My Year at College
Although I'd dropped out just before graduation, I found myself
back in the halls of my alma mater—this time as a teacher. By Bill Vaughn
AS THEY STROLL through the Rose Garden on a shadowed summer day, George Bush suddenly bends close to Margaret Thatcher to share a fervent, whispered word. The President is muy presidencial, as usual, and The Iron Lady is wrapped to the wattles in Shetland wool. But the camera here, like David Hemmings’ camera in Blowup, has captured something unseemly. When the image is enlarged we see the Prime Minister’s left hand loitering at her hip, and the Chief Executive’s right hand creeping in for a naughty squeeze that’s sure to send Barbara huffing off for the rolling pin.
“Whoa,” says one of my students, spellbound. “How can they do that?”
“You mean, hit on a head of state?” I ask. A cheap shot, but it gets a laugh.
“No, fake it. When are we going to learn this?”
We’re looking at the history of photographers who altered their subjects and their pictures in order to gain some higher political, aesthetic or professional ground. Here’s the famous Stalinist erasure of Trotsky from a photograph of Lenin addressing a rally. Then some solemn landscapes of the Southwest that have undergone cosmetic surgery to remove unsightly powerlines, trailers and cars. And I’ve dredged up a dramatic photo on a 1949 cover of the Nashville Commercial Appeal’s Sunday magazine that freezes Pittsburgh slugger Ralph Kiner the instant he’s blistered a fat pitch. Because of the rudimentary equipment available to the era’s photographers we’re persuaded to appreciate this one’s skill in apprehending that unlikely aerophysical event. When I reveal that what actually happened was the guy simply nailed a hardball to Kiner’s bat my students shrug. Compared to today’s deceits these are tame cons indeed. Before the semester ends they’ll know enough about desktop publishing to begin experimenting, if they choose, with beginning adulterations all their own.
Bush, of course, penetrated Thatcher’s privacy zone only in cyberspace. These Rose Garden vignettes are from an article in Scientific American about image manipulation, as the chastising ethical voice calls it. Or, as commercial designers call it, digital enhancement. The article demonstrates how a craftsman employing a $3000 computer and a $700 version of the software called Photoshop can readily pluck details from a color picture and put them back down in arrangements that totally transform the meaning of the original image. Although fashion-forward graphic artists have profited from this technology since 1988, Scientific American, apparently, has just discovered it. And my students see something about the process the magazine has overlooked—that is, it’s fun.
Their reaction takes me by surprise. But in the last months nothing these twenty-somethings have done or said was what I expected. Although there are a couple of advertising majors in class these are mostly journalism seniors and graduates who arrived at my mandatory course in publication design with a classic reporter’s training built around a manual of ethics that would dizzy a Jesuit, and a stripped-down view of the world in which any question besides who, what, why, when and where is dismissed as so much fluff. I expected outrage or indignation about image manipulators, or least some knee-jerk superiority. After all, my colleagues on this and all other journalism faculties preach that an unwavering, objective reality exists (a faith shared with Maoists) and can be transported intact from one mind to another if the words used to describe it are precise and the pictures are like a mirror.
can serve up only a thin and crooked piece of the world. This is an opinion I’ve held ever since my first picture began growing in its bath of developer, to finally leer up at me through the darkroom’s lurid glow like some little monster in an alien sea. In the same way the fragrance of a carnation communicates only part of the flower’s beauty, a photograph can bear only one kind of knowledge, despite what we’ve been trained to believe we see. And the parameters of that skinny data have already been determined by some limited being just like us, who’s chosen such factors as angle, timing, lighting and cropping along lines that can never be anything but subjective.
Harping on these prejudices I study the faces of my students as I wander around our classroom today, which is dominated by a gargantuan U-shaped table that mimics the old copy desks of America’s great newsrooms. I’m waiting for the inevitable argument—again to my surprise these people debate everything. I glance at Dan McComb, an earnest, button-collared perfectionist who’ll actually be a newspaper photographer in three months. A natural with a camera, he once filibustered in defense of an Associated Press picture showing the bare feet of a dead dad and daughter poking out of a car wreck that looked like the product of a junkyard crusher.
“Does this picture add to our knowledge?” I had asked.
“This is what happens in accidents,” McComb said. “You don’t just crash and go to heaven.”
“Don’t you think everyone knows that?”
“No. Kids don’t.”
“So you’re saying children should see this picture?”
And so forth to an uncertain conclusion.
