On the weekend before my last finals at St. John’s, the loudspeakers came alive on a Sunday morning. A local diocese had organized an afternoon of bridge for ladies at the Preston Beach Hotel, an old-fashioned resort on the beach on Swampscott. They wanted volunteers who could play to fill in when tables were short of players or when some of the ladies wanted to take a break. I believe these were fundraisers and they liked having polite young men around. I’d played a lot and was pretty confident about my exams, so I signed up.
The resort had been built in the 20’s and had 15-foot ceilings, huge screened-in porches facing the sea and a dining room that sat nearly 1,000. It was a complex of about 15 buildings right on the shore. We arrived about 2 PM, and I found an empty chair right away. I rotated through a few tables, and I was getting a lot of attention and having fun with these old ladies.
They announced a break and suddenly, waiters poured out of the kitchen carry big trays of sandwiches, salads, coffee, and tea. They streamed through the tables dropping their trays on those flimsy collapsible tray stands. I saw right away how they did it. Three points the right shoulder, right hand, and the stabilizing left hand touching the front. A slight tilt to the hip helped balance the load. The waiters were joined by busboys who helped set up the tables and serve the luncheon goodies. I watched them start to clear away the first course plates and stack the dirty dishes back on the same trays they’d used coming in. At first, everything went smoothly, but soon the system had fallen into chaos. The tray stands stood piled high with nasty dishes. No more table clearing could take place, the next course could not be served. It was gridlock and bedlam for about one hour. Finally, the service settled, and we played a few more rubbers. Toward the end of the night, I went up to the handsome fellow in tie and rolled up shirt sleeves who was in charge of the dining room; Jack Riley said his nametag. I asked him if he needed more busboys to work, and he looked up sharply. He needed at least three more, and summer was coming, and he was so short-handed, and did I want a job? We negotiated. I would start two weeks after graduation.
I couldn’t wait to tell my mother. She’d been asking what I was going to do. Her work at Summit was discouraging. She fought steadily with the majority owner about matters of taste. Just last week she had told me that she was going to find something else. I completed two more exams and then school was over. I begged a ride home, and Eileen’s car stood in the driveway. I burst into the house. She came to the kitchen door and said, “I found a job.” at exactly the same time I said “I found a job.” We laughed, and she said you first. So I told her about bridge with the ladies and Preston Beach and Jack and my good fortune. She listened growing more and more agitated. Finally she broke in. Her new job was also at Preston Beach Hotel. She was starting as Jack Riley’s assistant in the dining room next Tuesday, she said, which happened to be the same day I was supposed to start. Even the Fates bound us together.
So Eileen and I started work together at Preston Beach on Tuesday. When she gave me the paperwork to fill out, she said that she didn’t want people to know that we were related. I signed in under a different name and worked for her the entire summer. It became a huge joke between us. Every time she called my false name, we giggled. As a busboy, I worked the dining room mostly, and I was great at it. I had the tray-carry down instantly. In my 6 years of working dining rooms, I only dropped one tray and that was when somebody came through the wrong door and crashed into me. I got so I could carry two trays at once. And I could clear the main course for a table of four onto one arm. I also found that I had strength. Often I ended up working two shifts – 16 hours. My legs were huge. Eileen spent some crazy hours at Preston also. We both learned about the extremes of hotel restaurant work during that summer. And then it was over and time for the next step in my development – Bowdoin College in Brunswick Maine.
I packed a trunk. I remember being very nervous. I don’t remember if Dad came with us or not. When we arrived, the campus was full of vehicles and families, all doing just what we were doing. We found a parking spot near my assigned dorm and lugged suitcases and the trunk up to the third floor. A flurry of greetings with other boys and families, a trip to the Union for a final snack, and suddenly, I was alone. I went back to the room, and my roommate was sitting at his desk, getting organized.
John Wheeler was a wonderful person, a terrific student, a nice and accommodating man, a long distance runner, with a wry and silly sense of humor. He wanted to see all the football games, so he joined the band as the cymbal player, never having crashed a cymbal even one time. Coincidentally, he had won the same Math medal as I had, so we proudly displayed them next to one another. The dorm rooms were old and creaky. They still had boarded up fireplaces left over from earlier heating arrangements. Hawthorne and Longfellow had attended Bowdoin a century prior, and it was rumored that John and I were living where Longfellow had his suite.
