I will start with my confession. I was the one responsible for the events which took place in the east wing of Breland Hall, at the campus of New Mexico State University, in the fall of 1970. To understand my story, one must first understand the background that led to those events, and keep in mind the rhetoric of the time and the makeup of our country. It was a time of war, of social unrest, of radical movements and protest—it was a time of freedom and change.
I was seventeen, a senior at Mayfield High School, and a youth with a sheltered view of the world—a product of a strict catholic upbringing and conservative thinking—coupled with the cultural thing (I’m third generation American). My grandmother was a woman of strong moral character and proper upbringing, and she raised me under her uncompromising rules, which were like addendums to the Ten Commandments—she was tough, curfew was at 8 p.m. and lights out by 9 p.m. She had all the makings of a drill sergeant. I stood at the threshold of manhood, but that was of no consequence to grandma—she treated me (or protected me) like a thirteen-year-old virgin (I’m surprised not to have had a quinceañera for my fifteenth birthday).
One evening, two of my friends arrived at the house in a blue Corvair to pick me up. We’d plan to go to Shirley’s drive-in, on Valley Drive. It was the place to cruise, to pick up girls, or meet with other friends. Grandma must have looked out the window and recognized the Corvair from an incident of the previous year (no need to expand on that story). I got into the back seat, and just as we were about to leave, she dashed out of the house, ran towards the car with the clamor of her clapping hands, which were done with the rapidity of a flamenco dancer on speed, and shouted, “ey, ey, ey,” (hey with a silent h—it’s a Hispanic thing). She stood in front of the car, and with a fierce look on her face, shook her finger at my friends and said, “Ocho! Ocho!” That was not a Spanish lesson; that was a warning—have him home by eight. By the features of their faces and the color of their skins, it was obvious my friends neither spoke nor understood the Spanish language, though, I may have been mistaken on that account, as they later nicknamed me “Ocho,” and they said it with such fine pronunciation.
But grandma took a more liberal look on Saturday night curfew—10 p.m. I rushed home many times in fear my car might turn into a pumpkin. During my entire senior year, I went out on a total of two dates—an intentional decision to avoid teasing at school, plus, grandma thought I was too young to go out with girls. As my guardian, I depended upon her financial generosity to support my entertainment. On the two mentioned occasions, I took my dates to a school dance. I asked grandma for money and she handed me two dollars—both times. After the dance I took my dates to Sambo’s Restaurant on El Paseo Drive. Fortunately, my friend Anita worked there as a waitress and rescued me from embarrassment on both occasions. It seemed to me that out of all the beautiful girls of Las Cruces, I chose the two who enjoyed the consumption of a bountiful meal. Two dollars did not defray the cost of a burger with cheese, French fries, several Cokes, and an ice cream sundae with all the toppings. I watched them devour their meals while I nursed a single Coke—I worked out a payment plan with Anita. Some things can affect a person’s life. It made me hope that someday I may have the pleasure to dine with a girl whose only order is a glass of water and a house salad—I’m still hoping.
My choice of attire was of a particular concern to grandma. She threw away some of my favorite clothes, mostly new—all unretrievable. She said, “They are not befitting of a gentleman (the English translation).” Grandma abhorred flared or bell bottom pants and tie dye t-shirts. She
said they made me look like a “joto,” (slang for a man with feminine proclivities). Luckily, my uncle Jorge hired me as a part-time surveyor’s assistant and I earned enough money to finance my own entertainment and purchase new clothes, which necessitated a hiding place—my uncle’s house.
Graduation—that momentous occasion where high school boys and girls are set free into the world—finally arrived. The all-night senior party took place at the Pan Am Center at NMSU campus. I didn’t stay long at the party as my friend Rocky invited me to join him and his entourage to celebrate the occasion in a more international fashion—a trip to Juarez (we didn’t know Mexico was considered a domestic country). My life changed that night; I had a taste of freedom, and I had new friends who were full of spunk and delighted in the joys of life—all new to this sheltered boy. I was the new kid, cautious, and fearful of any risks, but I was accepted. We were like the Rat Pack—Rocky, Gary, Bob, Dan, Steve and me, a gang (unlike today’s gangs), and we were headed to college in the fall—sadly, we lost Gary that summer to a traffic accident.
On freshman orientation day, I walked the campus of New Mexico State University filled with excitement and hope—it was a bit daunting, though. I was to live in the dorms and no longer had a guardian to watch over me, I was completely responsible for myself, but the overwhelming sense of freedom overshadowed my fears and apprehensions, and I felt like a new hatchling seeing the world for the first time, or like a man finally getting out of prison, not that
living with grandma was a prison, but in a sense, it was. I was now free to wear what I wanted, to go and do as I pleased, and I was not required be home by ocho.
