I went to a boarding school where they planned every waking moment, even when to urinate. After dinner the whole school would form two lines. It didn’t matter if a person had to urinate or not. I did well there. The head of the school liked guns and supercharged automobiles. He had both. Sometimes in the afternoon when we were outside on the sports fields we would here tremendous gun shot sounds. He had a hill behind his house. Someone would look in that direction and say he was doing target practice. He could play music. He was interested in all things.
He was an eccentric man. Sometimes he would read poetry to the whole school and he was the only one allowed to give us “swats”. “Swats” were physical punishment that involved going into his office and getting smacked on the posterior a certain number of times with a fearsome paddle. That punishment was for the most misbehaved. It was generally known beforehand what behavior warranted “swats.” I never got any “swats”, but I heard about them.
There was a teacher who once was a photographer for an acrobatic fighter plane unit that the United States Navy called the Blue Angles. He knew first hand much about fighter planes. He would bring models to our history class and demonstrate for us what a barrel roll was. We spent several weeks on the Battle of Britain.
We were doing a poem in literature class that read “…then felt I like some watcher of the sky when a new planet swims into his kin or like stout Cortez when with eagle eye he stared at the Pacific silent upon a peak in Darien.” The teacher asked the class what ‘kin’ meant, and he said if anyone says it is a relative he would throw up. He called on me and I said something.
Then he launched into a diatribe about if a person had a four-hundred horse power automobile in their garage and never took it out it was no good to them. He said it was Balboa who was the first European to see the pacific, not Cortez, but, he said, it was still considered a terrific poem. One time, off to the side, in a positive way, he told me I was like the continent of Africa, nothing there, but there was something there.
Earlier that same year the entire school one at a time saw a man from outside who conducted an intelligence quotient (IQ) test. Intelligence quotient was a number they put on scholastic aptitude which was relied on heavily by both adults and children in that school. Everyone talked about his or her IQ. The results were not made known to individuals so I wondered how everyone knew what their IQ was. People seemed to make a point of finding out. It was very important. When I took the test it was the first time in my life I could feel drops of sweat running down my sides from my armpits. I was sweating profusely. I had to come back another time and do it once more. Then finally I learned I had no score. I could not be tested. Did they have a code for someone who could not be tested? What would it say on a form that had to be filled out?
On Sunday the entire school walked in single file over to a church where we had a Sunday service. Everyone had to go to church, but there was one exception. If an adult signed a student out before everyone went to church then the signed out student didn’t have to go to church. The student who was signed out could bring a friend so the friend would be signed out also. I was far from home but a lady lived nearby whose sons had all gone to that school. One of her sons married my mother’s half sister. His four children were my cousins. He once said, as he was eating one of those delicious Sunday lunches that there was so much talk about eating less. He said people should do more, not eat less. He said that as he was having food put on his plate for the third time.
When she signed me and a friend out, she would stand in the front hall of the school. The faculty room opened into the front hall, as did many other rooms. Teachers would see her waiting for us. She was older. She wore thick glasses that made her eyes look big. One day after she was standing there she told me a story that made me wonder if she thought she looked different in that school. She said that when her son was a pitcher on the school’s baseball team she went to watch a game. She went up to him to ask where to sit. Friends of his were with him. He gave directions on where to sit like she was a spectator.
In the same two or three weeks many of the faculty asked me about this person who signed me and a friend out every Sunday. The teacher I had in literature was concerned that I was missing church every week. He asked me if we went to church and what we did all day. I answered that she would put us to work before lunch, stacking wood or something else. Then, I said, we would have the best lunch. One son who always studied upstairs would come down for lunch, and another son and his family would be there also. I said there might be as many as nine or ten people at the table.
Afterward people would go into the next room to watch a football game on television. She had a brown lamp cord leading to her chair and she would switch the sound off during commercials. My friend and I would play with goats she had in pens behind her garage. Her son who studied upstairs would go on long walks in the afternoon. He always took a dog with him. She would take us back to school late Sunday afternoon, and that, I said, is what we did. Even my friend said his parents asked him about her.
A teacher who had a reputation for being very strict asked about her when I was at his table. I told him I never met her husband, because he was dead. I said her family farm was one of the first ones in the area, but now there were businesses and condensed living spaces as far as the eye could see. I said she worked in a local hospital as a volunteer several hours a day, two days a week, and that getting more money was not her objective. He asked which hospital she worked in and I said I did not know.
I never had this strict teacher in the classroom but I learned my first year that our birthdays were on the same day. Every time a student had a birthday the headmaster would play the Happy Birthday song on a small xylophone he had at the head table. The whole school would sing and someone would carry out a lit birthday cake. The headmaster would then stand up and say the “muse” visited him. He would read a short poem he wrote about the person who had the birthday. This happened at the evening meal. My birthday was during the school year so this happened to me the three years I was there. Somehow I learned this other teacher had his birthday on the same day as mine. The second year on my birthday I was passing him in the hall, and I said happy birthday to him. He stopped and said how did you know? I said it is my birthday also. He and I were good friends for the rest of the time I was in that school.