At Bowdoin, more than 95% of students joined fraternities. The old system was still in place, and everyone ate in their frat houses. That first weekend was rush time when they try to recruit the new class. I pledged Chi Psi and found myself in a great class with great guys. They seemed to accept me, but I knew they were just being polite and nice. I felt like a complete fool every minute. From the beginning, I was adopted by some very sophisticated rich and decadent boys – seniors who were like gods to me; they were witty and wry and cynical, and they drank expensive cool drinks like martinis, and they played the Rolling Stones incessantly and this was 1962-1963. December’s Children they liked. Looking back, I see now that some of them were gay. Why they chose me, I could never fathom.
For the first 6 weeks we were pledges learning our way around campus. We had little beanies that we had to wear 24/7; at the house we were last to get served. The meals were delicious. Our cook held legendary status, campus-wide. He had played professional hockey in Canada, a huge-chested guy with tattoos, about 40 – a man’s man who loved taking care of us boys. We had the best kitchen by far of any of the 10 fraternities.
After six weeks of wearing beanies, pledges then passed through what was accurately known as Hell Week. These rituals, made famous by Skull & Bones, used to be part of most campuses where fraternities were set up. They’ve since been banned. It began on Sunday night at 6PM. When we arrived at the house, we were rudely shoved into the coatroom that was just off the foyer, maneuvered to stand shoulder to shoulder facing the wall, and told to memorize a long – about 400 words – speech which, in essence, requested permission to enter the house proper. Once in a while, one of us was pulled to the doorway and told to recite the request for permission to enter. The doorway was filled with faces. The upperclassmen had prepared all day for this, and two kegs had elevated their spirits. They all screamed instructions, and we were to scream back reciting flawlessly and quickly. Occasionally, someone would shove crackers in your mouth. It was impossible to get through it without stumbling. At the slightest hesitation, they would scream and jeer and send us back to the closet. This went on for about 4 hours until all of the pledges had passed the test. As we entered, we were lined up facing the wall.
Finally, we all made it, and we were marched into the dining room. Two special tables were set up for us, and they began to serve us. In our juice glasses, they cracked raw eggs. The bread must have been baked months earlier. They had made it obvious where the mold had been scraped off. And the soup was boiled peelings including the onion skins. We couldn’t leave until our plates were clean. Any remarks by us were punished by additional eggs or soup and several young men screaming epithets in your ears. It continued for about 3 more hours until we all managed to stumble back to our dorms and collapse.
Every day of that week, they had activities scheduled. Most are just a blur, but I remember that one night as we approached the house, we were attacked and hoods thrown over our heads and tied up and carried somewhere (it must have been inside the house) and thrown on a mattress. We were then dragged through a gauntlet where we were beaten with thin sticks that stung and then told that we were going to be branded and had dry ice pressed into our flesh. (Some of the other fraternities actually branded their pledges with a red-hot poker.) Then we were carried somewhere (the attic?) and untied and hoods removed where we had to sit cross-legged and stare at the Chi Psi badge which sat in the eye of a skull. We had to remain motionless – absolutely motionless – for one hour. My big legs made this impossible, and I must have been there for 3 hours, cramping aching. Finally, they put the hood back one me, and I was carried down the stairs and dumped in the grass outside.
Over the course of the week, meals improved a little bit but not much. And we still had to request permission for every entry into the house. The final ceremony was held on Friday night. We were given times to arrive at the house and told to synchronize our watches so we would be exact. On my arrival, they threw a pillow case over my head and spun me around for disorientation and carried me up and down stairs, in and out of doors, and finally into a place where footstep scraped and echoed; it smelled heavily of incense. I was forced to my knees on a concrete floor. The pillow case was removed, and loud chanting began. My head was held in place from behind and I was staring at a human skull with the Chi Psi badge in one eye socket. The light was flickering – torches. I caught a glimpse of someone out of the side of my eye. He was wearing a robe with a pointy hood, just like the KKK — only black.
