In the fall of 1960, Norman Park, Georgia, was an island of tiny southern town in the middle of the great black swamp that sweltered between Moultrie and Tifton. This island was arranged around Norman College, a two-year college run by the Georgia Baptist Convention. Majestic pecan trees lined the campus side of the two-lane highway between the half-dozen college buildings and the Baptist church, three or four businesses and seedy houses that comprised the townlet of Norman Park, unpainted, tin-roofed and sagging.
Dripping Spanish moss, the trees were the most attractive part of the campus to me, but then trees have always been among my best friends. For everyone else, it was the girl’s dorm that first drew the eye. Like the college itself, the dorm was largely façade. Promotional brochures described it as resembling the antebellum houses left in Georgia after Sherman’s march to the sea, but in fact it was only the part visible to the road that could remotely claim that distinction. The dorm was shaped like a T with the “antebellum” crossbar facing the road. The base of the T was a long, badly built two-story wooden firetrap that had been added, probably in the teens, to what was left of what might once have been a small plantation house, or an attempt to replicate one. It contained the women’s dorm rooms, mostly on the second floor, and the cafeteria and laundry on the first floor, furthest from the front. The room I shared with my high school friend, Sarah, was located at the farthest reach of this hallway, isolated from the other rooms by a small lobby and bathrooms. The one window looked out over the roof of the cafeteria, an extension of the first floor.
A huge pecan tree draped its branches over the roof of the cafeteria, making our room feel a little like a tree house and enhancing the isolated feel of it. Sarah had chosen this room the year before to isolate herself as much as possible from the social life of the dorm. I liked it in part because I thought that if the place ever caught fire, it would be easy to escape out the window and climb down the tree, assuming the fire was not in the kitchen or laundry room. It had also occurred to me that, being an ace tree-climber, I could, in a pinch, sneak into the dorm by climbing the tree and coming in the window, but the need for such drastic action never arose.
The long upstairs hallway to our room boasted cracking linoleum, drearily painted walls and the underside of the roof sans ceiling, with dark corners made darker by a decades-long accumulation of cobwebs. The whole effect was alleviated slightly, in my mind at least, by the dirty windows that faced out toward the campus, letting in some light and color, but no air, as they were permanently closed.
The entire annex–roof, floor, walls and all, had settled badly since its shoddy construction, so that you were always walking slightly uphill or slightly downhill or compensating, in places, for a nearly imperceptible sideways slant. This lent a slightly off-balance, dreamlike quality to one’s experience of walking to one’s room. It was the perfect setting for my off-balance, nightmarish experience of three academic quarters there.
What you saw first on arrival from the south, through the ever-watchful pecan trees, was a veranda with square wooden posts intended, I imagine, to suggest the graceful, neo-classical columns on plantation houses of the past. But, the set of Gone With the Wind, it was not. Amply supplied with rocking chairs and porch swings and washed at night with jasmine-scented breezes, the veranda was a pleasant place, if a little down-in-the-mouth. Unfortunately for us, there were no mint juleps provided and if it had been known that any of us 40 or so residents had sipped a julep of any kind there or anywhere, it would have meant instant expulsion.
Also unfortunately for us, the only time we could enjoy the gentle, scented night breezes on the veranda was on the weekend, since we were confined, summer or winter, to our hot or cold rooms in the crumbling annex behind the charming veranda at 7 p.m., ostensibly to study, whether or not the sun had gone down. The only legitimate reason to leave one’s room after that, and it was frowned upon, was to go to the bathroom.
We were allowed out of our rooms for half an hour at 9, but that half-hour was also our only chance to shower. It was so little time that, if we did decide not to shower in favor of something else, we generally spent it running to the rec room on the other side of campus, where the less studious boys had been amusing themselves freely all evening. There, we bought candy bars at the tiny snack bar or cokes from the machine and flirted, quickly.
The boys, on the other hand, who outnumbered us 10 to 1, lived in a modern building on the other side of the classroom building from us. Whereas we were confined to campus throughout the week, had to sign out in detail to leave for any reason during the weekend, be in our rooms from 7p.m. to 7a.m., except for that golden half-hour, and observe lights out at 11, there were no rules whatsoever for the boys.
There were adult men living in the boys dorm, but their only function was to deal with emergencies. Unlike us, the boys did not have a rigidly enforced dress code, any hours at all to observe, never signed out for anything and were not discreetly or openly monitored as to whom they were dating. They were not, like us, disciplined for singing at an unapproved time, failing to clean their rooms or skipping down the hall in an unchecked moment of glee. They went to town freely, often picking things up for us that we could not get in Norman Park.
About half the boys were actually being trained as Baptist ministers or missionaries. The other half had been sent there as a last resort by families hoping to break them of their hell-raising proclivities. Often, these were the sons of preachers, validating the persistent southern belief that it is often the preacher’s children who are the worst-behaved. The next step for them, if Bible-training didn’t work, was likely to be reform school, jail or the military.
Entering the girls dorm across the charming veranda, one came into the lobby where we met our dates. As if designed that way, and probably it was, a staircase much too large for the lobby, though probably not the spiral I remember, provided us denizons of the second floor with the opportunity to make a grand entrance. Making a grand entrance, in fact, was hard to avoid and most of us would have greatly preferred to meet our dates in a more normal setting, since we had not, like Scarlett, been trained to come down such a staircase with aplomb.
Hopefully, our dates would be waiting below, watching us make our careful descent, ready to take our hands like the gentlemen few of them were and escort us to Moultrie, where could be found a bowling alley, a movie theater we were only allowed to attend if the movie had been approved, a few drive-in restaurants and oh, so very little else. Prominent in the atmosphere, literally and figuratively, was the slaughter-house that was the town’s main employer.
A truly exciting date was to go to Valdosta, a college town to the north, where the air was cleaner and there was a selection of movies and restaurants, but that required special permission or the nerve to sneak. I, myself, did that only once, was given a legal cocktail with dinner (drinking age in Georgia was 18, unlike Florida, where it was 21), but could not enjoy it for fear of being seen in Valdosta without permission and drinking alcohol, albeit legally.
Also in the historical part of the dorm were the apartments of the “dorm mother” whom we were forced to call “Mama Altman,” and the music director, “Mama Davis,” who served as a sort of vice-mother. A battered upright piano was located near her door, upon which I spent some of my few leisure hours picking out popular tunes by ear, having never had more than three formal music lessons in my life, unless you count church choir, wherein I did learn to read music to sing.
Before our epic falling-out at the end of the year, Mama Davis sometimes would hear me and come out her door to urge me to take piano lessons from her. Since I had, for the first two quarters, a music scholarship she had approved with the proviso that I sing in the choir, and I had, if not a spectacular voice, at least a reliable, trained one. I believe she may have harbored the hope that I would study with her, marry a preacher and become a church music director. I believe she also, oddly enough, admired my spunk. She was one of only a handful of faculty members who saw in me any sort of potential that would reflect positively on the school in the future. And, she was the first one of those to abandon me.
The difference between the old part of the dorm and the addition was so pronounced that you could put your finger on the line where the latter had been punched through the wall into the former. It was approximately at this line that my roommate, Sarah, so much more theatrical and glamorous than I, and so much more alert to the social requirements, would compose her face into a mask of gentility and check that her slip was not showing, before making her entrance.
Sarah had been my best friend in high school. We were drawn to each other by our similar low positions in the rigid high school hierarchy and our similar cynicism regarding it, even though she was in the class ahead of me. We both worked as waitress/curbhops at the local hangout restaurant, which had both indoor and outdoor service. These jobs, by themselves, had made us poor candidates for the in-group. In my senior year I was a cheerleader, but that was because of a statistical fluke and did little to raise my general status, especially since I retained my curb-hop job and managed to do both on Friday night, one after the other. Our jobs did, on the other hand, make us favorites with the somewhat older, after-midnight, already graduated or dropped out boys/men in their souped-up cars–fully respectable, no; very cool in a Rebel Without A Cause way, yes.
In my junior year, when my parents gave up on our disastrous efforts to make a living on our tiny orange grove and wanted to move 40 miles away to Lakeland, where they could both get decent jobs, Sarah arranged to have me live with her family. I worked at the restaurant to pay for room and board, the room being actually half of Sarah’s bed and two dresser drawers and the board consisting mostly of Sunday dinner. We both ate otherwise in the school cafeteria and at the restaurant. We were, at that time, an odd couple, but the closest of friends.
At the end of that year, Sarah had entered the University of Florida and I had moved in with the family of another high school friend in my class, having finally convinced my parents of the unfairness of making me move to a new high school in my senior year, especially when I had just made cheerleader.
Sarah was soon expelled from U of F for reasons never clear to me and had found, probably through church connections, Norman College. She had been there for two quarters when I graduated from high school, wrecked the car that had been my graduation present and which I had planned to sell to make tuition, and found myself with insufficient funds to attend Florida State University, as planned. She had urged me to come to Norman, be her roommate, get a music scholarship, work in the cafeteria and preserve my chances for a full college education. She felt, perhaps rightly in the case of poor southern women, that if you did not start college immediately, you probably never would.
