A Conversation with William Least Heat Moon
From Rendezvous with Contemporary Writers (Idaho State University Press)
by Hank Nuwer
What do you do when your wife and your boss simultaneously give you your walking papers? If you’re William Trogdon back in 1978, you hit the road in a van, even though the road hits you back, and you try to regroup during a three-month, 13,889-mile journey along the back roads of America. Trogdon called these back roads “blue highways” because on old road maps they were represented by blue ink lines.
Along the journey, Trogdon re-examined his Osage roots and changed his name to that Indian name given by him at birth—William Least Heat Moon—not in rejection of his Anglo heritage, but rather as a celebration of both ancestries. A modern-day Transcendentalist with the ability to take ordinary experiences and see something other worldly and spiritual in their contexts, he is a moralist without being preachy, a storyteller without being banal, a superb writer without being pedantic. He espouses charming, original theories, such as sizing up an unfamiliar café’s worth by the number of calendars found on its walls: no calendars—same as an interstate pit stop; one calendar—preprocessed food assembled in New Jersey; three calendars—can’t miss on the farm-boy breakfasts; four calendars—try the home-made pie, too; and the seldom-found five-calendar Valhalla—keep it under your hat, or they’ll franchise.
After the Missourian (born in 1939) returned from his trip he wrote a book about his experiences. It took him four years to write, and it was rejected by ten publishers before editor Peter Davidson of Atlantic Monthly Press snatched it out of his slush pile and took a chance on an unknown writer. The result, Blue Highways, is a literary smash with more layers than fine French pastry: a travelogue, nonfiction novel and traditional Indian vision quest rolled into one. Now financially independent thanks to whopping sales, Least Heat Moon is testimony in the flesh for those who believe that taking risks is the best policy.
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NUWER: What is the behind-the-scenes story to the success of Blue Highways?
LEAST HEAT MOON: I’ve heard a lot of notions. I think the most common one is that it expresses a longing Americans have to take to the road, throw old things aside and see what can come from chance encounters along the highway.
NUWER: How did you come up with the title, Blue Highways?
LEAST HEAT MOON: I’m an inveterate map-reader. Several years ago I was looking at an atlas of the states, and the question struck me: Would it be possible to cross the United States from coast to coast without using a federal highway? The most obvious level of meaning behind Blue Highways was that on old road maps of the country that you got free at one time at gas stations, highways were in red and the back roads were marked in blue. In the West many times the only kind of road you have is a federal highway, but you still could [take a trip and] stay with back roads—country roads and state highways—primarily.
NUWER: You said in the book that any topic was worth a brief exchange in the South. Was that typical of the South?
LEAST HEAT MOON: I hesitate to generalize about the South, because I think Southerners have been inflicted so long with generalizations about their culture and their lives. Nevertheless, one good generalization I wouldn’t hesitate to make is that people in the South traditionally have a love and respect for language that you don’t commonly find in the rest of the country. Language is treated, at its best, almost like music. It became apparent to me that any topic was subject for a brief exchange between people—the weather, the turns in the road, the color of the van, whatever it happened to be. And by being willing to exchange banalities and clichés, I found friends and made friends in the South far more readily than I did in the Central North—North Dakota, Minnesota and Wisconsin—where the people are polite but unwilling to exchange banalities to get something started.
NUWER: Nature threw a horrendous May storm at you in Utah. Was the chance of death something that entered your mind when you first set out?
LEAST HEAT MOON: It did. No one asked me that question before. I think it’s a wonderful question. Taking risks is one of the things a human being needs to do I he’s to experience life at a level above the mundane. You must be willing to give up something, and it may be your own life. It was easier, I suppose, at the time I took the trip because my spiritual condition was so low. I think that made it easy to say, “Well, I don’t care how much longer I live.” It was, in some ways, a cowardice. Nevertheless, it didn’t help when I was up there actually caught in the storm. Then I found that I do care more about living than I [had] realized.
NUWER: Was there quite a bit of difference between your first draft and the eighth draft?