The chanting stopped and a deep loud voice spoke in old-fashioned syntax. It told me that my life had been useless up to now, that the only thing I could do was die and be reborn into a higher state of existence. I was then pronounced dead.
I was lifted to and then off my feet and wrapped in a sheet. Chains were wrapped around me holding my arms in tight. The chanting began again and I was placed in a long box – a coffin. They covered the box, and now it was dark. The chanting was fainter. The cover was hammered all around the edges, then the coffin rose in the air; I was swung around and lowered into a deep hole. After I hit bottom, several shovelfuls of dirt struck the top of the box. I was being buried alive. Finally, some kind of cover was placed over the top of the pit, and footsteps passed over. The chanting got softer and softer until it was clear that they had left. I was alone, six feet in the ground, tied in chains, buried in a coffin.
They left me there a long time. I found out later that the duration of burial depended on how much you had resisted during the other ceremonies. I have a sarcastic and funny side that only comes out when I’m really nervous. So all week, I had mouthed off. I must have been left in that hole for days (actually about 30 minutes). It was an exercise in mind control. Most of us managed to get through it, but a few boys freaked out. One began screaming, sat up straight in the coffin, and knocked the cover off (it was not really nailed on).
Finally, they came back and got me. The coffin was lifted up; I was lifted out and untied. I was standing in a concrete room about 20×20 that had a big hole in the middle and a big pile of dirt in the corner. And then they were all pounding my back and cheering. Someone held out one of the robes. It hung to the floor and had 3 little eyehooks to hold it together. When you pulled up the hood, it was hard to see your face. That’s why the Klan used them.
They escorted me through a door in the wall, and I entered a stunning room. About 30 x50, it was lined with wood paneling and had cushioned seats all around the walls on an elevated platform (about one step up). It was dark with lights hanging from chains that resembled something from Macbeth’s castle. They were lit with a blue light that gave an eerie glow. In the center of the floor was a circular and ornate grate about 5 feet in diameter that had the same blue lights that looked a little bit like fire. It gave an ancient pattern to the shadows that flickered all over the walls. At the far end of the room was an extended dais with space for three; the center spot stood two steps over the others. In the center near the top of the dais was a picture of the Chi Psi badge in a light box — painted on glass with a bright white light behind it. The badge glowed and shone in the murky darkness. It was a stunning and beautiful secret room.
By now the next pledge had arrived and went through the same treatment. This time I got to sing the chants, march over the grave, and then hide in the secret room until that pledge’s allotted time had passed. It was a long night. Finally, we had all passed through and been resurrected. The party began. Of course, the upperclassmen had been drinking heavily the whole time, and now the pledges tried to catch up. I had made a sincere promise to myself not to drink after what I’d already seen in my family and in others. My ‘Pigeon’ trips with my Mom had a big effect on me. I had to make a very strong point of it because the pressure was immense. But what I saw when people drank made me feel good about my decision.
As for school itself, I sunk deep into depression. I couldn’t get out of bed in the morning. I’d set the alarm clock, and it would go off. I would shut it off unconsciously and continue sleeping. I took to putting the alarm on the other side of the room, so I’d have to get up. But it didn’t work; I’d wake at noon stretched out across the floor with my hand still on the off button, and my feet still in the bed. I asked John to wake me a few times, but he told me that I got really angry when he did – threatened his life. I just couldn’t make it to class. I was taking the pre-med curriculum which had little flexibility. In Introductory German, I made a 94 on the quizzes and tests, but I had skipped 30 classes including labs. The professor deducted one point for every absence over 4 – grade = D. Something similar happened in my Calculus class. I had already covered the entire course at St. John’s. It met three times per week at 11 AM with quizzes on Friday. I slept through most classes and half the quizzes: Grade=C-.
I’d dutifully go to the library with my books, but I couldn’t study. I’d gaze out the window, flip pages, slouch, sit up, slouch. I’d get up and chat with everyone I could find. Finally, I’d make the killer move; I’d look for a book. At this point it was usually fiction, but later I’d read anything just so I wouldn’t have to study.
