Come then, and let us pass a leisure hour in storytelling, and our story shall be the education of our heroes. — Plato
I stopped at the classroom door for a moment and surveyed my students, most of whom sat in the last three or four rows, as far from the lectern as possible. Outside, laughter and hoots wafted in from students tossing a football around the quad by Vance Hall. Music blared from the windows of Barrows Hall, a dorm just across the parking lot.
I'd already gone over the class roster emailed by the registrar's office; there were no English majors among the thirty students who made up this required sophomore-level literature course. As usual, the majors ran from finance to physics, hospitality and tourism to history, computer science to criminology. But these were my people; the unwashed masses and the unwilling scholars, all there for one reason—three credits.
Sitting by the window, a student in sweatpants and a t-shirt touting some brand of Tequila swiped at his cell phone, scrolling for messages. His buddy rested his head on one arm and doodled on the cover of his notebook. The student to his left studied the label on his can of Red Bull. The girl in front of him quietly chatted on her iPhone.
The girl to her right sat cross-legged, arms across her chest. Lost in thought, she stared at the floor. The tanned stud-muffin to her right scanned the screen on his laptop, probably checking his Facebook page. Several students, earbuds in place, listened to their music. The rest of my students patiently waited.
One student, sitting alone in the second row stood out from the others. Maybe it was the military-style backpack on the floor by his right leg, or the tattoos peeking out from under his t-shirt that made me think he might be a veteran. And there was something familiar in his face, a look of both uncertainty and determination. The uncertainty probably came from no longer being attached to some type of military social system: division, brigade, battalion, company, platoon, squad, team, battle buddy—the transition to civilian life can be overwhelming for some and the veteran might feel disconnected or alienated from campus cultures.
The look of determination came from being more focused; these veterans are mission-oriented, here for one reason, to get an education. I knew this veteran would probably be more respectful and disciplined than his classmates and might become irritated with fellow students who demonstrated a lack of respect or discipline.
Over the years, I'd had other veterans in my classes—men and women—who'd most likely served in Iraq and Afghanistan, some on multiple deployments. Many times I could pick out the veterans right away. They were older than their classmates and there was something in their eyes that made them appear even older than their years. Most had been to places and witnessed things their classmates had only seen in the news, things no human should ever see.
All brought baggage to the classroom. All were a profound understatement of the saying "War changes people." Some, no doubt, suffered from PTSD or TBI—Traumatic Brain Injury. Concealed beneath their civilian clothing might be scars, the result of IEDs.
One fall semester, a particular student caught my attention. He often came to my 8:00 a.m. class clearly hung-over, sometimes still intoxicated—not unheard of among college students. But when I learned he was a veteran, I was especially worried, not just about his physical health, but his mental well-being as well. I'd read somewhere that an average of 6000 veterans have committed suicide each year since 2008, almost seventeen a day. According to the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, in 2016, veterans were one and a half times more likely to kill themselves than people who hadn't served in the military. Then there are the unreported casualties of war: depressed and self-destructive vets who have died or are dying a slow death, victims of alcohol and/or drug abuse.
Only the dead have seen the end of war. — Plato
I took a deep breath, entered the classroom, put my bookbag on the desk, took out the class roster, the required text, and my notes. Except for the veteran in the second row, few seemed to notice.
I wrote ENG 211 and my name on the whiteboard. I turned, smiled and said "Good morning!" Three students smiled back. It's September, I said to myself. Summer is over and they are not especially happy, especially at having to take a required literature course.
"Welcome. My name is Mister Mulvey and this is English 211, American Literature from the Civil War to the Present. We'll be meeting in this room, from 10:50 till 1:30, every Friday this semester. Running down the roster, I noticed there are no English majors here, so I'm guessing that most, if not all of you are feeling a bit uneasy and anxious, if not annoyed. I understand. I once sat where you are now, taking a required course, one of many unrelated to my major. In other words, been there, done that, so relax. I'll do my best to make this journey through modern American literature as painless as possible."
My journey through the halls of academe began in the fall of 1968. I'd just completed one journey—a three-year Army enlistment that included a tour of duty in Vietnam—and was about to embark on what I hoped would be another, less perilous journey.