LEAST HEAT MOON: Tremendous difference. The first draft was 800 pages long. The final draft, the one that appears now in print, was 500 pages long. That’s an excision of 300 pages, plus some very important changes in the attention the narrator receives. Essentially, it was a matter of cutting the narrator’s role back to what I hope is close to the bone, and expanding the other Americans in the book. I perceive now that Blue Highways is a book about other Americans, rather than a book about myself and my troubles. The travels are important only in so far as they develop the lives of other people.
NUWER: I could make a case that your book is a nonfiction novel. Would you agree or would you squash that theory?
LEAST HEAT MOON: In a way it is. It certainly uses fiction techniques—dialogue, the development of an idea through action, a continuous and developing plot. There’s a dramatic question in it, that is, will the traveler be able to travel as he hopes, and will he succeed in returning a different man?
NUWER: Have you gotten any mail that said this book has changed people’s lives in any way?
LEAST HEAT MOON: I got a letter from a woman who lives in Washington, D.C., who said that she was reading the book on an airplane, and came across one sentence—a sentence, by the way, in which I quote a farmer in Nameless, Tennessee. He said, “A man becomes what he does.” She read that sentence, and, because her life was strained at the time, it touched her deeply. She got out of her seat, went to the back of the plane, and started crying. Her point in the letter was that she didn’t know now what to do with her life, but she knew very definitely there was something wrong with it. I told her to write a letter to the farmer who appears in the book to tell him how he had changed her life. It was his words that did it.
NUWER: Have you had feedback from the people in the book?
LEAST HEAT MOON: There are two dozen people whose photographs appear in the book, and another hundred or more who appear briefly, without photographs. I’ve heard from virtually all the people whose photographs do appear. I would say the response to the book has been pleasant and interesting. They are delighted to see themselves in print, and I think they are also pleased that their faces and their ideas will last beyond their lifetimes.
NUWER: What about some of the people you didn’t speak as kindly about? For example, you were pretty harsh on a man filled with self-pity that you met in the Arizona desert.
LEAST HEAT MOON: I haven’t been in touch with those people. I don’t know whether they would recognize themselves in the book or not. There are people who appear in the book who reveal facts about their lives that are perhaps too familiar to put their names to, and in the book I do change their names to provide them with some privacy. I always tell the reader when the name is being changed. Otherwise, I think it’s fair for the reader to assume this is an actual person [in the book].
NUWER: The most difficult thing, I would think, about writing such a book about your travels is to find a thread or pattern connecting all points North-South, East-West.
LEAST HEAT MOON: It was a struggle in writing Blue Highways to find a core of themes that would hold together [interviews with] nearly two hundred diverse Americans and their ideas and what they had to say. I think that it would be dishonest to try to put together a trip in which everything you did had a direct correlation with every other thing. But, nonetheless, I did find a core of events and related themes that connect one with the other. The book is very much about time, and about the continuance of the past, and how it shapes not only human values, but the will to go on.
NUWER: You have Osage Indian blood. I think this gives a special quality to the book. Were you so keenly aware of your Indian heritage before the trip, or did the writing of the book bring it to the foreground of your consciousness?
LEAST HEAT MOON: There was a change of consciousness throughout the trip. A friend of mine, who is a Chippewa, wrote me a note. I had not seen this man for a long time, and he wrote me a note after he had read the book, saying Bill Trogdon—that’s my Anglo name; my background is Anglo and Osage—left on the trip, and Least Heat Moon came back. You can see throughout Blue Highways the emergence, the reemergence, I should say, of the Osage notions of time. The notion is that time is circular and cyclical, rather than linear. The Anglo notions of cause and effect—the rational approach to life—get subsumed to Indian notions that are a little more mystical and cyclical.
NUWER: In retrospect, was your journey down America’s blue highways a different trip from what you expected? I’m reminded of a road rule you expressed in the book: “Be careful of going in search of adventure—it’s ridiculously easy to find.”
LEAST HEAT MOON: I wasn’t certain what kinds of adventures to expect. I had a feeling that life had become too controlled and that there wouldn’t be much adventure. I was surprise by the kind of adventures that would pop up: getting stuck in a snowstorm at eleven thousand feet, some rather tense situations in Southern bars, things of that sort. The most rewarding adventure, certainly, was the willingness with which blue highway Americans would bare their lives, ask me to come in for dinner or to offer me a floor to put down my sleeping bag on.
