someone succeeds in provoking you, realize that your mind is complicit in the
provocation.— Epictetus, Greek Philosopher.
Photograph of a fake highway sign by
Michigan Technological University students in 1984.
Also applies to Houghton,
NY (copyright John Marchesi).
Houghton College is in the middle
of nowhere, and you have to bring your own nowhere.
When I attended Houghton College
in the 1980s, the small, isolated Conservative Evangelical college community in
Alleghany County had an insular provincialism that provided a sort of
safe haven from the world for religiously indoctrinated youth experiencing
their first real freedoms as adults, myself included. There were few computers, poor radio reception, poor TV reception, and no cable TV. Students were required to sign “the
Pledge,” a contractual agreement that said the student would not dance, drink, do
drugs, have sex (at least get caught), go to chapel, etc. Going to the movies
on Sunday was also verboten, but things really loosened up in 1983 when they
began letting students use playing cards.
We told him about how our land was stolen
and our people were dying. . . . He shook our hands and said “Endeavor to
persevere.” We thought about it for a long time, “Endeavor to persevere.” And
when we had thought about it long enough, we declared war on the Union. — Lone
Watie, The Outlaw Josey Wales.
Professor Rich Perkins, a
sociology professor, was bothered by a recent op-ed I wrote in my weekly column,
“Pandora’s Box,” in the Oct. 9, 1987, issue of The Houghton Star titled “War and Peace” which addressed the
question of whether Christians should serve in the military. A hypothetical
situation regarding an invasion of the United States by the Soviet Union was
proposed in an exercise in values clarification. I asked, what should be the
“Would I kill to
liberate? . . . No, I would not. Christ, if you recall, was born in an occupied
land. . . . Christ did nothing to further the zealots' cause.”
I identified as a pacifist and
stated that I thought, based on the New Testament, Christians should not serve
in the military. My opinion was that unlike personal self-defense, joining the
military is proactively seeking out the opportunity either to kill or to
support the killing machine. While it may be true that there are no atheists in
foxholes, there is no God either. War is an act entirely of our own creation.
We own war — not God nor the devil. So, military service, even under an
occupation, seemed to me to be incongruent with the teachings and life
experience of Jesus.
Professor Perkins, who served in
the army during the Vietnam War (I believe as a lieutenant), and being a man of
faith, took umbrage at my assertions. As a draft-era veteran, he didn’t have
much of a choice except get an academic or medical deferment, dodge it, or
serve. In response, rather than writing a letter to the college newspaper to
bitch about me, as dozens did that year, Perkins instead choose to approach me
in line at Big Al’s while I was waiting on an order of wings.
I knew of Perkins, everyone did. He
was one of the most well-liked professors on campus, but I don’t recall ever
having spoken to him before, let alone taken a class. So, I wasn’t a student of
his, I didn’t live in his commune (more on that later), and I didn’t mention
him in my column, so I wasn’t sure why he felt he needed to approach me.
He seemed a bit hesitant. I could
tell this was a sensitive issue for him. Perkins must have seen his share of
combat in the war, maybe lost some comrades, and my column probably kicked up
some old dust. He briefly explained the moral quandary of his generation and
ended with a plaintive, “Well, that’s all I wanted to say.”
I was a little confused. I did
not mention Vietnam. I proposed a hypothetical regarding a Red Dawn-type scenario where we get invaded, not where we do the
invading (as in Vietnam), but apparently the discussion of the morality of the
faithful participating in the war machine struck a nerve. I muttered, “Um . . .
OK. Whatever,” and took my order and left. I had a couple other words in mind,
but I felt it better to err on the side of respect.
It was a rare moment of restraint
for my younger self.
It probably struck Perkins as
though I was being arrogant and didn’t give a damn, which actually was sort of true.
Nevertheless, it was obviously a sensitive issue for him. Typically, impromptu public
debates accomplish little more than just exercise egos. Besides, I wasn’t
interested in debating, proselytizing, or changing anyone’s mind. I just wanted
to have my say, I had my say, and if that bugs you, that’s on you. Let me eat
If any man despises me, that’s his problem. My
only concern is not doing or saying anything deserving of contempt. — Marcus
Aurelius, Roman Emperor.
