This time of year is popularly known as “Back to School.” But to me it’s always “Not Back to School.”
In fall 1965, after a college freshman year that could generously called “abysmal,” I found myself all dressed down with everywhere to go. Essentially, I was too immature to be in college, too young to be drafted and too dumb to know my limitations.
The combination was jet fuel for my psyche.
Ever since childhood, I’d been intrigued by travel and adventure, impelled in part by my devoted and necessarily surreptitious reading of men’s magazines. Certainly, I knew I’d never cross the Sahara in a Tuareg caravan or sail the Red Sea in a dhow, or even fly low over Kalopaa, “The Island of Lust.” But I figured I could thumb my way over the highways and byways of This Great Land of Ours. And, perhaps against all odds, that’s exactly what I did.
Logistically, it was easy. All I needed was the appropriate road maps (Esso were my favorites), a duffel bag full of spare clothes and toiletries, and a modest bankroll.
Emotionally, it wasn’t very easy at all. Rides depended on the kindness of strangers, so a lot of time was spent just standing on the road, arm extended, thumb out, insipid look on face. And internally, I had to be chock-full of optimism and unbounded faith in my fellow man (no sexism here: I never got a ride from a woman).
On my First Great Trek, I’d mapped a course due south to Georgia, then west to Texas, then north to Iowa before returning back East. Almost all those ramblings had no specific plan and destination. Instead, I hitched as far as I could by late afternoon, got off the road and found a place to stay (either boarding house or flop house). After that, I explored my environs, rarely staying more than a day, hitching out early the next morning.
I did, however, have one specific destination on my route – Oskaloosa, Iowa.
Oskaloosa is a small town southeast of Des Moines that around 100 years ago was a center of bituminous coal mining. After that crapped out, it didn’t seem the center of anything. So what drew me there, of all places? A college called William Penn, which I thought of applying to.
Don’t ask me why I considered William Penn, or even how I’d heard about it. I just knew if I went back to college, it’d have to be a small school in the country, and William Penn fit that bill perfectly.
I thumbed my way to Oskaloosa no sweat, got a room in a tiny hotel ($7.50 a week) and got a job shoveling mud up and down a highway under construction. I figured I’d work a week, fill my war chest with lots of moolah from my sultanic wages ($1.25 an hour), visit the college the next week and hitch out the day after.
… and bust
The week crawled by, as it would with a 12-hour, literally backbreaking day, and then it was Monday, the day of my visit to the college. I walked on campus and asked the first kid I ran into where the admissions office was. He pointed to what I assumed was the admin building, and I walked over there.
I hadn’t made an appointment in advance. It wasn’t out of arrogance, just my surmise that in a school of William Penn’s size and rep, there wouldn’t be a long line of applicants ready to show their stuff. My surmise was correct: Not only did no mob of hopefuls line the halls, but the only hopeful was yours truly.
I checked in with the secretary, told her my business. She gave me a form to fill out about all my vital statistics and aspirations, and then told me to take a seat and someone’d be with me shortly. I completed the form, and a few minutes later a man came out of the inner sanctum. He introduced himself to me, we shook hands, and he ushered me into his office.
I think he was the admissions director, but I don’t know for sure. I do know he was an administrator of some sort. No matter, he was in charge of my interview … and maybe my academic future as well.
We shot the breeze about nothing much, and after that was done, he looked over the form I’d filled out.
Then he paused, took a breath, looked up and said, “I don’t think you’ll like it here.”
I was completely taken aback.
Why had he said that? I had no idea, except maybe it was some new recruiting strategy — like reverse encouragement or something.
Finally, when I got my composure back, I said, “Why’s that?”
“Well,” he said, “you’re from New York. This is a small school in a small town.”
I then realized this was no strategy at all. This guy, regardless of his title, was not the fastest frigate in the fleet. In fact, to extend the nautical metaphor, as a ship, he’d be lucky to be afloat. He was one of those “just plain folks” who knew New York was both a city and state, but thought the city so huge that 300 miles north of it was still the suburbs.
I didn’t know if he was capable of being enlightened, but I figured I’d give it the old – pardon the expression — college try.
“I like small schools,” I said, “plus I live in a town.”
He gave me a blank, bovine look and only said, “Oh.”
I realized his enlightenment lay in the future — perhaps the far future. Still, I was willing to listen to what else he had to say.
“Another thing,” he said.
“We don’t allow drinking on campus.”
That was fine with me since I didn’t drink.
“Nor do we allow smoking,” he said.
I shrugged. I didn’t smoke, either.
Then he laid the bomb on me.
“And there’s no dancing permitted.”
As I said, I didn’t drink or smoke, and while I was no James Brown, my rep in uptown house parties as Boogaloo Bob was well known and deserved.
“No dancing at all?” I said, just to clarify things.
“None,” he said, the very voice of finality.
Before I’d left home I’d studied the school’s catalog. I knew it’d started as a Quaker school, and I figured they’d have more restrictions Than other, more secular schools. I fully accepted that if I went there, I couldn’t own slaves or declare wars. No smoking and drinking? So be it. But no dancing? Fergit it!
We exchanged a bunch of trivialities, then he asked me if I wanted a tour of the campus.
“No thanks,” I said, knowing I could find my way around – and off — the campus all by my lonesome.
That January, I enrolled at Paul Smith’s.
Not only were drinking and smoking permitted, but they were darn near mandatory.
As for dancing? The only dance I remember was the Paul Bunyan Dance, where innocent maidens from Plattsburgh and Potsdam State were bused in to a shindig with a guy-to-gal ratio of about 20-to-one. It was less a dance in any civilized sense than a wannabe mating ritual where hope triumphed over hormones – at least for a little while. It was, in other words, perfect Old Time Paul Smith’s.
I had a blast at PSC, as did my fellow Smitties. And whenever I thought about those poor drinkless, smokeless, danceless souls in The Land of Corn Stalks and Soybeans, I couldn’t help but feel smug about my decision-makings — or at least of one of them.