My chaotic years of college, dodging Vietnam, chasing dreams


Just about the most exciting time in a young person’s life is when he or her heads off to that freshman year of college. 

In our family, we are excited about seeing two grandsons heading off on this big adventure. Nancy and I are enjoying seeing these two boys thrive. 

But it surely brings back memories of a different time. 

Wolf Johnson, 19, son of Shelli and Jerry Johnson of Lander, is now a student at the University of Wyoming in Laramie. 

Braley Hollins, 19, son of Amber and Craig Hollins of Allen, Texas, is now a student at Oklahoma State in Stillwater. 

Observing them also brings to mind some of the precarious experiences I had during my early college experiences exactly 53 years earlier. 

Both Wolf and Braley are doing fine. Wolf is a standout poet, singer, and musician, and is benefiting from the Hathaway Scholarship. Braley is on a full-ride baseball scholarship at OSU after excelling in that sport at Plano Senior High in the Dallas area. 

If these boys behave and keep their grades up, they will have few problems. Not so much like what I went through a half century ago.

Let’s climb aboard my time machine and take a trip back to the stormy times known as the 1960s - 1965 to be specific.

In 1964, I obtained my first newspaper job after taking a six-week journalism short course at Iowa State in Ames. Life was good. I was doing what I wanted and had even developed a relationship with a young chick, who was both the prettiest and nicest girl in Harlan, Iowa. 

Two of my friends had already been killed in Vietnam. After my draft physical, I was considered 1A, which meant I could be drafted any time. A new college was starting from scratch in neighboring Denison. So it was off to the newspaper there with plans to enroll in newly minted Midwestern College. I would then have a “college deferment” and be 2A, which would keep me out of the war. I would work at the newspaper and go to college.

My dad had lined up a very nice Ford Ranch Wagon for me to drive. It was a two-door station wagon. These are worth a fortune today.

My brother John came to visit me and promptly blew up the engine leaving me without wheels and literally walking when the newspaper’s company car was not available. But I struggled on. 

Two classmates, Preston VerMeer and Larry Carlson, were in just about as bad of financial straits. Among us, we scraped up enough cash to buy a dilapidated 1949 Chevy torpedo-back sedan we nicknamed Myrtle. We kept her parked on the street near the house where we rented rooms.

One morning in the cold of winter, the car disappeared. Where could Myrtle have gone? Did someone steal her? 

She had been impounded by the Denison Police Dept. as a “junked car.” Denison laws said you could not leave a junked car on a city street. It would cost $50 to get it out of impound. We never got her out. We could not raise the $50. 

Somehow I managed my full-time job at the newspaper driving its company car as much as I could, attending college full-time, and hitch-hiking the 25 miles down to Harlan to see my future bride, Nancy Musich, as often as I could. 

Nancy and I were in love and we learned that I could get most of my tuition waived if we got married and my wife worked for the college. So on May 14, 1966, we tied the knot. I was 20 and she was 19. Nancy had a 1959 Volkswagen and I finally had ownership of some wheels again. She always joked that I married her for her car. 

Meanwhile, the Vietnam War was raging. Lots of young men were dying over there. Before it was done, some 58,000 men of my generation were killed. It was just awful. 

When my new wife went to work for the college, my draft deferment went from 2A student to 3A married and we started our 53-year wedded journey together. The wind was at our backs or so it seemed — finally.

We endured many struggles and we both worked very, very hard. Somehow, our destiny always seemed ahead of us. It just seems impossible to recall all that has happened to us over the years. 

But watching Wolf and Braley head off to college with their heads high, their eyes clear, and with high hopes in their hearts — well, it just brought back some memories of a truly different but similar time when I was their age attempting to do the same thing. 

Check out additional columns at www.billsniffin.com. He has published six books. His coffee table book series has sold 34,000 copies. You can find more stories by Bill Sniffin by going to CowboyStateDaily.com.

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