Sunday, March 1, 2015

V.5 N.15 Part 1 A Literary Find, John Lawler's Memoirs


Those of you who were around in the late 1950s and early 1960s and were familiar with USA college track and field will recall the influx of Australian talent into the southwestern college scene.  I'm not sure who was the first one to come up from down south but Al Lawrence the 10,000 meter bronze medalist at the Melbourne Olympics may have been the first.   He appeared at the University of Houston and won the NCAA cross country championship in 1959.   Soon there were others on the scene at Houston including Herb Elliot's little brother  Laurie, Barrie Almond,   Pat Clohessy, and Geoff Walker all solid middle distance and distance runners.  Clohessy and Walker both scored well at the national level in the NCAA and AAU meets.  The Abiliene Christian came up with John Lawler who won the NCAA steeplechase in 1961, and Colin Ridgeway a two time Olympian high jumper who went to Lamar Tech and became Australia's first 7 foot high jumper.  Ridgeway can also claim fame as the first Aussie to play in the NFL as a punter.  He lasted three games with the Dallas Cowboys in 1965, but the NFL was not ready for that type of kicking, although other Aussies have since adapted to American rules, including Ohio State's punter of recent years.  Alex Henderson at Arizona State was another very good Aussie miler , two miler who won the deuce at Drake Relays one year.  When I ran at the U. of Oklahoma,  Jack Daniels was coaching at Oklahoma City University and they had several Aussies including George Scott who looked about 40 years old but really was about 26.   These guys set the college distance world on its ear for a few years, and coaches were all complaining that Johnny Morris the Houston coach was taking advantage of the system by recruiting older runners.  Actually these guys stimulated American runners to step up their game to compete with the lads.   Before the NCAA could make a rule against the Aussies coming to the states,  the Aussie Athletic heirarchy beat them to it by banning the exporting of their athletes to America.  They were told that if they left Australia to run at universities in America, they could forget about running in Australia when they came home.   In reality it may not have been that severe of a sanction, the pipeline dried up after that.   The rule is no longer in place, and if you google the subject you can find sites that give  Australian athletes information on how to get a scholarship to the States again.

Anyway to get to the subject of this posting, a few years ago I was in correspondence with Jerry Dyes about his days at Abiliene Christian as one of the all time great all rounders in American track history.  He won the javelin at Kansas, Texas and Drake all in one year, and on another occasion won the javelin at Penn Relays and also ran on their winning 4x100 team still wearing his javelin boots.   Somehow John Lawler's name came up and Jerry gave me John's email address.   I corresponded with John at least three years ago and asked him about those days and how all those guys fared while here in America.  He sent me several chapters of his memories of those times, and I found them such good reading and funny to boot that I asked if we could print them on this blog.  John was reluctant at the time, but I recently got back in touch with John through Al Lawrence, and John graciously sent me 100 pages of those memories and permission to put them on the blog.  As you will see, life was not a total bed of roses.  These guys were on their own to support themselves over the summer, and that led to many adventures all over America.    John refers to himself as a 72 year old in these, so I assume they were written in 2011.    So this is what you will be seeing over the next month or so, as they would be too much to put on one posting.  Thank you so much John for allowing these stories to be read.       George Brose






SUMMERTIME CHRONICLES
1960 – 1963


The Life and Times of John W. Lawler
As a College Undergraduate
At Abilene Christian College


Abilene, Texas

United States of America


INTRODUCTION

Readers of the Summertime Chronicles may well wonder how a 72 year old man can recall so vividly events that occurred over half a century ago. No, I am not a person with exceptional powers of recall. In fact, I often live the cliché of walking into a room to do something or get something, only to stand there with a puzzled look on my face. (Sound familiar to all you ‘three-score-and-tenners’??)

