RobWiddowson

Author of Heaven's Tale


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Final Straws

 

After Susie was gone, I needed a place to stay. I moved into a house in the suburbs with four other guys, two of whom were students at Jefferson. It was a nice split-level about halfway between school and the hospital where I was working. My house mates and I got along all right, and I didn’t mind the commute, but I was drinking heavily and sliding into depression despite instigating some excellent party weekends.

 

One of my housemates drove a hearse, so we built a coffin, sealed it tight, and used it as a beer cooler. Thus equipped, a road trip was in order, so over Thanksgiving we drove north to my family’s cottage at Lanes Cove. When we arrived, Mom was there. She was great in party situations, and soon, the guys were comfortable as well as high.

 

Over the next few days, we made several trips to the village center, and on one of those I bumped into my old love Hawley Harwood. She still had her childlike enthusiasm and beautiful smile. She was living just a few miles away in a hippie commune that had taken over an old church. The connection between us was immediate and the attraction intense. By the time the weekend was over, the guys drove the hearse back to Philly without me. Hawley and I were holed up in the extra bedroom of my sister Caryl’s apartment where we stayed in bed for three days. Finally on Wednesday, she drove me into Boston, and I took the train back to Philly. We were still deeply in love.

 

My performance at school was still erratic, and before long, I was struggling with depression. One night I decided to kill myself. I had filched a gallon of 100% alcohol from the lab, and I mixed up about half in a potent pot which I placed beside the lovely Bowdoin rocking chair my mother had given as a wedding present. I donned one of the black, hooded robes that I had from Chi Psi and hung a sign on the wall behind the rocker. “Here lies the body of Robert Widdowson. He was a good man, but he was his own god. May god forgive him.” I figured if I drank fast enough, I could get enough in me to pass over the toxicity threshold and die of alcohol poisoning. Instead, I woke early the next morning on the bathroom floor covered in vomit. I also had the worst hangover of my life.

 

A few days later I spoke to Hawley on the phone. I told her I was pretty unhappy.  She was extremely sympathetic and made me feel a little better. A few days later at about 3 PM, the doorbell rang. When I opened the door, a young man stood on the porch dressed in a messenger uniform, like from Philip Morris commercials. He said, “Package for Robert Widdowson.”

 

When I said, “That’s me”, he handed me a clipboard with a form on it. “Sign here please”, and handed me a pen. After which, he thanked me, tipped his cap, and disappeared toward the street. I shut the door and stared at the package, a blank manila envelope. Inside was a 64-page booklet, “Designed to boost the flagging spirits of one Robert Widdowson who is dearly loved”. Every page was covered in drawings, poems, quotations, and collages, every bit intended to cheer me up. Hawley had spent days putting it together, then made the costume for her twelve-year-old brother Ross. They had driven seven hours to Philly from Boston, dropped the package, and turned around and drove back. We had always done elaborate art projects together, but this was a whole new level.

A few weeks later, I had a chance to return the favor. Hawley had driven to Washington DC to visit a friend of hers John who was in training to become a Carmelite Priest. She was staying at the sanctuary there. I took an early train from Philly to Washington, found the seminary in the phone book, and took a cab to the neighborhood. For the next hour, I prowled the streets and finally stopped in a stationary store and bought some note paper. I wrote out ten clues to neighborhood landmarks – a florist shop, a statue, a grammar school, etc., and placed them so that one clue led to the other. The final clue led to me.

 

Hawley had mentioned that John had a motor scooter, so I crept into the seminary parking lot and tucked the first envelope under the seat. Then I went back to the bar and called the seminary. It took a while for Hawley to come to the phone, but when she did, I said, “This is a treasure hunt. Your first clue is on John’s motor scooter” and hung up. I heard her shriek in glee before the line went dead. I had arranged the clues so she would have to pass in front of the bar a few times, and sure enough a few minutes later Hawley hurried past with two young priests in tow. It took them about an hour to find me, and we all laughed excitedly through a few rounds of drinks. The boys discretely left us after an hour or two. We spent a few more hours together and I gave her a Christmas present. Then I kissed her goodbye, took a cab to the station, and caught the train back to Philly. We were having fun, playing like children up and down the eastern seaboard. Unfortunately, I was supposed to be learning to be a doctor.

 

I continued to struggle at school. In mid-February I went to a Friday night party and met a wonderful woman named Michelle DeCoste. She was beautiful and sexy, wry and brilliant. She had been accepted at Philadelphia Women’s Medical College and was working to have money for school. We spent a terrific weekend together that held the promise of more great times ahead. On the next Wednesday she had already made arrangements to travel to Florida to spend ten days with Peter, a pilot and an old family friend. He had romance on his mind; she did not, especially after meeting me. But she had already agreed, so she went leaving me the keys to her apartment. The day she left, the Dean called me into his office and told me that my performance at Jefferson had not improved and that they were expelling me. I was out. I asked if there was anything that I could do, any way I could get back in. He said that if I received psychotherapy for at least a year and if the shrink would write a strong letter of recommendation, the Admissions Committee would consider my reapplication – a glimmer of hope.

 

The next night, I worked my usual shift at the hospital lab. In the morning, the director called me into the office. Since I was no longer a medical student, I was ineligible for work in the lab. My housemate had called him with the news. When I got home, the entire contents of my room, all my worldly possessions, were sitting in the snow in the front yard. A good friend of theirs had already moved in. I was stunned.

 

I packed up my things and moved into Michelle’s apartment. The next day, I went to see the psychiatrist at Jefferson that Susie and I had gone to see. I had had sessions with him every two weeks for about ten months, and he felt we were making progress. I told him what the Dean had said and asked if he would work with me towards readmission. He thought it over and finally agreed. But just one thing: since I was no longer a student at Jefferson, he would have to charge me retail rates – $300 per hour. I was reeling.

 

A few days later, Michelle returned. I had fixed the apartment up beautifully, and she was a little surprised but basically happy that we were suddenly living together. Her visit with Peter had gone pleasantly for her, but unfortunately he had fallen head-over-heels for her. We settled in.

 

In a few weeks, I found a decent-paying job in a private medical lab where my main job was operating a complicated machine the SMA-12 that did several different tests on the same sample of blood. The lab was located north of Philadelphia so I had a short commute by train. We had contracts with some private clinics to do their blood-work, but our bread-and-butter was a long term contract with a pharmaceutical company that was testing its products on prisoners at Lancaster State Prison. The experimental protocols were complicated and precise.

 

Not long after I started working, I went out there with the head researcher. It was a huge, old concrete structure surrounded by high fences and barbed wire. I had huge barred gates and wide corridors with twenty-food ceilings. We carried our gear to the barber shop, and just as we got set up, more than 100 hardened criminals arrived. They had blue uniforms, lots of tattoos, and big muscles. They spoke roughly but not unpleasantly, but I was still terrified. In a few hours, we had drawn all the blood samples, and the next day, I ran them through my machine. Everyone seemed pleased with my work.

 

In the meantime, I was still seeing the shrink at Jefferson even though paying his fee was killing me financially. When I complained about it, he told me that he charged a lot so that I could show my commitment to getting better. If I hadn’t been living with Michelle, I couldn’t have done. She was wonderful to be with – smart, happy, sexy, and she loved to drink and party. We went out most weekends, and it was a standing joke between us that in the morning, neither of us could remember where we had parked the car. She’d go one way, and I’d go the other looking for the car.

 

Susie and I remained friendly, and she often called me at Michelle’s. Our conversations were generally pleasant except when she said that she was lonely and that nobody wanted to go out with her because she was a divorced woman. Michelle didn’t mind the calls; she could hear my end of the conversation.

 

One of the reasons that we got along so well was the fact that she was going to med school in September. We spent a lot of time talking about school and what she could expect. Her friend Peter from Florida kept calling her. He knew about me, but he was unwilling to give up. Finally, one night he called and said he’d been accepted as a pilot for American Airlines and that he’d arranged for a week’s training in Philadelphia starting Memorial Day weekend and that he couldn’t wait to see her. Poor Michelle was stuck.

 

But suddenly I had a brainstorm. The next time Susie called me, I asked her how she’d feel if I fixed her up with somebody. She said she’d be grateful, so I told her to save Memorial Day. Peter was a little more difficult, but Michelle told him that she was in love with me, and she described Susie as wonderful and beautiful. He finally agreed, and we decided that all four of us would go out Saturday night, two weeks away.

 

Work was still going well, and the boss was giving me more and more responsibility. In just a few months, I was supervising a whole selection of the lab and had taken over quality control. A few days before Memorial Day, he called me into the office and said that he had a special job for me. Blood samples needed to be drawn from the prisoners at Lancaster on Sunday. The protocol called for blood sugar test which had to be drawn before they ate breakfast. The guys would be waiting for me at 5:00am. I tried to beg off, told him that I already had plans, but he was adamant. It was my big chance.

 

When I got home, Michelle and I talked it over. It was too late to change our plans. I would have to tough it out. Saturday night came, and we all met at a local bistro. Susie arrived first, and she looked stunning. She and Michelle were relaxed and warm with one another. The three of us agreed not to tell Peter about Susie and I being married. We left it to her to tell him later if everything worked out. When Peter came in, Susie and he were smitten right away. In fact, we all had a great time. There was lots of heavy drinking, a terrific dinner, and more drinking. At 1:00am, Peter had his arm around Susie, she had her hand on his thigh and offered to give him a ride back to his hotel. Mission accomplished.

 

Michelle and I finally made it back home about 2 AM, she stumbled off to bed, and I brewed a pot of coffee. I had to leave for Lancaster at 3:30 AM. Waiting for the coffee, I sat down in the rocking chair and promptly passed out. When I woke, it was 10am.

 

I called the boss immediately, and he fired me immediately. The five-year study was ruined. The protocol was breached. A few days later, I had another appointment with the psychiatrist at Jefferson. I called him and told him that I didn’t have to money to pay for my session because I’d been fired but that I really felt like I needed to see him. I needed help. He replied that he was too busy and not to bother calling him again. There was nothing that he could do. The rejection hurt, and I sulked for a few days but I was determined to find out what was wrong, fix it, and get back into school. I thought about Richard LaBel, a psychologist from Salem MA who I had seen a few times during my year off from Bowdoin at my mother’s urging. I called him and explained what I needed. He agreed to accept me as a patient, and he would charge $60 an hour twice a week, paid in advance. I was to call him when I had moved back home and had a job.

 

Michelle was crushed but I was too self-absorbed at that point at pay much attention. About a week later, I packed my clothes into the old Chevy, leaving all the furniture for Michelle. The last thing she said to me was, “damn you, Widdowson.”

 

I drove straight to the beach house in Lanes Cove, Gloucester not knowing what to expect, lo and behold, my mother was there. She had just returned from the Turks and Caicos Islands where she had been living one of those romantic adventures: living in a little cottage at the edge of the sea with wild burros in the yard. She had dated a burly sergeant in the British army and driven a jeep with no windshield. She had taken over a small bed and breakfast but suddenly dropped everything and returned home.

 

I told her my situation and my plan. She approved, but when I asked to stay in the cottage, she refused. Instead she informed me that my dad had broken up with his second wife and was looking for a place to live. Maybe he and I should get a place together and re-establish a relationship. Over the next few weeks, he and I spoke a few times and half-heartedly agreed to try. We found a a nice apartment on the outskirts of Gloucester. I had found a job in a hospital lab in Peabody, A nearby town, but the rent was way over my budget. Dad insisted, so I finally gave in and signed the lease. We moved in together.

 

Three weeks later, he moved back in with his wife leaving me to pay the whole rent. My mother suddenly rented the family cottage to strangers and disappeared again. I called Richard LaBel and went back into therapy.   Soon after we started meeting, my old Chevy died. Even though I had long commutes to his office and to work, I managed to get around with a combination of walking, hitch-hiking and public transportation. Somehow, I had managed some savings, so I finally bought another car. I fell in love with it the minute I saw it in the lot – a 1961 Mercedes Benz 190 SL, the two-seat convertible roadster charcoal gray with blood-red interior. I was not in perfect condition, and I got a good deal on it. It was beautiful, and I loved driving it. It was the last car I ever owned.

 

Having transportation made life a little easier, but I had to pick up some extra shifts to make ends meet. My sessions with LeBel were going all right when we met, but I didn’t feel much different. I still drank heavily and felt like life was happening to me. I didn’t feel in control, I stayed in touch with Michelle for a while, but she had started medical school and was soon distracted. Susie and Peter had fallen deeply in love. They eventually married and had a family. Life goes on.

 

One day as I got into my car, I was approached by a man who introduced himself as David Stein. He said he collected 190 SLs and did I want to see mine. I turned him down of course, but he was an interesting guy, and we became friends. He introduced me to a great character named Bobby Ventola, but he preferred Bobby Vee. He was a tough Italian kid from the streets of Boston, and he was a real hustler. He made a good living selling insurance. He had worked out a scheme to target medical students. He would get them to buy million dollar policies and then lend them the money to pay the premiums. While they were students, they only had to pay interest on the loans. Bobby was fearless, and he knew everybody in Boston. Once he took me to the Playboy Club when we were both broke (neither of us ever had any money). He knew a middle-level Mafiosa who had dinner there every Friday night. We were stopped at the door – it was members only – but he talked us inside. Upstairs he found the mafiosa and introduced me as Dr. Redmond, a heart surgeon. We were invited to sit down, and Bobby told them that I was doing some cutting-edge research and asked me to describe it. I managed to explain my research based on the job I had at Jefferson years before the Mafioso and his friends just sat there. Two hours later after several drinks and dinner, we thanked our host and left.

 

Bobby rented a gorgeous penthouse apartment on Beacon Hill with a view of the Commons. It had its private elevator, but it had no furniture except a waterbed with no frame. He kept it for the address. One night we met a friend of his named Pat Buonopane, another street hustler. Pat lived in a fourth floor walk up deep in the north end of Boston, the Italian section, he had attended Suffolk law school at night and had somehow emerged after eight years with a degree. For the last five years, he’d been defending mainly prostitutes and petty thieves. Pat had decided to enter politics; he was running for the Massachusetts House of Representatives. Bobby was his campaign manager, and I became the assistant. For about two months we all prowled the streets of the North End. Pat would give speeches; Bobby would hustle; all three of us drank. Often we’d drink home-made wine from big casks that families kept in their basements. We were wined and dined everywhere.

 

One night I mentioned to Bobby that an old rockn’ roll star named Screaming Jay Hawkins was playing at a club in Boston. Off we went even though we didn’t have ten dollars between us. At the door, Bobby said we were campaign managers for Pat, passed out a few bumper stickers, and said that we wanted to check out the club as a potential site for a fund-raising rally. They let us in the door and bought the first round of drinks. Hawkins was on-stage, I saw Bobby scurry after him. Nearly an hour later, they emerged together for Jay’s last set. Bobby found me dancing up a storm with a pretty blond and winked. When the show was over, he jumped on the stage and had a short conversation with Hawkins. Then he found me, and we stumbled outside. He gave me an address and off we went. Sure enough, it was a private party for Screaming Jay who arrived about an hour later. Bobby and I ate and drank till dawn.

