Non-Fiction Worth Reading

Even during breaks in school, I consider myself a voracious reader. The biggest difference is that on holiday, I read only fiction. God knows I get enough non-fiction reading in school and at work. Plus, most of the top-selling non-fiction falls into two categories I care little about: self-help or memoirs. I consider self-help books not written by my brother-in-law to be utter bullshit and we need more memoirists like I need another hole in my head. On the other hand, good fiction is the ultimate release, allowing me to escape from the realities of school and work.

A recent work of non-fiction has caught my attention, Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House. Even if the “gorilla channel” story is “fake news,” there appears to be enough explosive truth bombs to draw a threat of litigation from Trump and conspiratorial speculations from members of the media.

This has to be non-fiction worth reading, right?

It also reminds me of some non-fiction I once wrote.

The day before I graduated from Lon Morris College (“LMC”), a friend and I took one final walk across the deserted campus. We completed finals on a Tuesday, graduation was held on a Saturday, so most students, even those taking part in commencement exercises, had gone  home in advance of the ceremony. Only a handful of students remained on campus.

The fact that we chose to stay on campus the entire week, should tell you a little about the impact the school had on our lives.

Dr. Frank Thornton, the vice-president of the school, spotted us and motioned us over to talk to him. We spent the next 30 minutes in his office discussing our future plans. Before leaving, he reached out to shake both of our hands and told me that considering all that I had experienced in the past two years, he was looking forward to one day reading my memoir.

Well, remember what I said about memoirists at the beginning of the post?

Even so, over the years, I have used this blog to write extensively about Lon Morris College. I was only there for two years, but a lot happened in those two years and it had a profound impact on my life. While I have talked briefly about the most seminal set of events during this two year period, I have never provided the complete oral history, so I thought I would take this opportunity to do just that.

On a cold, dark February evening in 1999, after a day of fellowship and libations at a friend’s house, a group of about six of us headed off to the Vivian and Bob Smith gymnasium to catch a little college basketball. We took our seats directly behind the bench of the visiting team and proceeded to root on our beloved Bearcats. Shortly before halftime, someone in our group remarked that the visiting coach resembled the NBA legend, Pat Riley, complete with the slick hair and slick suit, so in the second half we let him have it.

Even players on the bench were turning around laughing at our good-natured heckling. Unfortunately, not all were pleased. From across the gymnasium, we saw the President of our school motion to Lark, the elderly campus security guard, to have us removed from the game. Before we left, we turned to the stands, bowed, and walked out as we plotted revenge.

The next night, NBC launched their forgettable mini-series, The 60’s, which we found to be stop-down entertainment, which was indeed odd. With so many creative minds gathered in one spot, we rarely need to turn to artificial forms of entertainment for stimulation. Our group sitting around a living room with a guitar, a keyboard, and a laptop produced works far more clever and relevant than anything the networks ran out at the time, so I’m not even sure why we had the TV on, but the timing proved serendipitous.

As dramatized depictions of protests broke out on screen, I began to scheme. Never the one to eschew confrontation, I was no stranger to challenging those of apparent absolute authority. Once, in fifth grade, I stood in front of the bulldozer threatening to tear down part of the playground at my school. Sure, the head mistress threatened to expel me from the school, but I ended up saving the playground.

With the previous night’s events still fresh in our memory, and the hushed whispers of impropriety forever swirling about the school President, I floated the idea of anonymously publishing an underground newspaper to expose the misdeeds of the President, one that could potentially reach those in a position to institute change. Those gathered in my friend’s living room that night received the idea enthusiastically; my friend P.O. shared the story of the rag he published when he was a student at LMC and we had all the encouragement we needed, and a name–SMELLBREAD.

P.O. pulled out his girlfriend’s laptop and we started working.  We all had stories. Most of us worked in various administrative departments within the school as part of the work-study program. Some of the stories, like the President’s role in changing one of his son’s grades, were well-documented. Others, like those concerning the school’s finances, were shared in confidence. Smellbread aimed to shine a light on them all.

Within a couple of hours, we churned out roughly 1,000 words and the skeleton of what would become our little “piece of a dead tree.” The next day, we published, courtesy of the State of Texas, and made plans to distribute it on campus and within the surrounding community.

We felt we had created a masterpiece, complete with prose that would make the angels weep and the Buddha cry. Like poetry, I read aloud to those assembled in the living room, before turning the floor over to P.O.

To understand what transpired next requires some working knowledge of the campus layout and operating procedures.

The school consisted of eleven main buildings: four dorms, a humanities building, a science building, the chapel, the administration building, the cafeteria, the theatre, and the art building. The chapel sat at the north end of campus; the baseball field formed the southern boundary of campus. In between the chapel and baseball field, two dorms bookended each end of campus, each end featuring both a boys and girls dorm. The rest of the buildings were scatted in between.

Like a Baptist Sunday School class, the genders were not allowed to mix in the dorms, so I recruited one of the female members of our group to distribute the paper in the girl’s dorms. I put the rest of the copies in a purple folder and headed back to my dorm.

I waited until about 2:30 a.m. to ensure that the hallways were quiet.

Starting down my hallway, I proceeded to circle the dorm, sliding two copies under every door. Once I finished Fair Hall, I ventured out into the campus, visiting every building and making sure every office, classroom, and dorm room received at least one copy, and leaving a stack in all common areas.

