It Ain’t the Tonk to Me
Nolan W, Bailey
Someone once said that “Nostalgia places heart over head and overrides all sense of logic, sanity and practicality.” For me, I plead guilty to having touch of the disease when it comes to reminiscing about my years at Louisiana Tech. And, in particular, I tend to wax sentimental over time spent in the Tech Tonk.
Even though I spent many hours in the student center during my years at Tech, I have no idea when the student center became to be affectionately known as the Tonk. However, I’m sure that the name must have been derived from Honky Tonk, a type of juke joint that offered food, drink, and dancing in the early 1900’s. I do remember the first time I visited the Tech Tonk as a high school student in the mid 1950’s. At that time the student center was in a sprawling white frame structure located on the site of the present center.
The campus just didn't seem to be the same after the original Tonk was torn down and moved to the first floor of the old English Building—which was located behind the site of the new center--while a new and more modern center was being constructed. However, both the original Tonk and its replacement, in the old English Building, had more ambiance and character than the new student center, which was officially anointed in 1959.
The Student Center seemed to change from a "homey" Honky Tonk, with a low ceiling and cozy intimate feeling, to a sterile modern edifice known as the Memorial Student Center...or, whatever it's called these days. The new and improved version reminded one of a huge McDonald's—all concrete and glass. I'm not sure that there was a McDonalds in Ruston at the time. However, there was a Hood's Drive Inn restaurant --a very popular teen hangout.
The historical "Tonk" was the place to be on campus. There was an "Arnolds" restaurant or Happy Days atmosphere to the old "Honky Tonk." In 1959, it lost its feeling of being an oversized family room, and assumed a more impersonal quality. The original Tonk had a coziness to it. The new building featured an expansive vaulted ceiling which created openness and light instead of a snug, warm, and comfortable feeling. Please note that this didn't keep me spending hours in the new Tonk....
Considering the times, the most wicked dance around during the "fifies" was the "dirty bop." And, the male students that "lived" in the Tonk took great pleasure in asking high school coeds, who were visiting on campus to attend various events, to jitterbug. Once they were on the floor, and committed, the Tech student would suddenly "break out" into the dirty bop as the jukebox began to play. Invariably, the high school girl would turn a bright red, and flee back to the safety of her table, utterly embarrassed...amid loud guffaws from the much more sophisticated college crowd. I'm wondering if any spontaneous "dancing" happens in the current student center--or, if there is an old fashioned jukebox in the corner.
Students from the 1950’s and 1960’s would often “hang out” in the Tonk, both old and new versions, to keep from trekking back to their dorm before classes had ended for the day. This was especially true for me the first summer I was there. One of my high school friends was related to a lady in Ruston that rented rooms to Tech students. Mrs. Black’s home was along Highway 80 at the intersection with what is now called Tech Drive. When I couldn’t catch a ride with my roommate to campus, the only option left was to walk, around three-fourths of a mile, to campus. The summer of 1957 was hot, as is usual in Ruston, so the Tonk became a respite from the heat and humidity until my classes were over for the day, and it was time to drag myself back to Mrs. Black’s boarding house. Later, when l began to live on campus, it was much more sensible to lounge in the Tonk rather than walk in the summer heat to Cottingham, Jenkins, or McFarland Hall.
Usually, Tech students would hang out in the Tonk to study, snack, or meet up with and relax with friends. However, around 1960, an incoming freshman class brought a new activity to the student center, the card game of bridge . Before that, one never saw any kind of card game in the "new student center," until all of a sudden, one could find a bridge game in progress any hour of the day. I'd never heard of anything other than poker, Bourre' or Booray," and Blackjack. What was bridge?
Back in the day, Louisiana Tech was part of the “Bible Belt,” and before bridge the students played cards only in the privacy of their dorm rooms. Lots of pennies and matches changed hands. It’s amusing to look back and to remember one of my high school teachers stopping a game of Rook because it was one of those sinful card games. And, once again, I found myself in an awkward situation. A day or two after the daily Rook game was terminated, we students were standing around during the lunch hour with nothing to play, and a friend asked me why we weren’t playing cards. I mouthed something like, “Aw, old lady Jones won’t let us play.” Then, I turned around to see her son standing right behind me. Panic! Without thinking, I said “Isn’t that right Bill?” What else could I say? Anyhow, her son’s response was “Surely is!” Reprieved, or what?
I was interested in this "new card game," but didn't want to feel like an absolute idiot by asking someone to teach me the game. So, I checked out two books on bridge (one by Alfred Scheinwald and another by Charles Goren) and memorized the rules and their respective strategies. After watching the play for a few days, I was asked, when a player left a game for class, if I played bridge. I said "Surely do" and began to play. Everyone at the table commented that I really played a good game of bridge. I just smiled to myself. Until now, nobody ever knew the truth. They never knew that it was my first game of bridge, ever. Sounds like a lie, but it's the truth. I had forgotten all about the bridge phenomenon until I began to remember things about the Tonk.