 

As Pat’s campaign wound down to election day, we got a little more serious. We arranged a couple of radio interviews, but unfortunately Pat didn’t have many well-thought our programs to present except to legalize prostitution. On election day, he got 85 votes, all family members and clients. We sure had fun though.

 

In the meantime, I was still seeing Dr. LaBel twice a week. Our sessions seemed a bit rote to me. I couldn’t see that we were making much headway even though we’d been at it for months. But every time I asked, he said that he felt sure that he’d be able to write a glowing recommendation for Jefferson by June. I hung in there. I had also starting seeing Hawley again. She was staying with an aunt and uncle in Cambridge but started spending most weekends with me in Gloucester. We were still wonderful together.

 

I was still paying Dr. LeBel for my twice-weekly sessions.  He thought that we were making progress.  I did not feel much different – still drinking hard, still careless with money – basically self-destructive.  I saw a lot of Hawley.  She was living with an aunt and uncle and had started work at Raytheon.  She flirted with the idea of going to school.  I worked hard at the hospital, taking extra shifts but fell further and further behind financially.

 

Months later my mother called, and said that she was back and needed a place to stay.   She moved in for about a week.  For the last seven months she had been living in a trailer on the beach in the Florida Keys.  The owner was a retired engineer with plenty of money.  They had a little seashell business together and had a lot of fun.

 

So I finally asked her why she came back.  This marked the third time she had left; started living a romantic adventure, then cut it short and come back home. Why?  She started to cry.  Then she told me that for the last twelve years she had been having an affair with Neal.  They had been in love all these years, but he could not divorce his invalid wife.  Three times she had gone away to end it, but each time she came back.  This time she had written him a love letter, and his daughter who was now in high school had intercepted it and shown it to her invalid mother.  A scene had ensued.  Mom was living a soap opera.

 

I was stunned.  All these years, Neal, the man that I had loved like a father, had been sleeping with my mother.  She had not only deceived us, she had taken Dad to the cleaners for infidelity while she carried on with Neal.  That was why she had criticized the town gossip so harshly and so often: the woman had seen them together.  This was too much.  I had already noticed that visits with my family seemed to trigger bouts of self-destructive behavior.  I decided that I needed to stay away from her.  With one exception, I never saw my mother again.

 

Thinking about what Mom had said later made me realize something else.  She and Neal were lovers when he told me that Marianne was a porn star.  Mom and Marianne were best friends.  My mother must have known what was going on when she sent me to Marianne and Donald in Salem.  I realize now that she set me up to be introduced to sex by a professional.  Marianne was probably reporting back to Mom after each encounter.

 

I do not think that she expected Marianne to go after Dad, though.  How manipulative of her to take me with her to catch them parking and hold the showdown meeting the next day.  At least she got rid of Dad, so she could have a free hand with Neal.  During those years, my mother had three men in her life: Dad, Neal and me.  She wound up alienating all of us.

 

I was still seeing Dr. LeBel, but I never told him any of this.  He had made a diagnosis, and we had worked on it, but my life was not better.  Still, it was time to deal with Jefferson.  I made an appointment to see the then Dean in June.  Dr. LeBel told me that he had sent a glowing letter of recommendation.  I went to Philly and met with the Dean.  When he asked me about my year of therapy, I mentioned the letter.  He was puzzled – “what letter?” I tried to explain, to describe what I thought Dr. LeBel had written, but I fell apart.  About a month later, I received a formal letter from the Dean closing the door to Jefferson.

 

A few days later, I was driving my 190SL in Peabody.  An 80-year-old woman neglected to stop at an intersection, and my beautiful car was totaled.  Unfortunately, the check to pay the insurance had bounced, so I lost everything.

 

I was unwilling to give up.  I got literature on medical schools in Europe.  Surely one of them would give me credit for my years at Jefferson. When I told Hawley, she was stricken but stoic.  At the end of August, she stayed with me for a weekend then left early in the morning to register for classes in Boston.  That night about 7:00 PM, she called to say goodbye.  She was in a motel room and had just washed down about 30 tablets of Secanol with a lot of Scotch.  She refused to say where she was, told me she loved me, and hung up.  Luckily, a few minutes later, she called somebody else.  Just before passing out, she revealed her location.  They got her to the hospital just in time.  I was forbidden to see her.

 

In the space of a few months, I had discovered that my mother had betrayed me, Jefferson had rejected me, and now I had driven my soul mate to attempt suicide.  I sold what I could in the next two days, packed a small bag, bought the cheapest ticket I could find, and got on a plane to Brussels.  I didn’t tell anyone where I was going.  When I arrived, I had $65.

 

 

 

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Crazy Bob, M.D.

This is Part 2 of my misadventures in medical school.

My second year at Jefferson passed in a blur.  I started out great.  On the first set of exams, I had the highest grade in microbiology and third highest in Pathology, the two most important classes.  During this time, four of us Nu Sigs had moved to a really cool townhouse right next to school.  My old friend from Lanesville and Bowdoin College Davy Doughty wound up at the Philadelphia Naval Yard taking some special courses for about six months. Susie, now my fiancée, was safely tucked away in New Jersey.  We partied like beasts.  Even after Davy left, I continued in the party tradition.  Eventually the year ended.  I had barely passed, even after my stellar start.  Maybe the love of a good woman would save me.

Susie and I were married in August. We went to Norwich Connecticut a week early and stayed with her family. Her dad, retired Navy, was a ramrod rigid prick with a big taste for alcohol; her mom was sweet and docile, a victim of spousal abuse for years. The crowd from Bowdoin made up my contingent, and they took me out for the traditional stag party. They were all tired, so we just had drinks and went home. But Tom Oxnard had painted a landscape of Lanes Cove, The Shack, & Tide Edge from a photograph he’d taken years before. It was huge 4’ x 3’ and very professionally done. I carried it with me for years. It was the most wonderful present I’ve ever received in my life. My mother put on the rehearsal dinner with her usual excellent touches. Name tags at each place were held in tiny bows and arrows, and before the meal she read from Kahlil Gibran about parents sending their children into the world like arrows slung from bows. All that was left was the ceremony.

We held it in a beautiful chapel on the Naval Base lined with gorgeous stained glass. The whole affair was traditional, and Susie looked stunning in her gown. We continued all the traditions at a big reception party. The band played; Susie threw a bouquet; we cut the cake; I drank 18 gin and tonics. We left in a shower of rice and confetti and drove to a nearby Marriot where we had the honeymoon suite for two days. We had wine and drinks with dinner and just as we got back to the suite, there was a commotion outside the door. Some members of the wedding party wanted to continue the celebration While I sat up drinking with them, Susie went to bed alone. It was a harbinger of things to come.

We both had to get ready for school, so those two days made up the honeymoon. We drove to Philly and moved into a big old apartment right near campus. She had a contract teaching high school in Cherry Hill NJ just across the river. We bought a cool dog and settled down to married life. School for me now consisted of clinical rotations. These varied widely in the amount of responsibility we were given and our interest. Six weeks of pediatrics at Philadelphia Childrens was good. We were assigned to work with busy residents and intern who believed in the formula: See one. Do one. Teach one. I found that I had a nice touch with kids. I liked working with them. Six weeks of psychiatry was awful. Twice a week we sat in on lack-luster group therapy sessions. The rest of the time we stood around bored trying to get the attention of residents who studiously avoided us. Our twelve weeks of obstetrics and gynecology at massive Philadelphia General was surprisingly excellent. The clinics were jammed with lots of interesting cases while the residents were overwhelmed and happy to have our help. I must have done a hundred gynecological exams. And obstetrics was a revelation. So many women suffered in child birth, and so many had problems with labor. We were always inducing contractions with chemicals and giving epidural anesthesia. Sometimes we had four or five women giving birth at the same time, and I had the privilege of delivering two babies by myself. It was an excellent rotation, and I learned a lot.

At home Susie and I fell into a reasonably steady routine. We’d walk the dog, prepare and eat dinner together. Then she’d work on lesson plans, and I’d study background information for my rotations. I had trouble concentrating but managed to get by. And I was gone a lot. Most rotations we spent one or two whole nights at the hospital, and I still had my job as overnight lab technician. Susie had expected to be alone often; that’s why we bought the dog. And she had a friend who often stayed with her. On weekends we still partied like beasts, and my drinking continued out of control. I was still erratic and marginal.

 

The crowd that I hung with at Nu Sigma had a legendary academic privilege.  A surgeon named John McCloughlin had retired as a Navy surgeon.  He partnered with another legendary Jefferson surgeon Walter Stayman who’d been chair of Jefferson Surgery Service for years.  He’d done a lot of cardiovascular surgery and even had some techniques named after him.  They ran a thriving practice in a small suburban hospital at Chestnut Hill, just outside Philadelphia.  McCloughlin a.k.a. The Chief had decided to use their practice to teach a cadre of young doctors interested in surgery.  Every quarter he accepted two junior students to run his service, and they were supervised by a senior student.  There was always a resident handy in case the students got into trouble, but basically the students ran the show.  They had the legendary ‘first call’.

In teaching hospitals, the first person called to see a patient is a coveted position.  Med students were usually the last to see a patient, after the resident, the staff surgeon, the intern, several nurses, the dietician, and the radiology technician.  By that point, most sick people are usually sicker or sick and tired of being harassed.  Then the student enters and gets a food tray thrown at him.  Especially because the student has to examine the patient the same way every other person has, ask exactly the same questions, and annoy the patient exactly as everyone else has.  It was one of the biggest problems that I had in school.  I had no self-esteem.  How could I enter a room and demand more of a suffering person’s time for no earthly reason?  OK the reason was to practice and to know what was going on with the patient for conferences and discussions.  I hated it, often didn’t do it, and of course, it showed in my all-around performance and grades.  Being hung over a lot didn’t help either.

The way the Chief ran the service, the team that was working selected the next two junior students. The Chief selected senior students from the previous year’s juniors.  For the past three years, only Nu Sigmas had the privilege.  I was selected for the third quarter, my junior year.  Joe Julian and I would be supervised by Jack McCloskey, another excellent Irishman from Philly who was the senior.  He’d worked with The Chief the year before. We were set.  We commuted from the city except that we were on call every third night – all night – and often had to stay over on other nights.

The first morning, Jack met us at the front door and took us into a doctors’ lounge.  He assigned us lockers and then pulled out our first great prizes.  We got to wear long white lab coats.  In teaching hospitals with their rigid hierarchy, even the uniforms signified your status.  The short white coat meant student, and patients soon figured out the code of codes.  I’ve walked into a patient’s room and had him throw me out and demand a “real doctor”.  It happens often.  So it was a solemn occasion when Jack presented us with our long coats.  Then he had another surprise –a  nametag that said, “Dr. Widdowson”.  I felt like the gods of old Olympus must have felt.  He took us to the reception area and introduced us to the operator.  We were to let her know where we were at all times so she could reach us.  Ominously, she took our home phone numbers.

As we walked to meet the Chief for coffee – a ritual repeated over and over every day – Jack told us that he had split the patients between Joe and me.  During the day, we were responsible for just our own patients; at night, we covered the entire service, so we had to know about all the patients. Jack would take call one night, then Joe, then me.  And we’d rotate like that for three months.  A dorm sat right next door, so we had a place to sleep and bathe.  But if patients had problems or the emergency room was busy, you didn’t sleep or even bathe usually.  And of course, in the morning, the Chief arrived at 6 AM as usual and the day began normally – except for the lack of sleep.

The Chief had unfathomable depths of energy.  He walked and talked at breakneck speed.  He’d been trained in the military and it showed.  He drilled us. “Bobby, run the house.”  This meant to describe each patient on the service – name, room #, chief complaint, differential diagnosis, course, prognosis, current status.  Each patient should be done in 2-3 minutes so when all our beds were full, you’d talk for at least an hour.  Of course, there were interruptions.  McCloughlin would ask questions, tell stories, correct us, prod us.  He was an excellent surgeon, a great teacher, and a real character.  We told Chief stories for years.

One night about three weeks into the quarter, I was on-call.  I’d had a terrible night; a patient had started hallucinating and tried to hurt a nurse, and we had to restrain him, but it looked like he would hurt himself when we tied him to the bed.  We finally got hold of a resident in psychiatry who agreed to come in and help, but I hadn’t gotten to bed till nearly 3 AM. I collapsed on the bed; I think I still had my shoes on.  I woke to the ringing of the phone.  It was 4:10 AM.  “Hello,” I mumbled.

“Bobby?  What do you know about calcium?”

“Huh?”

“We’re admitting a patient in the morning that has an elevated serum calcium.  Run to the library and find out all you can about elevated calcium.  I’ll meet you at the front door at 6AM.” And he hung up.

I did it.  I trudged to the library, studied up on calcium, met him at the door, and spilled what I know.

“Excellent,” he said. “You take this patient and do all the tests you need to get to the bottom of the calcium problem.” I did it.

The Chief never took the elevator.  The stairs are faster he said as he raced up them two at a time.  He exhausted us.  And we were just there for three months.  He exhausted all of us, rotation after rotation.  The Chief was on fire. We didn’t really worship him; we were kind of afraid of him.

Anyway, that first day on the Chief’s service was going fine.  I was trying to learn about all my patients when I heard something remarkable come over the intercom.

“Dr. Widdowson, please call the operator.  Dr. Widdowson.” I felt the tail of my long white coat swirl as I stepped around a family to get to a telephone.

I picked it up and said, “This is Dr. Widdowson,” in a loud voice.

“Oh hi Dr. Widdowson. They’re looking for you on 2 West.  It sounds urgent.”

“OK, I’m on it.  Thanks.”  The hospital had 3 floors and a basement.  I was on three so I headed for the stairwell and found my way to 2 West.

At the nurses’ station, a pretty nursing student said, “You must be Dr. Widdowson.  It’s Mrs. Simpson in room 213.”

I stepped quickly in the direction she’d pointed and soon heard a strange, high-pitched, whistling sound like a pump, but in and out very fast and hard.  I couldn’t guess what was making the sound – a broken air conditioner, maybe.  It came from Room 213, and when I entered, I could tell it came from a bed that was completely surrounded by drapes.  The noise was quite loud.  I hesitated at the door, but the patient in the other bed – an elderly woman with bright eyes and henna hair said, “In there.”

I pulled at the curtains till I found an opening and stepped into a scene from Hieronymus Bosch.  Sitting on the edge of the bed was a tiny old woman.  Her skin had wrinkles like macabre strands of twine hanging from her limbs.  Her gown had slipped off one shoulder and her pitiful, sunken, wrinkled left breast slumped on her ribs.  The obvious thing about her skin was its color.  She was bright blue.  Not blue like the sky – a bit grey and cloudy but blue nonetheless.  It was she, of course, making that horrible sound.  She was trying to breathe and couldn’t.  I don’t know if she noticed me.  Her eyes round and gaping like her mouth – concentrating all her energy on finding enough oxygen somewhere to feed her brain which was feeling symptoms of lack of oxygen.  That was her immediate problem, and she had apparently cropped out any other sensations.  So her eyes stared with bright and hyper-focused attention inward – concentrating on the task at hand.

 

She was dying on the edge of that bed about three feet from me.  In a minute or two, that woman with the wispy hair would die.  My knees turned to rubber; my lower jaw started to sag toward the floor.  A large black nurse stood on the other side of Mrs. Simpson, adjusting a bottle that was dripping.  She looked over at me like we’d just bumped into one another at the mall.

