David Hay graduated with a Bachelor's degree in philosophy from Claremont Men's College (now Claremont McKenna College)
in Southern California in 1969. Times were different then, but so was he -- sort of . . .
Thirty-three years after graduating from Claremont Men's College, I have become a systems consultant based in Houston, Texas. Life has been good to me, and I have acquired all manner of good stories about my adventures in various parts of the world. I have many fond memories of my childhood in Grand Junction, Colorado, my young adulthood in New York City, and all the years that followed. It's funny, though. The period in my life that I spent in Claremont in the late 1960's has always been a kind of black hole, and I never understood why. It was a very tumultuous time to be sure, but I had good times and learned a lot, so there was no reason to block it out. Still there was an emotional thing there I couldn't put my finger on. I confess I found myself trying to pretend it never happened.
Last year I was working on a project in Bakersfield, and at one point I went to a conference in Anaheim. This gave me the unusual experience of actually driving to a conference (instead of flying)! I took the opportunity to circle around and pay Claremont a visit. I had not been there for over ten years. It was truly an eye-opening encounter.
When I walked around that campus nowas a reasonably secure adultI think I may have finally figured it out. By doing a mental flip-flop I could put myself in the mental state I was in when I was twenty. Now I remembered what it was really likeand I remembered why I didn't want to remember. I was so lost! I had been picked up and tossed into a mental washing machine for four years, and I was never really quite able to tell which end was up. I was completely overwhelmed.
You see, I had grown up in Grand Junction, a peaceful little town in western Coloradohundreds of miles from any city of any kind. I was a regular kid, going to school, building stuff in the back yard, and basically enjoying life. We knew about the outside world. We saw it portrayed in movies and on television. We read about it in books. I even had friends who'd been there. But it had nothing to do with us. This small town was the whole world to us, and for all I knew I would spend the rest of my life there.
Then one beautiful September afternoon, I took my first airplane ride. Three hours later, I found myselfalonein the middle of Los Angeles International Airportat 5:00 o'clock on a Friday afternoontrying to find my way to college.
Pretty much the rest of my life has been spent recovering from that afternoon.
I started life in Southern California by spending hours and hours (and hours!) on a bus. I knew that Claremont was 30 miles east of Los Angeles (having memorized the catalogue), but where I came from, that meant that you would leave Los Angeles, go 30 miles, and there it would be. What I didn't know was that greater Los Angeles actually extended for 30 miles beyond Claremont! After what seemed like many weeks meandering through the Los Angeles morass, suddenly, there was the exit for Indian Hill Boulevard!
I had read about the millions of cars that Detroit turned out every week. I just didn't expect to see all of them in one afternoon!
Virtually everything I grew up to understand and believe was turned on its head when I arrived in Southern California. Suddenly the whole world was there, and it was real! But it was all different from what it was supposed to be. The values I grew up with were out the window.
Where I grew up there is basically desert. If people are clever enough and resourceful enough, they can scrape off little pieces of land to live on. In Southern California there is basically suburb. If people are clever enough and resourceful enough, they can scrape off little pieces of land for parks. In Colorado, the air was clear and brisk. The sky was always brilliant blue. In Claremont the air smelled funny. And the sky was a horrible, depressing, muddy gray-brown. That Mount Baldy should be only a few miles away, but disappear regularlythat was very sad.
And suddenly I was not the "brain" of the school. Not only was everyone smarter than I was, but they all knew about stuff I never heard of! (What the hell is "existentialism" anyway?). And they all came from real places like Cleveland and St. Louis and Los Angelesinstead of some Podunk town featured in a television sitcom at that time named "Petticoat Junction".
Our family had no money. It wasn't until many years later that I learned I had grown up poor. I never knew that when I was a kid. I thought we were just broke. The good news was that this qualified me for a generous scholarship from Claremont, which was the only thing that allowed me to be there. But it also meant that to be suddenly surrounded by wealthy people was something of a shock. Actually, I suppose now that they were not so much wealthy as "upper middle class". These were the people I had been reading about in Life magazine: They were raised with all the conveniences and appliances of post-war American affluenceand they had known none of the struggles that I had. There was a major cultural gap, here. This was compounded by the fact that Southern California had an aura of self-indulgenceand alienationthat I found disturbing indeed.
And of course my timing was perfect. Not only had my world been turned on its head, but during the second half of the 1960's the rest of the world was being turned on its head as well. The country as a whole was falling apart. I had been raised a good Republican and believed that it was important to be politically active. (I have a picture of myself in high school shaking hands with Barry Goldwater.) It turned out, however, that my good Republican conservatism wasn't quite adequate to deal with everything that was going on out in the world. Suddenly I discovered poverty. And the Vietnam war. Before I knew it, I had become a liberal Democrat.
