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About the Author
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People who have lived well and successfully are more apt to dismiss luck as a factor in their lives than those who have not. It's clearly true that over a lifetime the same things keep happening to the same people, good and bad, so it can't be luck. The process by which each of us acquires a reputation isn't independent of our character. It almost always depends more on the decisions we make than on chance occurrences.
The trouble with this smug thesis is that anyone crossing a street can be hit by a truck and the accident alters the person's life no matter how wise he or she was in making choices, so we can't claim luck never enters in. Maybe my life wouldn't have been much different if "Doc" Armstrong hadn't owned the pharmacy and been head of the draft board in the pleasant college town of Hamilton, New York.
It was sometime in May and there were still a few weeks of classes left of my junior year at Colgate University. My life was never the same again.
Most of my classmates had registered for the draft in their hometowns. Thinking the draft board in a college town would be sympathetic to the idea of letting students finish college before serving, I had chosen to register in Hamilton instead of in my hometown, Albany.
I had come to Colgate fresh out of The Albany Academy, a private school. My friends at public school thought The Academy was elitist, which I thought was wrong at the time. Now I think they were right but that there's a case to be made for the kind of elitism that existed there. In some part, at least, it wasexcellence. The Academy was an exceptionally fine secondary school that graduated a high percentage of people who succeeded in making good lives for themselves. Everyone in the senior class, known at The Academy as the Sixth Form, went on to college. The other boys and girls in Albany thought of us as rich kids because the tuition was $400 a year. Some few classmates were from rich families and no one let them forget it. We kidded Walter Stephens about being brought to school every day in a chauffeur-driven Pierce Arrow and our remarks to him were not very good-natured. In a world where everyone strives to make money, it's strange that a family with a breadwinner who achieves that goal is stigmatized and charged with the epithet "Rich!"
My father's $8,000 a year was considered good money during the Great Depression. When I was eight or nine, we moved out of a respectable middle-class house in the residential heart of Albany to a much nicer one with chestnut woodwork, a fireplace, and downstairs playroom, still in the city but further out. In addition to that home in Albany, we owned a cottage on Lake George, seventy miles north. There we had a Fay-Bowen, a classic old wooden boat, and I had my own outboard attached to a sturdy rowboat. My sister, Nancy, had a canoe. She wanted a fur cape for Christmas when she was seventeen but she didn't get that.
Dad traveled through the South for the Albany Felt Company as a salesman and he was worldly wise but my mother ran things. Part of her expertise was making Dad think he was boss. She was a great mother to have and I've often wondered how she was able to get so much satisfaction from doing for us what so many mothers today do without satisfaction. She liked to play bridge but I don't think she ever read a book. Being a mother was her full-time occupation.
Life at The Academy was very good. We used the school almost like a country club, often meeting there on Saturday morning to use the facilities or plan our day if we didn't have a team game scheduled. The Academy was not a military school, but it was founded in 1812 and during the Civil War it had formed a student battalion. The tradition was continued and once a week for about an hour and a half we put on funny old Civil War-style formal uniforms and marched in practice for Albany parades and our own competitive Guidon Drill. It was my first brush with military life. Although it was years before the thought occurred to me that I'd ever serve in the U.S. Army, I learned to detest everything about anything military at an early age. One day when we were to parade on the football field, I refused to march because I claimed it would damage the carefully kept field.
In the student battalion, everyone's aim was to become an officer in his Sixth Form year. The choices were made by two military aides who came to the school just once a week and a committee from the regular faculty. Shortly before the choices were to be made as to who the officers would be, Colonel Donner, the school's military adviser who was with the New York State National Guard, lined up the Fifth Formers in the battalion and said that anyone who did not want to be considered for a position as one of the officers in his senior year should step forward.
It put me in a terrible spot. Everyone wanted to be an officer. I wanted to be one but my negative attitude toward the battalion was so well known to everyone that the colonel was, in a way, challenging me to put up or shut up. I had no choice but to step forward as the only person in the school announcing that he did not want to be considered for the honor of being an officer in the battalion.
