I believe the comic strip Doonesbury is one of the great achievements in the history of American humor and satire. The fact Garry Trudeau has been able to sustain this franchise while continuing to maintain high quality and relevance for 40+ years is nothing short of astounding. I don’t read it religiously as I once did, but thanks to the interwebs it’s pretty easy to seek out what I missed and catch-up. Trudeau always seems to get to the essence of what he’s talking about, all the while cloaking it in sophisticated humor. It’s really quite remarkable. It’s also remarkable I didn’t discover Doonesbury until it was about ten years into its run. Here’s how it happened.

I spent my first two years of college life at a small Jesuit university in northeastern Pennsylvania. It was cozy, comfy and by the end of sophomore year, deadly mind-numbing. I was shocked how small a school with 2,500 students really was. I decided to strike out to larger, if not greener, pastures. I told my parents I would not be returning to the coal mines of Pennsylvania. Instead, I explained, I intended to head west like the great pioneers of yore. Since we practically lived on the edge of the continent the bravado behind “heading west!” rang a bit hollow. You had to head west to buy a quart of milk, for crissakes. I said I wanted to go to a large school with a large campus and a large variety of female students. (I may have left off that last bit since college was, you know, about book learnin’.)

After some admittedly sketchy research I narrowed my options to University of Southern California (USC) and the University of Oklahoma (OU, not UO oddly enough). An impartial observer may wonder what possible similarities existed between these two venerable institutions. One was located in a bustling metropolis teeming with starlets and surfers while the other was stuck in the middle of Tornado Alley, nary a starlet or surfer in sight. They couldn’t be more dissimilar – or so you’d think. In fact they had plenty in common. Each:

– were far, far away from New Jersey.
– offered reasonably reputable Journalism programs, my intended new major.
– boasted large student bodies. (Population wise, not body mass wise.)
– had big, self-contained, traditional campuses.
– supported world-class athletic programs. (Very important to someone who stopped playing organized sports at the age of 12.)
– claimed no religious affiliation. (At the time I didn’t realize football was a religion.)
– were called the “University of…”
– were far, far away from New Jersey.

My first choice – indeed my dream – was to go to USC. What young American man could resist the opportunity to attend classes, spend evenings studying in the library and complete stimulating course work in the teeming intellectual Petri dish of southern California? Oh sure, it may have crossed my mind the co-eds were probably of southern California pedigree, but that was irrelevant. When I even bothered equating these fellow pursuers of academic excellence with USC I laughed it off as mere coincidence that the university’s sports teams were known as the Trojans.

However, like many dreams, the USC one died an inglorious death. The murderer: cost of tuition. Oklahoma was far more affordable. The gap was as wide as the Grand Canyon which, I thought, might have something to do with it. Someone had to pay for the effort it initially took to get past that giant earth chasm all those decades ago. It might as well be college students. What other possible explanation was there? I mean seriously, how much more expensive than Norman, Oklahoma could Los Angeles really be? Well, apparently a lot. So with a dash of melancholy and a pinch of regret about all the stirring lectures and late night intellectual skull sessions I would miss on the University Park Campus I applied and got accepted to OU.

I don’t think my folks were thrilled I was going halfway across the country, but they were gracious enough to let me make my own decision. However, switching from the relative comfort of a school 120 miles from home to one 1,500 miles away came with unforeseen financial consequences. For one I would have to take out student loans to help pay for the privilege of living in Indian Territory. Although it was far less expensive than USC, the OU experience was still more expensive than that of the Pennsylvania coal mines. Also, since my parents apparently thought I considered myself mature enough to move half a country away they also thought I was obviously ready to assume responsibility for any other expenses my new adventure would bring. Like buying a reliable car to get there and back.

You see during my two years in the coal mines I was shuttled to and fro by parents or friends or parents of friends since many of the people I knew also hailed from Jersey. In fact my closest friend also took the PA plunge and he lived within walking distance back home. So transportation had never been an issue. Now it was.

Additionally, my folks afforded a small stipend every so often to help with “incidentals.” These bequests provided enough money for those unexpected expenses, like an urgent need to invade IHOP at 3:00 a.m. For the most part I didn’t need pocket money, but it was available. The “Oklahoma Decision” changed all that. Frivolous spending money now had one source: me. (This may all sound like passive-aggressive punishment for switching schools, but it wasn’t. Not at all. The reality is my parents could only afford a certain amount of money towards my education.)

