Monday, March 16, 2015

V5 n 22 Part 5 The John Lawler Saga

Episode V
PRELUDE TO THE SUMMER OF 1961:
“…AND THE TRUTH WILL SET YOU FREE”


All of us, I’m sure, have experienced events that have changed the direction of our lives in a dramatic and unexpected way. One such event occurred in my own life in the school year prior to the 1961 summer break.


It occurred shortly after Denis and I returned to college for our second year of studies. Before leaving Australia, we had pretty well determined that after our four years of studying and running for the Abilene Christian College Track Team on scholarship, we would go to England for two or three years to work and compete on the European track circuit. At the tender age of 20 running was our passion, and Europe was the home of track for those who were no longer running at the collegiate level.


Summer in California in 1960 was doubly good for us. First, it restored our finances ─ not that the combined $1000 we earned was a brilliant total, but it is what we started with when we first arrived in Abilene a year earlier. True, it wasn’t the potential $6000 we had salivated over when we enrolled in the Bible selling program, but it was better than the $0 that looked highly possible when we bowed out of Bible selling to try our luck elsewhere. The second benefit was the time we had for training in California. The weather was perfect for distance running, and the Mountain View Golf Course near our house was an ideal cross-country venue. After eight weeks of training, Denis, in particular, was in peak condition. I do believe, too, that the periodic shortage of food during the summer months enabled Denis to reduce his weight, which had become a problem for him in the US. Back in Australia “Skinny” was his nickname, and when his physique matched his nickname, he could gobble up those miles in very short order.


To test his fitness, Denis entered a twenty mile road race that summer. I think it was called “The Sunnyvale Open,” and the prize was a whopping trophy. The night before the race, Denis and I visited our local watering hole for a few beers. The bar was located on the El Camino Real, a major highway, and was called the “Okie” and “Arkie” bar because it was patronized by down and outs from Oklahoma and Arkansas (and of course, down and out Australians). “Cheap” was the best way to describe the place. And periodically, they would have a special Friday night when hamburgers were 10c and a beer was 25c a glass. The night before the race was one such night and, considering our financial circumstances, was not to be missed.


The next day, the first five miles of the race were painful to watch. Denis needed at least two, and possibly three, ‘pit stops’ to relieve himself of the previous night’s indulgence. The only thing not ahead of him at that point was the $45 Studebaker. But just like John Landy in the 1956 Australian Mile Championship, “Skinny” finally got mobile, caught and passed the whole field of runners, and took home the trophy!


Denis and I arrived back in Abilene in the fall of 1960 in excellent shape. The Coach, Ollie Jackson, was extremely impressed with our form and even more so with our innovative training methods, which were at variance with the American technique of training distance runners. Australians generally employed a slower tempo of running and concentrated on increasing the miles. The coach allowed us, mostly, to conduct our own training regime, and he not infrequently required the other distance runners on the team to train with us. On one such occasion in October Denis told the coach he wanted to do a twenty mile road run out past Fort Phantom Lake. I was happy to join Denis on the run, and the coach thought that all distance runners should participate. The 880 yard runners, Blackwood, Essin, and Istre, I have to say, were much less enthusiastic than Denis and I were about the pronouncement. There was no trophy to be won this time, but Denis wanted to make it a hard run. Well, he made it a hard run for me, at least. We finished together in the time of two hours and six minutes, and one yard after the finish line, I came to a complete stop. Denis, I’m sure, could have run another six miles to make the distance a full marathon.


When we got back to the college, it was approaching the time for the evening meal, which was served in the college cafeteria, known as “the Beanery.” The food wasn’t all that bad, but after a twenty mile run, something more sustaining than fried chicken and more refreshing than iced tea was merited, we thought. As we were about to enter the Beanery, Boshart intercepted us with an offer too good to refuse (Yes, the same Boshart who had transported us halfway across the United States in a VW and who had been our Oklahoma bedfellow). A carload of students, six in all, he said, were planning to drive 70 miles to a steak house known as Lowake’s, and did we want to come?
Lowake’s also had an added appeal besides its reputation for big juicy steaks. It was located in a “wet” county that allowed beer to be served with the meal. The town of Abilene, on the other hand, was located in a “dry” county that restricted the sale of alcohol to private clubs and the drinking of alcohol to those clubs and private homes. Abilene Christian College rules, however, did not allow its enrolled students to drink alcohol on its premises… or elsewhere, for that matter.


