Tag Archives: College

John Wayne and I

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When the Union Pacific Railroad was finally completed on May 10,1869, it was a cause for great celebration. A very good source describing the somewhat hilarious ceremony may be found here, but a segment from that source follows as a background for my own story:

A railroad linking America’s east and west coasts had been a dream almost since the steam locomotive made its first appearance in the early 1830s. The need for such a link was dramatized by the discovery of gold in California in 1848 that brought thousands to the West Coast. At that time only two routes to the West were available: by wagon across the plains or by ship around South America. Traveling either of these could take four months or more to complete.

Although everyone thought a transcontinental railroad was a good idea, deep disagreement arose over its path. The Northern states favored a northern route while the Southern states pushed for a southern route. This log jam was broken in 1861 with the secession of the Southern states from the Union that allowed Congress to select a route running through Nebraska to California.

Construction of the railroad presented a daunting task requiring the laying of over 2000 miles of track that stretched through some the most forbidding landscape on the continent. Tunnels would have to be blasted out of the mountains, rivers bridged and wilderness tamed. Two railroad companies took up the challenge. The Union Pacific began laying track from Omaha to the west while the Central Pacific headed east from Sacramento.

Progress was slow initially, but the pace quickened with the end of the Civil War. Finally the two sets of railroad tracks were joined and the continent united with elaborate ceremony at Promontory, Utah on May 10, 1869. The impact was immediate and dramatic. Travel time between America’s east and west coasts was reduced from months to less than a week.

The ceremony at Promontory culminated with Governor Stanford of California (representing the Central Pacific Railroad) and Thomas Durant (president of the Union Pacific Railroad) taking turns pounding a Golden Spike into the final tie that united the railroad’s east and west sections. As the spike was struck, telegraph signals simultaneously alerted San Francisco and New York City, igniting a celebratory cacophony of tolling bells and cannon fire in each city.
“It was a very hilarious occasion; everybody had all they wanted to drink…”
http://www.eyewitnesstohistory.com/goldenspike.htm

It will probably come as no surprise that in 1969 it was decided to have a huge ceremony honoring the 100th anniversary of the “Wedding of the Rails” in Utah. To that end, two trains set out—one from the easternmost point of the track and the other from the westernmost point. These trains were destined to meet at the original point of their joining, but since they were filled with dignitaries, they made numerous stops along the way with celebrations at each point where they stopped.

In 1969, I was attending university in Laramie, Wyoming. It was announced that John Wayne and Glen Campbell would be on one of the trains and that they would do a whistle stop where they would both say a few words before continuing on to the ceremony. Now it just so happened that this event coincided with Sigma Chi Derby Days—an annual event that consisted of a number of challenges whereby campus groups could assemble points. What the prize was I can’t remember, but I do remember that one of the contests was to gain the signature of the most famous person, and I happened to know that John Wayne himself had been a Sigma Chi. If I could somehow gain his signature, we would have it made in the shade for that particular challenge.

And so on the prescribed day, we were off, fully laden, with five of us filling the seats of my little red Ford Galaxy. How we would get close enough to the train to gain the autograph, I did not know, but nothing ventured, nothing gained.

There was, as may be expected, a huge crowd at the Laramie train station, and we waited in anticipation for the train. Finally, it came up, sounding its whistle, flags waving. Several men came out to a small stage that had been constructed just in front of the train. Finally, Glen Campbell came out, but no John Wayne. We were puzzled when the speeches started without him. What could have happened to John Wayne? Finally, I was hit with one of those instant inspirations often depicted by a light bulb going off over someone’s head in cartoon bubbles.

“I bet he got off the train to fly back to California!” No one disagreed and it was my car, so off we sped to the airport, which was several miles outside of town. We drove well over the speed limit down the two-lane nearly carless road. As we approached the airport, we could see no larger planes loading, but there was one smaller private plane. We went speeding up to the airport. “I’ll go see what’s going on with that small plane,” I told my friends, springing from the door almost as soon as the car had come to a screeching halt. I went running out onto the field—not hard to do in a small airport in those years before airport security­—and ran smack dab into a man who was walking toward the plane from the opposite direction. “Well, whoa, there, little lady. Where ya goin?” said the brick wall I’d just run into.

“I’m trying to find John Wayne. Do you know if he might be in that plane?” I asked.

“Nope, I’m pretty sure he’s not,” said the man, “because he’s standing right here!”

I looked up—way up—and sure enough. There he was with his hands still on my forearms where he had caught me just before I ran into him broadside!