I took the fall semester of what would have been the start of my junior year to earn enough green to see me through the following summer. I bought an old, sturdy Plymouth Fury which probably got about 4 miles per gallon. I saved whatever else I could, ready to start junior year not only in January, but in a place granted statehood in the 20th century! I thought I had enough cash to cover, at a minimum, anything not associated with the school meal plan and free movie screenings.

I can’t tell you how it happened, but within a month of arriving in Norman I was cashed out. Broke. Without coin. The dreaded reality I’d have to get a part time job slapped me like it was Nicholson and I was Dunaway and we were in Chinatown.

No problem. I didn’t want to work, but no problem. I wasn’t worried. Part-time jobs at minimum wage were aplenty. Plus I was reasonably smart (despite the pesky matter of grades) and reliable. Needing money quickly fosters a sense of responsibility. I took my skinny, long-haired self to the businesses which bordered the campus and sought out work. My first choices were the local music stores (remember them?), but my east coast sensibilities didn’t jive with the Midwestern ones of the various store managers I spoke with. Or so I told myself after the third and final rejection. For god’s sakes, these people listened to and liked Genesis and Tangerine Dream and Gentle Giant! What kind of warped reality had I entered? More importantly, what chance did it give me, a sophisticated music aficionado from Jersey? I’ll tell you what chance it gave me. None. (By the way this was before Genesis became the worldwide phenomenon they did. Those Okie record peddlers may have thought it brilliant that a lamb lies down on Broadway, but I knew from first-hand experience a lamb would never lie down on Broadway. And I had spent a lot of time in New York City, so I was tuned in, man.)

I eventually landed a gig at a store which sold knick-knacks. I was the counter guy/cashier/one man show. Aside from owner there was one other employee. Her name was Denise and she was probably around 30 at the time. She did the Monday-Friday weekday thing and I did the Saturday and occasional weekday evening thing. We never worked together because the store didn’t merit more than one employee at a time. It usually didn’t merit one, but someone had to be there on the off chance a customer would pop in. Nevertheless, it was easy and provided spending money.

I soon understood Denise and I served one purpose and one purpose only – to allow the store’s owner, a good old boy named Sam, the luxury of never having to work there so he could spend his time pursuing the important work of alcohol consumption. He would come breezing in at closing and clean out the register, leaving about $30 in the till so there would be change for the inevitable crush of customers which would never arrive the next day. I also quickly realized I was stuck working football Saturdays which, in Norman, are more sacred than a year of Sundays rolled together. I believe whatever annual profits the store generated came exclusively from football Saturdays.

Actually, I managed to do a lot of reading on the job. I first read The Grapes of Wrath while tending the empty store and felt all sorts of youthful insight since I was reading it while living in Oklahoma. Sam also had material stashed behind the counter and that’s where I happened upon a volume of Doonesbury. I devoured it and asked Sam if he had any others to share. He did and I was hooked.

I lasted at the store until I had the temerity to ask for time off so I could go home for a visit. I probably shouldn’t have tracked Sam down in a bar during Happy Hour, but I was young. When he denied my request I smiled, stuck out my hand, and said, “It’s been nice working for you, Sam. I’ll see you around.”

I never did see Sam again, but I will always be grateful to him for turning me onto Doonesbury. So Sam, if you’re out there buddy, I just wanted to say “Thanks.” And you should’ve let me take that week off.

  1. misslisted says:

    I love your writing. I’m putting you on my highly coveted and incredibly prestigious blogroll (though I can’t guarantee it will get you any traffic at all).


  2. kayjai says:

    Nice post, John. I have a daughter in university now and can’t imagine letting her go 1500 miles anywhere! Imagine how brave a parent and a burgeoning journalist had to be then and how brave they would have to be now…


  3. whiteladyinthehood says:

    What an interesting post! I loved hearing about your ‘growing up’ days…I think this is why I like blogging so much – my few (blog) friends are so different from each other – I find it fascinating to read about everyones different life experiences. Everyone has a different story to tell. Loved it.


  4. So you have had a job where you were paid to read – and you quit? Tsk, Tsk.


  5. Gentle Giant! Love them. OU? Boomer Sooner, lived there when Billy Sims and Barry Switzer were all the rage. Born in Midwest City. And yes, your life could have been different so many times.


  6. Gosh, think of how many twists and turns your life coud have taken that would have directed you away from Doonesbury.


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