Actually, the best book I read that year was given to me by Fred Hafele. I’d met him in my Oratory class where he and I were the misfits. Fred was a national swimming champ in high school at Bowdoin on a full scholarship, a buff, handsome, well-read guy with a brilliant and artistic side; he knew from the instant he arrived that he didn’t belong in Maine. Plus, he was really turned off by the fraternity life. It was 1962, and Fred was the first of many conscious people I would meet in my life. After class one day in November, he caught me on the steps going out. He told me that he was leaving; he’d been accepted at Kenyon in Ohio – a great but poorly known school. He’d start there in the second semester. They didn’t have a swimming program, but he’d decided that he could live without competing. I was awed at his ability to make such decisions, to take such charge of his life. I remember the sinking feeling that I was losing something important, but at the same time, I congratulated him warmly and meant it. We chatted a little, then he reached into his bag and pulled out a book. He said, “You’re the only one I know who will appreciate this book.” Then he danced down the steps and was gone. I looked at the book – Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut.
I did play a lot of bridge that year. Five or six of us in the dorm were fanatics, so we could usually get a game going. Often we’d play late into the night – another reason that I couldn’t get out of bed. Occasionally we’d play for a nickel a point – minor gambling. I usually won a little, so I didn’t mind playing for money. One night I was sitting in the room chatting with John Wheeler who had become a good friend. He had an easy, accepting manner and a ready grin. I was extremely fortunate. We had started a running joke about him practicing the cymbals. I mean he had sheet music and everything. He’d say here’s the complicated part and crash them twice in a row.
Anyway, Dave came to the door and asked if I would be the fourth in a bridge game down the hall. When I arrived, I found that my partner was somebody that I didn’t know very well. He was a senior, a big, lumbering, pear-shaped guy that we had nicknamed “Penguin”. He was John Haperin, and he always wore dark suits. He was brilliant and weird. Acted as if he were about 40 years old and drank extremely hard. (One night, the guy across the hall told me he had built a penguin trap. In the hallway outside John’s room he had balanced a cardboard box up on a stick at one end. The string tied to the stick led to his room. Under the box was a shot glass full of scotch. We howled.) John was an English major, was supposed to be writing a novel, and intended to undertake journalism in Chicago. I think he came from money.
When I came into the room to play, he pulled me aside and told me what conventions he wanted to use. Most were standard fare. We began. From the first hand that we played, a connection formed between us. I knew exactly what he meant with his bids. I could see the cards that he held in my mind. The same for John; he knew just what I was thinking. Some uncanny thing had happened. We crushed everyone. Nobody would play for money with us. We began offering handicaps to keep it interesting. I was hanging around his room every afternoon, reading about bridge, discussing conventions with him, going over rubbers we had played – studying the game. Finally, John told me about a couple that he had played with last year. He was the public relations officer for Bowdoin. He and his wife were childless and had played on the professional bridge circuit for about 15 years, traveling from city to city, playing bridge tournaments, surviving on winnings. They had tired of the travel and settled in Brunswick when he found this job.
John decided that it was time for us to play with them. We did, twice. They beat us both times but by narrow margins. We were good. They offered to coach John and me for the next few months and to help us get connected, so we could go on the road. John was graduating, but I would have to leave school. We would go on the circuit. I declined, but I should have taken them up on it.
I started to get good at some other games at Bowdoin. I spent time in the Student Union in the second semester; it had pool and ping-pong tables. I played every day. I also found myself joining the lacrosse team. I had never played, but Pete Johnson and his roommate Bob Mitchell had made me get out on the field with them and had extracted a promise that I would try out. I bought a midfield stick. We began working out in the indoor track in January. By March, we were storming up and down the field outside. I had never played at sports in high school; this was a new experience.
I was mediocre at it. The sport is deliberately brutal; you are constantly attempting to maim your opponent with a huge stick. I never really had a killer instinct, so I didn’t ever get the hang of it. I also smoked at least 2 packs of cigarettes per day, and carried about 10 extra pounds around my belt. So I was a little out of shape. I did the workouts though. I worked hard and pushed myself, but I had no solid base of athleticism. I had forgotten about my dancing. I felt awkward and foolish, especially around Pete and Bob. I did make the team, but I don’t think anyone was cut. We were the team, and our first game was April 23.
