March 17, 1977
Girls arrived on the bus. Marijuana, mescaline, acid arrived in manila envelopes or little cardboard boxes in the mail. Booze arrived in the bottom of overnight bags, hidden in dirty underwear and shirts. Weekends always arrived late.
There was an equation in the minds of cadets between women and weekends. For their first three years, cadets were not allowed to “escort” except on weekends, and even when you got to be a Firstie, how many guys had girlfriends who lived or went to school near enough to be taken to the Wednesday movie? Besides, as has been reported countless times on the subject of West Point, cadets were not allowed to touch girls in public. This was a regulations violation known as “PDA,” Public Display of Affection, and was punishable, depending on the nature of the display of affection, with hours on the area and months in one’s room in confinement.
Touching a woman is basic. I mean it’s right there on the level of breathing and eating. If a woman is standing there, and she’s your girlfriend and you’re in love or you think you’re in love, and you can’t even reach out and take her hand, or brush her cheek with a kiss…for crying out loud, where was that at? Who in hell ever thought up PDA? I want to know. I want to know the name of the sick son-of-a-bitch who conceived the idea that touching a woman was, effectively speaking, illegal at West Point. If I ever learn his name, I’m going to call a press conference on The Plain and announce it to the Corps and to the world. We’ve got a right to know. Four long years waiting for weekends, and then when they came, unless you could take leave and get off post, all you could do was look at a girl. In retrospect, it’s incredible.
With the single exception of Flirtation Walk. On Flirtation Walk, not only could you touch a girl, you could make love to her. You could hold a goddam orgy on Flirtation Walk, and in four years at the Academy, I saw more than one. A naked body (female) flashes out of the bushes, across the narrow path, and into the bushes on the other side, followed by a naked body (male) holding a half-gallon jug of wine, waved overhead, followed by shrieks and screams and general merriment, and if one’s nose was so tuned, the peculiar sweet smell of pot. By tradition, officers and civilians are not allowed on Flirtation Walk, the thickly overgrown system of paths crisscrossing that point of the grounds of the Academy which is actually West Point, the dagger of land jutting into the Hudson causing the river nearly to turn upon itself on its way South. Ironically, it was virtually upon West Point itself that the various crimes which were proscribed by the regulations regarding PDA were completely ignored, where bodies coupled, drink was had, pills were dropped and chemical induced visions perceived; where finally, a cadet could retreat from order and if he so wished, create chaos.
There was madness at work in a system which, on the one hand, made sex at West Point illegal, and on the other hand, provided a Free Zone where sex, still illegal, could be indulged in without fear of punishment. There was madness at work, too, because women, affection between men and women, and finally the act of love itself were thus included as key elements in The Game. One “got away with” sex at West Point. Guys in our class and in other classes were famous, Corps-wide, for sexual exploitations on the grounds of the Academy. There was the guy who had successfully taken women sexually on the altars of all three chapels, Protestant, Catholic, and the old chapel down at the cemetery, which served as tabernacle for the Jews, and as chapel for other faiths. There were the guys who regularly had girls in the barracks, in their rooms, at night, with elaborate defensive systems of Plebe guards set up to detect officer incursions.
There was the legendary case of Linda, the flipped-out girl who lost her brother, a grad, to the War in Vietnam, and then invaded the Academy, bent on screwing her way from the end of the Lost 50’s to New South barracks. She would enter the barracks late at night through the “sinks,” the locker-room system beneath the barracks which connected all the Divisions in Central, Old South, and North areas, and ran beneath New South barracks in the same way. From the sinks, Linda would ascend to enter cadet rooms and without warning, climb into bed with one cadet after another, forcing herself upon them. Linda was a dream. Finally some crudball gave her a dose of the clap and she became a carrier, infecting a couple dozen guys, and the honeymoon was over. The first class chain of command became involved and sneak-attack inspections were run at all hours of the night, traps were set for her, and finally she was caught. The Big Question which had fascinated the Corps for so long (a number of weeks, as I recall) — would yours be the bed she slipped into toniqht? — was over. They put her on a plane for home, and rumor had it she was eventually interred in a mental hospital. Linda was finished.
But the game, the eternal game, went on. Inevitably, it affected most, if not all of us. Women became equated with weekends, and thus with freedom. Freedom meant the opportunity to Raise Hell, and so women often became objects of hell raising exploits. One woman, with whom I am still acquainted today, and who definitely was born for the role, served as the bait in the famous 1965 snatch of the Navy goat. She seductively drew the attention of the Marine goat guards while several whacked-out Firsties grabbed the goat.
There was a guy in the class of 1966 who was famous because he had made the acquaintance of a well-known and well-endowed stripper of that time, and used to parade her — cantilevered chest thrust ever forward — down the aisle of the old movie theatre in the Gym, just before they turned off the lights. He would have a couple of friends reserve two seats way down front, wait until the theatre was full, and then with great pomp and circumstance, make The Entrance. This was before our time, of course, but reports are that the two of them got standing ovations at the Sunday matinee. The stripper was delighted. It was the only time in her life she was applauded fully clothed.
Perhaps the most peculiar sexual legend of them all, however, was a civilian male in New York City. He was a closet queen/voyeur, and extremely wealthy. In the years 1965, 1966, and 1967 (when last he was sighted, to my knowledge), he would cruise the streets of the city in a long black Cadillac limousine on weekends when he knew the Corps was in town for a football game out at Shea Stadium, or for the NIT basketball tournament at the Garden. The wealthy queen would cruise and cruise until finally he would spot a lone cadet ambling down the street like we all used to, looking for someplace to go, something to do in the big city. Score. Up pulls the limo, the door opens, and in the back seat is this innocuous looking guy holding a glass of champagne, beckoning the uniformed cadet to enter. Come on, climb in, I’ll show you a good time, the guy would say. More than one cadet I know of, and one I know personally, climbed in and rode into a night they would never forget. A good deal was a good deal, right? Cadillac. Champagne. A regular-looking guy offering a good time. I mean, there were always these people in bars around town wanting to buy you a drink, when you were in uniform, just because you were a cadet. And in the early days, before the war really cranked up, before hippies and movements and long hair and all that, there were girls who would pick you up, the flip side of the Upper East Side singles coin.
So it sounds strange, but really, the guy in the Caddy limo wasn’t that much of a surprise to one cadet I knew, when his turn came. He was in mid-town — everybody started in mid-town and fanned out from there — wandering around, when up pulls the Caddy. The cadet gets in. Champagne. A leisurely drive around the city. Dinner at an expensive restaurant. More booze. More champagne. Finally the queen pops the question: What are you into? The cadet, too sloshed to be stunned, says, what do you mean, what am I into? What kind of sex are you into? the queen asks. I’ll fix you up. Anything. A guy and a girl. Two girls. Three girls. Two guys, two girls. Anything. Unstated is the condition: As Long As I Can Watch.