Perkins was in charge of one of
two “communal” off-campus houses, one for women and one for men. I use
“communal” in quotes because it wasn’t really a commune; it was more of a
cooperative living experiment. The residents were generally all like-minded
liberal Evangelical Christians, though a few conservatives may have been
included to balance things out. Nevertheless, it was largely liberal in
orientation. Though to be clear, a liberal Evangelical Christian in the 1980s
would probably be considered a moderate conservative today.
The emphasis of the community, if
I recall correctly, was on building consensus among the residents with house activities, group
meetings, group hugs, and fundraising for the Saul Alinsky Scholarship
I’m only joking about one of those,
Unlike other on- and off-campus
housing, where you got a place if there was a vacancy, admittance at the
commune was selective, like a fraternity or sorority. Students had to apply for
admittance and were voted on by the other residents. I believe this required
either a majority or unanimous vote, but either way this struck many as not as
egalitarian as the commune’s values laid claim to.
Due to the collective nature and
liberal politics, the residents were sometimes referred to as “communards,”
more so after the eponymous 1980s’ band than the members of the 1871 Paris
Commune, though it kind of worked both ways. Despite my liberal beliefs, I was
more of a “Christo-Anarchist,” which actually is a word. I did not invent it. I
only discovered it years later, though I admit it probably is a good thing I
did not find my “label” back then. Christo—Anarchism is a rejection of
hierarchical authoritarian structures, both state and religious, with an
emphasis on the Sermon of the Mount for its core principals. At the time, that
pretty much defined my worldview. Like a malignant mutation, we spring up
spontaneously at random, produced by the very system we criticize.
Interestingly, my biggest
conflicts on campus were not with the conservative Christians, who, apart from
some passive-aggressive behavior and letters to The Houghton
Star, generally ignored me, viewing me with little more regard than they
would a feces-throwing monkey at a circus sideshow. Rather, my conflicts were
often with the liberal Christians who thought my antics were counterproductive, unChrist-like, and downright rude, which
actually was the point, if I had one at all. Anyone looking for a method to my
madness, I quote Minimalist composer John Cage, “I have nothing to say and I am
In some ways, the campus
conservatives and the communards were two sides of the same coin, both
embracing hierarchical authoritarian structures with value systems they thought
were inherently superior the other’s. My belief was simply, “A pox on both your
houses.” Consequently, despite sharing liberal beliefs, my anarchism often
found me ideologically at odds not only with the campus conservatives, but also
sometimes with the communards, and occasionally with Prof. Perkins himself.
Anarchy in the Alleghenies
Your boos mean nothing. I’ve seen what makes you cheer. — Rick Sanchez, Rick and Morty.
I ended up with my previously mentioned column, “Pandora’s Box” through a bit of subterfuge. The editor of The Houghton Star was elected through a popular vote. After the winner for my senior year had been announced, some supporters told me they stuffed the ballot boxes in his favor. Actually, they told me about it while we were smoking weed in the laundromat in town. Their candidate, a communard, never worked for the paper, while the “loser” had worked tirelessly the past three years. Usually, I wouldn’t have cared, but it rankled my sense of fair play. Also, all they had was dirt weed.
I “casually” informed a friend on the student senate about my encounter. To his credit, he kept the pot-smoking part out of it when he told the dean. However, before that happened, I extracted a promise from the loser that if I could get a new election, and she won, she would have to give me my own column. She thought I was nuts, but shook on it and kept her promise when she won the reelection. This probably didn’t endear me much to Perkins or the commune, but right is right, though I did obviously use it to my advantage. The title of my first column was “God is Dead.”
Along with a couple other classmates, we started a band called "China Blue," for which we would write and play all our own pretentious music. We liked the name because it had an artsy-fartsy, New Wave ring to it that would appeal to the avant-garde on campus, but primarily because it was the name of a prostitute played by Kathleen Turner in the film Crimes of Passion (1984) and we got some kind of vicarious pleasure seeing the name publicized in various forms on campus.
Performing in the campus center in all my New
Wave glory (1986).
I helped set up the first chapter of Amnesty International on campus, and served as co-president, though all credit goes to my friend Mark for proposing it, getting it going, and doing the heavy lifting. Among the news we’d get from Amnesty International were reports of weapon sales and transfers, like landmines. In addition to solidifying my pacifism, this sparked an interest in the arms industry which eventually led me to a 25-plus year career as a freelance defense consultant specializing in tracking weapon development, deployments, and sales.