NUWER: Why do you live [close to] Columbia, Missouri?
LEAST HEAT MOON: I like the country here. I find the area beautiful, too. In fact, I find virtually anyplace in the United States beautiful, provided it hasn’t been too much worked over by the hand of man. Columbia’s particularly nice because it’s a point at which East and West and North and South meet. You can go a few miles south of town and the culture, the speech; the customs, the outlook are traditionally Southern. Go north of town thirty minutes and you begin to get the influences of Iowa and Minnesota, a northern culture and speech. Go east an hour or so toward St. Louis and you begin to get Eastern influences. Conversely, when you go west toward Kansas City, you get very much the influence of the prairie. And for somebody who in so many ways is in love with America, Columbia mixes so many aspects of her culture very rapidly and easily.
NUWER: Do you spend a lot of time in the Ozark Mountains?
LEAST HEAT MOON: Some. My father, in fact, grew up in the Ozarks, and someday, I’d like to do a book about the Ozarks. It is written about frequently, although not with much insight too often what comes out is the hackneyed version of the Ozark hillbilly with his coveralls and his corncob pipe. It’s a distortion of what happens there, especially in the 1980s.
NUWER: How do other Americans treat a Missourian?
LEAST HEAT MOON: One of the problems of being a Missourian is that you know who you are, but no one else does. If you go East and tell someone you’re from Missouri, they take you for a cowboy. If you go West and tell someone you’re from Missouri, they take you for an effete Easterner. You go South, you’re a Yankee; you go North, you’re a cracker.
NUWER: Speaking of no-win situations, the one aspect of your book that critics have attacked was that you went to a lot of towns because of their strange names.
LEAST HEAT MOON: I think that kind of criticism doesn’t further anything, because it’s given in the book. In Blue Highways, I would assume you would accept that you have a traveler that has an attraction to peculiar place names. It’s like attacking Moby-Dick because it’s a book about a whale.
NUWER: What are a few of your favorite town names?
LEAST HEAT MOON: I suppose my favorite of all is Nameless, Tennessee—because of the peculiar logic behind naming a town “Nameless”. Dime Box, Texas, is a fine name. So are Klickitat, Washington; Liberty Bond, Washington; Gnawbone, Indiana; Scratch Ankle, Alabama; and Turkey Nest, Texas.
NUWER: How did Dime Box, Texas, get its name?
LEAST HEAT MOON: Dime Box, Texas, has a reasonably well known history of its name. In the early days of the town the people didn’t have a post office. To make a letter out of Dime Box they would walk up to the road where there was a wooden postal box. They would drop their letters in, but since they had no stamps, they would drop in a ten-cent piece to pay for postage. The town grew up around that dime box.
NUWER: Another interesting aspect of Blue Highways is your fascination with words. Can you share the derivation of the term “skid row”?
LEAST HEAT MOON: It’s actually a misunderstanding of history. The proper term is skid road. It was originally a logger’s term for a road that logs can be “skidded” over from one place to another. The skid roads would pass through a certain part of town—in this case a section of Portland, Oregon—and people came to associate this section with the words skid road. After the logs disappeared, people didn’t realize the term was a reference to the road. They thought it referred to down-and-outers, and the rows of buildings these unfortunate men lived in became a row of skids, or skid row.
NUWER: I appreciate your insights into American culture and history. What is it that gives you such an ability to dive below the surface for what has depth and breadth below?
LEAST HEAT MOON: You catch me flatfooted with that one. I would have this as a guess; it’s a willingness to keep probing until you find an answer that, if not always as complete as you like, is, at least, as interesting as you can find. Maybe it’s just the persistence of the historian.
NUWER: What impressed me about your writing was the insight into things that many of us lack. We see bugs smashing against our windshield, and we get irritated by the mess. You marvel instead about the amount of nectar that the bugs had carried inside them, which tells you a lot about their living habits. How did you train your eyes and ears to notice these things?
LEAST HALF MOON: I suppose my mother had a great influence by pointing out the details of whatever happens in daily life. I do know that I’m particularly interested in the details of life. I have a notion that if you get the details right, the larger issue will fall in place. In a way it’s a continuation of the scientific method—the deductive process—in which you try to get points A through Z correct, thereby coming up with a valid conclusion.
