By Cecil Hoge
In 1960 things were changing in the country fast. Blacks were integrating luncheonettes and riding buses in the front. Protest marches were beginning and some blacks were getting shot. John F. Kennedy was in the process of beating Hupert Humphrey on his way to best Richard Nixon. Nikita Khrushchev was banging his shoe in the UN and I was still at Portsmouth Priory School. Summer was still reserved for Southampton.
In 1960, the popular songs of the day were mostly concerned with love. The Everly Brothers were singing about being “Cathy’s Clown”, Elvis was trying to close a deal in “It’s Now or Never” and The Drifters were singing “Save The Last Dance for Me”. But other things were happening – folk music and jazz music were getting more acceptance from my generation. Me and my classmates were listening to it all, trying to make up our minds about what was good and what was not.
At Portsmouth the good monks were teaching me about St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinius and the principle philosophies and religions of the world. So I was learning about hedonism, epicureanism, Polytheism, Christianity, Islamism, Buddhism, Confucianism and Daoism. Of course, the monks’ viewpoint might have been a little skewed. Christianity is good, they said, the others are bad, they said. Of course, the monks were high IQ guys so they did it in a very high-minded way.
It went something like this: Hedonism is a simple dullard’s philosophy – pain is bad, pleasure is good – it leads to being a simple gross guy with no style – a drunkard, a sex fiend, a glutton. Epicureanism is one step above hedonism – you get to savor your food, slow it down, moderate your booze intake, enjoy stuff as you go – but, in the end, it is just the same thing, a pig with some paint on it, a dead end, an empty promise that leads to hell without hope of God or redemption.
Polytheism was a whole different can of wax for the Benedictines. It led, they said, to idolatry and the worship of the Golden Calf, Bacchus and Dionysus. There were a lot of different guys and gals who were gods and they tended to fight and be jealous of each other, so it was kind of hard to follow. Some were pretty good looking and tended to cause a lot of trouble. I have to say that Bacchus and Dionysus sounded like interesting fellows, but the good monks seemed to give them short shrift, saying they were just a couple of hedonists dressed as gods.
Regarding Christianity, having dog in that fight, the monks had a specific view. Christianity is the one true religion and provides the big payoff – provided you are good. And, by the way, they meant Catholic Christianianity. Not Eastern Christianity (a left turn off the true road), not Protestantism, not Episcopalianism, not Presbyterianism, and certainly not Baptists, all of whom the good monks regarded as misguided heretics. And in case you did not know it, Benedictine monks are, they said, the smartest, most noble and most correct guys wearing the black cloth and the white collar on planet earth. The good monks went on to explain that other forms of Christianity were just like movie reruns – never as good as the original. Yeah, they said more than that, but this is a blog story about music.
Regarding other aberrant schools of thought: Islamism might have some points, they said, since it was derived from Abraham and Islamic folks did regard Christ as a kind of prophet, but those guys really went off the deep end and found themselves on the wrong trail…after all, who would believe believe you will be feted by virgins with breasts like melons when you get to heaven.
Buddhism was started by a rich wierdo, a prince who for all of his early life was sheltered by his parents. They did not want Siddhartha to know about death. But as happens Siddhartha left his home and, in doing so, saw death and poverty. This made him sad and confused and he meditated for many years on the meaning of life. Siddhartha tried starving himself to see if that would bring enlightenment. It did not and Siddhartha came to believe that extreme aestheticism was not the answer. Siddhartha came to believe that you have listen to your inner soul and try to achieve a state of Nirvana and thus escape pain and death. His big point seemed to be that the bow should not be too tightly strung or too loosely strung, meaning that any extreme was not the answer. Rather the middle way was the answer. That seemed like good advice to me. The Benedictine monks did not have a high opinion of “Nirvana”, which they considered a kind of negation of life, but they did admit Siddhartha was a guy to be reckoned with.
Regarding Confucianism and Daoism, the good monks also admitted these two philosophies were pretty impressive and intricate from a distance, but said they led nowhere. Confucianism wasn’t even a religion, it was really just a discipline to run an empire. After all, didn’t Confucius say, “Do not worry about the heavens, there will be time enough to worry about the heavens when you die.” Regarding Daoism, they said they did not have much use for “the way is the way” and water is stronger than rock and other such contradictory conundrums. Who would believe, that God is in everything? Why, that would mean that God was water, rocks, air, clouds, sun, stars…the whole kit and caboodle…everywhere and anything.