Eight of us crammed ourselves into one car and headed for Lowake’s.  As well as Boshart, Denis, and I, there were some very distinguished members of the student body included in the group. The owner and driver of the car was Al Scott, the son of one of the Trustees of ACC. Wally Adams, the son of the Dean of the school (its senior administrator) was with us, as was Bill Woodhouse, famed sprinter and the owner of the afore-mentioned VW driven to California. I’m sure the remaining two participants will be relieved that I can’t remember their names.


The steak was like pheasant to a bird dog, and the beer was served in pre-frozen mugs. Not the best beer in the world, I’ll grant you, but after a twenty mile run, that was the least of my concerns. The steaks we ate went unobserved, but not the drinking of the beer.  Someone connected to ACC saw us drinking beer… and called the school.


Paul Faulkner, ACC Dean of Men and scrutinizer of morals and good behaviour, was waiting for us when we arrived at the dormitory. Denis and I readily admitted that we had each drunk two beers at Lowake’s.  No point in pleading the Fifth Amendment or in asking the identity of our accuser or in denying that those tall frosty glasses contained anything but beer. The Dean wished us a good night and ordered us to report to the Dean of Students, Garvin Beauchamp, at 9 o’clock the following morning.  


Interesting. All six of our fellow-conspirators denied that they had taken a drink. Particularly interesting because Denis and I, the only non-believers, non-members of the Church of Christ, had admitted our guilt. But considering my previous history in dealing with the truth, who am I to cast the first stone?


The next morning, as we waited outside the entrance to the Administration Building, I noticed that these words were etched into the sandstone above the portal: “And the Truth Will Set You Free.”  
They were still there when I returned to Abilene in 1996 ─ this time to be inducted into the university’s Hall of Fame.


But did the truth set Denis and me free? In one sense, no.  But all six deniers walked free. The school’s penalty for drinking was unambiguous. Those who broke the no alcohol rule were to be sent home and suspended from ACC for the remainder of the semester. But suspension for that length of time meant a second penalty for athletes, who, because of eligibility agreements, would be automatically disqualified from competing for ACC in intervarsity events for the entire school year.


Sixteen hours prior to our visit to the Dean’s office, the coach was in raptures over our twenty mile run. I’m sure there was little doubt in his mind that we would be a major addition to the varsity track team for the next season. ACC, although a very small college, was recognized nationally as a real track powerhouse. ACC athletes and relay teams held eleven world records, and one ex-member of the track team, Bobby Morrow, won three gold medals at the Melbourne Olympics in 1956. To say the coach was now shattered was an understatement. When we saw him outside the Administration Building before we appeared before ‘Pontius Pilate,’ he said, “I know that beer is less harmful to a runner than coke, but how in the heck did you manage to let yourself be seen in a place like Lowake’s drinking beer?” The photo below was taken in 1996 on a revisit to the scene of the crime.


Rules are rules, and the prescribed penalties must be invoked when the regulations have been breached…unless there is a special problem or, perhaps, a kind of loophole? Sometimes, the regulations have to be reregulated. The meeting with the Dean of Students was deferred until the afternoon to give the administrators the time to fully consider the circumstances. I don’t know for certain, but the likelihood that we would not be returning if we were sent home, halfway around the world, must have weighed heavily on their deliberation. They may not have been aware that Denis and I didn’t have the wherewithal to pay for our fares home, but they might have guessed that even if we managed that, a trip back would have been out of the question. And of course, if we did return, there was the eligibility problem.


Late in the afternoon Dean Garvin Beauchamp summoned us to his office. For the second time we passed under the portal with the memorable quote. The school authorities, he said, would suspend us for two full weeks, and we would be required to leave the campus.  (Ah, nice. No eligibility problem.) Furthermore, he said, the school recognized that, obviously, we could not go home, so the school had arranged for us to spend the two weeks on a Texas cattle ranch some two hours’ drive north of Abilene. We were to use the time to maintain, as best we could, our scholastic efforts. Oh, and of course, we were to continue our training.