I'd been accepted by Danbury State College despite having never laid eyes on the school or having even read the college catalog. In fact, it wasn't until somewhere around the middle of August 1968, after I'd been discharged, that I first set foot on school grounds. I surveyed the deserted campus wondering if I belonged here, if I would fit in. The next four years would be another struggle, I knew. Would I survive?
Sp/4 Michail Mulvey
The previous summer, the summer of 1967—which, ironically, back in the States, some called the Summer of Love—I was a member of the 4th Battalion (Mechanized) 23rd Infantry, operating in an area about forty miles northwest of Saigon. Our mission was to locate and destroy Viet Cong base camps—search and destroy missions, the Army called, what we did day after day.
During a break in operations, I re-read a letter from my mother. "What are you going to do with your life after the Army?" she wrote. At the time I had no idea. I was more concerned with my immediate future—getting through the night and into the next day.
Once upon a time, I thought I wanted to be a soldier. Having grown up watching John Wayne movies and listening to the late-night war stories of friends and family, I thought I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up. Two months into my tour of duty in Vietnam I thought perhaps I should have gone off to college like many of my high school friends. But I knew that if I had, I would have flunked out and been drafted anyway.
My mother had a valid question. I had no idea what I wanted to do after my enlistment was up. At the time, I just knew I wanted to take "the freedom bird" back to what we called "the land of round-eyed women and the Big PX." More importantly, I wanted to get back home in one piece.
Before I had a chance to write my mother back, I received the application forms for what was then called Danbury State College. Without waiting for a response, she'd already requested the application forms for me. In her letter, she'd also informed me that I could go to school on the GI Bill. "The government will pay you to go to college," she wrote.
With no post-Army plans and the possibility of free government money, I filled out the application forms, all the while thinking that no college would ever accept me given my sorry high school grades. Always the wiseguy, and believing I was wasting my time, where the application asked 'Present Position,' I wrote 'Sitting in a hole'—which I was. I'd just finished digging in for the night. M-16 leaning against my leg, two grenades and a Claymore clacker sitting on a sandbag to my left, I completed and placed the sweat-stained and grimy fingerprint-covered application into the accompanying envelope. Just for fun, I added a pinch of dirt.
Not long afterward, and much to my surprise, I received a letter of acceptance from the school. How I managed to gain entrance to any college remained a mystery—until decades later when I learned that the director of admissions, Mr. Merrill Walrath, had also served in the Army. Lt. Walrath had fought with the 351st Infantry Regiment, 88th Division in Europe during the Second World War, been captured and later escaped.
Lt. Merrill Walrath, U.S. Army and Mr. Merrill Walrath, Director of Admissions, Danbury State College. From the Archives and Special Collections, Haas Library, Western Connecticut State University
I left Vietnam on the 27th of January, 1968. The following June I was released from active duty and returned home. I spent the summer driving a truck and saving money for college. I tried to pick up where I'd left off three years earlier, before I joined the Army, but my world had changed. So had I. I dated and drank and lived life like I was on a three-day In-Country R&R. Luckily, the summer ended before I could do myself any real harm.
I arrived on campus on the 10th of September, just in time for the required four-day freshman orientation. On day one, however—before I had even set foot in a classroom—I received a summons from the Dean of Men. Worried that I had already unwittingly committed some academic faux pas—or that Mr. Walrath had discovered his error and changed his mind—I reported to the office of Dr. Alfred Geddes in the college administration building, affectionately called Old Main.
Sitting ramrod straight at his desk, Dr. Geddes was the poster-boy for the stern, bespectacled, prim and proper New England schoolmaster. But there was something else about him, something I couldn't put my finger on at the time, something that made me stand at the position of attention. Thumbs along the seams of my trousers, heels locked, feet at a forty-five-degree angle, I waited until Dr. Geddes motioned to a nearby chair.
"You failed to declare a major on your application," Dr. Geddes informed me. In my profound ignorance, I thought that, like high school, in college you just took classes. When I failed to answer, Dean Geddes, thinking, perhaps that I was slightly deaf, leaned forward in his chair and asked, "What do you want to study?" Once again at a loss for words—not to mention never having read the college catalog—I had no answer. Realizing I was profoundly ignorant not deaf, Dean Geddes sat back, sighed slightly and asked, "What was your favorite subject in high school?" I thought back to my senior year at Stamford High and my favorite teacher, Miss Mirante, who'd sparked in me a love of Shakespeare. "English," I replied.