In 1985, Ron Sider, founder of Evangelicals for Social Action, and the author of the influential book, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger: Moving from Affluence to Generosity (1979), appeared on the Buffalo Suburban Campus of the college with a panel of Buffalo-area pastors for a lecture about the new challenges for the church in the 1980s. Sider’s book was must-reading and given his reputation on the cutting edge of social issues as a Christian, I thought it curious that he did not mention HIV/AIDS or homosexuality at all in his lecture. It was 1985 and it was the hot topic of the day, but not a word on it from Sider. So, during the Q&A I asked them, and Sider specifically, what the church was doing to reach out and minister to this group of people. It was a cheap trick because I knew the church wasn’t doing squat, but I was curious to see how he would answer it.
The audience groaned and mumbled while the girl next to me covered her face and shrank down in her seat trying to hide from view. I wasn’t gay, but I knew a few of my classmates were, and I knew someone who died of AIDS. I listened carefully to what Sider said, and what he didn’t say. He fumbled about for a minute, but couldn’t come up with anything except that he heard a church in Philadelphia was “doing something.” Thanks Ron. I can see you were way ahead of the curve on this. It was clear this just wasn’t on the liberal Christian guru’s radar at the time. This was probably the point when my liberalism began to give way to anarchism.
It was a loaded question of sorts because I knew one of the pastors on the panel excommunicated a man in his church over homosexuality. By the way, I am not dredging up an old grievance I never spoke about publicly at the time. I actually wrote about the incident in my column for The Houghton Star in 1987 (see image at left).
In 1987, along with another couple like-minded classmates, we campaigned for, and won, the leadership positions of the campus chapter of Evangelicals for Social Action (ESA), a nationwide organization founded by Sider and the usual stomping grounds for the communards. We had never worked with ESA before, but thought the group could widen its appeal, and apparently so did enough of the members. Afterwards, there was a bit of an exodus as some who supported the previous leadership left the group rather than work with us, but it clarified who was serious about the group's work.
The ESA picture in the 1988 Houghton College
yearbook. I insisted that it be taken in front of the urinals in the campus center
men’s room as a symbolic gesture.
Once, local Congressional Rep. Amo Houghton (related to the college’s founding family) invited a representative of the Contras, the U.S.-back rebel group, then involved in a war against the Communist Nicaraguan government with CIA assistance, to the college to speak in hopes of getting support of funding for his organization, The student senate president, and a resident of the commune, asked me to join him in aggressively questioning the Contra about his group and the Iran-Contra affair.
We attended both of the two Q&A sessions, sitting together in the packed rooms asking complex, multipart questions which challenged the Contra’s weak English language skills. It was a cheap trick to put the Contra at a disadvantage, but after trying an end-run around the Congress to fund a revolution the first time, they should have brought their A-game for the second attempt. The Secret Service eyed us suspiciously in the first session (the fact that the Black student senate president was a British citizen with an accent to match probably caught their attention). During the second session, the SS had enough and cut the hour-long meeting thirty minutes short. Amo Houghton later withdrew his support for funding the Contras.
Somehow, I managed to land a job working night security on campus. Frankly, I was as surprised as anyone else when they hired me. My job was to check that doors were locked, walk around campus looking for trouble, and let students into their dorms after curfew. This was great as I got to know every girl who stayed out late and also got to raid the leftovers in the cafeteria. After that, I would swing by the new guys’ dorm at about 1 am and roust a couple freshmen I knew to borrow their comic books and argue campus politics with them.
A cartoon from The Houghton Star about my
nighttime exploits (1988, artist Dave Huth).
During my security guard shifts, I began leaving snarky, wiseass, anonymous comments on the bulletin board outside the campus center post office criticizing various religious beliefs. Those who disagreed began leaving responses and it was soon dubbed, “The Wittenberg Board.” After a couple months, the whole thing started to get out of control with decidedly unChrist-like anger in the responses growing in number each day. Satisfied I had accomplished my goal, I stopped, but the chaos continued without me.
I also ran afoul with some of the locals who understandably had nothing else better to do in a one-horse town where you had to bring your own horse and your own town. One night, a pick-up with a trio of townies saw me and began harassing me. This actually wasn’t my first encounter with Jughead, Gomer, and Goober, as I called them. Typically, they only had the courage for a passing insult, but tonight they seemed ready for something more.