What enables me to relive and describe events of the distant past is a secret source: a trove of over 200 aerogrammes and letters that I wrote in my youth, largely to my parents, but some to my wife-to-be. I discovered most of them about a decade ago in a shoebox in my mother’s cupboard after she died. I had forgotten that for the years I was in the States I wrote one letter each week describing anything of significance that had happened to me. When you think that I left for Abilene on the 29th of August in 1959 with Denis Moore and returned exactly six years later, on the 29th of August in 1965, minus Denis, but with Charlotte, it means that there were a lot of letters to read. I read every one of them chronologically, one a night. What I found intriguing was that, as I would be reading about some long-forgotten event I had recorded, gradually, all the other surrounding memories were triggered. (Of course, as you would guess, there were events I did not include in the letters, but such events are the ones imprinted indelibly on one’s mind.) I began to recall what, how, and when everything happened. And I decided I’d better write everything down before it vanished altogether.

Some readers may think that our summers in the States, with and without my mate Denis, were too fantastic to be believed. But all the events I’ve written about did occur. I may be looking through a lens that gives the times a bit more flair or colour than some of you oldies remember, but for each episode so far, there has been a response from at least one of you who affirms that he or she remembers it too…sometimes, with bells on.

I’ve written these chronicles primarily for my four granddaughters:
Amy (12), Anna (10), Becky (10), and Amanda (8). Although the tales and stories relate to the four years Denis and I spent at Abilene Christian College in Texas as undergraduates from the autumn of 1959 to the summer of 1963, the focus of the sagas is on the summertime periods, when schools and universities are in recess for three months and the acquisition of money, for us, became an absolute necessity. Unfortunately, our summertime frolics were never overly rewarding in the restoration of our depleted funds, but they were rich in experiences and excitement ─ some of which we would happily have avoided.

It is my sincere wish that what I have written will reveal for the three ‘A’s and the one ‘B’ some important lessons as they experience life, and, very importantly, that they experience the humour of it all. It’s there to be had!

1960 SUMMERTIME
Episode I: SUMMERTIME, AND THE LIVING IS EASY

Well, Porgy and Bess might have thought that “summertime” was the easy life, but my first summer in the US (1960) was best sung to the refrain “it ain’t necessarily so.” How does this resonate with you for a summer experience:

  • Selling Bibles door-to-door in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma,
  • transporting a VW from Texas to California (non-stop)
  • stuffing envelopes for a journal in Palo Alto, California
  • picking fruit with Mexican illegals in San Jose, California
  • selling paint in a hardware store in Palo Alto, California,
  • and a stint in the Marines at the Quantico Training Base.


All these occurred in the space of ten weeks ─ except for my time in the Marines, which lasted for a little over one year.

In September of 1959 Denis, my Australian sidekick and roommate for four years at college, and I arrived in the United States with a grand total of one thousand U.S. dollars, or thereabouts. That’s a thousand dollars combined, not each. We shared most things during our four year pursuit of higher learning. Money was just a part of it. A thousand dollars is not a lot of money, but in 1959 you could get by for a whole year with that much if you were on a full scholarship. Education, accommodation, and food were all provided during the school term, and your only out of pocket expenses were clothing, entertainment, and the occasional ale. Hard to believe, I know, but Abilene Christian College, the school of our choice, did not provide the special kind of liquid refreshment best suited to Australian long distance runners.

Living was easy during the school year, but come summer, we were on our own. The thousand dollars we started with was largely depleted when the school year ended, and we were down to pocket change. To feed ourselves and to pay for accommodation over the summer, we’d need to find a job. And of course, we also needed to build up a reserve of cash to carry us through the next school year ─ preferably, a bit more than the thousand we started with.

But we weren’t worried. We heard that some of our school friends made up to three thousand dollars selling Bibles door-to-door during the summer months. As we considered the prospect of selling Bibles, we were told that a knowledge of your product was helpful, but not essential. Anyway, the marketing company for these Bibles conducted a week long training course that provided their prospective salesmen with the various techniques needed to access the homes and demonstrate the worth of their $40 family Bibles. You have to understand that these Bibles were not of the ‘el cheapo’ variety. In 1960 any Bible selling for that princely sum was considered an upmarket item.