NUWER: One of the sadder sections in the book for me was when you wrote about the open range being doomed, and then you drove past a section in front of which were rolls and rolls of barbed wire all set for stringing. The open range is part of American life about to disappear forever.
LEAST HALF MOON: It has a particular resonance for someone of American Indian background, since the open range was in so many ways the essence of life, particularly for the Plains Indians that my people came from. But I also think it’s a loss to all Americans in that we are a people who came here looking for open ranges. The open range becomes a kind of symbol for the American desire for a New World.
NUWER: Is Blue Highways anti-modernist?
LEAST HALF MOON: I don’t think so. If modernism means the obliteration of the signs of the past that remind us where we’ve come from—the kind of heedless modernism—then yes, Blue Highways is opposed to that. If it’s a modernism that promises a greater justice and openness, that’s something different entirely.
NUWER: You were on the road three months, and then you went back to Columbia, Missouri, the place you started from. Were there hooks and barbs pulling you back?
LEAST HEAT MOON: The only hook or barb was that my wallet was virtually empty. I came back with $9.42 in my pocket. I knew that the failing marriage I had left behind was not any better. In fact, coming back, I realized that it was doomed. I had no job to come back to; I had only a rented apartment, a pretty dim place at that. I would have stayed longer, I thing, had I not had to come back and pay the bills. Gasoline in 1978 was about $.65 a gallon, but even so, having traveled that long, I had a gas bill of about $1,200. I had paid that by credit card. I was in debt.
NUWER: “There’s are no yesterdays on the road,” you claim in the book. Explain, please.
LEAST HEAT MOON: I began the trip trying to escape. I was trying to get away from what I thought of as a failed past. It was attractive to go on the road when no one knew who you were or what you had been. You came into a small town a stranger, and the only reality was what you possessed at that particular moment. There was no time past, and no expectations of what you’d done before, to be held against you.
NUWER: Did you feel like a pioneer?
LEAST HEAT MOON: In some ways, yes. Even though I didn’t see a giant forest, I did see great conglomerations of strange and unfamiliar people. I was a pioneer, perhaps, in that sense.
NUWER: Did any of the hundreds of people you met on Blue Highway American see a greater purpose to your journey?
LEAST HEAT MOON: I didn’t talk much about my trip, primarily because the people I was speaking to were not much interesting in me. They would normally ask three questions: Where do you come from? What do you do for a living? Are you married? If there was a fourth question it was, do you have children? That was fine with me. I was there to listen to what other people has to say, and the people were more interested in talking about their lives. And that God they were, because the richness of Blue Highways lies in what they said.
NUWER: Some things that people said [to you] were very funny. I’m reminded of that man who saved his marriage in a rather unusual fashion.
LEAST HEAT MOON: yes, I had just tried to establish some kind of renewed rapport with my wife by telephone, and it had not turned out well at all. The next morning, saddened and disheartened, I had gone into a small three-calendar café in Vermont, and I overheard a conversation about a man and his wife who had been unable to have children. He had gone to a specialist who found that the man had been wearing tight-fitting underwear. The heat had been keeping his sperm count way down. He put back on his old army shorts—the boxer style—, which allow body heat to dissipate. As a result, he said, his wife was pregnant in about three months. I envied at man who could correct his marital problems by changing his shorts.
NUWER: I don’t know if anyone else has mentioned it, but these and other anecdotes brighten up the book. Was the humor difficult to write?
LEAST HEAT MOON: No, I think that was one of the easier things in the book to do. The difficult thing was to keep control of my own sense of desperation that I felt on the trip.
NUWER: I’d like you to elaborate on a quotation form your book that I don’t fully understand. “Other than to amuse himself, why should a man pretend to know where he’s going of understand what he sees.”
