I came from a low-income family (you might even say I came from "abject poverty") and so qualified for work-study assistance in college. That meant the university would either waive a portion of the tuition or pay a stipend per hour worked at various jobs they offered at the university.
So in the fall of 1969, I took a work-study job in food service at the dormitory complex to which I was assigned. I slept in Roskie Hall, but at that time the food service was located in Hedges hall.
I can't speculate what the dining halls at Montana State University are like now; they may well be a bunch of kids wearing virtual reality helmets, eating mouthfuls of soylent green in between sips of soy lattes. I don't know, and frankly, I'm too scared to guess. But in '69, two years after the so-called "summer of love," the kids (I'd call them kids now, but then I'm sure I considered myself oh-so-adult) were composed of two groups that didn't mix all that well, like oil and water. The two groups were, of course, a bunch of young cowboys (and cowgirls) in starched pearl-snap shirts and immaculate shit-kickers, and the other was hippies, or wannabe hippies, who resembled the cast of Hair only a little uglier and more pimply-faced. If you need a soundtrack accompaniment to the scene, just place two 8-track players across from each other, one playing Tammy Wynette and the other playing Jimmy Hendrix. I was positioned in the exact middle between the two groups - a cowboy with longish hair, and certainly not above to affecting a love of peace and harmony if it got me any chicks.
My guess is that about 750 students took meals at the cafeteria, and from about 4:30 PM till about 7:00 PM it was one busy place. I worked just inside a window where the trays were returned to the kitchen, just a bit too tall to look out of comfortably, but if I ducked down a mite I could girl-watch at my leisure. Or, ahem, I mean that I could see students at their tables, and gauge how many were still in the cafeteria -- allowing me to perform my job to the satisfaction of my boss, a large man we called Burger because, I think, he somewhat resembled the horrible brown approximations of a hamburger which were his culinary specialty.
My job at this station was to clean off the trays, dumping the scraps of food into a trough, which I would describe as a raging torrent that emptied into an enormous black hole of a garbage disposal. On my worst days, I imagined being swept up in that torrent and caught in that black hole, which would have made short work of my scrawny meat and thin bones. At that time, I was a little slip of a thing.
The trays went to tray racks, plates into plate racks, cups into their respective racks, and so on. They then moved to the next station on a conveyor where they were then fed into the largest automatic dishwasher I had ever seen. Out the rear end of this washer, came, clean, sanitized, ready to use again. As far as the work went, I have to admit that it was kind of fun.
Of course, I never told Burger, but I may have done it for free as feeding that black hole was a terrifying thrill. It was capable of chewing up silverware that "inadvertently" fell into the horrific maw's gravitation pull. The machine was virtually impossible to stop up, not like today's much wussier garbage disposals, which stop working if a fly lands on them. No, the black hole made short and thrilling work of anything unlucky enough to be fed to it, as I demonstrated to a buddy or two when Burger was away on one of his twice-hourly smoke breaks.
But seeing the gibbets and morsels these kids threw away, I always felt a twinge of guilt for the waste, even though it was not my fault. In a more perfect world, it would have fed a farm full of happy hogs.
One day, with the kind of blinding flash of insight to which I have sometimes been subject in my life, I conceived of a prank. I ducked down one time to see how many kids were still dining, trying to gauge the amount of rush hour remaining, and noticed, through my little tray window a couple of maintenance men, wearing blue MSU coveralls. They needed access to an electrical plug inconveniently located in the middle of the floor.
The electrical plugs were about 25-30 feet apart, right down the center of the dining room floor. I assumed their use was for floor scrubbing machines. The janitors could move some tables in so doing keep the floors spic-and-span. And I often did reflect on just how clean those floors were, most of the time. MSU was, and I think still is a top-notch joint (although I did notice that the school had an unfortunate tendency to let the Grizzlies kick their collective butt during the annual Cat/Grizzlies game).
These workers needed some students to move, so they asked, and the students complied without complaint. A light bulb went on above my head. I thought, wouldn't it be fun to clear this joint some time? In my mind, the majority of students, being like a herd, would do whatever someone in an official-looking jumpsuit would ask them to do.
I was by then a member of a Fraternity. The Greek alphabet symbols shall remain nameless, which in an ideal world that should suffice to protect the innocent. The reality is that there are probably few alive who even could remember that it occurred. It was more than 50 years ago, a fact on which I will not dwell, lest it give me vertigo.
It is actually quite amazing to me that despite being long, long, long past my college days, I still have nightmares of homework assignments due but not turned in to this very day.
So my new friends in the fraternity only needed the gentle push of "we might just meet some chicks" to decide that my idea had merit and could be fun. As Weekend Student Custodians, we reckoned that our authority would be absolute. And as further luck had it, one of my game frat brothers just happened to hold that title. And he had access to the official uniforms of said job title, including the official MSU workers coveralls, royal blue, complete with the MSU in gold lettering on the left pocket. He explained the ease of borrowing some from the laundry and returning them without suspicion. Talk about luck!!
All we needed was a get-away vehicle that had an MSU parking sticker on it and which could be parked close in case the plan went south. That same frat brother, we'll call him Mister X, possessed a red Chevrolet van without any windows, save on the driver and passenger doors, and it had the required parking sticker. He agreed to its being commandeered for the next Friday night (if you're old enough, you too may remember those gorgeous windowless vans; they were the perfect party wagons).
So the plan came together. At the appointed time, three or four of us entered Hedges wearing the uniforms, and, doing our best not to giggle too much, we went about our dirty deed.
"Sorry, we must ask you to leave the tables so we can clear them out for tonight's function."
"Well of course you can still eat your dinner, you just have to hold your trays or sit on the floor."
"No we're not kidding, do we look like we're kidding?"
And in five or six minutes we had cleared the whole dining room, with little complaint from the herd. Most of the chairs were stacked against the walls, next to the tables, likewise neatly folded and stowed.
Eventually, the room had naturally divided once again into two groups - a bunch of cowboys affecting nonchalance as they stood, holding their trays in one hand while they tried to stab at their salisbury steaks with the other, and a group of hippies all too happy to sit cross-legged on the floor. We had proved, if proof were needed, that people will listen to someone in a uniform.
But on our way out, as we all attempted to exit and rendezvous at the van, I ran into Burger, invariably attired in an apron which may once have been white but which had long ago turned yellow under the deleterious influence of grease and tobacco, returning from one of his beloved cigarette breaks. The big lunk, God bless him, wasn't too bright.
"Shelton! I didn't know you worked maintenance, too! Yer a hard workin' man."
"Er, yep," I said. "Just clearing out the cafeteria for tonight's event."
He scratched his head. "What's tonight's event?"
Quick-thinking provided a likely-enough excuse: "well, it's a hoe-down, didn't you know?"
"A hoe-down? Hell no, I didn't know. Thank God I don't have to be here for that," he said, and returned to his station at the grill.
We escaped to the van and later had a few forbidden beers back at the frat house, laughing most of the weekend. The only way in which we considered our expedition to be in any way a failure was that none of the young women seemed particularly impressed with us.
And while I eventually graduated and became a productive citizen of the world, I have still retained, from first-hand experience, a certain degree of skepticism regarding men in official uniforms.
Gary Shelton was born in Lewistown in 1951 and has been a rancher, a railroader, a biker, a teacher, a hippie, and a cowboy. Now he's trying his hand at writing in the earnest hope that he'll make enough at it to make a downpayment on an RV. Hell, scratch that. Enough to buy the whole RV. He can be reached at [email protected] for complaints, criticisms, and recriminations. Compliments can be sent to the same place, but we request you don't send them - it'll make his head big.