I know many folks may not like what is said above, but I am only the reporter. I am telling you what the good monks told me. So, if you have gripe about their opinion, I suggest you get in a car, drive yourself up to Portsmouth, Rhode Island and go talk to the good monks about it. But I will tell you something, if you do go, you better put on your best thinking cap. Those Benedictine monks are the sharpest guys wearing the black cloth and the white collar on planet earth, trust me on that.
Since this blog story is about music, I will tell you that I took a very interesting course at Portsmouth Priory called the history of music. Of course, it was rather limited. It only took in music from about the 12th century on. It did not cover Roman music, Greek music, Egyptian music, not to mention Chinese music, Korean music, African music, Indian music. And I don’t remember learning about Mayan music. I am guessing the good monks did not have any recordings available of the other stuff.
Actually, the good monks did not have recordings from the 12th century either, but they did have some information about what kind of instruments were played in those times. Seeing that people around that time were just coming out of the dark ages and were dealing with plagues, depression, constant wars, murder and rape, the music was mostly vocals and harmonies, including Benedictine chants. They did have some instruments that were not very complex, one or two string affairs and some gourds to blow into and create hornlike sounds. Anyway, the monks did have some recordings of that. It sounded a lot like the monks doing their Benedictine chants at our 5:30 am masses.
I will not say that I hated 12th century music, but it sounded kind of simple and dreary to me – like going to mass at Portsmouth Priory at 5:30am. But the music course moved on fairly quickly to cover some Renaissance hits. Those ditties were positively great by comparison and seemed to be almost band like. And apparently the guys and gals of the Renaissance had 3 and 4 and more stringed instruments, horn instruments and other things like piano like instruments and even drums. Yes, even in the 1400s, they were beginning to rock.
Well, I really liked the music of the Rennaisance. Not that I was going to go out to actually buy an album of it, but it sounded pretty damn good, especially when compared Benedictine chants. My course in music moved onto the 16th, 17th, 18th, 19th century and eventually got to the 20th century. Going from simple English folk songs like “Greensleeves”, a haunting song about camp followers (aka, prostitutes) dating back to the 12th century. And then on to Renaissance dance music, to more orchestrated music of the following centuries, passing through Baroque music and onto Beethoven, Bach and other biggies of the classical world. I can’t say the high falutin’ music held me. Finally, they passed into what sounded like some bad modern music, before they came to jazz music, which the good monks disparaged as a lower form of music, but I really thought was great, especially the early hot and rude jazz of Dixieland.
Not only was I going to school and studying music in a general way, but I and all my classmates were developing our own musical tastes which were mostly centered on the popular music coming out at the time. We were listening still to the Everly Brothers who also came out with “Let it be Me”. Chubby Checker was singing about “The Twist” and Fats Domino was “Walking to New Orleans”. Elvis had another hit that year, “Are You Lonesome Tonight”.
About this time, other influences and sounds were being heard. I was listening to different kinds of jazz, not just Dixieland, Fats Waller and Louis Armstrong from the 20s and 30s, but also new kinds of jazz, Charlie Mingus, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Theolonious Monk. And of course, we had heard as background while growing up the music of our parents, Benny Goodman, Ornette Coleman, big band music, Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Tony Bennett and many, many others.
As students, our dorm rooms echoed with different types of music…pretty much every student had a record player…so, from our rooms, you would hear archipelago singing, rock and roll, jazz, classical and folk music, dissonant jazz to Dixieland Jazz. I, like some others, took a liking to various “Folk Singers” – Joan Baez, The Kingston Trio and others. We were too unsophisticated to listen to Woody Guthrie and other more authentic folk singers. We did not listen to much country music so you could say we were Hank Williams deaf and dumb. We were listening to Johnny Cash and some of the more popular country singers.
An interesting musical interlude occurred during Christmas break when my new German uncle (he was the brother of my new stepmother) moved to New York and took me out one night with his best drinking buddy in New York. I had come home for the holidays. Now this was a time when I was still 17, in the winter of 1960, when I had sworn a sacred oath to my Benedictine monks not to drink alcoholic beverages for the rest of my life. My sacred oath did last until the summer of same year, when I came to conclusion that it might work for monks, but it would not work for me.
