Cowboy Music

There was a very well liked and relatively famous voice teacher among the faculty members in the Department of Music at Wittenberg; I believe his name was Professor John Hamm. A Chinese music student came over from Taiwan to US to study under him, specializing in tenor operatic solos. This student’s Chinese nickname was Pon Pon for he was built somewhat like a soma wrestler. We also knew David Chao from Hawaii, a Chinese divinity student, who studied religious vocal pieces with Dr. Hamm. They both encouraged me to take voice lessons as well. Now in the second semester of my freshman year, since I no longer was occupied with daily wrestling practices, I did have more free time. I asked Dr. Hamm if he had any openings in his busy schedule to teach me. He was extremely welcoming and inquired what kind of music I liked. I said I was totally inexperienced and requested him to choose for me. He knew that I was acquainted with his other two Chinese students and suggested that I do something different; he recommended trying ‘cowboy’ music. Being happy that Dr. Hamm agreed to enroll me I was willing to give anything a try. So I rehearsed and sang cowboy songs; even tried some yodeling. It was fun but I was not any good. Although I can sing on key, I was (and still am) a bit rhythmically challenged. Later on Dr. Hamm switched me to perform more cowboy ‘love’ songs and patriotic songs. It turned out that music was an extremely healthy diversion for me in the midst of my rather rigorous pre-med academic classes.

Freshman PE

Physical Education was a required class among all entering Freshmen. I was in the midst of my PE class early in my first semester at Wittenberg in 1962 when Mr. Eldon Miller, the assistant, but soon-to-be the youngest head basketball coach in the country, came up to me. I was acquainted with him peripherally since Wittenberg was national champion of the NCAA college division the previous year because MVP Eldon Miller made the incredible last second half-court basket. He asked me, “What do you weigh?” I answered, “123 lb.” Then he inquired, “Can you do 50 pull-ups?” I jumped up onto the bar and showed him right then and there. He then requested 50 push-ups, which I produced without much effort. He commanded me to follow him. Obediently, I complied. We went through the gymnasium down some hallway to a small office. After we entered, he declared to another coach, “I got you your guy!” and left. This coach then stated, “So, you are a wrestler!” I answered that was absolutely and totally untrue, and that I had never ever wrestled. Coach also asked how much I weighed. Then he welcomed me to the team and confirmed that I shall meet everyone at 4:30. I left, showered and went back to my regular classes. Being a part of the wrestling team meant I didn’t have to take the PE class.

I notified my Mom that I wasn’t coming home after school and went to my meeting at 4:30. There I met about 15 athletes of varying sizes, all of whom were much bigger than I. I was informed that wrestling was divided into different weight classes and that I’d have to get down and maintain a weight of less than 125 lb. I was already there! I weighed 123 soaking wet! (If I could get below and maintain under 115 lb., it would be even better and I would qualify for both weight classes. Coach did not know of any other colleges having wrestlers in the 115 class in our conference.) The other teammates were all trying to shed a few pounds. Since no one else was in my weight class, I learned wrestling with anyone who happened not to have a partner on any given day. I should also lift weights to increase greater strength and jump rope to gain agility. We practiced daily from 4:30 – 6:00 and would soon have ‘practice’ meets with other Ohio Conference schools on Fridays.

I kept insisting that I didn’t know wrestling; nonetheless, was soon convinced that I could learn a few moves, and that for the sake of ‘esprit de corps’ I should give this adventure a try. The coach related to me that few other schools have wrestlers in my class, and that being on the team I’d score a point for Wittenberg. I relented and practiced diligently daily. I got to the point that I was able to escape most situations and could avoid being pinned. But, I was unable to do any pinning of my much bigger opponents.

With time devoted to practices, completing school work assignments became more difficult; paper writing homework slowly crept up on me. I began to look forward to Thanksgiving week because I thought that I might have an opportunity to catch up with vacation scheduled from Wednesday through the following Tuesday. But I was so wrong. Coach let us have Thanksgiving Day off, but to make up, we had two-a-day practices every day including Saturday and Monday! We were to be preparing for the ‘practice’ meets after the holiday break. I was ready to quit, but was talked out of that option by my teammates.

