How the 60s Ended (Home)
  NOVEL EXCERPTS by Jerry Ratch
   Whitebread College
 Red, White and Blue Pepsi Van
 I Think I’m in Love With Mary Jo
 The San Francisco Poetry Wars
 Angel With a Number
  About the Author  |  Disclaimer  |  |  Double Fiction Issue  

Whitebread College

My name is Philip Janov, but you can just call me Janov. That’s how they always used to do it around Chicago. I came out to San Francisco in a Pepsi van that was red, white, and blue. We drove that van out of the great Midwest, our hungry souls looking for life at the edge of the continent. And to escape the enormous and vacant soul that inhabited the White House in the form of King Richard Nixon, and that also inhabited and ate away at the enormous bloated body of Midwestern mentality that voted this man into office. How could they have done that? we asked. So we fled to California, hoping to find solace and comfort among like souls who lived and breathed poetry from their every pore, day upon living day and night after night. We thought we would be saved from the savages who had nearly throttled us with their flat and even and straight-forward minds and hearts. The ultimate chicken pot-pie of everything that was there.

In those days nearly everyone ate poetry for lunch. It was considered essential for your good up-bringing and mental health. We would skip meals in order to satisfy our word hunger. To hell with dirty politics and meaningless wars on other continents! It was enough to feed upon the poetic battles of the moment, and who wrote what and who read what at last night’s reading at the bookstores and cafés, and who went home with whom after the inevitable late night parties that followed. It was the beginning of the end, and we all lived as if we knew it was going to end any minute, which was why we found it so hard to keep it while we had it. It was that lust for life that was crucial to the San Francisco Poetry Wars. It has been said of us: For a small glassful of laughter we would kill. Yes, kill. And it was all true. Every word of it delicious and dirty and true.

What follows is how I found them, my characters. And myself among them. All of us, equally lost in the Midwest. This was how we came to occupy ourselves.


“Write it, Bancroft!” Greg Penn was yelling from under the kitchen table. “Exactly as I said it. Go ahead and put it on the sucker’s paper, will you? Chrissakes, just write it! Write it!”

Steve Bancroft was holding his head in his hands with his elbows on the table, where there were stacks of student papers scattered in disorderly piles. “Okay, what?” he asked. “What? Go ahead and repeat it, would you? ‘At first… At first I thought…’

“Okay. You’re ready now? Jesus, you pussy! ‘At first I thought you were putting your foot in either my mouth or yours. Now I realize you were using both feet.’ Write it. It’s perfect. Perfect!”

“You can’t go putting that on somebody’s precious little essay about their childhood,” Steve complained.

“Just write it, you little turd.”

We walked into the kitchen. From his outlook under the kitchen table, Greg Penn could probably only see so many feet that we may have seemed like a human caterpillar. He was on all fours, all six and a half foot of him, bumping against the underside of the table like a Shetland pony. These were my two best students at Whitebread College in the middle of Illinois. They were grading papers for me while my “assistant” Allison Sheffield and I went out drinking at Jack’s Bar on the town square. Tomorrow’s big inquisition was coming fast and I didn’t really care anymore what was going to happen to me. Greg Penn and Steve Bancroft, were both completely soused on two six-packs I’d left for them as payment for grading my students’ papers, which I simply could not bring myself to do anymore. My short career around that town and that precious little college was all but over.

“Who is that? Janov, that you? Jesus, how many feet do you have now? It feels like Alice in Wonderland under here. We’re out of beer, by the way. Who in hell’s that with you? Sheffield? Sheffield, is that you?”

“What exactly are you doing under the table, Greg?” Allison asked.

Greg snorted, then let out with a massive otherworldly belch. “I’m up to my elbows in vomit and oblivion,” he said, and belched once more. “Obviously.”


I was teaching at this small college in Illinois. It was late in the spring of 1971, near the end of the semester, and it was the perfect end to the idealistic Sixties deep in the cornfields of central Illinois at a liberal arts college known for the fact that its students ran the entire campus except, of course, for the teaching and the administration. That was left for dummies like us.

The town had an actual town square, around which a shell-shock case from World War II named Mac Fox still walked, every day since returning home from Normandy Beach. The only bar on the square, Jack’s Bar, was run by a man with an enormous nose who was the exact spitting image of Lyndon Baines Johnson, the president who’d been hounded out of office by our protesting the war in Vietnam. It was very spooky and very weird to have the ex-president of the United States asking, “What’ll you have to drink?” He would always stay focused on your nose, probably to establish that you were old enough to be ordering a drink. His own nose was so red and enormous, he looked like he should be sitting on a stoop in the Village in New York, chomping on a cigar butt and feeding pigeons out of a paper bag.

I was drinking myself into oblivion, as much as you can do that sort of thing, trying to forget exactly where I was, while still trying to make a living of sorts, at the same time trying to keep from getting fired for not holding my 8 a.m. class in Stoddard Hall, but rather at my own house on College Avenue at 8 p.m. instead. Every one of my students showed up at the night class at my house. Everyone except one tiny old lady from town. That was where my troubles with the Dean and the President of that fine institution began.