Ever wise in her social observations, Sarah knew that both of us were imminently unsuitable students for a Baptist Bible school geared toward training preachers, music directors, missionaries and preacher’s wives, located in the very heart of the Bible belt. We were both far too independent and had both been supporting ourselves since the age of 16 and I had not lived at home since the age of 16. She advised me that it was pure hell, that the narrowmindedness, ignorance, spitefulness and boredom were hard to bear but that we would have each other and “you can stand anything for a year.” We both assumed I would somehow manage to transfer to FSU my sophomore year.
I was, that summer, living with my parents in Lakeland, where my relationship with my mother was approaching matricide. My father more than once had been forced to separate us from physical combat. If I stayed, in addition to my clashes with my mother, I could only hope to avoid marriage and pregnancy, not necessarily in that order, while I continued to work at my mind-numbing clerk-typist job. I had only two options—stay put or spend a year with Sarah in a medieval backwoods Baptist Bible college where women students were treated, as my history teacher later said, “like nuns.” Faced with this choice, I packed up and pursuaded my parents to drive me to Georgia.
Upon our arrival, my mother experienced a wave of remorse and possibly an instance of the slight psychic twinkle that runs in my maternal line. She saw the swamp, she saw the ersatz plantation house and she began to cry. “I hate to leave you in this awful place,” she said. “Please change your mind and come back home with us.” I stared at her, thinking, “Well, gee, Mom, you’re a little late with that sentiment,” kissed them both good-bye and ran off to look for Sarah.
What frightened my mother, I suspect, was the stagnant old South look of the place, how reminiscent it must have been to her of Ft. Green and Wauchula, Florida–the rusty gray gas station with old men sitting on barrels in front, the shabby barns and dead cars. For a visual, the movie “The Last Picture Show” captures the setting fairly accurately.
My parents had spent their entire lives trying to get away from their own pasts, had through incomprehensibly hard work and determination, managed to achieve residence “among doctors and lawyers” in a respectable middle-class neighborhood of Lakeland, had learned to conceal their hick roots, low educational level and their working class jobs, only to deliver their youngest daughter to a place where hicks clearly were bred, and religious hicks at that—the most objectionable part of it for my agnostic father, I am sure.
When I had apprised them of my plan B, not long after the wreck of the car, my father had said, “But you don’t know what you’re walking into. You’ve never seen any real crackers.” I couldn’t at the time imagine what he meant, since, to me, our move from Miami to Groveland when I was 14 was just exactly a move from a place where normal people lived to the Land of the Real Crackers. But, my father was right and my mother’s foreboding was right and I, sadly, never found the right time to tell them so.
Aside from the front of the girl’s dorm and the pecan trees, there was only one other spot on campus I could bear to be, and that one became my own private sanctuary. It was a tiny but soaring chapel designed, incredibly, by Frank Lloyd Wright. What kind of arrangement must have been made with him to place one of his creations in such an out-of-the-way place is beyond my power to imagine, but I was grateful that that arrangement had been made.
Although it seated only about 30 people and the area it covered was only big enough for those seats and an organ and lecturn, it soared up on four sides higher than any of the two-story buildings on campus. In each of the high, narrow walls was a high, narrow, stained glass window. The chapel was never used and always deserted. I suspect that its unconventional modernism was just too scary for south Georgian Baptists, that what was to me inspirational was to them vaguely intimidating. I never attended any function held there.
But, amazingly, it was also never locked, perhaps on the theory that it should be open for solitary meditators, an idea much more Catholic than Baptist. I soon discovered that if I went there between classes during the day, no one could find me, not even Sarah. Why it did not come to be a place to make out, I can’t explain, unless southern Georgian sex, like southern Georgian prayer, required a much more traditional venue.
But it had not become a haven for smoochers and it was my place, mine, all mine. I never saw another living soul in that building, but I spent a lot of time there thinking and hiding. Towards the end of my stay in Georgia, it was the only place I could go to escape the accusations, the bigotry, the ridicule, the evangalism, the spying and the threats that came to be my lot.
If you were to ask Mama Altman or Mama Davis or Dr. Guy, the college president, why I was expelled from Norman College, you would be told that I broke dorm rules, was “campused” as punishment, on the vote of the student house council, then broke the rules of campusing.
From a purely legalistic viewpoint, ignoring all the undercurrents and not-so-under currents that fed into the event, there is some echo of truth in two of these statements. I, however, have excellent legalistic arguments in regard to all three and made them in my own defense to Dr. Guy and, informally, to my two friends on the house council. I was not, however, allowed any latitude or even a semblance of due process, an experience that was repeated half a year later when I was expelled from Florida State University.
Whether Dr. Guy ever conveyed my arguments to the faculty when my expulsion was being considered, I will never know. My cynical roommate Sarah assured me that neither of my two friends on the house council would have the courage to defend me, since deliberations took place under the watchful eye of Mama Altman, who would surely find ways to retaliate against them, even though they both were due to graduate in a week or so. This made my legal defense completely irrelevant at the time, but it is of historical interest in demonstrating just exactly how confined we were as women.
First, the dorm rules. The girls, (and I use “girls” and “boys,” not “women” and “men” to evoke the historical ambiance) but, of course, not the boys, were ruled by a system of demerits, specific numbers of demerits being assigned for breaking specific rules. When a specific number of demerits were accumulated, a girl’s case, but not the girl herself, would be brought before the dorm house council to which she was assigned based on her room number.
The rules were extensive, covering dress codes, signing out to leave campus, study hours, lights out, what could be kept in the rooms, behavior inside the dorm and in the world outside. “Familiarity” was punishable by campusing. Familiarity included holding hands and meaningful eye contact, together or separately. One learned discretion quickly.
In addition, rooms were inspected periodically without warning by Mama Altman and an uncertain level of neatness and cleanliness was required. Whether one had met these unstated criteria was entirely up to Mama Altman. This part of the rules was probably created to allow Mama Altman to invade our privacy in any way she wished, while ostensibly searching for contraband items such as radios or hot plates. (Sarah and I did have a hot plate on which we heated Campbell’s tomato soup after lights out,with the window open so no one would smell it, but she had devised an ingenius hiding place for it, so Mama Altman never found it.)
I had been well-warned by Sarah not to leave anything personal lying around the room because Mama Altman would look anywhere, in your drawers, in your closet, in your diary. Sarah had even expressed concern about my tiny record collection, which included several black artists, like “Mahalia Jackson at the Newport Jazz Festival” and the sound track to the film version of “Porgy and Bess.” Mama Davis, at one point, expressed her concern that Porgy and Bess contained risque lyrics (which it does), but she could not specify them, having made her assumption on the basis of the fact that it was a musical about black people, sung by black people. The racism inherent in this conversation and in any reference to my records from anyone but my friends, was obvious.
Towards the end of my last semester, I had written a letter to Roy detailing just how miserable I was and why. It was a work in progress lying on my dresser as yet unmailed when Mama Altman sprang one of her surprise inspections. She simply swiped it with no apologies, to be used against me at some point in the future. Sarah had warned me about the letter, but I had by then lost all sense of caution. When it vanished after this inspection, I merely heaved a sigh and started on another one.
The proliferation of rules for women was augmented by the right of either of the Mamas to claim disrespect and assign a number of demerits depending on how disrespected they felt. Their presence at house council deliberations, even though technically they had no vote, insured that house council members would guess the result desired by the Mamas and produce that result. The phrase “chilling effect” does not come near to expressing the reality of the intimidation wielded by the Mamas over the members of the house councils.
Although the house council members were elected by the students, they tended to run heavily toward preacher’s daughters and aspiring preacher’s wives, since who would want to place herself into such a position to be intimidated unless there were evangelical brownie points to be acquired? Anyone rebellious enough to disagree with a Mama would be smart enough to avoid contact with her as much as possible, which was the strategy adopted by myself and Sarah.
Between the strictness and arbitrariness of the rules, the enormous latitude allowed the Mamas in manipulating them, the intimidation factor influencing the house councils and their tendency to consist of kowtowing goody-goodies and skillful social climbers and the lack of any formal means for one to defend oneself, the only safe course was to stay on the good side of the Mamas and their minions.
Though I arrived a top student with the highest of references from my minister and my teachers, on a music scholarship, looking like an angel with my long blonde hair and amply supplied with Sunday School dresses made by my Singer-selling mother, it was all for naught. I soon proved constitutionally incapable of the expected level of pious obsequity or its semblance or the conventionality or the narrow-mindedness required to stay on the good side of the Mamas.
This became more and more obvious as the year progressed. Over the course of the school term, demerits carrying over from one quarter to the next, I accumulated some demerits. Some of these were Sarah’s fault, related to the state of our room. Since it would be impossible to isolate the offending party on a room-related rule in a room occupied by two girls, both girls would be awarded demerits stemming from a room rule.