One of my great frustrations in high school was that I couldn't get anyone else interested in politics. In California, on the other hand, everyone was interested in politics. I discovered, however, that many of those people who were supposedly politically active (on both sides) were in fact real bozos. This disturbed me, since I had this silly notion of an informed citizenry rationally discussing issues. There wasn't a lot of that going on.
For all my being lost and overwhelmed, it did begin to occur to me that maybe this meant that the "real world" was available to me. Whew! That was a lot to absorb. To suddenly be in the middle of things I had only heard about was incredible! I once spent an afternoon discussing politics with Dr. Spock. I got to go to a party in Beverly Hills, where I schmoozed with Dick Van Dyke. I went to a conference at the Hotel Coronado in San Diego (where they filmed "Some Like it Hot") and met black author James Baldwin. I met six of Dr. Spock's friends who were in the national news at that time as they were being prosecuted for draft evasion.
I was in the Ambassador Hotel, waiting for him to speak, when Bobby Kennedy was shot.
The problem was that I was being introduced to this incredibly exciting and thrilling world without a clue as to what I would do in it. My parents were always big on how I should go to college. They were just a little fuzzy about what would happen after that.
You should understand, by the way, that I have never been one to let being traumatized get in the way of my having a good time. And have a good time I did. It was in part quite wonderful and exciting! I had some very good friends and we did a lot. I even managed to get rides into Los Angeles and saw some of the city itself. I was a big fan of the beach.
And then there were the girls. (I know. These days we must call them "women". But back then, when I was a boy, they were girls to me.) It was funny: As I walked around campus this time, many of the places I saw reminded me of specific girls I had known. I had been incredibly shy and insecure. Well, insecure, at least. I now realize that several of those really pretty ones I met had actually been willing to go out with me! At the time I thought they were just being kind. In each case, though, I typically got so flustered that I botched the whole encounter.
The fact of the matter (I now realize it sure didn't feel like it then) is that I didn't really have any trouble meeting girls and getting them to spend time with me. (There was a fellow in my dorm who kept a running tally on the number of successive times he'd been turned down for a date. I think his record was 55. I have to assume that he was worse off than me.) I even had some very nice experiences: There was, for example, that cozy ride in the back seat of a Plymouth withoh, what was her name?returning from a movie in Westwood. And that evening with a perfectly lovely young lady, sitting by the fountain in the moonlight in Mexicali. (But enough of that. This isn't that kind of essay.)
The problem was that I didn't really know what to do with girls. I never did figure out how to have a girlfriend or any kind of serious relationship. Ok, I did get engaged a couple of times. And I did get married the day before I graduated. But that has nothing to do with how I perceived things.
Mostly I just felt like a dork.
. . .
As I walked around campus this time I could now recall all those chaotic emotions that gave me reason to forget my Claremont years. I discovered something else, howeverthat may be more important.
For many years I was under the impression that experiences like Claremont and those that followed changed me. Boy am I different! I am more sophisticated, wise, charming, etc. than I ever was before!
A few years ago, though, I discovered something very sobering: I am exactly the same person I was when I was a kid in Grand Junction. Who I ammy psyche, my essencenone of this has changed. For that matter, it turns out that I'm not really all that sophisticated. I am now basically a 12-year old who's traveled a lot.
What was significant about discovering this was also realizing that the important thing about my experiences was not how they had changed me. It was rather how I had reacted to them. How did I respond? What did I do? Was I honest? Was I honorable? Did I take responsibility for my actions? Did I greet these experiences with humor and good cheer? It is these things that turn out to be the measure of a life.
And as I now remembered my Claremont years, I realized that what I did at Claremont wasn't all that shabby. I even made some reasonably good decisions. Yes, it would be nice to have learned a bit more German or Physics or Calculus. And yes, there were a few joints, and I did learn what a hangover was, but I did not retreat to drugs or alcohol.
It turns out that all those values I thought I had chucked when I arrived in Claremont in fact stuck around. They're with me to this day. There were several occasions where I simply could not do what was expected of me by the people around me. I had to play the outcast. I now realize why.
Through it all, I think I faced it and took it on in good spirit. I suppose the key to success in times of travail is to simply get through each day. This I did pretty well. During those years I was editor of the yearbook and stage manager, lost my virginity, and tried to organize a tutoring program in Watts. I wasn't exactly brilliant at any of those ventures, but I did try, and you only grow up once. There was always something going on sufficiently engrossing that I never really had a chance to feel sorry for myself.
. . .
As I think about the decisions I made in Claremont and afterward, it would be lovely to imagine that in each case it was a rational evaluation of alternativeswherein I selected the alternative indicated by that evaluation. Alas, I cannot say that. In each case, I pretty much blundered into my decision. I usually took the path of least resistance, which for me was mostly just the path that looked the most interesting.
