Sunday, July 30, 2017

The Willard Swamprats

Imagine, if you will, the year 1973. Paul McCartney was cranking out hit songs without the Beatles, the Vietnam War was still going on even though Nixon had stopped the draft, Oscar de la Renta fashions were all the rage, Watergate was still an unknown entity, and double knit polyester was in full swing. There was a lot to take in, but for me, if was also the year I graduated high school and headed off to college. For many reasons, it was one of my favorite years of all that I remember, and when September rolled around, my life changed rather dramatically.

I left my home in Memphis and headed to my freshman year of college at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. Evanston is a suburb of Chicago, but it does not look like one in the traditional sense -- it is located immediately north of Chicago, and its border is contiguous with the city. If you've been to Chicago and have taken the El trains, you may know that the Howard Street station marks the border of Chicago and Evanston. These days, it's not such a big deal, but I when I lived there, Howard Street was the "libation destination." Evanston was a much more reserved and conservative community than its urban neighbor to the south; for example, you could not buy alcohol at a restaurant unless over half the tab was comprised of food. This made for lots of unusual orders at local cafes: heaping plates of french fries with a pitcher of beer, for example. And so, it was into this environment that I matriculated. I had family in California and so had done some traveling, but this move was my first time living up North, and it was initially quite an eye opener.

Our dorm was named Willard Hall, in honor of Frances E. Willard, who had served for almost twenty years as president of the Women's Christian Temperance Union and was a notable champion of women's rights and labor reform. The WCTU itself battled in her words "the devastation caused by the legalized traffic in strong drink." The cause was admirable and garnered widespread support. For our part, our dorm hosted an annual Frances E. Willard Birthday Party, at which a different beverage was served on each of our six dorm floors. Even though the legal drinking age in those days was 18, and especially because of that, I'm certain that Frances would not have condoned our celebration. (I still remember that time during the 1974 Party when in a state of artificially induced paranoia, Pete Birschbach and I thought we had seen a government spy.)

So, let me bring this back home. Here we all were, tossed from afar into this malaise that we called New Student Week, looking to put down temporary roots and find some direction before classes started. I believe it all started one evening when a group of us started talking and realized that the dorm name was the same as that of the 1971 horror movie "Willard," about a young man who has an unnatural fascination with rats. The theme song of the movie, "Ben," was sung by Michael Jackson and was essentially a love song to a rat, which in itself was weird beyond belief but was endlessly amusing to our young, malleable minds.

And that's when the idea hit.

Looking for something to bind us all together, someone suggested that we call our loose association of freshman males the "Willard Swamprats." One of our group, Rogoff, was an amateur cartoonist, and he sketched a dodgy-looking cartoon of a rat in a trench coat, wearing sunglasses, and that was it: we had an instant mascot. A few days later, my roommate Klein (some of us went by first names, others by their last) and I went to Chandler's stationery shop in Evanston and had custom t-shirts made. Klein's was dark green, and mine was orange. I still have mine, and it is pictured here.

There were seven Swamprats: Klein, Scott, Rogoff, Ron, Cliff, Danny and yours truly. We came from all over the eastern United States and brought our own idiosyncrasies with us, which we happily shared amongst the group. For a few months, almost everything we did was with the Swamprats or some subset thereof. We attended movies, lectures (well, we did have a somewhat genuine intellectual bent), went shopping, greeted the omnipresent Krishnas with "Hare Krishna, Hare Rama" when we would see them, and generally enjoyed each other's company. In many ways, it was like the cast of "Seinfeld," in that we would go off on some tangent and explore it to the point of ridiculousness, then move on to something else.

