Ode to Robert W. Cole
According to the memoirs (see And God Said ‘Let There Be Friends’… and It Was Weird [April, 2012]) Adling commented to me way after the fact upon the choice of Robert Cole as the fourth member of the M-4: “… you chose Cole, whom I did not even know — but he turned out to be an excellent choice. We four had rather extensive planning sessions and kept the project an absolute secret among the four of us.”
If any of the four names is forgotten temporarily, it is probably Cole’s, usually upon the pretense that he was the one member of the quartet with the least “Cisco history,” having moved to Cisco our HS sophomore year (1961-1962) from Texas City. Some people find that surprising.
I do not find that surprising at all.
And not because he is forgettable; he is as unforgettable as any of us. It is because of the reasons he was in my mind a “no-brainer” choice for the fourth. Recall what I think are about the only two accurate descriptions of the M-4? (see The M-4… And the “M” Stands for… [May, 2012]) There were a lot of things we were not, but two things we definitely were and are: 1) sneaky, and 2) non-exemplary. Cole may very well be the most covert and least likely to be copied of us all! (Good rule of thumb for all you young minds out there — don’t copy any of us!)
Cole befriended Joe Woodard (If we had needed a fifth, Joe would have been my choice.) early on, and one of the first things I concluded about Cole was that he was like a super hero with a secret identity; he led two lives; by day he was a quite, calm, unpretentious student who was also a band member; by night, usually with Joe Woodard, he was a stealthy “birddogger” of parked couples and depositor of empty Dad’s root beer bottles on the porches of unsuspecting “victims.” By day he was the good-looking new comer the girls swooned over, and, he always seemed to try to cater to his mother’s wishes; by night he was the shadowy, “natural” prankster, with the movements and demeanor of an assassin.
How was I one of the few (outside Joe Woodard, Chuck Cleveland, and Marlin Marcum) to know this “double life” of Cole? I was in Mrs. Pirtle’s biology class our sophomore year in a section not with Lee, Berry, or Adling — I took Agriculture for two years in high school instead of Spanish. Around a four-person lab table making up the class seats were mild-mannered fellow Ag student Truman Bacon, sitting beside me, and, across the table, anything-but-mild-mannered Jeanette Shirley sitting beside a Truman-Bacon-like someone who soon would be called just “Cole.”
There is one of those “what-if” or “might-have-been” moments again! (see odes to William L. (Bill) Adling [May, 2012] and Bob B. Berry [May, 2012]) What if Mrs. Pirtle had not seated us as she did? Then the rest of this ode would not be NEAR as interesting!
Cole and I discovered that the entire lab table top (made of thick, black, composite material like all public school science lab and counter tops — perhaps hexagonal in shape?) could be moved off its wooden cabinet pedestal. It was not bolted down or glued, maybe because someone before us had unbolted or unglued it. Sitting across from each other, we developed an eye signal to each other that meant we place all four of our forearms beneath the table top, lift it slightly to tilt or wobble it around — all to piss off Jeanette! Jeanette-made-angry was very entertaining! And the cool part about it, she would not squeal on us (maybe she thought new-kid-in-school Cole was cute, or something) — at least not to the point we got into real trouble. I remember being called down in class for disturbance when we moved the table top (Our favorite time to do “our thing” was when Jeanette was about to write or draw something; we could turn her penmanship into an illegible scrawl.), but I don’t remember getting kicked out or sent to the office. Truman stoically tolerated it all; I think he was entertained too.
In between sessions of making Jeanette mad at us, Cole and I began to talk, and, I guess, because he saw me as the “natural prankster” he was, Cole began to reveal things he thought about to me both in the class and in private conversations outside the class, and, as a result, I discovered his “other life.” As part of the “honor code” of pranksters, we did not talk of each other’s secrets to others, even to our best friends. Thus, Adling did not know Cole very well by our Senior year, Berry knew him through double-dating (Berry was our #1 ladies man in the M-4; Cole was a definite #2.), and I knew him, compared to the others in the M-4 by that time, very well.
