S.M. Park

Class of ’73

S.M. Park’s continuing column Risen Apes about being a 70-year-old boomer. In “Class of ’73,” Park recalls college and his experiences with The Evergreen State College.

 

Here’s a sad commentary: There was a study at the University of Virginia a few years ago where subjects were left alone in a dark room for fifteen minutes (without their devices) and told to simply sit and think. That was it. They could ponder whatever they wished, but they weren’t allowed any visual or auditory distractions while they did it. If that proved too difficult for them there were electrodes attached to their fingers and—by pushing a button on the chair—they could deliver electric shocks to themselves.

There were 700 subjects and 64 percent of the men and 15 percent of the women opted for the shocks; they were that uncomfortable in their own heads.

Think how scary that is …. Who are human beings becoming? Wouldn’t one person pressing the button be too much? And how do people measure themselves without reflection? Hell, I’ve spent much of my life alone in dark rooms. It is, in fact, my favorite place to be. “Big surprise!” people who know me would say, but I’ve considered it a badge of honor (and a source of great strength) since I was a kid. I was reminded of this earlier today when I plucked The Evergreen State College magazine from my mailbox.

I get a strange sensation every time “Evergreen” is mentioned, and I can’t think of any experience that I have such mixed feelings about. On the one hand the school’s beginning synced perfectly with the end of my junior college days in 1971. I was an easily bored drunk, so getting through the same school that had offered me a basketball scholarship in ’65 had taken six years. I’d find myself in a tight spot somewhere and call Dick Kent, the head of the financial aid office, knowing he’d extend me a tuition-and-fees waiver and a work-study job if I could just make it to Longview. Then I’d do an honor roll quarter and usually start a second term before dropping out.

I couldn’t fool myself longer than that. Virtually all the kids I grew up with had attended college and I understood the mindset; it was just hard to follow through when philosophy was the only subject that interested me and it, in turn, was occupationally useless. (And better learned on the road, anyway.)

Still the Puritan stain was hard to shake and, inasmuch as I aspired to a guilt-free life, it was incumbent upon me to grit my teeth, concede that my parents’ expectations had become my own and graduate from somewhere.

Even as I was sure the degree would be otherwise useless (it has been). So there I am, with the Spring application deadline upon me, and no school I’d read about sounded good except Antioch, a little college in Ohio where, it appeared, an enterprising fellow could get by with a minimum of effort. Then Dick Kent called me into his office, handed me the Evergreen State catalogue.

“Here,” he said. “They’ve built a college for guys like you. Not only that … it’s right up the road in Olympia.”

Looking back on my life you’d think I’d be used to manna from heaven by then. Not a chance … I was drunk and stoned, not dead. I flipped through that catalogue with ever mounting wonder. Diversity? Hands-on experiences? Seminars instead of classes?  No grades and (the key phrase here) “individual responsibility?”

Where do I sign up? Which way to stoner heaven?

 

It was incumbent upon me to grit my teeth, concede that my parents’ expectations had become my own and graduate from somewhere.

 

This is where my tug of war with Evergreen began and why I was thinking of me in dark rooms earlier. Because I was as comfortable as a drunk as I was as an outlier. It was other people who were fucked up to me, and my alcohol concerns—even when I was committing myself to mental wards—were virtually never based on behavior. I tried to feel guilty when someone described my antics in a blackout, for instance, but as long as no one was killed I wasn’t that invested. I mean, if I washed down LSD while drinking vodka and smoking weed, I was obviously looking for trouble: how could I be disappointed when I found it?

No, it was the physical and mental withdrawing from the booze that finished me. So when it came time to fill out the Evergreen application, which consisted of a half dozen essay questions about my personal history and objectives, I was unashamedly honest. How I was an alkie factotum who treated life as an experiment, was partial to wino hotel rooms and shaped my drunks with psychedelics and pot. Along the way I’d survived gunfire, dozens of lowlife jobs, concussions, the d.t.’s and brain disease, but drew the line at needles and PCP and—when I was actually enrolled in college—only drank beer during the week (saving the hard liquor and cocaine for weekends). Seriously. Then I wrapped it up declaring I only wanted a degree so my parents (who were troubled by my choices thus far) could die happy.