The cadet considers. Such a proposition, only hinted-at in the stroke-books which used to be passed around the barracks in those days, completely unknown in the photo-spreads of Playboy in the mid 60’s, was quite something. The cadet ponders. More champagne is poured. Getting laid is one thing, but two chicks? The cadet straightens up. Two girls, he says, as long as they’re pretty. Oh, don’t you worry your little head about that, says the queen. He asks the Captain for a phone, which is brought to the table and plugged-in. A call is made. The voice of the queen is hushed, but obviously, the deal is going down. The cadet and the queen leave in the Caddy limo and drive to a mid-town semi-posh hotel, someplace along the lines of The Summit, and they go up to a suite of rooms high above the city.
The room is opulent. Red crushed velvet is everywhere, the bedspread, the button-tufted chairs, even the backboard of the bed. The floor of the suite is shag carpet, quite a trip, squishy, elegant-slick. In the room is a tall man of the Puerto Rican persuasion, and two leggy incredibly sexy broads. That’s the only way you could describe them, he would report to a panting roomful of us later. They were A-Number-One First Class Broads. Somebody rolls a joint. The cadet is no stranger to marijuana, I mean, even some of the Lady-cliff girls are into the stuff by now, and lots of guys have got girlfriends, connections who can be touched for a neat little pill-bottle vial of pot, cleaned, ready to be rolled.
But this stuff…this wasn’t marijuana…this was…Jesus…what’s happening…puff…he’s got his pants off and one of the broads is walking around with his dress coat on with her tits sticking out and everybody is laughing like crazy…puff…all those lights outside…the city…he’s never seen it like this before, it’s…it’s…phosphorescent…things are moving, they’re all naked, he’s on his back and these two broads are, well, you know…suddenly he feels like he’s in a sea of flesh, like he’s floating…all these things are happening…all these sensations…is there an extra body in there?…did the Puerto Rican pimp climb in…he’s not sure…once he glimpses the wealthy queen across the room, grinning…they’re sweating…everything is greasy and slippery and it’s all got that kind of special smell which falls somewhere between sweet and just plain stinky…they’re moving around and somebody is sucking on his toes one by one…toes?…puff…WHHAAAT…what was that!…Jesus…he just got hit by some amyl nitrate, a huge blast of the stuff right up his nose…bed seems to levitate…bodies levitate…they’re all air now…floating…he can’t recall the last thing they did to him…this wasn’t sex, this was…well, what was it, anyway?…another way of life, a place apart from all others…a gas maybe…a zone…didn’t we study something in nuke about those areas where matter meets antimatter and they think there’s something there but they’re not sure…maybe this is where he is, inside the antizone…the place which stands for everything West Point stands against…
Eventually the cadet extracted himself from the scene, gathering a dress shoe here, a t-shirt there. The queen with the Caddy left him off a block from where the busses were over on llth Avenue, just before one a.m. The guy at least knew the rules, the cadet figured, as he passed-out on the way back.
Women. They weren’t just different, they were like another breed…like cats, maybe. Soft where men weren’t soft; bony, angular, where men were muscled; wide, padded with extras, where men were stripped down like a hot-rod, efficient. And there were different kinds of women. There was the Girl Back Home. Some guys entered West Point “going with” the Girl Back Home, and it never changed. There were the Irish and Italian Princesses from the Catholic girl’s colleges which seemed to surround West Point like outposts around a night defensive perimeter. It seemed like you could not move in or out of the place without noticing, or being noticed by one of those girls from Ladycliff, Seton Hall, Marymount…the list went on and on. There were those snobby, snappish little Liberals From Vassar, the West Point of the Seven Sisters — arrogant, elitist, they were as bad as goddam cadets. It was probably because we were so much alike that more cadets didn’t go with Vassar girls, being as they were only a few miles away across the river. There were Normal College Girls, which is to say, girls you’d meet at an “away” football game at a “normal” college. These girls tended towards sororities. If an upperclassman in a company was going with a Delta Gamma from Northwestern, it wouldn’t be long before a Plebe was going with a freshman rushee from DG at the same school. At times, girls could seem like a duty. Sometimes they were traded and used as currency within the social structure of the Academy itself — I’ll fix you up with my girlfriend’s roommate, if you’ll loan me $20 for the weekend.
And then there were Working Girls. They ranged from the upper classes (stewardesses and the occasional Playboy bunny) to middle class (secretaries, receptionists) to lower classes (Lower East Side ladies of questionable means). To a certain breed of cadet, the Working Girl was heaven, for a number of reasons:
She did not go to college and was not subject to dormitory hours; nor was she constantly indulging in the penny-ante social game playing which so thickly permeated cadet and college life in the 60’s.
She often had an apartment, thus removing one thorny expense on weekends in the city: the hotel room. She might even cook [this was rare, being as they were, bachelorettes with refrigerators containing the obligatory quarter pound of butter, two eggs, a two-week old container of yogurt, and one (1) beer].
She did not raise a fuss about sex. While still a delicate matter, she was not finicky and skittish and often came equipped with birth-control devices, right there in her purse or medicine cabinet.
She was often lonely. This was a trait attractive to certain cadets for the simple reason that loneliness was like a permanent flu at West Point. There you were, surrounded by all these guys, all these friends, and yet walking along Thayer Road back to the barracks from the library just before Taps, you could feel like the last person on earth. The Working Girls, one suspected, had much the same feeling on the subway on the way home. The lonely attract the lonely. This did not often make for profound relationships, but it made for convenient ones.
There was, of course, a certain cross-pollination between these breeds of women. Some guys had a Girl Back Home in Iowa or someplace, who was visited on long leaves, and who was written to religiously, and a Working Girl in the city, who was visited more frequently. The former was treated with care; the latter with precision. Cadets could be counted on. They were efficient. They arrived on time. They were almost perfectly predictable (early on, there would be sex), and sometimes they were even cordial, gentlemanly.
But there were side-effects to a system which required absolute precision all week long, absolute adherence to rules, absolute adherence to the Honor Code, absolute attention to detail in all the science and engineering courses. The most common side-effect was a sudden and unpredictable outburst of emotion, even violence. The pent-up frustrations of a closed society like West Point created a subliminal anxiety, always just beneath the surface. Caused or encouraged by the system to be confident, the cadet was sure of himself all week long, then the weekend afforded the rare opportunity for repressed feelings to burst forth. The most common of these repressed feelings, I believe, was humiliation. Cadets were like children, constantly watched-over and scolded by adults, and at 18, 19, or 20, it was intensely humiliating. In order to survive, one had to repress the feeling of constant humiliation. Often the repression would take the odd form of identification with the oppressor. Cadets frequently spoke with awe and respect of tactical officers who were known to be the most totalitarian, the most dangerous of the species. “Supertac,” who was my tac in 1965-66, was such a man. I forget the psychological explanation for this identification — it’s probably something dense and weird like “transference,” — but it doesn’t really matter. The effect was the same.