Not too bad at all. Not completely fair, mind you, considering those students who had borne the full weight of the penalty in the past. However, it is interesting to note that subsequent violators of the drinking rule pleaded the “Australian case” as a precedent and were granted a reduced sentence. Our mate Sam Gafford, for one, invoked the precedent and had his sentence reduced to two weeks. In some ways it is nice to leave your mark on the institution you attend, but perhaps not in the way Denis and I did on this occasion. (Though my friend Sam may not agree.)


The cattle ranch was some twelve miles outside the little North Texas town of Throckmorton, population 1,000 or thereabouts. The rancher, Richard Lunsford, known to everyone as “Fuzzy,” was an ex-ACC football player. He and his wife Dema lived in a very small house with their two children Raymond (5) and Lynette (3).  As well as ranching, Richard was a lay preacher and conducted services at the local Church of Christ. He was the perfect warden, you would have to think, for two Australian reprobates.


But on our arrival at the ranch, the most remarkable sight met our eyes when we stepped out of the car. The clay surface where the cars parked at the front of the house was a mosaic of Lone Star bottle tops ! Hundreds of them carpeted the entire area.  
Well, methinks, the plan must be to wean us gradually from our beer addiction. Here is the ranch house with the cars parked on the mosaic.


The explanation, as we learned later, was that the ranch was actually owned by Fuzzy’s dad, a tough, hard drinking Texan who carried his Lone Star with him wherever he went, frequently popping a top off when he arrived at the ranch. Fuzzy’s father also owned a small movie theatre in one of the small towns nearby ─ I think it was Olney. Denis and I actually saw a movie there during our visit. The theatre was fairly old, and the seating was canvas seats. Several years later it was the centrepiece in a movie based on Larry McMurtry’s novel, “The Last Picture Show.” It was a great movie, and it was awesome to watch it, knowing that you had sat in those very same canvas seats that appeared in the film.


On our first day at the ranch, Denis and I diligently applied ourselves to the study of our course work. (I should also report that the room Denis and I occupied contained two pieces of furniture: a double bed and a cot. The choice we made was obvious. But I won’t go into that again.) The ranch was primarily cattle, but wheat and alfalfa were also grown there. There were five oil wells too, but in those days the income from them was insignificant. To make the ranch a viable proposition, Richard and Dema worked from dawn till dusk. Richard would be up at four in the morning and work hard all day, and Dema was also on the job before sunup.


After our first day of relative leisure, Denis and I decided that it wasn’t right for us two healthy specimens to be sitting on their front porch, eating the Lunsford food, and thumbing our way through a few books while Dema and Richard slogged their way through the hours. Besides, there was a lot to learn working on a Texas ranch if you are city bred and find yourself with the opportunity try your hand at farming. I did have a cowboy hat and a new pair of jeans, so I volunteered to move the herd of cattle to the “lower 40” ─ provided, of course, that someone could saddle the quarter horse and give me a leg up. Richard obliged and assured me that the horse knew what to do. I only needed to sit on her, he said, and Dorothy would do what was required.
That’s me, resplendent in my cowboy hat astride “Dorothy” and ready to start the roundup. The herd that you can see in the background responded knowingly to our presence and meandered off in the right direction. Nothing to it, I thought, just sit there and say “Mush! Mush!” every so often, and it would all go to plan ─ that is, until one of the calves decided to leave the herd in a gallop. One less calf didn’t seem that important to me, but Dorothy dropped her left shoulder, wheeled 90°, and took after the stray at warp 3 speed. My response was not to tighten my knees and lean into the stride like I’d seen in the cowboy movies; instead, I dropped the reins,  my feet flew out of the stirrups, and all I could do was grab the saddle horn. Mistake. Once Dorothy realized she was in control, she abandoned the chase and headed for home base, her barn, and a feed of oats.


For those readers who have little horse sense, a quarter horse is renowned for its acceleration and speed over a quarter mile. That’s its name, after all. Perfect for rounding up cattle, but not necessarily for delivering Aussie greenhorns back to the ranch house unscathed. Dorothy was at full pelt when she passed under the clothesline. It removed my hat, leaving a permanent black line just below the crown. Much like Denis in the VW, I had no conceivable way of applying the brakes as I had no idea where they were. And, unlike Denis, I had no big truck’s rear end to slow Dorothy, so I decided to abandon the horse and take my chances on a soft landing.