The colonel thanked me for being honest and dismissed us.
It was lucky for me that several teachers on the faculty disliked the battalion as much as I did. When the announcement of their choice for officers was made three days later, my name was on the list. Because I was captain of the football team, president of the Beck Literary Society, and "one of the guys," it would have been difficult for them to leave me off the list because it would have called for an explanation to the younger kids in the school. And then some of the faculty members like Herbert Hahn were my friends. They knew, even though I had stepped forward in that bravado gesture, that I desperately wanted to be chosen. (Mr. Hahn otherwise distinguished himself in my eyes by stating in class one day in about 1936, "Hitler will get nowhere in Germany.")
The only problem for me at The Academy was that my marks were poor. That was a constant problem. My mother always signed my report cards and hid them from my father when he returned from a trip because she knew Dad would be angry about them. He had successfully made his way from the tiny Ballston Spa High School to Williams College and he couldn't understand my bad grades. Although I was puzzled over them, I never gave in to the idea that I was stupid even though there was some evidence of that. There were things I did well and it was easy for me to think about those and ignore failing marks in Latin, geometry, and French. It was further depressing evidence of how much we're like ourselves all day long, all our years. I still see traces of the way I performed in The Academy at age sixteen in things I do today. We're trapped with what we have and with what we have not. No amount of resolve changes our character. I do a lot of woodworking as a hobby and, considering how different the craft is from writing, it's interestingand sometimes discouragingfor me to note, in introspective moments, how close my strengths and weaknesses in making a chest of drawers are to the strengths and weaknesses in my writing. I feel the same helplessness with my shortcomings on paper and in my shop as I do when it occurs to me that I'm overweight, not primarily because I eat too much but that I eat too much primarily because of some genetic shortcoming I got from my father and share with my sister.
Football was one of the things I liked best at The Academy. We had a good bunch of fellows on the team and a coach known as "Country" Morris who was just right. He knew the game and he was a decent man who expected decency from all of us. He had been a football star at the University of Maryland and he looked just the way a coach should look on the football field with his leather-elbowed jacket and his baseball cap pulled down over his eyebrows and cocked at a jaunty angle.
I was five feet nine inches, weighed 175 pounds, and played guard on offense and tackle on defense. Because of the attitude other kids in town had toward us at The Academy, it was particularly satisfying to beat one of the public high schools or a parochial school, and we did that quite often during the four years I played. My friend Bob Baker was a good football player but his family fell on hard times and he had to leave The Academy in the Fourth Form and go to Albany High and then play against us.
I was in or near tears for three days after the high-school game my senior year. We were undefeated during the season and heavy favorites to beat the high school. The high school game ended in a scoreless tie and it was as if we had lost fifty to nothing. It seemed so important. Bob Baker was exultant and I suppose it took away some of the pain of his having had to leave The Academy.
In college, I soon realized I had conflicting interests. I was interested in writing, football, and philosophy. I thought I wanted to be a writer but didn't know where to start. What is called "English" in college is generally disappointing to anyone interested in learning how to write because, while I enjoyed having to read Byron, the English courses I was taking didn't have anything to do with learning how to put words down on paper in an interesting way. The courses I was getting were in English reading, not English writing. I didn't know at the time that you can't teach someone how to write. And I was discouraged to find grammar and English usage so much more complex than I'd previously thought it then to be.
Looking back at some of the things I wrote for Porter Perrin's "creative writing" classes, it's difficult to know why he thought I was worth encouraging. A good teacher hands out more encouragement than pupils deserve as a matter of teaching technique. You hear it from the teacher on the tennis court next to you. "Nice shot!" he says to the pupil who finally gets one over the net. Mr. Perrin did that with me and at least it gave me enough confidence, false though it may have been, to keep going.