Yes. It was a surreal experience. And it was even more surreal when I explained about the points and he said, “Well, would it give ya more points if instead of delivering my autograph you could deliver me?” I said it sure would, and we had reached my car and my somewhat astonished friends had piled four in the back for him to climb into the front seat with me when a harried looking man came running out from the landing field shouting, “John, John! What are you doing?”

Long story short, John Wayne did not come back to campus with us. His manager managed to persuade him it was not in his best interests given that something in California was important enough to warrant his immediate return. But, I did get his signature and no, I did not turn it in for Sigma Chi Derby Days. To this day, it resides in a square of a memory box—one of the kind popular in the sixties and seventies that is made out of an old newspaper print box—and as proof, I include a picture below.

And yes, of course John Wayne was three sheets to the wind, for in keeping with the original rail-joining ceremony, “It was a very hilarious occasion; everybody had all they wanted to drink…”

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/dp_prompt/whoa/

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For another great story about how Garry Armstrong met John Wayne, go here: http://teepee12.com/2016/01/08/the-duke-and-garry-a-pilgrims-tale-garry-armstrong/

The Prompt:  What’s the most surreal experience you’ve ever had?

My earlier post wouldn’t pingback to the Daily Prompt site, so I had to repost.  Here are comments from that earlier post:

lifelessons
grieflessons.wordpress.com
jubob2@hotmail.com
189.169.119.208

This seems to be a day for synchronicities. Did you read Mark Aldrich’s piece? Today is also my best friend’s birthday and I need to call her as well. Your mentioning your birthday reminded me of hers, so the chain goes on. Thanks for your kind words, Anton.

Mark Aldrich
thegadabouttown.wordpress.com
markaldrich68@hotmail.com
68.174.46.193

I wonder why that did not ping properly.

That is a treasure of a story.

Anton Wills-Eve
antonwillseve.com
willseve@aol.com
78.144.91.230

Judy you should have been a journalist! One of the best and most interesting posts I’ve ever read.Well done, but tell me, how did you know May 10 was my birthday? Seriously, it is. Anton. 🙂

Mr. Cole

Mr. Cole

He lurked out in the hall as we all took our seats and came to order.  He took a drink from the water fountain, putting down what looked like a new briefcase as he did so.  He picked up the briefcase and made for the door, then turned and walked back to the fountain, putting his briefcase down as he took another drink.  He started for the door again.  Changed his mind and returned for another drink.  Then he squared his shoulders, picked up his case, re-rounded his shoulders and entered the room.

He was a little mole of a man—sniffy and hunched with scrunched-up eyes behind thick glasses.  When he entered the classroom, he looked straight down at the floor, as though he wasn’t sure one foot would follow the other without great attention.  He maneuvered his way to his desk and stood with his back to us.  He slammed his briefcase onto the desk, then removed it again, as though in indecision over whether he really wanted to stay at all.  Then he slammed it down again.  Removed it.  Slammed it down.

Finally, he moved around to face us and assumed a more teacherly demeanor.  He actually looked at someone in the front row for two seconds, before retreating back around to the back side of the desk, perhaps seeking some protection.

It was the first day of my freshman year in college. Next to me was a very new friend who not only lived in the same dorm but who also had just pledged the same sorority. We sported our bug-like black pledge pins on the fronts of our sweaters, a hand’s distance above the nipple, as we’d been instructed to wear them.  It was a bit like being in enemy territory, for we had already learned that the English department and the dormitories were not the best places to display our new status as Greeks so openly.  Our sitting together was a bit like circling the wagons on a westward journey.  We had each others’ backs.

“My name is Mr. Cole,” the dwarf said. “This is the honors section of Freshman English 101.”  He had facial ticks and a way of floating off into dreams.  Sometimes the end of a sentence just sort of wandered off, as though some other matter of greater importance had intruded upon his thoughts.  We did not disturb him in these reveries.  My new friend Linda and I would exchange looks and she would giggle the sexy little laugh that was her only laugh.  We both admitted, finally, to having a bit of a crush on him.

It was my first of many crushes on “different” men.  Men who had facial ticks or personality disorders that made others look on in horror or disgust just seemed to intrigue me, and my new friend was someone who gave validity to my strange behavior.  She, too, thought he was intriguing.  When we invited him to be a faculty chaperone for our pledge dance, he asked if he would be expected to function in the capacity of a bouncer and I assured him that no, it was more of an honorary position. To our surprise, he accepted, showing up with a tall willowy English department assistant who seemed herself to be of a literary bent.  I don’t remember if they danced, but I believe they dated for the rest of my college career.

