And what in the fuck is it with me that I can’t roll a straight joint?
Todd snorts. “The one from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez. The one that’s gonna hire 20,000 people. The one that’s gonna pay you $1000 a week.”
But I could never have become a pipeline laborer had I not begun, at age 18, my collegiate pro tour, attending 11 colleges before capturing the bachelor of arts trophy 19 years after my first, charmingly informative, junior-college orientation class.
This glory run occurred back in the days when they paid you to go to university. Oh, let us all gather ’round the camp fire and recount heroic tales of Pell Grants, NDSL loans, tuition waivers, and work-study programs. College was a national youth stipend made available by an enlightened nation to those young seekers who wished to explore our great land.
The gig went like this: show up in a town, sign up at the local university, college, or junior college, apply for every student loan, grant, and award available, circle back two months later, collect the checks, and move on. Yes, there was more to it than that — the sending of transcripts, filling out paperwork, rapt attention to application deadlines, chit and chat with university loan officers — but the guts were: show up, sign up, come back, cash in. Ultimately, I graduated from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, on my birthday, cast out at 37 into an uncaring world.
The college I liked best and attended the longest was the above-mentioned UNLV, which, at the time of my first induction, was known as Nevada Southern University, a modest outpost of the University of Nevada, Reno. When you said NSU (go, Rebels!), it meant two classroom buildings and an administration center with the heart-tugging name of Maude Frazier Hall. The student population was 3650; the school mascot was a wolf garbed in a Confederate field jacket, the wolf wearing a military cap with a Confederate battle flag sewn on its front. More disturbing, the nearest cup of coffee was off-campus, across Maryland Parkway, in an outdoor vending machine located on the grounds of a sleazy apartment complex called Longacres.
I wound up at NSU in this way:
On August 24, 1968, Abby Pizer and I stood outside Hawthorne, Nevada, a redneck desert colony overrun with trailer-court Americana. Hawthorne is on Highway 95, part of that big empty space between Reno and Las Vegas. It was 108 degrees, and we hadn’t eaten in a day or had a change of clothes in two. She was 17. I was 24. We were in love.
Abby grew up in Columbia, a California town of 4000 in the Sierra Nevada. She was tall, 5'10", and had fire-red hair falling to the middle of her firm ass. Additional attractions included green eyes, thin, wide lips, long legs, and large breasts. These delights came with a sweet disposition and significant talents in art and piano.
We’d met the preceding spring in Los Altos Hills, California. Mom (Dad was dead), though wealthy by way of inheritance, had declined to pay tuition to a four-year college, but Abby had an aunt living in Sunnyvale, down the street from Foothill JC. Match Abby with aunt and dirt-cheap tuition, throw in a political science class, add your servant, stir, and, voilà, supremo young love.
I was then living in a $75-a-month hovel, which became, within a week, a $75-a-month hovel/love nest. At the end of spring semester, Abby, at her mother’s insistence, went home to work in a photographer’s shop, a job Mom arranged the moment she heard from the aunt that Abby was off the leash. Meanwhile, I summered on the coast of Washington, with side trips to British Columbia and Montana.
We set an August rendezvous for the Fresno airport, chosen because it was convenient to Ms. Pizer. The plan was for Abby to pick me up in her 1958 Ford Fairlane at 8:00 p.m. We’d drive to the Bay Area, where she would resume her studies, and I, reformed by the love of a good woman, would begin the epic trek to a PhD, followed by a tenured life of piano recitals and faculty barbecues.
The Fresno airport closed at midnight, and at midnight I was patrolling the empty terminal under the visual custody of two janitors. Showing the kind of initiative that, 30 years later, would find her as sole owner of rare-book bookbinding company, living in an honest-to-god Southern plantation on the shores of the Sucarnoochee River, Abby got through via telephone to one of the janitors, who walked the length of the terminal, tapped me on the shoulder, and led me into his office.
Abby was calling from her mother’s house. She reported that, on the way to Fresno, on the zigzag portion of Highway 49, a turkey had sprung onto the highway, causing her to make a violent right turn, which caused the automobile to make an abrupt acquaintance with a large oak tree. Although uninjured, she was halfway in shock. She climbed out of the car to clear her head. This was fortunate, because the Ford exploded, a hell of a fire, the police said, which reduced to ashes not only upholstery and such, but all Abby’s money, clothes, luggage, purse, and ID. Our net worth now consisted of everything in my backpack, plus the $7 and change in my pocket.
The janitors let me sleep in the terminal. I hitched a ride the next morning and made Columbia by noon.
Abby’s mother hated me. Completely understandable. If that evil strumpet were alive today, I’d tell her exactly that. I was halfway through my earnest-hippie period, with black hair flowing from my skull like a hairy waterfall. Worse, I arrived in Columbia dressed in ceremonial apparel: my patched traveling jeans. These splendid dungarees had been hand-embroidered by hippie women I’d met over the years. Regard the left knee patch and its colorful sunburst from Lawrence, Kansas. Inspect the right thigh patch and its nature scene that starred a bull moose grazing beneath snow-capped mountains of Dillon, Montana. Do not overlook the backside, particularly the right cheek area featuring an enormous full moon from Gainesville, Florida. Plus, hem to waist, a collection of mystical emblems copied from cultures either extinct or powerless.