Making note on the appropriate form, Dean Geddes nodded, thanked me, then turned back to his desk, attending to what I was sure were more pressing matters. Relieved that I was not in hot water, I stood up, said "Thank you," did an about-face, and made a hasty retreat. Little did I know that I had unwittingly chosen a path that would eventually lead me to teach English, not just study the great works of literature—and again, having not read the college catalog, I hadn't realized that I'd been admitted to what was once called a normal school—a teacher's college.
I left his office wondering why the Dean of Men had demonstrated such patience with someone as ignorant as me. At the time I thought it was just part of his job.
Decades later, my daughter, a high school senior exploring various career paths, asked how I got into teaching. I thought for a moment, then remembered that day in Dean Geddes' office. Too embarrassed to admit the truth, I smiled and shrugged.
Although happy to be out of the Army and enrolled in college, I found freshman orientation particularly childish with its frosh beanies and silly activities whose purpose, I later learned, was to create a bond between freshman and the school while at the same time introducing college facilities. But I wanted nothing to do with this nonsense. I wanted my class schedule, directions to the bookstore and package store.
"For Christ's sake, just give me my class schedule, point out the library, the cafeteria, and the student union," I wanted to yell.
I did, however, bond with one member of my orientation group, a young coed named Pat who seemed equally annoyed with what we both considered a silly waste of time. One afternoon, during a lunch break, we slipped away and drove to nearby Candlewood Lake. We sat on the beach, took off our shoes and socks, buried our toes in the sand, laughed and shared a bottle of jug wine—the previous afternoon I'd reconned the area around the campus and found a package store conveniently located one block from White Hall.
Later, back in my room, we listened to Joni Mitchell's 1967 debut album Songs to a Seagull on my hi-fi. Joni spoke to me in the track "Michael from Mountains" when she sang "Go where you will go to . . ." Like the mythical Odysseus, I'd taken the long way back and Danbury was where I wanted to be.
At the end of orientation, our group met on the shores of nearby Candlewood Lake to celebrate. I'd brought a gallon of Ernest and Julio Gallo's best screw cap Burgundy to the gathering. "Did you steal that from your parents?" someone asked. "No," I replied.
"You have an older brother," asked another. "No," I said, looking away.
"You have a fake I.D.?" asked a young lady. "No, I'm twenty-one," I said, hoping the interrogation would end. Puzzled looks followed.
"Were you in the Army?" someone finally asked. "Yes," I reluctantly replied. "I was drafted." Afraid to confess that I'd enlisted and fought in a war many Americans were fighting to stop, I lied. I took a long swig of wine and passed the bottle along, hoping the topic of conversation would also move along.
As summer slowly turned to fall, Vietnam and the Army slowly receded in my rearview mirror. Although I avoided watching the evening news, occasionally there'd be a jarring reminder that the war in Vietnam still raged on.
One sunny fall afternoon, as I sat in the shade of a grove of trees by Litchfield Hall, reading, my orientation friend, Pat, came running over, crying. "He was killed!" she said, falling into my arms. She'd told me she'd had a boyfriend in high school, but not that he was in the Army—or that he was serving in Vietnam. At a loss for words, I comforted Pat as best I could, but a week later she dropped out of college and disappeared. Odysseus had his Penelope. I had hoped Pat would be my safe harbor after the storms of war. But it was not to be.
September turned to October, then November. I tried to melt into the general student population, but I had difficulty connecting with my fellow classmates. Most, if not all, graduated from high school the previous June—I spent the previous June at Fort Knox, Kentucky, counting down the days to the end of my enlistment. To help pass the time, me and my buddies—all Vietnam veterans, also impatiently waiting to be released back into civilization—cruised the bars of downtown Louisville. The sirens of Louisville called out to us, but we managed to escape their song and return home relatively unscathed. Memories of those last four months of my enlistment are hazy.