The Swamprats were a diverse group: among us we had pre-meds, pre-law students, journalism majors, radio/TV/film majors, and even a philosophy major, so honestly, we could, and did, discuss just about anything, and it was indeed a learning experience, albeit a casual one. Northwestern did not offer food on Sundays, so we were left to our own devices, and one Sunday, my fellow Rats decided that we needed to visit Askkenaz Deli on Morse Avenue in Chicago. This was only a 20 minute train ride, so it worked out perfectly. That first night that I went to Ashkenaz (there were to be many others), I had to study the menu. All the other Swamprats were raised in Jewish families, and since I was the lone Protestant, I was not familiar with many of the items offered on the menu. My fellow Rats were more than helpful: they steered me away from dishes they knew I would not like, and suggested that I stick with corned beef, which to me sounded perfect. Our waitress, a sweet older lady, presented me with an interesting beverage option:

Waitress: "So what would you like to drink, honey? Have you ever had a phosphate?"
Richard: "No, ma'am...what is a phosphate?"
Swamprat Member: "It's like syrup with fizzy water."
Waitress: "I'll tell you what, order it, you don't like it, you don't have to pay."

Perfect. I ordered my first chocolate phosphate and was both intrigued and delighted. The sandwich was one of the best I'd ever put in my mouth. Ashkenaz became a fast favorite of mine.

We went through the fall quarter, an inseparable bunch, attending movies, talking until all hours, and making runs to Howard Street for cheap beer. We all went home for the holidays and returned in January to an ice cold dorm that always took a day or so to heat back up. This Swamprats thing was quite the life, and unlike anything I had experienced in my only-child upbringing in Memphis, but it was good.

One afternoon in February, 1974, we decided to go to the movies in downtown Chicago. We wanted to see "The Exorcist," which had only been released a few days prior. Scott had a friend in town, so we took him along. I remember waiting in line outside the theater when suddenly, out of nowhere, a Chicago Police paddy wagon came down the street with its siren blaring. Within seconds, a group of policemen emerged from the van and approached an older black man. For what seemed to us no apparent reason, they began striking him with billy clubs, then threw him into the back of the paddy wagon. I was startled and upset by this, because he reminded me so much of one of one of the older men who hung around my dad's store in Memphis, carrying home groceries for the ladies. Within a minute or two, the van had driven away, and we moved on up in line to take in the trials of Father Damien Karras, but the incident we had witnessed was unsettling.

That night, we came back to the dorm and talked about the movie. Some of us had been scared out of our wits, and others had been amused, but it had made an impression on each of us. We stayed up until about 3:00 AM, imbibing and talking by the weird glow of a single desktop fluorescent light, and as we sat there, I began to notice that I didn't feel quite right.

The next morning, I awoke with a searing sore throat and headed to Searle, the student health center. Searle was always staffed with a group of physicians who looked as if they'd rather be anywhere else, but on this occasion, it made no difference to me -- I just needed a doctor. I was admitted immediately to the infirmary and shortly thereafter diagnosed with mononucleosis. I missed three weeks of classes, and even though I tried to keep up by getting notes from friends, staying in touch with my professors, and reading all the assignments, those three weeks hurt my grades, and it took a while to catch up.

When I returned to the dorm after my ordeal, the Swamprats were of course still there, but the wind had been taken out of my sails, and the group as a whole had frayed a bit as we all started to assimilate ourselves into college life. Danny had friends way up on North Campus, Scott had debate team gatherings, and others, including me, were going this way and that. We continued to get together for dinner or the occasional movie, but the Swamprats as a group had served its purpose, and I think we were all ready to move on.

In this age of social media, it's interesting to see where everyone has landed: one of the Swamprats is a public relations executive and published author, another is a teacher, and two are attorneys. One, sadly, passed away several years ago. I've seen a couple of the guys in recent years, and we still have that bond that came, strangely enough, from being a freshman Swamprat (although I would have to say, I think we've cleaned up fairly nicely).

Ashkenaz suffered a destructive fire in the 1980's and is no longer a presence on Morse Avenue, but I still think about that chocolate phosphate. I ended up paying for it.

Oh, also...we attended classes.