Sarah and I were both given demerits after room inspections that failed to meet Mama Altman’s standards. Some were because our beds were not properly made and coats were thrown on them rather than being properly hung up in the closet. No allowance, of course, was made for the fact that both of us had much less time than most of the other girls to fuss around with our room, since both of us were working our asses off to get an education.
I knew an inspection might be in the works one day in particular and I knew that Sarah and I both were, even more than usually, on Mama Altman’s shit list because she did not approve of either of the boys she had seen us dating recently. Actually, both of these boys were men, and not students, which was part of the problem. I had made my bed properly, though I can’t swear I had not left my coat lying on it, but I could not persuade Sarah I had inside information regarding the room inspection, so her bed was messier than mine. Demerits came from that room inspection as well because Sarah, unbeknownst to me, had failed to return some coke bottles to the empty coke bottle rack in the rec room and had hidden them in the back corners of her closet instead. It was a long way to the rec room.
There was a specific rule about keeping empty coke bottles in one’s room because the preceding year some of the less intimidated girls had taken to tormenting the Mamas by rolling coke bottles down the long saggy hallway late at night, then hightailing it back into their rooms before they could be seen by anyone who would report them. I was told it had made an incredible amount of noise that was probably thunderous in the Mamas’ rooms, located directly under the hall. Heads had rolled, girls had been campused, the no-empty-coke-bottles rule had been made.
In addition to the room-related demerits, I had achieved three demerits on my own during the second quarter, when I had been so elated by being asked out by a certain boy that I had skipped down the hall from class to my room. Although the dorm at that time was nearly deserted, Mama Altman was nonetheless in her room, where my skipping had no doubt disturbed her at prayer.
She had heaved her bulk upstairs more rapidly than one might expect and seen the door to my room close. It had to have been me, since there was no one else upstairs. She confronted me. I admitted it but attempted to win leniency by explaining that I had just been asked out by one of the nicest, most reputable boys on campus, who shows up later in this narrative as the White Knight. Had I been anyone else, this probably would have worked and an indulgence won, perhaps even with congratulations, but I had already set myself up with prior subversive acts as yet unpunished, so I got the demerits.
The last group of demerits, the ones that qualified me for disciplining, related to the signout rules. Women were forbidden to leave Norman Park from Sunday night through Thursday night for any reason. How strict that rule was is illustrated by the following story.
In the first week of the year, there was what was called a “panty raid.” It was not that in the strictest sense of the word, since any girl who threw her panties out a window would surely have been expelled on the spot and, anyway, the windows on the side of the dorm facing campus could not be opened. The “raid” consisted of a group of the boys standing outside our windows after dark shouting names and singing what might have been bawdy songs. We could not tell if they were bawdy because we could not really hear the words, only the noise.
In response to this threat, the Mamas turned out the lights and yelled that we were all confined to our rooms. Inside the dorm on the second floor, some of us ignored that order and ran around in the halls in the dark, giggling wildly. I ran around a corner full speed and directly into another girl running full speed around the same corner in the other direction. Her front teeth hit me over my right eye.
It bled profusely, the blood blinding me in that eye. In the long run, she turned out to be more injured than I, since the crash damaged the nerve in her tooth and it later began to “die” and turn gray. At the moment, however, I seemed to be the worst off, with blood dripping down my face.
I wanted an adult to tend it, but Sarah herded me quickly back to our room, saying the wound was proof of my guilt, and, not too incidentally, hers. By moonlight through the window, with the boys still being rowdy outside, she found a bottle of rubbing alcohol. Some girls held me down while Sarah poured alcohol into the wound, advising me that a human bite was the most likely injury to become infected.
As it turned out, the alcohol was not enough. The wound rapidly became infected and within a day was red, swollen and very painful. We covered it with a bandaid. I became afraid it would get much worse and leave a terrible scar, perhaps even endanger my eye. I decided that I needed to see a doctor. I invented a story to cover how I had been injured, counted my money to see if I could pay for a doctor, located a boy who would drive me to Moultrie to see his doctor and went to Mama Altman to get permission to leave campus.
Even though I showed her the injury, now with red streaks emanating from it, I was denied permission to leave. I was stunned that even a medical emergency, (short of suicide attempts, I learned later), could not produce an exception to the stay-on-campus rule. I ended up showing the injury to the women’s coach, who poured hydrogen peroxide into it and gave me some bottles of the same to treat it with. It healed, slowly, but I still, fifty years later, bear the scar, a thin white line under my right eyebrow.
We could leave campus to go into the town of Norman Park for only two reasons, to attend the Baptist church across the highway or to go to a tiny café across the highway and down the cross street, during the day. Many are the grilled cheese sandwiches I ate at that café, crushed into a booth with Sarah and way too many male and female friends, joyous at having escaped for a few minutes the scrutiny of our more pious dorm mates.
On weekends, we could go to our respective family homes or someone else’s family home with prior permission from our parents or we could go out on dates to Moultrie, only. Technically, girls with cars could drive to Moultrie and do things on their own or in groups, but only two or three of the richest girls had cars and they were very picky who they took to town with them, so pretty much the only way most of us could ever go to Moultrie was if we had a date. It certainly put extra urgency into our dating, a practice made urgent enough already by the general pressure to find a man and get married.
To either go home or to Moultrie on a week-end, it was required that we sign out in a book located in the lobby for that purpose. We stated where we were going, what time we were signing out, with whom and when we expected to return. We had to sign in before 11p.m. The most infuriating requirement to me and many of the other girls was that you could not just sign out to go to Moultrie, you had to specify where in Moultrie you were going. If you changed your mind once you got there, you were technically required to turn around, drive eight miles back through the swamp and change your sign-out information. Even the most obedient of the girls were annoyed by that rule and even they sometimes broke it and hoped to not be seen in some location they had not signed out for.
Should you wish to go to the metropolises of Tifton or Valdosta, prior permission had to be obtained, requiring a thorough explanation of where you were going, when you were going to get there and why the same thing could not be done in Moultrie. Such adventures were therefore rare.
An exception to the Sunday through Thursday rule was made for honor students, who could have one date Sunday night or during the week, with weekend rules applying. I generated enormous animosity among my dorm mates because I was eligible for this exception, used it frequently and therefore had what they saw as an unfair advantage in the husband race. I could be available when they could not. My refusal to claim virginity, even though a case could have been made for it, did nothing to mitigate the jealousy emanating from these dorm mates.
The fact that I could leave Norman Park on Sunday night was especially galling to the Mamas because it was assumed that any nice girl would be going to church on Sunday night and church could be gone to in Norman Park. It would have been very clear that I was not going to Moultrie to go to church, even if not for the signout book. And where, after all, could you be going in Moultrie on Sunday night since both the bowling alley and the theater were closed Sundays? It was a question the Mamas had both asked from their posts on the veranda as I flounced past them in my non-Sunday clothes that were not pants because pants were forbidden. The answer is I signed out to eat at one of the restaurants there or to visit the home of the White Knight, where his mother made us pizza and we would watch TV.
The latter I actually did do when I was dating this boy, but the former I may or may not have done and the Mamas were especially suspicious on some of those occasions when my date turned out to be a much older man in a black leather jacket driving a souped-up car. This man I had met through a female townie student who was a member of a water skiing club not affiliated with the college. Since I was not only a pretty good water skier but also weighed very little, I was in high demand at the ski club as someone who could be trained to be lifted by male skiers for two-person tricks. That never quite happened, but I did go water skiing, a not-forbidden activity, several times on weekends on local lakes favored by the ski club. The skiing would be followed by drinking parties at someone’s house, so I had also been learning to drink.
I can believe that I might have been the first girl to have raised the Sunday night question, no specific rules having been made about Sunday night, probably because it was assumed that “good grades” and “nice girl” went together. Nice girls would be going to church, so no special rule was needed for Sunday night. I can believe I was the first bad girl with good grades they had ever seen and I did play that card with glee.
So, I was, like many of the other girls, pushing the envelope on the signout rules. In general, the girls would not rat on each other if one was spotted at someplace other than the place she was supposed to be, but my claim to this loyalty got more and more tenuous as the year progressed and I became more and more resented for, among many other things, being more popular with the boys than the good girls were. No one ever called me a slut to my face and when they did so to others, I did have a few good friends who would defend me, including Sarah–not that Sarah’s endorsement was much help, since she was resented nearly as much as I and for the same reasons.
Ku Klux Klan
During my hellish school term in Norman Park, I retained what sanity I could by writing copious and fervent letters to my high school friend, Roy, at FSU in Tallahassee and visiting him and his bohemian friends. In order for me to visit these leftie integrationist friends in “Tally,” given the signout rules, I would sign out to go to Lakeland to see my parents, then allow myself to be seen getting on the southbound Greyhound bus, which stopped in front of the school. All the students from Florida would also be getting on this bus, which took them to Tallahassee, where you transferred to the appropriate Florida bus. I would get off in Tallahassee and never transfer. I did this probably a half-dozen times, all in the last quarter. I was never accused of breaking the signout rules for doing this, but I was seen and it was reported to Mama Altman. I suspect no action was taken at the time because the eyewitness could not be 100% sure it was me she saw, but the suspicion may well have figured into my expulsion.
