This is the story of writing when you are too young to know anything, and about almost destroying an eye at age eighteen. It may take me a bit to get to the eye bit of the story, but it’s all of a piece. Now I’m 52 and have had recent eye trouble and since useable eyes are so critical to the work of a writer I recalled when I was young and at university and trying to write and the time I almost wrecked an eye while drinking.
Writing was different then, being eighteen with no computer and I didn’t have a typewriter either. I wrote longhand in notebooks and nobody read what I wrote or knew that I wrote unless I showed them. I wasn’t writing to be read and back then you had to write something long-form for publication as far as I knew, and then go get a copy of Writer’s Market for $14 at the Waldenbooks in the mall, and then spend months or years sending off queries—which I had no stomach for; Never developed a desire to do that game. I wrote mainly very short stories or poems for myself, exercises in writing, and they were all self-indulgent and very bad. But I never planned on publishing and had no idea that Indie publishing would rise up sometime a quarter century later.
People often sometimes ask me when I started to write, and that was probably it, my freshman year in college. I was alone a lot so I read constantly. I’d always read a lot, but never seriously. It was at that time that I realized that reading was critical to an understanding of the world and the search for truth in it. I wasn’t a Christian then, but I had no prejudices about what I read. I read religious books and classics of literature and historical biographies too. Naturally I started writing because I had an overwhelming desire to document that time, at least to myself. I think it was a way to declare that my life had meaning, since I documented it, and I was very impressed with myself though the writing was awful. That’s really how you learn to write. The long tortuous lifetime of work trying to make it less awful.
I didn’t start writing using a typewriter until much later; that would have been ‘89 while working midnight shift at the juvenile jail and then I had access to a government electric typewriter and all the typing paper I could want. But in ’85 I wrote longhand on legal pads or in notebooks and it was all really just for me. Short stories and bad poems and self-reflective nonsense a mile wide but an inch deep.
In that fall of ’85 or early ’86 I was living in Weymouth Hall dorm at Texas Tech and I didn’t have any real friends and didn’t make new ones easily at all. My roommate was from my high school and we really didn’t like each other—had not liked each other in high school—but we hung out with some other friends from the dorm or from Odessa where I’d gone to high school.
Up until I broke my arm and hand all at once I played basketball eight hours a day, and after I broke them and knew my athletic career was over before it started, I became a little more social. I wound up working at the dorm cafeteria because I could sit on a stool and take IDs with one hand and met some more people that way.
I pledged a fraternity with the roommate I didn’t much like because he was a legacy and was guaranteed a bid to join the frat. They wanted me for my basketball skills for their intramural teams and it seemed to me that $25 dues for all you can drink and parties with hundreds of beautiful co-eds sounded like a good deal.
I could play basketball even with my one broken wrist and hand in a cast if I was careful, and still beat most of the people I played against. I had come to grips with the fact that I wasn’t going to play college ball, but I still liked to play and it helped me meet people. So even though I wasn’t the fraternity type, I played basketball well enough and had $25 a month to spend and no real friends, so I decided to join up. It was a mistake and didn’t last long, but it was an experience I might write about at another time.
I didn’t go to class much that semester and when I wasn’t skipping and drinking I was skipping and sleeping in or trying to write, which made the writing worse with all the self-loathing and loneliness. No one writes well when all they can think about is within themselves. And there is a cycle there when you are unhappy and without direction and you drink more and make even worse decisions and become more introspective and unhappy. Some say that bad decisions are good writing experiences but I disagree that they are the kind with the most value.
There was a bar right across from campus on Main Street near University Avenue called Bash Riprocks, and this was years before my friend Mike Fuqua owned it and later after I was married with one child and we’d returned to Lubbock in the mid-90s that bar became a much bigger part of my life. At this point, though, I had never been to Bash’s though I had heard about it. It was a college bar with a black and white checkerboard floor, a juke box, and a cigarette machine, and cheap drinks, and I went in there for the first time with a group of friends with the express purpose of getting very drunk. It was a Saturday before a football game and we were drinking cheap pitchers of beer and got very drunk and then someone had the idea of ordering something called a “flaming Dr Pepper.” As you can expect, a flaming Dr Pepper came as the name specifies and it was burning with blue alcohol fire. The theory was you were supposed to either blow it out or drop it into a beer or just drop it into the beer or something (I can’t recall. I don’t think we or the bar tender knew what we were doing.) I’t’s been a long time. I either blew on it hard or didn’t but I had my face over the beer when I dropped it in the glass, I can’t recall which. In either case I got my drunk face right over it and the flaming liquid splashed up into my eye. It hurt, and I pretended it didn’t, and we all laughed and that was that.
A week later, fleshy tendrils of vein activity were showing in my eye, and the little pink veins were growing bigger and forming a bit of an almost Sci-Fi-like chrysalis and I decided to go to the quack shack to have it looked at.
The quack shack was the student medical center, and it wasn’t anywhere near as bad as it sounds or as people pretended it was. It was a minor emergency facility manned by real doctors and a lot of students from the med school, and frankly every time I used the place I got great medical care and it was all free.
They checked me in and then one at a time these docs would come in and look at my eye through their equipment. They were professional and didn’t laugh in front of me, though I could see the tightness in their jaws and faces as they asked me questions. Everyone oohed and aahed and there were calls placed and eventually they asked me if they could take pictures for use in medical student training and education. My eye would be featured in a future medical text book. They explained that the sugar from the flaming drink had crystalized in my eye and like a small shard of glass it was now lodged in my cornea. The eye, hoping to rid itself of the irritant, had responded by surrounding the shard with fleshy vascular tendrils. I was impressed and embarrassed and even more groups of med students were paraded through my room to take a look at the freak show going on in my eye. Everyone tried not to laugh, but some of the students laughed openly and shook their heads or winked at me. I didn’t care. It was humiliating and I’d already started to learn that humiliation is good for a writer.
Finally, a schedule was made for me to come in for an advanced procedure which basically came down to a small robot removing the shard from my eye, after which everything was fixed and my eyes were back to normal within a few days. The procedure was filmed for medical education purposes. I signed releases and whatnot and tried to play along with the joke because of my need for humiliation in my own education.
Of course back then you didn’t sue anyone for your own stupidity, or for their negligence in serving a flaming alcoholic beverages to a bunch of drunks. Later on, my friend Mike and his parents bought that bar and I worked there as a bartender and a bouncer and I’m sure I’ll write more about that time in my life at some point. The day I met Mike a little over nine years later it was Thanksgiving Day and I was sitting at the bar and the place was almost completely empty. Mike was bar tending and I told him the story of my eye (I hadn’t been back in Bash’s since that Saturday as a freshman) and how the place had a warm place in my heart and eye. We decided that day to become friends and business partners, but like I said… that’s a story for another day.