But McComb’s only response to my ambivalence about his profession is that he pulls his Nikon closer, as if I might seize it and hurl it out the window. I sense that in the same way fish understand water this bunch already knows much more than I ever will about the power and pleasure of illusions. And that in a duplicitous and shifting world a photograph is no more or less real than anything else. After all, they worship magazines such as Ray Gun and Wired with the same fervor I once felt for Rolling Stone and the Village Voice, and they’ve been swimming half their lives in the light of MTV.
The spring wind rattles the blinds, fanning shadows across the glassed photographs on the walls. I stop at one. I know this picture. The reason I know it is because I’m in it. There I am, in the back row, forgathered with my fellow seniors in the class of ’72 on the steps of this very building at the University of Montana in Missoula. I’m dressed in the tattered remains of a first lieutenant’s uniform—my comment on the progress of the Vietnam War—and my hair is a matted shock that juts from my head as if it were trying to escape. When I look at this fading image I smell patchouli and marijuana and lime-scented Jade East and I feel the resurrecting May sun on my face and the warmth of the company of my friends and I remember that the moment the shutter clicked I was as fucked up on mescaline as a human being can get and still draw breath.
The morning I stepped back into my alma mater, this time as a middle-aged instructor more than two decades after saying goodbye to these halls forever, I felt like I’d been hypnotized to remember the scene of a crime. When I went to the podium in the computer lab my students scrutinized me as if I were a wino grilling pigeons in the square of their otherwise perfect village. But then, I was new, this was a small school, and they’d been told nothing about my credentials.
Although I was hired because I’m one of the few writers in town who knows how to produce a publication, and can tell a printer what parts of cyan and magenta it takes to imitate the color of a robin’s egg, I’d never taught before and knew nothing about my value as a teacher. But I’d have to find a way to get us through these months in a manner that would help land them the newspaper starter jobs for which this glorified trade school was preparing them, and amuse myself at the same time. I knew if I could inject 14 percent of what was in my brain about page makeup into their brains they’d be okay. And it was dawning on me how I could even have some fun doing it. And that, of course, had been the point of my life for, lo, these many years. I could use these people as lab assistants, as slaves, actually, to carry out a publishing experiment called Missoula Inside Out I’ve always wanted to try but never had the money to pursue on my own.
In truth, teaching was one of my rare employments in which federal taxes were subtracted from the check. Oh, I’d always made an uneven living as a graphic artist and a contributor to magazines. But it’s Kitty who runs the family business and mainly keeps us supplied with the horses, satellite dishes and pickup trucks we find ourselves unable to live without. In fact, I never attempted to forge ahead in any profession after college partly because I’d never graduated from college.
From the TV in the library across the hall came the sonorous cadence of Bill Clinton’s inauguration. During roll call I froze. There, halfway down the list, was an unnervingly familiar name. This can’t be, I thought. I can’t be this old already. “Elissa Seeberger?” I asked. A pretty young woman raised her hand. She had killer clothes, a savvy understanding that blood red was the exact right color for her accessories, and make-up that demonstrated a close study of the beauty tips in Allure magazine.
“Ms Seeberger, is your father a banker?”
She nodded. It wasn’t until this moment that I accepted the inevitability of my own death. Elissa’s dad was one of my brothers in the hapless Delta Sigma Phi house, a notoriously slovenly fraternity with bad grades, inept intramural teams and secret passageways in a Victorian mansion leading to a sub-basement where you could smoke the house hash all day long if you had the money. As the Sixties ended Delta house withered in the cultural storms hissing across campus, and was finally closed by its national office in Chicago after a gruesome Christmas suicide within, and on, its walls.
My students were still staring, no doubt steeling themselves for another sermon about how today’s professional journalist must always strive to educate, inform and inspire.
“What did Benjamin Franklin publish?” I asked, turning to my lecture notes, trying to shake off the past that was all over me like the flu.
“Poor Richard’s Almanac,” four students caroled.
“Right,” I said, turning on a computer, which issued a startled bleep. “Because of these machines the publishing game has come full circle back to Franklin. He wrote, set type, inked the presses and sold copies all by himself. When you get hired by a newspaper you’re going to work for an unbelievably cheap human being who cuts costs any way he can. This son of a bitch is going to demand that you not only go out and get a story and write it but bring type, photos, color, illustrations—all of it—onto a page. You’ll be responsible for everything, just like Franklin. The difference is, your readers aren’t sure anymore they like to read.”
Elissa Seeberger was taking notes.
“These days there isn’t even a guaranteed audience for articles about sex,” I continued. “The only story I know of that you could sell to anyone, even if you printed it on a cheap photocopier, would be one that revealed how you can extract market-grade platinum from the bones of cats. Say you wrote this story. Its publication would cause two things. First, the rodent population of America would explode. Second, your work would be the only thing anyone would want to read.”
