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A ShysterBall reader asked me the other day why I lived in Ohio (he actually asked me why anyone would live in Ohio, but I can’t really answer that question). The short answer is that I’m here because I went to Ohio State for college and decided that, after three years of law school in D.C., Columbus was a nice compromise between my country upbringing in West Virginia and the increasingly annoying big city. How I got to Ohio State, however, is a longer story.
Aside from a couple of semesters of messing around at commuter schools, neither of my parents went to college. Neither did my grandparents. Neither did most of my friends’ parents or any of my neighbors. While my folks weren’t themselves blue collar, we just happened to live in places where blue collar people could make a decent living, so college just wasn’t a major factor in anyone’s life. Still, once I started getting good grades and scoring really high on achievement tests as a kid, it was always sort of assumed that I’d go someday, even if no one really planned for it. Really, we were all kind of casually ignorant about the whole process.
Despite some struggles with math and science, my overall grades were above average. I scored respectably if unremarkably on the SAT and ACT exams. On the power of those things, nearby Concord College and Marshall University sent me letters offering tuition waivers during the summer before my senior year, so it seemed that at the very least, I would be going somewhere. Not that I was all that enthusiastic about staying in West Virginia for college. Neither a Marshall nor Concord degree really travels, and the career pickings for those staying near home were pretty damn slim. Unless I wanted to teach school in Beckley – which had actually crossed my mind for a while – I knew I needed to go out of state.
So I sent away for applications from a half dozen places like UVA, Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State, and UNC, with the idea being that (1) if I went to school out of state, I would want to be within a day’s drive of home; and (2) if I didn’t know what the hell I wanted to do with my life (I didn’t), I had better go someplace big where I would have a lot of options. I received unsolicited packages from dozens of other places, mostly smaller liberal arts colleges in Virginia and Ohio. Over the course of a few weeks I tried to imagine what each of these places would be like. Given that the only concrete information I had to go on in those pre-Internet days was their brochures, they all seemed like they’d be nice, leafy places with stately buildings and a charmingly multicultural student body.
I was far more concerned with how I was going to pay for it all. Having moved several times, Mom and Dad were never more than a couple of years into a thirty year mortgage and, let’s face it, we had always lived a little bit above our means via credit card debt. We took a lot of nice vacations, but as a result, there wasn’t a college fund waiting for me upon graduation. As such, I was looking at either a scholarship or hefty loans. While I ultimately went with the latter option, I ran out all of the ground balls on the former one, which included a several-month flirtation with the ROTC.
Not that I was enamored with the military. To the contrary, by virtue of typical teenage rebellion and the fact that most of the considerable amounts of pop culture I had consumed growing up was informed by Boomer-era anti-establishment sensibility, I had quite the aversion to the military. This despite the fact that my grandfather, father, and brother had all served in the Navy. I may have been painfully naive, but as far as I was concerned, the liberals, punks, and hippies were right about everything that mattered, and the military was full of wannabe Nazi squares, with the possible exception of my brother. The Kurt Vonnegut books I had recently gotten into didn’t help matters.
Still, I was either cynical or deluded enough to think that I could endure four or five years in the military if it meant a free college education. After all, if I were to take an ROTC scholarship I would likely be an office bound officer as opposed to some piece of cannon fodder. If things got bad enough once I started active duty I could just pretend to be gay or crazy and get myself booted. Finally, thinking that in the event a war broke out I’d rather have the bad guys shooting at whatever it was I was driving as opposed to shooting at me personally, I sent off applications to the Navy and Air Force ROTC programs.
The Air Force must have just been giving them away, because they responded almost immediately, offering me a scholarship and telling me that I could go to any college I wanted as long as I majored in computer science or engineering. This struck me as crazy. I mean, they already had my transcripts, so they must have seen my dreadful math and science grades when they made their offer, right? Grades aren’t everything – mine may have been more a function of my lack-of-interest as opposed to a lack-of-aptitude – but on what possible basis could anyone conclude that I’d make a good engineer? The Navy seemed to have their shit together a bit better. They took longer to respond, but when they did they conditioned my scholarship on my passing a series of aptitude tests.
