I was telling Crazy Larry about being an undergrad at North Hinterland State University at Tundra, when out of my mouth came the words, “And then I was expelled.”
“Whaaaa?” he cried delightedly, sounding like Moe from The Simpsons. “Do tell!”
I hadn’t thought of it in years and had to scramble to recall the sequence of events.
My final duty station as an Army diver was the Republic of Panama. Our detachment lived on Fort Kobbe, the tiny army post on Howard Air Force Base, outside Panama City. We were attached to an engineering battalion but spent most of our time working independently from them in the Canal or Gatun Lake or Portobello Bay. Sometimes we spent time in the jungle with the infantry brigade who lived across the street, or cross-trained with special forces. It was good duty, with two warm oceans full of living reefs, and smart, creative people who could have been doing just about anything but had volunteered, three or four times over, to be frogmen and deep-sea divers.
I had joined the service for money for college. In my era it was called VEAP, Veteran’s Educational Assistance Program, to differentiate it from the free ride that the GI Bill had been since WWII. Still, the government put in two dollars to my one, and after I saved a set amount there was a bonus, and the total was enough to get me through a state university. When my original three-year enlistment ended, I had been stationed in Virginia or California, and I’d achieved my financial goal. But I re-upped for an additional year in order to get the chance to go to Panama with my team.
There were even more adventures to be had in Army diving after a tour in Panama—Korea, Germany, and now all over the world—and my former boss Frenchy, who had become a Command Sergeant Major, begged me to stay in. I agreed to do so, thinking I’d take it a year at a time. But when I talked to the reenlistment NCO, he played a sales game with me and said I’d have to reenlist for four years or nothing. He couldn’t do anything about that, he said; it was the way the system worked. I told him to pack sand up his ass and walked over to the education office on Kobbe to get some help with college applications. (Frenchy went to the command on Fort Clayton and told them about the recruiter. The guy was reprimanded, and they said I was welcome to re-up for any length of time I saw fit, but I’d decided on what I was calling freedom.)
The educational office on Fort Kobbe was, like everything else, housed in a multi-story colonial building with a red tile roof. Most of the common areas and hallways in the buildings were open to the tropical breeze; bedrooms and some offices were air-conditioned behind closed doors. This office was usually locked. A bulletin board in the hallway held wrinkled, fly-specked sheets announcing a limited selection of beginning college classes, across the isthmus, and extension degree programs, through, I think, University of Maryland, which were impossible for soldiers whose jobs took them to the field regularly. That was the way the system worked. I had to return several times before I found a “counselor” on duty.
I really had only one question: Did I have to list the community college courses I’d taken several years earlier on my college apps? My good intention was to get a fresh start; I wanted to take the courses over again as refreshers and wouldn’t try to claim the credits. Anyway I had another course of study in mind. The counselor said to leave them off my applications. So I did.
A couple of years into my English major at NHSU-Tundra, my advisor, who would become the English Department head, asked where I had learned what he called my “whorehouse Spanish,” and all this came out. He got excited for me and said I must get the old community college transcripts to him, so I could transfer those credits and get my degree done more quickly. If I was going to get anywhere in life, I must learn to work the system, he said; I was doing magnificently with my studies, and he was thrilled that I was an officer in the English honor fraternity, but I had to see to my college career. So I did.
Shortly after, when some administrative computer processed my request, I was expelled from the university. My crime was falsifying my original application by not listing each and every institution I’d attended. I was invited, in the letter I received, to re-apply to school, if there were any excuses for what I’d done. I would be given 30 days to do so.
I had no connections or help to enlist on my side, other than my embarrassed advisor. The father of my girlfriend at the time, a therapist and school counselor in a wealthy Chicago suburb, and a former Marine, offered to help but was so indignant for me that I feared he might do something rash. I told him I’d go it alone, and I wrote the letter and sang the mea culpas. I was given an audience with the dean of LAS.
A straight wind of at least 25 miles per hour always sweeps through the town of Tundra. That day the hot gusts were enough to knock walkers off their feet. The dean had my letter in her hand in her cool office but made me tell the story again. Then, in a tone that suggested the bad taste in her mouth from such a bad egg, she deigned to absolve me: “I see several dozen cases like this every year, Mr. Churm,” she said. “You are the first to be readmitted to this university. I had better not hear your name again until it’s time for you to walk across the stage and take the diploma from my hand. Go.” She pointed her finger at the door.
I was relieved and got in my pickup that still had Department of Defense stickers on it and drove several hours to my girlfriend’s house, where her parents took us out for an expensive meal in a fish house, and I reviewed the fields of linen with their silver in rank-and-file and their blood-dark tulips of wine. My income came from VEAP checks and a job at a gas station, where I was the only cashier not yet robbed at gunpoint. What a lucky boy am I, I thought, to be allowed to continue my education.