He ran the “spa” which was a place in the school where a student could buy a candy bar, a soft drink, or some ice cream. Whatever money we had was limited to our school allowance, which was based on our academic performance. He paid us our allowance. The really smart students got to walk to the nearby village and buy candy in an actual store.
When we came back from vacation we were all supposed to turn in any left over travel money, but I didn’t. The single coin I paid with was more than my weekly allowance so he knew it was outside money that I had kept. He looked at the large coin through his bifocal eyeglasses and said, “What is this?” I realized I had been found out. He sent me back to the study hall, but that was not the end. The next day he called me into his office, and he talked about honesty and deceit. Apparently he told my parents about this event because later that week I got a letter from my mother that said, “…when I was a child I behaved as a child, but when I was a man I put away childish things.” I guess I wasn’t a child any more, even though I was 13-years old.
I went home for holidays and sometimes I would see the person who shod the horses. He would always ask me about school. He jokingly called it an institution of correction, and when a horse he was shoeing relieved itself he would tell me to get rid of those Russians. He loved a song on the radio sung by a lady or maybe he loved the lady. The words to the song were, “…is that all there is my friend, then let’s keep dancing, let’s kick off our shoes, and let’s keep dancing.” He saw me washing windows to earn some money to buy a go-cart, and he yelled to my mother across the way, “It is amazing what Jocko will do for money.” Another time he had supper with us. My mother said she would love to meet his wife and he said, “You had better hurry up before the divorce.” When he was walking back to his truck after supper he was urinating while he was walking. I was behind him and it was dark. I asked him what he was doing and he said he was, “blazing a trail”.
When it was time for me to go to another school I was unaware of the difficulty people were having getting me accepted anywhere. The guidance counselor called me into his office to see if I was experiencing anxiety over that situation. Apparently, the administration of the school was concerned because that school was a “pre-preparatory” school. It would prepare children to be prepared to go to another school that would prepare them to go to a university. If I couldn’t get in anywhere they prepared me for nothing. If I didn’t get into one of the boarding schools where I applied I would go to my local “high school” and live at home. The guidance counselor talked with me awhile and learned I wasn’t suffering from stress. A few weeks later he informed me that I had been accepted at another “institution of correction” located in the western part of that state.
The Episcopal diocese of Massachusetts ran this school although that was only a rumor. The headmaster wore a clergyman’s collar all the time and so did a few of the teachers. We walked to “chapel” every day. It was in a Church that was nearby and off campus. We sat in alphabetical order. On one side of me was a Buddhist from Thailand and on the other side of me was an American Jew. I was your basic savage in the middle. The school administration said “chapel” was “non-denominational”. Students who went there were different from anyone I had ever known. There wasan American Indian student. Three students were from the Belgium Congo. There was a person from Harlem. He wore the same tie every day. There were students from Japan, Canada, and Argentina.
There was a time at that school when I got down on my knees and prayed. The custom was that a person upon entering a church would sit down in one of the “pews”, assume the kneeling position, and commence to pray. I don’t remember what I prayed about except often I would pray, “Please God don’t let me be normal.” The humans in my life were not there and it was nice to know God was. As time wore on I became more acclimated to the people around me. A 19th century Russian asked where was God when a Cossack shot a baby in the face with a pistol at point blank range while it was in it’s mother’s arms? I would not learn the answers to those kinds of questions until much later in my life. Most people seemed to look the other way when those sorts of things happened. I was no different. My interest in God diminished.
If everything went as planned I would be there four years. My first year I lived in a dormitory that originally housed chickens. It had a slate roof. When the place became a school it was remodeled as a dormitory and named the “coop”, as in chicken-coop.
In the coop I learned what a bully was. This person mostly just said things that weren’t nice. I always remembered the saying, “sticks and stones will hurt my bones but words will never hurt me.” It went on that way with just words for some time. He was popular with the other students. The dormitory master wanted to be popular so I didn’t get any help from him. One afternoon this person pulled my tie, and when he did I spun around with my arm bent. My elbow was pointing outward, and quite by accident it connected very solidly with his nose. Other students were watching. I remember the dazed and amazed look on his face. His image was in question. He put his head down and proceeded to push me against a wall while flaying away at me in an uncontrolled manner. After that he was my best friend. From then on bullies ceased to be a problem. I realized how ineffectual they are.
There was another student there who was on full scholarship which meant his parents didn’t have to pay any money. If he were any smarter he would probably be insane. When he left that school he received a full scholarship to one of the best technological universities in the world. I heard much later that he was working as a carpenter. He must have learned more than they wanted him to learn. In the coop he and I had felt tip pen duels. When it was over the person with the most marks on their tee shirt lost.
