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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.”

Detroit 1967

Detroit 1967

beatles-1967-avedonIt was 1967 and 10,000 people gather in New York City for the Central Park “Be-In,” the oil tanker Torrey Canyon runs aground off the coast of Britain, Charles Manson is released from prison (although he requested to allowed to stay), Israel fights the Six Day War, anti-war rallies and protests are held around the country, Elvis and Priscilla are married, anti-miscegenation laws are declared unconstitutional, China tests its hydrogen bomb, there are riots in Newark, NJ, Minneapolis, Detroit, and Washington DC (many people die), Che Guevara is captured and killed, Allen Ginsberg attempts to “levitate” the Pentagon, Sen. Eugene McCarthy announces his candidacy for president, challenging LBJ — who is counting “how many kids” he killed today. And the Beatles release Sgt. Pepper, Magical Mystery Tour and the single, All You Need is Love.

It was 1967, the “Summer of Love.” The Nobel Peace Prize was not awarded that year.

Be-in

Be-in

It was 1967 and I was young and idealistic, that is to say, an idiot, and I had a warm relationship with the dean of my college. Warm is perhaps the wrong word. Heated is more precise; I despised him. Do I need to say I was a sophomore?

che guevara deadI was an activist student. I protested the Vietnam War, I published the underground newspaper (the “KMRIA Journal,” named after a passage in James Joyce’s Ulysses), I rankled under many of the restrictions placed by the college on its students. Why was there only a single African-American student and no African-American faculty, when the dining-hall staff was almost entirely Black? It was a Quaker college, after all, and should be more progressive.

I spent many an hour in the dean’s office making demands. There was so much wrong with the world and with the college, and I and my generation knew how to fix things. It was time to end the core curriculum, I told my dean. Who needs to learn a foreign language? Why should I be forced to take a math course when I was an English major?

Then, there was the school’s responsibility in loco parentis. We were all adults, I averred, why should the school prohibit women from traveling off campus unaccompanied? Why should they be forced to wear dresses to dinner, and the men suits and ties? Women were not allowed to smoke “in transit,” meaning, they could puff a ciggie in the parlor, or when standing still outside, but not walking. Who makes this stuff up? The rules seemed especially peculiar for women.

One young woman had been expelled for spending the weekend with her basketball star boyfriend. He, on the other hand, was merely scolded. “Double standard!” I yelled at the poor dean. And what was wrong with the two of them taking a trip together? Hypocrisy, I claimed. Hypocrisy. (I had some self-interest here, having spent some time away on trips with my college girlfriend. The difference: We hadn’t been caught).

Me, "the freak years"

Me, “the freak years”

And then, there was Jerry. A class younger than me, Jerry was a charismatic young hippie who bought Romilar cough syrup by the six-pack. A small group of students, including me, were “freaks” on campus, with long hair, bell-bottom jeans, and an uncontained contempt for the buzz-cut, patriotic, church-going straight-arrows of the campus.

For a time in my sophomore year, we became a foursome: my girlfriend, KC, and me; and Jerry and his pan-pneumatic girlfriend, Carol the Barrel. There was cough syrup, marijuana, and gin and Sprite, drunk in the Quaker graveyard, where we poured libations to the grave slab of poet Randall Jarrell.

Jerry had lived a terrible life, he said. His father was a retired Army colonel and now belonged to a religious cult. His father and his brother regularly beat Jerry and sometimes locked him in his room, for up to a week at a time. His mother was also beaten, he said. Getting away to college was salvation. Jerry told us stories about the cult, which wasn’t exactly a Christian sect, but some offshoot, that glorified patriarchal power and the dominion of fatherhood over all his family. Paterfamilias, he called it, modeled on the ancient Roman family structure. “Power of life and death over all of them,” Jerry said.

One day, in his dorm room, Jerry showed me his needle. “I shoot heroin,” he told me. “Don’t let anyone know.” The hypodermic syringe was one of the old-fashioned sort, made from glass and stainless steel, and kept in a velvet-lined box. I wasn’t ready to dive into narcotics.

There was this sliver of time when drug-taking was not merely recreational, at least for the more serious among us. Beer was recreational. Alcohol was the drug for getting a buzz. But smoking weed was — again, for this brief time — sacral. Under the influence of Timothy Leary, drugs were to be used to uncover “alternative realities,” and discover the secrets of the universe. To use drugs simply to get high seemed shallow and unworthy. (We were serious prigs, in our own way.)

hypodemic syringeThe idea of heroin seemed beyond that. It was dangerous. It was criminal in a way we would never consider marijuana. Jerry was the first junkie I ever knew.

One day, Jerry came to my room with a frightened eyes. “My brother is coming,” he said. “They are going to take me and force me back to the cult. I need to hide.”

