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Going Back To College

Going back to college to get my degree and a teaching credential after dropping out nine years earlier was tough in a lot of ways. The first was that the closest college to Willits was Sonoma State, nearly 100 miles south, which meant I had to go alone, leaving Yvonne and 3-year-old Eli at home from Sunday night to Friday afternoon. We didn’t even consider moving down to the Santa Rosa area, mostly because we had animals to take care of, which included chickens, goats, and a donkey. Also, we were living rent-free on an old friend’s property, although that didn’t last long.

Another problem was if I was going to spend five nights a week in Sonoma County I needed to rent a room down there. This was January of 1977, before weekend seminars were enough to get a teaching credential, and before Sonoma State allowed student teachers to practice teach outside of Sonoma County. Also, the credential program was designed to be three semesters long, two semesters of education classes and one of student teaching. Then I found out all I needed to graduate was one credit. Nearly a decade after dropping out I learn that all I need to get back in the rat race is one crumby credit. That one crumb was California History, which is required for all students in California.

I dropped out of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee back in January of 1969 with just one semester shy of getting my BA degree. I signed up for classes, but when the semester started I just didn’t feel like going to school anymore. I had been going to school every year of my life since I was five years old. Enough! Plus, my personal life was in chaos. I had left my first wife Lois just before Christmas when I found out she was having an affair with a friend of a friend’s friend. How did I find out? Well, four of us had taken LSD and we were sitting around our living room floor, tripping, when I noticed Lois holding hands with John. Suddenly it was clear, and without making a big fuss, I left.

I wasn’t ready for marriage when we met two years earlier at a Frat party, but after dating for a few months I suggested we live together, and she said, ”That would kill my parents.” So then, half jesting, I said, “Well then let’s get married!” And she said, “Okay!” The exchange sounding more like kids playing in the backyard tree house.

Lois was a year older than me and was already teaching art at a suburban Milwaukee high school when we met, while I was in my fourth year of college, still needing two or more years to graduate because I transferred and changed majors a few times. I started out majoring in elementary education at Whitewater State College, but after a year I transferred to Milwaukee Institute of Technology…the other M.I.T. Then after a year there I transferred to UWM, where I changed my major to PE.

I was also out for three sports—cross-country, wrestling, and track—combined with all the hours taking PE classes meant I spent way too much time in that funky old field house with other male jocks. I don’t recall females having any collegiate sports at the time, unless you count cheerleading.

But it was the mid-60s and the times they were a changin’. I had taken a poetry class with Barbara Gibson and got hooked, deciding to major in English, keeping PE as my minor. This of course pushed back my graduation date even further, now needing classes in Shakespeare, Chaucer, Structural Linguistics, and on and on. But the good news was I got to hang out with other hip English majors—male and female— in the cozy basement cafeteria of the Downer Seminary, an extinct catholic girls school the University had recently acquired.

English majors at UWM were required to take one year of a foreign language, but not at Sonoma State. Lois and I had hitched around Europe just the summer before, including from Paris to Barcelona, and neither of us spoke anything but English and Pig Latin. The most trouble we had communicating was in Paris. It seemed that Parisians especially liked to make Americans struggle with their pretentious sounding language. I had read Sartre and Camus, and loved Bridget Bardot, so I was primed when I was told by someone in a matter-of-fact way, “English majors have to take French.”

That first semester back at UWM after travelling around Europe started off okay, I mean, I got the classes I wanted, but Lois had quit teaching and had more time to hang with friends, and friends of friends. I had gotten a job in the campus bookstore to make ends meet, which didn’t give me as much time to party as she had. She would often go out with a small group of mostly guys and get home late. When I found out and left I was invited to stay at Barbara Gibson’s place, in her daughter’s bedroom, while she was away at college.

Barbara and her husband Morgan both taught Creative Writing at UWM, and both were published poets who often invited other poets to come and read, usually followed by an informal get together at their place. Some of the poets who I met there were Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Michael McClure, and Kenneth Rexroth. Rexroth, dubbed “The Father of the Beats” by Time Magazine, seemed old and burned out that evening in 1968, showering us innocent creative writing students in the Gibson’s living room with his future vision of doom. When he finished he leaned his head back on his easy chair and shut his eyes while everyone in the room stayed eerily quiet, until finally I piped up, “Got any other good news for us?”

The muffled knee-jerk laughter caused by my wise-ass comment made him slowly move his head back up and focus his glare at me, which slowly seemed to turn to pity, not just for me, but for other pathetic innocents like me.

Voulez Vous coucher avec moi?

