It’s difficult to learn from someone who doesn’t know much. But 50 years later, I still find Billy Swanson worth consideration, though he himself is probably as clueless now as he was then.
We’d graduated from high school, and having nothing better to do, headed off to college. Marshall University was close, cheap and available. So every fall its freshman class was soiled by 18-year-olds who had no business in college.
In most cases, they wouldn’t last long, but Billy had other ideas. He was in search of higher education, which he needed but was ill prepared for. Graduation from high school had been challenging enough. But Billy was proud of his diploma and wanted to pursue a college degree. He registered with the rest of us at Marshall.
In fairness, I was no genius. So I too struggled with the challenge of buying textbooks, actually reading some of them and learning to navigate through the stacks at the library. It was my understanding that college should be fun, because classes lasted only two or three hours a day and nobody was really checking the roll.
But Billy had a handicap: He didn’t understand what he didn’t understand. He thought the problem was something else. Billy spent most of the time when he was not in class complaining about how bad things were when he was in class. To talk with Billy was to converse with misery. He was perpetually unhappy and eager to share it. He complained about the workload and the inability of his instructors to communicate with him. He carped about how hard things were, and how he couldn’t cope with it.
In no time Billy gained a reputation for sadness. He was the comic character Sad Sack, Pig Pen, or B.O. Plenty. (You have to have a few years on you to recall all three of these.) Billy’s attitude began to mark his face. He formed permanent wrinkles, too early. Billy looked the part he played.
The student union in the center of the campus served as the social gathering place between classes. Usually it was packed, and finding a place to sit was a matter of luck. On occasions the only place to sit was next to Billy. But that was the last choice, because to sit with Billy was to drink your coffee and listen to him whine. Most of his company drank their coffee fast as they scanned the room for a better place to be.
As college work became more challenging, Billy became more challenged. Then one day I walked into a crowded student union and saw Billy sitting in a corner booth that was large enough for about six people. The other seats in the room were taken, but Billy sat alone, occupying the largest booth in the room. I watched for a few minutes before he rose to go to his next class. Immediately eight people crammed into the abandoned booth.
Silly little story this, but I remember it because I see it in so many ways. I see it in Christmas messages from friends who think the annual occasion is an opportunity to complain about what a tough year it has been. They detail with seeming pleasure all of the terrible things that have gone wrong. It is, after all, the joyous time of year. Aunt Ruth broke her leg, cousin Pete lost his job … on and on it goes.
Some of them think that Ellie and I really care that their cats died. Sometimes there are pictures of the late cat for us to ponder. One friend sends us pictures of all his cats, with their names, of course, and a little story about each of them. As if that’s something we will treasure. This guy needs a wife, badly.
So what’s the point? Don’t shower me with your problems. I don’t want to hear them. I have my own. Do you really want to hear about them? I don’t think so. And as for your cat, I really don’t care. Your cat is your problem.
I think the lesson is if you want people to listen to you, then say something they want to hear. No one likes a whiner. And, at least for me, cats dead or alive don’t make the cut. S
Gene Cox is an author and inventor, who retired from a 35-year career as a television anchor in Richmond. Connect with him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter at genecoxrva.