Grab the Ring, or Not?

Life is a Merry-Go-Round. When you see that ring, do you reach out and grab it, or let it pass by? The answer depends on what you’ve been dreaming and planning, doesn’t it. Only you can answer that question.  

In many ways I was yet pretty naive, but didn’t know it.  

For example, I still thought we were in Vietnam to halt communism. I believed we could win that war. Then I met a couple veterans who were in one of my art classes, and we kept meeting for tea and coffee at the Hub to discuss the war or various art projects. They had been there, and I could not help but listen to what they had to say. They were nice guys, too, not full of anger or too much resentment. Each spoke clearly and concisely and backed up everything he said with personal experience. I began to wonder.

Other students were wondering, too. Eruptions and speeches against the war occurred all over campus.

When Bruce returned he wouldn’t speak of the war or his experiences. He had been a forward observer. He never said more than that. At the time I had no idea what that was.

Few parts of my life I wish I could have done differently, but one of them was about to occur. We were at Bruce’s folks’ house when I said I would “make love.” Now was the time. He had been off fighting in a war and I should show him how much I cared. We no longer knew one another, but what did that matter? Was this naivete or merely stupidity? I remind myself of this decision whenever I see some other young person doing the same, and attempt to not be judgmental. How do you warn someone when they believe they are doing the right thing?

I thought the time of month was right and assumed I was safe. Just this once. I was wrong.

There is nothing like missing your period, going to classes, pretending and hoping everything is fine. Then you start feeling nauseated and another period is late. In those days an appointment with a doctor was the only way to learn the truth, and I waited for the all-important phone call afterward. How well I remember picking up the phone on the kitchen wall when it rang, the way my heart dropped into my stomach when I heard the news. Then denial. This couldn’t be happening. How could I have let it happen? It was impossible. My parents couldn’t afford it and I couldn’t. Not the hospital, a baby or afterward. The first and only time in my entire life I had made love? So unfair. Life isn’t fair, is it. I was going to upchuck there in the kitchen. But I didn’t. I have never felt so trapped.

I told Bruce. I couldn’t have a baby, I couldn’t afford a baby. All my plans since childhood, all my efforts and saving to graduate would go down the tubes. No way. Bruce didn’t want to be a father. He was so unsettled. We didn’t even know one another any more.

Though abortion was against the law, he would help me find someone, but I said it would have to be a real doctor. And, just in case, I stopped drinking. If by some chance this baby had to be born, it would be born healthy. 

Thankfully, a lady friend of his knew of a doctor in Detroit, Michigan, and Bruce paid half the $400 and I paid the other half. She drove me to Detroit to stay at her girlfriend’s apartment for the weekend and I would see the doctor early Saturday morning. She was like an older sister, and I don’t know what I would have done without her. When the doctor discovered I was nearly three months along, he nearly refused. I think the way I turned white and nearly passed out in his office caused him to go ahead. I was relieved how he wanted to impress upon me not to let such a thing happen again. It was clear he did not enjoy doing such a procedure. My two new girlfriends waited in the outer room while he proceeded, and to this day I wish I could forget the clanking of those instruments, one after the other into the steel pan. No anesthetic, nothing. The continuous pain of feeling my insides being ripped out was almost too much to bear, but I had no choice. Would it never end?  

He handed me birth control pills as we left.

I was weak and sore but giddy with relief.

An unwanted child had not been born. 

I never told my parents, though I did tell my sister, Diann, when I went home for a recuperative visit. As always, she stood by me.

I barely held my grade point average winter quarter, as a sort of depression set in after relief, and I recall nothing of the holidays that year.

Me, Bruce, Diann, and Diann’s friend on New Year’s Eve at Mom and Dad’s.

I believe I was moving forward in a daze, ignoring any feelings, getting done what must be done.

I would not face the fact I was angry at Bruce for not accompanying me to Michigan; he had abandoned me. What hurt most was I had lost respect for him. I felt I had made the decision and gone through the after-effects alone, with little or no support from him. My parents could have been of no help, could not afford a baby, a child. I certainly could not. Bruce wanted nothing to do with it. Therefore, I needed to go on with my life, put the “incident” behind me. I did so in order to go on.

Spring quarter brought changes to me and to Kent.

Students for a Democratic Society were active on campus. I couldn’t help but listen to what their representatives said in gatherings outside the Hub and elsewhere, including what rumor said was the old house downtown that had been used for the movie, Psycho. I was particularly impressed one day when the SDS rep remained calm, substantiated everything he said with facts, and his adversaries in the crowd resorted to name-calling. 

I had become an art student and now looked like one. I even overheard someone call me a hippie. On a visit to Strasburg with my family, my grandmother said, “What’s with all this black you’re wearing!” I loved that about Grandma Plotner. She was never one to hold back what she thought. 

I was exploring who I was and what I believed, and the first of several peaceful marches I joined was for more art spaces on campus. Who could blame us for being sick of having to use basements and space heaters? We paid the same tuition as everyone else but were treated as second and third-class students. 