I certainly can't explain, for example, how I wound up at Claremont in the first place. My senior year in High School, President George Benson's letter in the front of the catalogue struck a chord with me and I decided I wanted to go. I couldn't have told you why. I didn't really know anything about the place, except that it had a "good academic reputation"whatever that meant. I didn't want to follow my older brother to Stanford. I'd followed him all my life. My mother disparaged the East Coast. So, this seemed like a reasonable path. I knew I was supposed to go to college, and I accepted that on faith. There was no bravery in leaving home. It just seemed like the thing to do.
When I got to Claremont and realized what I had let myself in for (I believe my comment was something like "oh, dear!" but I'm pretty sure it wasn't those words), it was too late. I was stuck. All I could do was follow the trail and see where it led.
Four years later, apparently I had adjusted. I actually found myself willing to head into the unknown again, starting my career in New York City, of all places. As I said, the day before graduation I got married. The day after graduation, my new bride and I began hitch-hiking across the country to settle in New York City's Lower East Side. In 1969, it didn't seem at all remarkable that I should arrive in New York to start my career with no money, no job, no experience, and a degree in philosophy! Wasn't that how everyone did it?
Was I able to do that because I had already looked into the maw of the unknown and lived and decided nothing could touch me any more? Was it because I had finally achieved a degree of self-confidence? Who knows?
Going to Claremont. Getting married. Moving to New York. Getting divorced. Traveling "behind the Iron Curtain". Getting married.
In each case, I made my decision the way I did because I couldn't see any alternatives to evaluate. Was I making the worst mistake in my life? Of course that was possible. But my life led in that direction and I didn't see any other choice.
This in spite of the fact that, in each case, any objective observer would have said the choice I made was the most bizarre one imaginable.
(Traveling behind the Iron Curtain, you say? Well, you see, a few years after my first wife and I had gone our separate ways, I had a chance to travel in Eastern Europe. In 1973, the Cold War was still on and normal people simply didn't didn't do that. But by then I had acquired a policy: If someone would pay me to go somewhere I've never been, I would go. It didn't matter where it was. New York University, offered to pay me to go to Poland, so I went. This turned out to be the most incredible experience of my life! That part of the world turned out to be unlike anything the propaganda that we grew up with would lead you to believe. The people I met were not "the enemy". This was without question the friendliest part of the world I had ever seen! After a week and then a month in Warsaw, I spent a month hitch-hiking (yes, hitch-hiking!) around Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Bulgaria. And just to make the whole experience even more mind-boggling, the following year I found myself concluding that the absolutely most reasonable, obvious next thing I should do with my life was to spend a month's salary, go half-way around the world, and marry a girl I met in Warsaw the previous summer. (Altogether, she and I had spent exactly three weeks together.) Why not? It wasn't as though I could live without her.)
So, can I take credit for the wisdom of my choices in Claremont and after? I fear not. But I can at least say that they worked out well. (That Polish girl, Jola, and I have been married for 28 years, now.) Without the experience of being thrust into the alien world of Southern California and the experience of (at least sort of ) successfully dealing with it, would I have been so bold in my later decisions? I wonder.
I meet cautious people all the time. People who wouldn't dream of stepping outside the lives they know. To do so is just unthinkable. This is apparently a normal human reaction to life.
I suppose it has to do with how you deal with the walls you grew up with. In your head there are any number of boundaries. Things that people simply "don't do". Arriving in Southern California shoved me through my first wallalbeit involuntarily. But from then on, each wall I always thought was insurmountable turned out not to be non-existent. Over the years I discovered that none of them were there! Every single wall I have ever known, ostensibly preventing me from doing something I wanted to do, was in my own imagination.
Claremont taught me that. This I should remember.
I have figured out that I may have been mistaken when I assumed back in those years that I was the only person on the planet who was completely out of his depthcompletely without a clue as to what he was about and what he should do next. At the time, it appeared to me that all of my classmates were
totally calm and collectedknowing exactly what they were doing.
Now, it turns out that this may not have been so.
It just seemed like it.
Had I gone to college closer to homeThe University of Colorado, for example, or Colorado Collegewould things have been different? I wouldn't have had the dramatic change. The climate would have been more familiar.
But if my high school friends' experiences are any indication, perhaps not. No matter where we come from, or where we go to college, we all have to deal with the anxiety of growing up and trying to figure out what to do next. As it turns out, my friend at Colorado College was far more unhappy than I ever was. Why is that?
One thing I discovered early in my Claremont years: If you are traumatized, revel in it! Make a big deal out of it. Have fun with it. Eventually, you discover that it's not really so terrible. I was happy to represent myself as being a lost soul from a hick town, partly to get sympathy, but mostly because it made a good story. I suppose that's the secret. You can tame trauma by looking it square in the eye and turning it into a good story. It eases the wounds.
This was where I learned the truth that nothing can happen to you so horrible that you can't at least say, "Man what a great story this is going to make"
Perhaps there is reason to remember my Claremont experience, after all. It led me to a quite wonderful life indeed.
Thank you, Claremont.