There was a nervous flutter, and a groan, then some easy laughter. A hand went up. “You’re not from here, are you?” the young man said. His face was set in the smirk of the natural-born smart ass and he had a couple of scars that suggested fist fighting or hockey.
He was a Cornell graduate named Dave Hansen and he told me later the reason he came west for a masters degree was because of the way Montana looked in the beer ads. After class I was checking my mail in the school’s business office along with another teacher, a cranky little alcoholic who looked like Yoda’s first cousin, when Hansen wandered in. He was an inch taller than my six-one and twenty pounds heavier—about the differences in size, I guessed, between his generation as a whole and mine. Is junk food the reason for this weird growth or is it nuclear testing or the end of polio? And when will we have to start making airplane seats bigger and basketball nets higher?
“I’m not trying to suck up or anything,” Hansen said. “But I saw you playing tennis yesterday. I can show you what’s wrong with your backhand.”
My colleague, who was teaching here even before I came to school, shook his head in a manner I took to mean that fraternizing with students was wrong.
I tossed my campus communications in a garbage can. “How about this afternoon?”
From the descriptions in the media about Generation X I expected that a third of my students would be slackers who spent their spare time roller-blading and stoking their bongs, another third would be hippies who brought wooden bowls they carved themselves to vegetarian potlucks at the Jeanette Rankin Peace Resource Center downtown, and a third would be grinding, mercenary robots with the situational morals of crack dealers. None of them would know for sure whether Mobile or Atlanta was the capital of Mississippi. They’d be resentful that Baby Boomers like me had all the cool jobs. And demoralized about the pit of debt they were digging to get degrees that promised them nothing. Plus, bored with newspapers and electoral politics and indifferent to the received revisionist history of a corroded land, they would be living not so much in isolation from mainstream America as in a parallel nation whose library was confined to the lyrics of Walter Becker, Pink Floyd and Pearl Jam.
They would see me as a smug, faux-hip Boomer lording it over them in yet another tedious, required class having nothing to do with the world they knew. Like all Sixties liberals I’d be puffed up with self-congratulatory homilies about personal commitment and social responsibility and how travel in the Third World expands consciousness. They’d answer my questions in the rote drones that got them through high school. Their desultory assignments would lie limp and cliched on the page and nothing I did could convince them how much fun designing with words and pictures can be, and how much rowdy, incendiary mischief can happen when journalists just don’t give a damn whose toes get stomped.
They wouldn’t know that as a student slouching in this very room—when it was full of banging manual typewriters, not full-color computers loaded with the latest high-torque software as it is now—my goals were hardly worth persuading others to adopt. First, my editorials in the Kaimin, the college daily, should piss people off more than the editorials written by the other editors. Second, I should avoid the draft. I often achieved that first goal, although for sheer verve I could never match an editorial attacking the chairman of the Black Studies department (“Doss Gets Uppity”), or the feature headlined “The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm.”
My transcripts bear the twisted tale of life at school in the same way that fire rings unearthed by archaeologists say something about who ate what. Oh, it started out promising enough. Buoyed by the snappy tunes of the Association and the Fifth Dimension I danced through my freshman year with decent grades mostly because my cousin was a Delta Sig and I wanted to hang with him. But by the time I was a junior he’d joined the Navy, and I’d been captured by the passions of the anti-war movement, the large supply of sex and drugs on campus and a giddiness about day-to-day life I haven’t felt since. Then I discovered the Stones and the Doors.
Here begins a string of incompletes in everything from cultural geography to art history. And what’s this—a D in badminton? Although at the time the only exercise I ever got was jumping to conclusions, I still can’t explain how an otherwise healthy young adult could almost fail badminton. Here’s another D, for beginning photography—this must be where my skepticism about the medium began. The instructor assigned us to shoot a photo essay illustrating love. I spent an afternoon at a pig farm concentrating on the peculiar anatomy of the boar, and produced a project I was proud of entitled “Porcine Eros: Threat or Promise?” And look, here are some C’s in French and French history, the only physical evidence that I ever devoted my junior year abroad to “study” in Avignon. What I remember most about that era was raising my bleary eyes from a glass of pastis to glimpse the stunning and unattainable de Mireau sisters speeding around the Place de l’Horlage in their sage-colored Citroen, their flying black hair trailing the fragrance of oranges.
