I guess it was the broom drive, more than anything else, that really was responsible for the creation of Freshman Night at the Fort. This was back in the days right after the Korean war when I was playing football at John Tarleton Junior College in Stephenville, Texas. The Fort was an old, dilapidated former Army barracks that was used as the athletic dormitory. Tarleton State University is a four-year university now, but it is still part of the Texas A&M system, just as it was in 1952. The sort of hazing that had long been standard fare at A&M was practiced at Tarleton, too. Because we football players were supposedly tougher than the average students, hazing in the Fort was serious stuff.
Take the broom drive for example. When I checked into the dorm for preseason practice, the first thing I noticed was. a big sign in the hall that said each freshman must keep a broom in his room at all times. "Oh, good," I thought, "Mom'll be so pleased. I'll be keeping my room neat and all that." Well, it wasn't until the afternoon that I found out the real purpose of that broom—and why Coach Sandy Sanford eventually would have to ask the seniors to hold off on us till the season was over. When a senior said, "Freshman, get your broom," you went to your room, collected your broom and took it down the hall to the bathroom and soaked it in the toilet until it felt like it weighed 20 or 30 pounds. Then you reported to the senior who was waiting for you in the hall. There was a line marked off across the hall, and you'd be told to "assume the position," which meant you toed the mark, bent down and grasped both your ankles. Then the senior would see how far he could drive you with one swat.
That was bad enough, but before long the seniors began competing to see who could drive a freshman the farthest. To even things up, they began giving out handicaps. I mean you wouldn't expect a little senior quarterback to be able to drive a big freshman tackle very far, and it wouldn't have been very fair for some big old tackle to have a small freshman halfback to flail away at, so the seniors carefully paired up the drivers and the drivees. Unfortunately, I was kind of caught in the middle. I was a 190-pound receiver and defensive back, and I'd also caught the attention of a very large offensive tackle, Jim Bomar, from Paragould, Ark. Bomar was pretty much the ringleader of the hazing and had decided he had dibs on me. "Boy, I like your height," he said. "And them long arms. So when I bust you I want you to reach out and get me all the distance you can. What I'm trying to tell you, boy, is I think you got the goods to make me the world broom-driving record holder." Well, there just ain't no disputing that kind of logic.
But I guess the worst part of it was when the seniors would have disputes over the measuring. You'd be lying there, stretched full out on the hall floor, your bottom ringing, and you'd hear the arguing begin. One driver would say, "I measured him at an even 8'11"." Then another would say, "Damned if that's so! Look where his fingers are curled back to now. Just take that tape measure. It ain't no more than 8'6"." You knew what was coming next: "Freshman, get back up here and assume the position." Bomar would say in an injured tone of voice, "By damn, I'll just show you guys. I'll stretch him out to an even nine foot this time! And you measure him quick, before his fingers start to curl. Let's keep in mind that the rules of the competition say to where his outstretched fingers reach!"
But one day Coach Sanford called all the upperclassmen together and told them that there were more freshmen getting hurt in the dorm than there were on the playing field. "Gentlemen," he said, "I'm going to make a deal with you. We're in the running for the conference championship and a bid to the Little Rose Bowl, but we can't make it if we get too many more injuries. So I want you guys to agree to lay off them freshmen until after the last game."
Well, we didn't make it to the Little Rose Bowl, and a week after our last game, Bomar got up during dinner, banged on an ice-tea pitcher to get our attention and said, "Well, boys, the night you've been waiting for is finally here. Right after you get through with your supper, go on back to the Fort and wait in your rooms. Don't rush, because we're going to give you time to digest your dinner. And you might try and catch a little nap. Might not get too much sleep tonight. But be sure and stay in your rooms until we get you out. If you come out before you're told to, you'll just be calling attention to yourself and that wouldn't be real smart."
Well, they left us waiting in the Fort for hours. Building up the suspense, I guess. Then, at about one in the morning, the freshmen were divided into small groups and loaded into cars. Dick Castleberry, a freshman running back, and I were with four seniors, one of whom was Bomar. We took off down the highway. For a while we stuck to the main road, but pretty soon we started turning off on tiny side roads. Neither Castleberry nor I had the slightest idea what was coming, and the seniors weren't saying. Castleberry and I just kept giving each other apprehensive looks. After about an hour we pulled up on the side of a deserted road.
"Little late for a picnic, ain't it?" I asked.
Bomar said, "Well, I guess you two better get your clothes off."
"Say what?" Castleberry said.
Bomar told us again.
"You'll have to whip us first," I said.
And good old Jim, in a very friendly voice, said, "Well we can do that, too."
It was about that time I realized that Castleberry and I were in a real spot. We were both pretty fast and they were all big tackles, and we could've outrun them easy. But they'd maneuvered us so we were backed up to one side of the car and the four of them were in a semicircle around us.
But the only chance we had was to run. I figured Castleberry was thinking the exact same thing, so I yelled "Go!" and headed for a hole between Bomar and the guy on his right, Harry Cannon. I was running lead blocker for Castleberry, so I give Cannon a shoulder, hoping to wedge him out a little, and then planned on bouncing over into Bomar. But Jim grabbed me and I went down. I felt Castleberry running up my back, but Cannon got him just as he started over the top. No gain on the play. We put up a brief scuffle, but it wasn't any use. Inside of 10 minutes we were standing there naked and the seniors were wishing us good luck in getting back to the campus.