Philosophy was all new to me. I had not known there were ideas like the ones we argued over in class. The great philosophers seemed to be maddeningly fair and indecisive, always too willing to consider another explanation. I had not known there was such a thing as pure thought for thought's sake only, independent of any practical result of having had it. I was fascinated by the application of philosophy to religion and became more convinced than ever that the mysteries of life, death, and the universe were insoluble and that God was as much a question as an answer.
Football was the thing I knew most about although some of the courses were easy. I took a biology course that was almost identical to, but simpler than, one I'd passed in The Academy. This was a freshman's dream come true.
At The Academy the linemen had already begun to trap block, which was considered a fairly sophisticated maneuver at the time, but my career as a football player at Colgate was checkered. I'd been heavy enough to be good in high school, but now at 185 pounds going up against linemen weighing 220 and 230 was a different experience. The first time I tried to move Hans Guenther out of the hole I was supposed to make for the fullback, Hans grabbed me by the shoulder pads, threw me aside, and tackled the fullback behind the line of scrimmage. Colgate had had an all-American guard a few years before my class who weighed even less than I did. The press had picked up the Colgate publicist's phrase "watch-charm guard" to describe him and it caught on. He was small but very fast and quicknot the same thing on the football field. The freshman coach, Razor Watkins, thought he had another watch-charm guard in me because I was small. He was not prepared for a player who was small and neither fast nor quick.
No matter how I did on the field, I was determined not to be a jock and let football dominate my life. A lot of the young men on the team were scholarship players who had been recruited to play football. They seemed crude to me and I became more aware than I had been at The Academy that I'd led a sheltered high-school life. None of my friends there had smoked, we didn't say "shit" or "fuck," and we didn't sleep with our girlfriends. Sex was only a rumor to us. I felt a sense of superiority that I recall now with a mixture of pride and embarrassment. I was right but it was self-righteous of me to think so.
It was nonetheless true though that college often brings out the worst in perfectly good young men and women. First-rate colleges like Colgate that get three times as many applicants as they can accept choose what they think are the best prospects. Go to one of those colleges on a party weekend and you wonder what the college applicants who weren't selected must be like if these young people attending the college are the cream of the crop.
I don't know what happens, but too often kids who have been bright and decent in high school turn into something else in college. I remember hearing of "Pig Night" at Yale where club residents were expected to bring a woman to the party who'd lay anybody. Colgate had fraternities, and there's some collective evil spirit that prevails in many fraternities and clubs. They offer sanctuary for boors and boorishness.
Colgate didn't bring out the best in me. I liked several of the teachers and their courses but I felt superior to a lot of what I saw there because I was looking at superficial things about the college and the students. It had a lot to do with my getting involved with a pacifist movement there.
Toward the end of my freshman year, I joined the Sigma Chi fraternity even though I felt the fraternity idea was foolish. Our house had been one of the fine old homes in town, and the fraternity had divided it up into a clutch of rabbit warrens that housed fifty of us in near-slum conditions. It was a good group of young men though, and it was an economically and socially practical way to live. The whole hocus-pocus of the fraternity mystique was foolish but dividing a campus up into groups of forty or fifty students and letting them work out their own food and housing is not a bad system.
For many years now I've returned all the Sigma Chi material that comes my way from the national headquarters with a note DECEASED on the envelope but nothing discourages the national organization from trying to honor anyone like me who they think might give them money.
When I got to college my marks improved dramatically, not through any genetic transformation but because I chose courses suited to a deformed intellect. This was one of the changes college life brought me. Another way I hoped to prove I wasn't a jock was by deciding to take piano lessons between classes and football practice. The wife of one of the professors undertook, at $2 for each one-hour lesson, to teach me. During my first lesson, I recall thinking that I clearly had more potential as a football player than I had as a musician. Piano playing didn't come easily to me. The teacher was quite a pretty woman and I was disappointed at myself, considering my motive for taking the lessons, for being thrilled when she put her hand over mine to move it over the keys. I found myself thinking more of the professor's wife than of the piano.
