Two years before,
traveling through the big cities of Texas, I had heard the place mentioned
briefly, always in the sort of terms men use when reminiscing on wartime
assignments in forlorn outposts. "Sing Sing on the Brazos" was the
expression that kept cropping up. The specific location, to judge by the
conversation at cocktail parties in garden apartments, was exactly in the
middle of nowhere. Now, driving northwest of Houston on Highway 6, I watched
the windshield grow blemished with the remains of insects until, suddenly
struck with a distressing after thought, I pulled off the road to make certain
I had packed the bottle of bourbon. Happily for the long nights ahead, it was
there. "Try the Gulf station," a man in Houston had told me with an
evil chuckle when I asked about night life.
The town is
there, one supposed, because the college is. The college has a football team,
and for that reason Texas A&M is known from Seattle to Bangor, Me., but
vaguely. Many erroneously believe that the "M" stands for Mining or
Military. Texans, of course, know that A&M means Agricultural and
Mechanical, but they snidely describe the football stadium as a place "that
can't grow grass or get the scoreboard to work." It is true, certainly,
that last fall the football team surprised a great many people by winning the
Southwest Conference championship, and then won a brief taste of nationally
televised glory by upsetting Alabama in the Cotton Bowl game. Now, though, the
only moment of that New Year's Day afternoon that still came clearly to mind
was the 21-inch picture of the Alabama coach, Bear Bryant, helping to carry off
his onetime prot�g�, Aggie Coach Gene Stallings—Bryant tottering like a big old
roughneck who has drunk too much beer at the Teamsters' picnic and gotten
In light of the
derision heaped upon Texas A&M, it seemed inconsistent that her inmates
should rise up from their Spartan, masculine retreat in central Texas to win a
bowl game in living color, a turn of events that suggested a firsthand look at
the place. The mayor of the town, I had learned, proposed a year ago that the
community get rid of its name, College Station, because the legislature had
promoted the college to university status and the railroad station had closed
down. He ought to have known better. Right away the wiseacres over at the
University of Texas, in Austin, whipped up a contest to help him find a new
name. A coed won. She said, "Call it Malfunction Junction." The mayor
decided College Station wasn't a poor name after all.
But worst of all
(or perhaps best of all, from the viewpoint of Texans who wet their lips at the
prospect of seeing Aggies squirm) are the Aggie jokes. Polish jokes told in the
North and the Cajun jokes relayed through Louisiana probably are no more than
adaptations from the hundreds, if not thousands, of Aggie jokes that have been
traveling across Texas for nearly half a century. Texas humor pictures an
Aggie—and the term is used as a general heading for both students and alumni—as
being awkward, unkempt, inept at sex, devoid of humor and, above all,
have produced so many gags that a Dallas adwoman and two associates have been
able to publish two profitable Aggie jokebooks. Aggie jokes survive, on and on,
largely because they succeed in enraging Aggies. Not long ago the alumni
magazine advised its readers that any Aggie who laughs at an Aggie joke "is
a sick bird."
Aggies have even
recently begun to mount a counterattack against Aggie joke tellers. If anything
is more important to Texans than their pride, it is, obviously, their
pocketbooks, so, wisely, the Aggies have chosen to effect economic reprisal.
For instance, at a recent business luncheon in Dallas, an insurance executive
led off his talk with an Aggie joke. Before he could continue his speech, an
Aggie in the audience rose and declared: "That joke just cost you the half
million in insurance my company had placed with you."
Even in football,
a game at which the Aggies intermittently have managed to excel, circumstances
relentlessly spill them into ditches where they lie helpless while their
tormentors look down and guffaw. Since World War II the Aggies have won the
conference championship only twice—1956 and '67—and both times had their ears
boxed by the conference for violating codes of ethics. They can't read the
rules, their detractors snicker, or they're just too clumsy to get away with
cheating. Another possibility is that their rivals gang up on them. "I
would hate to think so," Gene Stallings was to tell me dryly in College
Station later, adding pointedly, "Let's just leave it at that."
toward College Station, I concluded that the most cheerful view of my
destination could be had by imagining the worst, in which case a certain amount
of antique charm was possible. I decided, then, that A&M would surely be a
collection of decrepit buildings sitting in a desolate plain. Students would be
taking instruction in cow-milking, and the cows would be kicking half of them
off their stools.
however, the countryside along Highway 6 revealed itself to be rich green
farmland that rolled on pleasantly, bordered by elms and live oaks and
sycamores and Texas walnuts. Suddenly, as the road pierced College Station
itself, a sweep of manicured turf unfolded on the left. Could it be an 18-hole
campus golf course? It was. A left turn through twin stone columns led behind
the golf course to a vast tract of stately buff-colored and cadmium-orange
buildings, of walks shaded by a sumptuous variety of trees, of the sort of
lawns that are now but memories to many American universities weighted to their
seams with brick. A low-slung modern building housed a $6 million cyclotron.
The mind's eye pictured Aggies inside, banging away with their wrenches to get
the thing to work.
Well, never mind.
Why not stroll the shaded walks and get a closer look at the young butts of
those Aggie jokes? Many wore khaki, being members of the Aggie corps of cadets,
which includes 25% of the male student body. "Howdy!" the youngest of
these barked as they passed by. The howdies mounted, coming on the average of
once a minute. It developed that freshman cadets—"fish," they are
called—are required to howdy just everything that moves, and inasmuch as I fell
into that category I found that there was nothing to do but howdy back.
"Howdy!" "Howdy," "Howdy!" "Howdy." Awright,
already. Sometimes they overtook me from the rear, lunging up alongside,
whipping out a hand to grasp mine. This is known as Whipping Out.