On the report card sent home the dormitory master, who was also one of the teachers, was supposed to write something perceptive. He said that I was a “loner”. I remember being disturbed by that word.
When we were walkng from chapel to have super I noticed one of the Congolese students ahead of me. I ran up to him. I asked him about the United States. He said he liked it, except, he said, people here think we all live in grass huts. He mentioned one student who sincerely asked him if he lived in a house. I said most of what we know about Africa comes from Tarzan television shows. He asked me what is Tarzan. I said he was European who lived in a tree.
Children in the Belgium Congo must play soccer as soon as they can walk. Two of the three Congolese students played halfback on our school’s varsity soccer team. Soaking wet they probably weighed 130 pounds each, which is light for a halfback. They would laugh and gibber jabber back and forth in Congolese. No one could get the ball past them.
Some Friday nights we would hear music from a high school dance that was nearby. The dormitory I was assigned to that year was the furthest building to the north on the school grounds. It was the closest to the town. On warm nights when all the windows were open we listened to the music. One song said, “…she wore blue velvet…and I still can see blue velvet through my tears…” Several of us snuck out. When we got there the room was full of people. I don’t remember the girls I danced with except each one said in various ways it was no secret we were outsiders. It is a good thing the adults didn’t throw us out, or have us arrested for criminal trespassing. We did that only one time and we didn’t get caught.
There were other school dances where we would be bused to an all girl school or a busload of girls would come to our school. We were assigned a partner at the beginning and we had to stay with that person. If anybody “ditched” their partner and that “ditched” person was unhappily standing around then the person who did the “ditching” would not get to go to any other dances. At least, in our school that was the case. We were at an all-girls school for a dance and my assigned partner didn’t like me or I didn’t like her or both. She found somebody else. I went into another room where several other people in the same situation watched television. None of us would be seen standing around. We sat in front of a TV on couches and heavily upholstered chairs. I started to talk to an appealing girl who wasn’t riveted to the television. She was cynical about everything. She had dark hair, and beautiful light skin. Later on I wrote to her and she wrote to me. That went on for several years. We always communicated from a distance. I saw her a few times, and soon it faded away with time.
When I first heard the President of the United States got shot it was from a person in a toll- booth at the end of an expressway. Several of us were returning from a fencing match in Boston. People got killed everywhere all the time. Even Presidents got shot. Everyone was listening intently to the radio and later on it said he was dead. There are three ways to fence. I fenced epee. The other two ways are the foil and the saber. In practice we spent hours and hours moving quickly foreword and quickly backwards. The idea of moving backward in the face of an attack is half of fencing. It is when opportunities present themselves. An opponent is most vulnerable when moving foreword in an attack. Through repetitious practice we developed the skill to always maintain a striking distance. I was undefeated my senior year.
We had to do some sort of athletics in the fall, winter, and spring. No one in the four years I was there said why athletics was part of our education. Fencing was in the winter. In the Fall I played soccer and in the Spring I played an American game called lacrosse. I wasn’t particularly good in either of those sports. The team that won usually had players who worked well together. If there were one or two good players on the other team we would double-team those people, and that team usually lost.
In the fall the whole school was divided into two groups. Each group fielded teams in each sport and somehow I was made part of a cross-country team even though I couldn’t run long distance. Like all cross-country races this was a long one. Mid way through the race I was nearly last. There were many teachers and students gathered in one place to “cheer” us on.
Toward the end of the race the course went up a road, turned west off the road, and went around a playing field. After people went around the playing field they came back onto the road at the same place where they turned west. The racecourse then went across the road in an Easterly direction to the finish line where practically everyone in the school was yelling for the runners to go faster. A person at the East-West spot made sure everyone ran around the playing field. When I came to that spot I was so far behind runners were coming back out onto the road and going east to the finish line. All at the exact same time I was at the spot, there was a break in the runners going East, and the person standing watch was facing the other way. I didn’t know which way the course went. I only saw the back end of runners going to the finish line. I turned East to the finish line instead of West around the playing field. There I was at the front of the race when I had been last seen near the end. When I finished two or three people came up to me and said how terrific it was that I had come from so far behind. I was just glad it was over. A day or so later one of the front runners who I beat to the finish line came up to me and said he passed me in the very beginning and did not remember me passing him. I said I didn’t pass him, and that I didn’t go around the playing field. He went away somewhat mystified.
In the classroom I first learned I liked the written word even though I couldn’t spell and didn’t do well on vocabulary tests. I was not a very good student. I wrote compositions. One time I liked a passage in a book so much and thought it was so well done that I copied it verbatim with the proper introduction and conclusion. The teacher read the paper to the whole class as an example of a good composition. I guess he thought it was a good passage also. After the class was over a friend came up and insisted that I copied it from somewhere. It was rather obvious to him. Also, later on, the teacher pulled me aside and the long and short of what he said was that it would be a much better composition if it didn’t have that terrible introduction and conclusion.