“ Hi; you must be Dr. Widdowson.  I’m Miss Pearl.”

I didn’t respond.  I was still waiting for the old woman to stop making that noise and die.  Miss Pearl looked me over, took a breath, and said, “As you probably already know, Mrs. Simpson has congestive heart failure, her diuretics have caused her to pee out too much potassium which her digitalis medicine needs to be effective.  Since her digoxin is not working, her heart can’t pump.  Her blood circulation has slowed down and water is oozing out of her blood and filling up her lungs.  Mrs. Simpson is drowning – inside-out.”  I still stared with my mouth open.  Miss Pearl paused a beat, then continued, “OK, we usually prescribe 15 mgs KCL intravenously and maybe a little digoxin.”  She gestured to a tray on the bed.  “I took the liberty of preparing the medications.”  There were two syringes.  I must have nodded because she grabbed the syringes, injected the liquid into one of the tubes going into Mrs. Simpson’s arm and stood back.  In less than 10 minutes, Mrs. Simpson turned flesh-colored again and stopped making that terrible sound.  She began breathing normally, lay back in the bed, and immediately fell asleep; she was tired, poor dear.

Miss Pearl fussed around, plumping pillows while I attempted to listen to that poor woman’s chest with my stethoscope.  Finally, I spoke for the first time.  “Let’s let her sleep, and I’ll check her later.”  Miss Pearl nodded, and we slipped out of the room and back to the nurse’s station.  There, she handed me Mrs. Simpson’s chart – about the size of War and Peace – and mentioned that I ought to write a note on the chart.  I tried, but I honestly didn’t know what to write because I was still lost; I could still hear her breathing in my head, and besides, my hands were still shaking too hard.  I shut the chart and ran to the library.  For the next 3 hours I studied about congestive heart failure.  Then I went back to 2 West and wrote a proper note in Mrs. Simpson’s chart.  By then it was dark out, and I still had to learn my other 14 patients.  I called Susie, and told her I had to stay over.

After a few weeks, I had the routine down, and it was fun having first call.  Most of the patients had no inkling of our status as students; it was really Dr. Widdowson.  A few folks found out that we weren’t licensed and nobody minded…except Mr. Jackson.  He had taken an operation about one year before to remove a piece of his intestine.  Often, instead of sewing the cut ends together right away, the surgeon will bring the two ends of the intestine to the outer skin to give all the tissue time to heal. During this time, the shit drops into a bag that the patient wears pasted over the hole that comes out on your belly somewhere.  Now, a year later, Mr. Jackson checked in to get his bowel re-attached.  I admitted him, drew the blood, and gave the nurses all their pre-operative instructions.  Mr. Jackson was quiet and seemed fragile.

The next morning, Dr. Stayman and I went in to see Mr. Jackson.  Stayman reassured him with his excellent bedside manner.  Then Stayman motioned me to Mr. Jackson’s abdomen.  Stayman took out a marker and, after asking permission of Mr. Jackson, proceeded to give me a fabulous mini-lecture on reattaching anastomoses.  He described the muscular layers that had to be peeled back, asking me several anatomy questions.  Then he continued to discuss the pros and cons of each entry into the abdomen, and so forth.  For a while, Mr. Jackson listened contently, his head moving back and forth like a tennis fan.  Suddenly, he exploded.

“You’re a student,” he shouted. His pointing hand and finger trembled and the tape and IV made his hand look like a bad science fiction movie.  I looked at him past his hand, and his face was twitching.  He was terrified.  Stayman stood and put a hand on his shoulder.

“These are special students from Jefferson in the City.  You don’t think that I would allow anything dangerous to a patient on my service do you, Mr. Jackson?”

“No, no….uh, no.”

OK, good.  We’ll operate tomorrow, and if there are no complications, you should be able to go home in about 7 days.”

That night, I went to see Mr. Jackson to check that all of the pre-operative orders had been carried out.  When I walked into his room, he began screaming.

“I checked with the nurse.  You’re a student, and I don’t want you to touch me.  No amateur is going to put a hand on me.”

I tried to calm him but it was hopeless.  I called Stayman, and we increased the pre-operation sleeping medications.  The nurse gave him the injection right away, and in a few minutes, we were at peace.  The next morning the surgery went well.  Mr. Jackson did fine post-operatively.  I started avoiding his room to the extent possible. Every time he saw me, he began screaming.  But his post-operative course was uneventful as they say in the charts.

 

Both of my fellow students – Jack and Joe – had shamelessly flirtatious ways, and soon the three of us had a coterie of nurses and nursing students wanting to party.  One night I worked in the library till 8PM; the last bus back to City was 9PM. when the phone beside me rang, it was Julia Benedetto who was “bored and lonesome at a party right next door.  Dr. Julian is here.”  Soon after, we began drinking bathtub gin made from laboratory ethanol. Joe was on call, so he only stayed for a few hours. Not long after, we got serious about our party.  A few hours later, Julia had passed out against my arm and was snoring contently in the bedroom we had found.  I gathered my clothes from around the room and made it to the living room couch where her roommate was still drinking; it was 3 AM.   She took over where Julia left off.  I woke there about 6:30AM still drunk and late for rounds with the Chief.

I found aspirin and mouthwash in the bathroom, cold pizza in the fridge. I grabbed my Dr. Bag and split.  On the way I stopped to see Mrs. Aronstein and make a note which I backdated 15 minutes.  I caught up to them in Pediatrics, and the Chief didn’t seem to notice.  I had a busy and difficult day.  Then poor Mrs. Crowley needed her colon dug out with a teaspoon and lots of dressings to change and work up new patients and saw Mrs. Simpson who was still in the hospital and had periodically fallen into congestive heart failure.  Close to 2 AM, I staggered to the bedroom and collapsed.

I’ve thought about it a lot since that night.  I think I remember answering the phone once, but I have no recollection of conversing with anyone.  But the first ringing phone that I was truly conscious of woke me at 7:30AM.  It was the operator and her voice sounded strange – impersonal.  She told me to meet the Chief in his office in 5 minutes.  That old feeling of dread set in.  I trudged to the Chief’s office which I had never before entered.  He sat at the desk in scrub blues. His face was dark and his eyes shot fire that seared my skin.

“Mr. Jackson who was scheduled to leave the hospital tomorrow after we removed his sutures, woke this morning at 4:30AM.  His belly ‘felt funny’. He asked for the doctor on call.  That was you, and you did not respond.  The operator rang your room five times and you never answered. They finally called me at home because they couldn’t find Stayman.

“I arrived at the hospital at 4:45AM.  They called you again – no answer. When we removed the dressing to check Mr. Jackson’s sutures, his entire small and large intestine lay shining on his belly. He must have coughed in his sleep, and the entire incision burst open, spewing his guts out – literally. I have just come from the operating room where we sewed him up again.  I don’t know if he’s going to make it.”

I said nothing.

“You’re a fraud.  You don’t know anything.  You walk around here preening like a peacock, and you’re just a piece of shit.  The penalty for not taking a call is expulsion.  What do you have to say for yourself?”

I looked him right in the face.  I said, “You’re absolutely right. I missed the call.  I have no excuse.  I’m very sorry.”

He said, “I’m not going to throw you out.  I’ll punish you in a much more constructive way.  You still come to Chestnut Hill every single day, but don’t you ever even talk to a patient.  You go straight to the library and study.  Stay there all day until at least 7 PM.  On nights when you used to be on call, stay in the library all night.  And make sure you know all our patients’ charts.  Just don’t go in their rooms. If you can do it for eight weeks you might learn something.  If you don’t want library duty, then just go now.”

I did it. Really didn’t have a choice, but I did take it seriously.  I stopped partying, organized my reading, took notes, studied all our patients’ charts.  The Chief was right; I was a fraud.  So I studied, and I liked it.  A month passed, then five weeks, and I still stood library duty. At about six weeks the Chief started calling me and asking questions.  Then he’d ask me to look something up for him.  He was checking up. One night when I had to sleep in the library ( I was still spending the whole night in the hospital, just in the library), the phone rang about 8 PM.  The operator told me to go see the Chief in the operating room.  When I arrived, the Chief, the Resident, and Jack were all up to their armpits in a patient’s abdomen.  He looked at me hard.

“Bobby, I want you to start on the third floor and see all our patients then come here and run the house for us.  We’re occupied.”

He then gave me special instructions for about five of the patients.  If I hadn’t been reading the charts and keeping up, I’d have been completely lost, and he would have known.  Still I wrote everything down as soon as I stepped out of the OR.  In an hour, I was back.  I ran the house like a pro.  They all grilled me, and I answered everything.  The Chief cocked his head around Jack.

“Meet us at the door in the morning for rounds.” I was back in. It was a great month for me; I was doing good work, and I had really interesting cases.  The most spectacular patient turned out to be one of the most tragic.  Mr. Tilton appeared in the emergency room one night about 8 PM.  He was a paunchy white man in his fifties; he complained of pain in the lower, left abdomen – both crampy, gut pain and sharp, searing pain.  I remembered a conversation with the Chief about two weeks back.  When you have a difficult diagnosis, he told us to think anatomically: What organs are there?  What problems could they have?

Well, not much lies in the lower left except intestine and a branch of the aorta – the body’s main artery.  The minute I touched it, I felt the blood drain out of my face.  My hand had touched a pulsating mass about the size of a softball in the man’s lower left abdomen.  Arteries carry blood from the heart to the body.  The blood is under relatively high pressure. His main artery, the one that comes directly from the heart, had a weakness in its wall, and the pressure caused it to swell out.  Just like a balloon, the bigger it blows up, the thinner the wall becomes until eventually the bubble burst.  Mr. Tilton would bleed to death inside his abdomen in less than 60 seconds if his aneurysm were to burst, and I had just touched it.  It felt extremely fragile.  When I called the Chief, I had already ordered 20 pints of blood and the gear to start four IVs so we could pump a half gallon at a time into him.  My voice was shaking as I told the Chief. He gave me a list of other instructions including getting Tilton to sign his own consent form and told me to meet him at the door to the ER.  I went back in. Mr. Tilton was getting anxious.  His blood pressure was rising and his pulse rate going up.  I got him to sign the consent form.  When I met the Chief at the door; he had Stayman with him.  As we walked down the hall, McClaughlin said, “Bobby, 5% make it to the OR, 20% of those make it off the table and into the recovery room, and 50% of those survive.

“You and the orderly roll him straight to the OR, Stayman and I will change and scrub; we’ll meet you there.’

I had given Mr. Tilton a sedative, so he stayed relaxed as we bundled all the bottles and bags on his cart.  We rolled down the narrow corridors till we reached the OR and wheeled him in.  The anesthesiologist was waiting and immediately began attaching electrodes and hooking Mr. Tilton up.  As I slipped back out of the OR, I heard a mutter then a shout – kind of a scream actually, “Chief.  He just blew.”

I heard McClaughlin reply, “The blood.  Give the blood,” and he and Stayman burst in the door.  Stayman told the nurse, “Just cover him with a sterile drape, expose the whole abdomen, and paint with disinfectant.  Do the best you can then get out of the way. I’m going to cut him in 30 seconds.”

The gas giver was frantically trying to keep some blood pressure.  McClaughlin peered around the corner at me and said, “Bobby.  Go talk to the family.  Make sure they understand.  Tell them you’ll keep them informed.”

He pulled up his surgical mask, turned, and the nurse had a sterile gown held out to him.  He jammed his arms into the sleeves and spun so she could tie it in the back.  Another nurse opened a pack of gloves for him.  He peeled them on and stood opposite Stayman who was waiting with his scalpel poised.  As Chief took his place, Stayman cut.  He cut deeply even though Tilton wasn’t completely under and grunted at Stayman’s stroke.  It didn’t bleed much.  There wasn’t any blood left to circulate; it had all poured out into Tilton’s belly.  Stayman made another cut and the shiny lining of the abdominal cavity flashed inside the wound.  He looked up and said, “I have to clamp off the blown-out end.”

With that, he sliced the lining and buckets of blood began sloshing out.  Stayman grabbed the big clamp, took a deep breath, and plunged his hand into the pool of blood, looking for the broken vessel.  He had to do it by feel, but somehow he managed to locate the correct shred of flesh and then, using his finger as a guide, clamped off the blown out vessel working blind in the blood.  Now the pints of blood that were still pouring into Tilton’s arms and legs could be pushed to his brain and keep him alive.  Two nurses had suction wands in the wound pulling out blood.  Stayman selected the Dacron tube that he would sew in to replace the blown-out artery. He carefully trimmed the blown out ends and sewed many tiny stitches connecting the Dacron to the aorta.  When that join was complete, he cut the Dacron to the exact length, then sewed the lower two ends together.  He slowly let blood begin to fill the tube, watching carefully for leaks.  He and the Chief even put a cloth over the wound and stood back from the table to give the aorta and its artificial section time to stabilize.

In the meantime, I had gone to speak with the family:  Tilton’s wife, daughter, and son-in-law.  They were extremely worried, but reasonable and well-informed.  The first question they asked was, “What are his chances?”

I remembered what the Chief had said.”5% make it into the OR, 20% of them reach the recovery room, then half survive longterm.”  I explained to the family, and they got it.  They pressed me with a few questions which I was able to handle, and I became the primary physician in their eyes.  We had a few patients that needed attention, so I went and handled them.  By the time I got back to the operating room, Mr. Tilton was in the recovery room. He’d made it.

Even the Chief and Stayman were hyped.  It’s nearly impossible for a blown aorta to survive, and they’d done it.  The family was so grateful, weeping with joy, thanking us over and over.  The scene was right out of the movies.

The next morning Mr. Tilton had a heart attack and died. Since I was the primary physician, the Chief let me tell them. When I went into the reception room, they saw the look on my face; his wife blanched.  I told them, and suddenly, we were all hugging and weeping.  The life of a surgeon must be filled with these moments.

 

That last four weeks at Chestnut Hill I was good, really good, maybe for the first time in my life.  It wouldn’t last of course, but for at least those few weeks, the Chief had conjured magic.  I was good.

 

 

 

By the time I left the Chief’s service, I had decent surgical skills. My time in the library had helped me a lot. Chestnut Hill had been effective, and my next rotation was 12 weeks of surgery at Jefferson, and for about two weeks I excelled. I was on-call one night when a lovely and elegant black lady about 45 came in complaining of severe nausea and vomiting for two days. This was her third episode, each worse than the other. From x-rays and history I suspected that she had a complete blockage of the small intestine probably caused by tumor. In this case, the intestine just in front of the blockage gets stretched out and irritated by food & stomach acid that can’t pass. It’s extremely dangerous to operate to cut out the blockage because you can’t suture that sick tissue properly so you can’t connect the ends. Stitches tear through the flesh, and the intestines leak into the abdomen which is often fatal.