That October, my Dad and I drove down to Virginia Tech’s campus in Blacksburg, Virginia where they would be administered. Though I wouldn’t be obligated to go to VT even if I got the scholarship, my observations of the place gave me serious pause about the whole endeavor. Virginia Tech’s ROTC program was different than most. They call it the “Corp of Cadets,” and it’s run like a mini-West Point rather than some unpopular extracurricular program. As I walked around Blacksburg that day I saw nothing but overclocked adrenaline junkies in their pressed gray uniforms yelling “boo-yah!” and the like to each other at every opportunity. It wasn’t the sort of thing that made me want to join their ranks, but I took my tests – passing them all – and a few weeks later got essentially the same offer from the Navy that I did from the Air Force.
While I tried to figure out if I could actually stomach the life of a military engineer, Saddam Hussein decided to invade Kuwait. President Bush sent my brother (and a few others) to the Persian Gulf to straighten it all out, and suddenly being a cheerleader for the military was no longer unfashionable. I worked at a radio station at the time (more on that in another post), and that fall I was tasked with playing hastily-recorded, jingoistic anthems by guys like Hank Williams, Jr. Mom and Dad took to watching CNN 24 hours a day. After more than 15 years of the post-Viet Nam blahs, everyone was war crazy again. While I’m certain that there were a dozen other things that would have eventually caused me to reject the ROTC scholarships anyway, the outbreak of the war is what ultimately turned me off to the whole idea, and it all came to a head one morning in Columbus, Ohio.
I had recently been accepted to Ohio State, and Dad and I drove up to visit the campus and the ROTC program to see if it was the right place for me. It was January 17, 1991. The fighting in Kuwait had started the evening before, and Dad and I had watched it unfolding in real time from our hotel room. While we would have preferred to stay glued to the TV, we had an appointment with the Ohio State’s Commandant at 9AM, so we reluctantly came to campus that morning.
Upon arriving at the ROTC building, we passed a student lounge with a television tuned into the war coverage, surrounded by a couple dozen of uniformed cadets. Cheers and high fives erupted with each bomb blast and Tomahawk missile strike. The cadets’ glee at the outbreak of war was obscene to me, and not just because I was a anti-establishment kid conditioned to think such a thing by Boomer culture. I had a brother there. Though it would soon become the popular – albeit erroneous – consensus that the first Gulf War was an unequivocally righteous and bloodless triumph, I knew that each of those blasts meant the deaths of several people. No matter if they were Iraqis, Americans, angels, or Nazis, this was nothing to be cheered.
Leaving the lounge, Dad and I went to meet with the Commandant. He was a nice enough fellow who was far more scholarly than I would have expected. Still, he couldn’t go three sentences without making excited reference to the day’s carnage, no doubt thinking it would help him sell me on the scholarship and his program. I was getting sick to my stomach as the conversation continued, tuning him out until it was eventually just him and Dad talking.
We wrapped up our meeting and walked outside to take a stroll around the campus. The farther we got from the ROTC building the better I felt. By the time we made it across the Oval and down to Mirror Lake, I knew that I wasn’t going to be taking any ROTC scholarship. Having made this decision, I was overtaken with relief. A positive mojo beam from deep within me, bouncing off the buildings and back at me, intensifying the euphoria. I hated those bastards at the ROTC building, but I was liking Ohio State, because it was the first place I had felt content about college and my future since the whole process had begun.
I didn’t tell Dad that I wouldn’t be taking the ROTC scholarship for a few days. He wasn’t particularly happy about it – it meant some huge college debt was in the offing – but he didn’t give me much grief either.
Within a few weeks I would receive rejection letters from Michigan and Virginia (justified, in my view, based on my lackluster SAT scores) and acceptances from Penn State, North Carolina, and a couple of small liberal arts colleges that I was never really considering. Having been in the south for a few years and wanting out, going to North Carolina seemed like a step in the wrong direction. Another gigantic state school, Penn State seemed interchangeable with Ohio State in my mind, but got demerits for being in the middle of nowhere. Of course, given the good vibes I had felt at Ohio State that January morning, I had pretty much made my decision already.
I moved into the dorms at Ohio State on September 21, 1991, started classes four days later, and graduated on June 9, 1995. For all of the stuff you hear about big football schools, I think I got a pretty fabulous education. Following three years of law school in Washington, I moved back and have been here ever since.
There’s a lot I like about it. There’s a lot I don’t like so much. Either way, I’ve now lived in Columbus longer than anywhere else, so there’s no denying that it’s home.