Room to Move
When I did not get accepted by a fraternity, I interviewed with one of the “Independent” dormitory houses, Canterbury. There was essentially no difference between this situation and a Fraternity house, except for the fact that there is no Greek translation for the word Canterbury. On occasion, we would host a rowdy drinking party and for the special campus Homecoming weekend of 1967, I invited a girl from my old high school class to come down for this affair.
My roommate at the time, Ernie, was a “good old boy” from West Virginia who happened to be away for that weekend visiting his fiancée. Ernie was abstemious when it came to drugs but did imbibe liberally in Wild Turkey whiskey or Jim Beam. Despite my efforts to point out to him that alcohol was a drug too, I could never get him to smoke a joint. He was as thin as a reed, crew cut, geeky, studious, emotionally passive and wore thick black glasses that were so heavy his cadaverous face could not support them. Thus, they constantly fell down over his nose, but not intentionally like the purposeful idiotic moniker of Whoopi Goldberg.
Ernie’s characteristics caused Arthur to torture him mercilessly about growing his hair long or smoking pot. The verbal bombardment was so intensely constant and tormenting; I thought it might have had something to do with Ernie deciding to get married at the end of sophomore year, just to escape.
Ernie met his bride earlier in the year at a Coed import function. These events were social mixers whereby the University bussed in a few hundred or so single women from another unisex college, being something the higher powers felt obliged to do as compensation for Duke’s 4:1 ratio of men to women. The Administration must have considered this the best method for keeping raging male hormones under a modicum of control and confined to campus.
Ernie said it was love at first sight. More likely it was a conveniently desperate way to distance himself from the cabal that was trying to break him down and corrupt him into subscribing to our own bad habits. It was also probably the first woman who had ever really given him the time of day. In any event, Ernie was away the weekend I imported my date. Dorm restrictions at the time were still relatively puritanical and prohibited female guests from overnight stays. Perhaps if the rules had been more flexible, my former girlfriend M. who had dumped me, may have stayed on a little longer because we could have had sex on a bed instead of under a bush. But if discovered, and then prosecuted, overnight female activity could lead to immediate expulsion.
Not really knowing what I was going to do with my weekend date, as well as being unable to afford a motel room, I secreted her in my dorm room. But I had not planned ahead, so when in the middle of the night she had to urinate, I made her pee in an ice bucket, which I then emptied in the common bathroom down the hall. This was all the more risqué since because she was so stubbornly prudish, if I had been expelled over the incident, it would also have been with the added insult of not even getting laid.
Unfortunately, I had no advance warning that in her age group she was the planet’s last living virgin who was romantically saving herself for marriage. More amazingly, she was not even a Catholic, which as a group I mistakenly thought were the only ones still interested such nonsense. I found out later in life that Irish Catholic girls tend to be randomly promiscuous; whereas the Italian Catholics tend to look in your wallet first; but not for condoms.
She did have acne, which led me to believe that my Aunt Jean’s opinion on the subject was probably not at all accurate, as Jean had once opined that the amount of acne a person had was either directly or inversely proportional to how much sex they were or were not having. In the case of a girl it meant she was a sperm filled slut and in the case of a celibate boy it meant that his was backing up to the point of overflow.
If nothing else the episode inspired a desire to move off campus to the relative freedom of private housing. That way I could freely smoke pot, drink beer, and have women over without worrying about a Dorm monitor checking up on my bad habits; just as Ernie had fled to the relative safety of wedded bliss, and to avoid the pressured risk of becoming just another pot smoking hippie. This is not withstanding the possibility of Ernie having risked the pressure of an altogether different kind of nagging.
As the year progressed, Arthur began making plans to drop out of school, go to San Francisco with his girlfriend from New Jersey, and live the dream inspired by the writings of Jack Kerouac that were vividly described in his novel, the Dharma Bums. Arthur had already saturated himself with novels such as The Air Conditioned Nightmare and Naked Lunch, all of which he encouraged me to read because he thought they would help with my overall “enlightenment.”
It wasn’t until years later after becoming a physician that I even remotely began to understand William Burroughs paranoid delusions, while he traveled the world junked out on heroin or every other drug or drug combination he could lay his hands on. When it was originally published Naked Lunch was considered to be so obscene it was “Banned in Boston” and went on to be a milestone case for the right of free speech. Burroughs, a bona fide multi-drug junkie who was heir to the Burroughs Adding Machine Company, was living the life of leisure until the day he decided to play William Tell with his wife and shot her in the head with a pistol instead of hitting the apple. In those days even if you were a celebrity, you could not get away with that kind of thing whereas today he probably could have capitalized on the episode by selling “Heroin Spoils Your Aim” tee shirts.
Arthur, who had already imbibed, had been able to procure some mescaline and LSD from his California connections and then suggested, or more like harangued that one Saturday we should try some of it. He perseverated in his Priest-like mystification of the psychedelic drug experience regaling anecdotal tales of people taking them and either going crazy or losing their minds, while constantly prepping me to remember that no matter what I was thinking during a drug trip it was still only a temporary state of mind.
It would also be part of the ritual that we had to take it early on a Saturday so that any effects would be gone by Monday when classes resumed. He also made it clear that he would be in control of all aspects of the activities during our “trip’ and basically scared the shit out of me to the point I wondered why I was even going to try the stuff.
Mescaline was to be the first drug of choice because of its mystical connection to the American Indians, who had obviously learned the true way to coexist with nature many centuries before; thus in all probability being the original hippies, so to speak, had learned I use it as a peaceful connection to nature. As such it was touted as a means contributing to my own overall enlightened cerebral liberation.
When the mystical Saturday morning finally arrived, Arthur, the guru, decided we were going to take Mescaline.
The entire angst of the pre-drug experience was soon left behind when we spent the entire day listening to music of Art’s choice while I read Thor Comic books. Nothing happened of any consequence except for the fact of my complete immersion in the comic scene whose characters seemed to vibrantly come to life as they leap off the page. This was all the more interesting since I had never liked Thor to begin with. Spending about eight hours reading the same stupid stories over and over again while repeatedly saying “wow’ at the spectacularly vivid living colors that saturated each page in the book; I enjoyed the fact that each comic strip actually did seem to become animated. No real enlightenment and certainly no acute psychosis occurred, while to this day I do not believe I have ever read Thor comics again.
Having passed the hurdle of the first experience, we tried the drug a few more times during the year, with each experience being nothing more than an acute accentuation of ordinary everyday events or stimuli along with a proclivity to be oblivious to the stresses and strains of the world around us. It made for a nice escape from the rigors of study or the angst of a foreign war, as though both of these things were so onerous we had to get away from them. Unfortunately, the drugs also contributed to a general sense of ennui and lack of ambitious desire to do any homework at all, which was beginning to reflect poorly on my pre-med curriculum.
Things came to a head with Part II of Sophomore Physics.
At that time the pre-med students were put into the same program as the engineering students who were significantly more gifted in math and it was not until years later that the pre-med class was segregated following belated recognition by the University that the course was just too hard for “want-to-be-doctors.”
Left Hand Rule, Right Hand Rule, First and Second Laws of Thermodynamics, Gobbledygook, with progressively more complicated formulas or concepts I could not grasp nor had any real desire to actually comprehend. There simply did not seem to be any real practical value to any of it. Having studied little or none of it, I pulled an all-nighter and showed up for the final exam prepared to at least try for enough partial credit to pass it by memorizing as many formulas as I possibly could.
I already knew from Chemistry that if one at least writes down a litany of formulas, the professor thinks you know something to the point that even if you don’t get the answer correct, or even get to a final answer at all, he will let some positive credit points leak out of his pen, which added together at the end will get you over the flunk threshold.
One of my friends in Medical School later told me that to that point his entire academic career had been based on the “Principle of Partial Credit,” a concept rooted in the fact that one does not have to ever know it all or ever get it all right. One only has to know enough of something about everything, as opposed to a modern day news commentator who excels in knowing nothing about everything or everything about nothing. One of the main features of this approach is to at least try to put down some formulation for each question with the most dreaded fault being to leave a question entirely blank. Cardinal sin. Definite F.
Forget about science. The First Law of Partial Credits also served me well throughout the rest of my academic career.
But getting back to Physics, on the day of the test I was nauseated by the sight of all those Engineering students who showed up with two slide rules in their belts akin to mathematical six shooters, which they then whipped out at the starting bell, flew furiously in their sweaty little hands, then at least fifteen minutes before the closing bell they leaped up, turned in their papers, then headed for the exits with all-knowing little gloats and smirking smiles on their effete cherubic faces. I both envied and loathed them and sometimes wished they would have psychotic breaks or blow their brains out with little homemade cannons like the Engineering student had done. Instead of committing those two Cardinal Sins, perhaps I should have just applied myself to study harder instead.
Then at the “public posting of the test results ceremony” I sweated bullets. Summer was coming nigh and I knew I would not be able to face the non-psychedelic music at home if I had failed. So when I saw a D next to my name, I yelled for joy right in front of a glowering exasperated proctor who had little appreciation for my elation.
- You mean you’re happy with a D? That’s despicable.
- You bet. Because the D in “I Passed” is silent. But not the F in Flunked.
All I cared about was that I would not have to repeat a semester in Physics hell although the minimally passing grade, with my gleeful underachieving reaction, was causing the proctor to nearly pass out from sheer disgust.
Unfortunately this D did not help my GPA, which had dropped from a 3.6 to a 2.6. For a high school straight-A student, I knew some serious explanations would have to be invented when these final grades made their way through the postal service and finally to my parent’s mail box at home.
Reverting to false hope by appealing to religion, I said a Rosary for the miracle of the report card ending up in the dead letter bin at Kansas City’s Postal depot.
–The wages of sin is bad grades–
It’s so easy to slip
It’s so easy to fall
And let your memory drift
And do nothing at all