1965. My year in the heartland. ‘It’s still not too late to leave, Laddie.’ ‘Count me in.’

February 4, 2013 | Author: | Posted in Dr. Jeffrey Lant’s Article Archive
Cornell College, Mt. Vernon, Iowa

Cornell College, Mt. Vernon, Iowa

by  Dr. Jeffrey Lant.

Author’s program note. I am still unclear even after all these years how I ended up at Cornell College, Mt. Vernon, Iowa (founded 1853). But it probably went something like this. My grandmother Lura Marshall Lant graduated from Knox College (founded in 1837) in Galesburg, Illinois; it was in the same Midwest conference of fine small liberal arts colleges as Coe (founded 1851) in Cedar Rapids, Iowa where my mother went. And Grinnell (1846), in Iowa, too, where I was advised to apply but wasn’t accepted.

So Cornell may have been chosen because they made my hard-working dad a better deal, which amongst other things included a job for me on the cafeteria clean-up crew (called “Slobs”) paying some 28 cents or so per hour, maybe less.

The summer of ’65.

Cornell was the kind of genteel institution of high standards and moral rectitude which expected you to read a series of improving books on timely topics before classes began; so you hit the ground running in September. In those turbulent days, the Great Republic’s race relations were front and center, especially after the Watts section of East Los Angeles exploded into a galloping inferno; the summer reading list was heavily tilted to the bitter quandary of Black and White.

Unexpected “expert”.

Because I had just graduated from University High School in West Los Angeles I found myself in the unaccustomed position of being sought out as an expert on the Gordian Knot of America’s racial puzzles currently playing out in the dangerous streets of the City of Our Lady the Queen of the Angels where mayhem raged from August 11-17, 1965; 34 dead, over $40 million in property damage; the nation appalled, outraged, anxious, uncomprehending.

I never said that I had not, to that date, met a single Black person and that my upbringing had been as lily white and unexceptional; as racially clueless as the rest. This silence was taken as evidence of a modesty so admirable in the young; that I knew more than I would say; and had been more affected by the horrifying events than I would admit. Thus did the silence of discretion bestow stature… which a shy, “ah shucks” smile and undoubted charm only enhanced.

My byline on every door step.

What enhanced it more was the fact that I was the only freshman whose name was known in advance to the entire Cornell community, thanks to my regular column in “The Cornellian”. To get it, I sent  Editor Marty Malin a raft of my columns from my high school newspaper “The Warrrior” of which I was sometime Editor-in-Chief. In the best traditions of Yankee journalism I was retained at once… copy needed at once for the frosh orientation edition…. delivered at once; ontime and length perfect, for these are marks of my pride and reliability.

Thus I became the most well-known of students, even before my nervous classmates arrived for an orientation which I no longer needed. Their open papers with my new column prominently featured gave me a thrill I can acutely recall to this very hour and which has never lost its savor.

But all was not smooth…

The first fly in the ointment (and the insectile imagery is most apt) was my Guild Hall roommate; (name withheld to protect the guilty). Per college directive, we exchanged “get acquainted” letters during the summer, the better to commence and build the cordial relationship alma mater expected from two bright young men carefully selected to room together in the Honor Residence for Men and so bond for a lifetime of fund raising pleas and auld lang syne events of the “gaudeamus igitur” variety.

My mother, with her well-honed people-reading skills put paid to that notion: “He looks like a pompous twit fortified by bigotry”. And of course she was right… The first thing this porcine paragon said to me, the very first, was “Los Angeles is today’s Sodom and Gomorrah. So are its people scourged for their sins.” And that was the high point of our “relationship.” It says volumes that this allworthy became the first member of our class to become a Trustee of Cornell and to otherwise rise high amongst those of doctrinal certainty with direct pipelines to God. Of course this insufferable prig had to be punished… and by now I had a kindred spirit to help me dream up and administer suitable penalties, always designed for maximum impact and complete deniability.

Lance Neckar.

When you meet your kindred spirits the correct procedure is to whoop for joy and give them hugs of unstinting gratitude and glee. For make no mistake kindred spirits are a major reason why life is worth living, even at its most bleak. Kindred spirits, you see, need no introduction; no owner’s manual. You understand them… they understand you… They are more precious than rubies, more desirable than gold. They must be loved, cherished and kept contented for the well-lived life always depends to a considerable degree on… them.

Lance Neckar was a kindred spirit and I treasured him accordingly, not least because of his deft assistance with the plump bump who needed to be removed from the dormitory room he foolishly believed was half his, whilst I persisted in believing he was an unwanted (infuriatingly tidy) squatter whose tenure must be abbreviated and at once.

