Finally – I was free! Free from school! I graduated high school in 1976, after having received an unexpected scholarship to the Florida Institute of Technology, where I had grandiose plans of becoming a marine biologist. Little did I know that it would eventually lead me to the Great Sand Suck of 1977.
One of the harder things I found myself doing in 1976 was saying goodbye to my high school friends. I had been with them in the same classes every day for 4 years – that’s a hard thing to leave behind. Most of them were staying in New York, but of course being the weirdo of the group I had to go to Florida.
And of course I said “see you later” to family – also a tough thing to do. I knew how the Apollo 11 astronauts felt – voyaging forth to a strange new world on just a wing and a prayer. Still, there came that fateful day in August when I packed my trusty Triumph TR-6 with as much stuff as I could, pointed her south and hit the gas.
Having A F.I.T.
The trip down I-95 was fairly uneventful. This was before the days of MapQuest and GPS, however, so I had a glove-box full of maps to guide me. Getting through Washington D.C. was the first major barrier – I made several loops of the city before I could figure out how to get back on the main highway, and I’m sure anyone watching was greatly amused at the geek with the New York license plates.
I took my time driving down, and as a result it took 3 days or so, which meant staying at a few motels along the way. Being a future college student, this of course meant choosing my overnight stay based on price – not always a good decision. I discovered southern accents (which were charming), southern bugs (which were terrifying) and southern cooking.
Ah, southern cooking – hush puppies and grits! To a northerner this was exotic cuisine. The first time I had grits was in a tiny Mom-and-Pop diner off the main road, and when they served up grits with my eggs I’m afraid I reacted like Joe Pesci in My Cousin Vinny:
Still, they were good if not a little bland, and they filled the void enough until my next stop.
Finally, a little bashed out from the drive, I arrived in Melbourne, Florida, home of F.I.T. I was ready to assume my place in the matriculated world and become the next Jacques Cousteau. I would have a new species of fish named after me, I would sail the seven seas in search of adventure and they’d even create a song in my honor.
Kelton and Avi
Like most newly-arrived college students, my first few days on campus were a blur. I had to learn the lay of the land, find my dorm-room, buy books and supplies, and generally get settled in before the start of classes.
It seems that the administrators had over-enrolled the Institute that year, so I was sharing my room with two other students – Kelton and Avi. We were jammed in tight, but we figured out the best layout so that each of us had at least 3 square feet of private space.
Kelton was a thin, 6’7″ tall Bahamian with a deep, booming voice and a great sense of humor. Avi was an exchange student from Israel with prior service in the Israel Defense Forces and a hook for an arm as a reminder of his time served. He was quieter than Kelton but still seemed a nice guy overall.
Because of his size, we agreed that Kelton would got the single bed and Avi and I would share a bunk bed, me on top and Avi below. The first night in a strange place is admittedly a bit rough, but this night would set the tenure for my brief stay at the college.
At around 2am Avi began screaming and wildly swinging his hook in the air, snagging it on the thin mattress above him – the mattress containing yours truly. I tried to roll off onto the floor, but every time I made a move in that direction a sharp, curved, stainless steel hook would appear from within the mattress.
Luckily Kelton had bee woken up with the screams and came to my aid, waking Avi up and ending his nightmare. It wasn’t a popular term back then, but I’ve since determined that Avi was suffering from PTSD. He apologized profusely, saying “Philips, I’m sorry, I’m sorry” (his name for me was “Philips” – not sure why the plural, unless he was addressing my multiple personalities) and I reassured him it was no big deal, as my heart-rate finally returned to normal an hour later.
In the morning, right around sunrise, Kelton challenged me to a game of one-on-one in the basketball courts. This 6’7″ former Olympic vollyball player wanted to spar with 5’11’ me. Ugh. But he was such a nice guy that I agreed, and got tromped as a result, but he DID buy me breakfast.
Finally the first day of classes began, and a freshly-scrubbed, pink-cheeked Philly dutifully strode off to the main building to take his place among the literati. I followed along in the huge textbook as the instructor droned on about this, that and the other thing, taking notes as best I could.