Luckily, security left all of the buildings unlocked, so there wasn’t a single nook on campus I could not reach. I even managed to slip a copy under the President’s door, though the original plan called for a Luther-line nailing of the paper to his door.

When I got back to my room, I phoned my female counterpart to confirm her portion had been delivered. As I hung up the phone, my roommate rolled over in his bed.

“Dude, what the hell are you doing? It’s nearly 4 a.m.”

“Inciting the masses, my man. Inciting the masses.”

The next morning, we met in the dining hall for breakfast. We had hoped to find a packed cafeteria, full of students reading our paper, but it was empty. Briefly, we played out different potential scenarios, as toyed with our food, too nervous to eat.

Erin, KD, and I had 9 a.m. classes in the humanities building, so we walked out together. As we approached the building, Erin squeezed both of our hands and flashed a smile. I took a deep breath as I opened the door and walked into the lobby.

It was if we walked into a room frozen in space. No one moved. No one talked. No one made any noises of any kind. Instead, everyone stood reading Smellbread.

We split up and went to our respective classes–British Lit. for me. Our professor began the class by reading the paper to the class and devoted a good portion of the lecture to discussing the campus’s latest publication. While I certainly hoped to one day have English professors discuss my work in class, I can honestly say that the first time my writing was subject to lecture, it had quite the sobering effect on me.

Hearing someone else read your work aloud tends to be a lot like the moment a bar turns its lights on at closing time. For the first time, you get a good look at the person you’ve been drinking with all night. I squirmed in my chair as the Professor read each sentence, not because I regretted writing the things we did, but rather the way we wrote them.

The liberal use of both adverbs and passive voice violated the rules of writing I subscribed to and a couple of cheap ad hominem attacks threatened to void our more salient arguments. So much for creating a poetic masterpiece, but as I looked around the room and saw the faces of my classmates and heard the ring of approval in my Professor’s voice, I knew we had created a shared event that students and faculty would not soon forget. One we could use as an instrument for change.

After class, we met in our traditional spot in the quad. Erin and K.D. reported similar classroom reactions as mine. Like me, they had begun to notice some of the paper’s more glaring blemishes. I told them that in twenty years no one would remember the number of times we used “is” and “was,” but that they would remember the event–the fact that an anonymous group of students had the balls to question the authority of the President, the Board of Trustees, and the Methodist episcopacy.

Our group consisted of actors and writes, folks who though they may not admit it, seek out the spotlight at every opportunity. We agreed that in spite of the temptation to take credit for the publication, we must remind our group that it was imperative we remain anonymous for the foreseeable future. The classroom discussions produced a couple of points of potential liability that we would have to run from for a while.

We decided to grab some lunch and head to Erin’s to check the Smellbread Hotmail account we had created. As we walked towards the car, we walked passed a smiling Professor Hoeheisel. To this day, we continue to wonder what that smile meant. We he simply being pleasant? Did he know we were responsible? Did he approve?

The next few weeks the legend of Smellbread grew. Students continued to talk about it, while professors were increasingly cautious. Based on additional information we had gathered from the email account and members of the local community, we continued to plan a second edition. It seemed that everywhere we turned, people had stories to tell about the incompetency of the school’s President and the Board of Trustees.

Even so, not all in our group were on board with continuing the publication. At least one member of our group had been approached by a professor who warned him that if knew any of the responsible parties to distance himself from them immediately and to “deny, deny, deny,” if questioned. He continued to congregate with us, but made it clear he wanted no part of any future publications. In early March, we left for Spring Break with the intention of returning refreshed and renewed the next week for Round 2.

I returned to campus on a Saturday evening and sensed something was wrong when I saw Christine, the Director of Student Activities, running towards my car.

“You’ve got to come clean, Josh. They know.”

“What the fuck are you talking about? Who is ‘they’ and what is that they know?”

She explained that the Office of the President had evidence linking me to the publication of Smellbread. The President planned to pursue disciplinary action and litigation against all those involved, except me, assuming I cooperated with their investigation.

“Look, you tell the President that while I certainly empathize with the spirit of the publication, I would never allow such a poorly written work to see the light of day.”

Of course she knew. There was only a handful of people on the LMC campus brazen enough to pull off this type of student and they were all part of the same group of friends. I suspected they would come after each one of us trying to get us to turn on one another. Until they showed us some hard evidence linking us to the publication, we would simply deny all charges.

When I walked into my room, I could tell someone had been there during the break. Papers were scattered about and the panel covering the phone jack was hanging off the wall. I immediately packed a bag and headed off-campus to Erin’s house. Over the next few weeks, I would spend very little time in my dorm  as I was certain it was under surveillance of some sort.

The next day, I received a call from the school chaplain asking my to come by for a visit. I considered him a friend and mentor, so I consented. He informed me that he had learned that one of the members of the President’s staff had intercepted an email I had sent from my personal account to a friend at another university. Since this illegally-obtained document was the only evidence they had linking me to the publication, he advised me to not talk under any circumstance.

Other members of the LMC faculty and administration encouraged us to stand strong, while stopping short of endorsing our work. Everyone on campus knew who was responsible, but we were the only ones who could prove it. We held all the power, but that did not stop the President from trying to exert his own power.

Shortly before our Easter break, I began receiving personal emails from the President. In them, he pleaded with me to simply provide him the name of our sources. He assured me he had no interest in harassing any students involved. I ignored them all, except one to wish him a Happy Easter on Good Friday.

 

 

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