Only in retrospect have I discovered that in many ways Cole reminded me of Adling; he was a dynamic spirit trapped in the teenaged angst of suppressed self-expression (see Ode the William L. (Bill) Adling). Their main difference was that Adling was overt in his struggle for self-expression, and Cole was very covert about it. Adling seemed always at cross purposes with the teachers and the administrators; Cole seemed never to be, but I knew, inside him he was just like Adling. I think about this, even today, when those two get together, and I am lucky enough to be there when they do — watching two rebellious kindred spirits like that interact is a joy to behold! With those two is the way I have experienced M-4 reunions in recent years (For example, our 3-way reunion at Durty Nellie’s in San Antonio mentioned in The M-4… And the “M” Stands for…) (Remember, Berry is usually working in Whereveristan overseas — see Ode to Bob B. Berry), and one of the few things I can tell you about the get-togethers of Adling, Cole, and Hastings is that the joy of which I speak is always there with our trio. Imagine what it will be like when we can get to be a quartet again!
Cole seemed to me to be a band member who wanted to be something else; he seemed to be motivated in his “day-life” by others’ wishes; like a vampire or werewolf, he seemed only self-motivated at night. I’m not sure which way it was — either I introduced Dad’s to Cole, Joe Woodard, Chuck Cleveland, and Marlin Marcum, or they introduced it to me; I am sure all of us kept the Dad’s shelves at the A&P grocery where my dad worked empty. I’m pretty sure I was the one who introduced it to Adling, Berry, and Lee. Again, in retrospect, Cole should have taken Ag as I did, for the two of us have come to be landowners of farmland and ranches the same way — we today own the land of our fathers (and in my case, of my grandfathers) — the same land we camped out upon as high schoolers and college students.
Cole was and is quiet and tough, like a John Wayne or Clint Eastwood character. One day back in high school I went to his house (probably to see if we could play a war game that afternoon or night), and he turned away from his car he was working on to face me with a huge knot on his forehead right above his nose. (No, no! I know what you are thinking; I hit him in the head with a rock, like I did John Shelton and Berry — see Ode to Bob B. Berry! By the size of this knot, I couldn’t throw a rock that hard; a rock making that knot I know would have killed him, and this was way after the eighth grade, when I swore off rock throwing, thanks to Berry.)
“What happened to you, man?” I asked.
“Aw, a calf kicked me, one I was working on my dad’s place.”
“A calf? How big was it?’
“Oh, probably about 400 lbs.”
“400 lbs?!? Does it hurt?” The swelling looked like it could affect his opening his eyes.
“Nah… not much…”
I was impressed.
He “saved my ass” big time when we were juniors. I had taken my Adolf Hitler impersonation routine too far for typing teacher Mrs. Page’s (Shirley’s mom) patience (And she was and is a very tolerate person and teacher!). She planned to follow-up sending me to the office with a visit with my mom, who worked downtown at the First National Bank. Cole, who was taking shorthand with her (He had already had typing at Texas City.), talked her out of visiting my mom, convincing her there was nothing to be concerned about when it came to my antics as a “class clown.”
He saved, in my way of thinking, much of the west end of the town of Cisco, when he knew what to do when a customer at the gas station where he was working ran over a gas pump and it caught fire! The customer was panicking as Cole went over and unplugged the power to the pump (These were the days when there were not mandatory emergency shut-off switches seen nowadays at all stations.). Then he called the fire department and reached for the fire extinguisher. I recently found out he had not been briefed by the boss on what to do about such a calamity; he figured it out “during the moment.”
Mike Burzenski, a guy with whom Adling got along like the Jews and Arabs, was probably the most fanatical war gamer in our high school days, along with me. But Cole was right there also, on into the college years. (His picture in my memoirs dressed like an SS officer is downright sinister! See Ode to Dr. Bill R. Lee [April, 2012]) One of my favorite war game memories was he and I playing in the little basement of the Coles’ house for hours and hours, occasionally interrupted by Cole’s mom spraying our game site with the water hose through the vent window at ground level as she watered her flower beds. I sometimes wonder if she didn’t do that on purpose, as she probably blamed the two of us for getting her younger son, Cole’s brother Charlie, also interested in war games, to become, in the process, a fanatic war gamer also. For the record, Cole was true to his “sneakiness” in the war games, being the best trap setter I ever saw; if you fell into his traps, most likely you were in for a defeat.
As Student Council President needing lots of help, few members on the Council were as reliable to help as Cole. If I needed help on some project or some dance preparation or whatever, he would make the time to “be there.” I expected him to use me the same way. He marshalled people, materials, and schedules for me in both my campaigns in the Student Council; for Vice-President our junior year as sophomores, and for President our senior year as juniors. Through him I befriended many who became my supporters. Cole was my “stage manager” and “special effects” person for the play “Analysis in Black” I wrote as a substitute for the Senior play we were not allowed to have our senior year; at least they let the Drama class, which Adling and Berry had quit, do something!