And yet I never allowed my batting average to drop below what hitters call the Mendoza Line, thus assuring me immunity for the four years or so my draft board gave me to graduate. That I would eventually belong to Uncle Sugar was assured the evening the results of the Selective Service lottery came clattering over the Associated Press wire into the Kaimin’s teletype machine. An edgy crowd had gathered in the hall. Someone began reading the birthdates and the numbers. There were cheers and gasps and barked expletives as our lives became abruptly rearranged right before our eyes. Girlfriends wept openly as every phone in the building began to ring. My number, 152, meant I was dead meat. My panicked thoughts turned to Canada, Jesuit seminaries, blood pressure drugs, my bad knees.
But in my fifth year I was drafted, of course, and passed the physical. A cadaver could pass that physical. And despite the many international communist organizations to which I loudly claimed membership, the lieutenant in charge promised that I’d have my marching orders within the week. That meant boot camp at Fort Lewis, Washington. Next stop Saigon.
Okay, I thought, then I’ll just go in the army, goddamnit, and organize against the war from within. This conceit lifted my spirits for all of two days. But like the little bird on a rhino’s back, miraculous good luck has always stuck with me. As the moment of truth approached, I was sitting moribund before the tube taking none of my usual solace from the avuncular growls of Walter Cronkite, when the screen suddenly filled with the zany visage of old Tricky Dick himself. The Dick seemed to be looking right at me, delivering a candy-gram just for me. And he was. From now on, he said, the Vietcong are going to have to get used to shooting a lot fewer grunts because we’re pulling out. Number 152 and every number above it had been retired from the draft. From the open window of my indescribably dilapidated room I could hear car horns blaring all over town. With only three credits left till graduation it was radiantly clear what my next move should be: Quit college immediately.
“My roomies said a guy they know wants to kill me,” Dave Hansen announced as he backhanded a low volley that smacked the tape and popped into my court.
His columns in the Kaimin had started one of the constant letter-to-the-editor wars I took as a sign of something churning under the torpid surface of campus life in the Nineties. Although these opinion pieces were concocted of different ingredients than my editorials in the Sixties, they had exactly the same flavor. “Everyone I know seems to think I’m arrogrant,” his first one began. “Granted, I do have a fairly high opinion of myself, but is that so awful? I’ve certainly earned it.” After savaging politicians and other “morons in positions of authority” he concluded: “There’s nothing like being proven right consistently to build confidence. Anyone who doesn’t like that can get in line and kiss my ass.”
“Is this the reaction you wanted?” I asked him, hitting a high lob that I knew from playing with him once a week he would pound it into the net.
“Exactly. And, man, I love it!”
Hansen’s second column attacked poseurs. “This university is full of rich kids from out of state masquerading as destitute hippies who don’t know where their next meal is coming from. They lounge around campus looking like so many homeless people, then drive home in $20,000 Japanese 4x4’s.” While phony “granolas” always develop their politics before their brains, he wrote, “I have nothing against the truly crunchy. The look is fairly cool, and the politics are at the very least entertaining.”
Between incitements of his fellow students Hansen was writing his master’s thesis about press coverage of the federal Drug Enforcement Agency’s “zero tolerance” policy, under which the houses, cars and other toys of drug traffickers are confiscated and sold. Although the DEA says it uses these revenues to improve enforcement, critics think the agency is lining its own pockets. The Montana equivalent of this practice is the state’s bizarre $100 per ounce tax on marijuana growers, a law that seems to be exactly what the framers of the Constitution meant by double jeapardy. I’ve assigned Hansen to find out for Missoula Inside Out the names of people who were forced to pay this tax, how much money the state has raised and how it’s being used.
“So what have you got for me?” I ask him.
“No names yet. But they collected about $50,000.”
“Doesn’t seem like much.”
“Yeah, but they’ve assessed ten million. They just can’t figure out how to get it.”
Hansen was watching a coed in white tights, a baggy lilac sweater, and black lace-up boots hurry off to class. “I dated her,” he said, driving a ferocious show-off serve at me that went long and wide. “Hot, hot, hot. And she makes this yipping sound that . . . ”
Hansen played tennis just like me. He hit the ball hard. And he had no control.
