The White Rock Days

My college acceptance letter from New Mexico State University, 1960, assigned me to a dormitory called White Rock, which sounded pretty exotic to a seventeen-year-old from Carlsbad. Inspired by freshening breezes and the golden glow of autumn, I arrived with high expectations, and essential gear: a typewriter, a footlocker, and a couple of books.

The dorm proved to be a recycled barracks building from White Rock, New Mexico. Surplus barracks from WW II were the go-to temporary structures of that day. There was no air conditioning; the showers, sinks and toilets were in the middle of the building, near the washing machines, and opposite a tiny lobby with ugly chairs. I lived in White Rock one semester, until the under-construction Regents Row complex opened.

Picture of Regents Row links to the history of buidlings at New Mexico State University. The picture above left links to a history of White Rock, New Mexico.

The picture above is from 1962, looking over the newly opened Regents Row complex, with the then empty White Rock Barracks in the background. The picture below is an enlarged detail of the barracks. I was walking just outside the right-most barracks building on the afternoon of October 13, 1960, headed for the cafeteria. I’d been listening to a baseball game but was certain the Yankees had it won. I was startled by a rousing cheer from all three barracks buildings when Bill Mazeroski hit his World-Series-winning homerun for Pittsburgh. I missed it by a couple of minutes.

White Rock Barracks just before destruction in 1963

In those days it was common for young men to join the service out of high school, and attend college later. Several of these veterans lived in White Rock, and considered the accommodations upscale. One NMSU alumnus, Pervis Atkins, who was part of the undefeated Aggie football team of 1960, lived a while in White Rock. His picture at right links to a remembrance of his experience. Here is how the barracks were described in a history of the NMSU agricultural department.

Right after the war, when veterans were returning, they were given priority for jobs. Since Ralph Skaggs was not a veteran, he was invited to make way for a veteran to run the State Experiment Farm in June 1946. He immediately called Professor Cunningham and asked if the faculty position was still available. Since many veterans were being discharged and wanted to go back to school under the GI Bill of Rights, this proved to be a very good change in jobs. During the war the dairy department had an occasional student from some country other than the U.S., who pursued a degree in animal husbandry and required a course in dairying as part of the curriculum, but no U.S. citizens were ever enrolled in the department during these years. The first dairying class in the fall of 1946 contained fifty returning GIs where there had been almost no students in the previous four years. The campus was swamped with GIs. Old army barracks buildings were moved in and used as student housing. Married GIs were placed in small trailers. Both temporary types of housing were located along the south edge of the campus. Some of these came from the construction town of White Rock, NM, near Los Alamos. They were named White Rocks barracks and given the number corresponding to their building number when used in White Rock.

My roommate was David Denzler, also a freshman, but with a difference. David had graduated from Albuquerque Adademy, a prestigious private school, and was eons ahead of me in sophistication. He majored in mathematics, because, he said, the weirdest people he knew were mathematicians. His high school Latin teacher had been the poet, Robert Creeley and David had lots of stories David loved classical music, opera, and literature. He had a girlfriend, owned a car, and had a sense of how college life should proceed. He'd even attended a semester at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, marking him as a venerated elder, although he was younger than me.
I was without such savoir vivre, but barely realized it. I wanted to be a physicist, and had a goal of learning pretty much everything. I had my first, and only, case of homesickness, and it almost put me on a bus back to Carlsbad. I favored jazz, although I tolerated David’s classical stuff, since he owned the record player. In retrospect I see my musical taste as mainstream. Jazz was that era’s affectation of all who aspired to be cool and worldly. Eventually, I changed my major to math, not to be weird, but because it was easier than physics.

David realized the beds in our tiny room were stackable. That freed up space for the easy chair he'd hauled down from Albuquerque. He spent a lot of time in it, reading, studying, and philosophizing. He had a souvenir from a bout of childhood polio, but he made no concession to it, except for a slight limp. His parents visited a few times and they took us out to dinner at La Posta. His father was a well-known doctor in Albuquerque.David's pride was a meerschaum pipe. He also got brownies from home, which he shared from a fruitcake box kept in the closet. He was a valuable asset to a bewildered young freshman, although I didn't realize it at the time, since we were about the same age.

All the rooms were off a single hall, and ours was the first room nearest the parking lot. We got a lot of visitors, partly because of our location, and partly because of David’s gregarious and scholarly mien. People were always dropping in for help with homework. He made friends among some of the foreign students, from Iraq and other middle eastern countries.

One of these, Farris Bakki (see above), introduced us to Turkish coffee, and became a confidant and portal to the world beyond. Dave and Farris shared a love of Madame Butterfly. There was always a discussion going on. David involved himself with Frank Thayer, another White Rock resident, in reviving the campus literary magazine, Puerto del Sol.

One night someone wandered in to get help with something and observed to the group, “This room has a lot of character.” He was right.

