Dec 5, 2013

Summer 1984: Country Boys with Guns

Studying for my M.A. at Indiana University was lots of fun, but an academic failure.
1. Faced with 3,000 possible courses, I went crazy: South Asian Anthropology, Russian Folklore, Mandarin Chinese, Tibetan Culture, Languages of Africa.  Competing with students majoring in these topics, I didn't do well, and eked by with B's (failing grades in grad school).
2. I planned to become a book editor, not a literature scholar, so why did I need to read Ralph Roister Doister, Pamela, The Mill on the Floss, Love's Alchemy, The Vicar of Wakefield, Sartor Resartus, Ulysses, , The Waste Land, and The Duchess of Pembroke's Arcadia?  I got B's in my English classes, too.

So there was no question of going on for a Ph.D. -- it wasn't going to happen. Instead, in the spring of 1984, as I prepared for my comprehensive exams in Restoration-Augustan and Romantic Literature, I sent out resumes to 130 publishing companies, 48 newspapers,  34 television stations, and 16 translation agencies.


The semester ended; I spent two weeks in India with Viju, two weeks in my old room in Rock Island, and then returned to Bloomington to finish my degree with a summer school class.  I applied for my old job in the Memorial Union Snack Bar.

Then one day in July, someone asked "Why don't you teach?  They always need English professors."

"But...I hate teaching!  Surly students who never do the assigned readings, fall asleep in class, and make homophobic comments!"

"Do you hate it more than making sandwiches?"

I got a copy of the Chronicle of Higher Education, which lists academic job openings.  It was mid-July, so there weren't a lot of jobs for the fall still open, and most required a Ph.D.  But I applied for five teaching positions, and in mid-August, I got a phone call from Lone Star College in Houston, Texas:  "Classes start in a week: Intro to Literature, Survey of American Literature, and two Freshman Comps.  How soon can you be here?"

Houston, Texas or making sandwiches?

The Lyceum, Ole Miss
On August 19th, 1984, I packed my car with two suitcases and two boxes of books, said goodbye to Viju (who was sticking around to get his Ph.D.), and drove 1000 miles south through Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and finally Texas.

As I was driving through Tennessee, I saw two country boys with guns (top photo), and thought "This is a good sign."

I spent the night in Oxford, Mississippi, and walked onto the campus of Ole Miss, the University of Mississippi.  The Lyceum was brightly lit in the darkness.  I wondered if I would see Luster and Quentin from The Sound and the Fury, or Bo and Luke Duke from The Dukes of Hazard, or at least more country boys with guns.

The Lyceum pointed the way to the Mississippi equivalent of the Levee in Rock Island, a forest with grassy walkways and secluded groves of oak, elm and magnolia trees, where men met each other in secret, in the dark.

Lots of men -- rugged Ole Miss Rebel football players, well-kept businessmen-types, bears, blue collars, rednecks who drove a dozen miles to stand in seclusion in the warm, humid night. Lots of muscles.  The smell of beer and cigarettes and sweat.

Another good sign.  Maybe Texas wouldn't be so bad after all.

See also: 36 Hours of Cruising at Lambert International Airport.

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