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Change of Plans

I had been on the campus years earlier when my older sister Pat was a student, when the school was Ball State Teachers College. It became a university in 1965, a couple of years before I arrived, as it initiated the new School of Architecture to the curriculum. I was there to fulfill the dream set for me by my dad of becoming an architect when was just 8 years old but had become my dream as well. I had applied to the school after enrollment into the design classes had closed. I interviewed with Dean Satterwaite to personally appeal for admittance into the school. The interview went well and I was admitted. It was a difficult program, 18 hours per semester in the quarter system. English, math and history in addition to Architectural Design. That class alone required two hours of work outside of class for every hour in class. The design class met for 2 hours every day, five days a week, or 30 hours each week dedicated to this one class. I loved it! All of my classmates were very bright, above average students. Some went on to major firms and became well known in the field. It was stimulating and the comradery with my talented white classmates, driven by the intensity of the program, was exciting for this fledgling.

But by 1967, the fighting in Vietnam reached a new and alarming level of violence. The number of American body bags being off loaded air transports had reached into the hundreds of men and some women each week. There was little question, in spite of government assurances to the contrary, this war wasn’t going well at all. That fall, the U.S. Army reactivated “The Draft.” The only thing selective about the Selective Service System was that if you were without privilege or a poor student, then Uncle Sam Wanted You. The residence hall lounge was packed with all eyes locked on the television screen as The Lottery began that would determine the futures of all young men gathered there. Numbered balls tumbled out of the hopper taking an eternity to reach the bottom where they would be read. Starting with January 1st the number was read then on to the next date, day after day, week after week, month after month, 365 days. February, March, May, June. The hours truly felt like a lifetime with my birthday being in December. August, September, October. As numbers were called out, some cheered, some groaned, some shouted expletives and some broke into tears. October, November, December. The lounge had cleared some as guys after hearing their number left to celebrate or to think about their options, find a family friend with connections, enlist in another “safer” branch of the military, flee to Canada or take what was coming. “December 8! Number 108,” they called out. That was me! Holy crap!! The only lottery I’d ever “won.” At the time anyone with a number in the low 300’s or lower and a GPA of less than 1.2 was to report for their Army Induction Physical at the end of the quarter. With a GPA above the line, I was safe for now but I was struggling.

My course load was humbling. The slow start I received as the result of underfunded, inner city schools, in spite of the hard work I had done through the higher caliber suburban schools, was finally coming due. My first quarter grades were lackluster in all classes except my design course where I was solidly holding onto an A. But C’s and D’s elsewhere left me with a grade point precariously close to the cut off to disqualify me for a student deferment. Large numbers of soldiers were still coming home to mothers, fathers, wives and children lifeless. It was time to reconsider the plan and make some decisions. If my plan failed, rice paddies and being surrounded by a different, indistinguishable and more lethal enemy awaited me.

Classroom of drawing tables (before computers) in one of the Quonset huts.

Becoming an architect had been my dad’s dream for me. It had been mine too but considering the circumstances I was willing to be flexible. My design class had been my ace-in-the-hole but my remaining courses were all liberal arts courses and regardless of my career path passing them was essential to obtain a BS of…something. The Plan? Secure a student deferment, drop my design course and focus on my remaining courses to improve my GPA to a point well out of reach of the US Army for now. I had to abandon ship but remain on the part of the deck that was sinking. I knew my dad would be disappointed. He was though he never spoke of it but I could see his dream dying in his eyes. His and mom’s years of saving, sacrificing, relocating us and working multiple jobs must have seemed somewhat misdirected. Dreams die hard. But it was my life now. These were life-altering decisions I had to make. I was 17 and in charge.

With the draft on my tail, it was time to put my plan into action. I conferred with my design prof, Mr. R.J. Pollock or just RJ, about my decision to drop out of the program and focus on my remaining courses. He understood and was supportive. He noted that my sketch books, which were due every Friday, showed particular skill in freehand drafting and drawing. He thought I should consider a career in architectural illustration, which meant transferring to the Art School. I agreed and buckled down on my trigonometry, history and business administration courses.

In the spring of ’68, I had changed my major to graphic arts and design. I joined the motley crew of art majors who shunned assimilation and reveled in the disdain dispensed on them from the up-tight frat boys. It was a fun-loving, raucous group and I came to love them! They were much more easy-going than the guys sleeping on their drawing boards in the Quonset huts. Wilbur in the dark room for hours, Suzanne up to her elbows in clay in the ceramics studio, Crazy Louie (R.I.P.) in design, Helbing wielding phallic metal monuments in sculpture, Bob creating rustic woodcuts in the print lab, Mikey (the 3-time Muncie Drag Queen winner) in art ed, and Tim "Shoe" in painting. I don’t know where the “Shoe” came from but it has endured the test of time.

The school was not well equipped, which only pushed our problem-solving skills and creative solutions to bring our mind's eye to life. We were creative not only in our work but also in our mischief. One day as classes were changing and the “outsiders” took the short cut through our building, we asked Suzanne, who was attractive, tall and very well endowed, if she would lean against the lockers and inhale. She knew what we were up to, winked her approval and did just that. We burst into tears watching the frats boys trying to catch their breath and stumble down the hallway. We would have dinner with our profs and partied with some. But after they left, the real crazy stuff happened. At one party in particular, one girl proved she could hold a full can of beer under her breast; Tim Shoe was so drunk we sat him in the kitchen sink and Wilbur brought a date, a gorgeous blond in a black evening gown. "Who the hell is that?" we gwaked. It was Mikey!

Marcia never attended any of these parties and I never shared any details. I enjoyed the craziness though the years spent sitting in church being told I was going to hell and my love and respect for Marcia curtailed my participation. But mischievousness was something I had inherited from my dad. But this gang of misfits was my tribe. We were a tight group and have gotten together many times over the years to relive some of the zaniness, how though under resourced we created great work, and critique the generation that followed. The fact that I was black was never a matter to them. In fact, I don’t recall it ever being mentioned. They were my fraternity, my shelter, my harbor from the hatred and potential violence I knew churned outside.


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