Cadets were walking time-bombs, and the slightest jiggle could set them off. This was especially true on weekends, off-post, and most especially tense during our last couple of years at the Academy, 1967 to 1969, when anti-war feelings in the country had reached the boiling point at which they would remain until the war ended. Cadets often-took illegal civilian clothes to “away” football and basketball games, so that after the game they could change into civvies and blend in better. But there was always the haircut. And the distinctive cadet manner, inbred, almost impossible to conceal: the stiff back; the walk — a quick gait executed with a certain crispness; the sensitivity to any comment on the military, the Academy, the war.
Because weekends afforded the opportunity to get off-post, because weekends were equated with women, because in the end, weekends were women — longed for, lusted after, always late to arrive, too quick to leave — because of all of this and more, women were often the victims of our repressed hostility. A chance remark, arriving a half-hour late for a date at a bar downtown, a comment like, “Oh, I see they just made you get another haircut,” any of these could set off a firestorm of hostility. The hostility could be as brief as a snappish reply, or as violent as a slap in the face.
In truth, the hostility was inward-directed, but projected outward at the poor soul who unwittingly (or perhaps wittingly, as might be the case) set off the explosion. We hated ourselves for having put up with all the horsehockey we’d just been through that last week; but who could take one more instant of the self-hatred generated by constant yet subtle humiliation? Those who could were either superhuman or had emotions of stainless steel. The rest of us, including me, were weaker and vulnerable. To the extent that women took the form of goddesses on pedestals for us, they could hurt us all the more. When it happened, it was circuit-blowing pain, the kind of jolt you never felt at Recondo, the ache which made a pulled leg muscle seem like a stain on your trousers.
There is, of course, no living “average example” of this phenomenon, but interviews I have done show it as a recurring theme, from cadet days into later life in the Regular Army. Several classmates have described to me experiences with their wives which parallel the cadet time-bomb explosion. Some marriages have failed; some have come close. I don’t know the divorce rate for the class (and will not know it until I do a direct-mail questionnaire to the entire class in late March), but it will be interesting to see how many couples have survived. It is my recollection that about a quarter of the class got married right after graduation. A large percentage got married within the next year.
There was a joke at Fort Benning in 1969 at the Infantry School that some guys were getting married because they had discovered Laundry. For four years, you simply put your laundry bag outside the door, and it came back three days later. Now there was this difficult matter of getting to the laundry on time. Picking up the fatigues. Not to say eating. We have at least a dozen classmates I know who would not have survived their first year in the Army without MacDonald’s, Arby’s, and Kentucky Fried Chicken. Anyway, the joke was: There’s an Approved Solution. Wife. It’s an oversimplification, a joke after all, and suspect coming from me, who remains to this day unmarried. But the joke was real enough to be talked about.
What was real and what was unreal had a way of blending when it came to women. It’s my feeling that it goes back to our cadet days, but I’ve noticed it as I’ve traveled around interviewing classmates. I don’t really mean to make savage judgments, but some class wives seem like — and appear to be treated like — part of the furniture. Once or twice I’ve had this feeling, only to learn six months later that the woman in question is taking graduate courses in some arcane area of anthropology, and old Da-Da is becoming intimate with the diaper.
Other wives come on like gangbusters: The Army life sucks. Or I’m glad we (note plural “we”) got out. Or I’m glad we’re getting out. Or I’m glad we’re staying in. The Army life isn’t what I thought it would be, but I talked to Mrs. So-and-so last week, and her husband is at the office working for some management research firm until 10 p.m. every night. Hell, old hubby hasn’t had those hours since he was a platoon leader. Suffice to say that the women with whom our classmates are sharing their lives run the same gamut we do: From extraordinary to extraneous.
What’s interesting is the way we perceive them. You take me for example. I used to call up a good friend and classmate who was unattached, and we would take off on trips into the boonies, long journeys to nowhere, whole weeks spent drinking beer and talking about life. We always called them “summit conferences.” Then he got married. I was at the same time attached in that I was living with a woman, an extraordinary Working Woman as it happened. But I took it for granted, and she appeared to, that time spent with my classmate was time apart: special. After he got married, we had one last fling — a long drive through the middle of the country, some white-water canoeing, playing pin-ball, talking endlessly about…ourselves. The next time the notion struck me, I figured all would be the same. It wasn’t. His wife and my lady put the hammer on us: They Wanted To Go. So off we went to a cabin in the woods for an incredible week next to a roaring river, and you know what? It wasn’t half bad. In fact, it was okay. It occurred to me then, and it came as something of a shock, that it was the first time I had included a woman — any woman, much less my woman — in one of those moments in life which we West Pointers reserve as Our Own. It was as if we had broken a Rule, one of those unwritten rules, and surprisingly, it hadn’t mattered one bit.
I have this nagging notion in the back of my brain, in there among the cobwebs and fetid beer-soaked corners, that all of this stuff about West Pointers and women is difficult to explain to outsiders. Then there’s another part of me that says: Where the hell is that attitude coming from? People are people. Sure, we’re special. We were under the PDA gun for years, right? Yeah, but there’s a joke, I’m told, among graduates of the Seven Sisters schools — Vassarite, Smithie, Cliffee, etc., that Seven Sisters grads can make love only on weekends, because weekends meant men, and men meant…see what I mean? The West Point experience is a kind of Legionnaire’s Disease. There’s this feeling that it happened only once to us, not in Philadelphia, but up the Hudson at that huge gray hotel against the hill. They have allegedly figured out what caused Legionnaire’s Disease, but what can you believe anymore? Maybe they did. Maybe they didn’t. The West Point experience has yet to be figured out. I feel an irresistible urge to take a couple of shots in the dark.
There is no Average Cadet Weekend — in fact, I’ve listened to a hundred fond recollections of favorites. And there is no Average Grad Weekend (here I will take the liberty of extension of metaphor: weekend for marriage). So what I’m going to do is this: I’m going to take real information made available to me during the course of this “study” of the class, apply some of the mechanisms of fiction, and recreate two such “weekends” for the reader. You are free to draw what conclusions you will — they surprise me, really they do, as I collect letters which spin off these newsletters. Truth be told, I guess what I’m really going to do is what I’ve always done: I’m going to goose you just a bit and see what happens. It’s the part of me who is a terminal journalistic voyeur.