My model for the ideal hometown daily is the small town weekly. It’s here that you can still find true neighborhood news: Who had an appendectomy, who’s in from Fargo, whose red heeler whipped whose Great Dane in which alley. These matters sound inconsequential, and to the gray analysts who monitor troop movements and currency fluctuations maybe they are, but the relentless erosion of our sense of community has left Americans famished for simple information about the people next door. The apparent omniscience of CNN, and the increasing availability through online computer services of national newspapers such as the Chicago Tribune and the New York Times, are making it redundant and wasteful for little dailies to report News of the Big World at all. By the time a canned Associated Press story about Israeli Outrage No. 984 appears on Page One we already know from the tube how many are dead, and who’s blaming whom. Blindly chasing after these bored and distracted readers, most small dailies still squander their resources on the same old wire news, the same old beats, and the same old public relations clips, simply dressing up “product” from these desiccated sources in over-designed pages dominated by vacuous photos and inked with a riot of process color. Although they’re adept at dissecting the Big Picture and can sometimes report politics, “natural” disasters and capital crimes as if there were a difference, most editors don’t even bother anymore to assign reporters to the greatest drama a reader can face—that is, his own death. The paid obituary is a hallmark of the modern American newspaper’s contempt for its audience.
And so Missoula Inside Out, or “The Bulletin of Daily Life,” is born. The journalistic equivalent of house-to-house fighting, these 16 standard-sized magazine pages are filling up fast with copy, art, photos and color. Although I envision Inside Out as a morning report issued in a different edition for each section of the city and distributed through computer networks and street corner newspaper boxes, I’ve given class seven days to put together the prototype.
In turning over rocks for material my students have astonished me with their industry and their zeal. I knew that Hansen and McComb would be among the best reporters in class but I was all wrong when I guessed early on who would emerge as the stars of design. Elissa Seeberger, sorority girl and compulsive note-taker, had far and away the most natural talent. Her page designs, inspired by the frenetic look of women’s magazines like Vogue, are original and full of life. The freehand sketches she’s produced for her team reveal the intuition of someone who should be also be studying art. Then there’s a senior from Japan so hushed and aristocratic I can’t resist thinking of him as the Tokyo Kid. His English, which demands my patience, seems to be punctuated with small, precise bows. Although his writing is sometimes incomprehensible one of his page designs, for an article about sporting goods, looks as if it were printed on parchment held together with strands that suggest the strings of a tennis racket. And then there’s a quiet rancher’s son built like a grain silo whose grasp of typography seems inborn and whose compositions have a spaciousness about them that resemble the austere central Montana landscapes where he grew up.
The Love & Hate team has also discovered that Missoula County’s 1993 divorce rate, at 7.4 per thousand, is considerably higher than the national average of 4.6.
“How do you figure?” I ask.
“Bad food,” a kid from Back East says. “You can’t find anything to eat here. Makes you cranky.”
“It’s like Vegas,” another says. “They move in. They party. They move out.”
Their teammate stretches her long legs, turns off her computer, and pushes the blonde hair from her eyes. “I think it’s because Missoula is the end of the line. People come here and it’s beautiful and it’s clean. They think a place like this can fix things.” This is the same young woman who asked me on the day of the midterm why I looked so smug. “Because I know the answers,” I said. “Then why are you asking us?” she said, laughing. I stare at her now, taken back by her sudden worldliness. But why wouldn’t a Montana girl know something about the world these days? Consider the stream of images that passes before any of us who’s even half awake. Maybe I’m a little shocked at the depth of her perception because when I look in her perfect young face and those green Montana eyes that meet you straight on I see the same expectant, open faces of kids I once knew, and would deeply love the rest of my life.
On a December evening in 1969 a heavy snow fell down like curtains, straining the branches of the big spruce trees on campus, absorbing every sound in Amerika, and trapping the oranges and pinks from the glowing lights downtown. Under my fringed leather jacket was a paperback copy of Marshall McCluhan’s War and Peace in the Global Village. I had picked it off a shelf a week earlier at the University book store, sealed it in an envelope, and mailed to myself from the University post office, which is conveniently located in the bookstore for shoplifters who don’t like the hassle of actually sneaking something through the checkout line. I was planning to read it for the third time because a journalism professor said McCluhan was important. This man, the first big city Jew any of us grain-fed provincials had ever met, was so intense his mane of silver hair seemed to be tossing in the wind, even indoors. I had stared open-mouthed when he strode into class and declared that just about the only thing college could ever do for hicks like us is to make sure we didn’t marry the wrong person.
I also had a box of Milk Bones for Tim Johnson, my Labrador puppy, named after the rabid dog in To Kill a Mockingbird. I was shivering with delight, holding hands with my first love as we made our way through that blue velvet dusk to spend our first sleepover in my first real apartment. We had been talking about Us and We had decided: Tonight’s the night.
We lay in bed afterwards in a candlelit glow, the smell of patchouli oil and sandalwood incense hanging in the air, listening to Joan Baez on the stereo, while Tim Johnson slept deeply on his blanket in a corner, and the snow piled against the windows. Pay attention now, I had told myself, this is important. This is worth memorizing.