In addition to the sales training the marketing company provided each salesman with a sample bag and assigned an exclusive marketing area for the entire summer to each person or sales team. Denis and I enrolled for the course and completed the one week of training with, well, if not distinction, then with what was considered to be sufficient knowledge to take the Bible (physically, that is) through the length and breadth of our assigned area: Broken Arrow, Oklahoma. One last piece of advice we were given was to make contact with the local church minister in the assigned territory as soon as we arrived as they could often be helpful in opening doors before the selling began. The college we attended was endowed by the Church of Christ, a very conservative, evangelical denomination. As Broken Arrow was considered a strong Church of Christ community, our strategy was pretty well defined: to knock on the rectory door of the largest C of C in town.

For me there was one small complication before I could commence accumulating wealth. The coach of the track team had entered me in the final track meet of the season in Houston, Texas, a meet that took place the week we were to start our selling. 


It was a championship event, and the attached photographic evidence records that I was beaten into second place, but not by much. If there had been a second frame it would show that I came to a complete stop one stride later and turned north to Oklahoma.

Denis wasn’t required to complete, so he, his sample bag, and his high hopes were headed straight for Broken Arrow a full week ahead of me. His first task was to find accommodation for the two of us, get in a stock of food, and then to make contact with the Church of Christ minister. Although our funds were very low, we reasoned that a couple of quick sales would pay for bed and board. We had agreed that our requirements in this regard were minimal, but when I saw what Denis had rented on a daily basis, I had to redefine the word. There was one room, one bed (thankfully, a double), and no additional furniture of any kind.

Denis had decided, as well, that food was a non-essential item, so there wasn’t any.

I asked what I thought of as the relevant questions:
  1. Have you made contact with the C of C minister?
  2. How many doors have you knocked? And
  3. How many Bibles have you sold?

The answers were “Yes.” “None.” and “None.” The problem, Denis explained, was that the local C of C minister happened to be an ex-soldier who had fought in the Second World War and who was stationed for a time in Australia. During that time he had become very fond of Australian beer. The Church of Christ prohibited the drinking of beer (as both Denis and I were to have underlined to us in a very personal way during the following university term.). As a Church of Christ minister, Denis’ new friend had no one with whom to share his enjoyment of an occasional light ale ─ that is, until Denis turned up on his doorstep. Every day, Denis said, the minister had taken him (and a six-pack of Coors) out to the lake to teach him to water ski. Denis assured me that I would really like the minister and asked me if I had brought my swimmers, as the three of us were going water skiing again the next day.

We didn’t knock on many doors during our time there. (None.) And that is also how many family Bibles we sold. I did, on one occasion, manage a shaky one-ski effort on the lake. And Denis was able to stand up on his skis for a few seconds at least twice. The picture below is of our Broken Arrow ski instructor, Mr. Thompson, and Denis.
Within three days of my arrival in Broken Arrow we wrapped up our sample bags, mailed them to the Bible sales company, and started looking for a more promising career. I should acknowledge here that my brief experience as a Bible salesman never appeared on my curriculum vitae.
About the time we conceded defeat…well, succumbed without a fight is, perhaps more apt, we learned that one of our university friends, Don Boshart, was about to embark upon a cross-country drive from Texas to California in a VW. The owner of the Volkswagen, Bill Woodhouse, was competing in the U. S. Olympic trials at Stamford University. Bill wanted his car to be there after the trials but did not relish the thought of the long drive before competing there. Don wanted to see the trials, so he offered to do the transporting. Denis and I had heard independently that there was big money to be made in California picking fruit, and that the season was about to commence. We knew that Mexicans were preferred by orchardists as pickers, but I ask you, was there ever a Mexican who could outpick an Australian?


Next episode: “Go West, Young Man.” The drive to California.



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