Thanks for clicking. This is kind of long but you’ll probably read it to the end, so here goes – I’m trying to write a book. I’m trying to write several, actually. Aren’t we all? But this one is special right now. I’ve been working on it for three years. I need your help. Or it’d be nice, at least. I’m hoping a blog will help me organize things, help me advertise things, be a magnet for more stories from folks, fun, insight, visions… an adventure through then and now.
The research – it’s been daily ritual, I swear, you wouldn’t believe much I’ve done or how much of it I’ve done. The ideas and thoughts – they breathe with me. In the car, during prayer, at my new job…always there, because they should be there because the story is awesome, it’ll be awesome, it’s awesome. The actual writing – it comes when it can.
The book is going to be about streaking at Auburn University. That’s what I tell people, at least. That’s the “ha-ha, what?” version.
I’m preoccupied with Auburn lore. That’s my line, that’s what I tell the folks I’m interviewing, even when they don’t ask. “My parents were here during that time,” I’ll start off (and I say it the exact same way every time), “and I mean, you’re sittin’ there flippin’ through your mom’s yearbook and suddenly, oh, there are some bare breasts.”
But it’s still hard to think back to just when it was, how it was, that the idea to write a book about it really, really came to me.. But yeah, it was nearly three years ago, I know that. Sometimes I think it came in a flash, all at once, a revelation, a vision in my head. There was just this organic narrative that unrolled in my mind like a movie during that very first phone interview, which happened on a complete whim.
It was Sunday night in December. It was 2005. I got out the good book, the ’74 Glom. I was flipping through just for kicks, by myself in my museum of an office at home in Auburn. And of course pages 54 and 55 are just unavoidable. You’ll see them every time and you’ll stop and look and smile and make a face and then keep going. This night, I didn’t keep going. I studied it. I looked around. I looked at the faces of folks, I looked at their collars that could fly, I saw the brands of their shoes. I looked at their faces and imagined what it was like to be them and if it was any different to be me and my how things have changed and my, they’ve stayed the same. And I saw the name Dan Doughtie, who took most of the famous pictures, I’d later find out. He was credited in the yearbook – “The Original Streak. Copyright, Dan Doughtie, 1974.” I Googled him and got his number. I dialed. His wife answered. She laughed and gave me his cell number. It took just a few minutes and I knew I had something in seconds.
“I mean,” he said, “you gotta understand the time we’re dealin’ with.”
It seems pretty plausible then to think that if Dan hadn’t trusted my intentions or taken the time that night – two whole hours – to dive into it with me, a fellow Auburn man, a grad, over his late dinner at a Ryan’s Steakhouse somewhere in Florida, I wouldn’t be writing this, at least I doubt it. But he did, War Eagle, he did, and tunnel vision set in – tunnel vision locked on “the time we were dealin’ with.” (Rheta Grimsley, the feature’s editor for the Auburn Plainsman, who’s Valentine’s Day column directly inspired Auburn’s first streak, tells me that tunnel vision is a good thing.)
And then what I had, what Dan gave me, grew, and grew and grew, like stories sometimes do, into a much grander thing, much broader in scope. Throwing a spotlight on Auburn’s contributions to the streaking craze got kinda stripped of being the story itself and became merely a really cool way to help tell it, to illuminate a much bigger picture.
But OK, lets talk about it, the time we were dealin’ with. There were cigarette machines in the dorms and Rod McKuen calendars on the walls. But I’m talking about the bombs being dropped, the buses being forced, the bras being burned – all symbols of these intense, foreign, what’s-the-world-coming-to-force-forces that threatened the Disneyian utopia of the 1950s college campus which Auburn exemplified. (If Disney built a College Kingdom, Samford Tower would totally be the Cinderella’s Castle, it just would.)
In the midst of birth control and moratoriums, Auburn clung to the one realm of student administration still independent of federal regulation: rules – rules for its girls, its women. And when rules about the rules started their modern march to the sea, stystematically torching everything an entire culture held dear, Auburn dug in till the death and bent them any way it could. I’ve seen the evidence, the cheat sheets. The administration wrote letters, it protested, it got up in the face of equal treatment, poked a finger in its chest (literally, in one instance) and questioned the wisdom of all this so-called progress like few schools did. But the halcyon days of autonomy for the public university were over.
When parents begged her to keep Auburn and their daughters from the evils of the Gainesvilles, the Athens’, the Baton Rouges and the Tuscaloosas of this strange new world, my kinda-sorta protagonist Katherine Cater, Auburn’s legendary, devastatingly cinematic Dean of Women, could only promise she would try. Her counterpart Jim Foy, Auburn’s legendary Dean of Students, still wonders what happened, and whatever it was still rubs him the wrong way. Boys and girls were different then and they’re different now, that’s patently obvious, “I can give you at least two reasons why that’s so” ha ha ha. But like Rheta said, “Auburn in the early 1970’s had to do something or miss the 1960’s altogether.”
And so it was that, in the heat of the red tape battles against the women’s movement – against the Equal Rights Amendment, against Title IX , fought against forces both inside the school and out – the biggest differences between boys and girls, which, when concealed, defined so much at Auburn, suddenly, under the bright full moons of one fateful spring, began to spill from gym shorts and halter tops onto the ROTC Drill Field, a literal training ground for gender distinction. And Auburn students weren’t appalled; they were shouting “go!” They took pictures, they clapped.
Because girls were no longer victims, they were perpetrators. Things would never be the same because they couldn’t be.
I have thrown gobs of time at the task of tracking down folks who were here during those days, and I’ve picked their brains – 120 to date, hundreds of hours of interviews – for the way it was. The girl up there? I’ve talked to her. The guy clapping? Him too. The guy second from the left? The one with… the look? Check. And of course Dan Doughtie, good ol’ Double D, the photographer. Yep, totally bragging.
Ahhhh, the painstaking, obsessive scrutiny I’ve poured over all the primary sources there are to be found (many of which – again, bragging – only I know exist), the numbing number of hours I’ve spent swimming through the microfiche of old newspapers, burrowing in files down in the University archives and acquiring and scanning literally thousands of never-before-seen period photographs, well, I mean, it’s just kind of insane. But hey, it’s made me an expert in something kinda incredible.
As a result, I’ve been able to summon sharp, intriguing detail from a blurry cultural landscape I once accessed only through second-hand nostalgia. I’m convinced now more than ever that the devil in all these details has a story to tell, one never told, a book to sell, one never sold.
I don’t mean to say or imply that streaking, by itself, changed Auburn. Change was going to come no matter what; the feds would make sure of that, just like they had 10 years earlier with integration, they always do. But I’ve believed from the start that streaking at Auburn can be shown to represent something; that belief has stayed with me and it’s been fed with facts and spine-tingling ironies and coincidences. To get all academic, I think an examination of what it represents in Auburn’s broader historical context will deepen the understanding of Alabama’s unique status in the American narrative at the end of one of the most intense periods in American history and the beginning of our modern era.
So that’s why I’m writing this book and why I’m throwing this blog on the fire. On the surface, it’s about streaking at Auburn – that’ll be on the cover, that’ll probably be what sells it. But again, it’s about much more.
Let’s War Eagle forever.