reads about the rest of the country. No matter. Remember, they are asking me to be their first honorably titled chapter president, a sort of mixed sorority/fraternity thing, the Greeks, all that.
Of course I won’t do it. In the sixties I’d become completely disgusted with that traditional and arguably so unnatural form of university elite subculture, The Greek houses and all they represent. In hind sight my views have softened so probably not all bad though.
A bit of perspective is called for. Our friends were a vegetarian fellow from northern India. I’ll never forget the night at dinner at another friend’s apt. He took a bite of his first steak. He almost spit up. Our other friend, a Colombian and his ever present and trusty pocket flask and his Panamanian girl-friend, a vivacious, fun loving hotel student. Freddy, another fellow student, was born and raised in this area. He confided to me he’d strayed from his church. The Pentecost church was known in part for church goers speaking in unintelligible words, also called holy rollers. He convinced me to accompany him to his church one night, as he was going to make his way back onto the path.
Before the wild night had ended, I found myself on my knees at the altar chanting Jesus’ name as loud as I could as the holy directors stood around me cheering and egging me on. Yes. I had gone to the altar to provide Freddy, my friend, with moral strength. The directors would not allow me to return to the safety of my pew until my voice attained an extreme volume.
The roundabout way of saying we’re not from this part of the world. That I’d choose to become intimately involved with a Greek house in this southern Indiana region was like going to Mars. Wasn’t going to happen.
None of these thoughts lessens the surprise of being asked to help found their Greek chapter. Several students, men and women, have done the research. They assure me that the organizations that oversee the Greek system explain that colleges may apply for forming a chapter on the campus. There is, of course, a path to follow to satisfy all the initial requirements, charter registration, and so on.
“So, like, have you ever seen alligators in Florida?” Another nubile female. My god she’s a beauty. Her mischievous smile goads me on, dares me, what hair, what lips. I’d marry her today, hell I’d marry all of them. The guys seem okay, clueless. South Indiana in post sixties never could ever shake the fast car, drink beer at the quarry, repair fast car, crash fast car, have more beer, and pick up chicks in my metal flake 55 Chevy. Hell ya. But I like them. Hell, they invited me to head their Greek house, didn’t they?
A final reflection on the Greek house thing is that I could no more act as founding president than I could fly a 747. What did I know from organizing and executing in a proactive and constructive manner and, on an ongoing basis, an administrative body.
Good people around these parts. I like ’em. So I decide, now is the moment to thank them, again. Once again, and very tactfully turn down their kind gesture. I am, of course, still befuddled by why they settled on me. Had to be my being a year older, that and having the shine of marital stability. I’d been married now for two years. My stunningly beautiful wife was taking a few courses at the college. Countless times through the years, I’ve thought that she’s the one who should have been pursuing a degree, not me. She would have gone to Yale were it not for me. A fact that still stings.
Pondering a bit more, there’s the undeniable and powerful sensation of my being alien to this part of the world. The nagging sensation of being a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Well, not very predator. More of a thing that pointed out to me continuously: ‘hey you’re not from around here. You really have nothing in common with these town people, you’re here to get your two-year hotel degree and then onto my next school, probably back to Miami. Miami naturally felt familiar.
Miami was southern Floridians, but perhaps more significantly, it was the Cuban community and culture. Felt more like home. After all, I was born and raised in Central America before moving to Miami.
Riding my bike back to my trailer, the tar is ripping off the blacktop a little more aggressively. Hey, this stuff couldn’t burn, could it? Anyone of the guys could tell me. It’s all about cars, the road, boobs and you know what… But by god don’t get preggers.
Wasn’t too hard to beg off. Sure, I felt as though once again I was hiding; I was turning my back on a growth challenge. Story of my life.
My shoes are on the pebbles at the bottom of our wood trailer steps. No way can I walk in there with this wicked tar. I’d hear it from Carol big time. She calls out: “Hi Joe, hey come here and see what I made for you!” Banana cream pie was one of those foods that made me happy. There’s no better way to say this.
After dinner, I step out on our trailer deck and I see Frank, our neighbor. He and his wife are from Bloomington. I wonder sometimes what in hell is he doing here and not in one of the state’s best universities in Bloomington. Ah then. It comes. He’s just another dummy. Yep. Like me. Hey, I don’t care. But from what I hear, Franks parents own two of Bloomington’s biggest Chevrolet dealerships.
My college, besides producing hotel people, prepares students for careers in the automotive industry (read: working in a dealership).