"Coach says football builds character, and we're just trying to do our part by giving y'all a little off-season training," Bomar called out as the car pulled away.
Lord it was cold—must have been around 25°. We didn't have a real good idea where we were, and we were hardly dressed for traveling. I had to agree with Bomar; this was going to be a real character builder.
Castleberry and I started jogging. We didn't know where we were going, but anything was better than standing still. Finally after three or four miles we got lucky; we struck the main highway, and there, just to our left, was a sign that read: STEPHENVILLE, 41 MILES. That was good news, but we were still naked, freezing and 41 miles from the Fort, with several towns to get through on the way back.
"Castleberry," I said, "we're in big trouble."
"Yeah," was all he said. He was shivering too hard to carry on a full conversation.
We started jogging toward Stephenville. I didn't miss my shoes much—my feet were pretty tough since I only wore shoes when absolutely necessary, anyway—but I sure missed all the other stuff I usually wore in winter. Fortunately, it was about 4 a.m. and there were no cars on the road. But, unfortunately, dawn was about three hours away, and unless we were going to set a world record for the 41-mile run we would be out on the road just plain naked when the sun came up. Our only consolation was in knowing there were 23 other naked freshmen running around the countryside. We hoped the law would take that into consideration and not be too harsh on us individually.
Well, we'd jogged for about an hour when we saw a farmhouse sitting pretty close to the highway. We jumped into the ditch alongside the road and reconnoitered the place just like we'd been taught to do in ROTC. "Castleberry, look there," I said. "Help is at hand." Out behind the house we could see clothes hanging on a line. Obviously this farm wife was either lazy or forgetful, and she'd left the family's duds out overnight. "We are saved," I said.
We sneaked up on that clothesline, moving so carefully you'd have thought our lives were at stake. The moon was up, and it was pretty light, but we were doing an outstanding job of infiltration when, with us only 20 yards from the clothesline, about eight dogs suddenly came boiling out from under the house barking their fool heads off. Castleberry and I both threw it into high gear, dashing under the line, the dogs at our heels, and grabbing at whatever we could reach. We swept on around the house and headed for the highway. Lights were already coming on in the house, but we fooled those dogs. Both of us could break 10-flat and those dogs had never chased anyone faster than a meter reader. We left them standing at the edge of their yard barking. After that we kicked it on up the highway and went a half mile in what must have been close to collegiate record time. Finally we tumbled off the highway and got down in the ditch to see what kind of clothes we'd come away with. Castleberry had got himself a pair of bib overalls. They might have been a little big, but at least they were passable.
Once I saw what I had, I tried to trade Castleberry out of those overalls. I offered him my radio, my girl friend, my undying gratitude, even a hundred dollars, which he knew I didn't have. But he wouldn't budge. "I'd rather be dead," he said, "than wear that back to Stephenville." I had come away with a lady's slip.
Well, it was nearly dawn, and a little traffic was beginning to show up on the highway. While I waited in the ditch, clad in my slip, Castleberry stood by the side of the road and tried to thumb us a ride. Finally, a farmer in a pickup truck stopped. I was grateful that he didn't take off when I came bounding out of the ditch. Instead he let us into the cab and, with me sitting in the middle, we started for Stephenville. He was an old man, a tobacco chewer, and the back of his truck was loaded with chickens he was taking to market. For a long time he didn't say anything. Every once in a while he'd roll down the window and spit. When he did, he'd cut his eyes around at me. I was drawn up in as tight a ball as I could get into, but I still felt worse than if I'd been naked. Finally he said. "What's that you got on there, boy?"
"It's a long T shirt," I said.
He spit out the window. "No, it ain't. It's a chemise. My woman's got a bunch just like it."
After that he said, "You be some of them college boys, ain't you?"
I said we were, and he said, "I told the old woman you were all crazy." He stopped there, not bothering to add, "And this proves it." But, then, he didn't have to.
Well that old farmer turned out to be a lifesaver. He took us right to the steps of the Fort. The last thing he said was, "Sonny, I wouldn't be running around in them kind of clothes as a regular thing."
I thought we were home free and that I wouldn't be seen. But when we raced into the dorm, we found everyone up just about to go to breakfast.
I regretted our unfortunate timing for a long while. But looking back on it, I guess I didn't have it too rough. I finally got used to being called Slip. I even got used to being called Underwear and being shown ads in ladies' magazines and asked my preference. I didn't even mind when I got asked to dance a few times by some of the other jocks. I guess the worst cut was when one of the sororities invited me to appear in their fashion show.
I transferred to Del Mar Junior College in Corpus Christi, Texas at the end of the semester. I knew there were people who'd say I was trying to run away from my reputation as a lingerie model, but that had nothing to do with it. Del Mar was trying to build a football program, and they were treating players more kindly than Tarleton was. The fact that there was a lot of enthusiastic talk about having another Freshman Night at the Fort didn't influence my decision one bit.