That night we took out a tall ladder and wrote one of my poems with a magic marker across the 12 foot ceilings of my college-owned faculty house. My assistant, Allison Sheffield, was short with luscious curls of reddish-brown hair, and a burst of baby fat and freckles in her cheeks. More freckles scattered over her arms and chest, stopping just below her breasts. There was something childlike about her. She came from a farm outside St. Louis where her father raised horses for riding and lambs for eating. She’d been riding horses more or less from the day she was born, but she kept her lambs for pets.


The next day was my faculty trial at Whitebread College. A large crowd of students gathered around the base of the dominating three story building that housed the administrative offices, where my hearing was to be held. The meeting room was on the second floor. They ushered me into a room with a long varnished wooden table, around which sat the heads of every department on campus, including the art department’s, Mitchell Parkman, more or less my only ally on the faculty, possibly at the insistence of his wife Mary Jo, who admired me for reasons I couldn’t yet fathom. President Gordon, an old, old man without a chin, occasionally walked over to the window and peered out at the lawn below where the crowd kept growing like a stain. on the lawn. You could hear shouting voices from below. “Burn, baby, burn! Burn, baby, burn!” Two hundred students held their fists in the air to gesture solidarity. It was a serious matter, and kind of scary. With every shout of “Burn, baby, burn!” heads of the faculty turned and looked at one another. Only Dean Brown seemed unconcerned. He kept thumbing through his usual stack of memos in a huge manila folder in front of him. Here’s what had led up to that mess.

Early on in the year, they’d given me an early morning class. I was a late night poet kind of guy. So when many of my students were having trouble making it to class at 8 a.m., I suggested moving the class to my house and meeting at 8 p.m. in my living room. Brilliant! Almost every student showed, and everything seemed to be going great until a grey-haired old woman named Mabel Rose from town who was taking my class (God knows why) complained in writing to the president of the college that I wasn’t making my 8 a.m. class on campus. Apparently, she was an early morning person. And our two worlds simply collided.

President Gordon told Dean Brown to collect data on my malfeasance so they could try me in front of the faculty senate and fire me. And Dean Brown with his crew-cut, button-down Richard Nixon jowls, took on the task of writing the memos.

“Okay, Dean Brown, why don’t you present the evidence against Mr. Janov and let’s get on with it,” said President Gordon.

Dean Brown shoved the entire folder across the table. “ Mr. Janov ignored every one of these messages. Even after repeated warnings, fifteen of them, to be exact. He persisted in meeting his 8 a.m. class at 8 p.m. at his house instead of on campus at 8 a.m. as designated in the Whitebread College Fall 1970 course catalogue.” Brown tapped a long finger on the folder and sat back with a pleased smile.

President Gordon looked down his nose over his spectacles. He cleared his throat. “And what do you have to say to the charges, Mr. Janov?”

My back stiffened. “Well,” I said, “ I was meeting my class at my house at 8 p.m. The students’ attendance improved dramatically, as did their participation. I never got any warnings or messages from Dean Brown. I didn’t know this presented a problem.”

“You never got Dean Brown’s memos?” President Gordon shoved the folder closer to me. “Here they are.”

I opened the folder and thumbed through a few of the memos. They were hand-written in neat curlicues on yellow notepad paper. “Mr. Janov didn’t show up at yet another of his classes at 8 a.m. today!!! I went there myself! At 8 a.m.!” Things of that sort. They looked official. They were memos all right.

I sat bolt upright in my chair. Okay, I may have squirmed a bit. “I never received any of these,” I said.

Mitchell Parkman, who was the head of the Art Department, and who looked a little like a hawk with wild bushy black hair, suddenly interjected, “Who are these memos written to?”

“Why, to myself, and Mr. Janov, of course,” Dean Brown answered. “The carbon copies are for Janov.”

“What?” I exclaimed. “But I never saw these things before! I never got these.”

“But I wrote them,” said Dean Brown.

“Well,” asked Mitchell Parkman, “how did you deliver them exactly?”

“Well, I didn’t … exactly. I wrote the memos covering the situation, as I was instructed to do.”

“But, so, you didn’t deliver them to Mr. Janov?” Mitchell Parkman had a habit of raising one eyebrow when asking or stating the obvious.

The rest of the faculty in the room turned to stare at Dean Brown.

“Well … no,” said the Dean.

You could hear the shouting rising up from the crowd swelling on the lawn below. It kept getting louder and louder. Somebody had brought a bullhorn now.

“How did you expect him to respond then?”

“Oh, I pretty much knew he wouldn’t respond. In fact, I was sure of it. He’s from California.”

Mitchell Parkman looked around the room at the heads of all the other departments. There was a steady murmur, which seemed to last about two decades.

“Well, I think it’s pretty obvious what our course of action has to be.”

Nearly all of the department heads nodded in unison.

“We can’t afford a lawsuit here,” Parkman said. “I move to dismiss the charges.”

There was so much silence in the room, except for the shouts from outdoors from the students. I saw a woodpecker pecking away at a dead tree.