Once, I returned to Norman Park from Tally to find that a KKK rally had been planned for the following weekend in Moultrie. And, I was shocked to find that I was much closer to the event inspiring the rally than I wanted to be. The rally had to do with an inter-racial murder case. Some years before, a young black boy, maybe 13 or 14 at the time, had been convicted of killing a white man and had been sentenced to be executed. His case, which had been on appeal in the interim, was about to come before either the U.S. or the Georgia Supreme Court, I don’t remember which.
The man the boy was convicted of murdering had been the husband of a woman student at the college, a townie, an acquaintance of mine and a good friend of Sarah’s. Because I knew her and was around her quite a bit during that time, I was getting all the details, at least her details, and I was also getting a full blast of her emotions as this was going down.
The story she told was that the night of the murder, she and her husband had been in their isolated rural house late at night when a carload of black men had knocked on their door and asked for help. They said their car had broken down on the highway that ran near the house. The car was down the highway about a mile.
Her husband knew them, so he left with them to help with the car. Something happened on the road that resulted in the bludgeoning death of her husband. Of the five people charged with the crime, the older four had already been executed. The boy, now an older teenager, was arguing that he was there but had nothing to do with it, that he was the little brother of one of the others and had had no choice but to be there.
The appeal was a subject of conversation at the dinner table and pretty much everywhere else for a while. I began to see that people were not rational about it and that no one was really speaking about justice in the situation. They were talking about the manner in which this (I forbear to use the word used) should be executed, hanging or electrocution, not whether he should or should not be executed. I had been in the presence of bigotry during my childhood, but not for a long time and I had never before been in the presence of mass bigotry, of racism expressed through a crowd mentality. Had I not been an integrationist, just the irrationality of it would have been enough to get my attention.
My acquaintance and probably 99% of the people around me wanted the boy to be executed. To voice an opposing opinion in that atmosphere was asking for trouble, from losing friends through being snubbed, to academic sabotage, to possibly being gang-raped and/or murdered. I have often wondered if my near gang-rape, which happened right about then, contained an element of retaliation for my many expressed and dangerous opinions or whether it was simply opportunity combined with little impulse, on anybody’s part, to protect me.
I kept my mouth shut as long as I could. I only spoke about it to the White Knight and those few I trusted. They all turned pale and told me to be quiet about it, just to shut up. “You’ve only got a month or so to go and then you’ll be out of here,” they said.
But, Roy had been busted in Tallahassee the preceding year for participating in the lunch counter sit-ins there with students from all-black Florida A and M. How could I keep my mouth shut about this and still look at myself in the mirror? Or face Roy? I let it be known that I did not necessarily think the boy should be executed. I said maybe he was just dragged along and an unwilling spectator in whatever happened, as he claimed.
And, of course, I figured that he had not gotten a fair trial from what was probably an all-white jury in Georgia, but even I dared not bring that part up. Who knows what happened at the car, I said. None of us knows all the facts that might have been brought out in court. None of us knows what the other side of the story is.
When the KKK rally was held, calling for the boy’s execution, I may have been in Tally. If not, I was probably hiding in my dorm room. I was at least that prudent. I did, however, hear about the rally from a man I had dated who was not a student and had an apartment facing the town square. He saw the whole thing and described it to me, later. There were 100 or so people in hoods and robes, a burning cross, megaphones, children present.
My informant’s description varied in no way from pictures I’ve seen of KKK rallies, but one thing he said made it personal. He named some of the attendees to me, including ministerial students from the school. I asked him how he could possibly know who was there, since they all had hoods on. He said, “Don’t be silly. You can see their height, their shoes and pants legs, how they move, what cars are there, and hear the voices of ones speaking or yelling. I know exactly who was there.” By then, I thought I had no capacity left to be shocked by the hypocrisy of the alleged Christians all around me, but I was wrong.
It may have been sometime soon after the KKK rally in Moultrie that I experienced my own personal cross-burning, or not-cross-burning. It was probably thought of as a harmless prank by my dorm-mates, but in the context of the recent KKK rally, I certainly got the message and understood the kind of malice that inspired it. One night during our half-hour of freedom in the middle of our hours of confinement, Sarah and I heard muffled giggling and scuffling outside our door, then the sound of barefoot running feet. Sarah opened the door, then stepped back so that I could see what was there. It was an empty kitchen match box that served as a base for a tiny cross made of two popsickle sticks held together with a rubber band. It was not on fire. Apparently, even the dorm bigots feared to risk starting a fire in our dorm made of kindling, but the match box certainly suggested fire.
Sarah grabbed it, broke it up and threw it in the waste basket, then looked at me reproachfully. Her secret sympathies were with me on integration, but she would never have expressed them openly to anyone but me and I could see that she was not happy that I had drawn this kind of attention to her. We were certainly considered best friends and anything one of us did could be assumed to reflect on the other. She had begged me before I came and after I arrived to follow her lead in concealing anything we thought might get her in trouble and I had agreed to do so. But, as the year progressed, it had become harder and harder for me to keep my promise and I had, by this time, reneged almost entirely and, as the saying went later, “let it all hang out.”
I had had no difficulty envisioning the Moutrie cross-burning from my friend’s description and he had agreed with me that it could only be interpreted as a projection of pure hatred. So, having my own little cross-burning, so to speak, so soon after the real cross-burning in the town square was, in fact, quite terrifying to me. I asked myself what exactly does this mean to me, what are the implications for me. It was the first time that real honest-to-God deep-seated flagrant racism had been directed at me personally in such a frightening way. I was already an integrationist and had been ever since I understood the issue, but now I felt my sympathies hardening into a resolution that countering racism would be a major motivation in my life.
On my visits to Tally on weekends, I was attending parties thrown by people who hated being called beatniks—it was a label, like any other, and they were very against labels, though no one cared if it was also slander–and learning to sing the following song to the tune of the familiar Sunday school song, Jesus Loves Me:
Jesus loves me ‘cause I’m white,
Lynching “niggers” every night,
Hate the Jews and hate the Pope,
Jesus loves me and my rope.
I was learning one version of who Fidel Castro was from members or admirers of the Free Cuba Committee. I was becoming acquainted with the homosexual men and women who may have inspired the popular slur on Florida State that went in the form of a football cheer—”FSU, FSU, where the girls are girls and the men are, too.”
I was being nurtured and adored (a female rebel at that time in that place was a great rarity) by the lately-busted integrationists and stayed at their communal house towards which gunshots were occasionally aimed, but not when I was there. I had never been in the company of so many freethinkers at one time before that and every time I went I experienced major psychological whiplash upon my return.
One of the ironies I lived with at Norman College was that at the exact same time I was corresponding with and hanging out with busted integrationists, Marxists every one, on weekends in Tally, I was spending weekdays in mortal combat with a capitalist named Cash, Larry Cash. He was a student, also a freshman, who took an instant disliking to me, probably motivated by intellectual jealousy, but was such a hypocrite and such a manipulator that he attempted to conceal his distaste until he could figure out if I could be of any use to him. I was never fooled, but played along just to be on the safe side.
One of our earliest battles was in Citizenship 101 class, a required course taught by an ancient southern woman, a lifetime resident of Georgia and faculty adviser to the Georgia Club. Her name was Ida Belle Williams and when people said her name, they were careful to say it southern. To her dear friends, she was Miz Ida Belle, not Miz Ida or Miss Ida Belle. To her students, she was Miz Williams, not Miss Williams.
She was very old in 1960, at least 80, which means she was born in Georgia during the Reconstruction era or shortly thereafter. This was no doubt lucky for her in that she must have been dead by the time Miz became Ms., as she never would have survived the ensuing confusion. Miz Williams and I tangled first during second quarter, when I wrote such a good Christmas story for her in English class that she was inspired to give me an “F” and accuse me of plagiarism.
In a sane world, I could have proven my innocence by showing her the same story printed under my name in the nationally distributed Beta Club Journal, where it had been published the preceding year when I had placed second in a national story-writing competition. However, I was advised by some of her former students that she would then say I had still cheated by not having written a story specifically for that assignment, even though I had edited it to fit the assignment. Low-income, hard-working honor students master such shortcuts early.
So, I had no option but to protest my innocence and hope my subsequent work would prove to her that I was no plagiarist. It must have worked out somehow because, according to my transcript, I got an “A” in the course, but the whole incident surely smoothed the path for my nemesis, Larry Cash, when he ratted on me the following quarter in citizenship class.