LEAST HEAT MOON: It’s, I suppose, a notion that I guess I still hold that we all proceed more or less blindly. Proceeding blindly is what gives life its interest, its excitement. I walked a hedge labyrinth in New Harmony, Indiana—a full-scale labyrinth that a traveler can walk through to find his way into the center. It was a game that the New Harmonists played a century ago. So I started through the hedge and I found that the “right” way in was so worn down on the trail that I had no trouble finding which was the right turn and which was the wrong turn. I walked through without making a single mistake. It dawned on me coming out of that hedge labyrinth that there wasn’t any fun in it that way. Knowing the right way took the point out of the game. I think, in some ways, this is suggestive of life. If we know exactly where we’re going, and how we’re going to get there, it’s going to be a terribly dull trip.
NUWER: I was much affected by your section on the Hopi road to Life. Would you go into that a bit?
LEAST HEAT MOON: There is a very ancient symbol that appears in many ways among the various tribes of North and Central America. In the book, it is used as a kind of design motif. It appears on the cover of the book and about another dozen or so times inside the book. I guess the way to describe it is the Hopi Path of Emergence. It’s a kind of maze, a labyrinth, and the notion behind it is that a human being goes though this maze of experience, the maze of his days, looking for a vision larger than himself. And if he completes this path, the labyrinth successfully, then he may come into some kind of new consciousness, into a new awareness. That very much is what Blue Highways is about. It’s the attempt of a man to see something greater than himself.
NUWER: You took tow books with you on your trip: Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and John Neihardt’s Black Elk Speaks. On the trip, ironically, you bought another book containing the words of Black Elk that advised you not to take a blue highway in life.
LEAST HEAT MOON: The reader can see in the early part of Blue Highways, Walt Whitman predominates where there’s some bitterness and certainly a great sense of loss in the narrator. But as the book goes on, and the narrator moves more into a reemergence, a reawakening of his red background, Black Elk becomes the predominant outside spokesman. It’s very much an awakening of a background that I used to talk about more and think about more as a child than I had in the last thirty years. It was a reawakening, very much so. The Sacred Pipe recounts parts of the ceremonies of the Oglala as told by Black Elk. In that book, Black Elk speak of the blue roads of a person’s life. The blue roads are those roads that are destructive to human understanding and human cooperation. They are roads that are largely traveled by people preoccupied with themselves. And that was the story of my own life up to that point. It was also shocking because I thought I had coined the term, blue highways, only to find it used by a person who comes from the Plains Indiana, with whom I have some connection.
NUWER: Is it fair to say that a boyish male left on the trip and that a man came back?
LEAST HEAT MOON: Certainly an immature person left and a more mature person came back. Whether he’s a man yet, I don’t know. It’s probably not for me to judge. But yes, I think there was an increase in maturity, if we define maturity as that point of points along the way, when somebody decides it’s time for me to increase my capacity to walk in somebody else’s moccasins, the use the Indian notion.
NUWER: It seemed to me that in making the trip, you satisfied a sort of rite of passage during this circular trip across the country, that you became a warrior or brave, enduring things as you did, and coming out of them alive and changed.
LEAST HEAT MOON: Yes, the structure of Blue Highways comes about through my perception of the Indian vision quest in which the young man, the young woman, goes into the wilderness and once again, does what he [or she] can to enlarge his perceptions, to get out of the restrictions of self, the restrictions of egotism. That’s very much the purpose of the vision quest. When I was [first] taking the trip that was not in my mind. It was not at all conscious. But in writing the book, those ideas once again slowly surfaced. It’s easy for me to see now in retrospect that the book is kind of a vision quest. Indians that I’ve heard from who have read the book almost immediately pick that up. It’s part of their background and understanding. Other readers, especially reviewers, more so, in fact, than individual readers, have tended to see the book simply as traveling.
NUWER: The New York Times did that—the reviewer didn’t go into depth at all.
LEAST HEAT MOON: Very few people have taken it beyond the level of traveling at this point. I hope maybe that will come later. Maybe I’m expecting too much.
NUWER: What were your experiences like when you served in the [U.S.] Navy?
LEAST HEAT MOON: Grim would be the description in a nutshell. I disliked my time at the time. I suppose the single happiest moment in my life was the moment I got out of the Navy. Now, in retrospect, I’m very glad that I served. It was an experience that I could have captured in no other way. I suppose in many ways it helped prepare the writing of Blue Highways.
NUWER: You have a 400-page book without any love scenes or sex. Was there any temptation to put any of that in?