After listening to their shit for a couple seconds, I did what any Sicilian would do knowing he was alone, outnumbered, and on foot — I gave them the finger and a defiant “FUCK YOU!” Notably, this was in front of the only church in town. Gunning the engine, they came after me, making a U-turn, crossing the medium, and driving over the sidewalk in pursuit. I took off down the street and managed to lose them in the trailer park, which, I have to admit, I was amazed when that actually worked. I banged on the nearby door of a bodybuilder friend for help who came out saying he always knew they’d come after me some day. He had a “talk” with the townies and I didn’t see them for the rest of the semester. This incident, and others like it, was reported in the college newspaper April 22, 1988 (see image above).
I could go on with other examples of my misspent youth, but something about the statute of limitations comes to mind.
Good times . . . Good times.
Professor Perkins’ Pernicious Pupil
Whatever happened to the American Dream?
You’re looking at it. It came true. — Edward (The Comedian) Blake, The Watchmen
(my senior yearbook quote).
The Spring of 1988 found me needing
just one course to graduate, Intermediate Spanish II. Two years of a foreign
language were required and as I had failed one semester and barely passed
another, what should have taken me two years instead took three. It was one of
those archaic liberal arts requirements and had absolutely nothing to do with
my major, Broadcast Communications, or my minor, Literature. I did nothing
with it. I cannot speak a word of it today. It was a complete and total waste of time and money that would have been better spent training me for my
But hey, can’t hold grudge,
After the events recounted in “Integrity is a Four-Letter Word,” instead of transferring to a college back home to
take the course, I decided to stay and finish out Spanish with the instructor I
knew and completely forget. Better the devil you know then the devil you don’t
For the other course, I decided
to finally give Prof. Perkins a shot and take Social Stratification, a critical
look at the interrelated dynamics of aspirations, class, and the economy.The standard class size was about twenty-four
students, and the class was full. Only some were Sociology majors. Others came
from Business, Communications, Education, etc. Perkins had a rep on campus for
being one of those professors you just “had” to take a course with, if just for the
Both my classes were between 1 pm
and 4 pm Monday through Friday. Since I can be a bit obsessive-compulsive in a
slacker sort-of way, I spend every morning listening to the rock operas Tommy or Quadrophonic by The Who, and smoking a joint, often with another
student hanging out between classes. As I lived in Jack House (named after a
former coach, not me), an off-campus house whose houseparent was a single guy who
worked in admissions and was away traveling most of the time. Consequently, with
little supervision, it became pretty permissive regarding smoking pot and
having girls over.
When out and about, I had my
ever-present Walkman and usually one of the Violent Femmes’ tapes popped in and
ready to go. The folk punk band’s anger and angst-ridden critiques of society
always set me in the mood for discussions in class.
Label on the inside of books in the college library. A
passive-aggressive way of saying,
“Maybe you’ll go to hell for reading this
book, maybe you won’t, but you decide what’s best.”
The Game of Class — Everyone
Plays It, so Few Have It
me tell you about the rich. They are different than you and me.
— F. Scott
they have more money. — Ernest Hemingway (1936)
& Kahl, The American Class Structure, p. 84.)
For one of our final papers in
Perkin’s class that semester, we were to write an analysis of our participation
in a game in that mimics the dynamics of moving between economic classes. I
forget what the name of it was, so let’s just call it The Game of Class. Perkins reserved space in the smaller auditorium
where communications classes or the theater group met. Three large
tables were set up. Perkins, standing behind the podium, explained the rules of
the game. I may be foggy on some of the details, but the general thrust of the
game is as follows.
Each of the three main economic
classes would be represented by wooden blocks in the shape of a yellow triangle
for the upper class, a green square for the middle class, and a red circle for
the lower class. The goal of the game is to move through the classes, from
lower to upper. Each class required a certain number of blocks to get in. I
forget the cost, but let’s say it was one red circle to get into the lower
class, two green squares for the middle class, and three yellow triangles for
the upper class.
To start, as I recall, everyone
was given the same number of blocks, but a random selection. So, some might be
“born” in the upper class without having really done anything to get there.
Staying there, however, was another matter, but we’ll get to that in a moment.
There were two sessions of play,
the negotiation session and the committee session. The first was the
negotiation session during which one could barter and trade to get more blocks.