Of course I applied to the necessary authorities who delivered the usual judgements; viz. that my esteemed roomie was a paragon; that such paragons were rare as unicorns and should be humored, embraced, deferred to, even adulated; not cast away by the likes of me. And, not least, that he and I were “brothers”, hand picked by Cornell’s administrators as certain future leaders, hence the adamant need to work together for the common good. Blah, blah, blah. It was clear extra curricular steps were necessary and at once. Thus Lance and I set to our work immediately and with a song in our hearts.

About Guild Hall.

Guild Hall, Honor Residence for Men, was not only unique to Cornell; it may very well have been unique to the nation. Whereas all other residences were monitored and guarded by old dragons called “house mothers”, given the honorific “Ma” before their surnames; Guild had no such figure. Located off the campus, we were entirely self governing; a privilege bestowing pride and responsibility. It was an honor indeed.

Whereas other boys might be boisterous and high spirited, prone to outbreaks of hormones and hijinx, all we young princes of the realm were always calm, respectable, causing absolutely no trouble whatever, just unadulterated good sense and reasoned measures. And as for brains, why the minutes of our monthly meetings were rendered in poetic pentameters. I am not kidding.

That is why no one suspected us when from the large striped awnings of Guild Hall we launched Operation Eradication…

Fueled by need and the desire to enter the annals of prankdom, we learned the secrets of lacing young Tauby’s bed with ice cubes one night, warm water the next, foul smelling stink weeds, the olfactory pride of Iowa, and fouler smelling wash clothes; the secrets of emulating the midnight yelps and cautionary shrieks of predatory birds… and shuffling up stairs sounding like ancient gents with a full agenda of ill will and ample malice. We even filed a report with the college on our firm belief Guild was haunted, perhaps with the uneasy spirits who had once, when Mt. Vernon was a rail stop and Guild its hostelry, brought so much loneliness and unhappiness along with their sample cases. Yes, their ghosts abided…

Against such strenuous and inventive measures, my soon-to-be-ex room-mate had no chance… and soon my kindred spirit moved in, a million laughs in his suitcase. But this and all the other goodies which emerged from my short stay at Cornell very nearly didn’t happen.

“Count Me In.”

My grandmother Victoria Burgess Lauing, for all that she spent most of her waking moments as a haus frau, had, when needed, a sharp sense of style. And because she loved me so, she dressed to the nines in a tailored suite (color her favorite mauve), obligatory diamond broach, and ordered her brand-new Oldsmobile immaculately clean. She insisted on driving me to college, the 245 miles from Downers Grove, Illinois. It was a great honor and I regarded it as such. But it almost upended the apple cart.

You see, the actual town of Mt. Vernon, Iowa (population just 2593 in 1960) was not impressive; in fact, if you blinked you missed it… and thus was born in Grammie’s voice a distinct sense of apprehension. This got worse when we stopped at what seemed to be the town’s only eatery, for which the words “greasy spoon” would be a compliment, dead flies, slatternly, perspiring waitress, food that would haunt you through many a rest stop.    Then she and with anguish in her voice said, “It’s still not too late to leave, Laddie,” using my childhood name. “We can turn around now and go home…” perhaps forgetting for a moment my “home” was now in Los Angeles. She missed me so….

Sympathy in the porch swing. “Count me in.”

My fate was now in the balance and perhaps I wavered, I cannot say. But then the president of Guild Hall came out to greet, first, Grammie, for stylish ladies in diamonds are worth the most amiable of greetings; then me. Grammie, charming as always, worried about me asked if he had a moment to talk. And so the two of them sat down on the old porch swing to determine my future.

In a moment they were earnestly engaged, going a mile a minute, her hand in his. Then they were done and she beckoned me and whispered, “You’re going to like it here. This nice young man will help you.” And the “nice young man” nodded that he would and was as good as his word. I remember Harvey well and can now thank you from the unimaginable summit of 66 years and by reminding you of Gary Lewis and the Playboys and their1965 hit “Count Me In” which wafted through Guild’s corridors that August day so long ago.

“If you need someone to count on, count me in/ Someone you can rely on through thick and thin.”

You were the first of so many Cornellians I met who helped make it all so very, very good.

About the Author

Harvard-educated Dr. Jeffrey Lant is CEO of Worldprofit, Inc., providing a wide range of online services for small and-home based businesses. Services include home business training, affiliate marketing training, earn-at-home programs, traffic tools, advertising, webcasting, hosting, design, WordPress Blogs and more. Find out why Worldprofit is considered the # 1 online Home Business Training program by getting a free Associate Membership today at http://www.worldprofitassociates.com

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