The correct procedure is to pass a very long tube through the patient’s nose, down into the stomach, then into the intestine all the way to the blockage. Then you can pump all that nasty liquid out of the ballooned area. In 5-6 days the tissue is healthy and strong and ready for the procedure. And the nausea goes away, so the patient can rest and be ready for the operation. Inserting that tube is excellent surgical medicine, but it’s really hard to do. Luckily, the Chief had let me put one in, and I was ready. I got set up, wrote extensive notes on the chart, and got permission from the intern who had been impressed by my work. About 11pm, I started. It’s tricky, and it can be painful. This lady was weak and sick, but when I promised that the tube would take away her nausea, she cooperated. Once I got the end in her stomach, I had to find the exit into the intestine. There needs to be enough tube but not too much. I rotated the tube, and the end spun right into place. The intestine is very convoluted, so I could only push a few inches at a time, rotate, then proceed a few minutes later. All the time I talked to her about her life, her families, drawing her in so that we were working together. It’s a unique kind of intimacy, and after a few hours, I felt really close to her. It was nearly 3AM when we reached the blockage; she had nearly 11 feet of tube in her. I secured the tubing and hooked it up to a pump. Within 45 minutes her nausea was gone, and after thanking me fervently, she fell fast asleep for the first time in 48 hours. I wrote my notes in the chart, checked in with the intern who congratulated me, and went home to refresh myself. It was nearly 5am, but I was fully energized and glowing with pride and satisfaction. Maybe I could be good at this.

I took a shower, had breakfast with Susie. Then I hurried back to Jefferson to check on my patient. Her bed was empty. Frantic I finally tracked down the head nurse who told me that George Cowans, the arrogant and impetuous chief resident on the floor, had arrived at 6am, decided to operate immediately, pulled out my tube, and had her in the operating room as we spoke. Two days later, she died. I asked every surgeon colleague I could find about the case, and they all agreed with me. And Cowans was brought before a hospital committee and censured. But the lady was dead, and I soon found myself sliding back into self-destructive mode. My performance became erratic again, and my attendance was intermittent.

At this point I had completed three full years and had passed everything. But I had developed a bad reputation in my clinical rotations, and I had a whole year left to go. Susie’s contract had been continued, and we kept our apartment. I could feel myself pulling away from her. I was beginning to feel really bad about myself, and there was no room for someone who was trying to love me. I just didn’t deserve it. My school work and attitude continued to be erratic. Then one night in February, I went to the local shop about 5pm to get coke and told Susie I’d be right back. On the way, I met my friend Joe Julian who was on his way to a party. With hardly a second thought, I went with him. The booze flowed, and we got lots of attention from women, and I didn’t get back home for 36 hours. Poor Susie was crushed and never really recovered. We saw a psychiatrist at Jefferson a few times (as a student, I was eligible for free services), but our relationship was irretrievably damaged.

 

At the end of the school year, Susie moved into an apartment in Cherry Hill, taking the furniture and the dog. I moved into the fraternity house for the summer and really started deteriorating. Halfway through the summer I borrowed a friend’s car to take a girl to a party, and on the way home at 7am, swung too wide on a curve and side swiped another vehicle. It was nearly head on. Then a few weeks later, I passed out in bed with a cigarette. When I woke up, the bed and the entire room were in flames. I almost didn’t get out. The whole house nearly went up, and the damage was extensive. They threw me out of the fraternity.

 

Not long after, the Dean called me in. He told me that even though I was passing, my behavior was unacceptable, and they were not going to let me graduate. I was to continue seeing the shrink and repeat another year of rotations. They would watch me carefully, and if I straightened out, I could graduate with the following class.  If I didn’t change, I would never be a doctor.

 


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Body Snatching

This is a two-part post about my days in medical school. Part 2 next week.

The summer before I started medical school, I lived in my car, a ‘59 Chevy Impala.  I was back at Laurence Leathers doing accounting on different floors of the factory.  I was drinking hard those days, and it was getting increasingly difficult to get up in the morning.  Plus, I was broke most of the time, and paying rent was basically out of the question. So I packed clothes and other essentials in the trunk. After work, I’d party till the wee hours, then I’d just drive to the parking lot and sleep in the front seat.  Some of the guys would wake me in the morning.  It was the only way I could get to work on time.

Classes started at Jefferson early in September, and I had to find a place to live, locate some loan money, and check out the bars. I wanted to be ready to start school. So the Wednesday before Labor Day weekend, I had an extremely drunken farewell with my friends at the factory, stopped at my cousin’s house where I’d left books and other non-essentials, somehow managed to get all my belongings in the car, and set off down the highway in the cool, early morning darkness.  The drive took about seven hours.  Somewhere in Connecticut, the engine began producing some ominous noises, and by the time I reached the turnoff to Philadelphia, I was traveling about 40 mph in the breakdown lane.  I then managed to take a wrong turn, and the Chevy expired in the heart of North Philly – one of the worst ghettoes on the eastern seaboard.  I could hardly find space to coast into the curb because of the piles of trash. I locked the vehicle, said goodbye to all my things and valiantly set out on foot to medical school.  I had $30 and a map of the city.

Some of the tourist sites were noted on my map and I passed a few.  I remember Betsy Ross’s House and a place not far from Jefferson with a plaque on the wall of a house that said, “Benjamin Franklin flew his kite and discovered electricity on this spot in 17-something.“  A few blocks later, Jefferson Medical College loomed over me.  I found the main entrance, went up the stairs lined with famous paintings and found an office on my left called Registrar.  I entered.

The reception area was separated from the rest of the office by a waist-high counter.  I waited.  A middle-aged woman with short, dark hair approached, a little harried and brusque.  “Help you?”

“Yes.  Hello.  I’m a new student at Jefferson.  Just got into town.  I need to find a place, buy books, get set up.  Hope I’m not intruding.”

She stared at something at the floor and sighed.  There were 180 in my class, and she seemed as though she’d worked there forever.  I could read her thoughts.  “Great, another green horn.”  Dutifully, she asked my name.

“Robert Widdowson,” I replied trying to say it warmly.

Her head jerked like a mule had just kicked her in the chops.  She stared at me with eyes big as saucers.  “Robert Redmond Widdowson, Junior?”  She spoke the words slowly, spaced out.  I nodded, but I was getting uncomfortable.  Notorious already?

She said, “Wait right there.  Don’t move.  Please.  I’ll be right back.”  Then she spun back to her desk and picked up the phone. She had a whispered conversation with someone, lots of girlish giggles, so I started feeling better.  Eventually, she hung up and returned to the counter.  She was grinning now.  “Would you go up to Room 944 upstairs?  Just down the hall is the elevator.  Take it to the 9th Floor and turn right when you get off.  I’ll see you later on, and we’ll get everything straightened out.”

I followed her directions and soon found myself in front of Room 944; the door was closed.  I knocked, and, seconds later, a stunning blond, Scandinavian-looking woman with plump lips, bright eyes, and an attitude that said, “Let’s party” swung the door open. She, Dorcas, had been struck by my name on the in-coming list and began joking with her friend Betty downstairs. They had invented someone to go with such a striking name.  So when I showed up downstairs, Betty thought that we should meet.  I expressed my sincere delight at this turn of events and asked if she’d like to get to know me to find out how close their virtual boy was to reality.  We made a date to start her inquiries at 4PM when she finished work.  I returned to Betty.

She set me up.  First, she had an emergency loan fund of $150 that she could issue right away but had to be paid back in 2 months.  She found a really cheap apartment one block from school.  I checked it out, signed up, took a cab to North Philly, picked up my stuff – miraculously intact — and was back in the office in two hours.  I told Betty that I needed to work, and she made a phone call.  When she came back, the job was just for the weekend, but since it was Labor Day, I would receive double time over the three days.  I should report to Frank at the Anatomy Lab at 7 AM Saturday morning.

It was about 3 PM, and I had to get ready for my date with Dorcas.  I hightailed it to the nearest Woolworth’s, stopped at the liquor store, and rushed back to Jefferson. She met me in Betty’s office; she was still stunning.  I told her that I had only been in Philly once before, for my interview; I had never seen the sights. I told her that Ben Franklin was my favorite Founding Father.  Would she escort me to the site where he had flown his kite and discovered electricity.

When we reached the spot, we sat on a nearby steps, and I cracked open the bottle of wine that I’d brought, poured into plastic cups, and toasted Ben, Philly, her, me, Jefferson and so forth until the bottle was done.  At that point, I told her that it was time to emulate Ben Franklin, and I whipped out my purchases from Woolworth’s – a kite and roll of string.  Soon we were running down the sidewalk with the kite trailing behind.  It would rise a little in the air and then crash, often onto cars who were stuck in rush-hour traffic. The drivers did not seem amused, although a few kindly folks grinned. We raced up and down for a long time, pretending to fly the kite, then I took her to supper and drinks.  By 8 PM she was barely able to find her vehicle.  We made out passionately draped all over her car, and I begged her not to drive – she should stay with me. She managed both to turn me down and to make it home in one piece.  An excellent woman and an excellent start to my life in the city of brotherly love – Philadephia.

 

Saturday morning I reported to work with Frank at the Anatomy building.  This was the oldest building on campus.  It was an enormous townhouse on the end of the Pine St. block.  It may have been built in the 1800s, and in fact we were the last class to use it.  The following year anatomy was shifted to a huge modern building closer to the hospital.

Frank was nearly as old as the building.  He’d been the caretaker of the anatomy building for forty years; he’d seen it all.  He was waiting for me at the front door.  The task for the day was simple; we had to set up the anatomy lab for classes which began on Tuesday.  First we went up the creaky stairs to the second floor to the lab itself.  It was a huge room filled with big tables, six across and eight deep so 48 stations.  Each one had two shelves underneath.  The task was to sweep and clean and get them ready which we proceeded to do.  It took a long time because we had to work around the tables and the old, wooden floors were stained and had little hard pieces of plastic that had to be scraped off.  Frank let me do the bulk of the work.  Finally, about 11 AM we finished and we went down to the front entrance and sat on the steps to eat lunch.  Betty had told me to pack something, so I munched a few sandwiches and slammed a warm coke sitting there in te warm Philadelphia sunshine.

When we finished, Frank said that we had one more task and that it would take us into tomorrow.  When we finished, my job was completed, and he’d give me the vouchers so I could get paid. With that he led me back into the building; this time we took the creaky stairs down.  The basement smelled old and moldy, and it was filled with cobwebs that Frank somehow avoided but that managed to slap me in the face at every doorway.  The place was dark and labyrinthine and creepy with stone walls and dirt floors. Periodically, Frank would hit an old-fashioned light switch so we could continue.  After passing through four rooms, we came to a corridor-looking room that was about eight feet wide with dim exposed lightbulb in the middle of the ceiling.  The walls here were covered with a series of small, square doors – two rows of eight doors each.

Frank said OK, here’s what you do, and he pulled the first door open.  Inside was a long tray with an enormous white plastic bag laying on it.  He pulled the tray out about four feet until it started to bend down. Then he stood next to it with his back to the wall and rolled the bag onto his shoulder.  The white bag slowly folded down over his shoulder and he pulled the far end out until it dropped off the tray and slapped him in the back.  Then, staggering under the weight, he started slowly walking into the next room; I followed. Two similar rooms beyond was an old freight elevator which had no sides and a wooden floor.  Frank walked onto the floor and slumped the white bag off his shoulder onto the elevator which slammed into the floor with a hard thump. By now I could clearly see that he had just transported a dead body.  Only 47 more to go.

We went back to the first room, and now it was my turn. I pulled out the next tray, bent my knees, and rolled the head of the body off the tray catching it about the solar plexus.  As I stood up the rest of the body slid off the tray and banged into my back, nearly knocking me down.  The weight was more than I expected, and my knees started to buckle.  Frank (or should I call him Igor) nodded approvingly. I staggered to the elevator and slumped the body down next to Frank’s.

And so it went.  He and I each carried five to the elevator.  After a while we ended up with a big pile in the middle.  The elevator was nearly as old as the building so the limit was ten.  When it was time Frank stepped into the only place left to stand and said get in.  So I climbed up on top of the pile and found a relatively stable spot to sit; it happened to be directly on somebody’s dead face; I could feel his/her nose.  When we reached the second floor, we had to take the bodies from the elevator and place them on the tables.  Then it was back downstairs for another set of ten.  We finished that one, and Frank told me to come back the next day – Sunday.

Once again he met me at the front door. We dove straight into the creepy basement, and by noon we were loading up the last set of corpses. When we got upstairs, Frank asked me what my last name was.  He went over behind the instructor’s desk at the front of the lab and pulled out a clipboard.  With my name starting with ‘W’, I would be working on table #48.  Frank told me that big, muscular bodies were the easiest to work on, so we found a 48-year-old man who had been about six feet two inches and really buff.  We moved that body to Table #48.  Later that week, after we’d had a few lab sessions and I told the three other student with whom I shared the body, they couldn’t stop thanking me.  Oh, and those little piecew of plastic suck to the floor?  Human flesh well dried.

 

I kept in touch with Dorcas, and over the next few weeks we went out twice.  I’d managed to get my car back on the road with my money from Frank, and both dates were fantastic.  At the same time, Betty in the office was still taking care of me.  She had helped me arrange a student loan that would pay my tuition with enough left over to cover living expenses for a few months.  When I got the check, I managed to pay Jefferson what I needed, but then the rest of the cash started burning a hole in my pocket.

So one day, I called Dorcas and told her that I had a favorite restaurant that I wanted to take her to.  I’d pick her up on Sunday at 5 PM.  On the appointed time, I picked her up and drove to the airport.  We got on a flight to Logan Airport in Boston.  We took a cab to Durgin Park where we had a fantastic meal.  Then we got back on a plane and flew back to Philly; I had her home by 9 PM.

 

About half the student body at Jefferson Medical School joined fraternities in those days.  The Nu Sigma house was centrally located, had a great cook, and most appealing, they were well known as the party animals.  It only took one or two parties for me to realize that I could excel as a Nu Sig.  My class of freshman had 15 guys, and they were extraordinary.  They could party like animals; they could drink with me.  But they were also brilliant and disciplined.  At graduation, 3 of the top 5 came from my class, and 5 of the top 10 in the school.  We had the student body president, the captain of the rugby team, and every other position of distinction at the school.  I’m sure those guys have gone on to greatness in medicine.  They knew how to work hard and play hard.  Unlike me.

I fell into the same self-esteem trap with these guys.  Why would they want to hang around with me? Plus, their humor revolved around teasing one another which I hated.  My nickname quickly became Crazy Bob – Craze as in, “Hey, Craze.  You ever get directions to anatomy classroom?  You haven’t found the place yet, and we’re halfway through the semester.”

Somehow, I couldn’t force myself to study.  I’d start, dutifully carry my books to the library or a lab in the science building or to the dining room at Nu Sigma.  Within an hour, I’d be so restless that I couldn’t even sit in the chair.  I’d pace, I’d sit back down, I’d pace, and then I’d zip out the door to Dirty Frank’s or to one of the stripper bars.  I’d find my way home and collapse in bed, often keeping one foot on the floor to control the spins so I wouldn’t vomit all over my poor roommate.  In the morning, I couldn’t think, often skipped class.  When I did show up I stunk of drink.  I knew it was wrong; I didn’t like it, but I couldn’t stop myself.  I had the same out-of-control feeling I’d had at Bowdoin:  Something was wrong with me.  I was impaired.

We played basketball in the afternoons after class.  I stayed in pretty good shape.  I had no technical skills, but I was enthusiastic, running around like a madman and rattling people enough so they would sometimes make mistakes.  One afternoon, I went up for a rebound, landed wrong, and ripped out my ankle.  In the emergency room they put a cast on it and put me on crutches for at least 6 weeks. But the big dance was coming up, a formal affair called the Black & Blue Ball.