It seems crazy to admit now, of course, but back then I thought I was telling Evergreen what it wanted to hear. That somehow the admissions officer, after marveling at the brutal honesty of my essays, would match them with my straight A transcripts and think, Damn! Just what we were looking for … a drunken drifter! This guy’s the prototype!

Which is what I meant earlier about reflection. How can I, an old man looking back, not be proud of that eager beaver, 24-year-old me? What an optimist! After everything I’d been through, I still expected kudos for the way I lived.

Evergreen straightened me out on that score. A month later I received a note from Joe Schwinn, a shrink who served as the school’s Vice President. He thanked me for applying, then rejected my application on the grounds they had “no mental health facilities on campus.”

What did that have to do with anything? … I told them I only used nuthouses to dry out. And how, when the newspapers claimed they were trolling everywhere but graveyards for students, could they reject me—the prototype! I was outraged! This could not stand! I sat down, fired off a terse appeal, claiming I’d been penalized for candor and demanding a “sanity hearing.”

And Schwinn—amazingly enough—agreed. (Evergreen was a grand experiment itself back then.) So a couple weeks later I hitched to Olympia for the showdown. I didn’t have a car, of course. Hell, I’d barely shaved, cut my hair or changed clothes since ’68, and once I got a ride I realized my hangover was worse than I thought. Unable to tap the half-pint I’d brought along (I had a little girl sitting next to me), I was forced to swallow mescaline instead. I hoped it would take the edge off, maybe sharpen my focus a little.

It might have; I know it didn’t improve my sense of direction any. Because when I finally reached campus I remembered it didn’t exist yet, that it was, instead, just quonset huts and mud. I found myself skidding from one trailer to another in a vain search for my sanity hearing. (And no, the irony wasn’t lost on me, and I did wonder if—like a rat in a maze—this was my first trial.)

When I was down to the final hut I paused, took a slug of the vodka, applied some Visine and stepped inside. Immediately all my anxieties vanished: there were nine 30ish guys in plaid shirts seated at a table in front of me (the professors and administrators who’d judge my suitability) and I looked them up and down and thought, Shit! They’re nothing but a bunch of old hippies … they won’t care if I sleep on beer can beds!

And they didn’t. When I left that day I’d not only been accepted as a student, but offered a job in the Financial Aid department. That was the Evergreen I still hold close, the diploma factory that was built for guys like me. Then the Fall term began and I ran into the “politically correct” wall, a culture for which I was poorly suited.

 

 

And still am. A quarter century after we graduated the college contacted my class, asking for our memories of Evergreen’s early years. I drew a six-page comic that was hung in an art exhibit, allowing faculty and student busybodies to get a good look at it. It was quickly removed and in the furor that followed I was accused of racism because: (1) I forgot to color the lips of some of the black people; (2) I’d drawn a monkey standing too close to an African American; and (3) the Mexican attorney in the last panel looked “slovenly.”

I told them to take a closer look at the white people, but in truth I was as stupefied as I’d been by Schwinn’s rejection letter a quarter century before. Then my first memoir was published in 2012, and when I offered it to the bookstore’s “Alumni Authors” section I was quickly rebuffed. As was the video interview I did two years later, describing the early Evergreen campus as a “massive drug emporium.”

But don’t get me wrong: I bear my alma mater no ill will. The night I graduated I was in a seedy east side tavern, working down a pitcher, when the drunk next to me got a good look at my bar coaster.

“Say,” he slurred, “is that your college diploma?”

“Absolutely.”

“What the fuck’s wrong with you, buddy? Are you nuts?”

“To the contrary,” I laughed. “I’ve been declared sane.”

 

S.M. Park is the author and illustrator of his memoirs High & Dry and The Grass Is Greener, both published by University of Hell Press.

 

S.M. Park

S.M. Park lives two blocks from the Salish Sea in Port Townsend, Washington. His passions include walking, wondering and weed. Park, in his guise as Wilson High, has written and illustrated two memoirs, High & Dry and The Grass Is Greener, both published by University of Hell Press.

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