Fifty years ago

It is early spring in 1967, I’m in college and the country is heading toward the Summer of Love, and in my Shakespeare class we have just been given a pop quiz on, I think, Antony and Cleopatra.

“Well, now you know what my little quizzies are like,” said the professor.

And from the back of class a small, demure student, innocent and unknowing as a lamb bounding in the meadows said, “If that’s what your quizzies are like, Dr. Gutsell, I’d hate to see what your testies are like.”

That is what I remember most from that class. Most of what I know about Shakespeare I learned later on my own. But the small episodes of those years stand out.

Like in an astronomy class. The regular teacher had retired a year earlier and our class was assigned to a very nice and soft-spoken man — everyone liked him — who was a math professor. He didn’t know much about astronomy and was racing ahead of us in the textbook. When he came across something he didn’t really understand, he invariably turned to the smartest student in class, Bill McAllister, and asked for clarification. “Mac, tell us about Uranus.”

I’m not claiming that I didn’t learn anything at college. There were many excellent classes that opened me up. But the information from those has been stored in a different place in my head. More distinct are the bits of condiment that flavored the experience.

The biology teacher was a highly eccentric man who had been teaching forever. Richard Carleton Ward talked with his teeth clenched and out of the side of his mouth, making his every utterance seem both like a snarky aside, and at the same time and exasperated threat. His explanation of sex on campus was: “Some do, some don’t.”

One day, he brought a potted plant to class, and as the bell sounded, he held it up in front of us. “This is the sacred lotus of India,” he said through his teeth. “It sheds water as we are supposed to shed our sins.” He took up a pitcher of water and poured it over the plant, dripping onto the floor, saying to us in biblical voice, “Go forth and sin no more.”

It was 50 years ago — a half century of water under the dam — and it is the quirks of the professors, it is the adventures with fellow students, the petty “crimes” we committed that remain.

Once, Martha Jane Burton and her boyfriend and Mary Winslow and I drove to Washington, D.C. When Martha Jane hinted she wanted some time alone with Tom, Mary and I went out walking. We walked from Georgetown, where we were staying, all the way to the Lincoln Memorial.

Now, I know we were idiots and the walk, at 2 in the morning was suicidal, but we were protected by the angel of fools and had not an unpleasant moment.

Mary was an athletic sort of girl, a real tomboy who prided herself on her physical fitness. She had once said, “The man who will have my virginity will be the man who can outwalk me.”

We walked a good deal in the wee hours of the morning, and on the way back to the apartment, came across an all-night movie theater that was showing the Pasolini Gospel According to St. Matthew. Mary had never seen it; I had and recommended we stop in. About an hour and a half into the story, Mary fell asleep.

I reminded her, when we got back to campus, that I was now the man destined to take her virginity. “You owe me,” I said. The next day I got an envelope with a note from her; inside was a 2-inch wood screw. “Debt paid,” said the note.

My sophomore year, I took an Aesthetics class with the most august and revered philosophy professor. After a week, he fell ill from an amoebic infection he had picked up in India and the school president, Grimsley T. Hobbs, took over the class. Let’s just say, it was a step down in the intellectual rigor of the course. Hobbs actually taught aesthetics with flash cards. We took turns reading from the textbook (I’m not making this up), and whenever we came across the name of an artist, say, Michelangelo, he’s make the reader stop and we’d pass around the seminar table a picture of Michelangelo. A paragraph or two later, it might be a picture of Leonardo.

“I’ll trade you two Leonardos for a Mickey Mantle,” said one of the students.

It was the era when Timothy Leary was dropping acid, and drugs were first becoming widely available on campus.

Hank Hackett, my roommate for part of this time, smoked constantly. He took one summer off and basically dropped out, and turned on.

When he came back in the fall, he had something of a glassy stare and perpetual grin.

“Why do you smoke so much reefer?” I asked him.

“Oh, I don’t smoke all that much, just five or six joints a day.”

Another time, Hank bought several packets of garden seeds for morning glory.

“They add something to make you nauseous, so you won’t take them for the trip,” he said. “But I thought I’d see just how bad the nausea is. It can’t be as bad as the high is good.”

But a few hours later, Hank was retching up his innards over the toilet and swearing never to do that again.

One day, Hank came to the house, sat down on the floor and didn’t move for several minutes, and then turned to me and said, “You know, I feel more like I do now than I did when I came in.”