In any case, during my winter vacation, I got the opportunity to tag along with my new uncle and his best drinking buddy. Now, because I was honoring my sacred oath and because technically I was below drinking age in New York (an issue that had not always been an issue), I went out with my uncle Jackie, better known as Ernst Von Kalkreuth. Ernst had come to this country to find fame and fortune as a commercial artist – in Germany he had studied for this occupation. And as mentioned, Jackie, although brand new to the US, had some friends who had moved earlier to the States. And his friend Gottfried was one of them. Gottfried not only was a heavy drinker, he was a heavy smoker.
Now because Gottfried was in the States longer than Jackie, Gottfried was our official guide to New York that evening. So the first place we went to was Eddie Condon’s on 52nd Street. I remember they had some jazzy band that did not seem that terrific, but after an hour or two of listening with me quaffing down cokes and Jackie and Gottfried slugging beers and Gottfried chain-smoking cigarettes, it was decided that Eddie Condon’s was to antiseptic and so we headed downtown to place then unknown to me. Gottfried mentioned the name, the 5 Spot Cafe, and they paid up the check and we piled in a cab and headed downtown.
Although I did not know it, the 5 Spot Cafe was a pretty famous place where the hippest of the hip jazz musicians went and played and hung out. We got down there (it was in the Bowery) and we were lucky enough to get in and get a table. It seemed that Gottfried had friends in low places. So, we got a table about two feet from a piano, in the center of place. It was not big on decoration as I remember. In fact, the main decoration, as far as I could tell, was smoke. That suited Gottfried just fine, as he settled down in his chair and fired up his thirteenth cigarette of the evening.
At the piano was a rather famous black man, Thelonious Monk. Now, because I had heard recordings of Thelonious Monk at Portsmouth Priory, I was familiar with him and his music. Being about six feet away from the famous man himself I could hear the man real well, even if he looked more like a shade from the other world rather than a real human in that dense smoke. Jackie and Gottfried were now very happy. Gottfired got to tell Jackie mostly in German and occasionally in English what a great place the 5 Spot was, how great a musician Thelonoius was, what a great city New York was.
Jackie was saying that music was “verruckt” and did not make sense, but the beer was “ganz gut”. He was quaffing down Heinekens, if I remember. Jackie, although just a few weeks in America, had already decided that Budweiser was better renamed “Budwasser” – translation: Budwater.
I sat there, looking at their dim, but animated forms as they talked music, while Thelonious pluncked away at the piano dissonantly and someone played a horn mournfully. I couldn’t see too much in the room, the smoke hung over the place like Beijing or New Dehli. I can say this some 60 years later, I was never in smokier room than that evening, except, of course, a couple of times, during kareoke in Korea. I slurped down Coke after Coke, Jackie and Gottfried slugged down beer after beer, Gottfried fired up cigarette after cigarette. Thelonious Monk’s sets came and went and came back again.
I found that experience exhilarating, listening to the strange and dissonant sounds of the great Theolonius on the piano with the solo horn backing him up in sad, lingering tones. All in all, it was an exciting evening. I was fired up on sugar and caffeine and second hand smoke. Jackie and Gottfired were blazing a trail on beer and second smoke, with Gottfired leading the way with first hand smoke. Since I did not know what it smelled like, I am guessing mingled with the smoke of cigarettes was the smoke of marijuana. Maybe I am wrong, but by the time we rolled out of the old 5 Spot Cafe at 2:30 we were all more than a little high on something. Perhaps, it was the music.
Going back to school and the monks was somewhat of a come-down, although I got to tell my schoolmates what a great night I had listening to Thelonious Monk. There were a lot of smaltzy hits that year. “Teen Angel” was one, “Running Bear” was another. A guy named Bryan Hyland had a catchy song, “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini”. Strangely, the Kingston Trio had a minor hit with, you guessed it, that classic 12th century ballad, “Greensleeves”.
The summer of 1960 found me in the Hamptons staying in a rented monstrosity my aunt called “The Monster”. It was well-named since it had 26 bedrooms. About a quarter of mile from the ocean and a third of mile from the beach club, it held all four factions of our family and an equal number of house guests. On a big weekend there might be 40 or 50 people coming and going. It was so big, often you would not see fellow family members for days. They came, went to their rooms, got dressed for some event, went out and returned, often never having been seen. I am not quite sure how we got this house. I think it came about because a friend of the family was a real estate agent and the normal deal for that house fell through at the last moment. We were more than happy to fill the void at what was surely a distress price.