Student unrest was everywhere. Black United Students organized for equality, people linked their arms during sit-ins, draft protests occurred around campus, and students heckled ROTC when they marched on the commons. Was anyone listening?

As usual, the media and everyone else believe trouble miraculously appeared on campus out of the blue in 1970. No one was paying attention in 1969. We never pay attention until it’s too late.

I would show photographs from the yearbook, but WordPress says it can’t for “security reasons.”

No classes for me that quarter.

I had to complete a “Practical Problem” in teaching, as well as student teaching in a local elementary and junior high school. Once again, Mary’s parents, not my dad, came to my aid. I had taken a driver’s course at Kent the previous quarter using her parents’ mammoth Buick while they were RVing around the states, and I would have the use of the same car and live at Mary’s house with her and another friend during spring quarter while I taught art at two local schools. My Practical Problem was teaching art at a summer program to kids from opposite communities: well-off and indigent. The kids could decide to play outside or come inside and “do” art. I was thrilled that my art program grew each time I held it and was soon overflowing. We had a grand time and held a show for kids and parents at the end of the program.

In the elementary school I was warned that the student before me had not been able to control the kids in her classes. I had to do something immediately to get control because they expected any student teacher would be a pushover. I was tested my first class, turned the lights out to get attention, told them they lost their art period, and declared a study period. Amazing how fast word got to the remaining classes. I had no problems after that. We had plenty fun, too.

The junior high art teacher (a man) told me that several of his students took art because it was the only class they could pass in order to graduate, so I should ignore them. They weren’t worth spending time on and had failed the prior year. These guys were worthless and all they cared about were cars. One of them even had a half interest in a garage. We were designing mobiles in groups of two or three. I challenged these fellows to see if they could use heavy car parts in such a way to balance them on a mobile. They accepted my challenge and created a beautifully creative piece, so amazing the principal set it in a special alcove outside. I’ll never forget the looks on those guys’ faces or how differently they walked around school. This was why I wanted to teach.

I had a small graduation party at our house at Portage Lakes.

I was so surprised that Dr. Page and a couple other psychology professors showed up. Since all my other friends had previously graduated and were gone, it was a little embarrassing that the only other people there were Mary, our friend and housemate, Joyce, Bruce, and my family. It was definitely different than that psych graduate student party the previous year. Still, we popped a bottle of champagne in the kitchen, and I was determined to have at least a light hangover when I graduated the following day.

Which I did.

Mere days passed when my chance came to grab that golden ring.

Mary and I were lying in the sun several days after when my folks and aunt and uncle came visiting to announce that Aunt Betty and Uncle George were going to visit my cousin Dave and his wife in Denver, Colorado a week later. They had heard I wanted to go to Colorado. Dave said I could stay with him until I found a place of my own. Did I want to go with them? 

How many minutes did it take me to decide? I don’t recall. 

The most difficult parts were turning down the teaching job I was offered at the elementary school where I had student taught, as the present teacher was pregnant, and telling Bruce. Though I think Bruce was half out the door anyway. He never asked me to stay. He was holding on to a lot he wasn’t saying and so was I. It was time for each of us to find who we were on our separate paths.

I madly packed boxes for shipping at some future date and put a few necessaries in two suitcases with my camera. It was happening. I was leaving the past behind and heading west to the mountains! 

Someone told me later that Dad said, “I didn’t really think she’d do it.”  

Family Secrets

I didn’t know at the time, but my family was keeping secrets during my years at Kent. Would anything have been different otherwise? I don’t know. Family secrets seem to be a habit, for good or bad. I discovered years later that my sister was ill and my dad had a heart attack and later a stroke, but I never knew. Then, of course, I would soon have a secret only my sister knew. We think we are trying to protect one another, but are we?

What did my parents think of Bruce, of my switch to an art major?

I could tell by what wasn’t said. The few times I came home for a weekend, Dad was silent. Mom asked about Bruce, about what we did, but offered no opinions. She wouldn’t. I discussed my classes, the grant and a scholarship I had applied for so they would know there was no way I would abandon my goal of graduating with a teaching certificate. I expect they were relieved Bruce would be in the army and out of the picture.

In addition, my sister, Diann, was going through emotional and health problems at the time of which I had no idea. I was kept in the dark at the time as her situation might interfere with my studies.

Poor Maverick was chained to a doghouse in the backyard because he wouldn’t stick around otherwise.

I still feel guilty about leaving him for all those years I left for school. He wasn’t allowed inside as our family lived in a rented house. Sometimes in winter he slept outside under a pile of snow rather than in his house. Out from under he would pounce, sending snow flying every which way. Eventually I was told he was given to a farmer to live out his life on a farm. I wonder.

Bruce finished basic training in time to come home for Christmas.

He spent part of the holiday with me and my parents, and we spent Christmas Eve with his folks at a beautiful church service before he was shipped to Vietnam. I recall those thin airmail envelopes and the many newsy letters I mailed to him in return, including replacement copies of The Lord of the Rings, which he said were the most popular books with the guys in his company.

He sent me a photograph of himself proudly sporting his new mustache outside his bunker. But I never saw photos or heard of any pals, either then or afterward.