You can see by my relation of these details how little I really knew about this man. On that first day in Freshman English, I remember being frightened and feeling inferior to the big town kids in the class.  If the truth were told, most of them were probably small town kids themselves, but coming from a town of 700, I thought of a town of 6,000 as a city , and I was sure that my own excellent academic record was more a result of comparison (there were 15 in my graduating class) than of true prowess.  Mr. Cole explained that instead of studying grammar, sentence and paragraph construction, that as honors students we would be expected to write an essay or story a week which would then be read in class and commented upon.

The night before our first writing assignment was due, my insecurity had kept me from committing a single mark to paper.  We had been given no topic and no direction.  This paper was to function as a sample of where we were on the continuum of writing skills.  This was to be my introduction to the strange gnomish man who had studied under Roethke.  Although I had no idea who Theodore Roethke was and no easy way of determining who he was in this pre-computer, pre-Google age, I had made one of my rare forays into the college library and found a whole section dedicated to his books in the poetry section.  So, I was about to be read by the student of a very important American poet.  And, I didn’t know what I was doing, really.  Our composition efforts in high school had been for the most part limited to essays and term papers.  I’d once written a humorous sonnet about Goldwater and Johnson and that was about it.  How did one go about writing a vignette, which as I recall was our assignment?  Midnight, one a.m., two a.m. ticked away on the smoking room wall as I sat looking at the blank page.

A fly, brought back to action by the hot light of my study lamp, worried my ear before buzzing off to pin itself to the wall. The smoke of my cigarette curled between us, and suddenly, in a sort of astral projection, I was that fly on the wall getting high on the fumes of a doobie that smoked in the ashtray beneath it.  The room was filled with the imaginary bodies of stoned kids splayed out on the floor or with headphones on their heads.  I started to write.  Forget that I had never smelled or seen marijuana, let alone smoked a joint. It was easier for me to imagine that fly getting high than to imagine myself doing so, but within a half hour, I’d completed the essay, set my alarm clock and had joined the fly in its herbally-induced sleep.

The next day, I placed my own sheet on the pile of papers on his desk.  Mr. Cole entered as usual, slamming the briefcase, removing it, slamming, slamming.  I had never been introduced to the term “Tourette’s Syndrome,” but many years later I wondered if perhaps this accounted for some of his oddness.  He would stand at the desk and crane his neck upwards, roll his eyes.  Sometimes he would look at one back corner of the room and then at the other, as though he were privy to some world and audience we had no access to. Seeing a film on Roethke, I wondered if he had patterned some of his odd behavior on his former teacher. This is just a scrap of a remembrance, so perhaps I dreamed it.  In this era of YouTube it would not be hard to check out.

Three days later, he was ready to discuss our vignettes.  There were many in this class, he revealed, who were able to put words down on paper but who were not writers.  There was one student, however, who had portrayed the truth in a way that the others had failed. This student had displayed courage in telling about a part of themselves that no one else had been willing to be vulnerable enough to display. He then read my essay as an example of superior writing to the entire class.

What I felt? Relief, certainly.  Pride?  Sorry, but yes.  I enjoyed being singled out.  After the class, other students came up to me saying they would not have had the courage to write the truth like that or to admit they’d smoked pot and applauded my success in exactly expressing what it was like to be stoned.  On the way back to the sorority house to do our pledge duties, my friend giggled and admitted she had never smoked pot.  “Neither have I,” I confessed, with a sideways grin at her.

I took three classes from Mr. Cole. In Honors Freshman English, I earned an A.  When I took creative writing from him a year later, he seemed to have me completely confused with another student who had taken a class from him the semester before.  He kept calling me Jenny and commenting on how my writing had improved.  The next semester, I took another class from him and in the margin of one of the first poems I wrote for him, he said, “Not quite up to the sudden fine standards you set for yourself last semester!”  I knew then that he was still thinking of me as Jenny and was disappointed that I’d returned to my former standards of mediocrity.  He’d given me a B+ on the poem.  I tried harder for the remainder of my last semester in his class, earned another A and would like to believe I lived up to his expectations. Of Jenny.

We do not always stand out in the memories of those we admire with the same clarity that they stand out in ours. What happened to Mr. Cole, I do not know.  As with many in our lives, when his importance in my own life ended, so did his existence.  I tried Googling his name once and found nothing, which may mean his own poetry books were published in a pre-computer era.  When I Google my own name, there are 209,000  entries listed, probably most having to do with some other combinations of my name, but most of the ones really referring to me have to do with writing. Probably all of those entries deserve a footnote of thanks to Mr. Cole, who was the first to find merit in my words and also the first to be deceived by them.

(You can see a 25-minutes YouTube video on Theodore Roethke here. Other than his reading style, he really doesn’t have much in common with Mr. Cole at all.)

The Prompt: Teacher’s Pet—Write about a teacher who influenced you.