Gentle Brute

The following is another excerpt from my upcoming memoir, COWBOY FROM PRAGUE: AN IMMIGRANT’S PURSUIT OF THE AMERICAN DREAM:

He yearned to be recognized as an intelligent human being, but he was viewed as a dumb jock. My first impression of him was that of a comic-book version of a cowboy. A giant ellipsoidal head was topped by a huge, black Stetson hat and his ears stuck out like two pink spinnakers propelling him forward in the Oklahoma wind.  he resembled Bozo the Clown, parading as a cowboy under a gigantic Stetson hat. There was a gap where his two front teeth once were, and it seemed that he had not been blessed with a neck—-his head grew directly out of his shoulders.

His legs—encased in tight jeans—were bowed so much that, when he walked down the hall of our dorm, he rocked side-to-side so much that people passing him plastered themselves against the wall to avoid being crushed. Yet, this six-foot-tall, 300-pound battering ram wanted—above all else—to be recognized as a bright, perceptive university student.

Now, this giant man among boys was standing in the door of my room.

“Hey, boy,” he growled. “Are you Charlie Heller?”

“Yeah,” I replied.

“I’ve been assigned to be your big brother. My name is Dale Meinert.”

I had the urge to say, Oh, I thought you were Gomer Pyle, because he spoke like the hick character out of “The Andy Griffith Show.” But fearing physical harm and in awe of an All-American football player, I kept my mouth shut.

Oklahoma State University’s Athletic Department had a tradition of assigning big brothers out of the senior class to freshmen on scholarship. The older student was expected to show the newcomer the ropes, to provide advice, and to help an 18-year-old kid away from home for the first time feel comfortable in a foreign environment.

That’s the way it was supposed to be. However, in my first days at OSU, I had heard otherwise. I was told that these seniors referred to their freshman charges as their “slaves”—to be employed to run errands and to cater to their every whim. I expected the worst from the brute standing in my doorway. Funny thing was, while I was awestruck in the presence of such a luminary, I felt superior to him. I may have been a jock, too, but I was a snob. While I was no different from other freshmen, frightened and homesick, I had developed a condescending attitude toward my neighbors in the athletic dorm. I considered myself a true scholar-athlete, one of the few guys playing a major sport while majoring in engineering. Most of the others—particularly football players—were sailing through school, taking easy courses in physical education, and even my future basketball teammates had chosen what campus nerds mockingly called “underwater basket-weaving” as their majors.

“I want you to go to town and get me a six-pack of Busch Bavarian,” said the brute, confirming the rumor about slavery.

I was not about to argue and headed out to a nearby liquor store, where I picked up the 3.2-percent-alcohol beer, the only alcoholic beverage permitted in the dry state of Oklahoma. Upon my return to Bennett Hall, I knocked on Meinert’s door.

“Come on in, close the door, and open a couple of bottles,” he said.

“Cheers. Here’s to your good fortune at Oklahoma State University,” he smiled after taking a long swig. “I’m told that you’re going to major in civil engineering.”

“Yes, I am. What’s your major?” I asked, certain of the answer.

“I’m majoring in English Literature,” he replied, and I damned near fell off my chair.

“Really?” I managed to blurt out.

“You seem surprised. A nasty linebacker studying English Lit—not the usual stereotype, right?”

“I guess not.”

“Look, I’m not what I seem. I drink and cuss with the best of them. Every Saturday, I beat the crap out of the guy who’s trying to protect his quarterback. I’m from a small farm in Lone Wolf, Oklahoma, and my folks didn’t teach me the king’s English. But I love good books, and I love to write. Do you read books?”

“I don’t think I’ve ever had a week when I wasn’t reading a book,” I said.

“When you were assigned to me as my little brother, I was afraid I’d be stuck with a dumb jock,” he said and a smile spread across his large face, which suddenly looked handsome. “I’m really happy that you didn’t turn out to be one. I’m looking forward to you and me having lots of interesting conversations—and they won’t be about football or basketball.”

It turned out that this gentle brute carried a 3.6 grade point average, despite spending hours in the weight room and on the practice field. He became an All-American—the best linebacker in the nation. But he was most proud of the fact that he was named an Academic All-American, and that he graduated with honors. He was drafted by the Cardinals and spent ten years as an all-star in the National Football League.

I felt both honored and humbled. He had befriended me because he was looking for respect as an intelligent, introspective, insightful human being—which he was. Rest in peace, Dale. And thanks for teaching me a valuable lesson.


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