West Point Weekend, Circa 67-68
Okay, there’s three of them, right, and they’ve dropped in on a Good Deal: a trip section, a three man trip section to the city, leaving after class on Friday. Too small a trip section to rate an inspection by the Officer in Charge, so they squeak by with two-week hair, slightly over legal length. This is very meaningful. The trip is a typical scam: About 2 hours “work” in return for 2 days and 2 nights of freedom. They hit the city, run an errand, and check into the Statler Hilton, between 32nd and 33rd on 7th Avenue. There’s some kind of convention in town, so they can nail down only two rooms. They flip. The dimbo, the guy who’s really an appendage to the trip, gets the single. Christ! The luck!
The guy who gets the single, he’s an odd-looking one. Gangling, freckled, red hair, a rooster of a guy, gung-ho in that super-green airborne way. Father used to be a Marine. He’s the kind of guy who had that endless honesty you could count on. The other guys are relatively normal: A tall, good looking cow (junior), and a short, dark yearling (sophomore), very finicky about his appearance in civvies. The three of them are upstairs checked into their rooms, and there is much primping going on. The red-haired guy (we’ll call him “Red”) likes to slick back his hair, and he’s a little weird, he’s thinking of going down to an off-off Broadway show at the La Mama coffeehouse. The other guys — we’ll call them Leroy and Slim — are in their room, dressing out. Slim is getting into a suit. He bought it at the last Clothing Display, when places like Rogers Peet come up to West Point and sell to cadets at a discount. The suit is nifty, a gentle glen plaid, slight waist suppression, this guy Slim is looking all right. Leroy likes a touch of flash. He’s into a pair of starched white Levi bells, flairs, actually, just a slight bell, enough to cover his loafers. And he’s wearing a bright yellow Hathaway Oxford cloth shirt, button-down, and a double-breasted blue blazer. He looks like he should be on the next train for East Hampton. But Slim and Leroy, they’re not messing around, they’re heading up to Maxwell’s Plum, the singles bar, and by God, they’re going to score. Red is in blue Levis, an ancient pair of loafers, and what’s this about off-off Broadway? Weird. He even cops $5 from Leroy. Red is terminally broke.
Comes a knock at the door. All three of them are in Slim and Leroy’s room. Leroy is in the bathroom, trying to make a West Point haircut look Madison Avenue. It’s taking him some time. Knock-knock. Red answers. Three girls in long formal gowns with elbow-length white gloves are standing outside. Red takes a look, smells trouble, takes off for the subway. Slim asks the girls in. Leroy is looking in the mirror.
- Girl: Are you the guys who checked in just a few minutes ago from West Point?
- Slim: Yeah.
- Girl: We’ve got a problem. We’re from Seton Hall, and tonight is the night of our class ball at the Waldorf-Astoria, and one of our girlfriends got stood-up by her date. She’s downstairs right now in her room, crying. The tickets cost us $75 a couple, and then the dresses…could one of you guys take our friend? As a favor.
- Leroy: What’s going on out there?
- Slim: There’s some chicks from Seton Hall here, and they’ve got a problem. Maybe you’d better come out and listen.
- Leroy: What’s the problem? We can fix anything.
- Slim: You said it. I didn’t.
- Girl: Oh, Could you?
Leroy walks out of the bathroom in full regalia. He’s ready for Maxwell’s Plum. His pockets are loaded with cash — $25 maybe. He takes a look at the chicks from Seton Hall. They’re not bad. Nothing stunning, but not bad. They explain the dilemma again. It seems they’ve been trying to find some guy with a tux — the gala is formal — and nothing has worked out. Herself, the chick who got stood-up, is still downstairs bawling her eyes out. They’re all in a state.
Slim starts edging towards the door. If these chicks are the ones who didn’t get stood-up…he’s taking the calculated guess of a true cow, a Guy Who’s Been Around, that she’s, well, she’s probably a dog. Leroy is beginning to make the same moves. It feels so good to be into his civvies, and standing there looking in the mirror…well…it was like looking at someone else for a minute, like looking at TV or something.
Leroy is turned on, mostly, he’s turned on by himself. But this problem presented by a delegation of three chicks from Seton Hall is interesting. No, it’s challenging.
- Leroy: Okay, what’s the story? What do you need?
- Girl: We need one of you guys, in uniform, because the ball is formal.
- Leroy: But all we’ve got is Dress Gray. We haven’t got our formal, full-dress uniforms.
- Girl: Oh, what you were wearing when you came in downstairs is okay. Anything that’s a uniform.
Slim by this time has excused himself. Red is long gone. it’s up to Leroy to say yes or no. Can he ask to check out the stood-up chick? Bad form. Breaks all rules. In the back of his head is the sloppy realization that the chick downstairs has been through enough; having some guy run an inspection on her before he agrees to take her to the ball would be the final blow. Okay, he says, he’ll do it. He’s reluctant, but he’s hooked by the mystery.
The chicks go back downstairs to tell the bawling one that all is well, to get her make-up straight. Leroy divests himself of his civilian threads piece by piece. It’s like pulling the arms off a doll, then the legs. He has the haunting feeling that back in Dress Gray, he’s going to feel like a torso. Off goes the white pants, starched, beautiful . Off goes the blazer, a beaut. Off goes the bright yellow shirt. On goes the Gray. Christ! What am I getting myself into? He checks the slip of paper the Seton Hall chicks left and gets on the elevator. It’s a grim ride downstairs.
At the 12th floor, he gets off and heads down the long hall to the room of the bawling Seton Hall chick, whom we will call Karen. Knock-knock.
- Who’s there?
- It’s me, Leroy, the cadet — Scurrying noises behind the door.
The door opens. There is a cluster of white, a great spray of chiffon and taffeta surrounding one figure who is seated. Leroy stands in the door, shuffling from foot to foot. The flower opens. The bawling has stopped. Karen is a dream, she makes the others look like the rest of Charlie’s Angels, she’s Goldie Hawn, she’s Farrah Fawcett Majors, she’s incredible. Her eyes are red, but she’s recovered, and she’s got an ego. She shows a certain toughness, looking Leroy over, as if this blind-date bail-out were in fact a two-way street. Leroy is turned on. This is turning out better than he expected, fantastic, in fact.
Off they go in a cab to the Waldorf-Astoria. College balls at the Waldorf are not all they’re cracked up to be. The food is mediocre, and the booze…the booze is simply out of the question. Scotch is $18.50 a bottle with set-ups. All these guys at the table (seating 10) are digging deep, reaching for the wad that’s going to get everybody high. There’s some guy from Brown, a guy from Princeton, and two guys from Rutgers. Leroy calls a conference off to the side of the table. He noticed a liquor store around the corner when they were driving up in the cab. We can do better than $18.50 a bottle he says. He collects $10 from each guy, and he and the guy from Brown go downstairs to the liquor store. They return with a bevy of bottles. This causes a huge flap with the management, finally drawing the attention of the hotel manager in charge of the Seton Hall ball.