On a walk through a State park, a cavern complex somewhere deep in the copperhead filled forests, Frank’s wife, and I are following her husband, making our way down the narrow path to a cavern entrance. My wife is first in line. Their first born, a whiney little kid named Willy, oh hell, a sweet kid, rides on his dads’ shoulders. Our boy of the same age bounds ahead of all of us. I think of copperheads, mean snakes that bite and pump victims full of poison.
“Hey Josh! Hey buddy, watch for snakes kiddo, okay? They have a mean bite.” I call ahead. “Sure Daddy.”
This is prime country for copperheads, that and prime for moonshine stills too. Just the kind of region this is.
So Willy grows weary of riding his old man like a fucking camel and takes hold of a shank of hair and yanks. “EEEyyooww, oww, oww, ow, ouch, agh!” Frank almost cries. No shit! The man almost cries and immediately I understand the pretty wife a little better. She married into the money. No judgment, hell I’d a done the same damn thing. But the shrill cry was over the top. No. A man doesn’t do that. I’m sorry. Well, no, I’m not sorry. “Whoa, whoa, man, what’s the matter, man? Are you okay Frank, Jesus? I thought a copperhead got ya!”
The rolling hills of southern Indiana are beautiful. At late afternoon, the sun has just disappeared behind the tree covered rollicking horizon, fireflies light up the early evening. Summer. Somewhere, probably from the neighborhood in the next street, the unmistakable, rich aroma of night blooming jasmine. Natures perfume. My mother’s favorite. The humidity is like wringing out a beer mug worth of sweat. That afternoon, after getting back from my job at the huge Sheraton, over 400 rooms, I walk over to the trailer park managers’ home to borrow his lawn mower.
A way to bring our rent down a bit was to agree to mow the lawn for the manager. Pushing the mower in front of me, almost falling asleep, and then a sharp snap! Rap! My grass cutters blades hits something. Immediately awoken, thinking, another rock or a big rusted bolt. Looking down on what had been an alive and well copperhead now cut up. By the time I’ve finished mowing the almost football field size yard, three more snakes succumb. I feel like I just came out of a sauna.
I learn and then remind myself that I should never mow when it’s getting dark.
Just before darkness sets in, my wife and son and I pile into our fourth hand Toyota station wagon and set off to a nearby town eight miles away. Just entering town is a Dairy Freeze stand. The place is full of people of all ages, mostly youths. Cars jam pack the gravel parking space. Some youth are admiring a friend’s engine, the hood up high as the kid makes the big muffler- less, V-8 engine roar.
Next door to the snack bar, a single room souvenir shop offers mugs shaped as breasts with nipples to suck on, bull whips and wallets with chains so that the owner won’t lose all he’s worth. On one rack is an array of irresistibly colored t-shirts. My favorite shows two mean looking, black feathered buzzards on a high up branch looking down at some playing children. One big carrion eater says to the other: “Fuck waiting! I’m gonna kill me something right now!” Another corner is reserved for black velvet art. Elvis is the most popular image. His purplish eyes peer out through the darkness, eerily real.
Driving home through the gently rolling hills, we slowed down for a line of cars waiting to get into the drive-in movie. A billboard says Billy Jack is tonight’s feature. No way we’re going to miss that! Pulling up to our car stand speaker, we hang it on the window, then head for the popcorn shack up by the screen. Popcorn and root beer and, before long, our little boy is sound asleep. We were spontaneous.
Back at the trailer and another day has crept by. Our youth provided us with such energy, such zest for experience. As far as I can see, it was never about a damn diploma, not really. We found that every day, after work and school, we were free to explore. The southern part of Indiana might be described as red neck. But we never saw it that way. The culture was unique. All you had to do was drive a hundred miles north, and it was as though that southern world was on another planet.
I never could feel like I belonged there. My wife said the same. We were from somewhere else. That was the simple fact, we were from somewhere else. The locals could see it in us, but rarely ever pointed it out. Our Toyota was an exception. This was big American car country, and in those days the Japanese were buying The Rockefeller Center. There persisted a deep felt mistrust for foreign makes. At the gas station, our Toyota was never pronounced as though starting with the word ‘tow…’, rather it was invariably a ‘Tieyota’, tie as in ‘by’. Our shitty car couldn’t climb over fifty mph, drew quips and muttered unheard insults, though never over the top.
Like I said. The people in those parts were always good to us.
Life never stays as it was. As humans, we have to meld into changing scenarios, as does the chameleon. Time is magical this way. Depending on just where in the equation you sit, these changes can have less or greater impact upon your outlook, your perspective, your attitude. Hopefully, we fall on that side that allows us to take it all in stride.