I invited Hawley even though my leg was in a cast and I hadn’t seen her for about two years. I’d borrowed my friend Bob Waterhouse’s apartment for the occasion. We spent most of the next five days in bed together.  Although we weren’t having sex at that point, we were fooling around a bit.  Mostly, we talked and giggled and snuggled – as always, we created our own little world for the moment with little recurring jokes, heavy conversation, lots of lying in each other’s arms.  We did go to the dance, and I put on an excellent performance.  Hawley painted my cast to resemble a high-button shoe which I wore with tartan plaid shorts, a tuxedo jacket, ruffled shirt, and black tie.  Dancing on my cast – I remember a spirited Charleston with the Dean’s wife – I stole the show.  Poor Hawley.  I don’t remember if we stayed in touch after she left.  I don’t think so.

Class was similar to Bowdoin, only more difficult.  It was a little more cut-throat too.  My old roommate Doug was at Hahnemann Medical School, and he turned me on to an excellent Anatomy text called Pansky & House that we didn’t have at Jefferson.  Three times I bought it, and three times it was stolen within 48 hours.  I gave up.

The first year was anatomy, embryology, physiology, and Biochemistry, mainly.  I did poorly – 75’s in anatomy and biochemistry.  Physiology class should have been interesting, but I didn’t like the way it was presented.  Even so I was going to most classes.  At the beginning of the second semester, a stunning young woman started attending physiology.  We began calling her the Cute Little Dark-Haired Girl or CLDHG.  Many, many conversations and many, many jokes were made about CLDHG; she became a phenomenon, but nobody ever spoke to her.  After about a month, I finally worked up the nerve to sit next to her one day.  Her name was Susie Kincaid, and she was really sweet and pretty cool.  She was research associate to a famous physician who had invented something called the ‘crash cart’, a self-contained unit set up to help restart hearts in cardiac arrest. He had suggested that she take the course.

Soon Susie and I were dating, and she became a regular at Nu Sigma parties. About half of my friends had long-term girlfriends, and matrimony was in the air.  I was getting desperate to find a way to change my behavior which I recognized was self-destructive even though I didn’t seem able to do anything about it.  So I proposed.  She wanted to marry a doctor, and even though she must have had questions about my behavior, she accepted.

The next year, my second at Jefferson, she had already signed a teaching contract in a small town in up-state New Jersey.  She would still take the job, and at the end of the year, we would marry.  She’d look for another teaching job in New Jersey close enough to commute from Philly.  We were set.

 

I don’t think that it had anything to do with Susie, but I failed physiology.  That summer, the physiology professor tutored me.  Every week, I had to go to his office to discuss all that I’d studied the week before.  By this time, I’d discovered most of the seedy bars in the neighborhood including the infamous Dirty Frank’s at 13th & Locust.  So at my meetings with the young Professor, I always embarrassed myself.

However, I had a saving grace.  I’d managed to get a great job doing research with a cardio vascular surgeon.  Dr. Weldon was the star of the department.  He was young about 40, and he was doing high tech surgical research with the companies who make heart valves.  A valve is normally a flap that helps stop backflow in a hydraulic system.  The manufacturers had discovered that when they put plastic valves in hearts that they didn’t fit right; they leaked.  Dr. Weldon had pointed out that regular valves work in an immobile system of pipes.  The heart is a muscle and when blood is pumped through the valve, everything is moving and the pipe – the artery – changes shape; it flattens.  So the valve has to be flexible and stretchy so it can change with the shape of the pipe.  So he had designed these springy valves that adjusted shape with the motion of the heart.  The patients had many fewer problems.   Now he wanted to document just how the valve changed shape.  He wanted to film the valve from inside the heart.

The first problem to deal with was light.  How can you take pictures inside blood when it’s opaque?  You can’t.  So Weldon decided to make a sugar solution that had the same viscosity as blood but was of course transparent.  So we would sacrifice dogs.  We got them from the pound, and they just had to be big so their organs would be big enough. Dogs also have an immune system that’s different from ours.  With dogs, you don’t have to worry about infection.  So we’d wear gloves, but we didn’t worry about sterile technique and operating room protocol.  We opened their chests right in the lab. For our experiments, we needed the heart to remain alive even though sugar water circulates.  So Dr. Weldon would expose the poor dog’s heart and expose the arteries.  The heart is a muscle and needs a very big supply of blood to keep beating day in and day out. So the arteries that feed the heart are crucial.  Indeed, it’s these vessels that get blocked in a heart attack.  Anyway, Weldon would slide little tubes into those arteries, and then we’d hook the tubes up to a heart–lung machine that put oxygen into the blood and circulated it back to the dog’s heart.  Then we’d replace all their blood with the sugar solution; naturally they died, but their hearts lived on.

Fiber-optics had just been invented, and Dr. Weldon would then make a purse string suture in the base of the heart at the point. Then he’d slice a hole in the tip of the heart, slide a fiber-optic lens inside, and pull the suture tight to seal off the blood.  And the heart would keep on beating.  We’d film the valve and its complicated motion.  We also took electrocardiograms at the same time and recorded the beating of the heart.  Then he’d have movies made with all the parameters shown on the screen with the valve opening and closing and the soundtrack blasting. Sometimes, we’d inject fine metal filings that would follow the currents through the sugar solution.  As it came through the valve, the filings would swirl and spin in places of turbulence and show where flow was disrupted.  This became important later when we operated on the dogs about a month before the footage and replaced a valve in their heart.  Then we took pictures of flow through the artificial valves and look for turbulent patches.

I ran the heart-lung machine.  I had to keep track of the flow and the oxygenation and I had a bank of meters and dials in front of me.  Our operations would often take 7- 10 hours.  It was a long time to remain attentive, but I loved it.  I read all I could about hearts and valves and learned enough physiology to get by.  The main path of my med school career was dismal, but I frequently found myself captured by a project, and for a few months I’d pay attention.  In other words, I had a few shining moments in a sea of despair – the story of my life.

 

 


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The Dragon Lady

I’m very sorry to be late posting.  I still have an erratic internet connection. This post is one of the first stories that I wrote in 2000.

The following story has sexual content.  Please don’t continue if such material is offensive to you.  Thank you.

The following was written as Exercise #7, p.204, The Art of Fiction

  1. Write a monologue of at least three pages, in which the interruptions – pauses, gestures, description, etc. – all clearly and persuasively characterize, and the shifts from monologue to gesture and touches of setting (as when the character touches some object or glances out the window) all feel rhythmically right. Purpose: to learn ways of letting a character make a long speech that doesn’t seem boring or artificial.

 

The Dragon Lady

        “Well, that’s an intimate question.”

“I’m serious.  Tell me how you lost your virginity.  I won’t laugh.  It wasn’t traumatic was it?”

I grinned and turned my head back and forth very slowly.  She giggled.

“Well tell me then.  And make it delicious.”  She uncoiled, and reaching with her hips, she rubbed her vulva against my leg.  “Come on.  Talk delicious to me.”

“All right,” I said.  “But this could take a while.”

She shrugged and reached up to rub her left nipple.  “Take your time,” hand rotating slowly.

“Okay.  The story begins in Lanesville, the fishing village on Cape Ann where my family had a summer place.  I turned fourteen that year.  Several families had built houses in the village, and several of the children fell into my age bracket.  From the first arrivals in June, we began pairing off.  Susan Sullivan told me the first day that we were a couple for the summer.  I actually admired Nancy King. a local girl, who made it clear that she wanted to experiment with all those things that feel so nice.  Most of our days and nights were now devoted to arranging ways to sneak out alone, finding safe places to go and practice.  I took both of them into the woods — individually, of course — where we kissed for hours, and I would eventually be rewarded with permission to cup a breast or rub a buttock or suck some toes.”  At which I grabbed her foot and yanked it toward my mouth.  She yanked it back and stared at me.  Then she reached with the same foot and began stroking my hip.

“Continue.”

“Sex was in the air that year.  Or maybe sex was in the air every year, and I was just noticing.  But the adults were immersed in it, too.  Two beautiful stewardesses had a cottage down by the water, and they dated two seniors from Harvard who had a place a few miles down the road.  Their summer was an endless string of gin and tonics, barbecue, and skinny-dipping.

“Next door to the girls lived the Tahanys, a bizarre couple.  Marianne was tall and thin, with dark skin and salt and pepper hair that hung to her buttocks.  She was 42, had high cheekbones, and was rumored to be half Native American;  we called her the Dragon Lady.  She carried an unusual odor that I now know to be the smell of sex.  She liked to drink, and she and my Mom were in the habit of getting really high in the afternoons, slugging down Manhattans for hours.

“Donald, the husband, stood about six inches shorter than she — a squat, ugly little bear.  He was rumored to have immense strength.  Once, the story went, he and Marianne had a terrible argument.  She was drunk;  he was enraged and began to beat her.  She ran from the house and jumped into her little car, a Metropolitan made by American Motors.  By the time she got the engine started, Donald had reached the vehicle.  When Marianne tried to drive off, Donald picked up the rear of the vehicle, and the wheels spun uselessly.

“She was just one of the women rumored to be hot, but this type of speculation was dangerous because mothers and fathers were so much part of  the crowd.  Carolyn Steinberg, for example, but that’s another story.”  I lifted her foot off my thigh and stood abruptly.  She looked up, blinking.

“Want something to drink?  I’m parched.”  She nodded and handed me her glass.  I went to the kitchen counter and started assembling drinks.

“So the summer passed.  I snuggled my hand between the sweet, hot thighs of Susie Sullivan and Nancy King both.  One late night, I peeked in the window and saw one of the Harvard boys link up with one of the Stewardesses.  My parents and their friends partied every weekend, guzzling enormous amounts of alcohol and allowing inhibitions to drop away.”  I brought the drinks back, handed one to her, and settled back into the corner of the couch.  “Speaking of which,” I said, holding out my glass to clink, “Cheers.”  We both drank deeply.

“But when Labor Day weekend rolled around and all the families went back to their hometowns, I was still a virgin.  Started back to school in that unenviable state.  I attended St. John’s Preparatory School for Boys which as the name implies had no girls.”  She crinkled her nose in dismay at me.  “I couldn’t agree more.  But I went home nearly every weekend and we had our afternoons free.  Sometimes, girls from my hometown would drive over after school, and we’d go park in the woods and make out.”  She licked her lips at me.  I shook my head.  “Lots of kissing, a little bare tit, some butt rubbing.  Once Ann Gray and Diane Leach came together and…but that’s another story.”  She snapped her fingers, disappointed.

“Anyway, one weekend I went home, and discovered Marianne and my Mom, hanging out and drinking coffee.  They told me that I had a job the following weekend.  Donald needed some help building a little apartment at the back of their house.  He would pick me up at school on Friday, and I would stay at their house for the weekend.  I would be paid minimum wage which back then was $1.10 per hour if I’m not mistaken.

“So that Friday, I waited on the corner with my little bag, and suddenly the little Metropolitan screeched to a halt in front of me.  The convertible top was down.”  She opened her eyes wide, questioning.  I smiled wickedly.  She scrunched down and held her foot out to me.  I took it and began stroking very gently.

“She was drunk; her eyes were a little watery.  I could see a Manhattan glass on the floor between her feet.  ‘Donald was busy,’ she said.  ‘Asked me to pick you up.’  I jogged around to the other side and got in.  She took off, driving quickly.  I don’t think she said two words the whole trip.  At the house, she showed me to the room where I was to stay and told me to come to the television room when I had settled in.  A few minutes later, I went down the hall to the room she pointed out with the TV.

The TV room doubled as their master bedroom.  When I entered, she was sitting on the bed, still wearing black slacks and talking on the phone.  The TV picture flickered, but the sound was off.  That mysterious smell was strong, and she patted a spot beside her on the bed.  I stepped over and she took my hand and guided me to sit beside her.  She held my hand tucked under hers and said her goodbyes into the mouthpiece.  Then she turned and put her other hand on my face.  She leaned forward and kissed me, eyes wide, watching.  I froze, but my lips responded at least.  She chuckled, and I licked across her lower lip.  She cocked her head at me then took one hand and put it on her shoulder.  She took my other hand and placed it on her thigh.  ‘Don’t be afraid to touch me,’ she murmured and pulled me down on the bed.

This part was familiar territory, so I began kissing and stroking in the usual fashion.  But she was impatient.  Grabbed my hand and placed it carefully between her legs which she drew apart slowly and dramatically.  I began rubbing enthusiastically, and she responded.  Suddenly she grabbed my hand, guided it to the top of her pants, and unzipped.  I could feel bare flesh and the elastic of her panties.  My fingers slid down and hooked under the panties;  their tips brushed the coarse top of her pubic hair.  Her hand fell on my hip, and her palm slipped slowly downward.  Bang! the door downstairs, and she jumped to her feet, rearranged her clothes and whispered, ‘It’s Donald.  We’ll finish this later.’  I jumped up, too, and tried to re-arrange my erection.  She giggled and moved to the TV.  Just then Donald clumped in.”

I reached for my drink and she looked at me with a funny smile.  “You must have been ready to explode.” she said wryly, and she leaned forward and patted my lap with its partial erection.

I grabbed her hand and held it on my growing penis.  “I was.”  She stopped resisting and began lightly stroking.

“I’m not going to let you get distracted,” she said, still stroking.  “What happened next?”

I closed my eyes and ground my hips against her hand.

“Oh no you don’t,” she said and pulled her hand away.  “Finish the story.”

I groaned and reached for her, but the hand was gone.  I tried to glare at her but finally gave up and grinned.  “OK.  But get ready because things get a little kinky soon.”

She chuckled happily and stared expectantly.

“We all had supper together, then Donald had to go pick up some nails and tape and stuff for the next day’s work.  I went along, and, after riding in silence for a few minutes, I told him.”

“What!” she jerked forward.

“Yes, I told him the whole story.  I don’t know what possessed me.  I still can’t believe it myself, but I did.  I described the seduction scene in some detail and told him that she had whispered, ‘We’ll finish this later.’

“At that, he cleared his throat and told me that he had no objection, but that I should be careful because she had professional-level talents, and I would probably be disappointed by anyone else after her.  Somehow, I was not dissuaded.

“So the scene was set.  We picked up our materials, returned home, hauled everything up the stairs.  By then it was about 8 PM and they told me to get into my pajamas then come watch some TV.  I did, and when I arrived, Donald was in the bed watching a sitcom.  Marianne had on a long terry cloth robe and stood brushing her long hair by the fireplace.  I sat down on the edge of the bed.”

“You must have been nervous,” she broke in watching me closely.

I laughed.  “Not really, you know.  I knew something was going to happen, and I was really excited.  All right, a little nervous, yes.”  She smiled triumphantly.

“So Marianne said she was going to take a bath and went into the bathroom letting her robe slide off as she passed through the door, giving me a glimpse of her naked from behind.  I watched TV with Donald.  Marianne shouted banter to us from the bathtub and finally hollered, ‘I’m tired of shouting.  Bobby, I’ll bet a dollar you don’t dare come in here and talk to me.’