Leroy takes the hotel manager into the hallway and explains.
- Look, man, I’ve got no place here. They hauled me in to take out some chick who got stood-up. I’ve hardly got any cash. I’m a goddam cadet, man, I’m in the Army. You think they pay us anything? I couldn’t let those rich guys at the table show me up. Christ, I didn’t have enough to pay for a fifth, so we went out and got a couple of pints. Who’s getting hurt? You guys are getting yours.
- Manager: Okay. Just keep it cool. I don’t want everybody running downstairs and buying pints. The booze is the way we really make a profit on these shindigs.
Leroy says okay. When he gets back to the table, he instructs everyone to place their pints under a Waldorf napkin (which you could use as a bath towel). Everyone at the table complies. There is dancing and merriment. The party goes on, at the Waldorf and the Statler, until well past dawn. Leroy didn’t get laid that night, but he scored. He became the leader of a group of college kids his age who under other circumstances wouldn’t have given him the time of day. He wasn’t humiliated. He was elated. The next night, he and Karen made a date.
Slim struck out.
Red was in bed on Friday night around 11 p.m., but more on Red for Saturday night.
Now this guy Red. He’s something of an enigma. On the one hand he’s gung-ho, all Army, a real tough nut. But late last year, just before the end of Plebe year, he was caught with a bottle of bourbon in his room. A whole bottle. Plebes just don’t drink in the barracks, much less have bottles handy. Then he got turned-back in English, meaning he flunked English and had to take two weeks of his leave time to take a re-exam in order to pass and be reinstated in the class. So on the one hand he’s just plain dumb. Gung-ho is dumb. Turn-back is dumb. Getting caught with booze is dumb. But on the other hand, he’s smart as a whip. He’s got this strange talent: He can cut through the horsehockey. It’s like he’s got a vision. He sees through things. He knows about another side that the rest of us don’t know about yet. He and Leroy are not friends, but Leroy is intrigued by Red. He’s not sure it’s true the other way around. Red plays his hand close to his vest. (Slim doesn’t figure here: He’s a Cow; he’s from another company).
So Red, he’s no dummy, he hears Leroy bragging about his coup of the night before, he scopes-out Karen, and he figures Leroy spent only $5 or so, since he conned all those preppies at the table to go out for booze, and conned the Waldorf manager, so what does Red do? He hits up Leroy for another $5. Now $5 may not seem like much, but you’ve got to understand Red. It’s his theory that he can take $5 the same distance a normal person can take $25. He’s something of a scam artist. If he wants a drink, he finds a red-neck worker’s bar, walks in, lets it get around that he’s a West Pointer, then he cops free boilermakers from the workers until he’s sufficiently sloshed to make it on his own cash.
Saturday night: They split up again. Slim uptown, looking. Leroy is out with Karen, who looks like Lauren Hutton now, she’s such a knock-out. And he’s in his civvies, they’re going first class. Red, he’s heading back downtown. The show at La Mama wasn’t that good the night before, but he noticed an “underground” movie theatre on his way back up 2nd Avenue called the Gate Theatre. To Red, “underground” translated into skin. So he forks over a precious $1.75 of his $5, and enters. Underground, he finds, is truly underground in the Jonas Mekas sense. Stan Brakhage, weirdo flim-loop stuff, showing the same abstract images over and over again — the scene is a rip-off. This wasn’t what he had in mind at all. He figured he’d at least catch a little Warholian tit, maybe a glimpse of snatch. Underground, after all, should be underground.
After a head-achey hour, he splits. It’s late, around one a.m., and he’s ambling up 2nd Avenue. On the left hand side of the street is the last of the downtown burlesque houses. Red is walking past. He ogles the tinted blow-ups of the stars of tonight’s show. He’s thinking about forking over his last cash and going in, but the box office is already closed. So he stands there, hands in pockets, imagining what’s beneath those skimpy costumes, whether all that hair in the tinted photos is real, just how old they really are. (Stripper photos always make them look 20). Suddenly, from the stage door, just to the left of the entrance, emerges a woman. Red takes a look. It’s Lola, one of the strippers. Her tinted photo is right there in front of him. There’s no mistaking it. He checks the face again, compares with photo. That’s her.
She strides up 2nd Avenue. Red follows. What’s he going to do? Right there in front of him is one of the strippers from the lower 2nd Avenue Burlie-Q. If he misses this opportunity, he’ll never get another. In his inimitable way, he senses his moment has arrived. But how to deal with it. You’re a West Point cadet, right, and you’re following a really foxy young stripper up 2nd Avenue between 12th and 13th Streets, and at any moment, she can turn into an apartment entrance and be gone. It’s like seeing a pretty girl on the subway — you want to say something, but you’re thinking of what to say, and she gets off at the next stop. Damn! So Red, never a man to mince words, formulates his approach (and here I must apologize to those of you who have objected to explicit language — in this case nothing else will suffice):
- Hey, bitch, wanna buy me a drink? — Lola turns and has a look.
- Sure. Come on.
She takes him around the corner to a cheap bar. He announces that he is nearly penniless. She buys. In time, they leave. Lola talks the bartender out of a fifth of bourbon, since the liquor stores are closed. They walk a few blocks. She lives in the neighborhood. Up some stairs, it’s a typically cruddy Lower East Side building, into a triple-locked door. Red checks out the pad. Grubby. In the medicine cabinet he finds a bunch of pill bottles of various descriptions and effects and under the sink, a gross of rubbers. A gross. He is not the first such visitor to this pad. He wonders who has conquered whom, but this matters little. Lola by this time is in a dimly-lit and tiny bedroom, in which a double bed takes up the majority of space. She is stripped down to undies and bourbon. Red starts shedding clothes. A sight such as undies and bourbon on a genuine stripper he has yet to see, and he’s not going to miss a glimpse, he’s not going to miss a beat.
They bed. There is much drinking and grunting and making physical love. Eventually they pass out. Red is beat. Lola is a noodle.
