Creative nonfiction from Doug Hawley

I Won’t Take Manhattan

Not that Manhattan, the Big Apple, Bright Lights Big City, this is the little apple, dim lights, little city in Kansas.

I ended up there after my third year of a math Ph.D. program at the University of Oregon in Eugene.  I didn’t care for Eugene, and I was a poor Ph.D. candidate.   When not studying, I spent my time drinking, consuming a controlled substance, getting fat and hanging out with other unmarried male graduate students.  It was an unpleasant life of my own making.

My thesis advisor decided to take a job at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas.  I didn’t think that anyone else in the department would take me as a student, so I decided to go with him despite the Kansas horror stories.  Oregon has mountains, trees, lakes and canyons, but Kansas not so much.  Another four of his students also followed him.

After considering my transportation options, I decided to drive out in my 1960 Impala with the greasy brake linings.  At that time, it was my longest drive, and the farthest I’d ever been from home, except for one trip to the Big Apple.  I drove from first thing in the morning until too tired to drive; only stopping for restrooms, gas and food.  The Impala got a little over ten miles per gallon, but gas was cheap.  After driving through the Rockies, I got into Kansas State and almost fainted from the air conditioning after getting overheated in the Kansas summer.

Before I left Oregon I was advised to get a room with a Manhattan widow in advance.  That sounded horrible, so I thought that I’d just get an apartment when I got there.  Little did I know.  Nearby Ft. Riley was overflowing from the Viet Nam war, and a lot of the soldiers had taken up housing in Manhattan.   As a result, apartments were unavailable.  The first night I stayed in a place I found with an unlocked door.  Next I interviewed with a Women’s Christian Temperance Union woman.  That did not end well at all.  Fortunately, the local hotel only charged a few dollars a day, so I was able to stay there for a week or so.   When I did get an apartment, I had a headache all the time.  I didn’t find out until I moved out that it’d been caused by a gas leak.  I got a good apartment in the last weeks of my stay in Kansas, thanks to a good, and incidentally, beautiful friend.

My life consisted of doing my teaching assistant job poorly, going to Fluid Hydraulics which was beer drinking and listening to “Hush” and “Magic Carpet Ride” on the Jukebox, working on the thesis suggested by my advisor – which I don’t understand anymore – and hanging out with people that we met.  Living on hamburgers, beer and no exercise was not at all good for me.  Another of the Oregon guys played handball with me and I was wiped out in minutes.

The faculty had three factions.  The ringmaster was the department head.  He was about six and a half feet tall with a moustache a foot wide.  He had an antique Rolls Royce with an auxiliary crank start.  Both he and his wife had Ph.D.s from the University of Oregon.  He recruited my adviser and other research mathematicians in a move to get more prestige for KSU.   They were the second group.  The last batch consisted of old line teachers who didn’t like changing text books, because they had to rework the exercises.   

I only had a couple of long excursions during the year.  My advisor had met and married an English woman that he met in Sweden.  He was legally blind and she couldn’t drive so I was recruited to drive them and her two children back to Oregon over Christmas break.  All the way across the country we had a blizzard in front of us.  The first day out, the snow was so heavy that I couldn’t tell where the road was.  I tried to drive between the telephone poles on either side of the road.  As bad luck would have it, they weren’t equally distant from the sides of the road, so I drove off the road.  We were towed into the nearest town which had one available room.  I slept with the kids.  One wet the bed and I still didn’t want to get up.  The horrors continued all the way home.  In Baker Oregon or maybe LaGrande, the car went straight when the road curved.  We were saved by ending up unscathed on a side street.  Back home in Portland things did not improve.  The girl that I had been seeing was completely cold.  Later my sister, who had set us up, suggested that she was interested in marriage.  I couldn’t see being married to her, so I was not hugely disappointed.

The other trip was to a math meeting in New Orleans.  Driving across Missouri we saw a huge number of vehicles that had gone off the road from the wintery conditions.  We white knuckled for hundreds of miles.  My attempts to get a post-Ph.D. job offer there were futile and I lost the KSU credit card.  At that time the US had been pouring money into math and science because of the perceived gap with the Soviet Union.  With all of us coming out of Ph.D. programs, the money for hiring had been diverted to the war in Viet Nam.

The town literally illustrated a common phrase.  There was an “other side of the tracks”.  The rail road that ran through town had a poor side with a small black population.

When we arrived, the town and college were quite conservative.  We were forced to swear allegiance to Kansas to be teaching assistants.  Rather than full service bars, there were bottle clubs where one bought bottles which were stored for you.  We went on liquor runs to the more liberal and cheaper Missouri, but the legal consequences of being caught with out of state liquor would have been serious.  Wandering through campus, I felt like I was in some 50s movie when I heard I guy telling a friend now that his girlfriend was pinned, she couldn’t talk to other guys.  I felt that many of the undergraduates and fellow math grad students thought that we Oregonians were some kind of exotic beasts.

In the short time that we were there, the atmosphere changed.  Clothing and hair started to resemble what we were used to on the West Coast.  There was a black student movement.  The ROTC building was burned down, taking the music department with it.  Because it was in the middle of the cold Kansas winter, which was frequently below zero, the remains became an ice sculpture for weeks.  Even though I was and am anti-war, it was doubly disturbing since I had gone through the ROTC destruction at the University of Oregon before coming to Kansas.  In both cases, much more than the ROTC was destroyed.

I have no taste for the finer things, but the fact that the Chinese restaurant served Lipton tea was a tipoff that I was in the hinterlands.  We did get a little exposure to the arts in Kansas City.

I had been warned that I would be miserable in Kansas, but I was already miserable in Eugene.  It made me little difference that the best scenery Manhattan had to offer was Tuttle Reservoir, locally known as Tuttle Puddle, formed by a flood control dam which had drowned four small towns.  The most entertaining event during my time there was a battle between a student playing the jukebox and old alumni unplugging the jukebox.  I had no problem staying the nine months, but the girlfriend of one of the Oregon grad students decamped and returned to Oregon.

As in Oregon, my romantic life went nowhere.  No one that interested me returned the interest.  A receptionist dropped a hint, but she was physically unappealing.  A fellow grad student had a crush on me, but I behaved badly and ignored her when something better came along.

I returned to Kansas once after I got out.  That gave a chance to sample the whole spectrum of Manhattan weather – snow, cold, humid, hot and potential tornado.  A couple of good math students ended up doing stints there, proving just how bad the job market was at that time.  The cliché was that there were hundreds of math jobs at that time – but only for black female computer scientists.