When the dean of the journalism school called a quarter of a century later and asked me to come back to college I thought there’d been a hardware mishap in the ear piece of my phone. The dean, the most even-tempered of men, was the teacher who had worked the hardest to show me how a reporter should go around. But I had thoroughly rejected his guidance, especially the ethical advice about not getting personally involved in a story, believing then as I do now that “objective” is just another word for nothing left to say. This same man had once torn me to pieces in the detached manner of a bureaucrat shredding documents after I had written a clearly biased and heart-felt report in the Kaimin about one of the many anti-war protests in the streets of Missoula.
He probably suspected that I had been attending clandestine meetings in safe houses with other advanced cadre in the coalition of young people opposed to imperialist wars, racism and capitalist exploitation of the working class. Looking at that sentence now I can’t imagine now why these shibboleths sounded so sexy in the meetings. In fact, a bunch of grain-fed white boys and girls from places like Big Sandy and Roundup and Butte were just busting to raise some of the same hell kids in Madison and Berkeley and Columbia were enjoying. Our version of insurrection revolved around a dozen indiscreet plans, only a couple of which succeeded. There was an idea to drop an incendiary down the stack of the main boiler at the paper mill west of town. Nixed, because no one had a pilot’s license. Then there was a plan to blow up one of the bridges connecting campus to commerce by floating a barrel full of plastique down the Clark Fork River, where it would be detonated by remote control from shore. This failed because the fuse was a dud. And this was my favorite—a thousand sheep would be off-loaded into downtown Missoula at rush hour on a Friday afternoon. This was squelched after objections from the vegetarians that it would be demeaning to the sheep.
Still, we did drive the cadets from their ROTC building for a night and “liberate” it in the “name of the people.” Although the soil of Montana harbored a nuclear arsenal potent enough to broil both sides of Vietnam, and New Jersey for good measure, Ho Chi Minh probably didn’t consider the state much of a conventional threat. Nevertheless, we burned files and generally wreaked havoc on everything that might help the war effort. I regarded the evening a valuable out-of-class educational experience that revealed the hypocrisy of the corporate media and the myth of the disinterested journalist. A reporter showed up from the Daily Missoulian, the paper downtown that as late as 1959 was owned by the robber barons of the Anaconda Copper Company. When he tried to force his way into our Pig Free Zone I dissuaded him by bringing down a window on his hands. After that his coverage of the disturbances became even more critical. I took as further evidence of his private political agenda the fact that within a year he had resigned from the paper to become head of a right-wing mining association.
We were not alone on this cold, distant campus, especially after the shootings at Kent State. Certain faculty members, in fact, had plunged the detonator on our local explosion by making essays such as “The Student as Nigger” mandatory study. When word of this inflammatory reading list reached home a movement to fire the perverts was formed, led by a sanctimonious ROTC colonel who sputtered with no apparent knowledge of the First Amendment about cleansing the vicinity of vermin. The man was later disgraced when the Salt Lake City police disclosed to a pushy Kaimin reporter that he had been arrested for propositioning a cop disguised as a hooker. Compared to what is regular fare on the talk shows today this is a pallid sin, but the cause then for one of my happiest moments at the paper. And one of the many reasons why the central lesson to young journalists should be this: All Authority Sucks.
On the other hand, my second fondest memory as a student editor was a midnight visit from The Man himself, the University president. A tolerant, liberal scholar of history who was roundly praised for keeping the cops off campus during the uprising—and the lid on—he had climbed up the fire escape to the Kaimin’s digs on the second floor of the J-School because the doors downstairs were locked. Plus, that’s how he’d seen us coming and going as he wrestled, like us, in the dark hours with deadlines of his own.
“You fellows do what you have to,” he said, sitting down heavily in a chair. “But I can’t keep these jerks off us forever. Who’s got a cigarette?” After some banter about the art of headline writing he went back through the window and into the night. The day after Kent State the student body went on out strike. The President showed up at the demonstration and strode to the microphone. To my surprise and admiration what he demanded was not that we go back to class but that the Pentagon cease its mayhem in Vietnam.
