When James Work took a teaching job at the College of Southern Utah in the mid-1960s, he knew little about teaching and even less about the customs of his Mormon neighbors. For starters, he did not know he was a “Gentile,” the Mormon term for anyone not a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But just as he learned to be a religious diplomat and a black-market bourbon runner, he also discovered that his master’s degree in literature apparently qualified him to teach journalism, photography, creative writing, advanced essay and feature article writing, freshman composition, and “vocabulary building.”
With deadpan humor, Work pokes fun at his own naïveté in Don’t Shoot the Gentile, a memoir of his rookie years teaching at a small college in a small, mostly Mormon town. From the first pages, Work tells how he navigated the sometimes tricky process of being an outsider, pulling readers—no matter their religious affiliation—into his universal fish-out-of-water tale. The title is drawn from a hunting trip Work made with fellow faculty members, all Mormons. When a load of buckshot whizzed over his head, one of the party hollered, “Don’t shoot the Gentile! We’ll have to hire another one!”
Today the College of Southern Utah is a university, and Cedar City, like most small towns in the West, is no longer so culturally isolated. James Work left in 1967 to pursue a doctorate, but his remembrances of the place and its people will do more than make readers—Mormon and non-Mormon alike—laugh out loud. Work’s memoir will resonate with anyone who remembers the challenges and small triumphs of a first job in a new, strange place.
|Publisher:||University of Oklahoma Press|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.50(d)|
About the Author
James C. Work is author and editor of more than a dozen books, including the anthology Prose and Poetry of the American West and a collection of memoir essays, Windmills, the River and Dust: One Man’s West.
Read an Excerpt
Don't Shoot the Gentile
By James C. Work
UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESSCopyright © 2011 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University
All rights reserved.
And see that all these things are done in wisdom and in order. Word of Wisdom, Mosiah 4:27
The relentless sun slid down the horizon at last, letting the land breathe and be real again. In the desert outskirts of the little village, twilight shadows began to crawl like many-legged tarantulas among the manzanita and cholla cactus. An elder Mormon emerged and ventured to the edge of his porch. He sniffed the motionless air and cast a baleful eye upon the squat adobe building across the street, its door closed and windows shuttered against the prying eyes of the orthodox. He scrutinized the out-of-town license plates with disdain and disappeared back indoors.
It was a spring evening in 1965. The friends of the two Gentiles had gathered for a last supper. From the city of cedars they journeyed all the way south to the village named for the Virgin. (Not Mary, Utah: Virgin, Utah.) They had invited my wife and me in order to say good-bye, for we were soon to be among them no more.
It took place in a shuttered room that few Mormons had ever seen. Initiates gained access by means of a plain door behind a screen at the farthest end of the Bent Lizard Restaurant at 84000 S. 91500 W., Virgin, Utah. No signs betrayed its presence; no wide-flung door welcomed its patrons, for it was ... a bottle club.
It was, as I said, 1965. Liquor laws prohibited the selling of drinks in public establishments. But if a person paid a membership fee to a bottle club, that person would gain access to a locker wherein to stash some hooch that he could retrieve to enjoy with his meal.
No one in the room that night knew the identities of the members of the Bent Lizard Bottle Club, the ones who had facilitated this farewell dinner. Or at least no one was supposed to know. What mattered was that bottles were brought out of locked lockers. Glasses of wine would be served with the Texassize steaks or pork chops.
Sharon and I exchanged a little knowing glance when one of the guests told the waitress he would have the "park chop." The dialect of southern Utah, alien to us at first, had become a familiar reminder of where we were, sort of like visiting a foreign country where one is surrounded by exotic accents. In the speech of southern Utah we would use a fark to eat the cheesecake that came from the restaurant fredge. The farewell speeches following our mell would give us a tarrable nostalgia and maybe brang a tar to the eye, which would glisten in the candles' flickering yallow flame.