That summer the Democrats nominated John F. Kennedy for President and Lyndon Johnson for Vice President. To me as a young kid just approaching drinking age, it seemed like a great thing that such a young, energetic and handsome man had been nominated. It seemed very hopeful to me. And speaking of approaching drinking age, I spent most of that summer sneaking into bars with my somewhat older friends.
Going back to Portsmouth Priory was a big comedown for me. I had had a blast of a summer, surfing, playing tennis, going to parties, sneaking into bars. The fall found me back in the land of the monks, getting up at 5:30 to go to mass and listening to Gregorian chants. During the day, I would attend classes and do all sorts of athletics in the afternoon. We did still get our prescribed hour or so of American bandstand. We did, as seniors, also get our own single rooms, rather than sharing them with another classmate.
For the last four years of Portsmouth Priory, I spent all of my time trying to beef up with zero effect. As I was just turning 18 my weight was a magnificent 145 lbs. This had been a great struggle, starting in my first year at 125, and gaining about 5 lbs. each year. Of course, I was still growing, but I considered myself puny at 5′ 9″ and 140 lbs. as I entered my last year. I did everything I could think of to build up my body in that last year, playing soccer and tennis in the fall, hockey and squash in the winter, baseball, track and tennis in the spring. I even started doing sit-ups, chin-ups and push-ups every evening in my room.
Girls were almost an unknown thing at Portsmouth Priory. There were a few dances scheduled with some sister school not far from Portsmouth and we were allowed to write the young ladies after we had met them, so there was some correspondence. But nothing much happened except that 1960 gradually passed into 1961 and it dawned on me that I was going to either have to go to college or to work. Since I had never worked previously, the concept was unknown and out of the question. Fortunately, my father, having gone to the University of Virginia during the depression, was able to help me to get into that institution.
By June of 1961, I had built myself up to a magnificent 145 lbs and for the first time in my life I could say I was almost buff. This was accomplished by one or two hours of sports a day (soccer in the Fall, hockey in the winter and tennis in the spring) and one or two hours a day of calisthenics. As if that was not enough, I added chin-ups, sit-ups, pull-ups morning and night in my dorm room. I was pretty buff for a skinny dude and in probably the best shape of my life. That was not to last.
That summer, after graduation and before the big induction to college, I spent my summer with my rich kid friends, going to parties, laying on the beach and yes, surfing and playing tennis, but the emphasis was on fun, not on recreating my physique. Up in the morning by 10 or 11, down to the club by 12, laying on the beach and chatting with friends and fellow idlers. We would talk for hours, hang around in a rat pack and go out to bars and beach parties in the evening. It was indolence at it best, but I did hit the waves and play enough tennis to stay relatively mean and lean, finally, hitting the big 150 that summer and sprouting up another inch in the process.
That Fall I headed down to Charlottesville, the home of Mr. Jefferson’s University. Everyone called it the University and the dress was gentlemanly, with most students wearing jackets and ties. At the time, the University was about 10,000 students, with about nine thousand nine hundred being male. The fact that it was 99% male students was just about the only similarity between Portsmouth Priory and the University of Virginia was just about the only similarity. In every other respect, going to The University was different.
The first thing I discovered in this strange new world was that I could eat all the eggs and bacon I wanted at the University cafeteria each morning. At Portsmouth Priory, we were allotted small quantities of bad tasting, fairly well-balanced food. At the University of Virginia, you could heap any quantity of good tasting, high caloric food you wished on your plate. Moreover, you could come back for seconds.
The second thing I discovered was beer.
There was this place called The Cavalier, not co-incidentally named after the University’s football team, The Cavaliers. While I was not into to football, I did quickly get into the Cavalier. Every night I would go down to this local college dive and suck down 5 or 10 15 cent beers. Having come from a Benedictine monastery, I was unprepared for the freedom and access to the sins, the temptations, and the irresponsibility of “University” life.
In January of 1961, John F. Kennedy became President and there was a big space race going on. This race had started in 1957 when Russia sent a tin can called Sputnik up into “space”. Then there was a lot of concern about the “Russkis” getting the drop on us. The first guy to go up in space was Yuri Gragarian. He went up in April, 1961. But by May, 1961 we sent our first guy, Alan Shephard, up in “space”. He went up about 115 miles, cruised around a bit and came down. Bingo, we had upped the space race anti and showed we could get into the game.