Once a year when school closed for a few days in November I would go to an Island in Penobscot Bay, Maine. It was much closer than my home. I knew a family there and would duck hunt or deer hunt with them. The head of that household worked as a boatman for my mother’s stepfather. He and his family lived there all year, and anyone who had a place on that island depended on him to keep an eye on their property. The only other person who lived there all year long was an old man who was a wood boat builder. His houseboat was permanently located above the beach at the boat yard. I doubt it could float. He worked in the boat yard. Often he would come over and watch television. While looking at the TV he sometimes sharpened his pocket knife. He could get it so sharp that it could shave hair on his arm. He showed me how to use a sand stone, but I could never get a knife that sharp.
The boatman would always threaten that he was going to get the backhoe and rip the television out the side of the house. He would say that when he didn’t like the program. That was most of the time. The backhoe was a piece of construction equipment in the tractor shed. It was a yellow farm tractor with a digging arm or attachment on the back.
Eventually, my mother’s stepfather bought the boat yard. It was next to my grandmother’s property and the owner of the boat yard wanted to retire and move to the mainland. Nearby there was a bigger island where there was a school and where many other people lived. Also, there was a ferry service from the bigger island to the mainland five miles away. My grandmother’s father, the artist, originally bought the island property, but it was my grandmother’s second husband, the industrialist, who kept it up and spent much money there. He loved that place more than any other place. My grandmother always went there in the Spring to plant the garden and I think that is when she enjoyed that place the most. One time my mother’s stepfather asked me about my November trips. It never occurred to me that the boatman was putting me up in his house at his expense. Each time I wrote and said I was coming, but there was no doubt I was a guest in that house. My mother’s stepfather said I should take them a turkey or something. He never asked me about it again and I went there many more years.
I remember when the boatman first started to work there years earlier. It was in the summer and he was splicing the bowline on a rowboat. I asked him how long he was going to work there. He said he didn’t know. He said he always worked around the water, but that his former job was driving a semi-truck on the mainland. He said he overturned a truckload of chickens and that was the end of that job. The way he described it there were chickens and feathers everywhere.
During those days in the summer the boatman and I would go across to the post office on the bigger island. We would go around the corner to a store to get milk and newspapers. Sometimes I would get ice cream. He would always say to the man behind the counter, “Charge it to JJ”. When I was little we were on that island for two weeks in the summer. Throughout the summer other members of my mother’s family went there for an equally brief time. There was always a project in progress: digging a pond, winterizing the house, and building a new dock, re-wiring the house. Every summer it was something different. My mother’s stepfather wanted anyone there to help if they could. The boatman was involved with those projects, so I was too.
When I went there from school in November I would take a bus to Boston, then I would transfer to another bus that went up the coast to where I was going. School didn’t let out until noon on Wednesday. I had to make a connection and once I missed my bus and had to get the next one that left hours later.
In the bus depot I put my bag in a lockable compartment so I would not have to worry about luggage during my wait. I sat down, stood up, and looked around. Over and over again I did those things. It had gotten dark outside. One of the times I stood up I was looking through a circular rack of post cards. Another person said something from the other side of the rack of post cards and we started to talk. He told me his name and asked me mine. He asked if I would like to go get a cup of coffee. He seemed like a nice person. He was about ten to fifteen years older than I was. I was sixteen years old and drank coffee. I said yes. It didn’t occur to me that there was coffee right there in the bus depot. I didn’t think. We went outside in the dark and got inside his car. I explained my situation, that I was waiting for a bus. We went to a place nearby and sat in his car sipping hot coffee. The conversation turned to matters of sexual activity in an all-boys boarding school. I said there was none. I thought the conversation had gone bad. I wondered why I ever left the bus station. I said I had to get back or I might miss the bus. He said, “If you do I will drive you to Maine myself”. I could just imagine what the boatman would say if I appeared with this guy. He started his car and halfway back he came to a stop along the curb where other cars were parked. He told me that he wanted to do what he said I always wanted. I said, what is that? He said something that made it very clear to me that here was a raving homosexual. I said politely, no thank you, and I thought, here I am in a dark place, in an enclosed place. I thought I might be in the morning paper if they recovered my body. I was hoping this was not a person who would put a bullet in my head and throw my body in a river somewhere. Or, maybe he would simply push me out of his car and I would miss my bus. As it turned out he let me off in front of the bus station, said good-by, and drove away. I acted like nothing had happened. I said if I was ever in the area again and I had more time I would look him up. I don’t know why I said that except I was thankful he had brought me back to the bus station, and I wanted him to think I thought he was a nice person which, basically, he was. He couldn’t control his messed up biological urges. I went back inside the bus station relived that it was over.