Over time, I discovered other veterans on campus. It was not hard to spot them. They were older and stood out from the crowd in ways only another veteran would recognize: their look, their clothes, their attitude, even the way they walked: Gary led a rifle platoon with the 9th Division in the Delta. His roommate, Steve, had served in a Marine artillery battalion in I Corps, not far from the Demilitarized Zone. Bill served in the Air Force, stationed at an airbase in Thailand. Matty had served in the Navy, patrolling off the coast of North Vietnam. Bob had served with an artillery unit in the 25th Division. Not long after returning home from Vietnam, he married his high school sweetheart. Bob and Helen hosted many a party in their tiny apartment in Bethel, the next town over from Danbury. Ernest and Julio Gallo were always on the guest list. Blue Nun and Cold Duck were always on the wine list.
Just before the start of the spring semester, there was an unexpected glitch with my monthly GI Bill check. Today, every American college campus has an Office of Veterans Affairs, a place student-veterans can turn to for help, but at the time, all I had was a vast Washington bureaucracy called the Veterans Administration. In desperation, I turned to the Dean of Men, Dr. Geddes. I explained that I might not be able to pay my tuition and fees on time. Without a word, Dr. Geddes pulled his checkbook out of a desk drawer and wrote me a personal check for $200.
"Thank you," I said. "I'll pay you back when this is straightened out." Geddes nodded and turned back to his work. Despite his imposing demeanor, I left the dean's office believing that beneath the façade of the stern schoolmaster lay someone who cared, especially for veterans. Much later, I learned the source of Dr. Geddes' patience, charity, and understanding. Alfred Geddes had also served in the Army, during WWII.
Lt. Col. Alfred Geddes, USAAF and Dr. Alfred Geddes, Dean of Men. From the Archives and Special Collections, Haas Library, Western Connecticut State University
In addition to Dean Geddes and Mr. Walrath, I later learned that the Dean of the College, Dr. F. Burton Cook and William McKee, the registrar, had also served during the Second World War. I wondered how many others in the administration and faculty also served in the military. I wanted to ask if any of them used the GI Bill to attend college.
More than sixteen million Americans served during the Second World War. As early as 1943, President Roosevelt and his administration began work on a post-war plan that would ease the economic impact of these servicemen who would someday return home. "They must not be demobilized into an environment of inflation and unemployment," said Roosevelt.
The plan proposed a comprehensive support package for veterans, covering everything from education to low-interest housing and business loans. When Roosevelt signed the Veterans Readjustment Act in June of 1944, few thought the education provisions would be that important. Most thought the bill's jobs and housing provisions would have the most impact, but the law's drafters underestimated the thirst for education that service members brought back home with them.
Before WWII, roughly four in ten Americans had a high school diploma. Less than five percent had attained a college degree. Before the GI Bill, higher education was the realm of the upper class. After the war and thanks to the GI Bill, college enrollment exploded. Over two million veterans enrolled in college. Another 5.5 million enrolled in training courses. By 1947, half of all college students in America were veterans.
Eventually, the Veterans Readjustment Act of 1944 funded the education of 22,000 dentists 67,000 doctors, 91,000 scientists, 238,000 teachers, 240,000 accountants, 450,000 engineers, as well as three Supreme Court justices, three presidents, a dozen senators, fourteen Nobel Prize winners, and two dozen Pulitzer Prize winners.
My GI Bill, officially called the Veteran's Readjustment Benefits Act of 1966, was not as generous or comprehensive as that offered to vets returning from the Second World War. The World War II GI Bill essentially paid full college tuition—up to $500 a year—and a $75 per month living allowance. In 1947 tuition at Harvard was $525 a year.
The so-called Vietnam-era GI Bill offered a basic starting benefit of $100 a month with no living allowance. In August 1967 the monthly stipend was increased to $130. At the end of every month, I received a check that was expected to cover tuition and fees, room and board, books and supplies. Today, $130 might cover the cost of a college chemistry text. In 1968, however, tuition at a Connecticut state college was only fifty dollars a semester. In fact, it was estimated that total expenses would amount to a little over a thousand dollars for the school year.
A hundred and thirty dollars a month doesn't seem like much today, but my G.I Bill check went a lot farther back in 1968. To put that number into perspective, in 1968 a first-class stamp cost six cents, a gallon of gas thirty-four cents. You could get a McDonald's hamburger for fifteen cents and a bag of fries for a dime. If I remember correctly, a movie ticket at the Danbury Drive-In set me back a dollar and a half. A 1968 VW Beetle at Bird Motors in Danbury went for less than $1800. More importantly—at least to me at the time—I could get a quart of jug wine for less than a dollar.
