My dad, James Whitmore, Part Nine

Always a next step. Upon graduation from high school – something many of us believed would never happen – college loomed overhead like impending doom.

Nobody in my family had finished college except my dad. He’d graduated from Yale. He pushed hard for me to go to college. It was a tough sell.

First off, I had graduated from a private school, Oakwood. I was in the third graduating class from the school. Yes, I received A’s my senior year. In fact, all A’s. That’s right straight A’s. But at Palisades High I never went to class and had pretty much flunked out.

I didn’t care about college. I had done well at Oakwood, but it had gone to my head so I pretty much screwed up any foundation to go further. I had been arrested. Spent time in jail initially for drunk driving but that was reduced to a reckless driving charge.

I was still this petulant, immature child, feigning indifference, when in fact I was scared. I was scared of leaving home, scared of school, scared of people – just scared.

Dad kept pushing. He wanted me to live a life worth living; something I’ve said before. Applications went out and if memory serves, he actually filled out the applications with me.

You know a moment of recognition here: My father never gave up on me and never left me wanting. I was still drinking. Still getting arrested. Still being a selfish little imp. Dad never looked back. This series of columns is about his commitment to his family, not about inside Hollywood stuff. Well, there will be a little of that like the time I was photographed with my father walking to a telethon he was doing. I was drunk, of course, and he was forgiving. The picture appeared in some paparazzi magazine with the notification that James Whitmore’s son appeared intoxicated. I do remember that night. I was drunk, but also I met Henry Fonda. I remember that because I was struck by his kindness and his majesty. Yep, his majesty. This was a movie star. You could tell. He definitely made an impression. Positive. I had just met the president of these here United States. Henry Fonda was a real movie star. I remember that.

Most colleges rejected me. A couple accepted me with conditions. One of those colleges was the University of the Pacific. It was in Stockton, California. A beautiful campus. I went up to see it with my current girlfriend and mom and dad. They loved it. I was still acting as if I didn’t care. Just went along for the ride.

Tough to drink when you’re surrounded by family and girlfriends. I had to share a motel room with my father while my girlfriend and mom slept in another room. My dad had violent nightmares and he had one this night, where he jumped out of bed screaming. Scared the shit out of me. I tried to hide under the covers but he was looking right over at my bed. Glowering, yelling incoherently. After a moment, his nightmare subsided and he crawled back into bed and I crawled outside after grabbing the car keys from the night stand and slept in the station wagon parked in the motel parking lot. I was used to sleeping in cars by this time and I didn’t want to end up as sushi prepared by James Whitmore.

UOP, as it is called, was a fine college. I was accepted on academic probation and had to attend summer school to take certain core classes, such as math, science and English. At the time, this was 1967-68, the air was filled with experimentation. Everybody was experimenting with something. Drugs, music, sex – you know the saying: Sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll. It was everywhere and the hub of this exploration was just down the street in San Francisco and Berkeley. UOP had cluster colleges on its campus. I wasn’t paying attention. Just along for the ride.

The ride instantly turned strange when upon being assigned a dorm room, I enlisted the help of a tech guru to disconnect the dorm room speakers from the main control room downstairs in the manager’s office. The speakers were used to announce meal times, fire drills, etc. The system had become dormant because it was outdated and this was summer school; not a lot of students to attend to.

I had the tech guru disconnect the existing wiring and rewire the system so my room was the main control booth. I had a microphone, switchboard, control panel, everything.

Instead of prank announcements, which I found foolish and unproductive, I used the system for a musical show called the “The Apocalypso Show.” I had been introduced by way of my older brother who’d married a West indian by this time to Calypso music and although, the music graded on me, I loved the sound of the word: Calypso. Thus, “The Apocalypso Show” was born.

It was a radio broadcast playing rock ’n’ roll. Only a couple hours a day and during dinner so it wouldn’t interrupt class or study time. The tech guru fixed it so it was difficult to discover where the music was coming from. I refrained from using my name and off we went. I played the best rock ’n’ roll at the time – uninterrupted. No commercials. Full, complete songs. At the time I was a big fan of Frank Zappa and his strange, opera-like tome, Lumpy Gravy, was a favorite of mine. There was a lot of swear words and sexual innuendos in Zappa’s stuff. Bob Dylan was played. Miles Davis, John Lee Hooker, early Elvis. You name it, we played it as long as it was solid rock ’n’ roll or solid jazz. Real music. My definition, of course, but it took off.

People starting listening and leaving positive notes in the downstairs lobby. “We love the show.” “It’s hilarious.” “The music is great.” “Keep it up.” those kinds of things. Of course, the establishment hated this pirated use of its equipment and set out to shut it down. It took a while but they eventually did find me, busting into my room during a broadcast and cutting the power. We were done.

The school ordered me expelled. I didn’t give up anybody else. Didn’t have to. They were well hidden. My dad came to my defense and argued that my creativity was beyond measure and would benefit the school. I didn’t say anything but I did have fun doing that show. However it happened, why it happened, I will never know, but the school did not throw me out. Added more restrictions to my probation, but allowed me to stay. Maybe money was involved. I do not know.

I stayed and after a few weeks into the summer, I hear about this school that didn’t have grades. I had been accepted to the College of the Pacific – a traditional college with grades, et al, but there were cluster colleges on campus. Other kinds of schools. This school I was hearing about didn’t even flunk you. And it was right here at UOP. That’s my kind of school.

Part Ten: Callison College. Kicked out of India. Back on the streets.

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About stevewhitmore

Former award-winning newspaperman and broadcast journalist, both radio and TV, spanning three decades. Army-trained paralegal, court bailiff and prosecutor's lead investigator for the 8th Infantry Division's Judge Advocate General's Corp., Mainz, Germany. 1973-1975.
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