Taught by Miz Williams, Citizenship 101 was a required class something like the Civics classes then taught in junior high school. Miz Williams had assigned us to read J. Edgar Hoover’s anticommunist screed, “Masters of Deceit,” and write a book report on it. I was at that time dating the White Knight, so-called by me because of his name, Jimmy Knight, in combination with his consummate and cynical skill in concealing his true nature behind an impenetrable mask of respectibility. Still living with his parents in Moultrie, he had lived in Moultrie all his life, yet we were in complete agreement on everything philosophical, religious and political. We shared the experience of having worked it all out by dint of intelligence and extensive reading.
He, with his baby blue eyes, wavy blonde hair and gentle but strong demeanor, had everyone at Norman but me and one of his close friends completely fooled. He could easily have worn white armor with a straight face and was more or less my defender to teachers and other students, at least until he chickened out on doing so at the end of the year. Thus, the White Knight.
Since I was very pressed for time working my way through college and could not bear to waste a minute of it on red baiters (my Tally friends had gotten me up to speed on the House Un-American Activities Committee), I had determined to engage in the only episode of cheating I ever engaged in during my entire college career. When I told Jimmy of my plan to write the report entirely on the basis of the table of contents, he smiled sweetly and said, “I can’t resist it– this will be a ‘masterpiece of deceit.’” We laughed hysterically, then eagerly turned to inspecting Hoover’s table of contents.
“Masterpiece of deceit” was just too good a pun to be wasted on only the two of us so we both ended up repeating it to close friends. Inevitably, it leaked out into the general population. Larry Cash, recipient of that year’s Citizenship Award, presented to him by Miz Ida Belle on behalf of the Georgia Club, wasted no time in updating her.
I had already been awarded an “A” for the paper when Miz Williams called me into her office to inquire as to the truthfulness of the “masterpiece” story. I was able to skate by on the further deceit that I had made up the writing-from-the-table- of-contents story as the setup to the pun (far be it from me to rat on the White Knight.) She was not amused, but she had only Larry’s word against mine and her own suspicions that I had plagiarized a paper earlier. No doubt, Miz Ida Belle later contributed her accounts of these events to discussions of my possible expulsion.
Cash was my nemesis for the remainder of the year, sabotaged me in a few more classes with a few more teachers and, when I was expelled at the end, I have no doubt that he kneeled alone in his room and gave thanks unto the Lord.
As unlikely as it seems, I did make one friend that year who was neither a boyfriend nor a dorm-mate. Even more unlikely, that friend had everything to lose socially by his contact with me and what he had to gain from it, neither of us realized until much later. He was the only son of the president of the college, Guy Atkinson. He was saved from being Guy Atkinson, Jr. by the fact that his full name was Newton Guy Atkinson and much did he suffer from his first name. He asked me to call him Guy and I did so, even though everyone else called him Newton because Guy Atkinson was his father. Since the father was always “Dr. Guy,” there would have been no confusion, but no one expects logic from such a situation.
Unfortunately for Guy, he had a speech disability and was a genius, bad combo for the son of a preacher. Probably because of these factors, plus being bookish, his sexual orientation was in question. I did not understand at the time how that last problem developed and chalked it up to an observation I had made many times in my own high school, and certainly in connnection with Roy—that any boy who did not fit neatly into the southern athletic ideal, was not seen dating girls and, perhaps because of high intelligence, liked poetry, literature or music, was very likely to be considered “queer.”
Guy and I would probably not have met in the ordinary course of events, just because he was very much and not by choice, a loner, and I was pretending not to be. We met because both of our last names began with A and many of the precedures we were required to endure as entering freshmen were done alphabetically, sometimes alphabetically in reverese. We constantly found ourselves standing one behind the other in long, slow-moving lines. Most people were put off by Guy’s constellation of woes, but I was accustomed since childhood to being in the residual category at school, the one that contained odd-looking, disabled, poor, fat, thin, sexually ambiguous, less-intelligent or very intelligent people. About the third time I found myself next to Guy in a long line, I struck up a conversation with him.
I quickly learned that he was the son of the president. He told me this immediately, almost as if full disclosure were required, as if, just in case I was going to ditch him when I found out, I might as well ditch him now. I was very familiar with that defensive technique. I also quickly learned that he was as smart as me, something that came as a very pleasant surprise. Then I learned that he was also as irreverent and as skeptical as me and had about as much contempt as I did for the rah rah aspects of the school and was as chagrined as I was that Fate had dropped us into such a pit of ignorance, even though, perhaps because, his father was the president of the pit.
We began to meet outside the lines and the more we talked, the greater grew my respect for Guy. To have retained his sanity in his situation, having spent his entire life in and around Norman Park, to have achieved atheism and then concealed it so well from his churchy family, to have become so liberal-minded on his own with so few friends—I was pretty much awe-struck at his resilience.
There was one incident, however, that would have alone earned him my undying admiration. All his life, he had watched the inane activities that took place at the beginning of each year. There were no fraternities or sororities at Norman, since they were considered both pagan and antithetical to Christian doctrine. However, there was a Greek-like initiation and there were Greek-like activities. The entire freshman class had to endure a pledge week, wearing ridiculous hats, kowtowing to sophomores and undergoing a blindfolded initiation ceremony that included electrical shocks.
I was incensed that there was no way out of it. I asked Sarah what would happen if I just did not show up and did not wear my stupid hat and refused to participate in activities like the “slave auction” and treated sophomores like anybody else. She told me she did not know because no one had ever done that, but she assumed that in that case, there would be found a way to get rid of me sooner rather than later. So, I submitted, as did Guy.
One of the inane activities was the competition between the freshmen and sophomore men to climb up the greased flagpole and retrieve a flag from the top. The men did this one by one, the classes alternating, each man representing his class, while the opposing class pulled at the climber, attempting to pull him off the pole. Very few men ever made it past the pulling part to even get to the rest of the greased pole.
Guy had been watching this ritual all his life and resolving that, when his time came, he would astound the people who had been tormenting him and humiliate them by being the misfit that got the flag. He had been watching what worked and what did not and in the latter years of his high school life, had taken up weightlifting, wrestling and gymnastics to build up his upper body. He was short, but he was very, very strong.
He told me all this before the event was to take place. Otherwise, I would have hidden in my room, if possible. But, I went to the pole-climbing and worked my way to the very front of the crowd to cheer on my champion. When Guy’s turn came, people looked at each other in surprise as if to say, “little Newt is going to do this? He’s going to be killed.” I, however, flipped into my cheerleader head and, at first alone, but then not alone, began to yell. “Go, Guy, get that flag, show’em all. Go, go, Guy, go, etc.” And, Guy could not be pulled off of that pole. He easily climbed through the strong arms trying to pull him down, shinnyed to the top of the pole in an amazingly short time, grabbed the flag and came down to a screaming and jumping welcome from the freshman team and the freshman class and unbelieving stares from the sophomores and the faculty, most of whom had known him for years and, to his father, as astounded as everybody else.
Later, he told me that would be the last such display he would engage in this lifetime, but it had been well worth it. Still later, he stood up for me as I had stood up for him. Much, much later, both of us in California, I learned that he had also had questions about his sexual orientation since childhood, though as far as he knew, he was not gay. The flurry of support that accompanied his pole-climbing triumph soon died down and the cruel remarks resurfaced, in my presence at least, if not in his. He and I remained friends throughout the rest of the year and when I left, he was one of the few I thought I would never see again and knew I would miss.
Another unexpected friendship involved faculty. At the opposite end of the bigot spectrum from Miz Ida Belle Williams was Miss Knowles, whom no one would ever imagine calling anything but Miss Knowles. Miss Knowles taught English literature, diligently and with what level of desperation one shudders to contemplate. For years and years she must have faced generations of blank-faced and bored sons and daughters of the swamp with Shakespearean plays and sonnets and Keats, “Ode on a Grecian Urn.”
Those of us who loved her, Jimmy and I and a few others, agonized for her, for clearly she was meant for better things. The passages I memorized for her class have never left me. “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,”–you could look at her and know in your heart what the words “this petty pace from day to day” might mean to her.
In that year’s yearbook, her photo alone is in complete profile, like Cleopatra’s or Julius Caeser’s on a coin, aloof, regal, patrician, short hair on a noble head. She does not, like everyone else in the book, look to the society around her, in the form of the camera facing her. She turns herself so you can look at her, as she looks inside herself, not with egotism, but as we imagined it, for inner strength to continue.
I don’t know how many people besides me figured she had to be a lesbian and not only because she looked like she had just stepped out of “The Well of Loneliness,” the book I had read in high school that explained homosexuality to me. One might also come to that conclusion in that time and place because of the stories that circulated about her. One was that when her car broke down once on a country road with a load of students on a field trip, she got a toolkit out of the trunk, popped the hood and fixed that puppy all by herself, refusing to let the male students lay a finger on her engine. That one alone could have done it. In rural Georgia in 1961, a spinster with short hair who could fix her own car and was a loner, to boot, was definitely a candidate for homophobic suspicion.