Someone might trade you three red circles for one yellow triangle, but the
exchange rate wasn’t fixed. It differed from person to person and changed as
the number of members in each class rose and fell. Sometimes, the availability
of blocks to trade diminished as players held on to them for their own
advancement, or to stop others from advancing. One could barter anything, not
just blocks, such as promises of voting support during the committee sessions
and conspiring to get someone kicked out of a leadership position in the group.
Anything and everything were on the table. This might go on for five minutes.
After the negotiation session
there was the committee session. In committee, the members of each class could
make rules voted on in proper democratic parliamentary procedure. A president
and other officers could be voted on. A constitution of sorts for each group was
made up and voted on as well. This might go on for ten minutes.
Then, in the very next session
everything from the previous session could be overturned as new members join
and old members change alliances. A coup
d'état could take place and the old order overthrown and a new constitution
written. It quickly became apparent that little could get done as the dominant
personalities jockeyed for position and influence. I don’t recall if one could
get voted out of a group, but people could lose their blocks and go down a class, conspire to isolate a player, refuse
to barter with them, and essentially prevent them from obtaining influence in
After a couple rounds, it became
apparent is that a cycle of negotiation and barter and committee meetings soon
became not just the focus, but the whole point of the game — to create a
self-sustaining perpetual motion machine of pointlessness. That actually probably
was the point, but I also observed that there was a lot of backstabbing and
lying and hurt feelings taking place.
It reminded me about having been
required to play the game Diplomacy
in Dean Massey’s Western Civilization class as a freshman. Diplomacy is a bit like the game Risk, but set in Europe during World War I. To move, players have
to write orders and get the support of allies, so influence, not luck, is how
the game is played. One nation is not strong enough to win on its own, but only
one nation can win the game. As with Prof. Perkins' Game of Class, there is a negotiation session during which allied
players coordinate their moves to defeat other players; however, it is just a
matter of time before someone backstabs you. I remember how all the games
dissolved into arguments, hurt feelings, and occasionally tears.
As it turned out, Dean Massey had
never played the game. Considering all the melodrama, I wonder how he would
have done. Likewise, I wondered how Perkins might do if he had to play his own
game. Well, even feces-throwing monkeys at the circus get tired of being objects
of other people’s entertainment and I just about had enough of being a lab rat, so I sat down.
I picked a spot in the middle of
the room strategically located between the three tables and sat on the floor.
Everyone would have to walk around me or over me, acknowledge me or ignore me,
but they would have to deal with me. I thought about putting on my headphones
and listening to the Violent Femmes, but concluded that would be more
disrespectful than just sitting down in the middle of everyone’s way. I didn’t
have to go full asshole. Half asshole would do just fine.
An anonymous ad in the college newspaper.
Prof. Perkins gave me a look from
his perch behind the podium. It was the “Oh God, what is he going to do now?”
look I had become acquainted with. I did a sit-down protest at a basketball
game when I sat down during the National Anthem (see “A Liberal in the Land of Canaan”), so I
was pulling out an old trick. As I learned, when used at the right time,
passive, non-violent, non-action can be very, very provocative.
The other students tried to
ignore me at first. Some had a few terse comments about me messing things up. Some
asked me why I was doing it. I simply answered, “I don’t wanna.” Expecting some
extended anarchist diatribe from me, this frustrated them even further.
I sat there alone for a session
or two until a couple students joined me. Then, after another session, a few more
joined us. At this point, I probably did shout some Marxist slogans, primarily Groucho ("I refuse to join any club that would have me for a member"), and tossed in a “Viva la Revolution!” with my fist in the air just for
good measure. That was probably the only phrase in Spanish after three years I
could remember, though I probably picked it up from a Speedy Gonzalez cartoon.
A snapshot of my personality and politics not long
after graduation on WQBK-1300 AM.
I may have mellowed out a bit since then.
Towards the end, about half the
class joined me. The students who continued to play were spread across the now-sparsely occupied tables. With
fewer participants, the last couple rounds were essentially lame duck sessions
and the game slowly ground to a halt. Then, the bell rang and class was over.
As everyone meandered their way out the door, I got up off the
floor, grabbed my books, and snapped on my headphones. Prof. Perkins leaned his
long, lanky arms over the lectern and gave me a look that was both exasperated
and amused, but mostly exasperated.