As a steeplechaser, I had experienced heavy falls (as the photo at the end of this episode illustrates). So, I reasoned, hopping off a horse at full speed shouldn’t be all that different. Well, nothing broke, but it sure did shake me up, leaving me somewhat dazed and scratched. Having to walk back to the ranch and tell Fuzzy his horse was back in the barn with her saddle on and that my roundup days were over was much more embarrassing than falling off.


Denis, in the meanwhile, was given the task of ploughing a field to prepare it for planting crops. No driving license or driving experience was necessary, according to Fuzzy. He said to point the tractor down the row and keep parallel with the fence. Then, when you came to the end of the row, you hit the left-hand brake, and the tractor would do an automatic 90° left-hand turn. Simple. Especially when you consider that Denis was an absolute master at applying the brakes.


Several months later we paid the Lunsfords a social visit to say hello. It was well into the growing season, and Denis’s field was a sight to behold. What are the words of that song from “Oklahoma”?  “… and the waving wheat, it sure smells sweet when the wind comes right behind the rain!” Well, let’s just say that Fuzzy’s wheat didn’t need any wind to make it wave. Every row Denis ploughed had plenty of waves. And the corners ─ they were something special to behold. Here is Denis astride his steely mount with Raymond on his lap.
After our one day of leisure we worked every day: mending fences, building a water trough, herding the chickens, helping in the kitchen, and playing with Raymond and Lynette. On one occasion, Dema had us shift all the kitchen and dining room furniture clockwise around both rooms, looking for that perfect designer effect, but, funny thing, everything eventually ended up exactly where it had started. And there was the time that Denis displayed his culinary skills when Dema asked him to break up some ice for iced tea with the aid of an ice pick. Denis deposited a healthy chunk into a delicate water glass and, with one jab of the pick achieved the inevitable. The Lunsfords, I have to say, were truly a great family to be incarcerated with. Richard was totally at ease with the gradual disintegration of his ranch as Denis and I laboured through our assigned chores. And Dema still recalls Denis’s delicate touch with the ice pick in the kitchen.


But it wasn’t all work and no play. As well as going to the movies at the Lunsford movie theatre, we swam in the farm tanks, and, on Saturday, some of the local high school girls took us to a rodeo. Best of all, on Sunday, some of the ACC track team drove down to the ranch with their dates, and, after church, Dema and Richard provided our guests with a Barbecue lunch. When the boys went back to the college, the word spread quickly that the two Aussies were having a marvellous time riding horses, swimming, going to the movies, and having dates with the local girls. Not exactly what the school authorities had envisaged for us as punishment.  Here is a picture of our two wardens, Dema and Richard with their two children and dog.
On Tuesday morning, eight days after we had arrived at the ranch, I answered the phone to hear Dean Beauchamp’s voice. He informed me that he was sending a car to bring us back to school and that we were to be ready to leave in two hours’ time.


I could not see the fairness of this. I put it to the Dean that we had broken the school rules and that the penalty was two weeks’ suspension to be served at the Lunsford Correction Centre for wayward Australians. Eight days, I said, was not sufficient to rehabilitate us.
We needed to serve our full term. But the Dean was unmoved by my lament. Two hours later, the car arrived. And who should be driving but Al Scott, sitting in the very same car that had taken us to Lowake’s and back. He was equally as impressed as we had been with the beer bottle top mosaic and suggested that we might stop for a steak meal at a certain restaurant on the way back to ACC. No thanks, we told him. Not this time.


Now, all this verbiage was to lay the groundwork for the momentous event that changed by life and shortened my track career. When we returned to ACC, we had missed a week of lectures, so it was smart to borrow someone’s notes to recover lost ground. I was doing reasonably well in the various courses I was taking. I mostly got “B’s,” which, if not excellent, was considered a solid passing grade. What was wanted, if I was to continue at that level, was certainly NOT the notes of my track buddies, whose grades were generally at the bottom of the alphabet. I needed notes from someone whose grades were “A” level.