When I entered Danbury State College—renamed Western Connecticut State College in 1968— America had descended into chaos. The year 1968 is often considered the most turbulent in 20th Century American history. I left Vietnam four days short of the 1968 Tet Offensive thinking I'd dodged a bullet. I came home to a country at war with itself, a country I did not recognize.
Odysseus awoke from a sleep in his own fatherland, and he did not know it, having been long away. — Homer
Opposition to the war in Vietnam was in full swing. Student protesters took over administration buildings at Columbia University. The country erupted in violent riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Washington, D.C., Chicago, and Baltimore were on fire. The streets outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago were turned into a war zone. Women and African Americans marched for equal rights.
Flower children and hippies, soldiers in the front lines of the sexual revolution, outraged their parents with their expressions of free love, public use of marijuana, long hair, short skirts, tie-dyed shirts, sandals, and bellbottoms jeans. The previous summer, the summer of 1967, these long-haired hippies and bare-footed flower children had frolicked and danced and smoked pot and made love in Golden Gate Park and Haight-Ashbury—their way of giving the establishment the middle finger.
Western Connecticut State College, on the other hand, seemed oblivious to the world outside its campus. To me it was an island of serenity in a world gone mad. In 1968, WCSC was a sleepy, conservative New England college of 1200 or so students located on tree-lined White Street, about a half mile from Main Street, Danbury, Connecticut. Candlewood Lake, an eleven-mile long body of deep-blue tranquility, lie less than two miles to the north.
One of my goals, in addition to getting a college degree, was to make up for lost time. My four years in Danbury would also allow me to put off having to decide what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. Danbury may have been an island of serenity, but with a pocketful of GI Bill money, a 1955 Chevy Bel Air, and the legal right to purchase alcohol, it didn't take long for my college life to slowly descend into something that resembled a five-day R&R in Bangkok.
Unfortunately, this approach to life and academics had several sobering side-effects—like a first-semester GPA of 2.324. I should have confessed to Dean Geddes that my undeclared minors would be Hedonism and Oenology. I'm sure that during my four years at Western Connecticut State I probably spent as much time warming the bar stools at places like the 6 & 7, a restaurant conveniently located just two blocks down the street from Old Main, as I did in classes.
The 6 & 7, White Street, Danbury, Connecticut.
From the Archives and Special Collections, Haas Library, Western Connecticut State University
The 6 & 7, White Street, Danbury, Connecticut.
In addition to the 6 & 7, students over twenty-one—or those with fake ID's—met at the Brass Rail on Main Street. Students with cars drove across the New York state line where the drinking age was eighteen. McCarthy's and the Fore 'N Aft North in Brewster were favorite Saturday night hangouts.
If quizzed, I'd be hard-pressed to name any of my college professors, but I do remember the name of the owner of the liquor store on White Street, next to White Hall. Her name was Mary. And just about every Saturday night I'd stand at the counter by her register, smiling. I was the go-to guy when fellow classmates were in need of "social lubricants," or when coeds needed something to fight bouts of homesickness or drown painful memories of a relationship gone bad.
A typical Saturday night liquor run might consist of two six-packs of Budweiser, a pint of blackberry brandy, fifth of Smirnoff Vodka, half-gallon of Gallo Burgundy, a bottle of Lancers Rose or Blue Nun, and two bottles of Cold Duck. Mary would eye me suspiciously and ask rhetorically, "Is all this for you, Michail?" There was always a Mona Lisa-like smile on her pale and wrinkled face.
"Of course," I'd reply, smiling back, batting my blue eyes and dredging up what little was left of my youthful innocence. "Would I lie to you, Mary?" Her knowing silence was my only answer.
Although weed was hard to come by in 1968 Danbury, as the sixties became the seventies, Mary Jane slowly became a regular guest at many off-campus parties. But alcohol was my chosen vice. I'd witnessed the damage done by drugs while serving in Vietnam and I wanted nothing to do with any of it.
I began my academic career as an English major, but neither high school, the Army, nor Freshman Composition prepared me to write English term papers. I could hit a target at 300 meters with an M-16, set up trip flares and a claymore in the dark, or call in a fire mission with a PRC-25, but when tasked to write about Melville's Billy Budd or the poetry of John Donne, I was lost, like I'd been dropped on the Cambodian border without a map and compass.