Lights! The goddam lights are on! What the hell is going on here! Red takes a quick glance around. For the first time, the true filth of the place hits him. The sheets are gray. Lola has aged suddenly. And standing in the doorway of the bedroom are four women. They are a type of woman Red has seen before, but with whom he has had little contact. This is a condition which is speedily remedied . He is set upon at once, by four blazing bull-dyke lesbians, thrashing, scratching, screaming. Lola is their little princess in the weird subculture which resides just beneath the surface of “our” society, and these four babes aren’t just jealous, they’re homicidal. Lola is kicking and screaming and raising hell. Red is throwing a punch or two, but mostly, he’s looking for his pants, his shoes, his shirt. He has this cadet instinct that exiting the scene sans essentials would get him in more trouble than slugging it out with the lesbians. So he’s shoving and kicking and throwing backhands and forehands and an occasional direct, serious, no-holds-barred-upper-cut. Finally he’s got all his stuff and he’s splitting out the front door of the pad, and behind him the sounds of bull-dykes berating a princess who betrayed them can be heard…well, they can probably be heard for blocks. He stuffs himself into his threads and making one last raid into the apartment for the bottle of bourbon — causing a renewed ruckus — he takes off. Then it hits him. No money. He walks, as daylight breaks over 2nd Avenue, from the Lower East Side to the Statler Hilton. The next day when he tells the other guys about the crazy thing he went through the night before, Slim is skeptical. Leroy takes a look and believes. There are huge welts and red scratches all over his back. There was something to this guy Red after all, he figures. They are to become friends, life-long.
To this day, neither one of them has changed much. Leroy is still an obsessive narcissist with a weakness for mystery. Red is still, well, not a loner, but more direct than others, if you dig it. He’s married. His wife is a tough, beautiful Working Woman. They’ve got two kids. They’ve got their problems, but they’ll see their way through. Slim has dropped out of sight. Leroy is out of the Army, and very few people know what he’s up to, and he’d just as soon leave it that way. I respect his privacy. But every time Red and Leroy get together, there’s magic, they say. It happens once or twice a year. Red and his wife bounce their personal problems with each other off Leroy like billiard balls caroming off a stiff cushioned edge. Strange to say, Leroy seems closer to the wife, even though there’s no magic. The magic between the two classmates is still there, but it’s getting more difficult to conjure…There is a stiffness between Leroy and Red and a feeling among the three of them, it’s not stated openly, but speaking to each in turn it’s clear nevertheless, they’re getting older, and age, goddamit, makes a difference.
Weekend, Circa 71-71
Water woke him, splashing against the side of the tub on the other side of the wall directly behind his head. Propped on one elbow, he peered through the semi-darkness. It was December, cold and gray outside. Across the room, on the desk crowded, with letters and unopened bills and family photographs and old New Yorker magazines and travel brochures from Italy and Corsica and Greece, resting next to all this was her hairbrush, long and slender and silver with natural badger tan bristle. On the nightstand was her glass of water and two aspirins, untaken. Hanging on the doorknob was her nightgown, ankle-length pale pink silk with lace around the square neckline. On the floor, partially obscured by the nightgown’s hem, was the white phone from the living room. A long twisted white cord snaked through the bedroom door, down the hall into the living room, disappearing behind the green-and-white zebra striped sofa. The curtains were drawn, as they usually were, and outside the street snarled with mid-day traffic.
- Harry? Harry? Where are you? Are you awake?
Her voice was high, strident, a morning voice. The shower had stopped, and he could hear her padding around in the hall. It was a short hall between the living room and the bath, bedroom on the left, closet on the right. Her morning habit was to finish her shower, wrap a robe around her, and nose around the closet looking for something to wear before she finished with the bathroom. Over and over he had asked her to finish in the bathroom, then worry about what to wear. But a habit is a habit, and he had long since given up trying to change the way she did things in the morning.
- Yeah, I’m awake. I’m still in bed.
The warmth felt good. He flopped back down in the pillows and tried to think of what had happened the night before. He couldn’t. His eyes drifted. Between her pillows and his lay the Little Pillow. At night she would cling to it, a six-by-six square of fine linen, flat, almost completely devoid of feathers. He remembered watching her one night, he was unable to sleep so he lay there watching her cuddle the little pillow. She would have seemed pathetic, but she was so content with the little pillow against her bosom, a thin bandage of a smile stuck on her lips. She couldn’t sleep without it, she explained unashamed. He touched the little pillow, picked it up and held it to his cheek. It felt like a deflated balloon, limp but soft. He tossed it on the sheet on her side of the bed and closed his eyes, hoping to nap. A quick nap, maybe only five minutes, was something he was good at, something he could command himself to do. It was something he was sure of. The rest of it, the messy bedroom, the little pillow…hell, the little pillow was only one of the things he couldn’t figure about Sarah. Christ. Sunday. Noon again. He wondered what time he came in last night.
- Harry? Harry? Where are you?
The lilt of her voice carried that peculiar urgency which creases the tone of the landed gentry of the South. It was a refined mix of Peerage English and Deep South. In it one could see lined faces, tables set for 18 or 20, carved turkeys and Virginia hams sitting on the sideboard still steaming, smoking fireplaces and paneled studies, leather-bound books and pictures of that marvelous and by now nearly extinct game, polo. The tone was insistent, impatient, and to the ears of Harry Bell, maddening.
- I’m awake, goddamit. Hurry up in there, will you? — Already it was starting. He could feel his forehead throb.
Time was on their side. That’s what she must have thought, he told himself as he heard her wander back into the bathroom, humming a Kris Kristofferson tune. Not one of the popular ones, like “Sunday Morning Comin’ Down,” which would have fit rather nicely, or “Me and Bobby McGee.” She always hummed the ones he couldn’t remember because they just weren’t all that good. She, on the other hand, thought they were great. All of them. Every last word and note he sang. He was, after all, a Rhodes Scholar. These things counted. Last night she said she wanted to write a song for Kristofferson, she so loved his lyrics.
Harry tried to tell her that Kristofferson didn’t sing other people’s songs. Kristofferson had been an Army helicopter pilot, on orders to go to West Point to teach English, when he dropped out and went to Nashville and scuffled and wrote some of his best songs when he had a job sweeping up the Columbia studios on Music Row. His gig had started out writing for others (Johnny Cash was the first star to buy one of his songs) and only recently he was getting into recording his own stuff. But you don’t understand, she said. You’re the one who doesn’t understand, he said. Their tastes in music and art and literature didn’t intersect very often, and when they did, there were usually sparks. That made for interesting, sometimes inspired arguments, and not much else.
Now he recalled what had kept them up so late the night before. There was always something. When time is on your side, you tend to burn it, use it in huge quantities, like if you had a big stash of dope and couldn’t even conceive of smoking your way to the end of it. So they would often stay up late arguing and drinking, pushing themselves to physical and mental limits, as if nothing else mattered, eager to crowd the dawn with ideas and emotion, wanting to experience each other’s time almost the same as they’d want to experience each other’s bodies. It always seemed so important to talk, talk, talk the night away. Endless talk. She used to say it was very Jewish, what they did. Harry told her she was anti-Semitic. They were both white and Episcopalian and obsessed with themselves.
Nothing fit, not even their bodies. She was petite, slender, bony, with a nose that said too much inbreeding somewhere in her past, and fingers that spelled Southern class: long and thin with just a hint of knuckles showing. They had character, her hands. So did her face, which was a delicate sculpture, chipped with the chisel of years which were not yet hers but which she seemed already to have lived until it glowed with the quality of Roman sun-bleached marble.