I had a sound plan for my future: a dual degree in Police Science (now called Criminal Justice) and psychology, followed by a couple of years of military service (I hoped the war ended by then), a career as a homicide investigator, and a teaching post at a university after retirement from law enforcement. I was going places in life.
On the southeast corner of the campus stood Breland Hall—an all-men’s dormitory since 1948, a venerated building, a symbol of academic tradition and erudition. It was a square-cornered, C-shaped, three-story building with two wings of rooms extended north from each end of the main structure, I was assigned to the first floor near the entrance of the east wing. Our Resident Assistant (RA) was a man of commanding presence, and his rules were simple: “No alcoholic beverages, no smoking, no loud music, no parties, no animals, no drugs, and definitely No Girls!” He too had the makings of a drill sergeant.
Rocky Wilhelm was my best friend (still is) from high school. His family owned the Aggie Drive-in Theater on Valley Drive and the Fiesta Twin Drive-in Theaters on El Paseo Road. He chose to reside at home instead of the dorms, though one wouldn’t know it from all the time he spent at Breland Hall, as did the rest of my gang. To guard the grounds of the movie theaters, his father had two types of registered German shepherds—pure white and pure black. One of the white females had a litter of white puppies and one black female—the pick of the liter. I fell in love with that expensive AKC pup. Eight weeks later, on a early Saturday morning, I was awakened by a strange weight on my chest. I opened my eyes and there was a small, black furry creature licking my chin and wagging her tail. Rocky stood next to my bed.
“Dad wants you to have her,” he said.
I registered my puppy with the American Kennel Society under a required fancy Germanic name, but I wanted to call her by a simple American name that was not difficult to pronounce. Rocky suggested Miss Magnolia, after a girl of familiarity with many of the Las Cruces boys. She resided on Magnolia Drive, where she’d perform nightly shows out of her bedroom window, which explained the constant flow of traffic on that street. Miss Magnolia was not a proper name for a puppy of AKC quality. Therefore, I chose a simple, monosyllabic name—Easy. Everyone assumed her name was inspired by the movie Easy Rider. The truth was, I named her after a girl we all knew and held in high esteem. Easy became the east wing mascot and she had many fans who often stopped by to visit with her. That was her first and only semester at NMSU—she was an extremely smart dog with a pedigree and did not require further education.
During Rush Week I toured many fraternity houses, and it was then that I discovered the amazing décor of a particular frat room. It was a work of art, a representation of the time—independent, forward-thinking, and rebellious. The room was covered wall-to-wall, top to bottom, with neatly pressed playboy centerfold pin ups, arranged by year and month (no surprise that men’s magazines were abundant in the boy’s dorms). A week later, my room was almost covered with pinups, there were a few bare spots (no pun intended). My room became an art museum and news traveled throughout the dorm, and many residents soon began to knock at my door to view the exhibits, nonstop—day and night. Several of the Breland boys added to the motif and integrity of my room through generous donations from their private art collections (plus, their art covered the bare spots on the walls). My room was a collage of figure studies. Most of the donations were of poor quality and below par—way, way below par—but they were donations, and I felt an obligation to exhibit them. The RA came in for the occasional viewing, though he called them room inspections, which he always conducted with pouted lips and a continuous “hmm” as he nodded his head—like an art critic. I supposed that meant my room passed the inspections to his satisfaction. The constant knocks on my door soon became an irritable nuisance. Had I the entrepreneurial spirit then, I could have made a fortune by charging admission, and keeping the profits for myself—I was living single in the room then.
The first time I saw my roommate was two weeks after the start of the semester. Steve Norwood hitchhiked his way from Washington D.C to Las Cruces. If there was ever a picture to be associated with the word hippie in any dictionary, or Wikipedia, it would be his. Steve was the quintessential hippie—he was definitely a head—mellow, dressed like a flower child, and walked around campus barefooted. As an anti-war activist, he was involved, and arrested, in some of the demonstrations and riots that took place in our nation, but most impressive, he was at Woodstock. Steve was in his junior year and he was everything I was not—a free-spirited, open-minded intellectual with experience. We were a match—a liberal and a conservative, a freak and a red neck. We often engaged in academic argumentation, and I was impressed with
Steve, not so much with his liberal ideas, but rather from what he represented—independent thinking and non-conformity.