Very soon after I sat down another person sits down right next to me and starts talking. Right away he asks me where I’ve been. He knows I was gone. I said I went to get some coffee with…and I said the other person’s first name, which was the only part of his name I knew. The person sitting next to me throws his head back and laughs like he is amazed and says how he knows this person. He says isn’t it amazing that in this whole city this person was in the bus depot, how amazing. Then he asks me if I want to go get some coffee. I say no thank you, and soon he leaves. I go to the locked compartment and get my bag out and go back to sit down. Then I look around more aware. It seemed there were some people just standing around, not there to catch a bus. I was there for a long time with no bag so they probably thought I was like them.
I was glad to be out of there and in a bus going north. When the bus let me off I was the only one to get off and it was 2 A.M. in the morning. There was a pay phone on the ferry dock and I called. I was on the mainland and the ferry was stopped for the night. It was a very clear, cold night, and the water was calm. I stood at the end of the ferry dock looking at how beautiful everything was: the sea, the stars, the moon, everything. I could see the running lights on the boat coming to get me. It was a long way off and it took a long time to get to where I was. I wanted it to take
The next morning we got up early to duck hunt. We wanted to have all the duck decoys set at dawn when the ducks started to fly. There was one coal oil stove in the kitchen and that was the only heat in the house. The upstairs was brisk. I shared a room with the boatman’s son. Three daughters were in two other rooms. The boatman and his wife were in a bedroom downstairs beside the kitchen.
That morning there were four of us who were going to hunt, the boatman, his son, a friend of theirs from a nearby Air Force base, and me. The two older men were going to hunt together, and me and his son were going to hunt together.
None of the women in that family hunted or expressed interest in hunting. Hunting, and killing animals for food was a primeval working out of men-get-food, women-cook-food.
Their one son, who I was going to hunt with that day, drowned years later. His body was never found. His lobster boat ran aground on the shore and people said he fell overboard while hauling his lobster traps. He was a lobster fisherman by trade. He was a good swimmer, but he would have had heavy rubber boots and heavy rubber pants over his other clothes. When a trap is being hauled the boat is left in gear and set in circular travel. If he fell overboard at that moment the boat would have kept going in circles until it went up on shore, which it did. His family thinks his rubber clothes weighted him down. He was presumed drowned. His father, the boatman, died a short while later. He died the day before he was to leave the island to retire on the mainland. I was there when he died. The night before he died he said he didn’t want to leave the island but he said he was supposed to do that for very complicated reasons. My grandmother and her husband had died awhile earlier. When she was alive she called him the “Prime Minister” of that property.
The November day that we were all going out to sit in duck blinds was perfect as far as the weather was concerned. There was a quarter of a mile visibility and it was drizzling. That meant there would be many ducks flying around looking for a place to feed. We took two boats and went in two different directions. The boatman’s son and me went to one place and set up our decoys.
A duck decoy is an artificial duck that floats in the water and is anchored by a weight. If decoys aren’t arranged properly no duck in its right mind will land anywhere near them. When the water is coming for another hour or so there are three or four hours before the tide leaves them on the beach. Those tides are extreme. From the high tide mark to the low tide mark might be as much as 200-feet. We built our blind high up on the shore close to trees and plants. Our decoys were well within range. We had a small flat bottom boat that we pulled up on shore and camouflaged. Nobody ever had a dog retrieve ducks all the years I went there. The water is ice cold. If someone were sitting beside a shivering dog they would get cold. People either used a boat to retrieve ducks, or they let the wind blow them ashore.
Another year on a bright and clear morning in practically the same place I was with my brother in a duck blind. A sea gull was soaring back and forth in front of us 100-feet above the water. All the time it was calling out. It did that for an unusually long time. There was no other sound and that made it seem loud. I remember thinking that if it came in range I could shoot it, but later I was glad it didn’t come in range. I didn’t shoot it. Months later I wondered why I wanted to shoot it, and how I could be capable of such a thought.
On the morning I was in the blind with the boatman’s son a drake Whistler duck landed about 200-feet up the shore from our decoys. It was a smart old bird. All morning ducks were landing in our decoys, but that one wouldn’t. It started to feed off the bottom. It would dive and be gone for about 20 seconds. Then it would reappear, look around, and dive again. This went on for five minutes or more. The boatman’s son proceeded tocrawl out of the duck blind, and each time the bird went down he belly crawled closer over cold wet seaweed and rocks. When the bird came up he would stop. This went on until he was right where the bird was. The bird went down, he stood up, and when the bird appeared again it got “basted”, to use his expression. When we ate ducks that night, that duck was bigger. He knew which one it was and it went on his plate.
My brother told me about another time when the shooting was slow. The boatman’s son plucked, cleaned, cooked, and ate a duck right there on the beach. One time when I was hunting with him after hours of nothingness he broke the silence and said, “Jocko, what would you do right now if a duck charged you?”
When we went back in it would be lunchtime. That was a big meal. If anyone asked the boatman to pass the turnips he would say he couldn’t reach them.