“Second,” came a weak voice from the other end of the table. I couldn’t tell which one of the heads had said that.

President Gordon’s head swung around for a moment. “Oh, fer Chrissake!”

“All in favor, raise your hands.”

One by one the hands went up around the table. This took about another decade.

Mitchell Parkman rose from his chair and extended his hand. “You’re free to go, Mr. Janov. Want to go get a beer at Jack’s bar?”

To my surprise, t he students let out an audible groan when they heard about the dismissal. This would have been their chance to stage a real protest, since they had missed most of the protests against the war in Vietnam so far. They wanted to damage something. I wanted to tell them, “Not to worry, they would get their chance. The troops are always on their way somewhere else. There is always another war.”

We went over to Jack’s bar. Mitchell’s wife Mary Jo was already there, holding two long tables that had been put together. Allison had to order a diet Pepsi, but the rest of us were drinking bottles of Pabst Blue Ribbon,. I kept ordering in groups of six at a time, so Jack couldn’t tell who was old enough. The crowd was too big and disorderly anyway, since numerous students from the disgruntled crowd followed us to the bar. The afternoon dragged on into the early evening. We’d forgotten completely about eating anything, and things were getting raucous.

Jimmy Pond, another member of the English faculty was there with Ann Hedstrom, the head of the English Department, who had hired me to replace someone on sabbatical. Ann had soft eyes and deep pock marks that spread over her entire face from a terrible bout with adolescent acne. Their being together as a couple was the result of one drunken night on my living room couch. Jimmy was from New Orleans and had about the longest Southern drawl I’d ever heard. Ann pounced on Jimmy over his loud protestations one night after his wife left him, which had been exactly two days after their arriving in the cornfields of Illinois from New Orleans, where they’d been raised. She’d simply never heard so much silence in her life, and she ran from it faster than it took for a suitcase full of Cajun-accented cockroaches to make themselves at home in their kitchen on the prairie. Jimmy’s ex had run for her life, possibly the smartest woman in Illinois, or New Orleans, for that matter.

Jimmy was pontificating in his usual Southern manner about writers from the south, when all of a sudden Mary Jo looked at me and squeezed the bottle of mustard she’d been fondling. A long arc of mustard shot across the double table, landing on Jimmy Pond’s white shirt, a perfect arc of bright yellow streaking through the air. It couldn’t have been a more precise shot if it had been planned by NASA scientists. Every mustard-laden molecule landed on Jimmy’s perfectly laundered and starched white shirt. Jimmy nearly always wore a necktie, because he was a proper New Orleans gentleman who could cook up a mean plate of red beans and rice. You could eat a whole plate without farting once.

Jimmy looked up, then down at his shirt again, to be sure, then back up at Mary Jo. The air flew right out of Mitchell Parkman’s mouth. Mary Jo had the nerve to laugh out loud. She kept looking over at me, to make sure I knew what this meant. I had no idea whatsoever what it meant.

“Can I see you outside?” she said to me. She got up from the table without another word and flew out the front door of the bar. She had the habit of wearing shapeless hippie dresses so you couldn’t tell what her body was like. She had four children traipsing along behind her at home. Mitchell kept her pretty much barefoot and pregnant.

I looked back and forth between Jimmy Pond and Mitchell Parkman. Mitchell shrugged and took a long draught of beer from his glass. Mitchell’s secretary, Rosemary, was sitting right beside him. A blonde girl with a long nose and a huge chest, she was also their baby-sitter, though not tonight apparently, because this was too big an occasion to miss.

Poor Jimmy was dabbing the mustard off his shirt. Ann Hedstrom kept applying more napkins to the bright yellow squiggle. I walked out the front door of the bar. Mary Jo dragged me by the arm to the curbside.

“See what you made me do?” she said. “By the way, Mitch is fucking that secretary of his, little miss Rosemary with the tits. That’s the third one and I’m sick and tired of having my nose rubbed in it. But I’m sure he’s already told you all about it. Everybody in town knows. They always do. Fucking little Peyton Place. You better not be leaving town any time soon. We haven’t gotten to know each other yet. Do you ever hear the frogs talking around here?” I didn’t have a chance to breathe as she kept going non-stop, as if she couldn’t talk fast enough. “I thought you might. They live in the gutters and when it rains they come out and talk to anyone who’ll listen. Have you heard them? I love your poetry, you know. I think you’re a great writer, Janov.”

“Wow, I—”

She pulled my head down to her face and kissed me hard on the mouth, and she wouldn’t let me pull back. Her tongue worked its way into my mouth.

“Don’t you go leaving me behind in this unholy little town, you hear?” Mary Jo had a deep appealing voice, with slight southern St. Louis accent.. It left the impression that she wasn’t finished saying everything she had to say.

A blinding brightness entered my eyes when she kissed me. Something lit up in my future. But the next day my students drove me out to a used car lot on Route 66, and I bought that red, white and blue Pepsi van, and by the end of the week, when the semester ended anyway, we were off to the West Coast on our 3,000 mile trip.

  © Jerry Ratch, 2012  

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