When we were guarding the bonfire all night our senior year in HS (see Ode to Dr. Bill R. Lee and Ode to Bob B. Berry), Cole was the perfect sentry; he was working at night! True to our rural roots, he and I were among those who had guns on site, for “insurance” against college raiders; we did not have to use them, thankfully. He was a major reason the pyromaniacs from CJC (Cisco College) did not get to set the wood on fire prematurely. When I barely avoided being burned alive (see Ode to Bob B. Berry), I was picked up out of the naptha-soaked wood by Berry on one side, and Cole on the other. His loyalty to the Council and to the Senior class was unexcelled.
Yet, interestingly enough, Cole never joined our high school study sessions in the evenings; his academic development grew independent of the “homework machine” that was Lee, Clark Odom, Adling, Berry, and Hastings. (Ode to Bob B. Berry) He was a “natural fit,” in my prejudiced mind, for Texas A&M, eventually planning on majoring in mechanical engineering. I like to think I was instrumental in getting him to transfer from CJC (now Cisco College) before he got his Associates’s degree, for, given his major, he, after three semesters, was a semester behind in the math requirements for engineering at A&M. We went on to room together as juniors at Aggieland (what a blast!) during which time he tried to get me to switch from physics to engineering. During his first semester there (2nd semester, Soph. year), I saw him dripping wet in his bathing suit amidst a multi-dorm “Old Army” water fight with the near-by Corps dorms, featuring hurled giant plastic garbage cans (“shit cans” we called them) full of water. I asked him if he was glad he came to A&M; he gave me that patented grin of his, this time dripping wet, and said, “Hell, yeah!” and went to get his shit can refilled for the next round.
Alongside his wife Lois and his daughter Laura, Cole sat at our dining table in Cisco not long ago and patiently endured the good-natured “ribbing” these two important women in his life were giving him about how quiet he always was and how words had to be “pulled out” of his mouth. The conversation agenda had also included the formation of the M-4, discussing the question of “Why Robert?” It was a perfect set-up for me to look at him and say for the rest of the audience at the table, “Man, Adling, Berry, and I did not want you in the M-4 to keep your mouth shut, although your strong back was certainly crucial; we needed you to help plan; we were successful in part because of what you did and what you said.” Lois and Laura seemed astonished. It occurred to me that the covert behavior of Cole’s “other life” was the model through which Adling said we “…kept the project an absolute secret among the four of us.” We did not share M-4 stuff with our loved ones. For the M-4, such “comes with the territory.”
As he was to be at the service station fire later, Cole was probably the coolest customer of the M-4 during whatever we were doing. At the beginning of the chair/desk escapade evening of February 11, 1964, our timing was off and he could not make a scheduled connection with the rest of us; he coolly decided to “lay low” by going home and waiting to hear what had happened to the timing — a decision that ultimately kept us “on track,” as a less steady person probably would have mouthed off something to blow our cover. He drove the “let off” and “pick up” car (his Chevy — He was a Chevy guy and Joe Woodard was a Ford guy, over which they “feuded” in the daytime as part of their “cover-up” for their night-time “secret identities.”) that night during the chair escapade; he was the one that calmed Adling down the only time Adling ever “lost it” (Ode to William L. (Bill) Adling and Ode to Bob B. Berry); it was Cole who shimmied up the flag pole at the “high school” where we had done the “chair thing” earlier to rip down the flag the sophomores had planted one school night; Cole and I (along with Mark Kurklin and Macon Strother) avoided being seen that night by the principal, Mr. Midkiff, who had driven up upon the flag removal — Adling (along with Joe Woodard, Billy Wilson, and David Waters) did not escape, unfortunately. (Luckily, no one caught that night got in real trouble.) Atop the dam the night before we graduated, Cole and Joe Woodard were the only ones sober enough to man the ropes for the three painters Berry, Adling, and Hastings (see Ode to Bob B. Berry); in Phase I of the “flag escapade” after we had graduated, he saw to it that we got into the vacated high school building through the basement, while Mike Burzenski and I were still trying to figure out how we could possibly continue; in Phase II of the “flag escapade” it was upon Cole’s shoulders that Adling stood, to reach the top of the flagpole, which was, in turn, atop the Cisco City Hall (I was the “let-off”-“pick-up” driver that night.); in other “sub-phases” of raising flags, Cole was there with me at the flag pole in all the “raising ceremonies;” all flags, in all phases, were kept, after being painted, secretly in the trunk of Cole’s car.