Having won a scholarship along with a grant, I was busy trying to keep my grades up. An art education major was given no leeway; you were considered an art major and expected to measure up the same. I loved it. I had been drawing since before grade school and felt in my element with other art students. It was as though something inside me was blossoming. 

One particular experience has stayed with me.

I worked part-time helping the secretary in the Psychology Department and, consequently, got to know the psych professors and the graduate students. One of the professors was experimenting on the brains of rhesus monkeys. I saw them in their cages, wires coming out of their heads.  

Later I stood looking at a glob of clay in my sculpture class in which we were to sculpt an animal or animals. I saw two rhesus monkeys in that glob—vulnerable, one looking up at me. All I need do was remove the clay from around them. I’ve never had an experience like that before or since.

That summer I worked full time in the Psychology Department helping the secretary prepare for the department head to leave and the new one get settled.

The secretary was retiring, which meant I was the only one left who knew how the office was run. Thank goodness, Dr. Page, the new department head, was easygoing and had a great sense of humor. In addition, preparations were being made for the first psychology doctoral students to graduate from Kent State, and this was a busy time for the department. I had fast, accurate typing skills as well as good grammar and excellent spelling, so I made extra money the next couple years by typing masters and doctoral theses on the department IBM Selectric typewriter. Nope. No computers in those days.

Dr. Page was a psychiatrist and made appointments to see students who needed help.

One of my regrets is that I didn’t have the sense to realize I needed therapy. I believed I was fine. I was functioning and attending school. No problems. Right?

On one side of my brain I told Bruce I had a problem with sex, on the other I told myself I was doing fine. Amazing how we can compartmentalize that way. But I did. I see that clearly now, but I didn’t then.

We can even keep secrets from ourselves . . . presumably for protection.

My junior year was the first time I heard Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. That was the Beatles? My sister, Diann, had always been crazy for them; I always thought, “They’re okay.”  I was never one of those screamers. That Sergeant Pepper record, though. I listened. The more I listened, the more I loved it. Wow. Bought it. I was hooked on every single song. So new and amazing. 

That fall Andy and I rented an apartment facing an open field on the east end of campus.

Not in a house, a real apartment this time with a living room, dining area and kitchen downstairs, and two bedrooms upstairs. We were seniors the fall of 1967. I brought my old bike from home and repainted it for a fast way to get around campus and to the store downtown at the opposite end of campus. I yet had no driver’s license or car. 

We decided to have a welcome party for the new psychology graduate students, and what a party it was! Dr. Page and a number of the professors came and the party and music spread out onto the lawn in front of our apartment. It was a great way to start the fall quarter.

My major adventure of the night was when the new grad students, nearly all guys, yelled for help, and I headed upstairs to take the top off the toilet cistern and unstuck the float so it would run properly once again. Yes, indeed, a woman does know how to fix a toilet!

I had a great fall quarter, too, but winter quarter was mixed. I took a swimming class in hopes of getting over my fear of water. Take that risk, again. I still recall standing at the edge of the pool when I was supposed to dive in head first, my knees literally quivering, telling myself, “jump, jump.” I did. I finally did, head first, and I can hardly tell you how it felt that first time, and the second time, and third. I swam underwater. I was so proud of myself. Everyone else in the class were high school swimmers; they all swam better than me and they all got A’s in the class. I got a C. But none of them went as far as I did.

My class after Swimming was Intro to Philosophy, and I had to practically run to get to it in time. But I was so awake, so ready to discuss anything and earned an A in that one.

I finished the quarter with a B average and kept my scholarship and grant.

Spring, glorious spring, was the most fun yet, all art except for tennis, as some sort of exercise was required each quarter.

Andy and my friends graduated that spring.

I would stay another year without them. That was the difficult part. 

I advertised for a new roommate. This is tricky when you don’t know the person and depend on them to tell you the truth. We worked fine, for a while. She was a theater major, like Bruce.

I enjoyed riding my bike to the one art class I took that summer, Studio Problems, which was open to interpretation and expression, another class I loved and pulled an A. The Psychology Department kept me busy, as well, including typing masters and doctoral theses to TK my income.

Not only would that fall be my final year, but Bruce would be home from Vietnam.

Though I had been tempted several times, I had remained true to our relationship and not become involved with anyone the entire time he was gone. I was not much of a drinker, but twice I had been so lonesome I had drunk too much and had a hangover. I did sleep with a fellow I liked very much but we did nothing but hold one another and make out a little. I needed to be held and to hold someone I cared for and he knew all about Bruce. Thank you, Terry, a good guy with whom I am still in touch. 

Then there was Larry, a terrific clarinet and sax player who was first chair at Coventry High School before me. Somehow we ran into one another at Kent and hit it off. To this day I wonder what might have been.

It can be darn difficult when you’re in your twenties, in college, and trying to be true to someone half a world away. Someone you only knew for a few months before they left.

But I was determined I was not going to be a girl who would write a “Dear John” letter to a guy in Vietnam. I could never do that.

So I told every guy I met about Bruce.

I had no idea how his return would affect my life and my feelings about him.