Why a Baptist Bible college would keep her on the payroll, I imagine, was probably a case of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” as it was for my beloved high school science teacher who pretty much told me, once I was an alum, that he was gay. Excellence in teaching might overcome prejudice against homosexuals at that time, if only they kept it on the down-low and didn’t otherwise rock the boat. But her position, and that of my science teacher, Mr. Chesson, I am sure, was precarious.
It fell to Miss Knowles to send me to Dr. Guy’s office at the end of the term, to receive the information that I had been expelled. As I handed her my final exam, she looked at me with damp eyes and an expressionless face and told me I had been summoned. It was a long look, but we were both prepared for this moment which we knew was our last, because we had already come as close to saying good-bye as she would ever get, the day before.
She had called me into her office, taken a book from off her desk and handed it to me, with the following speech. “From time to time I have a special student, one with outstanding promise, and I like to choose a book from my library for that student. Here is yours.”
I took the book and thanked her, holding back tears, and told her truthfully that her class had been an island of sanity for me that quarter and I wished I had taken more than one class from her. She nodded solomnly and replied, “I tried to help you. There was nothing I could do.”
I had no doubt that she had fought for me. My spies serving tea to the faculty at the crucial meeting had told me as much. And, I was sure she had no power at all against the Ida Belles on the faculty. Whether she was my only defender on the faculty, I don’t know. I suspect there may have been a good word or two from my Bible teacher who also taught psychology and had given me an IQ test at my request. (Before my Tally friends made it clear to me how uncool it was, I had been kicking around the idea of joining MENSA, wondered whether I could pass their IQ test and wanted a dry run). Another possible defender was Dr. Schroeder, the history teacher who had said to his class in my support that it was completely true that Norman College women essentially lived “in a convent.” His objection had not been so much the unfairness and sexism of it, but the Catholic-ness of it.
However, about Miss Knowles I have no doubt, since integrity shown from her like a light, to paraphrase Shakespeare. Fifty years later, I still choke up when I think about Miss Knowles, the book she gave me, the role model she was for me and how much she risked going to bat for me.
And what was the book? It took me years to decide whether the book itself had any meaning particular to me. Why did she choose that one? The book was a biography of Marie Antoinette, lost long ago, so I cannot say which one it was. I do know now what the meaning was, especially since the life of Marie Antoinnette has been revisited since then by feminist scholars. Like me, Marie Antoinette had had her life determined for her very early, on the basis of sexist requirements, was misunderstood and resented in large part for her refusal to play the role assigned to her and then badmouthed and rejected for sins she had not committed. Historians agree she never said, “Let them eat cake.” Unlike her, I was not beheaded, but I do believe death by homicide was a less remote possibility for me at Norman, by far, than it was for the other women.
There are two events that suggest that I was in more danger than I realized at the time. Both occurred as a result of bravado combined with a naivete I did not, at the time, know I had and would have denied. Sometime in the second quarter I found myself dateless on a Friday night, a very unusual situation for me. I had been accustomed, in Groveland and Lakeland, to being able to take short walks, even after dark. In Groveland, after my parents had moved and I lived nearer town with friends, I could walk down the highway the half-mile to town in the early evening unremarked, trusting maybe more than I should have, even then, to the general protection of the community. In Lakeland, our house was in a well-patrolled suburban area and the mile or two around Crystal Lake was well-lighted. Evening walkers were not unusual, even female ones.
Walking alone at night was not specifically forbidden at Norman, though I imagine that might be because it had never occurred to anyone female there to do such an odd thing. On Friday and Saturday night, you either went to Moultrie in a car or you went to a home basketball game (there was no football team, the traveling choir covered public relations) or you amused yourself in the dorm with the other dateless girls. There was no TV and radios were forbidden, though not record players. I could have read or studied in my room, but I was far too restless for that. I had a lot on my mind by then.
Close to a frenzy with boredom and the pervasive sense of imprisonment, I fidgeted, until it occurred to me to simply take a walk. Knowing both Mamas were likely to be at their stations on the veranda keeping track of the movements of all the girls, I avoided them by going out the side door facing in the direction of the rec room. I circled behind the dorm, then headed south on the shoulder of the highway, toward Moultrie, not signing out, since I had no destination, and avoiding being seen by anyone who might report me for not signing out. It was full dark, about 8 p.m. and there was little traffic on the highway, since those with dates had left much earlier and the men without dates mostly headed north, to Valdosta. Non-college traffic was low, just because it was rural Georgia. Outside Norman Park, houses were few and far between. It was a clear night with a full moon, so I could see well enough to stay on the shoulder, off the road and out of the swamp.
I was starting to feel a little better, breathing deeply the fresh night air, when a carload of boys passed me, yelling obscenities. It suddenly occurred to me that this was neither Groveland nor Lakeland, that I was very unpopular in certain quarters and that if I were grabbed, no one would hear me scream. I became, belatedly, very afraid. I turned around and began walking as fast as I could back to campus, maybe one or two miles away. Then I saw, off the road, a farmhouse I had not noticed before. Still amazingly unaware how small a place it was, I thought I could knock on the door and call Guy to come and get me, perhaps in the family car. I knocked on the door, explained that I had taken a walk from campus and went further than I meant to and now wanted to call someone to come and get me. The family were nice and helpful but all ears as I made my call.
Guy, at once concerned for me, especially when I mentioned the carload of boys, told me to leave the house, go back to the highway and start walking toward campus. He would be there in five minutes. This, I did and indeed, within five minutes, I saw a flashlight in the distance as Guy, unable to get the car, ran full-tilt down the highway toward me. Guy saw me safely back to campus, where I circled the dorm to enter the side door again as if I were coming from the rec room. On the way back, he lectured me strongly about the danger I had placed myself in and when we got to the lights of the campus, I could see he was pale and shaking, so afraid had he been for my, and probably both of our, safety. Guy, having been himself a target for years, and being in a position to hear and see all that took place in the county, was much more of a south Georgia hand than I was.
Meanwhile, back in the farmhouse, the family was calling Dr. Guy with a full report. Guy told me later he had left his father staring when he got the flashlight and ran aburptly out of the house after the phone call and that when he returned there was a huge family fight, as his father tried to make him tell who the girl was. It was the biggest fight, indeed, he had ever had up to that point with his father. Years later, both of us having escaped to California, he told me that it was a major turning point in his life and seeing his life through my eyes had helped to liberate him. I am still humbled by that statement.
The second potentially life-threatening incident was much scarier. It happened sometime late in the last quarter, but before either the KKK rally or my campusing. I had been dating a townie student in his twenties, the driver of a very fast car, named Harlen Baldwin. Harlen reminded me of the older boys I had had such crushes on when I worked as a curbhop in high school. He had the car, he had the Elvis pompadour hairdo, he was much better-looking than Elvis, who had always looked as dissipated to me as he later actually became, and he had money he earned working on cars.
We had pretty much nothing in common but lust, but I did enjoy rattling the cages of my enemies by parading off with him on a Saturday, or even a Sunday, night. A Southern gentleman of the old school, Harlen never allowed our make-out sessions to go far enough to place me in danger of pregnancy and he respected me as, if not technically a virgin, at least a recent virgin. He was protective of the remaining shreds of my reputation and, like the hot-rod boys of Groveland, felt it was incumbent upon him to enlighten me as to the ways of the world. He knew I acted like I was much more sexually experienced than I really was, admired my cynical attitude and witty irreverence and knew my bravado was liable to get me into trouble I was not even experienced enough to imagine.
I began to hear rumors of a “party” that was to take place a certain weekend at a location in the woods. Sarah warned me not to even think of going, even if I was asked, but she never specified why, other than that it would break dorm rules. She said there would be heavy drinking, but I had been to ski club parties where there was heavy drinking, where I had actually gotten drunk and had to be sneaked back into the dorm. It did not seem to me a sufficient reason, especially since I considered myself much more sophisticated than I actually was.
A woman acquaintance of mine, another townie I’ll call Jill, had also heard about it. Both of us imagined something like a ski club party, men and women, loud music, conversation, food. I asked Harlen about it and he, too, said it was nothing that would interest me. But when Jill also asked him about it, I think he may have seen an opportunity to teach both of us a lesson, so he said he would take us both.
When we got to the location after a long drive down a dirt road through featureless woods, we all got out and walked towards a clearing filled with college-age men. There were no other women. I asked Harlen where the women were. He shrugged. I began to notice that all of the men were the lowest lifes on campus, though there were also one or two ministerial students I knew. Jill and I stuck close together. Harlen left us to go get us all some beer.
The lowlife nearest us began talking crudely to us, walking up to a position too near us, forcing us to move backward. I knew he was crude, stupid, belligerent and vicious, but I had only seen him on campus. I had never been in a situation where I was in the unprotected presence of such a person unbridled. One thing he said that stuck in my head was his description of his penis. He said, “Most men are six inches in length, mine is six inches across.” I stared at him stupidly wondering why in the hell he was talking to us in this way. I looked around for Harlen and saw him running towards us in a panic.
