Excerpt: 'American Soldier'

American Soldier Cover

American Soldier

by Tommy Franks

Paperback, 624 pages

List Price: $16.95

Make 'em a Hand

Austin, Texas
August 1963

Everybody who's been a freshman at a big school has probably had a similar experience. During my first few days at the University of Texas I felt isolated, even though I was surrounded by twenty thousand students. The campus occupied a big hunk of downtown Austin. There were wide lawns, a maze of classroom buildings, a football stadium that could seat the population of Midland, and the University Tower looming over the whole place. During registration that muggy week in August 1963, with kids hurrying every which way to get signed up for classes, I might have been one of those ants boiling out of the dirt on my folks' farm back in Wynnewood.

My goal in college was to become a chemical engineer. I liked high school science well enough, and had earned good grades. But those first days on campus, I couldn't even read the map to locate my classrooms.

Soon enough, though, I did find a new home — in the Delta Upsilon fraternity house. The DU house was a four-story cube of blue aluminum and glass overlooking a circular drive on Leon Street.

When I walked up that drive wearing my Madras sport coat and a starched white shirt during Rush Week, the house looked like something out of a sci-fi movie.

Pretty cool, I thought.

Known for its high academic standards, Delta Upsilon was also the fraternity of Darrell Royal, the legendary Longhorn football coach. DU's reputation as a party house was also a definite attraction.

I got along fine with the brothers and moved into the house as a pledge that September.

There were no telephones in the rooms, but each floor had a phone bank. For an eighteen-year-old freshman away from home for the first time, these nicotine-yellow phones were a real temptation. It was great fun to lounge around the hall day or night in T-shirt and shorts, burning up the phone lines with girls and other guys I'd met on campus. Shooting the breeze about the next party or the football schedule was a lot better than diagramming sentences for English Comp or memorizing the Periodic Table of Elements. Odd as it sounds now, my poor study habits probably began while I was yakking away on the second-floor phones in the DU house.

One of the projects my pledge class took on was building a beer garden on the sloping backyard behind the house. It was here that I really got to know Mike Corley, Jimmy Sewell, Terry Marlatt, and Jack Slayton. Though we were from different parts of Texas, we shared a common interest in girls and parties; the job was a shared labor of love.

It was no mean feat of amateur engineering either. We had to dig into the hillside with picks and shovels to level out a dirt platform for the cinderblock-and-brick floor. And, because of the angle of the slope, we sweated through some heavy calculations to determine the correct height of the upright beams holding the lattice roof. Luckily, I could go to the trusty phones and call my dad in Midland whenever we had a problem.

The beauty of this beer garden was its ridge-top location. We would sit back in the shade drinking and watch the cars on the street below. And the garden also overlooked two girls' dorms, so we had an ideal place to scout the local talent. This was a helluva lot better than studying.

I remember a fall afternoon that first semester when Jimmy Sewell, Terry Marlatt, and I were treating some of the older brothers to a cold case of Lone Star.

One of the guys, who was taking geology, offered a recitation of Moh's mineral hardness scale, which began with "Talc, Gypsum, Calcite, Fluorite ... " and ended up with " ... Topaz, Corundum, and Diamond." By Longhorn tradition, he'd memorized the sequence using a time-honored technique: TGCFAOQTCD, which also stood for "Texas Girls Can Flirt And Other Quaint Things Can Do." But he replaced "Flirt" with a more suggestive "F" word. I was learning the ways of the world.

The subject briefly shifted from girls to cars, always of interest to young Texans.

"That big Olds has definitely got glass-pack pipes," Jimmy said, tilting his bottle at a blue 88.

"Does not," I argued. "That's a stock sedan straight from the dealer. Probably belongs to some preacher."

Accurately judging the features of cars was a highly regarded skill among DU brothers. But so was assessing the charms of strolling co-eds.

"The one in the pleated skirt is really stacked," Phil Ruzicka announced.

He nodded at two girls walking on the sidewalk below.

"Probably falsies," Terry countered.

"I can state for a fact that they're not," Phil said, sipping beer.

We hooted our appreciation and respect. Phil was a well-experienced junior. I watched the other girl, a curvy blond with a ponytail and a cashmere sweater set done up with a little gold chain at the neck. Her name was Janet, and I'd invited her to a fraternity party on Friday night. I planned to make my move after we'd all had a couple beers.

One of the important lessons I was learning at the University of Texas was that the Sexual Revolution wasn't just something you read about in Playboy. During my last two years at Lee High in Midland, Shell Dougherty and I had gone steady. Now I was discovering the freedom of dating two or three different girls a week, away from their — and my own — parents' supervision. College turned out to be a whole lot more interesting than I ever imagined.

Girls weren't the only temptation. Too many weeknights when I should have been studying, we'd pile a bunch of guys into Terry Marlatt's parents' sedan — three of them hiding in the trunk with a load of six-packs — and head off to the drive-in to watch a movie. If we weren't off to the movies, we could always drive over for a cheeseburger at Dirty's, then cruise up and down Austin's main drag, Guadalupe Street — pronounced Guada-loop in Texas Anglo fashion.

But college wasn't nonstop hedonism. We all took President John Kennedy's assassination very hard. The university cancelled classes that Friday afternoon, and I joined about five thousand other silent, teary-eyed students jammed into the Union, watching Walter Cronkite on the big black-and-white TV. This was a sad day for Texas. President Kennedy had inspired my generation. We could all recite that part of his inauguration speech: "Ask not what your country can do for you . . ." Now the President was dead. Everybody I knew got drunk that night.

American Soldier copyright (c) 2005 by Tommy R. Franks. Reprinted with permission by Harper Paperbacks, HarperCollins Publishers. All rights reserved.

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