Other things happening were not so successful. President Kennedy approved the Big of Pigs landing and some Cubans tried to retake Cuba. Fidel Castro, newly ensconced in power in Cuba did not like this idea. Nor, it seemed, did the Cuban people. In short order the Bay Pigs invasion failed and we had got a proverbial black eye over the incident. This was also the year that the Soviets tried to cut Berlin in half with a wall. Yes, this was the heart and soul of the Cold War and the Soviet Union was a much feared power.
And this was also the year that John F. Kennedy had chosen to send a few hundred U.S. personnel to Vietnam. From small acorns grow large oak trees. At the time the running argument was that the commies were overrunning the Far East, the French had lost their butts in Diem Bien Phu and if Vietnam was allowed to fall that whole part of the world would become part of Communist China.
What were the top songs in the heart and soul of the Cold War? Bobby Lewis had a single “Tossing and Turning”, Roy Orbison was “Crying” and “Running Scared” and Connie Francis was singing about “Where The Boys Are”. Another song, “The Twist” by Chubby Checker was still sweeping the nation and starting a new dance craze. That came just in time for me because The Twist was easy to learn and it was the first dance music that I could actually master.
Meanwhile, back at the University, this boy was in the Cavalier pretty much every night, drinking 15 cent brews with no more than 3.2% alcoholic content. Considering the number of 15 cents beers I was knocking back, the 3.2% was a pretty good idea.
And what about school. Oh that. Well, I was going to classes most days…at least in the beginning. Classes were really easy because most of my first year courses covered ground already taught me in last year’s courses in Portsmouth Priory. You could say that the first year courses were just catching up to the courses taught me the year before. So, I kind of cruised through that year with Cs and Bs. It was a blast and I was having the time of my life…going to keg fraternities parties every weekend with bands playing songs like “My Ding a ling”. Now, Chuck didn’t record that song until 1972, but his version of it kind captures that fraternity band music popular at the time.
While I discussing lowball music and even lower ball fraternity parties, let me tell you a little about that. Most of the fraternities were located on Rugby Road and they were lined up in two long rows on each side of Rugby Road. On a weekend, girls and guys wandered up and down, staggered might be a more accurate word, wending their way from one fraternity house to the next. Each fraternity had one or two kegs going, each had a small band blasting out music. The downstairs of the fraternity houses was devoted to the band and a lot of people crowded on to an impossibly packed dance floor.
If you could wiggle your way through, with you and your date – and yes, while there were very few girls going to UVA, it was possible to get dates from some of the nearby girl colleges. And believe it or not, in between the eggs and the beer, I was getting the hang of lining up dates. When you came into a fraternity with your date, there was usually a little room off to the left or right set up with a couple of kegs of beer and sometimes a very large punch bowl of some severely alcoholic mixture. A popular beverage to mix into the punch was grain alcohol, along, of course, with rum, bourbon and gin. If you ever tried to take a sip of the grain alcohol unmixed, you would find that it would simply burn your tongue off. It was powerful stuff and so was the punch that was often served on Rugby Row.
I would note this was before national networks discussed the horror of binge drinking in colleges. In fact, it was before the word binge drinking came into use. So, I can say with absolute assurance that we were not binge drinkers because we did not know what the term meant. I would admit that we did drink a lot. I might even admit we drank too much.
Now for a kid coming from a Benedictine monastery this was an abrupt and dramatic change in lifestyle. Hello hedonism, goodbye Christianity and all sobriety and all common sense had left the building. At the time I attended, the University of Virginia was designated by none other than Playboy Magazine as the biggest drinking college in the U.S. I can tell you one thing about the University of Virginia, while we all considered ourselves to be gentlemen of high honor because we were at Mr. Jefferson’s University, we were equally concerned that nothing that had been committed to writing by such a prestigious magazine as Playboy be anything but 100% correct. So we worked very hard at maintaining our reputation. And yes, it was true, many of us were young drunken fools.