LEAST HEAT MOON: There was no temptation because it didn’t happen. There was temptation—or I should say a wish on the road—for it to happen. I’m glad [that it didn’t] in many ways now. It’s evidence that there are many, many people in the United States who are willing to buy a book not based on sex on sex and violence. Thousands of Americans want to read something beyond that. I don’t want to sound like Mr. Wholesome, but it is a rewarding aspect of the book to me.
NUWER: Hopi legends are filled with migrations. Do you plan another such migration in your lifetime?
LEAST HEAT MOON: Nothing planned that I would write about. I’m traveling a good bit of the time. My migrations continue at that personal level, but I wouldn’t want to do a book that is close to Blue Highways. I want whatever comes back to be of a different scope of a different nature.
NUWER: You say in your book that ideas are like conversations with men of other countries. Did you come up with any ideas that have changed your life while you were on the road?
LEAST HEAT MOON: I didn’t come up with anything that’s new and original with me. In fact, much of the point of Blue Highways is that in a sense a person’s job is to rediscover what’s been done before and to put those rediscoveries into some kind of pattern that individually will be new. In other words, a person puts the combination of old things, old ideas, old thoughts and words into a new pattern. That is the part that’s new, and it’s the kind of thing that must be done by every individual. Nobody can do it for you. In that way, Blue Highways is one man’s assimilation and transformation of things that had existed before him.
NUWER: Except for a Hopi student you met, you seemed disappointed in today’s college students that you found on the trip.
LEAST HEAT MOON: I must say that I was. I did most of my teaching in the late Sixties, early Seventies [at Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri], with that at least part of a generation of students who were active, and, at times, volatile. It was an exciting time to be teaching. Sometimes it was irritating, but it was also vibrant and alive. I did teach one course last year, and I found many students excessively concerned with how to bring room and board together, that is, in making a living. I felt that maybe they were willing to pay too high a price to make a secure living, at an age when they should be willing to take risks.
NUWER: Did you find answers, ultimately, after completely the book?
LEAST HEAT MOON: Personal answers? I would say no. I found some ideas that have led me toward a new angle of vision, to quote a man in New Jersey. He spoke of an angle of vision as being so important to a human being. I realized in writing the book that essentially what I wanted [in taking the trip] was a new angle of vision. I do think that the words of so many Americans, and the land itself, helped bring about that new angle of vision. But as far as lasting answers—no. I don’t have any more answers now, but I’m more satisfied with the kinds of questions that I can ask now than I was [able to ask] before.
NUWER: One person you met in the book also has a wonderful philosophy of life. Miss Alice Venable Middletown, a delightful old Maryland woman, says something like everyone should have the gumption to live different and the sense to let everyone else live different.
LEAST HEAT MOON: I thought it as a good definition of what democracy requires of us. We have to be courageous enough to be willing to be different ourselves, but we have to have toleration and respect for other human being, too, and not expect them to have the same view we have, whether of God, politics, or what have you. I met Miss Alice on Smith Island, Maryland, which is an island in the middle of Chesapeake Bay. The trip was virtually over by then. I was beginning to realize ever so faintly that what I was looking for in this angle of vision were the connections that hold a human being to a context greater than himself—connections that hold the present to the past and suggest that the present and past will be part of the future. In many ways, she incisively put together connections for me in whatever we talked about. She felt that to miss the connections was simply to be blind, and all you had to do was open your eyes and see how the past prevailed in so many ways.
NUWER: I’d like to ask you to ask yourself one final question that might be of interest—something I haven’t touched upon.
LEAST HEAT MOON: You’ve done so well, I’m not certain that I can come up with a question that’s of significance that you haven’t touched on. [Pause] I was giving a talk a month ago about Blue Highways in St. Louis. Somebody—a nun wearing a habit—came up after the talk. What she said she meant to be a compliment. She said, “I see that you’re not a typical Indian.” That disturbed me because I’m afraid too many Americans feel that there is a typical Indian. It’s that kind of stereotype that’s been so destructive to Red America. Implicit in what she said is that the typical Indian is not a person who is going to write a book—good, bad or indifferent. That disturbs me. Even though I’m not a full blood, there certainly are any number of Indians who are capable of writing a book like Blue Highways. If the book in any way would help to break down that American notion of Indian stereotypes, I would be very happy about that. If it in some way might enlarge non-Indian America’s perceptions on how the Indian sees the Godhead that would be good too. That may all sound a little pompous and inflated, but nevertheless, it would be a fond wish I would like to see fulfilled.