The one class I was having trouble with was French, mostly because I wasn’t studying, mostly because I decided I really didn’t like French. It was so gaaay sounding. To this day all I remember is voulez vous coucher avec moi?” (Will you go to bed with me?) Luckily for me that my French teacher was an attractive blond who was nice enough to give me private lessons to get ready for the final exam.

One night sitting on her living room floor, cramming for the final while sharing a bottle of merlot, I said those magic words that I still remember— and voila, I suddenly had a new place to crash. Judy was two years older than me and working as a T.A. (teacher’s assistant), expecting to get her Master Degree in French by the end of the year, when I expected to get my B.A. It was almost too easy, which made me wonder if I really wanted to get into another relationship.

The final came and went, and thanks to Judy’s tutoring I passed with a C minus. I signed up for my last semester, but on the first day of school I didn’t want to go. The same was true for the second, the third, the fourth…you get the picture. Then one night I was at my favorite bar, Hooligans, where beers were only 10 cents, and I ran into an old high school acquaintance who was living on a houseboat in Sausalito, California. Said he was heading back the next day and encouraged me to come check it out.

Bill Becker was a pre-nerd in high school, meaning if there had been computers back then he would have had one. He hung with a small group of fellow pre-nerds who were in the Projector Club. They wheeled their projector equipment carts from classroom to classroom at the teachers’ requests to show movies. Although Becker did end up getting into computers and even running the computer department at the University of Hawaii by the early 90s, that wasn’t until he had lived a much more exciting life than the average nerd.

I’ll quickly summarize his life from ’68 to ’90. He rebuilt a three-wheeled motorcycle, drove it to California with his girlfriend Maggie in the side car, then bought a 30’ flush deck sloop that had sunk in the Sausalito Yacht Harbor, rebuilt it in one year, and in 1970 sailed to Hawaii, the Samoa Islands, and back to Hawaii. Then he bought property on the Big Island, built a house, watched the lava flow from the ’83 Kilauea eruption slowly move toward it, selling it for $100 before it got devoured. Then moved to Oahu and got the computer job, which he still had the last time I talked to him.

I’d been wanting to go to California ever since reading the Beat Poets like Kerouac, Ferlinghetti, Corso, Ginsberg and Snyder, although my favorite beatnik was Maynard G. Krebs of the Dobie Gillis TV show. Besides Becker, I had another friend who had just moved to San Rafael, so now I knew two people I could visit. It was just days later that I decided to head west. I walked to nearby Downer Avenue—which pretty much explained what kind of a mood I was in when nobody picked me up, and then it started snowing. I walked to the bus terminal and got on a bus to Madison, 90 miles west, for the first leg of my journey.

Back to 1977…

I had talked the Sonoma State guidance counselor into combining my first two semesters into one, probably because I told her I had a pregnant wife and kid back in Willits. Oh yeah, I had just found out before leaving to restart my straight life that Yvonne was pregnant. She would be due sometime in September, when I was to start my student teaching.

The main reason why I decided to go back to get my credential and teach and coach was because I had been working out at Willits High School with George Davis’ wrestling team. He encouraged me to get my degree when I told him I had coached before back in Milwaukee while going to UWM, but dropped out in my last semester. He said he needed an assistant coach and he’d do all he could to help me get a teaching job at Willits High.

The week before classes started I was on campus buying some books and saw a “Roommate Wanted” ad on the cafeteria bulletin board, so for fifty bucks a month I rented a room in downtown Santa Rosa, and I was set to go. My drives back and forth were pretty much uneventful, which is a good thing, but one Friday afternoon I was driving my old ’64 Chevy station wagon on to the Highway 101 freeway ramp heading north when I saw a woman hitch-hiking, so I pulled over.

“Where are you going?” I asked the aging hippie chick, and she walked over to my window, looked at me with a searching smile and replied, “Nowhere in particular, sweetie, I’m working.”

My first response was to play dumb and ask, “What do you do?” But instead I asked, awkwardly, “How much do you charge?”

“Twenty bucks,” she replied, sounding as if she was giving me a discount. But just then a big truck was coming up behind me, so I quickly apologized, telling her I was broke, and took off. Looking in my rear view mirror I noticed the truck stop and she got in. As I continued north I noticed my gas gauge near empty and when I stopped in Ukiah for gas I found a twenty dollar bill in my wallet, and that’s all I had. I felt a little better knowing that if I had donated twenty bucks to the charming roadside hooker, my car would have died about half-way up the Willits Grade, which helped convinced me that I had made the right decision.


One Comment

  1. Liz Johnson January 24, 2015

    Gotta tell ya, Maynard G. was also my favorite beatnik. The real ones seemed too dark……

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