I will mention a famous incident that had occurred on Rugby Row two years prior to my arrival. It was a famous story of my time. Louis Armstrong and his band came to the University to give a concert. It seemed that just after the concert, a few fraternity boys, perhaps several sheets to the wind, wound their way backstage and suggested to Louis that he come play at their fraternity house on Rugby Row.
Now it seems that the frat boys had no money to offer Louis Armstrong except a couple of hundred bucks and all the whiskey he could drink. I doubt that the offer of a couple of hundred bucks was very persuasive, considering Louis was one of the most famous and well-paid musicians of his time. But no matter, Louis took a shine to the frat boys and the promise of unlimited hooch and said sure, he and few of his band would come over to the fraternity. True to his word, Louis Armstrong came over to the frat house, whose name I do not recall, and started playing.
It seemed that Louis was having a fine time and in several nano-seconds word spread on Rugby Row that Louis was giving an impromptu concert. That invited a surge in the population of this particular fraternity. It was kind of like the Walt Disney movie where the mops keep bringing more buckets of water and the basement fills to the brim with water. Only in this case, it was young, drunken guys and gals, all jumping up and down on the dance floor. Well, dance floors can only take so much and apparently, after hundreds of people crowding on to it, jumping up and down and a bacchic trance, the floor gave way.
But fear not, it seemed there were no actual fatalities and the collapse of the floor did not end in total disaster. Now, the strange thing about this is that Louis Armstrong apparently did not notice that the floor had caved in even though he was only a few feet from a newly formed cliff leading to the basement. He just kept playing. Whether he just did not notice or he thought it was not that unusual an event I do not know. In any case, it was a famous story of events that occurred two years before my arrival and it gives you some flavor of the place.
By the time my first break for Christmas vacation, I had managed to pick up a quick 15 lbs. That was the direct product of eggs and beacon in the morning, robust lunch and dinners, followed up by mucho beers at the Cavalier. So I went from buff to flabby and paunchy in just 3 months. So much so, that when I got up to New York, I found myself being chided for becoming “chubby”.
That winter, when in New York, we visited the then famous for moment, Peppermint Lounge, the home of Chubby Checker and the Twist. Fortunately, in spite my quickly added weight, I was able to twist with the best of them, twisting the night away.
Back at college, I found myself more than ever entranced by the seduction of eggs and beer, picking up another 10 lbs. This instant chubbiness, at first surprising, was now becoming embarrassing. This led me to fits of limited athletic activity which prevented further decline, but did not get rid of the 25 lbs. that I had already gained. I had so quickly applied this extra weight to my body that it literally altered my appearance. I began to look like a young John Belushi, chubby before my time.
Well, to make a long story a little bit shorter, I spent the first two years of college flunking out. That was not my goal, but it was my trajectory. The first year was deceptive because I did pretty well scholastically, if you call you doing pretty well, getting B minuses and C pluses doing pretty well.
By the second year, things really started to go South – as in falling apart. After all, I had already gone South to Virginia so you could say that the South was catching up to me in my second year. I was partying hard and regularly forgetting that I should be attending classes. And a funny thing happened somewhere in the second year, I discovered that the courses were considerably harder. In the first year, it had not been necessary to study because most of the required courses I was given I had already studied in prep school. Yes, I did study a little bit, but in that first year, the courses were really easy.
In the second year, things changed. Suddenly I was taking Geology courses and Chemistry courses about things I had never been taught. I have to say that I was very surprised and intrigued by Geology. I was astounded to learn that the earth was very, very old. It seemed that the earth billions of years old. And more than that it seemed that the Universe was even older…who knew. The good professor who taught Geology said the Universe was literally billions of years older.
This was all pretty strange to me, but even stranger to me was how the earth evolved. It seemed it started as molten rocks and gases about 5 billion years ago. Certainly, that was not what the good monks had said at Portsmouth Priory. They had said that the bible had said the earth was 10,000 years old, but not everybody believed that they said, so it probably best to think of the 10,000 years as “biblical time”. That was an expression for a long time, but since the people writing the bible could not count very high, the 10,000 number meant a really long time. I’ll say, like 4,950,000,000 years instead of 10,000 years.
And if Geology was strange, Chemistry was weirder and mostly incomprehensible. Today, I wish I listened more and I wish I had attended more Chemistry classes, but in 1962, it seemed difficult to understand. I opted for partying. To make sure my descent into bad grades would continue, I joined a fraternity, Chi Psi, and upped my partying game because now I was living with 32 like-minded revelers.