“This won’t affect my participation grade will it?” I asked
rhetorically as I walked by and turned on the Violent Femmes without waiting
for an answer.
“The only way to win is not to play.” War
In my paper, regarding my
analysis of the game and the social class structure, I concluded by quoting from
the film War Games (1983), “The only
way to win is not to play.” This has continued to embody my attitude towards
class and social stratification, though I’m not quite sure that was the lesson
intended by the game.
I still have my textbooks from
the class, The American Class Structure,
by Dennis Gilbert and Joseph A. Kahl, and the classic Ain’t No Making It, by Jay MacLeod. I have read them periodically
over the past 34 years. Admittedly, I was not much of a student and my face
lost among the thousands of students Perkins taught in his lifetime, but I
doubt many of them kept the books or reread them.
My textbooks for Social Stratification, Spring
Looking at our past is often
through rose-colored glasses. As is the case with trips down memory lane, I am
recalling events through my own singular perspective, which may be different
than some of my old classmates’ recollections. I have certainly mellowed over
the years and am no longer the thin, scruffy, long-haired neo-hippie I was so
many years ago, though largely my opinions haven’t changed.
I know it sounds like I have been
critical of Prof. Perkins, but he gave me space in class to be me and explore
my ideas. An old classmate recently reminded me how my debates with Perkins
would take up most of the class. It made me remember how patient he must
have been. Every once in a while, I get a student all fired up who wants to
spend the entire class debating their idea du jour, much like I used to do. I
always remember Prof. Perkins, take a breath, let them speak, and then explain why I’m right.
Maybe I didn’t change all that
much after all, but I like to think that would have pleased him.
In the summer of 1969, at the end
of the school year, and just before I was to have started kindergarten that
fall, I sat on my parents’ bed playing with a small blue Volkswagen Beetle. Herbie, The Love Bug had just been
released, but not having a toy version of my own to play with, I settled for
pretending the blue one I already had was Herbie. My parents’ blanket was
ribbed with raised lines that made for a perfect track.
My dad came in and placed a
couple items on his dresser, a clay ashtray and a small brightly colored painted stone,
gifts made in school by my brother and sister, Joe and Annmarie, respectively.
I became immediately jealous. I wanted to make something in school to give my
dad, but I didn’t want to wait. So, I picked up what was my most prized
possession at the time, my little blue Volkswagen Beetle (see image above), and presented it to my father
with the pride of a martyr being led to their fate. OK, perhaps it was because I just happened to have it in my hand at the time, but I really liked that toy car. I soon regretted my
decision and entertained the thought of asking for it back, but I quickly
forgot about it. I had lots of toy cars.
In any event, my parents
divorced. As happens with divorce, families often scramble for a place to land.
I moved between five addresses in the five years after the marriage broke up,
bouncing between parents like a ping pong ball. As it happens
with frequent moves, much gets lost or left behind. I have absolutely nothing
left from my youth except for some old photos, an old beach blanket from the summer of 1973 when
we went to Miami, and just one other item. Like a boomerang, an old treasure cast away as a child came back decades later.
My father died on June 15, 2002, the
day before Father’s Day, and some thirty-three years after I gave him that
small blue toy Volkswagen Beetle, so this day always seems a little extra empty
to me. His death took six months and was agonizing to witness. It was like watching
him slowly fall off a cliff and not having the strength to pull him back.
After the funeral and all the dust
had settled, I found in the top drawer of his dresser my toy blue Volkswagen (see image above). It
felt like being reunited with a long-lost friend. I didn’t know he kept it all
Another item of my father’s found just a few years ago is an old Father’s Day gift from 1972. My
folks separated briefly in 1971, so the following year my siblings and I got
him a small statue of a father and son together with the words, "It's Great To Have A Dad Like You," as a gift for Father’s Day — fifty
years ago today (see image left). Perhaps as a bit of emotional blackmail to keep the folks together, but, alas, it did not work.
There is a bit of sadness
whenever I look at these relics of my shared past with my father. Not just because
it is a reminder of my childhood and my father’s love, but also for the family that was split up, for the home that was lost, for the years I
cannot get back, and for the memories that claw at me as though they only happened yesterday.
The Old Man and I, August 1978, in Lake George,
NY. Joseph A. Urso Jr. 1934-2002.