He informed me his girlfriend was hitchhiking her way to Las Cruces, in the company of a female friend, and would be arriving sometime soon. One morning, after my biology class, I returned to my room surprised by the stack of backpacks on the floor and by the two long-haired, braless girls in t-shirts, wearing bell bottom jeans, leather sandals, and adorned with beads and headbands.
“This is my old lady, JoAnn, and that’s Cindy,” Steve said.
They greeted me with suspicion, perhaps my short hair made me look like a member of the establishment, or maybe Steve informed them I was a Police Science major (there was diametric opposition between the fuzz and the freaks in those days). The girls became east wing residents of Breland Hall for most of that semester (Cindy slept on the floor in her sleeping bag, of course). With two girls and a puppy in the room, the situation necessitated change. To discourage the constant visitations and the “inspections,” I closed down the museum. I told the residents they can have all the art they wanted, on the condition they removed it themselves—the entire collection was removed in a single day.
There was a head shop (hippie store) in Old Mesilla (now the Galeria Art Gallery) that met everyone’s hippie shopping needs. I purchased several items to decorate my room, and soon, picture posters and florescent posters covered my walls. In the dark, a pair of lava lamps gave the room an exotic-like appearance, enhanced by a four-foot black light that lifted the brilliance out of the multi-colored florescent posters—the peace sign, Jimi Hendrix’s face, the flowers, and the
butterflies. I also added a strobe light, and I must admit, to be in that room with lights off, black light on, and strobe flashing while listening to CCR’s I Put a Spell on you…that was a trip, man.
I guess a part of me wanted to be a freak (hippie) or at least, enjoy their type of freedom and lifestyle.
To add music to the room, Rocky donated his stereo system: a radio-amplifier with an 8-track player, turntable, and two speakers with enough wattage to blow the doors off their hinges. I was ready to bring life to the east wing. The RA was usually away on the weekends, he had a girlfriend (somewhere in Las Cruces) with whom he visited on Friday afternoons until Sunday evenings. With the assistance of the east wing boys, my gang, and my roommate and his two girls, our first party was a major success—a single party composed of mini parties taking place within several rooms, all orchestrated by yours truly. More parties followed throughout the course of the semester, bigger and better, and the east wing became known as the party wing, and I the wing leader.
Every party was replete with spirits, cigarette smoke, students, non-students, lots of girls, and one puppy. Guest went from room to room or hung out in the hallway. The sound of laughter, music, singing, and academic conversations resonated throughout the wing. The Woodstock soundtrack was the popular album, and everyone sang along with Country Joe and the Fish:
And it’s one two three
What are we fighting for?
Don’t ask me, I don’t give a damn
Next stop is Vietnam…
The only room with a closed door was the one we called the darkroom, lit by a single black light and filled with the strong fragrance of patchouli. I don’t know what went on in there, but Rocky and I decided to stay away, seeing that we’d planned to become future police officers.
It was a beautiful thing—freedom. Besides campus parties, we attended others throughout out Dona Ana County, and as the home boys, Rocky and I felt obliged to play host to the out-of-state students—we took them on our weekly excursions to Juarez, Mexico. I begin to miss class, except for ROTC, Professor Farris’s Introduction to Police Science, and Psychology 101. I managed to make some guest appearances in my less-important classes, like algebra and biology, but the parties continued.
Baby It’s You was a popular song by a group called Smith, a male and female combo and their band. They came to play at the campus and after the concert, the gang and I went to Sambo’s for dinner (our usual hang out) and then returned to the dorm. As I entered the east wing, I heard laughter and talking coming from my room. I opened the door, and there was Steve, JoAnn, Cindy, and the entire group called Smith. Steve knew one of the band members, and so, extended an invitation to our room. It was a non-party evening, but after my discovery, the east wing immediately swung into party mode. Many years later I discovered a little-known fact—the female singer was Gayle McCormick, who went on to fame with her three solo albums.
Though I never took drugs (I was as strait-laced as Reed and Malloy—Adam-12) I became addicted to fun and parties. I didn’t enjoy drinking, really, but I drank because it was cool (I thought) and I started smoking unfiltered Camels—that behavior only lasted three weeks.
A woman, of international background and questionable reputation, tutored me in the fine art of cigarette smoking. “You have to inhale,” she said, and I did. The grim reaper swiftly wrapped his hands around my throat, and I couldn’t breathe. Thanks to that woman, I became a non-smoker for life.
Change was in the air—winter was coming. With Finals Week rapidly approaching, the parties tapered, and JoAnn and Cindy moved off-campus—but female visitations to the East wing continued. Bonnie and Sherry, seniors from Las Cruces High School, usually made their presence in my room around 4 p.m., about the time my roommate left with his conga drum to jam with the other heads in front of the Student Union. Bonnie and I became good friends and Sherry became a quasi-girlfriend to one of the boys from the 2nd floor of the west wing.