“Hey, a dollar’s a dollar, right?  So in I went.  She sat submerged in a sea of bubbles.  The tub was old fashioned, with claw feet and deep.  I sat on the toilet, and we chatted.  She was very flirtatious, moving the bubbles away from her breasts and extending her legs and soaping them down.  She said, ‘I’ll bet a dollar you don’t dare scrub my back.”

“Hey, a dollar’s a dollar, right?  So I sat on the edge of the tub, and she handed me the washcloth.  I bent to the task.  She purred and wiggled.  Finally she asked for her drink, which I brought and then she looked at me.  ‘You’re all wet, Bobby.  You might as well be taking a bath.  I’ll bet a dollar you don’t dare get in the tub with me.”

“Hey, a dollar’s a dollar, right?  So I slipped off my pajama top and looked down at my bulging bottoms.  She motioned me to take them off and, when I did, my erection stood forth.  At first I was embarrassed, but then I noticed that she was staring at it, making lip pouts and smackings so I guess she didn’t mind.  I stepped into the tub and looked down.  She pulled her knees back and opened her legs as wide as they could go.  Through the bubbles and the turbulence, I caught glimpses of her pubic hair.  Slowly, I squatted until I too was sitting on my end with my knees pressing against hers and my toes under her butt cheeks.  Naturally, it didn’t take long for us to both to be caressing each other with toes.”

She was rapt, but I needed a break.  I lifted her feet off my lap and stood up.  My erection bobbed forward.  I grinned, “Just acting out a few parts of the story,” and I circled it with my hand and started stroking.

She watched carefully for a few beats.  “I’m glad to see you’re still not embarrassed.”  I laughed and went to work on the drinks.

She sat up straight on the couch and lit a roach that was lying on the table.  “And the whole time, he was right next door watching TV.”  Shaking her head.

“Yes, but it was something between them.”  I handed her the drink and sat beside her on the couch.  “She was toying with him.  Of course, at the moment she was actually toying with me.

“I believe we were playing a game where I let my swollen penis bob to the surface amongst the bubbles, and she reached out and gently submerged it.  Suddenly she shouted, ‘Hey, Donald.  Come in here and watch this game we’re playing’…and he did.  He stood there, and she cooed, and my penis bobbed.  Then he mumbled something and left.  She shrugged and goosed me with her big toe again.

“But the water was getting cold, and the time had come to move to the next scene.  So we got out — she, kittenish, toweled me down.  She put on the robe, and I put on the pajamas.  In the TV room, Donald was back in bed watching a sitcom.  We hung out for about 30 seconds then Marianne said she was going downstairs to the kitchen to make coffee, and did I want to come help?

“I felt nothing but lust at this point, no matter what the games between them.  I was 14 years old and accepting this bizarre situation came easy.  ‘Sure.’  And we were running down the stairs, and she grabbed my hand and pulled me into the kitchen.  She leaned back against the counter, untied her robe, and yanked me against her.  We kissed for a while then our hands got busy.  She reached inside my pajamas and held me in her flaming hand.  I couldn’t breathe.”

She handed me my drink.  “Finally we’re getting to the good part.”

I took a sip and swirled it around my mouth.  “Well actually it wasn’t all that great.  We’d been at this foreplay for hours, and I had no reserves left.  She whispered, ‘In here!’ and yanked me into the living room where she flung open her robe and sprawled on the couch, one leg up on the top of the cushions.  I fumbled with my pajama bottoms, got them to the ankles, then half fell on top of her.  Marianne reached down and found my flailing member, guided it into her.  I lunged blindly, came immediately.  She hugged me and soothed me a little, then we dressed, made coffee and went back upstairs.  That was it.”

I waved my hands in a gesture of finality and sat back against the cushions.

“That was it?”  She sat up straight.  “What was it?  Then what happened?”

“I thought you wanted to know how I lost my virginity.”  I blinked my eyes in mock innocence.  She glared at me and growled like a bear.  We held eyes for a minute then chuckled together.  I took another drink.

“The next day, Donald and I worked on the apartment.  Marianne cooked and ran errands, and I didn’t see her much.  She was warm but not sexual.  Nobody mentioned the shenanigans of the night before.  On Sunday, Donald drove me back home.

“A few weeks later, I was sitting in a boring Religion class, when I was called out into the hall and to the principal’s office for an emergency phone call.  It was Marianne.  ‘I’ll pick you up in 15 minutes.  Tell them your uncle’s having surgery, and he’s asking for you.  I’ll be the aunt.’  And she hung up.

“I managed to blurt out the story to the monk in charge, and, sure enough, she pulled up in the little Metropolitan a few minutes later, harried and upset like any aunt whose husband was sick.  I jumped in, and off we went.  We heard the monk say, ‘God bless you.  You’re in my prayers,’ and we exploded in laughter.  Tears ran down my face as we howled and howled at that poor man’s prayers.”

I must have trailed off remembering because she said sharply, “Hey.  You don’t have to finish this story if you don’t want to.  You looked so sad for a minute there.”  She touched my face, and I felt tears brim my eyes at her tenderness.

“No, No.  It’s all right.  I don’t mind.”  I sat forward and found the joint in the ashtray.  Lit it, and took a big, big hit, held it as long as I could, and sat back on the couch.  When I started speaking again, my voice was an octave deeper.

“That afternoon she took me to the woods and showed me how to conduct love affairs in a small vehicle.  At one point, she bent down and took me in her mouth.  After a spell she looked up and said, ‘You must think I’m crazy,’ and went back to it.  I looked down at the back of her head and said, ‘No, just affectionate.’  She nearly choked laughing.

“We had lots of adventures.  She would come and get me at school.  Or sometimes she’d be hanging out at the house with my mother.  Once my Mom, who was busy, asked her to pick me up at school on a Friday and bring me home.  Once again I jumped in the little Metropolitan, and we zipped down the back roads, rushing to get home before my Mom would get there.

“We pulled into the driveway — my mother’s car was not there — and Marianne was out of the car and at the door before I could gather my books.  She waited for me, swishing her skirt impatiently, and as we went into the kitchen, she turned and, very significantly, reached into the pocket of her coat.  I couldn’t help staring as she pulled out the corner of something silk.  A little more came out, and, yes, it was her panties.  When she saw my recognition, she laughed, turned quickly, and skipped down the stairs to the family room my Dad had built in the basement.  I hurried down after her.”

I leaned back against the cushions and stretched my arms high over my head.  My joints made a lot of satisfying crunches.  She winced when she heard the noises, but otherwise sat quietly waiting.  I rolled my head in a few circles and took a deep breath.

“When I got to the family room, her coat was on the floor, and she was sitting in the middle of the couch.  She held up both palms to stop me.  I stopped.  She looked right at my face as she pulled her knees up towards her shoulders.  She reached down and began to pull up the edge of the skirt very slowly.  I let my eyes fall very deliberately until I stared directly at her lips.  Her hands ran down her inner thighs, and she began rubbing herself.  ‘Bobby.’ she said.  ‘Come over here.’

“When my mother pulled in the driveway few minutes later, I was kneeling on the floor.  Marianne was holding herself wide open and showing me the most sensitive places to lick on the clitoris.  She pushed my head away, bounced up, and grabbed her coat all in the same motion.  Bounded up the stairs and greeted my Mom at the door.  We helped her carry in the groceries.”

“My God,” she said.  How long did this go on?”

I closed my eyes and tried to count.  “I guess about six months;  we got together about twenty times.”

“Jesus,” she murmured.

“Okay,” I said.  “This story has two climaxes.  I guess I should more correctly say, two more climaxes.  Anyway, I was invited to work another weekend at the Tahany household.  Donald picked me up this time, and he was very surly in the car.  Barely spoke to me.  After dinner, Donald went to watch TV, and Marianne pulled me aside.  Said she had some bad news.  Donald was suddenly objecting to our affair.  Maybe he was getting jealous.  He told Marianne that the only way that she and I could continue to have sex was if I would get into bed with both of them.  If I didn’t agree, then our affair was over, and if he caught us together again, he’d kill us both.

“Well, as usual I was following her lead.  She said, ‘I told him you wouldn’t agree to such a thing.’  I nodded.  ‘OK.’ she continued.  ‘We’ll have to be careful.  Tonight, I’ll wait for him to fall asleep, then I’ll come get you.  We’ll sneak downstairs,’ and she placed her hand on my crotch for emphasis.  ‘OK,’ I said dumbly.”

She leaned over and put her head on my shoulder.  “You poor guy.  I guess I have to hear the rest, huh?”  She stroked my arm.  I nodded.

“That night, I slept down the hall.  About 3 AM she woke me, and we tiptoed down the stairs in the dark.  We installed ourselves on the same couch and began, whispering and giggling, and finally breathing heavy.  My pajama bottoms came off and her robe was wide open.  We got horizontal.

“Bam, we heard the door fly open and a screech, and he was on us.  Grabbed me by the ankle and shoulder and flung me across the room.  I skidded into some table legs.  Marianne was screaming, ‘Help me, Bobby.  Help me.’  I could just make them out in the dark.  He had her against the wall, and he was pounding punches into her belly.  I ran at him, but when I grabbed his arm, he punched me hard in the face with the other hand.  I went down, and he began kicking me very hard.  I curled in a ball and tried to protect my face.  Marianne jumped on his back and screamed that he was going to kill me.  He said ‘Good!’ and continued kicking.  Finally, she ran to the door and turned on the light.  Donald froze in mid-kick when the lights came on.  Stood there puffing for a minute, staring down at me then stormed into the kitchen.  Marianne motioned me to wait and followed him.

“I put on my pajama bottoms and sat guiltily on the couch.  Negotiations in the kitchen were going badly.  Voices began as murmurs, but escalated until he was screaming.  Twice he slapped her, and once she told him she’d slam the frying pan on his head.  I pictured her holding the pan high and backed in the corner like a tall, feral creature.

“Finally they called me in.  Donald was volatile, reasonable one minute then rushing across the room at me like a mad bull.  He was sick of our disrespect.  I was to get out of his house right now.  He was calling my parents to come and get me.  Marianne looked at me hard.  Told me to go upstairs, get dressed, and pack my things.  She would take care of things.  I waited for what seemed like hours, but finally she came upstairs and told me that she had called Neil and that he would arrive soon.  I sat slumped and sore with my bag at the top of the stairs.

“In a little while, Neil rang the bell; Marianne answered.  He stepped in the door, looked up at me and snarled, “Get in the car and wait for me.”  I was out the door and in the familiar Chrysler in a shot.  Finally, the front door opened, and Neil came out.  Got in the car and drove off without a word.  We headed toward home and after about 15 minutes of silence, Neil pulled over.

He turned on the overhead light and looked at my swollen lip.  ‘You OK?” his voice was very tender.  I nodded.  Then I asked him if Donald still intended to call my parents.  He said, “No.”  He told me that Donald had been furious when he first arrived and threatened to call my parents right then.  But Neil played hardball.  Told Donald that he would call the police and turn him in.  Seems that for many years Donald had been making porno movies starring — you guessed it — the Dragon Lady.  Back then, such things were extremely illegal.  If either one came near me again, he would expose them both.  We sat in the dark on the side of the road for a minute.  Then he flicked on the headlights and drove me home.”

I stretched my arms way over my head again.  “Climax Number One,” I intoned.  When I brought my arms down, she scooted over up against me and stroked my arm.  “You poor guy,” she moaned against my skin and kissed me.

“Wait till you hear Climax Number Two,” I said shaking my head.  She pushed herself back and stared at me, waiting.

“I didn’t see either one of the Tahanys for a long time.  Then about six months later, I came upon the little red Metropolitan in front of the liquor store.  I waited across the street, and when she came out, I crossed and caught her before she got into the car.  ‘Hello, Marianne.’

“She smiled at me, and we chatted about the weather and other banalities, but a current of emotion bubbled under the words.  Then she said, ‘Bobby, I have a confession to make; I broke a promise that I made to you.  Remember when I told you that I’d never make love with anyone else but you — and Donald, but only because he’s my husband and I had to?’

“‘Yes, Marianne, I remember.  Who’s the lucky guy?’ said with all the flippancy a fifteen-year-old could muster.

“‘Your Father.’  And she waved goodbye with her fingers and got into the Metropolitan.

“I caught her eye before she started the car. I said, ‘Tell him I was asking for him.’  The engine turned over, and she drove off.”

I blew a weary “Whew.  Climax Number Two.”

We sat in silence for a long time.  Then I said, “I went to an all-boys high school and an all-boys college.  In my entire adolescence, from 12 to 20, my best sexual experiences were with my mother and her friends.”

More silence.  Then she stirred, took my hand, and led me to the bedroom.

 

 

 


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I Attend another School for Boys

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.

 


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Resurrection on the Isle of the Sacred Cross

Couldn’t post yesterday; internet was down.  Sorry about that.

Resurrection on the Isle of the Sacred Cross

Lying on a couch in a cheap condo in the industrial part of Stanford Connecticut.  As always, no sunlight penetrated the living room although the balcony caught the early morning light.  It was, at the moment, 2:30 PM and dim.  I lay there pondering what it would feel like to leap from the balcony to the parking lot below and considering how to make certain that I died and not end up horribly mangled.  I already knew how that felt.

I had smoked so many cigarettes that I couldn’t sleep flat on my back.  I coughed uncontrollably.  I had to sleep sitting up with bolster pillows under my back.  I weighed more than 200 pounds.  My spine had just been operated on — two disks removed.  The neurosurgeon had pulled me aside, told me that I should stop doing drugs.  My liver was shot;  he showed me the numbers.

I’d been drinking steadily for nearly ten years, heavier and heavier.  During that time, I’d been thrown out of medical school and fired from thirteen straight jobs.  I’d wrecked cars, stolen from friends, and lived in the streets.

I could see the balcony from the couch of course.  Considered how it would feel climbing over the railing.  Leaning out and falling headfirst — diving.  Lying there on our Bloomingdale couch, humiliated, my skin burned with shame.  I could feel a flush that hurt like I’d been flayed.  Failure is so demeaning.

The phone rang.

 

The guy was from Manhattan and was impressed with the resume that I’d sent him.  I’d sent out hundreds so I had no idea who he was. Said he wanted to interview me.  We set up an appointment for the following day.  He was in a University Building at City College.  I managed to find the place in time.

When I entered the room with the correct number, it was a lab, not an office.  A man at a desk in the  corner came over, introduced himself, and asked a little about my lab experience.  Then he pointed to a machine on a lab bench and asked if I knew what it was and how to use it.  It was an SMA-6 which I had used for years (even help set up at a lab in West Chester where I worked in Med School).  I also had lots of experience with the SMA-12.  He asked me to set it up and run it and probed a little more, but basically that was it.

“Well,” he said, “you’ve got the job.  There’s only one problem.”

“What’s that?”

“You’ll have to relocate…to the Virgin Islands.”

 

Hawley was suspicious;  she had a well-paying position with Raytheon that made her feel very safe.  Finally, she relented, and we moved to St. Croix.  I went first;  Hawley stayed behind to have plastic surgery on her ears which stuck out and had made her feel awkward all her life.  Indeed, she was very shy and quiet and neurotic – suicidal for many years — but beautiful, sensitive, and artistic.  I loved her very much.