At Houghton College, the Evangelical Christian college I attended in the 1980s, there was a small white house that sat at the entrance. At the time I was a student there, it housed a large family of Cambodian refugees. Houghton College is a fairly remote, rural town in Western New York. How a family of Cambodian refugees ended up here, I’m not certain, but in a typical American display of “We mean well, but we don’t know what we’re doing,” whoever sponsored the family relocated them from a war-torn tropical nation to the Middle of Nowhere, NY, where snow falls in feet and can remain on the ground, and I kid you not, until early May.
In my last year of college, as part of my work with Evangelicals for Social Action (ESA), I worked with an organization called Allegheny County Outreach in a Big Brother/Big Sister-type outreach program.Anke, with whom I was the co-director of homecoming that year, was tasked as the Big Sister for the four younger Cambodian kids, who ranged in age from about six to twelve-years-old. Overwhelmed, particularly with the silent, surly twelve-year-old boy, she asked me if I would be Big Brother to her Big Sister and help out.
In addition to homecoming, ESA, playing bass in two bands, working part-time, disc jockeying on the college radio station, and writing a weekly column in the college newspaper, I wasn’t studying, so why not help out.
Most Saturdays, Anke and I would do some kind of activity with the kids, such as taking them to a movie on campus or to the cafeteria for dinner and desert. There was a cultural gap that was difficult to manage at times. The youngest ones were usually just happy to be somewhere with “the big kids,” but the twelve-year-old was moody and surly. The Cambodia they escaped from was war-torn and experienced a nationwide genocide. My mother, who saw a lot of horrible things during the occupation of Sicily by the Nazis in World War II (see “News from the Front: Memories of a World War II Refugee”), gave me a certain amount of understanding, but being only 21 what the hell did I know about life, let alone kids?
The culture clash became apparent when we brought the kids to a luncheon event for all the children in the program. I’m not sure who originally thought of the idea kids like clowns, but they probably never had kids or saw clowns or saw kids and clowns together, ever. For the younger Cambodian children especially, in whose culture white is the color associated with death and mourning, white-faced clowns were both confusing and terrifying.
The culture clash also manifested itself in what only can be described as an awful and tragic miscommunication. Anke, in all her innocent naiveté, got the kids a puppy as a way of cheering the kids up and giving them something they could play with and learn responsibility.
A few weeks later, Anke asked how the puppy was and the children replied it was great and they enjoyed it very much.
Let me pause while that sinks in.
That’s long enough. Yes, OH MY GOD, they ate the poor thing!
It’s one of those times when you really don’t know what to say. We understood the differences in culture, but being confronted with it rather than as a sidebar comment in the margin of our sociology textbook, was a surreal experience.
Anke, as you can imagine was absolutely horrified. She looked at me for help and almost immediately regretted it.
Without missing a beat, and wanting to break the tension and belay the children’s confusion at Anke’s reaction, I commented as nonchalantly as possible, “I had some with the Korean students. It was OK, spicy, but a little tough and chewy.”
Let me back up and explain.
In my freshman year, 1984, I befriended several South Korean students, Jin Kim and Min Kim (no relation), and a couple others whose names I forget, but included one young man whose fiancé was on Korean Air Lines Flight 007 which was shot down by a Soviet aircraft on September 1, 1983. One day, they made a big deal of cooking up a real homemade South Korean meal. They went to Buffalo to visit the local Korean community and get the ingredients. Nobody else was invited, or perhaps they turned down the invitation knowing what was coming.
As well all sat down to eat, Jin and Min kept giving each other sideways glances and looking at me. They asked me how I liked the dish, which was some kind of beef with vegetables and noodles, and snickered at each other. I was missing out on the joke until finally, the guy who lost his fiancé on Flight 007, and had little patience for pranks, blurted out, “It’s dog. We’re eating dog.”
They all looked at me, waiting for my reaction, having successfully baited the ignorant American, but I grew up with a Sicilian mother who made her own sausage (with real intestines!), butchered chickens and rabbits, and kept decapitated goat heads in the freezer to keep the brains fresh, so the revelation, however distasteful, didn’t faze me. They would have to do a lot more than feed me dog to get my goat.
“It’s a little chewy, but OK,” I commented in a backhanded passive-aggressive complement.
Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch . . .
Already stunned by the children’s confession, my admission angered Anke and she looked at me as though I was eating dog right then and there.