He grabbed one of us in each arm and began running us toward the car, saying, “don’t ask questions, just run.” That, we did. Behind us were 50 or so pursuers. When we got to the car, four of them had caught up. Harlen yelled at us, “Get in, get in.” Jill jumped into the front seat, Harlen jumped into the driver’s seat and both slammed and locked their doors. I opened one of the back doors and jumped in, but two of our pursuers had gotten in the other back door before I could lock it and two more held the door on my side so I could not shut it.
Harlen started to drive off with the door still open and them clinging to it, but one managed to get inside on top of me (cars were big in those days). The man next to me pulled me out from under and placed me, struggling, on his lap. Harlen, meanwhile, gunned his car, reputedly a winner of drag races, down the road, easily outrunning the cars behind us filled with drunken Georgia boys.
The guy whose lap I was on placed one knee in my back and began pulling my elbows behind me, as if to pull my arms off. Both of us women had stopped screaming when the car took off, but I now began screaming again in earnest. Having left our pursuers by now far behind, Harlen slammed on the brakes, jumped out of the driver’s seat, opened the back door nearest me and grabbed me away from the men. He pulled me all the way out of the car and shoved me toward the front seat, yelling at me to get in (this was before ordinary cars had bucket seats). Jill grabbed me and held me as I sobbed hysterically, while Harlen managed to throw all three of the men out of the car, probably because they were all drunk, not fighters and out of shape to begin with. One was lying doubled up on the ground as we once again sped away.
It took quite a while for Harlen and Jill to calm me down enough to take me back to the dorm. It was not all tender concern about me. Anything about me that might raise suspicion that I had gone somewhere other than the movies would result in all of our expulsions, not just mine. Sarah was smug. “I told you not to go,” was all she said. No one questioned me. The next day, my work in the cafeteria was serving food. As each of the culprits came through the food line, rather than look away in shame, as they expected, I looked each one straight in the eye.
Some, including the man with the alleged huge penis, looked back with a smirk, defying me to do anything about it. But, strangely, others, including the three who had been in the back seat with me and the ministerial students, reddened and looked away. I spent some time after that wondering when one of them would rat on me, or when the gossip that I had been there would reach Mama Altman. I fully expected to be expelled then, but somehow there was never any blowback from this incident. I think the reason might be that, even given the latitude extended to men on campus, a drunken party in the woods that included a gang rape attempt might have resulted in some male expulsions. In some of their cases, especially in the case of Mr. Six Inches, the scion of a well-known Georgia political family, it could have been a last straw depriving them of money and maybe requiring them to go into the military. They also had a stake in keeping it quiet.
Harlen later told me he had no idea it would be that bad, that he was devastated that he had taken me into such danger. He said he had come running because when getting the beers, he had overheard the first buzzings that any women there were asking to be raped. I believed him, but that was the end of our dating relationship, as much because of his remorse as because I no longer trusted him not to teach me some more lessons.
In retrospect, I have realized just how close a call it was and that had it not been for Harlen’s superior car and whatever he did that got rid of the backseat boys, I would have been gang-raped and possibly killed and the perpetrators would have felt not only no remorse, but justified.
Expulsion and Dress Rehearsal for the FSM
One Saturday night near the end of the term, I signed out to go to the movie in Moultrie but allowed myself to be talked into going to a drive-in restaurant hangout instead. I was seen by a girl who returned to the dorm early, perhaps for that very purpose, and blabbed it to all the girls there. These would be the girls most likely to be jealous of me, since they were dateless on Saturday night.
They checked the signout book, saw that indeed I had not signed out for the restaurant and ran immediately to report me to Mama Altman, who was waiting for me when I returned exactly one minute before 11. The ensuing demerits kicked me over into discipline time and at the next meeting of the house council I was “campused” for two days, timed, maliciously, to coincide with the weekend of the Sweetheart Banquet.
I had a hot date for that event and it was the major event of the year, akin to the Senior Prom in high school, formals and all. (It was a banquet, not a dance, because dancing was forbidden, a rule I would surely have broken had I had the opportunity.) I appealed to my two friends on the house council and they were able to make me a deal. I could go to the Sweetheart Banquet if I would agree to be campused for four days instead of two, including the weekend following the weekend of the Sweetheart Banquet.
Since we were forbidden to leave campus most of the time anyway, one might well ask what campusing could possibly consist of. We could hardly be punished by being confined to campus, at least during the week. That would only work for weekends. The answer is that a girl who was campused was forbidden to leave her room for any reason other than to go to church, the bathroom, class or work, which resulted in her not going to the Norman Park café on weekdays or Moultrie on weekends. She was, in addition, forbidden to speak to anyone except her roommate inside their room, teachers in class if called upon or in the course of doing her job, if she had one.
News that anyone had been campused always spread like wildfire and the shame attached was intended to be part of the punishment, as well as the official letter that would be sent home to one’s parents. I had carefully observed the behavior of the few girls I had seen campused and noted that an unspoken part of the ritual was that the girls must act shamed. God knows what might happen if you didn’t and that had never happened to the knowledge of anyone I knew. The campused girl would dress as low-key as possible, in an utterly futile attempt to divert attention away from herself. She would walk with her head down, meeting no one’s eyes and try to sneak into and out of class and the dorm unseen. I resolved that I would skip the shame part and skate as close as possible to the no-speaking rule.
On my first day of being campused, I put on the gayest, brightest dress I had and made sure my hair and makeup were at peak. I put on a smile, held my head up, walked with a bounce, smiled sweetly directly into the eyes of everyone I met. I was very careful not to speak, but, a dancer at heart, I am and was an expert at body language.
My assignment that day in the cafeteria, no one having informed the cafeteria manager that I had been campused, took me right out of the kitchen into contact with the world. I was to monitor the pitchers of drinking water available at each table and see that they remained full. At a half-empty table, I could simply look inside a pitcher or lean over the table to grab it. But at the tables crowded with boys, all of whom knew that I was campused, well, gee, no way to do it there but sidle up to the table as flirtatiously as possible and ask the boys to hand me the pitcher.
Speaking in order to do your job was just fine, supposedly, but I did so carefully avoiding the boys who had been involved in the gang rape attempt. The rest quickly caught on and proceeded to drink or otherwise empty the pitchers and yell at me to come fill them, then hold them well out of my reach so that I would have to ask for them. It was quite a lovely game, being observed keenly by both Mamas and the rest of the faculty seated at the faculty table.
It went on until the cafeteria gradually cleared of most but not all of the students and some of the faculty. I turned at one point from a table, with an empty pitcher in each hand, to find Mama Altman glaring down darkly at me from inches away. (She was much taller than me.) She asked me what I was doing, why was I speaking when I was campused. I smiled at her sweetly and pointed out that I was allowed to speak in the course of my job and how else was I to reach the pitchers at the crowded tables than to ask for them? Would she prefer that I squeeze in between the seated boys and lean unladylike over the table to grab them?
Her reply: “Well, let me tell you this, young lady. I can not only have your campusing extended, but I can have you thrown out of school and see to it that you never are never accepted at any other college.”
At that, my bravado vanished and was replaced by anger more severe than I had even felt at my mother. My entire body was shaking uncontrollably and my mouth went into overdrive. My response went something like this: “You mealy mouthed old hypocrite. You know perfectly well you gave me demerits you never would have given one of your little pets. You know perfectly well I’m only being punished because I’m not afraid of you and don’t care at all what you think of me, personally. You’re a power mad old hag and everybody hates you even if they’re too afraid of you to let on and your only joy in life is controlling the girls you are supposed to be here to help. You think you’re a Christian, but if you are what a Christian is, I’m glad no one thinks I’m one.”
How much of this was overheard by the rest of the faculty I can’t say, since we were some distance away from the faculty table. There could, however, be no doubt as to what was happening. Our facial expressions alone would have told that story. As she turned on her heel and headed straight for Dr. Guy’s office, I looked up and saw silent, pale, thunderstruck faces at the faculty table, including notably the face of Miss Knowles.
My legal arguments, had I ever had the chance to present them to anyone but Dr. Guy and my closest friends, would have been that the demerits that led to my campusing were arbitrarily awarded, many of the girls having broken the same rules and not gotten demerits; that some of them were earned by Sarah, not me, and she would back me on that; and that I had by no means broken any of the rules of campusing. I had a cafeteria full of witnesses for that, including most of the faculty. Had I said a single word not directly related to my job? No.
Mama Altman could claim that I had been disrespectful to her, but I had been careful not to use any “bad words” and had told no lies and was responding to a completely unwarranted threat based purely on her personal dislike for me. I certainly had no respect for her and certainly did not in that case or at any time make any effort to conceal that fact, but I imagine I was probably hoping there would be some exception made for “justifiable disrespect.”