Two courses that needed particular attention were English and Bible. It’s worth noting that I had not completed my last two years of high school, having left when I turned 15. Consequently, I was deficient in my knowledge of grammar and literature, and, as I was raised in a non-religious family, my knowledge of the Bible was even more deficient. It was, therefore, most important that the notes I borrowed were of the highest calibre. I carefully considered my options in each of the two classes, going over in my mind the thirty or so fellow classmates.
The essential requirements were “A” level grades, neat, readable notes, and occupation of a front seat in the class. The dullards, I observed, were to be found in the back rows of the class. If the person was female, attractiveness was also desirable, but not an essential. Why was I so confident of help from my classmates? The student body, to a man (or woman), were anxious to help Denis and me maintain our scholastic eligibility for the forthcoming track season, and, I’m certain, were also hoping to help with our rehabilitation. ACC was a Christian school, after all.


The winning candidate met all the requirements for both my English and Bible classes…and was pretty, to boot. Charlotte Ann Droll provided me with her notes, and a few days later I returned them and bought her a coke in the small on campus café we called “the grill” as a thank you.
After a week or so, I telephoned her at her dormitory to ask if she would like to go out on a date. She wasn’t there, so I spoke to her roommate, Colleen, who assured me that Charlotte wouldn’t be interested. Well, so much for my rehabilitation appeal.


Come the track season, Denis and I were competing for the college with considerable success. I’d won practically all my races in the first half of the season and had picked up a number of school and meet records. But all the major championships were scheduled in the second half of the season, after the Easter break. Nearly everybody went home during the break. Not everyone did, though. There were two Australians and a few people with part-time jobs off campus who were still around. As a matter of fact, that good note taker Charlotte Ann was one of these. She worked at Hugh Bowie Jewellers in downtown Abilene. As there was little in the way of male competition, I plucked up the courage to ask Miss Droll if she would go out with me. I suggested we might see a movie, half expecting that she would answer me as her roommate had done.  Maybe it was because I had won a few races and had not besmirched my name any further since the Lowake’s episode that helped me out a bit, who knows? But for whatever reason, she said she would like to go. So it was that on April Fool’s Day in 1961, Charlotte and I went to see “101 Dalmatians” at Abilene’s best (and only) theatre, The Paramount.


Two and a half years later, we were married in the chapel at the College Church of Christ, there at the corner of the ACC campus. The minister who performed the ceremony, his first wedding, was Richard Lunsford. Denis had left for the summer, but two close members of the track team, Bud White and James Blackwood, and the notorious Don Boshart, were on hand as Best Man and Groomsmen to see to it that I did not cut and make a run for it at the last moment.


Ten years after our wedding, Charlotte and I and our two children, Donna and Todd, visited the Lunsfords on their ranch near Olney. I couldn’t help asking Fuzzy a question that I had only recently entertained: whether or not he was ever ordained or authorized to perform weddings. After all, he was only a lay preacher when he married us, and it was his first wedding as a celebrant.  Of course, I wasn’t really worried, but I thought I should know for sure. Fuzzy’s response was most reassuring. He said, in his broad Texas drawl, “Well, John, if Charlotte and you ‘ain’t,’ there’s hundreds like you now. I wouldn’t worry about it.” That was good enough for me. No need to worry any further.


So there you have it. Two glasses of beer, and my whole life had been changed. What if Denis and I hadn’t been seen at Lowake’s? Or what if we had denied the allegations and had been set free? No visit to the Lunsford ranch…no need to borrow notes…no date to see “101 Dalmatians.”  And more than likely Denis and I would have spent a year or two gallivanting around Europe. Except for the need to borrow those notes, the prospect of Charlotte’s getting together with me was remote in the extreme. We moved in different circles and had different interests. I  never did know who saw us boys at Lowake’s that fateful night and called the school. At the time, my attitude toward him or her was anything but Christian. But as Charlotte and I approach our 47th wedding anniversary, I can only say, “God bless whoever it was!”   I must now confess that telling the truth to the Dean of Men in our room at the dorm did set me free to pursue a more delightful and rewarding life than I could ever have thought possible.


Still have to wonder, though, what it would have been like to compete for two years on the European track circuit with Denis. Well… maybe I wouldn’t have been up to the standard required. That’s a thought!
Have another look at the picture on the next page and judge for yourself.


I'm the one that's 'In'.

John Lawler neglects to mention he won the NCAA steeplechase championship in 1961. ed.

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