We had come to southern Utah as strangers and outlanders, and now we were being given a dinner complete with Gentile joy juice in our honor. More than this—and it took decades for me to fully appreciate it—there were several men in that room at the Bent Lizard who were to shape the next thirty years of my teaching career. Wes, who when asked would tell you he never had a bad day in his life. Next to him sat Harry, who labored in the face of great odds to teach me the difference between the terms "penultimate" and "quintessential." There was Gene, who showed me that laughter is not only the best medicine—it's often the only inoculation against epidemics of ignorance. And Dick at the head of the table, who taught me enough about being a department chairman that I never wanted to be one. And of course there was Fred, who was proof that it was better to have a gleam in your eye than a shine on the seat of your pants.
I sipped my coffee and stared into the candle flame. What a coming-together these two years had been, what a web of coincidences, what a mélange of synchronicity. So many things had conspired to get us to that point and now we were about to pack up and leave Cedar City, Utah, the town where people who live in Parowan go for excitement.
Oh my heck.
* * *
Someone with an inclination toward philosophizing will doubtless find messages, meanings, and morals in my anecdotes. "Follow your bliss," "take what comes with good cheer," "stay open to new things," those kinds of clichés. However, if I were in the business of pushing bromides, this wouldn't be a book; it would be a needlepoint pillow or a bumper sticker.
Love was at the heart of the thing. I fell in love when I was a high school senior and Sharon was a sophomore. When I went off to college, Sharon loved me and so she followed. I finished the BA and I loved her, so I wanted to stick around while she piled up credits in microbiology. I therefore applied for graduate school. Being in school meant we could live cheap, for those were simple-living days, days when beans and hamburger made for a feast and a few cinder blocks and salvaged planks meant we could have a bookcase. All we really wanted was to keep doing what we both loved, namely going to classes, taking tests, writing papers, and necking. (See how one thing leads on to another? But more about our kids later.) However, as a writer named Bill Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet, there came a rub.
But not in the necking. The rub was personified in a teacher I rubbed the wrong way one too many times. He turned out to be our ticket to Utah.
Let's call him Rex Nostrom, which wasn't his real name. I won't use "Dr." because I'm not sure he had a doctorate and won't use "Professor" because I'm certain he never attained that illustrious title. He might have gotten as far as associate professor. Maybe. There's a ranking system in academia—instructors at the bottom, then assistant professors, then associate professors, and finally full professors at the top. The year I earned my own promotion into the top echelon I thought I might go over to the cemetery and pee on Nostrom's grave, but I figured the line would be too long.
Here's the story. At the time I began being an English major at Colorado State University (known as CSU, not to be confused with CSUtah)—notice my avoidance of the phrase "studying English"—the English department included drama, journalism, philosophy, and speech. I was looking around for a way to make a living with a degree in English, and journalism looked like the most logical answer. I had taken journalism in high school, been on the sports desk of the Estes Park High School Mountaineer, had done a few sports stories for the Rocky Mountain News and the Estes Park Trail-Gazette, and I'd written for the CSU Collegian. Thus it was that when Nostrom stood behind the podium of J-201: Reporting and told us in his pompous operatic voice that a good newspaper story must include the basics of What, Why, When, Where, and Who, I decided I'd look at the textbook to see if it was equally "basic." Sure enough, like his opening lecture, the textbook was aimed at an audience of fifteen-year-olds. In fact, it was the same book used in sophomore high school classes. I already knew the stuff, so I went to the registrar to drop the class.
The form asked "reason for dropping the class?" so I wrote down "it repeats a class I took in high school." Nostrum received his copy of the registrar's form and I, in turn, received his unalloyed, undisguised, unmerited, and enduring contempt.
Somewhere around that same time, this same Nostrum decided to display his baritone acting talents as King Creon in a reader's theater production of Antigone. The Collegian editor asked me to review the production, and I guess the term "over" appeared one too many times in my review, as in "overacting," "overrated," "overambitious," and "overly melodramatic."
In one of her cruel jests, Fate waved her magic wand and Rex Nostrum was turned into the chair of the Department of English. Other faculty in the department liked me, but Nostrum was powerful and most of them were afraid of him. As long as I didn't take any of his classes or make eye contact in the hallway, we got along OK. Until the day, that is, when I decided to apply for graduate school.
"Not while I'm chairman," he told me to my face. "You'll never get accepted into my department as a master's candidate."