During college as roommates Cole and I climbed over the Brazos River below College Station on the framework of a burned-out bridge (dangerous, on-the-sly, non-exemplary) and after we had graduated from college, he and I climbed to the highest point in Texas (waterless Guadalupe Peak, east of El Paso) (We had to carry our water on our backs.) when its setting was a non-park — after being a State park and before becoming the National Park it is today (dangerous, unceremonious, non-exemplary). We like giving credit for these feats to the legacy of the M-4.
I recently finished building a wrap-around porch at the remodeled house in Cisco where I grew up on West 6th Street. Four porch columns holding up the roof stand out from the structure and on each of them I put a name of a M-4 member on a plaque. Facing the street, the names are in the order we “joined.” Left to right, Bill Adling, Ronnie Hastings, and Bob Berry. The fourth, on the far right, is Robert Cole.
Like Lee, Adling, and Berry, Cole is the best friend one could ever have.
To ask what is my favorite M-4 story is like asking what is my favorite Beatles song or favorite Stones song. I always have to tell more than one story, just to be fair. But, if there is one that always has to be included, like the last song of an encore set at a rock concert, it probably has to be this one, which is appropriate to this particular ode:
Adling, Berry, and I had just finished, after several hours, it seemed, painting the huge “SENIORS 1964″ on the Lake Cisco dam spillway, each suspended by long ropes manned by a rope crew managed by Cole and Joe Woodard. (For solidarity we stayed at the bottom of the spillway looking up at the painter when we were not painting.) It was the night before high school graduation for all of us. The three of us had broken our oaths to not do what we had just done! (i.e. — Leave the Lees’ house down the road toward town and our job guarding wedding presents for Lee’s sister Camille and come get involved in the dam painting, possibly risking our graduations, given the “thin ice” the M-4 had been “skating on” since February.) (see Ode to Dr. Bill R. Lee and Ode to Bob B. Berry) But we were too tired and too tense to think about that at this moment, for word from above had come that car lights had appeared at the south end of the dam top, over which ran an old route of the highway between Cisco and Albany. We had to assume it was the cops, as we had gone most of the night without their appearance — an anomaly, to say the least, given our “intelligence information.”
The trio of painters waded through the swimming pool water at the base of the dam to the north side of the huge concrete pool, soaking our jeans to the max, and then we grabbed our waiting pocket valuables and slipped our waiting shoes onto our wet feet as quickly as possible. We moved up toward the huge scree of rocks and boulders on the north end of the hollow concrete dam, not knowing what all the sounds from above meant. For all we knew, the whole crew had been arrested, but, from the sounds of cars starting up and doors slamming, that might not be the case at all; quick glances over our shoulders as we began to scramble up on all fours on the scree did not reveal any flashing police lights. As we topped the scree and scooted on our slippery shoe bottoms down to the edge of the highway, we saw nothing at all but darkness. It looked as if we were stranded, far away from our cars.
Then we heard a car engine idling, then the car lights of Cole’s blue and white Chevy came on; the next moment Cole roared up even with us with both right doors open, headed north, away from the dam! He had been waiting for us! About the only thing I remember the three of us exclaiming, as we literally dove through the open doors, were things like “All Right!” “It’s Cole!” “Teddy Boy!” (That last one is a period saying, referring to the leather-jacketed group of English “hoodlums,” also called “Rockers,” counterparts to the other flare-legged pant wearing group, “The Mods,” both to whom we were being introduced by the English “British invasion” rock group, The Who.)
It was one of those many moments we will never forget. The M-4 rides again! Once more, Cole came through! (I want to think he even had gathered the dam painting equipment — ropes, etc. — and had it ready to return to Berry, who had been the equipment’s source [see Ode to Bob B. Berry]!)
We three began giving Cole suggestions as to how to get us circled back around to our cars as we sped up the highway now north of the dam. But, we forgot to whom we were speaking. Without listening to anything we said, he slowed down and took a U-turn turn-around used by dam visitors, and then proceeded to drive south back along the entire length of the dam!
“Cole what are you doing!” “What if the cops come?”
Cole did not say a word. He turned momentarily and gave us his patented smile, this time with his famous hissing laugh. We could barely make it out in the darkness of the wee hours of the morning. All we could do is laugh and shake our heads in amazement.
Guess who was the “hero” of the evening back at the Lees’ house, which was all safe and sound, where all four of us soon rendezvoused, three of us to dry our pants, all of us to celebrate the successful painting of the dam? (Hint: the porch column on the far right as you face 6th Street…)