A birthday essay for my readers: my days at University of Florida ….

Hi, friends and readers:

A few days ago, I celebrated my sixty-first birthday while visiting my partner in Gainesville, FL where he’s working.

I spent four years at University of Florida in Gainesville; I earned a Bachelor’s degree in Journalism, and those were not happy years for me.

On the morning of my 61st birthday, I took a one-hour walk through campus. So many memories bubbled up, most of them unpleasant. When I returned to my partner’s home, I wrote down thoughts about the time I spent in Gainesville, so long ago. I wrote about the person I was back then, and also the person I am today. Here’s what I came up with:

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Birthday Memories

Copyright Jere’ M. Fishback 2012

Today is October 23, 2012, my sixty-first birthday. The fact I’ve made it this far amazes me, considering how I doused myself in drugs and alcohol in my younger days. But I’m blessed with good DNA and still quite healthy, save for a pair of creaky knees that won’t let me run long distances any more.

I’m in Gainesville, FL today, celebrating my birthday with my partner Greg, the person most dear to me in this world. This morning, when I woke around seven-thirty, I took a pre-breakfast stroll through the University of Florida campus, where I attended college from 1969 through 1973.

UF is a beautiful place, particularly the older portions of campus where Gothic-style red brick buildings stand among moss-draped live oaks, long leaf pines, and magnolias. The morning was cool and sunny as I entered campus, when students scurried toward their first classes of the day. Most wore t-shirts, shorts, and sandals. A few wore sweatshirts to ward of the morning’s chill, but they would likely shed the sweatshirts by noon.

My stroll began near Matherly Hall, the business school where my first freshman English class met, in 1969, in the basement. My instructor was Sterling Watson, a graduate student with bulging biceps and a handlebar mustache. Now, forty years later, Sterling chairs the Creative Writing Department at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, a ten-minute drive from my home.

Life’s curious, isn’t it?

My walk continued past the old law school, where a bronze plaque commemorates racial desegregation of the university in the late 1950s. Then I continued south, past Carlton Auditorium and Little Hall, where so many of my freshman and sophomore classes met. I stopped at the sinkhole south of Little Hall, to gaze at the black and placid water. Sleepy students trundled past me; they carried backpacks, and many sipped coffee from foam cups.

I smoked cigarettes when I was a student here, about a pack a day. I always puffed on a Marlboro while walking to morning classes—it helped wake me up—but you don’t see anyone smoke on campus now; it’s verboten.

When I attended UF, the Rawlins and Jennings dormitories housed only female students. But this morning guys with facial stubble, many wearing fraternity jerseys, emerged from these buildings alongside girls clutching stacks of books to their breasts.

On my walk, I passed McCarty Hall, where Agronomy and food sciences are studied. McCarty is south of the green behind The Hub. McCarty has to be one of the ugliest buildings on campus; it looks like a prison or a state office building, with nary an architectural feature. Plus, the maintenance people can’t seem to keep mildew from growing on the structure’s northern facade.

In an aesthetically-just world, McCarty would be razed and replaced by something more pleasing, but no. While I passed McCarty this morning, I heard a skill saw’s hum and shots fired by a nail gun. The idiots are actually remodeling McCarty’s interior. The bridge troll of UF architecture lives on.

When I came to UF in 1969, the J. Wayne Reitz Union had only recently opened. The Reitz is a massive, contemporary structure with concrete balustrades, much glass, and massive swaths of brick. It’s a Frank Lloyd Wright knockoff, and a total break from UF’s traditional architectural styles. I always thought its designers tried to make a statement with the building. I think The Reitz was meant to symbolize a new and progressive era in Florida, when the Pork Chop Gang no longer ran the Legislature, and Ed Ball didn’t choose our Governor.

I’ve never cared for The Reitz; I find it cold and sterile. The building reminds me of Nazi “intimidation architecture” one sees when visiting Berlin or other German cities. All that is missing are the stone eagles with flexed talons and glaring eyes. The Reitz is too big and stark, not at all welcoming; it seems out of place among the more modest and dignified campus buildings. Face it: the Reitz is an elephant that has wandered onstage during a Swan Lake performance.

In 1982, as a trial lawyer, I sued the University and its president in federal court, after UFLAGS, a fledgling gay student organization on campus, was kicked out its office space in The Reitz.  University administrators had concluded UFLAGS was not “representative” of typical UF students. The situation was a flagrant violation of UFLAGS members’ First Amendment rights, and days before a temporary injunction hearing in our case, the Board of Regents backed down. UFLAGS got its office space back in The Reitz, and the University paid the court costs we’d incurred in the suit.

During a recent visit here, about a month ago, a banner hung across University Avenue, just north of the Main Library. Another hung on 13th Street, in front of Tigert Hall. Both announced UF’s upcoming Gay and Lesbian Festival.