And the way she dressed. Always a skirt or a dress, never pants. French or Italian shoes with buckles — she had microscopic feet and the buckles made them seem more substantial — and cashmere sweaters with strings of pearls or tiny gold chains draped around her neck, pencil-thin, almost invisible if she had a tan. She loved ladies’ undergarments. She was the only woman Harry had ever met who wore a slip. She had lots of them, they were all silk, and standing alone in the middle of the living room in a slip, she was exquisitely sexy, the definition of what makes a man take out after a woman. A slip does wonders for a woman. It’s mysterious, it has no apparent function, it hides what lies beneath (yet not completely), it drapes and falls from the breast like a faint early-morning towel wrapped carelessly after a shower. She seemed to sense this. When she was draped in silken undergarments, she exuded a message: touch me. I’m soft. Treat me like a woman. Harry did.
Sleeping with her was like sleeping with a glass figurine. Always he was afraid of turning over in the middle of the night and breaking her. She breathed so strangely at night, and she was so goddamed maddeningly vulnerable.
Sleep was something Harry understood. He was good at it. Vulnerability was something he did not understand. He had been trained, schooled to be invulnerable. He was confident. In his confidence lay a certain strength. What he did not realize was a subtle truth which would not be revealed to him until much later: strength has its roots in weakness. In her way, Sarah had it all over Harry. He would have been loathe to admit it, but she was every bit as much in command as he was. He did not know it then, but it was this which attracted him to her. She seemed delicate, but underneath, she was a powerful woman, she had a peculiar strain of strength with which he was not yet familiar.
He never really figured out when he fell in love with her. Perhaps it was when he was in the South, stationed at Fort Benning. They were writing letters, the way they did when she was in Aspen at some kind of summer conference. He learned she had taken a job as assistant to the director of one of New York’s most prestigious museums, and if what he had heard about the director was correct, she was sleeping with him. A thousand miles away, he was jealous, though he considered jealousy the cheapest, most perishable and in some ways most contemptible of emotions. But there was nothing he could do. She was outside his grasp. It probably delighted her, to know she had such a hold on a man.
She had written once from Aspen at the conference, dejected, depressed by the boring, lifeless people around her, that “life is unfair.” Yet she knew better than Harry that it was precisely the unfairness of life which made it worth living. To make love slyly and hotly to the married museum director, while romancing a young lieutenant miles and miles away by mail and by phone and by occasional visit…this was one of life’s delights, to be tasted as one drinks a great wine: with the nose and the palate, drenching every membrane in the delectable aromas and flavors of transitory glory.
As Harry moved from one Army post to another, she wrote him of life close to the helm of New York society. Evenings at the home of George Plimpton, the patriarch of the greatest of the “little magazines,” dinners at Elaine’s, day-trips to Montauk Point on Long island, limousines full of fancy people. They traveled to the end of the island to watch the sea and eat oysters and drink afternoon cocktails and laugh, because it was all so much fun. There were famous faces, beautiful faces, important openings, a mad circle of exciting, beautiful people doing exciting, beautiful things during an exciting and beautiful time. In those days, it was possible to be anti-establishment, to protest war and famine and poverty and social injustice while being served cocktails and hors-d’oeuvres in the most elegant Central Park West, South, and East salons one could imagine. And she was right in the middle of it. Commitment to a cause was as important as what clothes one wore.
It was amid this social and political schizophrenia that they fell in love, he for the first time, and she? It didn’t matter. Nothing seemed to count in those days except themselves, and they were absorbed in self as identity, which was exterior rather than interior; political rather than psychological or spiritual. Mystery did not interest them; it amused them. Life wasn’t a game; it was a club.
So they fell in love in the midst of the rock-and-roll age, that time in America when the music of the young seemed to dominate the covers of Time, Newsweek, Life and Look. The music symbolized a new concept for a new time; lifestyle. One wore one’s lifestyle; one smoked one’s lifestyle; one listened to one’s lifestyle; one demonstrated for or against lifestyles. The music hovered over the age like a mechanical cloud, a fog generated by high performance loudspeakers and solid-state amplifiers and musicians who combined electricity and blood and gave birth to the wall of sound, the carpet of sound, that magic space within which one danced out his or her life, and cared not about what was going on outside. It was impossible to stop, to sink roots in a land vibrating and pulsing with anxiety and the crazy sense of having lost something and not knowing what it was.
Those years could hardly be described as romantic. People didn’t think they had the time to be romantic. One sensed, amidst the confusion, that time was the key. Above all, romance requires time to grow before becoming warm and real. At least that’s the way Harry figured it, falling in love with Sarah. He had only read of romance. It was an abstract concept, and he thought of romance as real or unreal in the same way he and Sarah talked forever of real feelings, as opposed to feelings which were something else, something we didn’t understand, something we couldn’t define.
So they fell in love not romantically, but politically. Harry loved Sarah because she was wealthy and beautiful and strange, such a thin brushstroke of a woman, you had to look twice to make sure she was there. But he loved her even more because she had rejected what she called “all that.” This gave her, in his eyes, a rare strength. It turned her into a heroine, a languid, delicate rebel whose only cause was herself. She occupied time by flinging off privileges like so many scarves. She loved Harry because he represented that which she was trying desperately to become — one who owned little, had few attachments to property or place, who moved through the United States like the nose of a Lear Jet.
They lived for adventure. He needed the speed, the rush that comes with nighttime and bars and taxicabs and jet plane rides from Colorado to New York and conversations until dawn. And she needed, on a level perhaps too deep to go into here, to preserve a little of the old world while racing in high gear towards the new.
So you couldn’t say that they had a romance. They enjoyed what had come to be known over the years as a “relationship.” The word was a perfect description of the blood which ran between men and women at that time in America. For it was and is a mechanical word, a word which appeared time and again in the texts which Harry studied in engineering courses at West Point, in thermodynamics, mechanics of solids, mechanics of fluids, nuclear physics, subject of applied science, technology, and pure engineering. Gears “related” to each other; electrical charges spun about the nucleus of an atom in a “relationship” of one to another. In the stiffest of the applied sciences, structural engineering, problems dealt with the resolution of forces which “related” to one another according to a set of known rules and constants.
And so did men and women search for a new set of rules and constants to establish “relationships” between themselves. They related to one another, mechanically, politically, in an age devoid of mystery, obsessed with the establishment of a new order in the universe, not with feeling but with law. At times, Harry felt glad to have been a student of engineering while at college, for it gave him an edge over those who had not studied the mechanics of science and technology: the rules of logic; the perfect orderliness of calculus; the resolution of mysteries both microscopic and magnificent which was physics. Ours was a mechanical age, and rock music served it with distinction, seemingly out of necessity.