My third day of piano lessons turned out to be my last. I went directly from that lesson to football practice. It was a game-style scrimmage between the second team and the first team. During the second half of the scrimmage that day, I was playing opposite Bill Chernokowski, one of those gorillalike athletes whose weight was mostly at or above the waist. He had short, relatively small legs and a huge torso with stomach to match. There are potbellied men who are surprisingly strong and athletic and "Cherno" was one of those. At 260 pounds he was the heaviest man on the squad.
As things turned out, it didn't matter where he carried most of his weight. When he stepped on the back of my right hand in the middle of the third quarter, that ended, for all time, any thought I might have had of being another Vladimir Horowitz.
At our fiftieth class reunion I had to revise my long-held opinion of Bill Chernokowski when I learned that his daughter was an outstanding cellist and Bill had season tickets to the New York Philharmonic. I couldn't have been more surprised, as my friend Charlie Slocum used to say, if I'd seen Albert Payson Terhune kick a collie.
Football became less important to me as I realized I was never going to be an all-American player. My career as a pianist now over, I began to think more about writing. There were two professors who interested me.
One was Porter Perrin, who was writing a book called A Writer's Guide and Index to English. He became the closest thing I had to a friend on the faculty. The other was a Quaker iconoclast, Kenneth Boulding, who taught economics for the university and pacifism for his own satisfaction at night in meetings with students at his home. I don't know firsthand that he was brilliant, but it is an adjective that almost everyone used in referring to him.
When the college opened after preseason football, I had classes with both men. Boulding stammered badly and even though you knew it shouldn't have, it influenced the way you thought about him. During a class lecture, you were driven to pay careful attention because of the difficulty of following his broken speech. He was always surprising us, too. He'd be expounding some theory of economics that we barely understood when suddenly he'd drop in some mildly witty or unexpected remark. The class would erupt in raucous laughter, more front the sense of relief the class felt when Boulding got it out than by the humorous content of it.
When Boulding posted a notice on the bulletin board about a meeting of all those opposed to our entry into the war, I took that second opportunity to separate myself from the other football players and started going to his meetings. For some reason opposing the war seemed like an intellectual stand to take. It still seemed that way to Vietnam protesters. It was almost like not watching television now. There's a whole subculture in America of people who are proud of themselves for not watching television. They take every opportunity to tell anyone they can get to listen. I suffered something like that syndrome in opposing the war.
Boulding was a good teacher. The best teachers are not the ones who know most about the subject. The best teachers are the ones who are most interested in somethinganything, and not necessarily the subject they teach. Boulding was consumed with the idea of pacifism and I've often thought of him as a good example of how little it matters that a college teacher is professing theories that are counter to popular and acceptable ideas of economics, religion, race, or government. His students were constantly propagandized by him but they ended up sorting things out for themselves. Being exposed to a communist professor in the 1930s didn't make communists of many students. Being exposed to the pacifist ideas of Kenneth Boulding didn't do his students any harm although if the parents of many of my classmates had sat in on some of those evening sessions in Boulding's home, they might have been reluctant to pay the next tuition bill to Colgate.
Quakers, like Christian Scientists, are frequently such decent, gentle, and seemingly reasonable people that they are not often considered to be religious fanatics. But they are generally more zealous than other Christiansmost of whom, God knows, are zealous enough. The further a religion is from mainstream, the more devoted its followers are likely to be to it, and Quakers are down a long little rivulet.
Boulding may have been an economics genius, but he was definitely a religious nut. I was caught up with some of his ideas before I knew that and became convinced of the truth of one of his statements I've since seen attributed to both Plato and Benjamin Franklin: "Any peace is better than any war." I liked that a lot.
It was Boulding's contention that the conflict in Europe was none of the United States' business and even if it had been, war was an immoral way to pursue interests. The argument made sense to me, which gives you some idea how sensible I was when I was twenty.
