“Most likely, I was daydreaming absentmindedly in homeroom, the morning the teacher made the announcement that “…representatives of various colleges and universities will be meeting with college-bound students in the cafeteria after school today…”, but even if I wasn’t, I probably didn’t think the announcement regarding “college-bound students” pertained to me.
No one had ever discussed college with me–not my teachers– not any of the other students– not even my parents.
Although purportedly one of the smartest young women in her high school class, my mother had dropped out of college at 17, after only one year, when she was offered a good job at the height of the depression. She would be timekeeper, at the Union Station passenger terminal, the railroad station in Savannah. It was the same job her father had held before he died unexpectedly of an intestinal blockage seven years earlier, leaving my grandmother, with four children the oldest of whom was nineteen. My mother, my grandfather’s favorite and the youngest, was only 10.
My father’s education was cut short at 16, when he was summoned back to Georgia from Asbury College in Kentucky to attend the funeral of his twenty-one year old sister, who had died unexpectedly from viral meningitis, the same illness which had claimed the life of her one-year-old son, only a month earlier. Rather than return to school, my father took a job sweeping up and helping out around a little country railroad station in south central Georgia, in 1921, in an effort to help support his own mother, who had lost her husband, when my father, also the youngest of four children was but 13. He worked for the railroad for the next 52 years.
Without much effort on my part, I managed to graduate from high school , near the middle of my class, just a few months shy of my eighteenth birthday, but only by repeating Algebra 1 and 2 in summer school. In high school, I showed marked talent in art and writing but only applied to two colleges, both of which rejected me. One was Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, and the other was Pratt Institute, in Brooklyn, New York, from which, although I had no way of knowing it at the time, I would receive my master’s degree in fine art ten years later.
So, without any grand plans for college and after a summer spent working for minimum wage on a loading dock counting boxes of shrimp and dead chickens going in and out of Georgia Ice and Cold Storage, and playing basketball in the evenings at the YMCA, when September rolled around, I lackadaisically enrolled at the local junior college and proceeded to flunk out in short order.
It was the fall of 1964, I was just old enough to vote—and my candidate, Barry Goldwater, for whom I earnestly tried to convince my black co-workers to vote, carried only one state in the presidential election–but it was mine.
Like the other freshmen, at Armstrong Junior College, I was assigned an advisor. God knows I could use one.
His name was Dr. Semmes, he was head of the math department, and as I would find out later, a retired military officer.
Once again, I found myself up to my neck in Algebra, a subject that was completely alien to my consciousness. Dr. Mueller, my math instructor, was a trim little fellow, who smoked Between the Acts, “little cigars” and wore earth-colored suits, and a jacket with oval-shaped, real-leather patches on the sleeves. I tried to keep up, but he lost me almost as soon as he began speaking and each day I fell further and further behind, although I paid strict attention and took voluminous notes.
At the end of the term I had amassed a 43 average in the class, out of a possible 100. And scored a 46 on the final exam. Painfully aware that there was a war on and I might be sent to help fight it, I gathered up 150 pages of calculations and went to see Dr. Mueller to plead my case for a passing grade.
“Look,” I said, “I’ve got one hundred and fifty pages of calculations here—-I must have learned SOMETHING! Can’t you at least give me a “D” ?
But my argument just didn’t add up—the numbers just weren’t there.
Not one to give up without a fight, at least where my own survival was concerned, I made an appointment to see my advisor, the venerable Dr. Semmes, head of the Math Department.
“There’s a war on—I could get drafted!” I told him.
“It could be the best thing for you!” was his response. I walked slowly away from his office, wondering how getting killed in a war “could be the best thing for me.” In between my failing grade in Algebra and my 50 average in “The History of Civilization” (it seems I was unable to distinguish between Charles VI and Edward VII, or to remember whether it was Charlemagne or William The Conqueror who led the troops at The Battle of Agincourt), I flunked out.
And it would be at least a couple of months before they would let me come back and try again.
Thus it was during my hiatus from college that I discovered Playboy Magazine. It was a most excellent publication in both form and content, and of invaluable service to any young man who was coming of age and wanted a primer on how to be a man.
Merely by studying this one publication, I learned what kind of clothes to wear, what kind of car to drive, what kind of music to listen to, and even what kind of after shave lotion to splash on my face and neck to make me irresistible to women.
Never mind that I had never actually gone out on a date, I considered this magazine as indispensable, as gospel.
As soon as a new issue came out, I went down to Lamas Brothers, across from The Krystal, and purchased each new issue for fifty cents, money I had earned the previous summer.
Then I took it home, closed the folding door behind me, went upstairs, and carefully studied the magazine carefully several times each day….
Of course, I still dutifully carried my draft card in my wallet with my “2-S” student deferment, but one sunny day in October, it occurred to me that it might be “prudent” just to drop by the Draft Board, (since I was downtown anyway, picking up the latest issue of Playboy) just to make sure that everything was still “good” and to reassure the good people at the Draft Board that I was indeed planning on returning to college in the Spring.
Entering the building and approaching the window of the Draft Board, I pressed my right thumb hard against the black button in the center of the solid brass bell and rang for assistance.
A nice “grandmotherly-looking” lady with silver hair and glasses which hung from her neck by a diamond necklace, came to the window from somewhere in the back of the office. She smiled at me helpfully.
“What did you say your name was….?”, she asked. “Richard L. Parker!! ”, I responded confidently, pleased at finally being able to answer someone’s question correctly.
“And how long have you been out of school?”, she inquired sweetly. “Oh…just a couple of months—but I’m going back in the Spring!!” I quickly interjected.
“Oh, I see….“ she said, with a look of sympathy and complete understanding on her lovely, if slightly-wrinkled face.
Secure in the knowledge that I had explained my situation quite clearly, and relieved to have circumvented any possible misunderstanding regarding my eligibility status, I stepped back from the window and did an about-face to leave, and she presumably returned to her labors in the back office.
I pushed open the big plate glass door with both hands and stepped out onto the marble steps of the United States Post Office into the bright fall air.
Yes, indeed. It was a beautiful day.
The sun was filtering down through the oak leaves of the trees in Johnson Square. A mother with two children fed the pigeons, while old men in suits sat reading the newspaper on park benches. Life was good. All was right with the world.
I got drafted a week later.