I told him he could stay in my room for the while. I went to see the dean. I explained Jerry’s situation to him and asked for help. The dean looked disturbed but told me, everything was OK. There was no problem. “Yes,” I said. “There is.”

For the next several weeks, Jerry had the look of a deer in the headlights, and there were phone calls from his father, and I made more visits to the dean. He had to do something, I told him. At each visit, the dean told me to stop worrying. It began to feel as if the dean were part of the conspiracy.

Between moving Jerry from room to room, avoiding calls, hiding out in the woods one day when Jerry’s brother came to get him (he eventually left without Jerry), and my expostulating with the dean and finding new hideouts for Jerry, my schoolwork was suffering, and we were all a little jittery. This felt big.

It came to a climax when I went to the dean’s office and threatened to call the police. The dean — who held cards I knew nothing about — sat me down and said, “There are things I shouldn’t tell you. It’s illegal to discuss another student. There are privacy issues. But you need to understand Jerry is a very disturbed young man.”

“But, his father wants to kidnap him,” I said.

“No, his father is coming to take him back to the hospital.”

“What hospital?”

1967 Artist Bob Masse. Grateful Dead“Jerry was here provisionally; he had been committed to Butner for several years. They thought he was getting better, but he wasn’t.”

“What do you mean?” I was sideswiped. You mean Jerry had been lying? Making it all up? He had been diagnosed as schizophrenic after an episode in high school. (It was a popular diagnosis back then; nowadays, he would more likely have been called bipolar. That is our popular diagnosis.)

The dean showed me a manila folder with medical records. Physicians’ notices, letters back and forth, even a note from his high school principal.

“What about the needle?”

“Jerry is diabetic,” the dean said. “He takes insulin.”

There is nothing so deflating as punctured indignation. My high horse was a rocking horse. I was flashing cap pistols.

I met Jerry’s brother, who came to take him back home. He seemed as reasonable a human as I could imagine.

“Thank you for caring about Jerry,” he said. “We love Jerry, but he needs help.” There was no cult; there was no abuse.

Later that day, I watched Jerry get in the car with his brother and drive off. I never saw him again.

alexandria-quartetA few years later, I had the glint of recognition when I read through Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet. The first of four books tells of a doomed love affair as told by an British writer, Darley. The second tells the same story from the point of view of a friend, in possession of more information, so we learn that Darley completely misunderstood everything that has happened to him. The third volume retells the story from the omniscient point of view and we discover that both the previous books were wrong and everything we had come to understand was partial, often totally misguided, and dark with ignorance. (The fourth book, Clea, takes the story past the narrative of the first three books).

The four novels hit me with the force of a brick to the parietal bone: I recognized the syndrome.

Soon after reading the novels, I went through a tortured relationship with a woman I was crazy about (“The only thing blonder than your hair is the sun,” I told her). She ran hot and cold in a way I could never understand, sometimes libidinous, sometimes antsy and standoffish. She finally broke it off with me. I moved away from the city to hibernate (not unlike Darley in Justine), and only found out when I accidentally bumped into her decades later that she had been sexually assaulted by a boss at work, and had gone through a difficult and traumatic trial and had been unable to come to terms with love or sex for years afterward. I did not know what drama had played out behind the scenes of our stumbling courtship.

Rashomon posterOne could liken it to Kurosawa’s film, Rashomon, except that the movie tells each version of the single story through the self-interest of the parties doing the telling. It is not merely a case of the reality being larger than the parts, but of each person lying to make himself (and herself) look good.

What I am talking about, instead, is the fact that we can never know the wider context, the whole story. We can see some sliver of the world through the chink in our psyches called our senses.

And I am not concerned here with conspiracy theories: That someone is withholding the key facts we need to know and balefully controlling the course of history. If we don’t know the full story of the Kennedy assassination, it isn’t because some cabal is secretly pulling the strings, but because reality is too complex, too messy, too variegated and too ornery to stuff neatly into a poke. If there were a cabal, even they wouldn’t have all the facts.

We are each in a dark hole, with only a little light from above. We peer out at the daylight and can see a few people staring down from the rim. We make relationships, we imagine the world, we tell ourselves stories. But we never have a sure grasp on the whole. The dark whole.

It is why the scariest thing I know is the profession of certainty. Only the ignorant make such a claim.

jacob-bronowski-bbcI am reminded of a chapter in a book by the late Jacob Bronowski, who wrote in his Ascent of Man about the evils of certainty.

After an explanation of Werner Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, Bronowski brings the reader to Auschwitz and shows us a lake bottom muddy with the ashes of those killed there.

For Bronowski, the uncertainty is not merely about electrons, but about all knowledge. Uncertainty breeds humility, he said; certainty breeds arrogance.

“Look for yourself,” he wrote. “This is the concentration camp and crematorium at Auschwitz. This is where people were turned into numbers. Into this pond were flushed the ashes of some four million people. And that was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance. It was done by dogma. It was done by ignorance. When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality, this is how they behave.”

That test in reality means that all knowledge is provisional. And there is always some data that we don’t yet know. Every wife, every girlfriend, every husband, son, confederate, colleague, nemesis, enemy, is a world contained, filled with complexities we will never fully know.

Humility is the only sane response.

walrus and carpenter

“I read your blog about Surrealism,” said Stuart. He had come back through town on his way home.

“It reminded me of the garage band I was in.”

“You were in a band? I didn’t know you played music,” I said.

“I never played an instrument,” he said. “I was the roadie.”

“Roadie for a garage band? Did you tour?

“Heck no. It was high school. My job was to bring the Cokes.”

“No beer?”

“I said it was high school. Drinking age was 21 back then, besides, when you’re high on weed, you want something sweet.”

It turns out, they played not in a garage, but in the basement of the home where the lead guitarist lived with his parents.

“We played very low volume, sometimes without even plugging in,” he said. “We didn’t want to disturb Sal’s folks. But that’s not why I brought it up. It’s because of our name.procol harem cover

“You wrote about rock bands using Surrealism. This was 1967 and we listened to Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, Country Joe and the Fish, Procol Harem, the Velvet Underground — it was a whole list of Surrealist wordplay.

“I remember a whole subcategory of culinary surrealism,” I said. “Moby Grape, The Electric Prune, Strawberry Alarmclock.”

“And those were just the big ones. Don’t forget the Chocolate Watchband, the Peanutbutter Conspiracy and Ultimate Spinach. And I guess we could put Captain Beefheart on that list, too.

“There was the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band — bet you don’t remember them — Blossom Toes, Bubble Puppy, Pearls Before Swine, 13th Floor Elevators, the Lovin’ Spoonful, the Stone Poneys and the Monkees — not that we listened the them. Nobody did; they were too popular.”

“And your band? What did you call yourselves?”

“Well, at first we were the Buddha Fumes, but later that year, we decided that was too simple, so we changed to Unlit Booth/Breakfast Out of Context. We thought it was a great name.”

“Maybe a little unwieldy.”

“Yeah, but we really got on a kick with the slash. We made up albums we were going to record, all with great two-part names, like ‘Sudden Eyes/Velcro Sunrise’ and ‘Burlap Lapels/Unexpected Lady.’ Inagaddadavida single

“I became more involved in the band our senior year and wrote lyrics for our songs. Mostly they were covers of our favorite bands, but with my new words. It’s how I became a writer, I think. I wrote a song about my dog based on Iron Butterfly’s In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida with the words, ‘Ah, we gotta go feed her.’ And we did. Feed her, that is.

“We broke up after graduation. We all went to different schools, except Sal, that is. He got a job.

“But this is all prelude to this list.”

“What list is that?”

“Well, back then, we made up a list of possible names for the band, and it follows exactly what you said in the piece about Surrealism. We had all these great concepts built out of wild juxtapositions, like taking a dictionary and running it through a blender. Of course, we never heard of Surrealism then. We just knew this stuff was cool.silvertone guitars

“I found this list in an old folder from that time.”

And he pulled out a folded sheet of lined yellow legal paper, brittle at the edges, with about 20 or 25 names on it, written in faded violet ink, obviously from a fountain pen (“really, a cartridge pen,” Stuart said). The ink was illegible in a couple of places where spills had made the color spread into a bright blot. I recognized the handwriting as Stuart’s from the many letters he has written me over the years. His high-school cursive was much neater, though, than the scrawl that has evolved.

“Wax Monkeys,” it began.

“Xenon Aftertaste”

Buddha Fumes, Sudden Monkey, Jalapeno Fistula, Orlando Death Car, Sequined Monotreme. The list continued: Fog Hammer.

“There was a fraudulent PR company called ‘Frog Hammer’ in Slings and Arrows,” I said. “You know, the Canadian miniseries about actors.”

“Don’t know it,” Stuart said. “But frog hammer just makes me think of a squashed schoolroom dissection. Fog Hammer is more genuinely surreal. Soft and hard at the same time, dense and vaporous.”poster 1967

He’s probably right. The list went on:

Spit Wax

Able-bodied Saints

Red Suits and Whispers

Sound Midden

Ear Stubble

Leatherette Wilderness

Snarling Confessor

Audible Hernia

Slice of Breath

Waking the Badger

Fraternal Animism

Painted Snakes

Money Under the Hood

Ashcan libertine

Pineapple Fuqua

Gruntbunnies

“Wait,” I said. “Isn’t Pineapple Fuqua a real person? Didn’t we know him when we were kids?”

“Yeah, ‘Few-Kway.’ Ran the service station. Good name, though.

“Any of them you wanna use, go ahead,” Stuart said. “I don’t mind.”