How did you rebel?

This week’s Storyworth is “How did you rebel as a child?”

The short answer is that I did not. My parents were very liberal (in the real, not political sense). Their rules made sense most of the time and did not have much reason to rebel. As mentioned in an earlier post, I was on swim team in HS, so I was always working out or tired during prime rebellion years.

I did, however, get crazy when I went away to college at University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point. It was a very stressful time for me. I see that much clearer in retrospect that I did back then. Things started inauspiciously and went downhill. I was sick my first couple weeks at UWSP. Not sure what I had, but I was tired and achy all the time. I went out for swim team, but I was not good enough for college level, so one of the big things in my life was gone like the snows of last winter. I was going away from home for the first time. Neither my father nor anybody else I knew well had experience with going to college. My mother had died the year before, so I lost her stabilizing love. AND in Wisconsin at that time you could drink beer at age 18, and that was one thing I was good at doing.

I was lost and I fell in with others who were feeling some of the same things. We drank a lot and improvised all sort of games to enable us to drink more. I did not study, and I started skipping classes. My logic was simple. When I thought about what I learned in class, I could not think of very much, so I thought I could just wing it. I was mistaken. I got a 1.6 GPA my second semester, but still managed to make just above 2.0 for first year because of a few easy classes in the first semester. Bad as my grades were, I think they were the best of my group of drinking friends. None of them made it to graduation.

The nadir of my existence was my second Freshman semester to the middle of my first sophomore one. My only significant achievement was what I think was the streaking record. My friends & I ran naked through the Wisconsin campus in March. Streaking was a big deal for a little while in the early 1970s. It was a kind of social thing. Large crowds would gather to “welcome” streakers, and a couple dozen of us were out running that night. You can see the attached report from the local newspaper. I am the guy on the right of the screen, bandana but no hat. Never sure how to describe left and right on a screen, but I know for sure it is me because I got full-length photos from the newspaper photographer. I still have one, but I will publish only the newspaper version.

Early March is cold in Wisconsin. The ground is hard and frozen, with patches of ice and snow. I had a pair of hiking boots. I did not own a pair of running shoes in those days and I did not want to run in my boots, so I ran with socks but no shoes. It is hard for me today to put myself into that stupid kid mind-set, but I have pictures. We were caught and when I went to see the dean, he was less angry than impressed that we could tolerate the cold for so long. I recall he made a comment about freezing body parts; he was not referring to our toes.

We got in surprisingly little trouble for streaking. Some things were better back then. I got some kind of probation. Campuses were wilder in those days. This was 1974, although technically part of the 1970s, this was still the last gasps of the 60s in campuses. 1973-4 was in fact a cusp year. That was the year of the Arab oil embargo, the beginning of the energy crisis and the end of the post-war boom America had enjoyed for nearly the last three decades.

There had been no really hard times since before I was born. None of us baby-boomers could remember a time when America was not booming and getting richer. Now the American economy went to hell and did not properly recover until 1983. This changed the campus mood from one of carefree optimism (we all just assumed we would get good jobs no matter our academic record) to a careful pessimism (none of us would ever be as well off as our parents). Kids began to study harder and the era of competition had begun.

I considered dropping out of college between my freshman and sophomore years. I remember a particular day at my summer job at the cement factory. I was by myself loading bags on a small truck. The truck driver was not required to help, and this guy did not, but he did talk at me while I carried the bags. He asked me how I liked the job. I told him that I really hated it, but I needed the money for school. He asked me if it was worth it. Thinking back at my previous failures and prospect of not much better, I told him that I just didn’t want to be loading bags every day for the next 30 years. I recall that h made some nasty comment, although I don’t recall what. I decided to go back in the fall, more from inertia than design. I had almost wasted a year, but I did manage to “earn” 32 college credits, albeit with bad grades that haunted me when I applied to graduate school.

I do not regret it, however. I learned how to fail and to come back from failure. If you need that lesson, UWSP was a benign place to get it. My experience is one big reason I believe so strongly in second chances and redemption. A reasonable person would not have given a nickel for my prospects in the summer of 1974, but I turned out okay.

My “rebellious times” ended abruptly in my in the middle of my sophomore year. There were a few reasons. I got a girlfriend who was less impressed than were my drinking buddies by my remarkable capacity to drink a load of beer, throw up, and then come back for more. Girlfriends are big civilizing influences on crazy young men. I also was losing my drinking friends, as they started either to drop out or start studying, mostly the former. But maybe the big reason was just aging out of the wild times. A young man of twenty is just very different from a young man of eighteen. Our brains start to complete.

My grades turned dramatically. I was also very lucky in one particular class and professor that I see as an inflection point. I had never learned to write a research paper and the prospect terrified me. I was supposed to write a paper for a course on the history of the tribes of the American west that I liked a lot. I participated a lot in class and the professor seemed approachable, so I approached and told him of my fears of the research paper. I do not recall exactly what he told me, but it was something like, “you are not as dumb as you think you are.” He suggested that I do something on the Blackfeet of Montana and how the arrival of horses around 1730 changed their culture. He had done field work with the tribes and was excited by their history. He lent me a book called “the Horse in Blackfoot Culture” to get me started. I agreed that this was a truly exciting topic and I set out to find out how to write a research paper. Maybe the professor was generous. Maybe it is because my sister Christine Matel Milewski typed the paper for me and fixed my egregious spelling. But he gave me an A on the paper. I started to expect that I should just do that more often. I did and never again felt the need to rebel.

More correctly, I learned to rebel all the time w/o creating trouble, but that is a different story.

My first picture is my streaking. I am on the right of the screen. Running with me is my friend Gary and you can see Dan cheering us on. Good times.

The other picture is just a perfect beer I poured a few minutes ago to accompany my writing. Last is a left over from my Montana visit. It is the place we had a couple beers and food on our last day in Kalispell. I think that I learned those skills in my otherwise wasted first years.

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