It’s Day Five of the Andie MacDowell Watch. I’ve assigned a senior from Taiwan to the beat. Her assignment: Follow the actress around for a week and report her every move. When she’s between gigs MacDowell, noted for her roles in movies such as sex, lies, videotape, and Groundhog Day, lives a few minutes downstream from Missoula in a log house surrounded by valleys platted with horsey ranchettes. We’ve discovered that she shops at a certain natural food store, where she’s partial to spritzers, wheat grass juice, basmati rice from Pakistan and collard greens (she’s a southerner). She eats lunch regularly in a boozeless restaurant frequented by students and hipsters, where she eats a lot of bagels. While there this week she was approached by a private-school girl who asked if she would come see the Kurt Vonnegut play Welcome to the Monkey House, put on by her classmates. McDowell graciously agreed. This is how she goes around, traipsing here and there with her fashion model husband and tow-headed kids in a battered red Ford pickup as free and easy as any family of mountain folk who’ve been here forever. She dresses down in little flowered white sweaters, baggy wool pants, and snowmobile boots. She has examined, but did not buy: Birkenstocks, cross-country skis, a gold-plated coffee filter and an espresso machine (better prices in L.A.?) Her real name, and the name printed on her checks, is Rose Qualley. From my own serendipitous observations at the supermarket I determined that in the flesh McDowell has the sort of luminous beauty that makes middle-aged men sick to their stomachs.
“It’s time to resume throwing Christians to the lions,” Dave Hansen’s column in the morning’s Kaimin began. “Bible bigots operate under the misguided notion that America is a Christian state.”
Hansen had seized the opportunity to annoy people by joining the campus battle over what the Testaments really say about homosexuality. Because one letter-writer called him “Reagan Youth” he had determined to take the progressive position on sexuality.
“This friend of mine says ‘Stop writing such rude things. People are starting to think you’re a real dick,’” he told me, driving a forehand shot to my improving backhand. We had stopped playing actual games and were simply hitting the ball at each other as hard as we can.
“So, what, you’re going to start soliciting for Jerry’s Kids?” I said, lunging at his shot and snapping it past him.
“My next column goes, ‘I’m perfectly happy to let people sit around waiting to donate their organs while I spout off about anything I want. Why shouldn’t I? While you’re muttering to yourselves about people like me we’ll steal the world out from under you.”
“It’s good to treat your readers like equals.”
“Thanks.” Hansen stopped to mop his face. “I found out that the state of Montana has spent more trying to collect its dope tax than it’s made on the tax.”
“Good work. What about names?”
Hansen stalled by pretending his tennis shoe was unlaced. “A guy in New York I know says there’s a PR job open that pays thirty-six to start. What do you think?”
“And give up tennis with me?”
The Left has been wrong about many things, including its prediction that on college campuses the Nineties would make the Sixties look like the Fifties. Although the University of Montana has doubled in population since I first set foot there in 1967, like most campuses it has shrunk by half in the political buzz it emits. Part of this collective lethargy is due to a state government that won’t give the school anything more than maintenance money, resulting in faculty salaries that rank every year near the bottom of the barrel. The institution is further weakened by the jealous insistence of its various departments that all of their programs are worthy of funding. The result of trying to do everything with paltry salaries is the academic equivalent of a price club in which tires are stacked to the ceiling next to pallets of baby food and Cheese Whiz crowding best-sellers piled in bins; but not enough clerks to help you get what you want.
That’s where I came in.
Like many colleges, UM is hooked on the labor of part-time instructors. Although in 1994 nearly 16 percent of all instructional hours at Montana were taught by part-timers; in some departments such as biology and music their hours exceeded 40 percent of the total. These fill-ins—who exist in the social order somewhere between slave and scab—are not just poorly paid; except for a faculty library card the school grants them no benefits whatsoever. In the California University system they’re called Freeway Professors; when I hear the phrase I see unsightly little geeks living in ratty Asian sedans, wolfing Taco John lunches as they rush from San Luis Obispo to Isla Vista to show another hundred freshmen what happens when you shock rats.
Although Montana has always been an economic outpost that exports wealth, its natural beauty, safe streets and reasonable housing prices always lured college teachers whose accomplishments transcended the miserable pay they received. But now, two decades after Montana was discovered by the glitterati, its choicest communities have become infested with middle-class fugitives fleeing the nation’s hot zones. Consequently, housing costs and all other costs of living have shot up while some measures of the quality of life, such as safety from crime, have deteriorated. Accepting low pay for the opportunity to work under the Big Sky no longer looks like a relative bargain. So, is the quality of instruction now sliding in the direction of zero?
Much to the embarrassment of the administration, U.S. New & World Report lists the University of Montana in the fourth tier of national colleges, somewhere near the bottom, actually. But to the joy of many students, another magazine rates UM as one of the top ten party schools in the nation. I hardly kept book on the state of higher education when I went to school here, and as I teacher I wasn’t privy to what my colleagues were teaching the students we shared. If any of these fatigued academics made time for heart-to-hearts about the pace of learning I wasn’t invited to jump in. But what I know has changed is that the school teaches from a position accepting the dominance of the computer in publishing. And, in another echo of McCluhan’s dreams from the Sixties, the campus looks just like what I imagined his global village to be. When I went to the podium to present ideas I liked to believe that at least the intellectual itch of the inevitable arguments would travel home with my students to South Africa, the Pacific Rim, Canada, Barbados, or the Fort Belnap Indian Reservation, like the fleas in a dog’s scruff.