During that same semester, the notorious songfest incident took place. I forget the name of it, but it was a singing competition. Each fraternity had to enter; it was mandatory. One of the rules stated that every member of the fraternity had to take part. Chi Psi’s recent performance at the songfest was beyond dismal – dead last for five straight years. It was a tradition to lose and lose bad. Last year, the choir leader announced that those who didn’t feel that their voices were any good should just mouth the words and not really make a sound. Unfortunately, all but two of the participants did not feel confident enough to sing, and the program became a duet, for which infraction we were disqualified. There followed a long discussion amongst the judges about whether to drop bigger sanctions on the house including no parties. Chi Psi had a terrible reputation.
The freshman got together; we wanted to erase this shameful mark against our name. Pete had been assistant choirmaster in his Dad’s church. Some of the other guys had a little experience. We made a plan. One dinner time, we stood and pled our case. We guaranteed that we could restore the good name of Chi Psi with a little cooperation. We were freshmen; we would lead and make it happen, but they had to help. We all agreed.
Pete and Keefe selected two songs with multiple parts. They auditioned everyone in the house. Some they had to do at parties when the guys were drunk enough to be uninhibited. Eventually everyone was placed in a group: melody, harmony, bass, etc. We agreed that every night after dinner we would rehearse for 30 minutes. We started by working on both songs, but the one that sounded best was “Old Black Joe” a negro spiritual. Why they came up with that I don’t know, but there we were. The freshman had said that they’d lead, so we did. Pete led as director, and Keefe led the melody. I sang in the harmony section and fairly shouted out the words. After a few weeks, it began to sound good. We all started looking forward to those rehearsals.
Finally, the College released the details of this year’s competition. The first round would take place on Thursday evening 21 April. The top five finishers would compete in the finals on Saturday 23 April. The freshmen held a meeting. We thought we sounded good. We wanted to put Chi Psi into the top five. We decided to add a little theater. This choir competition had a very rigid structure: the whole house had to participate; they set up a bleachers in the middle of a stage in the main theater. Order was selected by lot, and the group was expected to file quietly onto the bleachers, take about 10 seconds to get ready, then launch into song. At the end, the audience gives polite applause and a swift filing off for the next choir. There were 13 fraternities. We decided to make a little tableau in the middle of the song. If we could do something colorful and tasteful to add to our improved choir, we thought we could cement our chances for the Finals. We started holding special rehearsals in the back yard with benches.
On Thursday, we drew #10. We all wore white shirts, belt and dark pants. We sat in the audience giving polite applause and saw the first 8 groups. Two stood out, but the rest weren’t as good as us. We had a chance. When we went backstage, I saw our props were still right there. We had stashed them in plain view earlier. It was a theater and we didn’t think anyone would notice; they hadn’t. A few friends and girlfriends were there to help us. We lined up in our rehearsed order. It was crucial. And then we moved into the lights of the stage, where all that attention is focused. We mounted the bleachers, left a little space on each step – stage right. We turned and stared at the lights. We got standing straight and then Pete said onetwothree, and we began.
The song sounded great; we really had it. And we knew it, so the rest fell right into place. Halfway through the song, the choir began moving. We had selected guys of the same height for the next part, but they were not all on the end of the row because we sang in groups – alto, melody, harmony. So we had worked out these very precise, square movements to shift our six guys to the end of the row and out of the choir. Somebody later said that it looked as though they were ejected from the choir.
They stood on the stage next to the bleachers in two rows of three facing the audience and singing. Then they turned and marched slowly – in time with the music – offstage. In 8 beats they come back on stage still marching but now dressed in the black robes with pointy hoods carrying a coffin on their shoulders (We’d stayed up late building it.). Always in time with the music and always singing, they set the coffin down gently, file into a semicircle behind it, and face the audience. All together they kneel. They sing the last verse, and on the very last note, they drop their heads to their chests in despair and leave them there. The whole theater erupted. We kept our cool, accepted the applause, then filed out to make room for the next group, the coffin – again on their shoulders – following behind. It had gone off perfectly. We were poised to win. Indeed, when the judges announced the results, we were right at the top, just behind the house that had won the last three years. We did have chance to win it all.
