My first semester at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, definitely had its best of times and worst of times split pretty much down the middle.
In the “best” column, I had a 16th-Century Non-Dramatic Poetry course that I absolutely loved. The professor who taught it was brilliant, his command of the literature we covered most comprehensive, and he could read Latin and reel off memorized lines of literature in the most astonishing fashion.
I was told that this professor was one of the toughest graders in the department. When I ended up with an A-/B+ on my research paper, I was congratulated by all my friends. But his comment, “If you’d written one more draft, this would have been a great paper,” depressed the hell out of me. Yes, if there’d been word processors in those days, I’d have written better papers in every class, but alas, rewrites were much harder, more tedious, less easy to accomplish than they would have been today. Just getting you page margins right was a stress test designed to break you.
Maybe what depressed me most about that grade was that everyone had told me to expect harsh grading, which made me want to achieve an A all that much more. Ah, if I had all the time in the world.
After I saw my grade, I wandered around the downtown Madison area, cursing. It was very cold, that week before Christmas, but I bought a hotdog and sat on the curb on the main city square. The Strand Theater happened to be next door, and as I sat there sullenly ruminating while chomping on the Oscar Mayer wiener – the Oscar Mayer plant just a few miles away – the Now Playing movie poster caught my eye.
Rocky. I’d heard about this movie from several people. All the reviews were good. After I’d downed the wiener, I took in a matinee.
If you don’t know Rocky, where have you been? I tell you I came out of that movie absolutely jacked up. It’s still one of my favorites, and when I was in Philadelphia many years later, I climbed, slowly, that flight of stairs where the statue of Rocky stands, triumphant in the end.
My paper grade blues were behind me, and I came out of the dark and into the light of Madison renewed. Hey, it’s as my friends said, he was one of the toughest graders. Not bad in the end.
Yeah, one more draft. But isn’t that almost always the case, computer or typewriter or quill pen aside? One more draft. I’ll be saying that with everything I write until the day I shuffle off this mortal coil.
Another thing that was both a positive and maybe not so much at the same time was playing the guitar. I’d taken about ten lessons when I was in maybe 7th-Grade. My sister and I had both done so, going once a week for our half-hour each to Harry’s Music in Kaimukī. I’m not sure why we stopped so abruptly, but we did.
Between that time and 12th-Grade, I’d tried a number of instruments including cello and clarinet, but nothing stuck. For most of my high school career, I’d carried on with voice. My Honolulu Children’s Opera Chorus days had put me on the singing track, and there I stayed through senior year.
It’s funny, in my senior year, as possibly a signal that all things musical were about to evaporate from my life, I pulled off a kind of magnum opus of a performance to kick my own ass out the high-school door. It occurred as we prepared ourselves for the end of year concert, perhaps two months out.
We were sitting in the choir room waiting for our teacher to come in for class. For some fateful reason, rumblings surfaced about the songs we were preparing for our farewell concert. Unhappy with the songs we were rehearsing, we came up with this brilliant plan, adults that we were, to air our disenchantment with the proposed slate of tunes.
I don’t know how it happened, but I was appointed spokesperson for the group. What’s weird is that I didn’t really mind the songs we were singing very much at all, but I agreed to speak up when our teacher arrive. My famous last words were, “And you guys will then speak out and back me up, right?” To which the group responded with resounding resolve that they indeed would do that, you bet you.
In walked Miss Rialto – not her real name – and before she had a chance to seat herself upon the piano bench, my hand shot into the air.
“Yes, Lanny, do you have a question?”
I looked around at all my friends’ determined and encouraging faces. “No, not a question, Miss Rialto. I, I mean we, aren’t happy with the songs were practicing to sing at the final concert. We don’t want our parents to hear those songs. We were wondering if we could choose new songs.”
What an asshole. I couldn’t believe I actually said that.
Miss Rialto looked stunned. I’m not surprised she did. “Lanny, I’m sorry to hear this. You say the entire class feels this way?”
“Yes, all of us,” I said, looking around the room, waiting for someone to speak.
The silence lasted many beats. Finally I said, “Come on, you guys, say something. You want to change the songs, right?”
It was like something out of The Twilight Zone. Not a sound. It was a sea of blank, placid faces. Had I dreamed the entire plotting of this asinine scheme?
I surveyed the group one last desperate time. Nothing.
“Class?” Miss Rialto said. “Is Lanny correct? Do you all feel this way?”
All eyes shifted from me to her. “Come on,” I said, “tell her!”
It was eerie. I was mad. “I thought you guys said you’d back me up?” I yelled. “Well thanks for nothing!”
Raising my voice, and not in some mellifluous crescendo of a song, did not sit well with Miss Rialto. Could I blame her? She said, “Lanny, I think you’d better go to the office. I’ll be over after class to talk with you and Dr. Flowers.” Dr. Flowers – not her real name – was our principal.
I cursed all the way to the office. Some friends. Some show of support. What kind of fool am I? I wondered.
“What are you doing here, Lanny?” asked Dr. Flowers when I threw myself down in a chair outside her office.
I explained the situation. “Well that wasn’t a very bright idea,” she said.
She was right, of course. And what pissed me off more than anything else wasn’t the betrayal by my classmates, but the fact that I actually liked the songs we were singing.
The upshot was a pretty massive detention assignment that our vice-principal, Mr. Slippers – not his real name either – came up with. My job was to clean the whole school on an upcoming Saturday. No, not every classroom. I was to hose down the exterior walls, doors, and hallways. That’s a good story all by itself, but something better described at another point.