A lot of other things were happening in 1961 and 1962 besides me chubbing up and failing to maintain grades. The Russkis decided to heat up things by erecting a wall between East and West Berlin. This was surprising to me personally because I had been to Berlin a few years before and had driven back and forth between West and East Berlin directly. I wrote about that experience in “A Fog Rolls into Berlin and I Gain a Stepmother.” So I was very surprised by the fact that a city that I had visited was now officially divided by a wall. It had, of course, been divided between East and West Berlin, but when I went you could back and forth to each part. Now the Russkis had made that almost impossible.
About this time, Bob Dylan was beginning to make his run at fame and genius, with a deadpan voice and profound sense of wording. At that time, his raw voice and the pure folk songs that he sang did not sound like very impressive. Bob was yet to sing, “The Times Were A Changing” and he way far away from adding electronic guitars to his music. Nevertheless, the times were a changing…people were coming and going. Among the many passers on, Marilyn Munroe, beautiful tragic lady, overdosed from drugs at the age of 36.
In the fall of 1962, I was busily doing everything possible to flunk out. In October, a major world event occurred and that was the Cuban Missile Crisis. President Kennedy came on radio and television and told the American people that a nuclear war might occur that week. That seemed like another perfect excuse to cut classes, drink a lot of beer and ponder the state of the world. So for three days, that is pretty much what everybody in my fraternity did.
We stayed in our fraternity house, known as the The Lodge. Our fraternity, Chi Psi, was almost unique in not being on Rugby Road. It was located about two miles from Rugby Road and the school campus. Our fraternity had a nice black couple who looked after us – Billy and Ester – Ester did the cooking and Billy did the driving. We had a Volkswagon bus that Billy drove us around in. We also a wierd triangular swimming pool located down a hill, surrounded by pines trees. The trees regularly dropped great quantities of pine needles into our pool, but in the fall of 1962, we were the only fraternity that could claim to have a swimming pool and that was a mighty powerful claim even if our pool was full of pine needles and the occasional beer can.
So, there we were, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, all hunkered down at The Lodge, huddled around a crummy black and white TV set and a not so bad radio. This was a period when all of America literally stopped and gathered around TVs and radios, watching and listening to find out if the world would end.
I well remember discussing the crisis with my classmates and fraternity brothers. As we huddled around the TV and the radio, the conversation wandered to what what we all wanted to do. One by one, each of us told our dreams. One wanted to go into the Air Force – he did and 5 years later he killed himself by accident crashing into an aircraft carrier in the Pacific Ocean. Another wanted to go to work for IBM – he did and to the best of my knowledge he worked there for about 25 years, before being down-sized. Yet another wanted to go into the secret service – apparently, he tried and did not get accepted – he went on to go into the infantry and served two in Vietnam.
I was the wierdo among the group – I said I wanted to design surfboards because I loved the ocean. That was true, but I never did design surfboards, at least not yet. Strangely, I did end up designing inflatable boats, kayaks and most strangely, stand up paddle boards, which are pretty close to surfboards. So you could say that in a way all our dreams, which we exposed to the world in heartfelt sincerity during those scary few days, came true. And hey, I still might design a few inflatable surfboards – it is on my bucket list.
So, imagine if you can, 10 or 12 frathouse brothers, sitting around a table, listening to a sad and partially defective black and white TV, listening to an almost decent radio, trying to glean information about whether world would continue. I remember those few days very clearly. There is nothing like the threat of the end of the world to help you focus. Even in the early months of that year, I kind of knew I was going to flunk out that year. The time discussing the Cuban Missle Crisis was a brief period of seriousness when we seriously discussed what we wanted to do for the rest of our life with the clear feeling that the rest of lives might only be the next three days. It was a strange period and perhaps strangest of all is how several of us correctly predicted our future life.
And while those three days seemed like they would never end, they did end and the Cuban Missile crisis passed. Russia withdrew the missiles from Cuba, the world took sigh and we went back to classes and partying. And yes, it did seem like flunking out of college was in my stars. And so as the year passed from 1962 to 1963 I found myself floundering and flunking and having a heck of a good time.
Author’s Note: “It Was The Music Volume #2” is the second blog story of a series of stories on the influence of music in my life. It is my intention to continue this series, but for the next few blog stories, I will return to some other stories.