How times change.

This morning, I walked past my freshman dormitory, Trusler Hall, another building bereft of warmth, a prison-like structure I grew to hate while living here. In 1969 the dorm was all-male, of course, and kids from every part of Florida lived in Trusler. Nearly half the guys on my floor flunked out after the first quarter; they couldn’t handle the freedom of living away from home. They forgot to study and missed too many classes, distracted by keg parties and pantie raids.

When I came to UF, in the fall of 1969, I was still seventeen, a gangly kid with a bad haircut, horn-rimmed glasses, acne, and no understanding of how the practical world worked. I had no dorm mate in my room at Trusler. The guy I’d planned to share my room with got cold feet — he attended community college instead — so I had my room to myself. I was terribly lonely. I knew no one at UF — I was 150 miles from my home in Pinellas County — and I had no car. The distance may as well have been a thousand miles.

Every time I look at Trusler Hall I remember my loneliness from that time, and it still hurts. How many nights did I lie in my bed with tears leaking from the corners of my eyes? Back then, I’d ask myself, Why did I come here? Why am I doing this to myself? Is this really where I belong?

My dad had attended UF’s College of Architecture, on the GI Bill, after WWII. He and my mom lived in the Flavets, a group of Army barracks the university housed married students in. My folks had always spoken of their time at UF with reverence, especially my mom. It was, she always told me, the happiest time of her life. Why couldn’t this be so for me?

Now, on my campus stroll, I walked down Fraternity Row, past the Lambda Chi Alpha house, where I pledged fall quarter of my freshmen year. I did so out of sheer desperation and loneliness. I wanted friends; I needed to belong somewhere on campus. Back then, UF’s student population was overwhelming male and almost entirely Caucasian. Most guys at the Lambda Chi House spoke with a drawl; they wore button down shirts, chinos, and penny loafers. They talked endlessly of football and girls, subjects I knew little about.

I did my best to fit in at Lambda Chi. I even lived in the house my sophomore year. I formed a circle of friends among the brothers — I found a group of guys who didn’t quite fit the Lambda Chi mold — but I never really belonged in the Greek world, a place where individuality was frowned upon, a society where conformity was paramount.

At the time, I had not learned life’s most important lesson: you have to be yourself if you want to be happy. Years would pass before I understood this simple concept.

I quit the fraternity after my sophomore year, and thereafter I lived off campus. Aside from attending classes, I had little contact with campus life. I involved myself with the anti-Vietnam war movement. My use of psychedelic drugs opened my mind to new ways of thinking. And my sexual orientation wouldn’t be ignored any longer.

After I graduated, for the longest time, I resisted returning to UF’s campus. Why remind myself of the phony life I’d led there? While there I had sought others’ approval instead of seeking personal contentment. Why go back to all that?

When I did return to Gainesville — for a football weekend or a business meeting — I’d always feel sadness, and even a little anger. What a fool I’d been back then.

This morning, when I passed the Lambda Chi house, a banner hung from the live oaks out front, saying the brotherhood supported a dance to benefit “breast cancer awareness.” When I lived in the Lambda Chi house, I don’t think any of our members had ever heard of breast cancer.  To discuss such a subject would have seemed inappropriate — bad taste if you will.

Not now, it seems.

Also, while passing my old fraternity house, two boys in Lambda Chi jerseys emerged from the house with backpacks hanging from their shoulders. One boy looked Indian or Pakistani. The other wore little black eyeglasses and looked Taiwanese. Both smiled and chattered away. Now, I don’t believe in forcing ethnic diversity down people’s throats, but exposing yourself to those who’ve grown up differently from you is a good thing, I think.

Good for Lambda Chi. Some things have changed.

Two traditionally Jewish fraternities have existed for many decades on UF’s campus: the TEPs and the Pi Lams. My law partner for fifteen years was a Jew and a TEP alumnus from UF. As a freshman pledge, he played in a football contest against the Pi Lam pledge class. The game was called “The Nose Bowl.”

“We did it to laugh at ourselves,” my law partner once told me. “Jews can’t take themselves too seriously, not after all the shit we’ve been through.”

This morning, a banner at the TEP house indicated the “Nose Bowl” had been played again, only three days before. Good for the Jewish guys. They can still laugh at themselves.

The Kappa Alpha house still has its Confederate cannon out front, and the yard is littered with “Romney for President” signs. Theta Chi is building a new house. A rendering on the jobsite’s construction sign shows a building similar to “Tara” in Gone With The Wind. You know: the fluted columns, a red brick facade, and fan lights over the windows.

Some things haven’t changed.