After lunch people would go bow hunting down island. A person was allowed to hunt deer on an island only with a bow and arrow. A game warden enforced the hunting laws of the state. In all the years I went there I never saw a game warden. If I ever did I wanted to have a camera because I would like to take a picture. I’d put it in a photo album and say here is what a game warden looks like. The boatman made it sound like there was a warden behind every tree.
Years later when I came back from Vietnam I smuggled a Russian designed, Chinese made AK-47 into the United States. That same year the United States government allowed people to register any illegal firearms with impunity. I registered the AK-47, which was a semi-automatic or fully automatic assault rifle depending on where the selector switch was. On the registration form I put that I kept it on the island in Maine. When I told the boatman this he was very irate because he thought now there would be more wardens than ever on the island. He was afraid they would think he was hunting deer with a fully automatic assault rifle.
The Island had too many deer. They had only two natural enemies: the severe winters and humans. The deer were smaller than most deer and they had thick fur. A long time ago quite a few people populated the island. Grave stones and apple trees are in the woods. Field stone basements indicate where a house was. A road called the cord wood road went through the north end swamp. Four-foot logs were laid side by side, and covered with dirt. Horses and horse drawn wagons could then travel through the north end swamp. The cord wood road disappeared. The wood rotted away and trees are in the middle of what was the road. Other roads on the island are still traveled. They are narrow dirt roads through the woods.
Late one Fall I was bow hunting and walking up one of those dirt roads. About 100-yards ahead the trees opened into a sunlit clearing where a house used to be. I saw a deer with huge antlers walk by in the sunlight. I walked hurriedly to the opening. It didn’t see or smell me. It went to the far side of the clearing and had its head in the woods like it was feeding. As soon as I stepped into the clearing it looked back at me and disappeared. When I got back I said what happened, and the boatman said I had buck fever.
When I got back to school winter came and in that part of the country there was deep snow that lasted. The headmaster told us to get haircuts all winter long and one student said it was because he was jealous that he was going bald. When a teacher dropped dead from heart attack that same student said, “I’m not going to his funeral because he isn’t going to mine.” I admired his irrefutable logic, sick as it was.
When I was a senior the pressure was on to get into the college of our choice. I didn’t really have a choice. I went East one day across the state to interview at the college in Boston where my father went. It was considered one of the best universities anywhere and it was sort of a joke among the seniors in our school that I was applying there. We took a standardized test that put everybody in the same hat, so to speak. It was called the SAT. As I recall a maximum score was 800. Anything above 600 was a good score that would cause any college to look at you seriously. I had a pair of 400’s or something in the low 400’s, which was mediocre at best. I was seriously applying to one of the best colleges and that was an insult to everyone’s sense of propriety. I applied because my father wanted me to apply there. It was where he went, but when he got accepted it was right after two Italians in that city were executed by the State. It was found out after they were dead and gone that they were without doubt wrongfully accused and innocent. It made national news. The president of that university was on the jury that convicted them. I wondered if a bunch of Italians were accepted that year. My father always was good at public relations. He knew a good opportunity when he saw one. I didn’t have anything like that going for me.
I had a nice visit with some person who worked high up in a building under construction. I suppose to him, I was another privileged kid from an East Coast boarding school wearing a tweed coat and trying to follow in his father’s footsteps. Scholastically I wasn’t there either. We sort of went through the formality of an interview. He said my appointment for the interview was another day and that it was a good thing he was there. I didn’t think I had the wrong day and I wondered if he said that to everybody to see what they would say. If he was trying to start a fight he wasn’t going to get one from me. I just agreed that it was a good thing he was there. We talked about the school where I went and I said they give you enough rope to hang yourself. He was amused by that comment, but soon after that, to everyone’s relief, I got a notification in the mail that I was not accepted.
As it turned out I was accepted at my home State University where they had an open admissions policy. Anyone who was a resident of that State, who applied, who paid, could go there. I didn’t go there right away. I went in the U.S. Army, because my senior year I flunked economics. That meant I didn’t have enough credits to get a diploma. I couldn’t go to college. What I did get is a certificate that said I was there. When we had the graduation ceremony no one else beat me out for last place. There were seventy students in our senior class. Years later I would say I graduated seventy out of seventy and the other person would say, oh, you graduated first in your class? I would say, no, I graduated last. I would watch the expression on their face change.
The diplomas, and in my case the certificate, were all rolled up the same way so the room full of people didn’t know that I was getting a certificate instead of a diploma. I didn’t have to wear a dunce cap or any other visible sign of my achievement, which I thought was big of them considering how competitive everything was. The headmaster said something for every student. When it was my turn he used the word “Vacuum”. It was a positive statement in general but I remember I wanted to cry. I read about a 19th century Russian who said, “Life is everywhere life, I shall not despair…not to falter or fail in any misfortune whatsoever, that is life and therein lies its task.” He said that to a tribunal after they sentenced him to go to Siberia. He wasn’t going there to make a million dollars so I wondered what was failing to him.