Others took different drugs: Phil Sanders tried smoking Spanish moss one night and went into heart palpitations. He had to be taken to the hospital, where he was too embarrassed about what he’d done to tell the doctors what his problem was. He recovered anyway.

And then, there was Larry Mackie, our campus’s own Timothy Leary. Larry lived downstairs from Hank and me. His bedroom was painted in bright colors, with a geometric mandala in red and green painted on the wall above his bed as a headboard. Larry was a small guy, both short and slight, with a head of blond hair, looking something like a thinner, adolescent Bill Gates. He would wander campus in robes and talk about the religious significance of acid. He had a small but loyal following, mainly women. One night his two girlfriends drove up with Larry in the car barely conscious.

“We went out to the airport to drop acid,” one of them told me. “It was neat watching the lights of the jets as they came overhead and screamed their jet noise.”

This was something Larry did on occasion.

“But then he sat, lotus position, in the middle of the road and wouldn’t move.”

“He said he was enjoying the headlights of a truck move farther and farther apart,” the other girlfriend said. The truck squealed to a halt and the driver came out cussing and threatening. Larry wouldn’t move, so we put him in the car and decided to come back home.”

The downstairs apartment saw a parade of colorful and disreputable types. One was a freak named Jim Nyland, who drove one of those tiny British sports cars. Shortly after he moved in, we noticed a large dark car parked on the road in front of the house. This was unusual because our street was a dead-end. Yet, night after night, there it was, with two men sitting in the front seat.

One day, walking in the vacant lot behind the house, I came across a patch of very healthy, green marijuana plants and things began to fall into place. I phoned the police and reported the illicit weed. They came with a team and uprooted it. “Street value of $140,000,” they told us. We eyed their exaggeration as suspiciously as they eyed us. The car never showed up again.

I remember the last time I voluntarily took mind-altering drugs. Hank had brought to campus some mescaline-laced hashish. At a small party at our apartment on Francis King Street, with maybe 20 others, mostly drinking beer and discussing Kant or Vietnam, Hank and I lit up his tiny hash pipe, with the glowing coal of chemical in its brass bowl. It was the most trippy high I had experienced. At one moment, everything anyone said appeared in a cartoon word-balloon over their heads and when they finished talking, the word-balloon took off like a balloon let go, spinning and making the sound of a raspberry and flying out the window. It was quite an amusing sensation.

At another party, I witnessed a feat of strength I doubt I will ever see matched.

One of the hotshot humanities students and publisher of the underground campus newspaper was Richard Horne, known to his friends as Dick, and here’s why: At this party, he won a bar bet by balancing an unabridged dictionary on his erect penis. He did this as a matter of course. You could tell how far along the party was by whether Dick Horne had pulled out the Webster’s. It was a sight you didn’t soon forget.

In my class of English Romantic Poetry, I met my first wife. Annie was skinny, funny and whip smart. She could say any name or word backwards instantly. In class one day, the professor called on her to answer a question about Keats.

“Don’t look at me, I’m just a girl,” she said. The professor had that made into a needlepoint sampler and framed it.

When we got married, we moved into a second-floor apartment on that dead-end street just south of campus. It was a cheap run-down place with only one kerosene heater for warmth. The stairs to the apartment ran up the outside of the house and on frozen, cold days, I had to walk down the icy steps to the oil drum and bring up a gallon of fuel, load it into the stove and light up. It took a half-hour or so for any heat to make itself felt.

The apartment rented for $50 a month, which was a lot for us. Annie bought a book called Dinner for Two on a Dollar a Day, and made up menus from it. We lived very cheaply. It was a wonderful time for me; I was finally a real bohemian. I painted the living room fire orange with deep avocado-green trim. It was hard even to think in such decor.

Annie was from eastern North Carolina cotton and tobacco country. Her mother was not one of my fans. In fact, I think I can state with reasonable confidence that she loathed me. I was not the steady provider and solid citizen she had envisioned for her daughter and besides, I was a Yankee. But she had a saying that I have kept in my heart for lo these 50 years:

“Cheer up, the worst is yet to come.”

2 comments
  1. daniel prendergast said:

    RW — Because I know you’ll be horrified if it’s up one second longer than necessary, I’ve interrupted my reading to announce a typo, right after where Mary Winslow is named. I’m am sorry to bare this bad noose. Missteaks happin.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: