School Daze 2: Freshman Year at College 1965

School Daze 2

The freshman dormitories on the men’s campus at Duke are on the quadrangle west of the Chapel. They are a long series of structures resembling Gothic row houses; and are arbitrarily divided into sections that are lettered in alphabetic sequence. Contrary to this generic lettering, the upperclassman Independent Houses have proprietary names of identification, like Canterbury, while the Fraternity Houses have the customary Greek nomenclature such as Alpha Tau Epsilon. This seems to emphasize your relative worthlessness as you start your academic career and seems modeled after the nameless rank-less military plebe class at West Point.

When my parents dropped me off in front of my new home, the freshman dormitory simply known as “J House”, then hurriedly unpacked the station wagon, put all my things in my room, and abruptly headed home, I had a panic attack. Although I should have been elated at the arrival of my long anticipated emancipation, instead I felt nothing but instantaneous homesickness.

To make matters worse the dormitory interior was crypt-like with narrow sunless hallways, tiny rooms with narrow windows, and even narrower beds. The two young men expected to co-habit the room, whose parents were trying to save on expenses, could immediately feel a pervading claustrophobically interpersonal angst. The housing was nice looking on the outside but akin to living inside a medieval tomb. In addition I had to bunk with a roommate who had been arbitrarily assigned to me.

He was a nice enough, but a very straight-laced person who was in college under the Reserve Officer Training Commission (ROTC), a factor that required him to wear a Navy uniform most of the time. I suppose it was the natural progression after Boy Scouts and did nothing to help my previously ingrained distain for uniforms.

The good thing was that he spent a lot of time out of the room, which was fine with me. However to this day I do not know if this was because of his ancillary military obligations and studies, because I was giving off unfriendly vibrations, or because of the constant taunting of the dormitory political liberal, Arthur, who in salutation would repeat his last name over and over again making it sound like the croaking of a nocturnal marsh frog.

  • Brrrrent, Brrrrent, Brrrrent.

Freshman dorm relationships in general tend to be a bit like a group of vacationers stuck together on a long tour package. After a lot of random interactive shuffling about, the various personalities sort themselves out, and then cliques form. The absurdity of it all is that even though you are now buddies, if you met the same people on the street or at a cocktail party, you would never even give them the time of day. Eventually the re-sorting evolved and everyone either joined a fraternity or moved into an Independent Dormitory.

But during that first college year, the blend of disparate souls can make for a significant degree of diversity, camaraderie, or interpersonal tension and hostility before it does eventually re- shuffles. Perhaps this accounts for the origins of the “birds of a feather” Fraternal system in the first place. Better to be with an asshole identical to ones self than to be a diametrically opposite asshole who in relative terms is a real asshole. Our dorm was no exception.

Living next to me in a single room was a good-natured carefree soul from Pennsylvania, Doug, who was totally unperturbed by the world as he let everything roll off his back. He was passionate about golf, and despite his lack of a legacy, got into a fraternity simply because of his athleticism.

Across the hallway was a highly neurotic Jewish pre-dental student who could not get going in the morning unless he repeated his bathroom rituals in a predetermined properly correct order. He could easily be tortured by simply placing one of his previously and neatly aligned pairs of shoes out of line, or by moving his toothbrush two inches to the right. One day he actually had a near nervous breakdown when he lost his Mezuzah. It was the first I had ever heard of this uniquely religious good luck charm and its loss caused the small world of our dormitory came to a screeching halt until the item was finally relocated, then once again placed above his doorway, with all of its associated blessings and mystical protections happily restored.

We had to find it or he would still be perseverating to this day:

  • I lost my Mezuzah. I lost my Mezuzah. I lost my Mezuzah. Where’s my Mezuzah?

He eventually joined the small Jewish fraternity that consisted primarily of intellectual nerds, and was never seen by us again; although I subsequently learned he has made a fortune in cable television but not in amalgam dental fillings or in realigning crooked teeth in some glitzy northern New Jersey suburb.

Being Jewish at Duke University may have fulfilled certain admission quotas, but generally speaking, the Jewish students were a targeted minority. Being a northern Catholic with an Italian last name this made me look good by comparison.

Perhaps it was no accident that the Jewish fraternity house, the Tao Epsilon Phi, (The TEPs) was physically adjacent to the football athlete’s Fraternity house, the Alpha Tau Omega (The JOCKs); such that  on many a liquored up Saturday night it would not be infrequent that these frustrated animals would crash through the barrier door in the basement separating the dorms and proceed to use the Jewish “dweebs” as footballs.

That is if they were not first entertaining themselves or their sorority sisters by their unique tradition of group mooning out the windows or  throwing a television set off the dormitory roof and then gleefully screaming as the screen and neon tubes disintegrated as the appliance completely disappeared into a pile of tiny silver dust particles. The authorities would usually turn and look the other way or slap some inconsequential punishment on the cheeky offenders.

Administrative authorities also turned their other cheeks to the jock’s generally poor academic performances and the fact that their sorority sisters wrote most of their term papers. But after all, what is a major University if it does not have an athletic program, even if the athletes themselves do not really go to school, or in order to matriculate will enroll in specially designed classes such as “Citizenship 101” or “Advanced Primitive Tribal Face Painting”

This particular course comes in especially handy for them on football game day when they put that idiotic black paint under their eyes, a ritual ostensibly designed to keep reflected sun glare from bouncing off their mirror-like steroid induced shiny skinned faces and temporarily blinding them.

  • Sorry coach. I flubbed it cause I couldn’t see the ball. I forgot to wear my war paint.

So what if Duke Football at that time ranked consistently in the bottom ten percent of all Division I colleges. Since the team consistently gets pummeled into the gridiron every Fall Saturday afternoon, their tactics and tendencies to beat up on TEPs may have in reality been nothing better than a simple case of Kick the Dog Syndrome. It certainly was not an example of putting the elements of “Citizenship 101” into daily practice 

In general it seems strange that many Division I colleges continue to maintain both football and basketball programs, but that very few seem to excel in both simultaneously. I was told once that it all revolves around solicitation of alumni donations backed up by a perpetual hope that someday, no matter what, the monetary support will bring in a National Championship. Duke football fans will be dead three times over before that ever happens again. 

At Duke, an equally strange curiosity was the fact that there seemed to be an inverse proportion between the size of the athlete and the size of his unusually diminutive girlfriend, which gave rise to our jocular reference to their imagined sexual encounters as being “spinners” or “propeller jobs.” All in all I suppose that is probably better than the imagined sexual implications attached to the fall and spring Fraternity classics known as the “Greek Games.” 

Further down the hall, in J House, lived another Jewish student, Dan, who was the antithesis of the obsessive pre-dental nut case. He rarely studied, eventually flunked out and later enrolled in a smaller college that was easier to survive academically.

His favorite pastime was to have everyone come into his room, turn off the lights, lie back on his bed, then pull up his legs and ignite his farts with a butane cigarette lighter. He could fart at will and we all laughed hysterically as he entertained us with a repetitive flame throwing demonstration that could have made him a comfortable living in any carnival side show: Methane Man: The Human Flame Thrower.

Of course this is not to say that we neither discouraged him nor did we ever think we were not freaky ourselves when we attempted to measure the distance of the flaming eruptions with a ruler. These activities can be lumped into the general classification of: ND-SN-FBS: No Date-Saturday Night-Freshman Boredom Syndrome.  

Because Dan had no problem hanging cartoons up in the dormitory lounge for public review one of his most legendary achievements was to sponsor the first annual “Gross-Out Art Contest,” an event that nearly got him expelled when one of the contestants submitted a picture of Donald Duck giving Jesus Christ a blow-job. He was an advocate of freedom of the press, having taken some inspiration from the radical contemporary author’s Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs who were breaking down the barriers of literary censorship on a national level with books the likes of “Howl” and “Naked Lunch,” while at the same time Bob Dylan was breaking down the barriers of racial segregation by questioning the morals and mores of polite society or centralized government with his music.Dan was also a natural born stand up comedian, who because of not having a car or other monetary means, traveled back and forth to New York by hitch hiking with a handmade placard stating:

Dan F: A laugh a mile

He always got a ride.

 

Dylan

(Bob Dylan, Robbie Robertson and Allen Ginsberg)

Another standout was the good natured Georgia boy, “Buck”, who had an innate sense of humor, an open curiosity about the world, was always too quick to fall in love, but who also had a tendency to be easily influenced and easily led astray. Sometimes I think the world was simply a little too much for him. At one point he had to temporarily drop out of school when he retrieved his mail, only to find a note written by his parents to this effect:

“Dear son; Had enough, decided to quit, sold the house, moving away, and sorry but now you are on your own. By the way, this also means you get no more money. Pay for school yourself. Love, Mom and Dad.”

He then decided to either sell or to give away all his possessions, as he became a passionate follower of the teachings of the transcendental meditation icon, Maher Baba, who had concurrently been made famous by the Beatles. Although he was only following his own soft, kindly heart, and truly did believe he could make a difference in the world by following the pacifist trail, we all thought Buck was a little crazed with his fascination for the squeaky impish rodent-voiced little Indian prophet.