When school was over it was Summer time. I could make up the credit for a diploma in Summer school. I called my former school to get approval for a course in mechanical drawing at the local high school, but the person in charge said that subject wasn’t even close to a substitute for the economics course I failed. Then I found a chemistry course at a local private school. That course was approved for credit toward a diploma. I enrolled, and failed it completely. It was nice that my parents didn’t seem to care either way. I would go to and from the school in Morituri, which wasn’t street legal in any sense of the word. Morituri didn’t have fenders, lights, turn signals, or anything that wasn’t absolutely necessary to make it go. I was never stopped by the police or saw any police.
That Summer I ran away from home and went to live in the woods on Peterloon Farm. It was a large farm of over 1300 acres of which probably only 50 acres was tillable. It belonged to my mother’s step- father, the wealthy industrialist. Markin Farm belonged to my parents. It was 24 acres in the middle of Peterloon Farm, and before it belonged to my parents it was part of Peterloon. My grandmother came up with the name Peterloon. When I asked her how she got it, she said that she would probably take that information to her grave.
When I ran away from home I took Morituri, a 20-gage shotgun, a sack full of clothes and all the money I had, which was about 12-pounds of coins. I only fired the shotgun once. In the middle of the night it seemed to me that all the night- life was out sniffing around my campsite. I could hear rustling noises all around me. I crawled out of my tent and fired one shot into the ground to quite things down. My mother’s half sister lived nearby. I heard voices faintly. It sounded like her whole family heard the blast. I didn’t think I was that close.
During the day I would drive out of the woods, and leave Morituri parked behind a small hardware store about three miles away. I would take the bus downtown and see two or three movies and then take the bus back, walk to Morituri, and go the three miles back into the woods. While I was away during the day everything I had was in a sack strapped to the back of Morituri. I knew the owner of the hardware store, his wife and children. None of the things in the sack were ever disturbed and that included the shotgun. That hardware store with its galvanized bins of loose nails is gone. Now, in its place is a trendy shop selling cashmere sweaters. In the woods I felt very much on my own. I wasn’t aware that anyone knew what I was doing except a slightly plump girl I met on the bus. She took the bus every day from the same place, to the same place. She went to a beautician’s school downtown. After a few days we struck up a conversation, and when I moved back home we went out a few times. She lived with her father near the hardware store. He was a hard working, sober man, who, she said, didn’t trust anyone who wore madras shorts. I was getting gasoline in my parents’ car. One of the people who worked there, kind of greasy looking, came over to the car to speak with me. Never mind about the madras shorts. He said she was his friend’s best girl. The whole thing was getting to be more than I could handle. It was taking on the ramifications of a family. We didn’t like each other that much anyway and it soon ended.
When I failed the chemistry course there was a big U.S. military build-up going on that involved many people. It was a foregone conclusion that if a young male were not in college he would be part of the military build-up. I didn’t concern myself with that reality, rather I thought mostly that I had a good month of Summer left, and I wanted to go to Maine to get involved with whatever was going on there.
When I left home my younger sister was painting an old field car with a paintbrush. She turned around with the brush hanging down at her side and said, “Are you leaving now?” She was in the distance, but I could see that the look on her face dissolved any differences we had over the years. As I was going up the long driveway it dawned on me that I was leaving. It would never again be quite the same. Then I remembered the words of a poet who said, “Home is the place that when you go there they have to take you in.” I would always have a home. I was going to Maine and I took my time getting there. I was driving the car my father gave me. At one point he thought he had the midas touch and among other things, bought a failing French car dealership. It soon went out of business altogether, but not before he gave each of his five children one of the used cars. My job wasn’t to carry out the garbage but to keep all the cars running. I became very familiar with them. I could make repairs or do engine rebuilds without even looking at the manual.
It was about a 1000 miles to where I was going in Maine, and I performed certain preventive maintenance on the way. The term preventive maintenance I later learned in the U.S. Army means you fix something before it breaks. Before I ever got in the Army I was performing preventive maintenance although I didn’t call it that name. As far as I knew the front wheel bearings had never been packed with grease since the car left the factory. I stopped at what turned out to be a friendly garage, and out there on the gravel I proceeded to disassemble one front wheel and then the other. I took off the wheel and moved the break caliper out of the way, and removed the hub and rotor as one piece. That exposed the bearings, and I packed them in grease. A man who seemed to own the garage gave me the grease, and said he didn’t understand why I was going to all the trouble if the bearings worked.