At the Friday ‘practice’ meets, sure enough, I was awarded a point for our team because the other school had no one in my class. Then we wrestled Denison. When an opponent also qualified in my weight class, I was told by my teammates to apologize and ‘feign’ injury. Of course I refused to do that, thinking that I’ve worked hard and learned enough to go to battle. We began the match, sizing each other out. But once we were on the mat, he had me pinned in less than 30 seconds. My nose started bleeding profusely and my jaw was numbed. My opponent was a well known multi-year winner of the wrestling championship in our Ohio Athletic Conference!!

Then came the Christmas holiday break. Again I was hoping to get a chance to catch up on school work. But the wrestling meets were to begin in earnest in January and the required practice sessions became more intense and more frequent. I was falling far behind my pre-med courses. Regretfully, I had no choice but to say ‘good bye’ to my wrestling career, my teammates and my very understanding coach.

Because I dropped out of wrestling, Mr. Miller placed me back into a PE class with my brother William, only this class was a swimming class. William swam, but I didn’t; I had never learned. The semester exams were scheduled in three weeks and we were given the choice of swimming five laps without stopping or treading water without touching the sides or the bottom for ten minutes. Neither option was within my capability and impossible for me to achieve in less than 3 weeks. Even though PE was graded as Pass or Fail, how would a grade of F in PE look on my transcript for medical school!

I decided to reason with the instructors and made an appointment to discuss my situation. First, I stated that I agreed that everyone should have some skill with water safety. Second, I regretted not having had the chance to take the swimming class for the entire semester. However, realizing that it was not possible for me to accomplish the goals of the class in less than two weeks, I promised that I would conscientiously and willfully avoid getting myself into any unsafe water situations. Since the instructor asked what I thought was appropriate as a test for me? I suggested that perhaps swimming the length of the pool might work, because in case accidentally I had to rescue myself, being able to manage 50 meters should suffice. He told me that he’ll let me know.

In the remaining two weeks of PE class, I tried to pick up pointers in swimming and to learn to breathe. But inevitably I choked and spit and swallowed much water. It was too tiresome to breathe! Then I thought that perhaps I should try to concentrate on making my ‘wild’ strokes more efficient and try swimming the entire length on one breath or at most two. Witnessing that I truly did not know much about swimming, the instructor agreed to my suggestion as my exam.

On the day of the PE final exam, the whole class did their tests first. Everyone passed. Then all the students sat on the bleachers to watch me. The instructor led me to the edge of the pool at the shallow end and said to go any time I felt ready. I had been practicing from the other end. It suddenly dawned on me that if I started at the shallow end, I’d finish at the deep end; if I failed, I’d be in deep water and I could drown. So I made one more request to start at the other end. In frustration, he agreed and demanded that I not push off to start. During my preparation, I must have always kicked off the wall because it took a lot more effort and consumed much energy just to get going in the deep water. Brother William walked along the edge of the pool cheering me on. (He was fearful that I might need help and he wanted to be close by to rescue me.) Once I headed the right direction, I took a deep breath and swam ferociously towards my goal, splashing water violently. As I neared the end, I could hear all the classmates cheering me on. Finally, I made it! Just barely, but I got a P instead of an F for my transcript in Freshman PE!!!

Opportunities/Challenges

After my high school graduation I was expecting (and expected) to continue on with my studies in college. My choice of schools was more limited because at that time, we (the American society) were known and understood to select the best course of action based on the most economically thrifty pathway. Since my father was a ‘rostered’ member of the clergy of the Lutheran Church, I was automatically granted a half tuition scholarship at Wittenberg University. Based on my academic and activity record, I was awarded the other half tuition as well. Being able to stay in Springfield and continue to live at home would save on living expenses, making Wittenberg the most logical option. Any consideration of attending another school was never entertained, though I wondered if Oberlin might have been a better fit for me.

As I started college at Wittenberg, I felt an imposed burden. This was not totally new, but was a lot more intense. I always had the desire to succeed and do everyone proud because I am the number ONE son; I was a PK, preacher’s kid; I was a Chinese in America, thus being top student was anticipated, etc. At Wittenberg I was one of seven student scholars followed closely to gauge our college performance compared with our high school achievements. Among these 7, I was the only one pursuing a pre-med track. At a subconscious level, I felt closely scrutinized and at all times ‘under-the-microscope.’

I had to be successful, no other options.