In an ironic twist, I never sang for my parents at all in the end. Due to some scheduling lunacy back in those days, graduation actually took place before the end of the school year. That meant after all the partying of graduation weekend, we had to drag our sorry hungover selves back to school for another week in prison.
The farewell concert took place at the end of that lame-duck five days and, as fate, or luck, would have it, I was able to arrange to leave on a trip to visit my sister in New York before the night of the concert. I can’t remember if I did that intentionally, or if it just happened that way, but my singing career ended absent the concert. I never found out how that musical extravaganza went for my friends. I hope they did well with all those songs that remained exactly the same as Miss Rialto had planned.
So there was a gap the whole length of my undergraduate years where I did nothing related to music. Then one day a few weeks into grad school in Madison, I happened to walk by this music shop a couple blocks from my apartment.
I’m not sure why I went in. It reminded me of Harry’s Music, the walls lined with instruments of all kinds, bins and bins full of sheet music and songbooks.
I wandered over to the guitars. Looking at the price tags, I realized that I could actually afford some of the cheaper models. I tried out a few and fell in love with the sound of one. I think it cost maybe $130. I bought it, along with Gordon Lightfoot’s Gord’s Gold songbook, the sheet music to “Stairway to Heaven” and Rod McKuen’s “Jean,” from The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, then proceeded home where, from that day on, I practiced playing music like I never had before. Blessed with living in an absolutely sound-proof apartment, I would play all night long for several years to come.
That, for my soul and for my mental well-being was a very good thing. For my staying awake in classes, or even attending them, well, that was a bit of a problem. Whereas I’d only missed a total of one, count ‘um, one class in all of my undergraduate years, which is also a good story all by itself, I actually started missing maybe a class every week or so, always the earliest one. I did not feel good about this, but music had become so important to me that the supreme importance of English literature began to slide a bit. That definitely fit into the “worst” category in the end.
Perhaps the best/worst part of that first semester, however, had to do with alcohol and marijuana. Beer especially, paired quite well with guitar playing. Even as the weather grew colder, I would sit on my apartment building roof practicing guitar and drinking Point Beer. Point beer, brewed in Steven’s Point, Wisconsin, had become a favorite, and as my favorite, I proved my loyalty by spending lots of time with it.
Marijuana paired not so well with serious practice, but my friends had easy access to it, and therefore so did I. Besides, there’s a lot to be said for cutting loose and just playing whatever comes to mind every once in a while. The weed was less frequent than the alcohol, but appreciated nonetheless.
Now here’s the worst part. The night before I was supposed to fly back to Hawai‘i for Christmas break, there was a huge party blowout at one of my friend’s homes. I arrived promptly at the appointed hour of 5:00, and promptly began drinking beer. The marijuana bearers all began to appear, and we fired up accordingly. Between the beer and the dope, all was going along swimmingly well, but then the eggnog was served and, not being the greatest imbiber of rum, I proceeded to get drunker and more stoned than I’d ever been in my life.
It’s a good thing I taken the bus. Had I tried to drive that night, there is no doubt in my mind that I would have died. Some kind friends offered to drive me back downtown. This was good. I think I might have ridden buses all night long out of confusion.
What was bad was that I did not let them drop me right outside my apartment. Why? I have no idea. I requested that they simply drop me off on State Street, the main drag, and then I guess I had it in mind to walk the rest of the way.
Which I did. But not in the way you might think. The walk I took that night, in my memory, seemed to be very much like the walkabout practiced by the Aborigines of Australia. Both for length of time and for visionary experience, I think I was just about on par with them.
I mean this walk took forever. What should have been a three-block jaunt, turned into, by the clock when I finally arrived back at my apartment, four hours. Over the course of that wandering through the snowy Madison night, I remember three things.
One, at some point I was in a railroad yard. If I did not roll under a dozen train cars, then it was at least eleven. At one point I thought to myself, “I will die out here in the snow.”
I remember being so desperate, that at one point I came upon a payphone and made a collect call to my parents back in Honolulu. When they later told me about the conversation we’d had I was amazed. I’d said many things to them, including that I was at the airport waiting for them to pick me up, that I was back in town but staying the night in a condominium at Foster Towers down by the Pali Safeway below our house, and that I was speaking to them not by phone but by shortwave radio.
Had they been concerned? Hell yes. “You were so drunk,” my mom said, “that we weren’t sure we’d ever see you again.” And given how long it took me to get back to Honolulu, the multiple flight delays the next day and a half, that might actually have happened. But that too is a story for another time.
The third and last thing I remember is finally coming to an apartment building that looked very familiar. No, not my own, but the building in which lived my best friends over the duration of my years in Madison. I think I cried out of the relief I felt. I’d really thought I was a goner.
Stumbling inside, I knocked on their door. Not realizing it was 3:00 a.m., I knocked and knocked an knocked.
Of course my friends, not expecting anyone to be calling at this hour, did not answer the door right away for fear I might be an axe murderer.
Once it was finally established that I was me, my friend walked me back to my apartment. I kept on apologizing like a madman. I don’t think I’ve ever been so scared in my life.
So yeah, the drinking and the dope were plentiful in those Mad City days, but the downside was that I could have ended up dead because of that. Maybe with alarming regularity.
I had to travel for two days after that to finally get back to Hawai‘i. Weather kept closing down airport after airport. When I finally made it to the gate at Honolulu International Airport. My mom cried, my dad sighed, and I, I thanked God I hadn’t actually died.
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Aloha #WriterThursday. If you celebrate Thanksgiving, I hope you are having a good one. Today’s #WritingPrompt is
Use it to inspire a piece of writing, and then post that piece on our site and link back to me, or simply leave it as a comment below. I would love to read it : )