But my father had taught me—mainly by example—that to a determined person there is no such thing as a "final authority" in such matters, and so I persevered until I did get accepted. I had had some outspoken advocates among the English faculty, three of whom were persons you would not want to get into a confrontation with. Nostrum may have been a bully toward students, but among authentic scholars he was an academic weenie.
After one quarter of graduate school I applied for a graduate teaching assistantship (GTA). Why? First of all, we needed money and it was easy work. Second, it would be a legitimate excuse to stretch the graduate work into two years, giving me time to figure out whatever my literary passion was supposed to be. Not that I cared all that much, but my graduate committee kept asking embarrassing questions about thesis topics and discipline concentrations, that sort of thing.
"Not in this department!" roared the Great Rex. "You'll never get a GTA here while I'm chairman!"
Up until that very moment I didn't really give a damn one way or the other. I could work for the newspaper part-time or even fall back on my other job, making weekend deliveries for Bowling's Fine Furniture. But when this puffed-up bag of wind told me I couldn't do it, I naturally had to. And I did. The very next quarter I was teaching two sections of E-2: Freshman Composition, and the following year I was selected by Dr. Claude Henry to be one of his personal teaching assistants in a new experimental class.
As for the chairman, he never forgave me. If you're ever in CSU's Morgan Library, look up my MA thesis, "W. E. Aytoun: Scottish Satirist," and have a glance at the committee signature page. Mine is probably the only thesis in that library in which the space for the chairman's signature is blank.
There is a needlepoint moral here, something along the lines of the Latin phrase about not letting the bastards grind you down. Or not quitting just because one person says you should. Or laughing in the face of doom. Something like that.
* * *
My fellow graduate teaching assistants and I spent final examination week and the following week grading stacks of freshman compositions and filling out grade reports. We shared a big room in the turn-of-the-century section of Old Main. The place was drafty, and it smelled from decades of floor wax and tobacco smoke. It had a high ceiling and tall, age-encrusted windows that let a little feeble sunshine fall on the eight army surplus desks, the conference table, and the metal stand where the coffeepot sat.
One by one the GTAs finished up their grade reports, dropped all the student essays into cardboard boxes in the hallway, cleaned out their desks, and left.
Me, I was late grading my papers because I'd been busy trying to get myself graduated. Thanks to a great stroke of synchronicity, our baby daughter, Stephanie, opted to enter our lives on the very day I was scheduled to take my graduate examination in French. The birth of Stephanie has always been a very special thing to me because I hadn't finished reading the one hundred required pages in Histoire de Literature Francais. The professor graciously gave me an extension.
It went like this: Love led to necking, necking led to baby Stephanie, and Stephanie's natal debut upon the Great Stage of Life precipitated a postponement of my French test, which not only saved my academic bacon but also resulted in me being the last one to be cleaning out my desk in the GTA room of Old Main when who should come clumping in but the clumping grump himself, Chairman Rex. He looked about the empty room vacantly (yes, that's a pun), and since I was invisible to him, he saw no one there.
"Anyone here?" he asked.
"I'm here," I said, truthfully. I noticed he was holding a flyer of some sort.
"Nope. Looks like I'm the last one to finish up and get out of here."
I think he snorted, but I can't be sure. At any rate, he frowned his best King Creon frown and dropped the flyer on the coffee stand.
"You might as well have this then," he said.
It announced the availability of an out-of-state teaching job. No doubt Nostrom had received it in the mail and thought he would post it in the GTA office. But no one was left to read it, so in a few weeks he would have to take it down again, which would be an admission that it had been pointless to post it in the first place. He could toss it in the wastebasket, but that would seem irresponsible since some other chairman had entrusted it to him. Maybe he could send it back with a note saying that no one was interested, except that he didn't really know that. It was the kind of administrative decision, I suspect, that kept him awake nights.
The job opening was at the College of Southern Utah in a place bearing the pleasant-sounding name of Cedar City.
"Cedar City": I pictured a Tuscany postcard of a village with houses of whitewashed stone nestled beneath tall cedar trees, cheerful peasants singing as they carried water jugs from a little stream running alongside the cobbled street.
The job description mentioned teaching creative writing as well as freshman composition. My master's thesis was in Victorian poetry, but I had also taken every creative writing course the university offered, some of them twice.