Everything about our age was incredible, unreal, unbelievable. The war, 10,000 miles away via satellite, flickered across the television screens of the country each night. The elections of Johnson, then Nixon, were events detached from reality. It was difficult to believe they actually happened, that people all over the country walked into little booths and pulled little levers and the result of it all was a President no one seemed to want.
Appropriately, the music was unreal. It bore no resemblance to the rhythms and motions of people’s lives. The rock and roll of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s came to life in the middle of the country, with the rhythms of white country and gospel and western singers and songwriters. It was called “rockabilly” a mixture of rock and hillbilly. And it was popular at a time when the rural exodus from farm to city had long since occurred — everyone lived in the cities, or in suburbs. The place that music came from was a curious part of America: a place to be read about in history books and visited on vacations. I t would not be long until the Winnebago explored the roots of our musical heritage.
Later still, rural and urban black music would predominate, this time played by white men. It was the guttural music of a people long deprived of even the slightest privilege; it was a music of small pleasures and big pains, a music of dirge and lament, a music of loss, not gain. Ironically, it was listened to and applauded by young white people who could afford $500 stereos, $6 records, $8 tapes, and $7.50 concert tickets.
Once Muddy Waters played New York on a weekend when Harry was in town with his father. Muddy Waters, the legendary Chicago blues man. He played and played, sweating and singing all over the stage, and the audience would moan and say “yeah” at all the appropriate moments.
Everyone, including Harry, identified. His pain was real pain. This was real music, this was the kind of stuff the audience stood for. When the show was over, Harry asked his father what he thought, and his father replied: “He certainly is an elegant old gentleman.” Harry thought at the time, Jesus, didn’t he hear anything? But of course he had heard it all. Muddy Waters was elegant. What made his pathos real, was the distinction with which he carried it. The failure of Harry and Sarah and their generation to realize these basic truths would catch up with them later, and it would never come comfortably.
In the end, the search for truth was as mechanical as those truths which were discovered. What became important was not what was true, but what was correct. The distinction is important. Women would call for the censorship of songs they had applauded only years before. “California Girls,” a 1963 classic by the Beach Boys which had been a symbol of loosened sexual mores, beach parties, surfing and sunshine freedom, was only a few years later denounced as “sexist.” The age had come nearly a full circle, like a set of gears. What one “related” to ten years previously, one could no longer “relate” to. Another cog had been added to the machine. And the machine lacked an idler wheel, and it had gone crazy. It seemed like it couldn’t stop.
To fall in love during this time was to drench oneself in this craziness, to crumble beneath the folds of the music, to yield to forces you could neither see nor feel. But you knew they were there. We were young, and we accepted nearly everything. It was the age when Time’s Man of the Year was the “Under 25 Generation.” Yet age itself seemed not to matter because it had been defined as a parameter by Time. Sarah and Harry were obsessed by the notion of preserving youth at a certain point — that uncertain point when you could keep pushing and go forever and ever and simply not have to worry about it.
To worry was perhaps the worst sin of the time. One spent time trying to figure how one could live without worry. One in fact worried about the necessity of not worrying. This was cool. It’s easy to watch “Fonzie” instruct the youth of America about “cool” on TV these days, but truth was, in order to maintain a “cool” you had to be anxious about anxiety itself. The worst curse one could have leveled upon oneself in those days was to be called “uptight.” And so people strove to be not uptight, to be cool the new way. People like Harry and Sarah strove to live life loose, with as few attachments as possible, and with as many options as one could imagine. If you sat alone late at night and listened to Bob Dylan, the records from his middle period, 1964, 1965, 1966, Subterranean Homesick Blues, Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde, you’d get a feel for it. Dylan was the modern Eliot, Pound, Mailer, Kerouac — all combined into one. On stage, he was a frail Charlie Chaplin, in baggy trousers, with a shaggy head, awkward, at one moment stiff and robot-like, at another, completely at loose ends, out of control of himself, or so it seemed.
And his music. Sarah liked him, no, loved him for his poetry, and Harry for his music and for his voice. He played his voice like an instrument, in and around, above, through, beneath his words…giving them meaning which they lacked on the written pages. He was the Ella Fitzgerald of Rock. His voice was reedy and thin and harsh, full of and yet critical of, the angst of white youth. He blessed them and cursed them at once, and slammed himself in a hundred ways. His was the only music of the 1960’s, the early 1970’s, to admit to the schizophrenia of the age, the notion of growing up middle class, of dropping out, living the streets, yet all the time realizing it was possible to Go Back. Few caught wind of Dylan’s ironic eye, however, which probably contributed to his popularity. Had they known he hated his age perhaps more than he loved it, Dylan might have never have become an icon.
While they lived and loved amidst this confusion, the craziness of the music and the time, Harry and Sarah were not inside of it, a part of it, participants in the celebrations of youth and protest and love. He was in the Army and she was rich. Their world was like a bright balloon which they batted in the air between them, hoping it wouldn’t burst. It was a fragile existence. Inside the balloon was the noise and spirit and energy of the age. They were forever just outside it, adding a puff of breath here or there, a tap or a bounce. But they were never inside.
Christ. It was still Sunday morning. Sunday at West Point was the worst day of the week, total depression, going all the way back to Plebe year, learning the Days, forced to go to church…Sundays sucked. The day itself still nagged him, made him want to stay in bed. Hide. But now it was Harry’s turn to take the bathroom. It was all white, lined with huge old tiles which had yellowed over the years. Sarah’s woman stuff lined the edge of the tub and cluttered the sink and the open shelves of the medicine cabinet. He took his time in the shower. He always figured a man wasn’t right with the world unless he took a good long shower. It was a habit he developed at West Point.
- Harry? Harry? What do you want for breakfast? Sarah called from the kitchen. He could smell frying bacon and coffee. The smell reminded him of the Mess Hall. She cooked like that every morning, fancy. She wasn’t one of those two-english-muffins-and-coffee women.
- You know your problem, Sarah? — Harry yelled from the shower. Silence.
- You know your problem? You want every goddam morning to be a Sunday morning, that’s what you want.
- Harry? You haven’t answered my question. — He couldn’t tell if she’d heard him over the noise of the shower or not.
- Nothing — he said. — I don’t want anything for breakfast. Going to breakfast makes me sick.
Received in New York on March 17, 1977.
©1976 Lucian K. Truscott IV
Lucian K. Truscott IV, a freelance writer and author, is an Alicia Patterson Foundation award winner. His fellowship subject is West Point Men: Attitudes and Experiences of the Class of 1969. This article may be published with credit to Mr. Truscott as a Fellow of the Alicia Patterson Foundation. The views expressed by the author in this newsletter are not necessarily the views of the Foundation.