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THE STORY OF NICK HABEN
The death of rookie athlete Nick Haben, aged eighteen, after a Western Illinois University lacrosse club hazing incident teaches terrible lessons: first, alcohol can kill—anyone—swiftly and painfully; second, risky initiations can go wrong at any time, no matter how long they have been carried out without incident; third, left unchecked, the kind of rampant hazing in colleges that killed Nick Haben will trickle down to high school—the frenzied, one-day high school initiation activities in Des Moines, Iowa and Santa Fe, New Mexico, mentioned earlier in this chapter will gradually lead to fatalities for high school students.
At Oswego (Illinois) High School, Nick Haben had been a popular young man with athletic ability, good looks, and an eye-to-eye smile. He was also a good student and member of the National Honor Society. A nondrinker who admitted to tasting two beers once to satisfy his curiosity, Nick was happy to sip soda at parties. A strong catcher and the most valuable player on his high school baseball team, he went to Western Illinois University hoping to play ball, until he learned the team already had six catchers. Instead, he decided to go out for lacrosse, and he made the club.
Nick and his parents had no idea that the lacrosse club was in a kind of free fall, having just come off a suspension after some players had illegally used the team’s gas credit card to fill their own automobile tanks. Supervision was abysmal, with an adviser in name only. Since being recruited to the job in 1982, Lowell G. Oxtoby, a heavyset librarian with a love for antiques and Delta Tau Delta, the fraternity he also advises, had served as the club’s adviser. But one day, when he came to practice, some of the players mocked him crudely, and he left the field, hurt and bewildered, never to return.
Instead of quitting as adviser and alerting the university, Oxtoby continued to sign authorization slips for travel. He was never aware that veterans initiated the rookies and portrays himself as a victim of team deception. “I didn’t know until this incident,” says Oxtoby. “It had been kept from me completely…. Just as any parent would not know about drinking or smoking behind their backs unless they see evidence of it, because my contact was so minimal there was no way I could detect it.”
…He hadn’t even been aware that the lacrosse club’s president had recently resigned over alcohol problems on the team.
Without an adviser, except in name, the team’s only supervision was a twenty-one-year-old student coach, Brian Donchez. He was assisted by student officers Daniel Carey, Anthony Kolovitz, Scott Rakita, and Marc Anderson. Anderson later said his title was little more than honorific.
On the field, the lacrosse players loved the game and played hard. Once the game started, the rookie status of the hustling midfielder Haben and the other players was forgotten. Off the field, however, the players, in white team jackets, drank beer after practices and on road trips, leaving the non-drinker Haben to return to his residence hall alone. Because the club’s good times revolved around alcohol and Nick’s revolved around his friends, classes, family, and church, only a few teammates got to know him, and vice versa.
Soon, Nick and the other rookies began hearing scary stories about the initiation they would have to endure. Although he was frightened by the prospect and intimidated by some of the veterans, Nick began to think seriously about drinking to support his fellow rookies as they tried to pass the inane test of manhood. Nick’s cousin, Jason Altenbern, talked to Nick the evening before the scheduled drinking marathon and later described Nick as “scared.”
The day of the initiation, veterans broke the hazing into afternoon and evening sessions. The annual team hazing was unplanned and chaotic, much like the club’s own relationship with the university and absent faculty adviser. Many of the players were also members of fraternities, where, in spite of a school ban on kegs, young people often passed out from alcohol during parties. For fun, some fraternity members would become instantly intoxicated by “inhaling” liquor through a bong, or water pipe.
On the afternoon of October 18, 1990, the lacrosse initiation began at 3:30 P.M. One of the veterans produced a paddle, delivering a few stinging shots to the behinds of rookies. A couple of veterans laughed uneasily during the paddling for none of them had been paddled as rookies. Three or four veterans proceeded to growl, curse, and taunt the rookies in feigned anger. Nick and the other eight rookies had to strip to their underwear and run onto the women’s soccer field to perform odd-looking calisthenics meant to make them look foolish. The rookies were given vodka, though Nick declined to drink any, as well as sips from a pail of a foul concoction called rookie juice, composed of tuna, condiments, pepper sauce, clam or lime juice, a little beer, and some schnapps. According to veteran Marc Anderson, each rookie took only a mouthful or two.