Kenny was a kid from back east, and from a prominent family. He was a serious student, good-looking, slender, blonde, Ivy League cut, and always neatly dressed, but he wasn’t a ladies’ man. He was shy, extremely sheltered, and a mama’s boy. He was a poindexter (a smart kid) and he majored in a new curriculum called Computer Science (like that program was going anywhere). Rocky and I took him under our wings and showed him a life beyond textbooks and lectures, and we raised him to a higher level on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs—self-indulgence (what did I know? I got a D in psychology). Kenny was a steady patron of our soirees and my art exhibits. He and I spend a lot of time with Bonnie and Sherry in my room (purely make out sessions only—really). That was the time I played the worst joke anyone could impose upon an innocent young man; it was also the time of revelation.
During one of their visits, Bonnie and I went to watch a jam session at the Student Union and left Sherry and Kenny alone in my room. When we returned, Kenny had a frightened look on his face, his hair in disarray, his shirt partially untucked, and without a word, he left my room in a rush. I asked Sherry what had happened.
“Nothing, really. We were just making out pretty heavy, that’s all,” she said.
I hadn’t seen Kenny for about a week since, I thought he was busy studying for finals (as I should have been). I decided to pay him a visit and found him in an unwelcoming disposition—angry, rude, and referred to me as the serpent who forced him take a bite of the apple (I may have done a little encouraging). He ordered me to leave his room and said he never wanted to see me again. I was irritated by his rude behavior, but I remained composed. Before I walked out his door, I stopped, slowly turned, and in a low and calm voice said, “I just came by to tell you that Sherry is pregnant.”
The only word that comes to mind is: devastation. Young Kenny fell to his knees crying uncontrollably as if his world had been destroyed—in his mind, it had. “What am I going to do? My mother will be disappointed…my life is ruined...all I wanted was to get my degree and make my family proud of me,” he cried, and carried on for some time. What have I done? I felt terrible, even worse, I felt worthless. The next day I had Sherry come to Breland Hall to speak with Kenny. We met outside by the basketball courts, next to the dorm, where she informed him she was not pregnant. He was so relieved that he almost cried. It was humorous; that boy lacked all hints of impossibilities when it came to human interactions. His life was not ruined, he was saved, but I wasn’t. I had not forgotten how low and shameful I felt at that moment, in that room,
as I watched a boy crumble before me because of the malevolent words I chose to use. What have I become?
The semester ended and Christmas was around the corner. I came to the realization that it was my world that was ruined. I mishandled my freedom and I changed into something I never wanted to be—a loser. I had fallen badly. Out of sixteen credit hours, I received six. It was supposed to be the beginning of a great college education, a gateway to a promising future, but I failed—academically and in life. I packed my things, and my puppy, and I left Breland Hall without saying goodbye to anyone. In the parking lot, I took a final look at the building—it was a time of freedom and change.
Breland Hall is now the building that houses the Department of Criminal Justice (the irony). It was there where I received my true education, credited only towards my experience. I learned that change comes with freedom, and there’s always a price to pay for its abuse.
I think about the parties and how they were never out of control—never a fight, no one was injured, no one sick, no damage to property, and the campus police were never summoned. And surprisingly, no one ever reported the girls, the alcohol, the loud music, the cigarette smoking, the darkroom, the two girls who resided in my room, and my puppy. It was all out of the norm for Breland Hall—a change. How did I get away with it? Perhaps there was a general contentment with the change and that change represented a form of protest against the university establishment—after all, protests were the sign of the times.
So what happened to me? After NMSU, I attended Arizona State University and received good grades. I also received greetings from Uncle Sam and the war was still not over. My college deferment was rescinded, and I finally became acquainted with real drill sergeants. After military service, I became a police officer and continued with my education in psychology and management, and later entered the corporate world.
On my desk sits a tall glass embossed with the NMSU logo, which I bought at the bookstore as a freshman—I’ve always kept it on display as a reminder of my fall from grace in the winter of 1970.
As lecturer, I’ve preached life-long learning as a way of life. My own has been one of continuous academic education, and I continue to do so even now. After 51 years, I will finally return to New Mexico State University and attend class in the fall, once again…if they’ll have me.
Note: Since this story was written NMSU allowed my return. I now attend class at the Arts & Science Building – at Breland Hall. Life, no doubt, has a sense of humor. — E. Carrasco