I had just arrived in Saint Croix and was getting settled in at Rust op Twist.  Already working there were two young men as technicians — David and Paul.  Every day they went fishing in the late afternoon and brought home supper.  Sometimes lobster, sometimes yellowtail snapper, but they always brought home food from the sea.  I was excited to get in the water, so on the second day, David took me two miles down the coast to Cane Bay, one of the best dive sites in the entire Caribbean.

I had used mask, snorkel, and fins a few times before, so I wasn’t a novice.  Dave had all the gear including a very long, very lethal-looking speargun.  Just before we got into the water, he handed me a small rusty speargun about three feet long.  “It doesn’t work,” he told me cheerfully.  “It’s called an arbalette, and it’s rusted shut.  Just in case any ‘big fish’ approach, poke at them with it.”  When I asked if they often had problems with “big fish,” he laughed.  “Never yet, but you might as well carry something.”

We sat in the shallows and put on our gear, then David swam away, lethal weapon in hand.  I set out to explore Cane Bay.  About 100 feet out, the bottom started sloping down.  Lots of spur and groove formation, those long coral heads that provide home to so many wierd and beautiful creatures.  An astonishing world.

When the sloped reached 65 feet in depth, the bottom changed suddenly.  A steep drop-off, an undersea cliff actually that plunged straight down for more than two miles.  Called the Puerto Rican Trench, it was often used by Russian submarines traveling back and forth to Cuba.  We frequently heard metallic noises, electronic pings, and whistles.  Approaching the edge of that precipice from high above on the surface was an eerie feeling.  Beyond was pitch black, and it made us feel as though we had already hurled ourselves off the cliff and into the void.  It frightened me, so I headed back toward shore.

I decided to look for David, so I stood in the water — I let my legs fall and then moved them in a walking motion which keeps you upright with your head out of water.  I pushed up my mask to see better.  He was about 50 yards from me, and he also stood in the water.  But he wasn’t looking up or around.  His face was in the water;  he was looking down.  I put my mask on and swam toward him.

As I approached, I began to make out shadowy figures far away underwater.  First David materialized.  He hung from the surface, looking down, and he was rotating slowly.  His speargun pointed down.  Then I saw a vague shape down on the bottom, about 30 feet below.  It was swimming casually in a circle beneath David.  Suddenly, it shot straight up at him.  He pulled his feet up underneath him and began poking downward at the shark that I could now see was bigger than David, at least 10 feet long.  The shark angled away from his spear at the last minute and went back to circling.

I saw it make two more attacks as I approached, so I held the arbalette in front of me pathetically extended with both hands.  The shark made another pass at David, and, when he poked it away, it veered directly at me.  It came fast, at the surface.  My goggles broke out of the water, and for an instant I could see his fin extended out of the water coming right at me, just like the movies.  Underwater, he aimed dead center on the arbalette.  At the last second, he slid to my right.  The spear bumped his side.  At the same time his single beady, fierce eye was less than two feet from mine.  We stared, and then he swung his back half into me, knocking me to the side and scraping the skin off my whole arm.  He was gone.

David and I moved quickly to shore.  I was bleeding from my arm, and he had a basket full of bloody fish which had probably attracted our friend in the first place.

 

After I’d been there about a month, there was a party, and I’d gotten drunk and lost my wallet with the credit cards and spent all my cash and ended up driving home with the young daughter of the station manager in the middle and one of lab techs that I was supervising riding shotgun, and the next thing you know we’re all in bed together, and the sun came up, and the kids left, and I’d done it again.

I hated myself.  I swore that I would never behave that way again. I felt the worst about Hawley.  I had never been disrespectful of our relationship.  I made some more vows, berated myself incessantly. (But I didn’t stop drinking.)  She arrived in June, and, on that day, I went to a grove of flamboyant trees which were in full flower and gathered five flour sacks full of blossoms with which I covered our bed.  I had enough to even make a trail from the front door to the bedroom.  For days, we had pollen stains all over us.

The flowers turned out to be prophetic because we both blossomed on St. Croix.  Hawley’s surgery had transformed her.  She stood differently, spoke differently.  She found a position with a printing and graphics firm and on her own time, began producing stunning, stained-glass pieces.  She began to dress more boldly – bought herself a bathing suit that turned transparent when wet.  We began frequenting nude beaches.  For our first Xmas on the island, I had a local artist and fashion designer sew a stunning silk outfit for Hawley that was billowy and transparent.  She began to wear it with no bra and tiny bikini panties.  And she was really happy and confident — not just about her body, of course.

As for me, the Project Director where I was the chemist was a magical creature named Scott Laurence who saw some kind of potential in me and took me in as his lieutenant.  Somehow, he ignored my neuroses, and gently prodded me.  His enthusiasm was unbounded, and it spread to me.  I found myself drinking less because it was really hard to keep up with Scotty when I was carrying an enormous hangover.  We got into the habit of sharing a joint after work and talking about the project, analyzing the data.

 

Scott Laurence taught me some of the most important lessons of my life.  He showed me how to be happy and to use energy in joyous and creative ways.  In a serious meeting, for example, Scott would suddenly leap onto the table and begin spouting doggerel.  No task frightened him.  Scott believed in me when I needed to learn that I was good and capable.  I haven’t seen him for years and heard rumors that he died in a diving accident, but I feel him right beside me every day.

I began to have confidence in my ideas and more importantly in my work. I got completely hooked. I didn’t want to get self-destructive – being sloppy about lab techniques, misplacing things, etc. I didn’t want to mess up the data because I became genuinely immersed in the ideas.  I forgot to be neurotic and self-absorbed.  This time and for the first time, I really cared about the work.  Before this I’d been so neurotic and self-absorbed, I’d been unable to get beyond how I felt about everything and what everybody else thought about me and how inadequate everything I’d ever done was.  But Scotty loved me.  And Hawley was breaking out of her neurotic shell, and she loved me.  And I began to feel lovable.

Every night, Hawley and I would sit in our beautiful little cottage at the edge of the sea:  she, drawing and fashioning stunning works of art in glass, and me, studying fiercely:  biochemical mechanisms underlying photosynthesis, ANOVA, computer electronics, mathematical modeling.  I was coming awake and desperate to catch up with Scotty who already had a PhD in Neurology.  (As a student at Antioch, he did independent research on cockroach neurons, training them to run mazes.  He was set up in the basement of the science building, and sometimes he would drop acid and play his oboe down there with the cockroaches because of the resonance.)

 

In St Croix, I learned that I had a knack for teaching.  As I learned about things, I explained them to others, especially the lab staff.  I was famous for using paper towel after paper towel as a kind of portable blackboard.  Someone would enter the lab to deliver a sample and would exit two hours later with head spinning. Leaving behind paper towels spread over all the lab surfaces. “Find the story,” I’d say.  “Begin at the beginning then follow the middle all the way through to the end.”  I took on everything – chemical engineering, photosynthesis, statistics, and computers.  In particular, we had an HP 65 programmable calculator that Scotty and I worked 24 – 7.  We also had one of the first commercial PCs an HP 2810 – an eight-bit machine.  We got so involved that Scott and I bought a HeathKit eight-bit machine with all the instructions and parts, just like the TV that Hawley and I had built in Stanford.  I remember laying out all the circuit diagrams and tracing the circuits hour after hour, night after night.

We built the CPU box; it had two windows with 3 red LED numerals for octal code.  It used a cassette tape recorder for storage – floppy disks had not yet been invented.  One of the engineers helped me make charts of machine codes with octal equivalents.  We used the charts to write the programs longhand then code into octal, entered the code painstakingly, and stored the file on tape.  I believe the first program added two octal numbers – enter one, press CR, then enter another, then press CR again, and the answer was displayed in octal.  I would leave before the monitor was assembled, but I heard later that Scotty used it to start a little business.  This episode with the diagrams, the octal, the programmable calculator, and the PC all gave me an excellent foundation for my lifelong interest in computing machines.

 

For the first time in our lives, Hawley and I were rising out of our neurotic stews and being fulfilled… and happy.  During this time, we played a lot of older folk music; she had a pretty good collection.  We also sent for the Time-Life Classical Music Series and spent night after night comparing Beethoven’s Symphonies, and reading about the music, pointing out things that we’d notice to one another, then Mozart, Rachmaninoff, Sibelius, Brahms. We also listened to a lot of jazz.  The Hamiltons lived on St. Croix – Jimmy had played saxophone with Duke Ellington for 15 years, and Margaret had been Billy Holiday’s pianist.  She played two nights a week at a beautiful nightclub overlooking the harbor. Sometimes he’d haul out his sax, and they’d play together.  Heart-stopping.

One Sunday, we went, as usual, to another fashionable bar for champagne brunch.  All the way there, I dreaded it because we’d get buzzed, and I wouldn’t be able to read what I needed to read and write what I needed to write.  Finally, when we were seated, I looked at Hawley’s beautiful nipple thrusting out at me through the silk, and I said, “I think I’m gonna stop drinking for a while.”  We decided that plain tonic with lime would be chic enough and tolerable because the sharp flavor would wash the taste of desire for alcohol out of my mouth.  And I stopped.  Just like that.  We continued to be happy.

 

On St. Croix, Hawley and I were definitely white folks; we had little social contact with local people.  But we were cool in the white set, hanging out with artists and lawyers and such.  We bought a piece of land – 1 1/2 acres on the top of a ridge 1,000 feet over the Caribbean.  Steep cliffs to the beach below.  When we bought it (five years of monthly payments), I estimated that it was one of the most beautiful places in the world.  We could see Puerto Rico 65 miles away, and hawks rode the thermals 30 feet in front of us.  The North Shore of St. Croix is a perennial on the top-ten diving spots in the Caribbean, and that’s what we could see, way down there.

 

My relationship with Scotty deepened and richened.  We couldn’t get enough of each other’s minds.  Back and forth we’d go, probing to find out how the creatures in our system worked; we’d pose questions and dig for answers to biological conundra.  We would walk down to the project pools, make our rounds scintillating with ideas — back and forth, leading on and deeper.  A leap of scales, leap of fields, leap of info, digging deeper, peeling back layer after layer…flying.

One day, for example, about 10 AM, Scott suggested we go up on the ridge to our land.  We jumped in the truck, the one with no sides on the bed.  As we putted along the beach, bougainvillea towered brazenly on the left.  The ridge rose high and steep and from close to the sea.  The road snaked along the bottom.

Scott turned up, straight up nearly, rising steeply through switchbacks to the peak 1,000 feet above.  A dirt road scraped out of the steepness right along the edge of the ridge peak.  Looking out the passenger side straight down to the road now tiny and hair-like, 1,000 feet below.  If you meet another vehicle on this road, one party must retreat oh so carefully, to a corner where the shoulder is wide enough to let the other vehicle squeeze past.  We finally reached the house site, a rounded rocky spot that dropped off suddenly on three sides.  On the right was a tiny pine forest at an impossibly steep angle.  The view was overwhelming.

We sat on stones looking out at Puerto Rico.  Far below us, the tiny ribbons of beach whitened the edge of the sea.  We lit the next joint and began.  We started with conversion ratios, percent vegetable protein turned into animal protein in our system.  We spoke of metabolic rates, optimized delivery of nutrients.  We felt that excess nutrients or excessive surges of nutrients would cause cells to overwork, expending energy to deal with excess nutrients – storing them, deactivating them, and dealing with excess end products from imbalances in nutrients or excess rates of reactions.  End products and toxins would build up.  We lit the next joint.

So avoid these toxins because cells have to recruit expensive defense mechanisms to counter these threats and it’s sometimes too little, too late.  Cells can repair, but sometimes the damage builds up faster than the cell can handle; the cell dies or ages.  We decided that, if the goal was to live as long and as well as possible, we should reduce this metabolically-inherent damage to the minimum.  We pursued this to its logical end:  Eat as little as possible as often as possible.  Make each input balanced.  Minimize nutrient overloads, maximize efficiency, minimize damage.

This strategy was very attractive to Scott.  He had studied and married in an ashram, fasted frequently, and had taken lots of LSD.  He immediately began designing meals and even containers for food that he could carry around, and eat on a perfectly timed schedule.

For me, these measures required too much discipline.  I chose a somewhat more self-gratifying, easier path.  I decided to go to the expense of taking massive doses of vitamin supplements to scavenge those toxins. I chose my discipline in pill form.

We lit another joint and continued.  But should we really want to live as long as possible?  Is there a set lifespan for Homo sapiens?  Cellular clocks exist and establish a set number of generations for certain kinds of cells.  On the organism scale, women have a fixed point for senescence, internally regulated by an in-born hormonal feedback system.  How to stave off aging?

Men have a different hormonal system than women and different aging pattern.  Not timed like menopause in women.  In men, testosterone gradually tapers off, taking with it muscle mass, sex drive, male aggression until the whole system peters out.  So maybe one could take testosterone supplements in pill form — steroids.  Unfortunately they cause lots of unpleasant side effects because sex hormones are in a delicate balance with other hormones.  Adding outside testosterone rolls the metabolism way out to the limits.  On the rebound, levels get way out of whack in the other direction — dangerous oscillations with dangerous consequences to the body.

So where was I going to find a safe source of a daily fix of testosterone to keep away the blue-hair, shuffleboard blues?  And then we found it.  The body itself squirts pulses of testosterone into the blood stream with at least two activities — exercise and orgasm.  Eureka!  As long as one acts young by working out and having sex, one remains young.  When one stops these youthful activities, one begins skidding on the slippery slope to senescence.

Now we were getting somewhere.  We were laughing and congratulating ourselves there overlooking the Caribbean Sea.  A hawk drafted below us and slowly rose till he paused right next to us, his one fierce eye thirty feet away and unblinking.  The orgasm, I thought, the perfect idea.  Besides the shot of hormone, I would get stress reduction, too.  And, of course, a daily shot of pleasure to satisfy my addictive, needy, id-dominated personality — a needed dollop of self-gratification.

 

Hawley and I decided not to have kids.  Neither of us wanted to jeopardize our new-found happiness with children.  She developed a cadre of artist friends who were also endowed with exquisite taste. We designed a magnificent house.  It was October, and we’d only been on the island 18 months.  We had a lot to look forward to.

Then the phone calls from Port Aransas, the Marine Science Center of UT Austin, began.  Our project was headed by Dr. Oswald Roels, an autocratic Belgian, brilliant and abrasive, who made lots of enemies in lots of ways.  He’d finally been caught emptying the grant accounts of other scientists to fund his own work – our project.  The UT Board of Directors asked for explanations.  He was arrogant and European.  They were good old boys with drawls and fortunes of their own.  They fired his ass and pressed charges.  We were shutting down.  Once again, I was losing my job, but I wasn’t devastated.  I was sad about the project, but for the first time, I’d done good work.

Scotty came to me a few days later.  He’d pulled some strings and gotten a commitment from UT Austin to let me into a PhD program – Biological Sciences — if I wanted it.  The least they could do, he said.  And they’ll be so happy they took you; you’re excellent.  He’d been training me, and now I was ready for the big leagues.  I would work with Jack Myers, known for his incredible experimental precision with nanosecond shutters, single photons of light, and careful analytical reasoning — a legend at UT and world-wide.  And we would live in Austin, hippest of southern towns.