Those would be the legal arguments specific to my case, but to me and some others, there were much larger moral and constitutional issues. The rules for women were so severe that they had inspired the Coke Bottle Rebellion the year before. Mama Altman ran a dictatorship based on favoritism, fear, spying and threats, about as far from the Christian fellowship touted by the school as could be imagined. I had been targeted and denied any means of defending myself. I had been tried and sentenced in absentia.
That I had been routinely breaking the rules to go to Tally was not yet an issue, since no one at that point knew about it, for sure, but Sarah. The larger issue was the atmosphere in which the girls were forced to live. My being personally targeted was a specific instance of that, and that was the issue that produced perhaps the largest brouhaha Norman College had yet seen, according to my good friend, Guy, son of Dr. Guy, who had been experiencing Norman College’s brand of Christianity his entire life. When I had finished my tirade at Mama Altman, she turned on her heel and made straight for Dr. Guy’s office, I was sure, to get me expelled. I did not wait to finish out my shift in the cafeteria, but made straight for the dorm to tell Sarah, then to Dr. Guy’s office to defend myself.
At that point in time, although sentiment against me among the majority of students who knew me had reached its high point, there had built up possibly even more sentiment among the girls against Mama Altman and her dictatorship. Some of the Coke Bottle rebels had returned that year and were still stinging from their treatment. There were some women who did not like me, but felt that I was not the only one who had been treated unfairly as a result of Mama Altman’s intimidation. While I went to Dr. Guy’s office, Sarah was rallying these troops. None of us had any experience with passive resistence or civil disobedience or any kind of collective action, but all of us as Baptist Christians had been raised in an ostensible tradition of democracy in the church.
The nearest thing Baptists have to a creed is much more Protestant than even Luther would have maintained. Baptists have no Pope, no councils, no hierarchy of churches. Each church elects its own pastor and can fire him (yes, him, probably still pretty much, him). The onus is on each individual to study the Bible and come to his or her own conclusions about its meaning and to pray directly to God, confess sins directly to God and expect to be answered directly by God via the “still, small voice” inside them.
Thus, although it was unheard of for a group of women to demand fair treatment, it was certainly justified by Baptist doctrine for any individual Baptist to complain directly to his or her pastor and expect to be heard out. Dr. Guy had been presented to us as being analogous to our pastors at home. Individually, we each had a perfect right to go to him with any spiritual crisis and for all of us, this qualified as a spiritual crisis as well as a political one.
When the impromptu conference between me, Mama Altman and Dr. Guy was interrupted by the arrival of Sarah with about 25 of the women students behind her to back up my claim that we were being mistreated by Mama Altman, I was shocked that so many of my dorm-mates would stick their necks out for me, but I was not shocked that they would come en masse to claim their individual right to be heard by Dr. Guy. Mama Altman, on the other hand, was speechless.
My other friend from my high school, Esther, who was in every organization on campus, including the house council group that had campused me, spoke for the group. Formerly Student Council President at Groveland High, engaged to a ministerial student and in possession of an unassailable reputation and, in addition, taller than Mama Altman, she was uncowed by Mama Altman, in this instance, and very eloquent to Dr. Guy. I was proud of her.
Esther said that the dorm rules were far too strict, much stricter than any of the women experienced at home, that there was no need for such strict rules as we were all but a few, devout Christians. She said that I had been over-punished for my original infractions and had not broken my campusing, no matter what Mama Altman claimed. The women behind her shouted “Amen,” and “she’s right.” No one mentioned the men and their utter lack of rules or supervision. We had not yet evolved that far.
Dr. Guy, always the picture of rationality, if not always the personification of it, greeted the women warmly, apologized for there not being enough room for all of them in his office at once and asked if everyone there agreed with Esther. Everyone said they did. He said then no further action would be taken on my case until he could call a campus-wide meeting. Meanwhile, all rules were suspended. We all adjourned, the women going back to the dorm in a buzz of excitement.
An impromptu meeting then took place in the little lobby outside my room. No one led it but a kind of order emerged naturally. Women took turns voicing their complaints, very much like the “cop car” rally three years later during the Free Speech Movement in Berkeley, wherein ordinary students used an open mic for the same purpose. We were extraordinarily attentive and polite to each other.
Much was said about a woman who had that quarter attempted suicide in her room, was removed in an ambulance and taken to the emergency room in Moultrie, then sent home. Her friends reported that she had been very depressed about being forced by her parents to attend Norman as punishment, on suspicion of harboring rebellious thoughts. Some women said they saw no reason why there should be any rules at all, and that was the nearest we got to comparing ourselves to the men.
I became quite nervous at this last suggestion, especially since it came from women I feared would, without any rules at all, become so wild they would prove the argument that women are incapable of self-discipline, therefore must have rules. I strongly suspected that was Dr. Guy’s sneaky motivation for suspending all the rules. I rose to state that idea and to urge restraint, which I did so articulately that I was made spokesperson for the dorm at the upcoming meeting, by acclaim. I had never been a leader, unless you count cheerleader, but I tried to rise to the occasion.
When the meeting took place a few days later in the auditorium, Sarah and I sat in the third row. The faculty was seated at the front, behind Dr. Guy, facing the students. Much had happened between our meeting with Dr. Guy and the current meeting. There had been several faculty meetings, at which, I was told, Mama Altman had denounced me as a wicked degenerate who had led all the women astray. Phone calls had been made by the women not aligned with us to their parents, who had reported the whole matter to the Georgia Baptist Convention. Some parents, hearing of the flap, had rushed to the campus and brought their darlings home, without even waiting for them to take their finals.
A previously planned revival meeting had been held that week in the church across the street from campus, wherein “the atheist girl on our campus” had been prayed for fervently and loudly. Esther’s fiance, one of my cafeteria co-workers, had made it a point to tell me he was ashamed of his colleagues for that little piece of mock piety. It was the only sincere support I remember receiving from any of the men, except for Guy and the White Knight, who had recently broken up with me, perhaps fearing guilt by association. Such prayers, all we Baptists knew, were a form of accusation, not far removed from the Salem witchhunts. The issue had been discussed in history and psychology classes. Many of the male students were livid, my aspiring rapists among them, I’m sure, that women should presume to question any rules, ever.
Dr. Guy explained the situation to the students–fairly, I thought. Then he asked if all the students who feared Mama Altman or believed she was ruling by fear would stand up. I stood up immediately, expecting that at least the 25 who came to the first meeting and many of the men would also stand up. There was a silence. I turned around and saw no more than half a dozen people standing in a full room that seated about 400. Esther did not stand up. Sarah did not stand up. I turned back around and found both Mamas beaming.
Dr. Guy declared that the students had spoken and adjourned the meeting. Then he approached me and asked me to come with him back to his office, where he told me that a meeting would be held by the faculty to decide what to do with me. I would be allowed to take my finals, but if the decision were to expel me, I would lose all credit for the quarter. He also said I could consider that my campusing was over.
Back in my room, Sarah and I hashed it out. She said she could not stand up for fear word of her involvement would reach her very conservative fiance and affect her upcoming wedding plans. I had little sympathy for that position, especially since she had not asked me to be a bridesmaid, indeed, maid of honor, at her wedding.
We had, like best friends did then and perhaps still do, promised each other that we would be maids or matrons of honor at each other’s weddings. She claimed she did not ask me because she knew I could not afford the dress and shoes she was planning, but I knew the real reason was that she was ashamed of me. She was marrying up. She feared I would embarrass her in front of her new in-laws by voicing one of my outrageous opinions. We managed to avoid each other except at night for the remaining days of the quarter while we both took finals and after that quarter, I never saw her again, though I heard much later that her marriage dissolved after the birth of her child, due to domestic violence.
The half-dozen who had stood with me found opportunities to speak with me, to commiserate and to tell me that I had inspired them with my courage. For that I was very grateful. One of those who had risked everything by standing up at the meeting was Guy, who at that time, but not for the first time and certainly not for the last time, had faced down his father on a moral issue.
For complaining about the gross injustice of imprisoning young women without also imprisoning young men, it turned out, I was “invited not to return.” This was not exactly an expulsion, since I was allowed, after careful thought on the part of the President, to retain all my college credit for the quarter. Neither was it on my transcript, allegedly, though the way I was treated when I transferred to Florida State University suggested that there may have been some heads-up phone calls from Dr. Guy or Mama Altman to the Dean of Women at FSU. My parents received a letter stating that I had been expelled. True expulsion or no, it was certainly enough to shake my confidence in having an academic future.
The whole experience, eeriely foreshadowing, for me, the Free Speech Movement, was both crushing and enlightening. When I boarded the Greyhound bus for Tally for the last time, I had no idea what might be next for me, but I knew that any lingering religious aspirations I had were gone, I thought, forever. If this is what a Christian college looks like, if this is the kind of place where they make Christian ministers, then I wanted nothing to do with it. I had prayed the summer before, about the time I crashed my car and, in my own mind, lost my virginity, that God would reveal Himself to me and show me my path. On the bus, hot-footing it for my friends in Tally, I thought, “Well, God, that did the trick.”
© Jentri Anders, 2016