My name is Sockalingam Sam Kanappan.
INTERVIEWED BY Zack Shlachter x 4

"So, it was a big week that January ’69. I was part of that. ’69. And then the moon landing came. We were just watching in a 19-inch black and white TV. That’s all we had."

Nattarasankottai, India

Austin, Texas


Houston, Texas



When did you first come to the United States, and how?

That was on September 9th, 1968. I came through New York and landed in Mueller Airport in Austin. I joined the University of Texas in three days after my arrival, in the mechanical engineering department.

You know, I asked my friend, the morning after, “Can we go and have a tea, in a tea stall?” He said, “We don’t go to tea stall. We just make coffee at home.” I said, “Okay… Let’s make coffee at home.” That was my first morning. Because the previous night I arrived in Austin—the early morning, next day, is what I’m talking about—and then he took me to the department of mechanical engineering. I met the head of the department, and they gave me my papers and what I need to do. I signed up for International House on Nueces Street, so they said how to go there. So, I went there and looked at the rooms. [In] each room we had one American and one international student. So I lived there for first semester. I did not eat meat. I had to survive on bread and milk for [the] whole semester, and the second semester on, I moved out of International House and lived with a friend, sharing [an] apartment on 27th Street and Guadalupe. That’s where we lived, in an old apartment, you know—$40 a month rent, per person. That’s how I got started.

My research was at the university—Taylor Hall. So, every day I would walk from 27th Street to Taylor Hall and also attend classes. I was a teaching assistant, so I worked at the materials lab, getting the experiments ready for the graduate students and undergraduate students. That was my early years in Austin.

Fellow students were very nice. I was in the mechanical engineering… graduate students, there were only about 10 students, and one of them was from Chicago, another one from Longview, Texas, so they were my two good friends in the class. Essentially, just kind of going to the student center, cafeteria, and walking across the street to the bookstore, type of thing—daily routine—trying to walk on Guadalupe, bookstore, back again. We were not allowed to go up on the Tower then, but we walked around and tried to see the Tower. I came here in September and ’69 January the University of Texas Longhorns got the national championship and I was here, so they had that University of Texas Tower all lighted up with orange and a ‘one’. That was last-second win, 14 Arkansas, 15 Longhorns, UT. Nixon was the president. One of my friends had a car, so we jumped into the car and drove back and forth, back and forth, on Guadalupe Street from 19th Street – now you call that thing MLK Boulevard; it used to be called 19th Street – [from] 19th Street to 27th Street. I lived at 27th Street, so that is the stretch. A number of students were, almost all night, they were celebrating that win. Then the next day, the day after, they renamed that street for one day after the quarterback for the Longhorns—James Street, his name. So, it was a big week that January ’69. I was part of that. ’69. And then the moon landing came. We were just watching in a 19-inch black and white TV. That’s all we had. So we were just looking at that moon landing, from our apartment.

What was the Indian population like in Austin and at UT? Was it tight-knit, did you branch out? What was it like socially to come here at that time?

Well, Dr. Raja Rao, professor of philosophy, was already in Austin, and his wife from France. They were already there. They were teaching Telugu, Hindi -- Indian languages -- at that time. We used to celebrate Diwali and we reserved a hall. I didn’t know it was not air conditioned. It was ’69, summer, so it was very hot. We went to the hall and no air conditioning. Finally we had to get some fans to get the Diwali cultural program going. It was a small Indian community—students at that time; only a few people were working at that time in Austin, because [for] most of the jobs you needed citizenship. Tracor was a defense contractor and by then President Johnson had become the president, so a lot of defense work was taken up in Austin, but we were not eligible to work because we were not citizens. And then IBM started their office, TI started their office. [During] those beginnings, for those companies in Austin, I was still a student—’69.

We really did not get much outside the Indian community. We were just only socializing within the Indian community, and then Dr. George Sudarshan came to give a lecture in the department of physics. So, one of my friends, who was a graduate student in physics, told me, “Yeah, there’s a South Indian coming—do you want to go and meet him?” I said, “Well, what do you mean by… Oh, okay, let’s go and see him.” So I went and Dr. Sudarshan was from Kerala, and I talked with him because my uncle back home had talked about Dr. Sudarshan to me, so I knew his name. We were there, I just said hello. Dr. Sudarshan decided to accept a job in particle physics, in the department of physics. So then he went back to New York and then came and settled here with his family. I translated a number of documents for him—Indian-language documents, from Tamil to English. That’s how I got to know him. And most of the professors were in engineering, computer science, and the department of chemistry. A number of students did PhD in chemistry.

I just bought my car, a $400 used car. I still did not drive, but I bought it, and then a friend of mine moved the car to Houston when I moved to Houston looking for a job. I left Austin because there were not many jobs in Austin at the time. Most students who graduated in UT or A&M, they all came to, I guess, to bigger cities like Houston, Dallas, at that time, and start working, either in Houston or in Dallas.