Denzler made friends with David Sears, from the other end of the long hall, and the three of us hung out frequently in our spare time. David Sears was from Georgia, and had a jazz collection acquired from various junk shops. Today we would call these relics, “78s,” but at the time they were just records, distinguished from LPs and 45s.

I knew very little about jazz at the time, an ignorance of which I was largely ignorant, having heard of Dave Brubeck, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and little else.

David Sears introduced me to Bix Biederbecke, Fletcher Henderson, Bubber Miley, Cootie Williams, Jimmy Rushing, among others.

Fletcher Henderson

Featuring Bubber Miley

David Sears at Cordele High School, Cordele GA.

David had a Grundig tape recorder, reel-to-reel of course, and he agreed to record some of his collection for me. The Grundig was a wonderful machine. Push a button, and lights flashed, spindles whirred, relays clicked, and armatures maneuvered, during a moment of mechanical ponderation. Then, smooth-as-fresh-cream, it took off like a highly strung, but wisely trained race horse. We made two tapes of my favorites from his collection. I typed up notes of the titles and artists. The Grundig picture links to a Jimmy Rushing song we would have recorded if David had owned a copy.

The tapes have survived, with only a short interval of magnetic interference owing to me, decades ago, hitting record during a playback. I had no way to play them after about 1970, until I recently had them transferred to digital media. Some day I need to capture the notes as well. Now, of course, many of the recordings can be found online. One of my favorites was Barney Bigard, playing “Steps Steps Up,” and “Steps Steps Down.” There was a lot of Coleman Hawkins, a little Duke Ellington, and some great Jimmy Rushing.

     I lost track of David Sears. He left NMSU about 1963, and, as I recall, headed for California. He may be in Atlanta working as an IT consultant, but I’m not sure. I hope, wherever he is, he still has those records, and that magnificent Grundig machine. What a piece of engineering that was.

We all moved out of White Rock Barracks at the start of the next semester into the swanky knew digs called, Regents Row. That soon-to-be-demolished complex was the dream dorm of its time. It was air conditioned and had semi-private bath facilities: an actual bathroom shared between two rooms. I learned the word suitemate, and found out how to manipulate the sealed thermostat by draping a damp cloth over it. My education was thorough.

My White Rock experience is now recognized as a watershed. David and I seldom saw each other during the next three years, but the friendships, acquaintances, and social understandings acquired in that first year informed the botheration that followed. David went on to be the editor of Puerto del Sol, and encouraged my writing efforts, and we both formed friendships with an important mentor, Tom Erhard (see link below).


We graduated and our journeys never brought us within hailing distance again, even though our careers were with vigorously competitive rivals. David married his dream girl and made a unique life, with accomplishments and milestones only he could have contributed.

There were other significant freshman influences, mostly positive, some not, the more remarkable for seeming ordinary at the time. There was Stanley Puryear, math instructor, who, being black, informed my assumption I'd reached an airy height of social maturity. I didn't realize the rarity of black instructors, then and for years to come. Mr. Puryear revealed the beauty of mathematics like a Pythagorean initiating his iron-age novices, then went on to an inspiring career in civil rights and academia, with stopovers in Aerospace. He is now known as Muata Weusi-Puryear and has been inducted into the Distinguished Alumni Hall of Fame at Asbury Park High School, Asbury Park, New Jersey.

There was also my first-semester Freshman Composition instructor, Peter B. Walsh, who demonstrated the pathological depths of eccentricity required to pass as a rare bird in the Beat Era. He'd been the editor of Pen, the literary magazine at the University of Utah, and had published in Poetry Magazine. The poem was anthologized as one of the best of 1955, the year Emmett Till was murdered. He seems to have had a voguish politics, think Dr. Strangelove, tipped off to his classes by his assertion, hardly credible even to a freshman from the sticks, that the Civil War hadn't been fought over slavery. The link at left, beneath the poem, has a few letters to the editor, included not for edification, but as reminders of the times. But I learned most of this later, after the culture that birthed the poem had long evolved. He disappeared without a trace as far as I can find.

John G. Kuhn, my second semester composition instructor, introduced me to W. B. Yeats, analyzing the famous Irishman's poetry with an expository crispness never elsewhere encountered. His analysis of Lapis Lazuli is the only one I've found that treats the theater allusions. Kuhn once invited me to his house, and admonished me for complimenting his wife on her coffee. He threatened to flunk me if I ever dropped another possessive apostrophe. I did and he didn't. Good man. He disappeared in my junior year, memory suggesting a migration to the University of Texas, but he may have gone on to a career of academia, literature, and dramatic artistry at Rosemont College.

White Rock Barracks barely survived our tenure at NMSU. The flashy new Regents Row that replaced them is soon to be torn down. The university, indeed the world, has passed into, and largely out of, the hands of our generation, and nothing is the same anymore. Nothing, that is, except for that autumn glow of slanted sunlight. Which is a way of saying, everything is the same, except for the modest tampering we did in our passing through.