Realizing I was probably in over my academic head, I searched the college catalog for another major, one less taxing on my IQ and writing ability, a major that would not interfere with my quest for peace and pleasure in late 1960's America. The elementary education curriculum caught my eye. I was assured by the ed majors that the courses were much easier. I wasn't sure teaching was what I wanted to do with my life, but I was determined to get a college degree, any degree.
Semester by semester, memories of the war slowly receded, but the summer of 1971 was a jarring and unwelcome reminder of a time and place I was trying to put behind me. In need of a summer job, I perused the Danbury News-Times and found an opening for an orderly at Danbury Hospital. Bedpans and blood immediately came to mind and I hesitated. But it was a tough economy that year—I'd already been forced to pawn my 35mm camera in order to eat. I applied and was immediately hired.
After a perfunctory training period learning how to make beds with hospital corners, help patients in and out of bed or a wheelchair, empty bedpans, and take temperatures—oral and rectal—I was assigned to a medical-surgical ward on the third floor.
My first day on the ward I must have emptied half a dozen bedpans, all filled to the brim. Another orderly watched as I gagged while carrying a bedpan at arm's length to a bathroom. At lunch, he asked if we could work out a deal. Whenever a patient passed away, I'd help the nurse prep the body and wheel the deceased down to the morgue, located in the basement of the hospital. In exchange, he'd answer the buzzer whenever a patient needed their bedpan emptied—trading one crappy job for another was how he saw it. "Deal," I answered.
At lunch he asked how I could handle the 'recently departed'—a term he used to describe the dead. I hesitated at first, but reluctantly confessed that I'd been in the Army and there were times when I had to deal with death and dying almost every day. "And the hospital dead are different," I told him. "They aren't covered in blood. There's no thrashing about, screaming, or calling out to loved ones. They're wearing clean clothes and they die in a clean bed. It's quiet here and these people die peacefully," I said. My lunch mate said nothing. He just nodded and turned back to his BLT.
Late one Saturday afternoon, however, just as I began to settle into my daily routine, I was unexpectedly reassigned to the emergency room, which, to my dismay, was experiencing a flood of emergencies, typical for a summer weekend, I was told. But I was not ready for the blood or the screams of patients who'd been involved in motor vehicle or motorcycle accidents, or alcohol or drug-related mayhem. One man had been impaled by a metal post when his bike crashed into a fence.
Be strong, saith my heart; I am a soldier; I have seen worse sights than this. — Homer
Eventually, the sights and sounds became too much. I returned to the third-floor nurse's station, dropped my nametag on the counter and walked away. I spent the rest of the afternoon at the 6 & 7 and what was left of the summer couch surfing, scrounging meals from relatives or eating fifteen cent hamburgers at McDonald's. I drank cheap wine and spent my afternoons at the Danbury town beach working on my tan, all the while patiently waiting for the fall semester and the resumption of my GI Bill checks. With the help of my friends, Ernest and Julio, and the young ladies I met at the Brass Rail or the 6 & 7—Robin, Melanie, Charlotte, Betty, et al., and the ladies I met on the radio—Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon, and Carole King—I survived the summer of 1971.
I'd experienced many ups and downs, bumps and bruises along the way, but somehow I managed to stumble my way to senior year. The fall semester, however, turned out to be an exceptionally exasperating experience. Education majors were required to complete a twelve-week student teaching practicum in the fall of their senior year. For some reason, I was assigned the most aggravating cooperating teacher ever, an old crone who, judging by the wrinkles in her face, must have started teaching when Christ was in kindergarten. Not once during my twelve-week ordeal did she crack a smile or utter a word of encouragement.
At the end of every school day she would have at least five pages of notes listing my shortcomings and transgressions: "You said okay twelve times in one forty-five minute lesson," she scolded. "And you should have done this instead of that," she would whine in her high-pitched nasal voice.
One afternoon, after an especially agonizing debriefing, I met with several classmates, also student teachers, at the 6 & 7. "Listening to her is like listening to nails on a blackboard," I complained. Dispirited and exhausted, I seriously considered changing majors again. But my GI Bill benefits would run out at the end of my senior year.