When I was packing a wheel bearing with grease and holding it in my hand I thought about when I was in school. A teacher said everything that rolls uses bearings and in conventional war if bombers or anything else can knock out a bearing factory it means the enemy has suffered a big loss. That was conventional war. Vietnam, where I was soon to be, was not a conventional war. Over there, when the Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV) thought the 25th division base camp at Cu Chi was going to be over run by a bunch of people with garden tools there was a high altitude B-52 strike one night that I could feel in my feet. Actually, those people had Chinese and Russian made rifles called AK-47’s and they wanted to kill us. The killing from our side was so sophisticated. We were told bombs could be dropped in a rain barrel from way up there out of sight and sound. I think it was from 30,000-feet. The planes flew out of Thailand or the Philippines and were “vectored.” They didn’t depend on ground reference. On the night when the B-52 strike came, all of a sudden there was a sound like thunder. No one around me had their cold beer interrupted. Also, in broad daylight MACV flew in the 3rd brigade of the 101 Airborne Division, which was a hard core infantry unit and the “reactionary force” for MACV. The attack never came. There was a Vietnam era song that said, “Oh please, please don’t drop that H-bomb on me. If you are going to drop it, go drop it, on yourself.” If they didn’t drop those bombs that night maybe all of us would have been killed. It was a wicked circle. My son recently heard that song and asked me what an H-bomb was. I hope he only reads about bombs.
When I got to the island in Maine they were digging a pond and I went right to work. The boatman found old dump trucks on the mainland, put them on a scow, and we took them over to the island. They were small, three-yard dump trucks that were not going to last much longer. When one broke down, rather than fix it, he would have another ready. Sometimes, I went with him to the mainland to find inexpensive dump trucks, but when I worked, my job was to haul dirt down island, dump it, and come back for more. There were three or four dump trucks going at the same time. The idea of the pond was to use it as a source of reliable water to lower fire insurance rates. My mother’s stepfather had a transit to measure how much dirt he needed to remove and I helped him. He showed me how to use a transit, which I learned is a handy thing to have if you are going to dig a pond. When the pond was finished he put fresh water fish in it and made it look natural. The ocean was out there “…water, water, everywhere…” and there was a pond where there would be more water. When I left Maine several weeks later the pond was finished. I went to orientation at the Ohio State University. It was scheduled before I flunked economics. I never got any notice saying I couldn’t go there. I didn’t have to be there for a week so I took my time.
I stayed in state parks over night and ate from a box of groceries that I carried with me in the car and replenished from time to time. In one park there was a big United States Civil War battle over 100-years earlier. A song writer sang, “…You can please some of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all the people all the time.” Then, in the same song, he sings the President of the United States said that.
Late one afternoon I pulled into a small camping area near Youngstown, Ohio to spend the night. I didn’t have a tent or other obvious camping gear. I slept in my car so I was unusual in that respect. A park ranger came around to collect money. Only two other campers were there. I got out my box of groceries and proceeded to make dinner. The camper nearest to me waved me over. He told me the night before the same two campers had been there when several runaway teenagers went through the park to get to an adjacent cornfield where they were going to spend the night. He said the other camper was a vacationing policeman who called the local police. When the police took the runaway teenagers back through the park one girl yelled how she would get even.
I never suspected at the time that they thought I was the person who was going to get even. I listened to the story remotely. Then I went back over to finish my dinner and sleep. I was trying to go to sleep when I heard the camper I was talking to leave. He packed up and left. It was still daylight when the other camper who I had not met rapped his knuckles on my car window, and asked if I wanted to sit by his fire. I took him up on the offer. They were some clean-cut uncomplicated people, who were amazed the other camper had told me about the previous night, especially the part about him being a policeman. When I said that he suddenly went into the trailer long enough to either go to the bathroom or strap on a gun. There were two couples among them, and they loaded me up with hot food. In the course of conversation they learned what I was doing. It wasn’t as if they asked 20 questions in a row but when I think about it, they learned everything they wanted to know. I told them I was coming from Maine and going to orientation at the State University. They were warm friendly people and their food was extremely good.
There were probably 10,000 freshmen at Ohio State University. The orientation program for freshmen was cycled over and over all summer. Each group wasn’t that big and it didn’t feel as if there were that many people.
Three things stick in my mind. First, I befriended one orientation individual with a pipe. Four years later when I went to school there I didn’t look him up. Second, there was a get-together for in-coming freshmen on the roof of the Student Union. I danced with one girl the whole time. It seemed the song about 96 tears played often. She said she didn’t understand why I was there.
Any illusions I had about attending the University that fall disappeared when I was summoned to the Admissions Office in the administration building. That was the third thing that sticks in my mind. I waited in an outer office and was soon called into an inner office where one man in a suit sat behind a desk. We talked for a long time. He was aware that I did not get a diploma, and he said I could not enroll there as a freshman without a high school diploma. I said I would probably join the Army. He gave me his card and asked that I please look him up when I got out. Several years later I did go back, and he was still there. I made an appointment to see him. He came out to greet me that time. He shook hands with me and talked like I was there the day before. I said it was amazing to me that he remembered my situation. He must have kept a file.