The day continued that way, great masses of us newcomers confusedly shuffling through buildings, running to make it to class on time and getting the stink eye from the professor when we’d fall into our seats a minute late. By the end of the day we were all pretty much exhausted, not just from the constant running but from the hoots and hollers of the upper-class men. Oh, well, thought I – that’s the price you pay for being a freshman. The same thing had happened in high school, so at least I was somewhat better prepared mentally.
The first few months continued at this frenetic pace, but somehow I began to adjust to it. But I DID notice something very odd, something that didn’t quite sit well with me, who was used to achieving high honors in his studies.
I got my first test back – I think it was in English, one of my better studies – and I had gotten a “D”! A “D”?!? I’d never gotten less than an “A” in that subject, and THAT was when I was taking the test hung-over and stoned!
Then the results of our first tests in the other subjects began to filter back – a “C-” in chemistry? A “B-” in calculus?
A “D” in “Intro to Marine Biology”?!? Come on! I KNOW we were being tested on chapters 1-4 – the instructor had made a point of emphasizing that’s what the test would be on. But when I looked at the textbook that evening, I discovered to my horror that he had actually tested us on chapters 5-8.
We had been gamed, and artfully so. Why? Why would they do this?
The Great Gaming
After several late-night conferences among other freshmen we finally figured out what was going on: F.I.T. had, in its academic wisdom, over-enrolled the freshman class that year and had decided upon the tactic of outright deceit to thin the herd. The professors were complaining about class sizes, resources such as the cafeteria were running out, and the entire ergonomics of the situation – such as three guys in a two-guy room – were out of kilter. So, their answer was to trick us into getting angry and just packing our bags.
Usually I would not give in to a situation like that because of my stubbornness. I made countless appointments to see the Dean, but somehow he was always in a meeting. Letters to the board members went unanswered. No one would address the elephant in the room.
So, having exhausted any reasonable means short of explosives to gain the attention of the higher-ups, I sadly packed my bags, said goodbye to Kelton and Avi (who were likewise packing up) and decided to give myself a well-earned vacation. Hey, I was in Florida – where vacations were invented! I would have a great ol’ time!
The Great Sand Suck
Besides – I wanted to put off facing another New York winter as long as I could, so I got a cheap place to stay near the beach, took up SCUBA diving and filled out my marine biology fantasies. I got into the beach boy lifestyle – swimming and sunning during the day and making the rounds of the local bars at night. I picked up a bouncer job this way, which went to cover my meager living expenses.
One day – it must have been after a VERY long shift at work – I started thinking about Daytona, Florida, and how they used to drive their cars on the beach. For some ungodly reason I got the urge to do the same thing, so I fired up the TR-6 and headed down to the beach.
Ignoring the common-sense fact that a low-slung British sports car isn’t exactly the ideal vehicle for such an outing, I hit the gas and started flying over the dunes.
Car gets stuck.
There I am, Joe Cool, spinning his tires furiously, sand flying all over. Then my radiator, which was always a delicate thing, decided to give up the ghost and start bellowing great clouds of steam.
I was done for. I was miles from home and hundreds of feet from any real road. No phone. I got out and slumped down on the side of the car, ready to cry.
That’s when I heard a vehicle approaching. It was coughing and sputtering. I looked up and what should I behold but some sort of ex-military truck with huge tires, a convertible, with a bunch of people in it. They waved and drew up next to me.
“Ya stuck?” asked a fellow in the bed of the truck, with a beard that almost touched the ground and hair that made Phyllis Diller look modest. He was surrounded by a large group of what I can only describe as various male and female hillbillies. Scenes from Deliverance flashed through my head.
I told him what happened, and all of a sudden everyone jumped out of the truck. I thought for sure this was the end, and I dropped into a fighting position, determined to go down swinging. Instead, they pulled out a tow strap and some chains, hooked my car up to them, and proceeded to pull the car out of the sand and onto the main road with their big ol’ powerful truck.
I was speechless. I finally recovered enough to start talking to them as they towed my car to a nearby garage. They invited me to stay with them and brought out a wonderful dinner. We all talked until early in the morning, then we all crashed, me in their “guest room” on a comfy twin bed.
We kept in touch for the remainder of my time in Florida and I brought them a huge food basket before I went back to New York.
Just a good thing I didn’t sleep in the barn with their daughter!