Caution: I Brake For History

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A lighter example of how the Majic Bus experience can teach students to break the shackles of closed-mindedness occurred during a country-music seminar we held in Riverside, California, with Waylon Jennings. Myron Crockett, an African-American student from the University of New Orleans, despised the entire genre of country music, which he considered “redneck garbage.” No matter how hard I tried to convince him that Hank Williams and George Jones were worth listening to, he staunchly refused. But when Myron met Waylon Jennings, dressed smartly in black cowboy wear, his attitude began to change. Speaking earnestly to us about his early years as a member of Buddy Holly’s Crickets, his later musical partnership with Willie Nelson, and his own million bus miles logged over the seamless years of plucking tunes on the C&W circuit, Waylon won Myron over. Half in jest, Myron asked Waylon if he would play one of his original compositions, “The Dukes of Hazzard” television theme song, at his concert that evening. Waylon, who had kindly put us on his guest list, said, “I’ll see what I can do.”

A little while later we yelled with delight from our front-row seats when Waylon pointed at Myron, dedicated the song to him, then launched into a rousing guitar version of it. Myron was a Waylonhead from that moment on, playing his new country music hero’s Greatest Hits CD on the Majic Bus stereo.

We made special visits to America’s living classrooms—our magnificent national parks—rejuvenating our souls with nature hikes and often spending the night under the stars. “National Parks are the best idea we ever had,” the author Wallace Stegner noted. “Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best.” Stegner was right on the mark.

Nature provided unforgettable experiences throughout the Majic Bus journey. In the middle of an Alaskan road, during a springtime snowstorm, we were stared down by a stubborn moose. We watched Mojave wildflowers bloom before our eyes as endangered desert tortoises craned their necks in search of lunch. Colorful horned puffins fed along the rocky coastal cliffs of Glacier Bay, and wild boar roamed in packs in the subtropical beauty of the West Pearl River.

It is impossible to relate in the compass of a single article all our experiences during the three-month “American Odyssey.” Indeed it’s difficult even to extract “course highlights,” for each adventure in our educational journey proved seminal. Some of the most memorable encounters along the road were with authors whose works the students had read beforehand: Toni Morrison and Jay Mclnerney in New York City, Kurt Vonnegut in East Hampton, Hunter S. Thompson in Aspen, T. Coraghessan Boyle in Santa Barbara, Allen Ginsberg in Lowell, William Kennedy in Albany, Larry Woiwode in North Dakota, Hubert Selby, Jr., in Los Angeles, Rita Dove in Charlottesville, Maya Angelou in Illinois, Jim Carroll in Louisville, Studs Terkel in Chicago, Arthur Miller in Connecticut. The list goes on and on. We often met at the writer’s home, which added an intimacy unimaginable in the traditional English class. There is something transcendent about Ken Kesey showing you the Oregon desk where he wrote One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest , Chuck Berry letting you touch the St. Louis guitar on which he composed “Johnny B. Goode,” and John Kenneth Galbraith allowing you to browse his home library in Cambridge.

 

To experience great American literature, we made pilgrimages to Henry David Thoreau’s Waiden Pond. Nelson Algren’s Chicago, William Faulkner’s Oxford, Robert Frost’s New England, and John Steinbeck’s Salinas. During 1994 the Majic Bus visited Jack Kerouac’s Lowell to hear an all-night candlelight reading of Mexico City Blues and On the Road . At the Nuyorican Poets Cafe on Manhattan’s Lower East Side we entered a poetry “slam,” with one of the Majic Bus students winning second place. Instead of just touring Walt Whitman’s birthplace near Huntington, we held a daylong seminar inside the small saltbox cottage with the poet Robert Bly. Bly, a teacher of genius, is able to make Whitman’s grandiosity wholly contemporary. Refusing to have us just read Leaves of Grass , Bly took us on a collective journey deep inside such poems as “The Learned Astronomer,” which explains to perfection the pedagogy of “American Odyssey.”