Meanwhile, the journalism school does what it’s always done. Most of its graduates actually get jobs in the field, although the pay sucks. It still publishes the oldest journalism review in North America. Its 90-year-old halls are still perfumed with the smell of ink and the dust on yellowed newsprint. The Kaimin still comes out four times a week, just like it did when Carroll O’Connor was its associate editor in 1949, the year the paper ran an editorial cartoon about the Board of Regents that offended the University administration, which confiscated all the copies. The English major from New York who would become Archie Bunker on All In The Family promptly quit in protest. Most everything, in fact, is the same now as it was when Kitty’s mother graduated from the school a year earlier and went on to write the famous United Press stories about the deaths of 13 firefighters in the Mann Gulch inferno near Helena, Montana, stories she got by eavesdropping on nervous Forest Service phone calls.
While I was surfing the dish for basketball scores I came across the late news with Hal Fishman on KTLA, which I watched because I was nostalgic for the three winters I spent in Los Angles before Kitty and I got married. I used to get mesmerized by this show but it makes me crazy—because of their wizened simian faces and dinner theatre hairpieces Fishman and company always look like they’re rehearsing Planet of the Apes. Tonight, however, turned out to be something special. The screen was full of Mark Fuhrman, the Los Angeles police detective the O.J. defense is trying to implicate as a racist who framed Simpson with planted evidence. He’d just stepped off a plane in Spokane, claiming he was on his way to check out retirement home sites in north Idaho’s Hayden Lake area—rutting ground, of course, for all your better white supremacists. This trip to Naziville, taken long before the now notorious tapes were played in Lance Ito’s courtroom, wasn’t noted by the national press.
Fuhrman was not amused at all to be met at the gate by a photographer. The harsh shapes his mouth made as he tried to escape the camera made me wish that the journalism school had taught lip reading. I doubt the Detective shares my belief that to regard a photograph as something more than a smudge of what the human eye beholds is to miss the point of being alive. And then it struck me: This photographer was Dan McComb, my former student. But instead of the straight-laced, even-tempered kid who never missed a class, here was a tough-looking media soldier with mod hair, black power clothes and attitude, who pushed his Nikon right into Fuhrman’s face, who responded by lunging at McComb and knocking him down, sending his camera bags akimbo.
The next day I studied the photograph of the altercation in the Spokane paper. This picture says nothing, of course, about what really lurks down there in the Detective’s little black heart. And like all photographs, for that reason, its meaning is unclear. But it does place one significant cop in a certain significant place. And that reinforces at least in a circumstantial manner opinions about him that turned out to be yet another shabby episode in the shabby legal history of American race relations.
I just had to smile. Could I have said something along the way that gave McComb that extra calorie of courage you need see trouble and get in its face anyway? Probably not. McComb was bound to excel. Still, watching him take a hit in pursuit of a story was living proof that the beat goes on.
And I heard again from Dave Hansen’s corner. The journalism school secretary called me because Hansen had left Missoula without finishing all the requirements for his master’s degree. Could I imagine someone getting that close and not finishing? I said I could. Well, did I know where he was? I said I had a pretty good idea. Did I think he was planning to return to school? I said I wouldn’t count on it.
Our mailman kicked up his usual spray of dust as he sped off down the county road after slapping two items in our box. First was a junk letter from the publisher of the Wall Street Journal. “I have a friend who doesn’t mind saying that he was never a star in the classroom,” he began. “Far from it. Yet today that same man is the news-making CEO of a big U.S. company . . . Has your time come? . . . Are you one of the late bloomers?”
I assumed this sales letter was sent because of the other item—my diploma. It was small and cheesy and much less impressive than, say, the certificate you’d get upon graduation as a mixologist or a chiropractor. It contained a grammatical error. And my name was crooked. Besides working for slave wages—which, of course, was my pleasure—to finish my degree I had to make up my incompletes, so I wrote a long article about life in the country that a regional magazine bought. When I ran into the dean one day he told me how much he’d enjoyed it.
“So you gave me an A?” I teased.
“I gave you a B.”
“Hey, it was twenty-five years late.”
Read J-School Ate My Brain by Michael Lewis
COPYRIGHT © 2013 BY BILL VAUGHN