The problem, of course, was our first lacrosse game; we would never get back in time for the finals. Four of us played on the team and the four of us were the leaders of the choir. We chose lacrosse; Chi Psi would have to fend for itself. We got to the finals; that was our goal. We left on Saturday morning for the game. We had spent the last two days prepping the guys, making adjustments, and trying to instill enough confidence in them. It was a long ride, and we played the second game in a doubleheader. We started about 4:30PM. No way we could make it back for the choir finals; the die was cast.
The game went pretty well. We played St. Mark’s or St. Peters or one of those toney ivy league prep joints in New England. Even sitting on the bench, it was hard to figure out the plays or what was going on strategically. Mitchell, Pete, Keefe started and played well. Halfway through the second half, the coach made a bunch of changes. And there I was on the field. The score was 7-6, their favor. I made three passes – two good – and one outstanding defensive play. I didn’t get the ball much. Then one of their wings broke away to the center of the field and received a great pass. I was closest and had plenty of room to intercept, and I did. I was in front of him as we crossed the half line and then he put on a little burst of speed that I could not match. He passed me, drew out the goalie, and scored. It was totally my fault; I wasn’t in good enough shape. As I came by the bench, Mitchell said, Why don’t you go have another cigarette. I felt even worse. We lost 9-6 so at least I couldn’t be blamed for the loss.
It was a pretty grim trip back to Bowdoin. We had actually played pretty well, but some of us were disconsolate – especially me. When we reached Brunswick, I changed and went to the house to see what happened at the choir finals. AS I turned the corner, I saw two police cars in the driveway. Pete was behind me, so I waited for him. When we got to the house, the cops were leaving. They told us that they had just dropped off some of the boys that they had rounded up. We went up the steps and into the house.
About 4 PM, a few hours before the Choir finals, some of the guy got thirsty and ordered a keg. Everyone was a little nervous and took a little drink to calm down. By the time the finals came around, nearly everyone had become severely fucked up. When they reached their time to go on, it was chaos from the first minute. The guys broke at the wrong places for the three tiers of singers; a pushing match ensued. Everyone calmed down. Pete’s substitute said onetwothree, and five or six of the freshmen started to sing. Just then somebody fell backwards off the bleachers, then another. Some pushing and shoving, then the fallen were hauled back up to their level. The grunts were audible through the song. When it was time for the cool movements of the choir, the audience received something like the three stooges. More push and shove, then the bearers tumbled out onto the stage. Somebody pulled out a flask and chugged loudly. They wandered off the stage. Some of the freshmen were still bravely singing. After a while, the bearers wearing black robes came in with the coffin. They deposited it awkwardly on stage and then wandered over to a corner of the stage and swirled around the boy with the flask. The audience began to boo.
Just then, one of the guys rose up out of the coffin in blackface, stripped to the waist. He stumbled to his feet and stepped out of the coffin and onto the stage. Looking around dazed and confused, his attention was drawn to the beautiful 5-foot tall trophy cup that the winning house would keep for one year. Names of the previous winners were engraved on it; there must have been a hundred. It sat on a little table at the back of the stage. Blackface wove his way toward the cup. The freshmen were swinging into the last chorus when he could no longer hold back. He seized the cup and clutched it to his chest. An audible gasp from the audience overpowered some of the last bars of the tune. Blackface turned and looked at the audience. Suddenly the enormity of what he’d done penetrated the haze, and he fled. He hugged the trophy and trotted out stage right, swinging his shoulders. Just then the police entered the back of the theater. Half the members of Chi Psi bolted. They raced offstage and out emergency exits. Blackface was picked up a few minutes later at the fraternity house where he was trying to balance the trophy on our narrow mantelpiece over the fire. Order was finally restored, but we would go on probation for the rest of the school year.
I simmered about this for hours, turning it over and over in my mind. Working up a real strong set of emotions against those guys. At dinner on Sunday night, I lost it. I stood up and ranted about the evils of alcohol and how foolish and childish they had behaved and on and on. I spewed a lot of that AA stuff at them, and when I finished, I was trembling. I believe that I was mad at myself and transferred it to them. I must have sounded like a self-righteous scold. Little did I know how hypocritical my rant would turn out to be.
Monday morning, I quit the lacrosse team.