Even though cultural issues in America were then turning out to be quite troubled, as America’s youth was beginning to turn away from materialism, most of us seemed to be able to smell the phony little rat wrapped up in the white Sari. We were also still a bit mercenary and not quite at the stage where we were about to think twice when we absorbed all of Buck’s cast aside 33 speed records into our own vinyl collections.

As it turned out Buck was but one of the many, including the Beatles, who were hoodwinked into believing that this great teacher was going to reveal the long awaited key to salvation, but who then were equally and horribly disappointed when on his death bed the Baba’s highly anticipated pre-advertised final words of holy revelation were:

  • I was Rani, I was Shiva, I was Krishna, I was Vishnu, I was this one, I was that one. I am also Maher Baba. I will die, but I shall return.

Why should any one who knows anything about Buddhism or Brinkmanship have been disappointed or even remotely surprised at this wondrous, ever so profoundly clever yet fraudulent revelation? After all, if one believes in reincarnation the Baba did not tell a lie, did he?

Sadly, several years ago I heard that Buck had gone on to become a high school teacher who in being well loved by most but apparently not by all in Atlanta, Georgia, was subsequently shot to death one day in class by a disgruntled student. Perhaps his biggest flaw was that he was the kind of person who could never even hurt a fly and that the disgruntled student probably took his offbeat sense of sarcastic humor without the necessary grain of salt.

In dorm life as well as in societal life, as might be expected, there is always an alpha personality that rises to the top and tends to lead the pack. In J House, his name was Arthur, a pre-law student from Trenton New Jersey, who had an insidious ability to insert his views, to make them predominant, and to cast an air of arrogant condescending superiority.

He was extremely intimidating and liked to prey on weaker personalities while attempting to turn them to his point of view, or if he could not, then spent a great deal of time torturing the intended victim until he at least raised a reactive response. Then when all else failed, his final tactic was to simply raise his voice higher than any one who might be trying to propose a countervailing argument.

My ex-wife also liked to use the torture tactic as she consistently misinterpreted peace and quiet as meaning a lack of interest or lost love. Equally confusing was her belief that having a nasty loud argument meant I was actually taking a sincere interest in our relationship.

Art’s political philosophy was inherently to the left side of liberal. He was also far ahead of me intellectually as he had already been versed in literature I had never even heard of, lording over our conversations with ideas and quotations he had extracted from the likes of T.S. Elliot, Ezra Pound, Rimbaud, Baudelaire, William Burroughs, and Jack Kerouac; to name few. He also had very broad musical interests, and despite the intimidation factor, was instrumental in elevating my awareness to considerably more expansive horizons than those attached to my insular introverted upbringing.

Finally and ultimately then, there was myself. A nerdy, conservative northern boy, who originally intended nothing more than to go to school, to study hard, to get into medical school, to subsequently have a life and career that would basically run predictably on auto pilot; with a lucrative almost guaranteed income.

Nice house. Perfect wife. White picket fence. Two perfect kids playing in the yard. Dream on.

I could have never possibly guessed that God had somehow sent my own personal devil, Arthur, to test and to tempt every value I had ever known, or that the War in Vietnam had already set the substrate for my not unwilling journey into largely uncharted waters. I was about to be tested on my ability to tell the difference between black and white. In fact the entire country was headed in a direction that would not allow for any shades of gray whatsoever.

It was 1965 and Lyndon Johnson had just committed the first 200,000 Marines to an escalating firefight, in a geographically divided Southeast Asian country, despite a foreboding forewarning by the fleeing French who had already abandoned the contest that it could never be anything but a no-win situation.

This was a war being proffered by a paranoid super power interfering with a foreign struggle for independence, in a place it had no business to be, and which nearly resulted in tearing the United States to shreds by igniting a domestic civil war of opposing philosophies and moral differences. It was a conflict that in this country was about to cause a borderless internal division having nothing to do with the Mason-Dixon Line and a conflict which ultimately gave Ho Chi Min the ongoing fortitude to see his mission fulfilled and his own visionary dream for his country won and finally realized.

It was a contest that shortsighted American politicians had failed to realize, could only have been successfully accomplished or completed by genocide, an idea that might have actually crossed the minds of some Washington politicos, except for the small fact that the Vietnamese people were not about to go quietly and gently into that good night.

 

Black and White

 

Praise be to Nero’s Neptune

The Titanic sails at dawn.

And everybody’s shouting

“Which side are you on?”

And Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot

Fighting in the captain’s tower.

While calypso singers laugh at them

And fishermen hold flowers.

Between the windows of the sea

Where lovely mermaids flow

And nobody has to think too much

About Desolation row.

(Bob Dylan: Desolation row)

Dylan, Robertson and Ginsberg: Source  robbie robertson.com
Poster www.ragtime-society.de/Video/Deutsch/cover.htm

 

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