March 25th, 2010

Last week I was sat down in front of a camera and subjected to a battery of questions, not a single one of which I knew the answer to. And before I go on, let me assure you that I’m well aware that a preposition is the worst thing one can end a sentence with.

My interrogator was a professor of communications at the University of Utah, the same institution of higher learning that forty-five years ago refused to admit me as a student. Why? Because the University of Utah has “high academic standards.” This according to the dean of the English department, who encouraged me to seek “other options.”

At the time, my options were somewhat limited. It was either get into grad school or go directly to Vietnam. So, as you can imagine, I was sorely disappointed.

I had been rejected because of substandard undergraduate grades. Did this mean I was stupid? No, it only meant that I was ignorant. I had grown up in an environment where ignorance is nothing to be ashamed of; in fact, the majority of citizens in my hometown are not only ignorant but darn proud of it. Same goes for their elected representatives.

Only recently had I discovered books. And ideas. So my mediocre grade point average was a reflection of where I had come from, not where I aspired to go. In my interview with Dean Eble, I had argued that those applicants most in need of education should not be shown the door but, rather, shunted to the front of the line.

Alas, my argument fell on deaf ears, and I was shown the door.

Today I understand that Dean Eble was actually doing me a big favor. Had I been admitted to the hallowed halls of academe in 1966, what would have become of me? Let’s see. The war dragged on for another ten years, which means I would have earned at least two doctorates. I’d be a professor of English, or perhaps communications—whatever that is. I’d be conducting a study of something, or perhaps I’d be preparing to conduct a study of something. Eventually I might even venture off campus and actually do something—depending upon whether or not I’m able to secure a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

The learned professor of communications had asked to interview me because I have become something of an expert on the subject of Utah’s West Desert. I’ve wandered forty years in the wilderness, conducted interviews, taken photographs, scribbled notes. I’ve authored numerous magazine articles and a book, and now, finally, I have come to the attention of the grand pooh-bahs of academe.

They are thinking of making a documentary about Wendover–a place I know a little about, although not nearly as much as there is to know. Problem is, my interrogator didn’t ask me a single pertinent question. Instead, he went down a list of prepared talking points. What could I tell him about a certain Mr. Jones, he asked?

“Nothing,” I answered.

“The sculptor Karl Momen?”

“Next to nothing,” I answered.

“Expand, if you will, on the concept of ‘whimsy.’ And please, phrase your comments in the form of a paragraph.”

He had me there. I hadn’t the faintest idea what he was driving at. Oh, I have heard the word ‘whimsy’ in reference to a newspaper that a friend and I once published in Wendover, but never in my life have I ever set out to write something whimsical. I just do my best to describe what I see. But I suppose if you’re a professor of communications, the first order of business, before you set out to understand something, is to label it. If you can’t label something, how the hell can you possibly fit it into the curriculum?

I have a sinking feeling that I failed the interview. For the second time in my life, I slunk off campus with my head bowed and tail tucked between my legs, taking care not to get smacked by the ivied gate as it slammed shut behind me, once again, with a resounding clank.

-Richard Menzies