The oldest boy put his head back and laughed, almost uncontrollably. He laughed at me for admitting I once ate dog, he laughed at Anke for being horrified, and he probably laughed at the Koreans for not knowing how to cook dog properly.After that, our relationship improved and he began to talk with me more. Nothing serious, but he began to let his guard down.
While it seems I am making fun of eating dog, I am an animal rights supporter and have been involved in animal rescue and pet adoption groups, so I don’t toss around what happened lightly, but what happened, happened. I didn’t do so intentionally, but having done so I used it to reach across a cultural and age gap to connect with an immigrant child from a war-torn country. In that regard, I have no regrets.
That white house at the entrance of Houghton College is long gone. It has been replaced by a modern, upscale inn which likely services a steady stream of visiting parents and prospective students. Whatever happened to the Cambodian family is unknown. That angry, young twelve-year-old boy would be about 46 now, and even the youngest child would be about 40. If they remember Anke and I at all, we are but long-distant memories shrouded by the passage of the years. Time, and life, goes on.
I always have to preface stories
about my undergraduate days by explaining I attended a Conservative Evangelical
Christian college in the 1980s, so if this sounds like some kind of bizarre parallel
universe in another dimension, that would be correct.
But I digress.
One requirement of the college
was that we attend chapel four days a week, between 11 am and Noon, in the large
auditorium on campus which also served as the church for Sunday services. Called
“The Pledge,” this was a contractual agreement that required us to attend
chapel and abstain from dancing, drugs, sex, and going to movies on Sundays. That
sounds harsh, but I hasten to add the restriction against playing cards on
campus was lifted in 1983, so to confirm Jerry Falwell’s comment about “That
liberal college up North,” we were progressive AF in the Regan era.
As background, I should explain that I was to have graduated in December 1987, but because I failed my first year of Spanish, it pushed my graduation date forward one term. Now, I could have just gone home and taken the course at
SUNY-Albany, but I knew the instructor at Houghton, who tolerated my
low-performing existence, and I have no talent at foreign languages, so I
wasn’t anxious to switch boats in mid-stream. I figured I would stay on campus
that Spring and go part-time. In order to get financial aid, I had to take at
least nine credit hours. I only needed one course, Spanish, but thought I could
take a couple others outside my major I always wanted to take, like
Social Stratification and another theater or lit course.
The first obstacle I encountered
with that course of action was with chapel and Dean Danner. Taking nine credit
hours to qualify for financial aid meant that I was still required to attend
chapel four days a week. I absolutely bristled at the idea. I always pushed the
limit on the number of chapels I could miss without getting expelled, and
sometimes exceeding it, usually with a well-timed medical excuse near the very
end of the semester when there was really nothing that could be done about it.
At this point, needing only one course to graduate I was even less inclined to
sit through them. It came to a head one day after I told my advisor I refused
to go as I saw it as a pointless waste of my time. After Dean Danner caught
wind of it, he asked me to visit him at home so we could talk about it.
We had a long conversation about
faith, but particularly about integrity — being a man of your word. Dean Danner
was a retired Army Lt. Col., so concepts like honor, respect, and integrity we
important to him. I may not like the Pledge, but I signed it, Dean Danner
reminded me. I gave my word and as long as I was registered for at least nine
credit hours I was committed to attending chapel. Sometimes, there is a cost in
keeping one’s word, he noted. In my case, it would be attending chapel.
Now, I want to say that Dean
Danner was a real classy guy. He was patient and kind and had a sense of humor.
For example, knowing he was perceived as the head Pledge law enforcement
officer, he had no problem playfully portraying Big Brother on posters advertising
a showing of the film 1984, starring
John Hurt and Richard Burton (see image at right). I concede, however, that it was a little less
than generous for me to go around adding toothbrush mustaches to the posters. It
is probably even a little less generous that I held on to a photograph of it
for nearly thirty-five years. I can’t say all our interactions were as pleasant
as this meeting, but I can venture a guess he probably turned a blind eye at times.
I thought long and hard about
what Dean Danner said and decided he was right. As long as I was registered for nine credit hours, I had to keep my word. So, I
dropped a course and no longer had to attend
chapel. My integrity was intact. Problem solved.
Ironically, while there is
usually a cost to maintain one’s integrity, in my case, by dropping a course, I
actually saved money.
Hey, a Big Brother has to make a living, am I right?