The bitching and drinking continued well into the night. Several local ladies who'd dropped in for cocktails joined us. Sometime around closing, a classmate and I got into a drinking contest. After I'd downed half a dozen shots of vodka, one of the young ladies asked, "Are you trying to kill yourself?"
The next day I woke up on the couch of one of those young ladies who lived with her parents on the shores of Candlewood Lake. How I ended up in Brookfield, Connecticut is a mystery to this day. But I did know that classes at the Locust Avenue Elementary School, my student teaching assignment, had begun without me. Soon afterward, I found a note in my college mailbox directing me to report to the Dean of Men.
"I had the flu," I lied when asked why I had failed to report to my student teaching assignment.
"You should have called in sick," replied Dr. Geddes.
"I couldn't. I'd been throwing up all night. I finally fell asleep sometime around two or three in the morning. When I woke up it was almost noon," I lied again.
"You must have been asleep when your faculty advisor called your home," Dean Geddes replied. He was leaning back in his chair now, giving me a dubious look that clearly said he wasn't buying it. It was a look of disappointment, however, not anger. Desperate and fearing I would be expelled from the education program, I toyed with the idea of blaming it all on Vietnam, telling the dean about having run over a mine in Tay Ninh Province. It was the truth. I had run over a mine, been tossed in the air and had landed on my head. But I chose not to blame the war, or fate, or god, or anybody else. Instead, I said nothing.
Men are so quick to blame the gods; they say that we devise their misery. But they themselves—in their depravity—design grief greater than the griefs that fate assigns.
Geddes leaned forward. "With your overall GPA and this report from both your cooperating teacher and your academic advisor, you are on shaky ground," he said.
"I understand. It won't happen again."
"Let's hope it doesn't."
Once again I'd dodged a bullet. And once again Dean Geddes had demonstrated an inordinate amount of patience with someone who, at times, seemed on a path to self-destruction. For the next eight months, I tried not to let him down.
Somehow I managed to complete my student teaching practicum and get through the following spring semester without incident. Despite the occasional tussle with federal, state, and college bureaucracy, periodic bouts of loneliness and depression, an over-reliance on alcohol, and several failed relationships, I surprised everyone—including myself—and graduated in May 1972 with a B.S. in Elementary Education.
For a friend with an understanding heart is worth no less than a brother. — Homer
At commencement, I tried to find Dean Geddes. I wanted to shake his hand and thank him for his patience and understanding, for all he'd done for me over the years. But he was lost in the crowd of parents, faculty, administrators, guests, and graduates.
My journey through the halls of academe didn't end in May of 1972. I eventually worked my way through what today is called the Connecticut State College and University System—Western, Central, Southern, and Eastern Connecticut State Universities—earning graduate degrees in history, education, English, and creative writing.
When I entered Western Connecticut State College in the fall of 1968, a career in education was not on my list of things I wanted to do with my life. To be honest, there was no list. But, once again, karma had other plans and I spent the next forty-five years teaching, the last sixteen as an adjunct professor of English at Central Connecticut State University.
Mr. Walrath and Dean Geddes have long since passed away, and the former Danbury State College—now called Western Connecticut State University—is more than just a state teacher's college. Today, only twenty percent or so of the estimated five thousand undergrads major in education. WCSU has grown into a large, multi-campus, multi-purpose institution of higher learning that offers thirty-eight bachelor degrees, fifteen masters and two doctoral degrees. Tuition, fees, room and board, however, now total almost twenty-five thousand dollars a year. To help veterans meet the current cost of a college education, the Post-9/11 GI Bill—a much more generous program than my Vietnam-era GI Bill—pays in-state tuition and fees, a monthly housing allowance, and up to a thousand dollars for textbooks and supplies
More importantly, to help ease the transition from military life to campus culture and assist with VA-related paperwork, each of the four universities in the CSCU System now has an office dedicated to helping veterans with these and other issues—people and places a veteran can to turn to besides Earnest and Julio Gallo or bars like the 6 & 7.
Veterans Affairs Office, Central Connecticut State University
Veterans Affairs Office, Central Connecticut State University
I passed out the syllabus, looked out over my class, nodded to the veteran in the second row and said, "Okay, let's begin."
Images provided courtesy of Michail Mulvey.