The Reitz is no longer the Big Building On Campus. That distinction now belongs to Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, a brick and concrete obscenity dedicated to the cult of Gator football. When I attended UF, both end zones were simply wood and steel bleachers, and few students attended the games. Our teams were awful. Now, the stadium’s a massive brick bowl, easily accommodating 85,000 fans.

I understand most SEC games are sellouts. The team’s doing well, I hear. Good for them, I guess.

I majored in journalism at UF. Back then, our school dwelt beneath the stadium’s western stands — we attended classes in a bomb shelter — but now the J-school has its own impressive structure, Weimer Hall, a contemporary beauty with plenty of glass, sandwiched between The Hub and the Mechanical Engineering Building.

So another thing has changed.

Something else: like I said earlier, when I attended UF, the students were mostly white and the majority were male. Sorority girls wore dresses and stockings to class. With glittering collections of badges pinned to their chests; they looked like navy admirals. Male students favored oxford cloth shirts; they kept their hair cut short, parted it on the side. On Fraternity Row, guys with athletic builds and cleft chins all dressed and talked the same. Had a machine created them?

The students I saw this morning didn’t look that way. Everyone pretty much dressed for comfort, rather than style. Half the guys didn’t seem to own hairbrushes or care about the fact their t-shirts looked like they’d slept in them the night before. They didn’t seem to shave often, either. To me, they seemed more relaxed, more independent, and more themselves.

I like that.

Of course, it drives me nuts how the kids today can’t seem to go anywhere without wires in their ears, or without talking into a piece of plastic. How can you appreciate the beauty of campus if you’re not paying attention to your surroundings? You won’t hear a blue jay’s tootle, and you won’t hear the breeze rustle fronds on a Sabal palm. But then, when I was here as a student, maybe I didn’t spend much time looking at live oaks or listening to birds sing. I was probably too busy worrying about my appearance and what people thought of me.

Toward the end of today’s morning walk, I passed Newell Hall, a gem of a brick Gothic structure built in 1910, with battlements trimming the tiled roof.  I stopped to admire the structure’s beauty, its symmetry and good taste. Why don’t they make buildings like Newell anymore?

To earn my journalism degree at UF, the college required me to take a couple of science classes, whichever I chose. I’ve never liked science; I don’t understand it and don’t care to. But I did what I had to do: I took a Geology class in a Newell Hall, in a classroom with high ceilings and mullioned windows.  The wizened professor must have dated to the Paleozoic Era, but he was a good teacher. He taught me a love for rocks — igneous, sedimentary and so forth — and the forces of nature that produced them.

Who’d have guessed?

Today, I have a collection of weird and interesting rocks I’ve gathered during my travels all over the world. I have labeled them and placed them on the shelves above my desk. Once in a while, I take a rock down and look at it. I’ll recall when and where I found it.

My partner Greg, who I often visit here, lives two blocks north of campus, in the old College Park neighborhood. Towering live oaks shade the streets, and here and there are 1920’s bungalows with screened porches and azalea shrubs. One such home sits just south of Greg’s place, and I’ve always admired a Shumard oak shading the property, a tree with a trunk so large I couldn’t reach my arms around it.

Yesterday, when I arrived here, I heard the roar of a chain saw. A tree-trimming crew had felled the Shumard oak. Its massive trunk lay in pieces, like so many sections of sewer pipe, and when I saw the carnage my eyes fogged with tears. Why would the neighbors do this? Was the oak’s trunk rotten? Could it not be saved? During the past hundred years, how many persons had cooled their brows in shade cast by this lovely tree?  How many children had climbed its gnarled limbs? How many students had passed beneath the tree on their way to campus? And how many folks had admired the oak’s strength and beauty?

Now, the little bungalow in Greg’s neighborhood sits by itself on a sun-parched lot with only a few spindly shrubs to keep it company. What a shame the tree is gone.

I’m sixty-one years old today. Like the Shumard oak, one day I’ll disappear, maybe sooner than I think. Will someone mourn my passing, as I mourn the Shumard oak’s death? Who knows?

If this birthday reflection has turned maudlin, I apologize.

A person has only one sixty-first birthday — if he or she is lucky — and today is mine. I spent a portion of this special day visiting a place that left its permanent mark on me, a place of memories: some good, many not so good

A campus, I suppose, is an evolving thing, just as I am. Some things change, some stay the same. In many ways, I’m still the skinny boy who came here in 1969, a kid who didn’t know how the world worked, or where he belonged. I still feel his pain and loneliness. I recall his desperate need for acceptance by those around him, and I remember his disappointment when he dealt with his shortcomings.

Despite these memories, I’m pleased to be in Gainesville on my birthday. I’m glad I took the walk through campus, and I’m glad to be the kind of man I am today: a guy who’s not afraid to be himself, and a man who’s not ashamed to weep when an ancient oak falls.

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Have a nice Saturday, friends.

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