On September 1, 1939, the day Hitler invaded Poland to begin World War II, I was in Hamilton where I'd arrived three weeks before classes began for football practice under the legendary head coach, Andy Kerr. I was so consumed with the game that one of the most momentous events in all history, Hitler's blitzkreig, barely got my attention. I'd buy The New York Times several days a week but I didn't read much of it.
NAZIS TAKE BREST-LITOVSK
TURKS MASS ON SYRIAN BORDER
I couldn't have told you what country Brest-Litovsk was in nor did I have any idea what disagreement the Turks had with the Syrians.
It still was ten years before Senator Joseph McCarthy aroused the moderate and liberal population to protest his demagogic effort to expose and make jobless any American who ever had a conciliatory thought about socialism or communism. Before the war the isolationist Congressman Martin Dies of Texas had already formed an Un-American Activities Committee that was McCarthy's forerunner. Isolationism was a popular movement, and outside the House it was organized as a group with the populist name "America First."
I participated in a debating society contest and the issue of the argument was "Resolved, that the American Press should be under the control of a Federal Press Commission." I'm pleased to be able to report that I was on the right side of that argument although I think the sides were chosen by a flip of a coin. We won the debate, but the fact that it could have been proposed as a subject for debate says something about the timesand we didn't have any easy time winning. The proposition would not be seriously considered today.
I didn't want to go to Europe to fight and die for what seemed to me to be someone else's cause. I hear the faint, far-away-and-long-ago echo of my own voice every time a congressman proclaims that "we shouldn't sacrifice the life of a single American boy" when the question comes up about our moving in to save a few hundred thousand poor souls being slaughtered in some foreign land. I decided I must be a Conscientious Objector. It was always capitalized because it was a formally recognized category of draft resisters.
This was when "Doc" Armstrong ended up forcing my hand, although he couldn't have known it since I'd never spoken with him. I had no idea that "Doc," the friendly, homespun tradesman with the gold-rimmed spectacles, was the head of the draft board. If "Doc" was around today, he could step into a role as the druggist in any pharmaceutical company's television commercial. His was the first drugstore I'd ever seen that didn't have a soda fountain, and that should have made me realize that "Doc" was a no-nonsense guy. There was something else I didn't know about "Doc" that I learned later. He was commander of the Madison County chapter of the American Legion and thought that every red-blooded American boy should serve his countryas he had in World War Iand right now.
He was not impressed by my attempt to delay enlisting by registering in Hamilton instead of Albany. It seemed to me as though I'd been hit by a truck the day I got the draft notice, sometime in May, a few weeks before the end of my junior year, stating I was to report for duty in the United States Army.
I had long, sophomoric, philosophical discussions with my friends about resisting the draft. A young man I'd been in school with at The Albany Academy, Allen Winslow, had already refused to serve and was the first person to go to prison for that offense during World War II. I admired him.
Unwilling as I was, over the few months I had between the time I was drafted and the day I had to report, I wisely concluded that I probably wasn't smart enough to be a conscientious objector even though I agreed with those who were. All the conscientious objectors I knew, like Boulding, seemed bright, deep, introspective, and a little strange. I liked those traits in a person even though I didn't have them myself.
One of my dominating characteristics has always been that I'm not strange. I'm average in so many ways that it eliminates any chance I ever had of being considered a brooding, introspective intellectual.
When Boulding died in 1993, several people wrote me saying I'd been unfair in some of the things I'd said about him. Our opinions of people tend to alter slowly over the years and, if we don't update our relationship by talking to them, become untrue. I have opinions of a great many people that must be unfair and untrue, but I've repeated them so often they're set in my mind and serve my purpose when I'm casting characters for stories that illustrate a point. My opinion of Kenneth Boulding settled and changed moderately over the years without my having come on any new facts to justify the change. It may not be accurate. On the other hand, of course, it may be accurate.
After months of anguishing over it I realized that, while I was an objector, I could not honestly claim to be a conscientious one. On July 7th, 1941, I reported for duty.