I was dazzled.  I told Hawley.  She shuddered, protested. I was too excited to listen, overwhelming.  “I’ll finish in 3 years.  You cover us the first six months, then I’ll have work and pay at least my own way.  Together we’ll be able to make the payments on the land.  Then we’ll go back, and I’ll have earning potential.  You can do your art in Austin, Hip-City.  You’ll be famous in no time.  We’ll grow together in Austin then come back here and build our castle.”  She folded, and in a few weeks, we arrived in Austin.  It was December 30, and it was sleeting at the airport.  We were both wearing sandals.

 


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We Found Paradise in Perdido Bay

At the time of the accident, my Dad was being recalled into the Navy.  He’d served from 1944 to 1947 as a dentist in the Philippines.  Now Truman wanted to get into the Korean Peninsula fight.  Dad was re-upped and assigned to a small naval air base Barin Field in Foley, Alabama, just over the line from Pensicola Florida.  Right after the accident, he took the train to Washington DC and got a special deferment from the Secretary of the Navy for one year.  Now he could wait until June 1953.

In the meantime, I had recovered quickly, but the damage to my face was massive.  The entire right side of my face was paralyzed: I couldn’t close my eye, so my mother had to put drops in it as I slept to keep it moist.  I drooled, and my speech slurred.  The scars shone red and thick.  A broad-brush ‘W’ adorned my chin.

For the next two months, I convalesced, spending a lot of time with my mother.  At one point they took me to see a child psychologist.  He administered a battery of tests including IQ which turned out to be 165.  A flurry of conferences and meetings took place with school principle, doctors, my mother to decide my future.  In the end, they decided I should start in first grade on a normal schedule.

 

My Dad went to Alabama first.  He flew to Foley in June.  He found a house for us, and my mother followed, driving herself to Foley, a five-day trip.  We had been left with the grandparents for a month, and finally, they took us to Logan Airport.  We got on a plane with propellers.  The stewardesses made a big fuss over us because we travelled alone.  Our parents picked us up in Mobile about 9 hours later and drove to our new house — Paradise.

The house had been an Officer’s Club for the Confederacy during the Civil War – three stories, 17 rooms, three stairways, and an enclosed, screened veranda around three sides.  Two hundred feet from the from of the house sat a beautiful, white sandy beach, and then the clear waters of the Gulf of Mexico, actually Perdido Bay of the Gulf.  The village was called Josephine, population 34.  We had one house to our left – a dentist family from Barin Field just like us — and on the right an elderly couple who had lived here all their lives.  The rest of the residents were hardscrabble poor white families who lived inland about 11/2 mile and picked pecans in season.  About a mile down the coast was a small bayou that had a general store.  It was a natural paradise.

I still remember the moment clearly when we stood on the beach the next morning.  My mom was constantly warning us about the water – undertow, jellyfish, etc – being alarmist and with good reason: we couldn’t swim.  We could all dogpaddle a little 5, 6, 7 vlcsnap-error958years.  My Dad stood bare-chested and serious.  He said that he would teach us to swim, and not only that.  We would spend so much time in the water that we would become like fishes ourselves.  In fact, he said, and he looked straight out across Perdido Bay, about 2 miles, “Before we leave here, we’ll swim all the way across the Bay to the other side – all of us.”

We laughed, but he did teach us.  He had been a swimmer at Tufts in the late 30s, so I learned an old fashioned version of the crawl. He worked with us for hours, showed us all the strokes.  He showed us how to handle ourselves in the water.  And sure enough, soon we were water-skiing and water-boarding.  Sometimes when it was really hot, my Mom and Dad would wake us suddenly in the middle of the night, turning on the light andvlcsnap-error626 shouting for a Wild Indian Fire Drill. We’d leap out of bed, and the 5 of us would race around the house whooping and howling until Dad went out the front door racing straight to the water and diving in with an enormous splash.  The rest of us were right behind whooping, screaming, and being happy.

Dad would test us sometimes.  They often had cocktail parties out on the end of the dock which was covered and had benches and tables for seating.  One afternoon, a party well in progress, he came up behind me, picked me up, and suddenly heaved me as far out to sea as he could.  I knew exactly what to do.  I floated and bobbed and took off my tennis shoes, tied them and flung them over my neck.  Then I slowly frog-kicked over to the dock.  He helped me up the ladder.  “That’s how it is in life: you never know what’s going to happen next.”

 

We went to school in Foley.  I think we started late, like in January.  School was dirt poor and segregated, only white kids.  My sister Caryl and I started in the same multi-grade classroom – 1st and 2nd grades.  I learned how to play marbles and how to go barefoot.  There was a movie theatre than mom took us to a few times – whites only.  I remember a water fountain split in two, one side for whites, one side for blacks.  My mother had a black maid to help her most of the time we lived in Josephine. I don’t remember how she traveled every day.  A few times, I drove with my mom to pick her up.  She lived in a grove of pine trees on a dirt road about a mile outside Foley.  Folks out there lived mostly in tar-paper shacks; nobody had electricity or running water.  The south at its meanest.

So I didn’t see many black people.  On vacations and holidays, Mom would drive us to the base where they had a big swimming pool.  The children would frolic, and the wives would gossip.  Mostly we frolicked by playing a game of ‘Tag’ in the pool.  I worked on holding my breath.  Soon I could avoid most tags by swimming to the bottom and staying down till ‘It’ had to go up for air.  I was truly becoming a fish.

My friend from school was Tommy Aiken, one of the poor white folks that picked pecans.   Several times, mom allowed me to walk the ¾ mile to Tommy’s house on a knoll by a pecan orchard.  I remember clearly his house; I thought it was so cool.  He didn’t have doors, only blankets hanging in the doorways.  The windows had no frames, they were just square holes in the walls.  The first time I went there, a rooster was in the house.  Every few minutes, he’d fly to the window, stop and look around, then fly to the ground outside.  Then he’d walk around to the doorway, peep under the blanket, and slip back into the house.  I tried to help them pick pecans once, but it was really hard.  I think the nuts stuck to the tree and were hard to pull off.  I remember that it was brutal, unpleasant work.  They were really poor.  It was a family of seven and I only saw one bed – a single.  It must have been hell in the freezing, winter rains.

On the other hand, we were blessed.  My Dad was exempt from overseas duty, Barin Field was small and just a training base for pilots – give them a place to practice before landing on aircraft carriers. Mom and Dad partied every weekend.  And we travelled. We did a lot of local sightseeing and visiting – the beaches at Gulf Shores, the old Fort at the mouth of Mobile bay, Pensacola. The family took two memorable trips: one to Daytona Beach, Florida where we exulted in our new fish-like skills.  We – 6, 7, & 8 years — body-surfed in 15-foot waves, swam among Portuguese man-o-wars, and generally stretched our wings on what was one of the biggest, most beautiful beaches ever.  Cars drove up and down the beach, but sometimes they’d get to close to the edge or the tide would come in.  Then everyone on the beach would come try to push it out before the ocean claimed it.  I remember it as a happy trip, lots of picnics along river banks and nights in motels.  My mom would make these grab-bags.  They were shopping backs full of enough toys, games, and puzzle books to keep us occupied for the entire trip.  She’d say, “OK.  In 30 minutes, we take out another prize.”  We fidget, then we’d close our eyes and reach into our bag.  You could feel around and try to find one you wanted.  We’d do that sometimes twice a day on long trips.

I also remember grab-bags on the trip to Monterrey Mexico where we stayed in cabins and motels all the way across Mississippi, Louisiana, down through Texas, and into the mountains around Monterrey.  I remember that we visited a place high in the mountains called Horsetail Falls.  We drove to a parking lot then we took burros on a rocky trail through the woods.  We stayed in a stately old colonial hotel in the city.

Life at Perdido Bay still waxed idyllic. The wildlife teemed – dolphins swam with us nearly every time we took out the boat.  Down at the mouth of the bay was a buoy where my Dad would tie up and we’d fish for catfish.  He had a little trawl for shrimp.  We’d get so much that, after my Mom filled the freezer with shrimp, we’d use them for bait.  Dolphins always came and played around the boat, – 16 foot with a 25 hp motor– jumping the bow and generally carrying on.  When we water-skied, they’d run right along beside you, then shoot up and cut across the wake, sometimes jumping the waves.  Everywhere vlcsnap-error576teemed birds, snakes, alligators.  At the closed (western) end of the bay was the general store at the entrance to a bayou, actually the mouth of a swampy creek.  Sometimes we’d waterski a little ways up the bayou, but one afternoon, a sailor who was here to party skied directly under a snake hanging from a low-lying branch.  The General Store also had an enormous slide into the water — a full two stories.  When you hit, you shot out so fast that you skipped across the water like a stone.

 

I forget the name of the Hurricane, but it was a Category 4.  It caught up with us in the schoolbus on the way home from school; they’d let us out early.  The old woman who ran the post office in Josephine also drove the school bus into Foley every day.  After the Aikens, we were the last ones about another ¾ mile.  The wind was howling on the paved road out of town, but when we turned onto those red-clay dirt farm roads, the bus started spontaneously sliding all over the road.  Somehow she managed to get the Aiken kids home.  I remember watching their parents trying to help them up the hill but the wind was too strong to climb against and they kept falling back.  A few hundred yards down the road, the bus slid into a red-clay mud hole and bogged.  The driver decided that we had to walk, so we gathered up our things –my sister Caryl. and I.  The bus was shaking and sliding around.

I went first.  As I stepped down from the bus, my foot was spun out from underneath me and I was rolling down the side of the highway pretty fast.  I couldn’t stop; the wind had the momentum. I rolled a long way then accidentally wedged against a little ridge.  I held on as tight as I could, and when my sister arrived, I got in front of her.  Soon the old lady arrived, crawling on hands and knees frantically.  She led us into the woods on the side of the road and found a big old gnarly tree that had a hollow among the roots.  Caryl and I crawled in first, then she lay on top us for shelter.   We hunkered there for about 3 hours until we felt like we could safely walk to the house.  It was still slippery and dangerous.

 

One afternoon, our dog, Queenie, began barking crazily and wouldn’t stop.  When we investigated an enormous rattlesnake sat coiled in the front yard, right in front of the door.  Dad grabbed his 12-guage, and blew its head off.  It stood 7 feet long, and I think we ate it.  I also had the single-action .22 that Dad had given me at the Farm.  He’d wanted me to learn about guns so on my 5th birthday, he bought this sweet .22.  At the farm, we had a target range set up.  I had a stump and a stand to help me hold up the barrel.  Soon I also had a target range set up in Josephine, facing out to sea.  I don’t know who came up with the idea, but the next thing I knew, I had the application form for the NRA.  At that time, you became a member by entering targets that you had shot.  You had to earn a certain minimum score for each of several positions: standing, sitting, kneeling, prone. Targets had to be verified by witnesses and signed.  So I practiced and eventually became the youngest member of the NRA – 8 years old.  I used to like to shoot squirrels.  The old man next door had a smoker and he loved to smoke squirrel.  We all loved to eat it too.  He also smoked fish.  I still remember the taste.

 

In June, after we’d been there about 8 months, I woke up one morning with swelling on the right side of my face and a fever. My parents figured it was mumps, put me to bed in quarantine. But for the next few days, my face continued to swell, and the fever soared.  By now, I was really sick.  Dad gathered a bunch of his physician friends from the base, and they pondered what to do.  At one point, my Dad – staring at my face – said Hey what’s that?  He saw a black line, like a splinter, in the skin over the swelling.  He fetched a pair of tweezers and began trying to work the splinter out.  He worked and worked, and it really hurt.  But then he said, Oh my God in a tone that made me lay quietly while he worked. After about a minute, he told me to hold on tight and then he yanked, and the pain level zoomed off the scale.  I screamed, but then Dad said, It’s OK sport.  I got it. With that he held up a piece of glass – windshield glass – in triangle form, about ½ at the base and more than an inch tall.  It had somehow been sealed off for two years, but now, on the anniversary of the accident, it had finally worked its way to the surface where my body had been trying to reject it like I had a giant infection. The swelling and fever started going down immediately and, the next morning, my face was back to its normal disfigured self.  Exactly one year later – to the day – the same thing occurred.  This time my dad knew what to look for, and sure enough, another piece of windshield glass had worked its way out to the surface.  This piece had about half the size if the first.  I began to wonder if this would become an annual ritual, a kind of modern-day stigmata, but it never happened again.

 

My mother always encouraged us to be active.  One day I found a huge nest of blackberry vines, filled with ripe lush berries. I picked a lot.  When I brought them home, my Mom took me into the kitchen, showed me the recipe for blackberry cobbler on the side of the Bisquick box, and showed me how to bake.  In about 2 hours, we had an enormous, delicious cobbler.  Then my mother said that any time I wanted to do it again, I could just go ahead.  For weeks, we ate cobbler every day – trust me.

At Perdido Bay, I learned I could draw.  It was painstaking and I had to start with a picture and only cartoons at first, but I could make a very good likeness.

 

Many times, the house would fill for entire weekends.  10 or 15 revelers from the base would come out for a weekend of recreation – very heavy drinking the rule of thumb. Dad and his friends were all doctors and amphetamines were not criminalized, so they did speed, too.  They came in tablet form – bennies or uppers One of our steady guests turned out to be the catholic priest for the base, Father Jim MacDonald Father Mac.  Besides being a priest, he was a hard-drinking, handsome, charming Irish rogue.

 

We all loved Father Mac.  At age 7, I served my first mass with him.  This was in the days when the priest spoke Latin and the Alter Boy responded to him also in Latin as a stand-in for the congregation.  Every Latin word had to be memorized and then, when the time came,

clearly spoken:

Introibo, ad altere dei.  Agnus dei,

At that same Mass, my sister Caryl received her first Communion.  A prominent photo in our house after was taken that day with Father Mac behind and the two of us dressed in our uniforms in front.  Mac spent a lot of time with us. When he stayed at the house overnight, he had some priestly duties to perform.  They set up one of the bedrooms just for him.  They arranged a small alter with the votive candles and some cushions to kneel on.  It turns out that priests have a whole set of daily prayers that they have to make; every day is different.  So Father Mac had his little alter room where he could say his prayers, then go out and carouse on the end of the pier with the rest of them.

I don’t remember the feeling from the adults from back then, but I believe that my sisters and I felt privileged to live there.  We had a sense of how beautiful it was.  We’d been immersed similarly in the New Hampshire woods, and we felt that too.

 

Suddenly, my Dad’s tour of duty was up.  We stated packing, and one morning, my Dad woke us early.  He marched us downstairs for a small bowl of cereal, then led us out to the beach.  It was time.  He’d promised us two years ago that we would swim across the Bay.  So we marched to the end of the dock, dove in and started swimming.  My Dad and Mom alternated running the boat alongside in case we needed any help.  We stayed together and took our time.  Lots of times, I lay on my back just propelling forward slowly like a frog.  We used a lot of sidestroke.  And we joked around and encouraged one another.  I don’t know how long we were in the water, maybe 2-3 hours, but all of a sudden, we could see the bottom, and we’d made it.  We stood on the shore looking back at the distant house for a long time.  Then we quietly piled back in the boat and headed back across to finish packing.  That week, the Foley newspaper had a little blurb in the “News from Josephine” section all about us and our swim.  That clipping was also a staple of my mom’s mementos.