The team was released for dinner. Nick gathered with his fellow rookies before the initiation and drank some olive oil and ate half of a load of bread. He had heard somewhere that it was important to coat your stomach before drinking. The team’s rookies went back to the practice field for more hazing and to choke down cheap, bad-tasting wine. Veterans inked a different number on each rookie’s face, then ordered him to do more calisthenics.
Of course no one can know exactly what was on Nick’s mind by this time. Perhaps the couple of sips of alcoholic rookie juice made it harder for him to abstain from drinking more. After performing calisthenics, the team went to the house of veterans Jim Boyer and Steve Kadlec in Macomb. They drank some more while the veterans bombarded them with eggs and rubbed food in their hair.
After washing up at one of the residence halls, the rookies went to a wooded area not far from the practice field. The rookies, under the supervision of a handful of veterans, guzzled alcohol while they participated in a scavenger hunt, displayed the head of a dead squirrel, and leaped over a campfire into a nearby river. The veterans, drunk and glassy eyed, were surprised by Nick, the perennial abstainer, who joined the rookies in the swilling of an astonishing amount of tequila, whiskey, gin, vodka, vermouth, beer, and cheap wine. Because the only benchmark available to Nick that night was alcohol consumption, his actions probably reflected his desire to show the veterans his commitment and loyalty to the team, which was so great that he put aside his usual reservations about liquor.
When at last veteran John Bilenko—a young man who says his attitudes about alcohol were formed by images of his father drinking occasionally hard in social situations—finally yanked a bottle of tequila from Nick, it was way too late to keep him from falling into a coma. Some fluid spilled from Nick’s lips and he keeled over. Instead of panicking or calling 911, the veterans, determined to finish the initiation, put the rest of the rookies through silly stunts and delivered pep talks about how the lacrosse team had been one of their most important college experiences. No one was worried about the teammate passed out on the ground. Every one of them had seen people pass our before, and everyone expected at least another one to pass out before the initiation was over. “Before we heard Nick was dead it was one of the best times I ever had,” said Anderson. “The night was fun. I’m glad I had the experience, the brotherhood, the bonding.”
Predictably, newspaper editorials summed up Nick’s death as a failure to resist peer pressure. Few commentators were perceptive enough to analyze how sports, alcohol abuse, and hazing had become so intertwined in high school and collegiate life. The press also tended to be judgmental, portraying the lacrosse veterans as full-blown villains instead of students who had somehow gotten through high school and college with little knowledge about the complexities of group behavior.
A TERRIBLE VISIT
The next morning Alice Haben was at her job as church secretary, finishing some arrangements for the trip that she, her husband Dale, and teenage son Charles were taking to Macomb that very weekend. Two policemen entered the building a little after 10 A.M. to speak with Reverend Philip M. Dripps in his office. He came out, gathered himself, and broke Alice Haben’s heart in a few bleak sentences. Nick had been found dead on the dormitory room floor of a lacrosse team veteran. A coroner would do an autopsy that afternoon.
No one from the university phoned with details, according to Alice Haben. She had to rely on the coroner and a family relation who worked at the college to find out about Nick’s last hours.
At first, after hearing the reverend’s news, Alice had a moment of hope. Knowing that Nick didn’t drink, she conjectured that the victim must have stolen her son’s identification. But the coroner confirmed that Nick had indeed been the young man who had died from drinking at a party or some sort of initiation. In a fog, Alice went home to break the news to her husband and son, and then made arrangements for Nick’s body to be brought back to Oswego for a Sunday funeral.
On Saturday, after hundreds of relatives, friends, and strangers had come to the funeral parlor, Alice and Dale Haben brought Nick’s high school friends home. They sat with Charles, telling him story after story that brought his older brother to life again.
“It’s 1 A.M.,” a relative complained to Alice. “They have to go home.”
“No,” she said. “They don’t.”