Not only did the job seem like it would be worth looking into, but it just so happened that I'd be available. Our only commitment at the time was for summer jobs. Sharon was going back to her job at the Copper Penny Gift Shop in Estes Park, where she peddled Rocky Mountain souvenirs made in Japan to tourists from Germany. And I would return to my job in VIS and I/E with the U.S. Forest Service. ("Visitor Information Service" and "Information/Education" meant that I handed out brochures, cleaned outhouses, and answered tourist questions. In my spare time I fought forest fires.) But we had no prospects for the following autumn. I don't think we had really thought much about it. Maybe I'd look for a newspaper job. Like most young dreamers of the sixties, when we did discuss our future, it was mostly about whether we wanted to live in Denver or San Francisco or Florida and whether our little house would have a white picket fence or one made of wrought iron. (See the lyrics to the pop song "My Blue Heaven" as sung by Rudy Valee and you'll pretty much have the gist of our Philosophy of Life.)
Cedar City, Utah. Maybe, for a year? I would look into it.
Never in my life had I made a formal application for a job. I usually just walked in the door and asked. The only time I ever filled out papers was when I needed to get a Social Security card.
Not knowing how one went about applying, I figured the logical thing was to telephone the number provided on the College of Southern Utah flyer and ask for the job. If it was still open.
The call went straight through to Dick Rowley, chairman of English. Innocent as I was, it did not strike me as odd that it hadn't gone through at least two secretaries. Anyway, he asked me about myself and I told him. Yes, I could probably teach journalism. Creative writing? Heck, I'd been in every creative writing class offered at CSU. Photography? I admitted I was a little weak there, but assured him I knew my way around a camera, mostly an Argus C3.
Married? Yup. With two adorable little girls. There was Caprise, who came along shortly after my bachelor's degree, and Stephanie, whose birth came in time to postpone my MA language exam. Son Robert would have to wait until I needed a PhD.
Religion? Presbyterian. Sort of semi-regular on attendance, though.
"You sound like the person we're looking for," he said. "Can you send me your credentials?"
And here's the really dumb part. I did not have a clue what he meant by "credentials."
"Well, a list of courses you've taught. A grade transcript. Your degrees. Your publications. Oh, and letters of reference."
"Maybe a letter from your chairman?"
"Maybe not," I said. "I think he's on vacation or something. How about if I get a couple of my professors to write to you?"
Professors Robert Zoellner, Claude Henry, and Les Stimmel were more than glad to write glowing accounts of my creative teaching, my concern for detail, my professionalism. Then again, they would say just about anything about me if it would get up Rex Nostrum's nose.
I mailed off my "credentials" and cleaned out my desk. Sharon and I moved our few pieces of furniture to a cozy rental cabin in Estes Park the following week. Our plan was to hike and fish and generally mess around while waiting to begin our summer jobs. We had just started the messing around part, however, when the phone rang. The English department chairman at Cedar City would like to interview me.
Since we had a few days to spare, the timing was perfect. Dad agreed to loan us his almost-new Olds Cutlass. Mom said that he also agreed to take care of Caprise and Stephanie for us while we were gone.
* * *
I was the proud bearer of a squeaky-new master of arts degree but didn't know from applications and had no clue what "credentials" meant. It would soon become obvious that I also didn't know what "Mormon" referred to, nor did I know jack about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. All I knew was that we had made the drive to Cedar City, and I was standing in Chairman Rowley's office where he was offering me $5,400 for nine months. And I'd be in charge of all writing programs above the freshman level. Holy cow! I mean, oh my heck!
Excerpted from Don't Shoot the Gentile by James C. Work. Copyright © 2011 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1 Synchronicity, Utah 12
2 Academic Affairs 24
3 Are Assistant Professors Smart Enough to Shovel Gravel? 43
4 Chasing the Word 55
5 The Big House 64
6 Shine and a Haircut, Two Bits 86
7 "Everybody Knows" 95
8 Don't Shoot the Gentile 102
9 A Fine and Private Desert 112
10 Teasing the Beehives and Bringing in the Sheathes 123
11 Returning 131