"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, February 10, 2012

I Hated Prep School

I really didn’t try to burn down Parker Hall.  I assumed that dropping a fireball down three stories into the basement window-well would amount to no more than some smoke and roasted toads; but there were more dry leaves down there than I figured, and within minutes the entire well was burning bright, flames licking up the sides, and smoke billowing up the building.  Bits of flaming leaves, floated in an dance like the Italian candy wrapper which burns into light,airy bits up to the ceiling.  Some freshman pulled the fire alarm, we all had to stand out in the quadrangle until the fire department doused the flames.

I am not sure why I chose this particular prank that day, but in retrospect it must have had something to do with the Pyros, the club organized by Bobby Landers, the bully at my country day school.  I was anxious to stop the goosing, stairway shoves, and wet-towel torture in the showers, and thought that joining the Pyros would be a way to get on Bobby’s good side. 

“Ok, you have to set a fire”, he said, “and we’ll be watching”.  He and a few other boys from the Eighth Grade hid in the bushes across the street from my house while I set the fire.  It was Thanksgiving, and through the bare trees of the back lot I could see my mother in the kitchen window, preparing the antipasto.  We never had just turkey, stuffing, and mashed potatoes, but antipasto and lasagne and then the “American” traditional dinner.  It took forever to cook.

My plan was to light a small, containable brushfire which I could easily put out.  There were plenty of dry leaves on the side of the road, and the closest structure was the tool shed about a hundred feet away.  I tossed a match into the leaves and watched them quickly catch fire.  The problem was that the leaves and the fire were not contained by any window well or other barrier, so the fire spread in all directions at once.  Starting with a few puffs of smoke and a small, flickering flame, a red, angry circle of fire started to expand the perimeter.  Half-consumed leaves drifted up on the convection currents from the fire and floated onto another patch of dry leaves, and a fire started there.  Meanwhile the initial fire was hot and crackling, nipping up the dried poison ivy on the oak trees, and flashing towards the neighbor’s yard.

Before I could even consider what level of fire hazard would pass muster with Bobby Landers and get me into the Pyros and away from his towel snaps and ass-bumps, the fire was high and spreading fast.  I pulled off my heavy leather jacket and started thumping and pounding the flames, kicking at the burning leaves to spread them out.  A light breeze picked up in what had been a cold, still, early snowy day, and the fire aimed towards my house.  I picked up the rhythm of the beating of the flames, pounding all the edges of the fire, attacking hot centers, kicking wildly.  Bobby and his friends had run up the hill away from me and the fire as soon as they saw the flames start to burn into the woods.  I finally put it out.

I had no other clothes to wear into the house, so I went in smelling like ashes, embers, old burnt wood and fire.  “Where in heavens name were you?”, asked my mother.  I breathlessly stammered something about helping put out a leaf fire that the stupid Johnsons’ had started; but my mother was too busy with the capicola to challenge me. 

That experience should have put me off fires, not on to them again; but I was only fifteen, and I really hated The Lefferts School.  My father decided to send me there instead of Choate or Hotchkiss because it was ‘democratic’ which in his mind was a way of shielding me from the anti-Italian discrimination that he suffered for most of his life.  Lefferts, being ‘democratic’, and not a super-WASP school like Choate or the crème de la crème uber-old money Groton, St. Paul’s, or St. Mark’s, would be more diverse.  Being ‘democratic’, it would also be a lot cheaper. 

In point of fact, there was only one other Italian and one Jew at the school.  The rest of the 200 boys were purebred Anglo-Saxon, not a drop of octoroon Mediterranean blood in any one of their veins.  Moreover, Dave Ponticelli was an Italian in name only.  His family was from the Alto Adige region not far from Austria, and he was as blond and blue-eyed as any Aryan; and Andy Schroeder might have been a Jew, but he was as genetically disguised as Dave Ponticelli.  I met his father once and he looked just like Lord Mountbatten. So I was the guinea everyone expected – black, wavy hair, Roman nose, and gestures that no amount of country day school could tame.

I hated Lefferts, not so much because of being a harassed ethnic outsider – even the worst bullies gave up on that when I started to date one of the belles of Miss Porter’s.   Michelle Brown was a hot ticket, and every horny Leffertsian wanted to get into her pants.  I hated the place because it was a prison – compulsory chapel every morning, lights out at 9pm, two day passes out of campus per term, and one weekend overnight.  I hated the noisy, adolescent dorms, the foolishness, and the total lack of privacy.  It was purgatory.

For some reason Lefferts attracted weird teachers, and this menagerie was at least a diversion from the regimentation and discipline.  My floor master was a recent graduate of Williams and his nickname was The Pink Whale.  He was tall, big, fat, with a cherubic head, and a pink face.  He always looked like he had just stepped out of a long, hot, steamy shower.  He walked slowly with a rhythmic roll, smoking a pipe and humming opera arias.  As he rolled down the corridors of Parker Hall, the fat jiggled with each step. He took his job seriously and poked into our rooms, and squeaked a greeting as he checked for infractions.  After his evening duty, he went back to his small apartment at the end of the hall.  He was always alone, and the only sound we could hear was opera.

He was the assistant coach of the rifle team.  I was a good shot, and practice was short (you fired until the bullets ran out, and since we not only fired at our own targets but the targets of the other shooters, aiming for the sharp edge of the beveled target holder which was winched down the range and back.  If you hit the edge just right, the lead sprayed downward and severed the target from its metal holder. If you were just a bit off, the paper target fluttered a bit, settled off-kilter, but remained attached.  A perfect shot severed the target entirely, and cheers went up when it floated down to the floor.  The whole practice session lasted no more than a half hour compared to the long, cold, football practices on the rock-hard dirt fields half a mile from campus.

Another advantage of being on the rifle team was that we were let out of the confines of school to compete with other prep schools in the area.  I liked to ride with The Pink Whale rather than on the bus.  Hearing stories of productions of La Traviata and La Boheme sure beat food fights in the school van. 

One day, feeling that The Pink Whale and I were getting to know each other reasonably well – or at least as well as teacher and student could - I asked him where he met girls and where he took them, since we never heard anything but opera coming from his chambers.  “Girls?”, he asked, turning from pink to livid red.  “Girls?  That’s all you puerile, adolescent, sex-addled teenagers can think about.  You have no idea what life is really like, nor its finer things.  Opera…..Opera….”.  He gargled the words in his rage, searching for another scorching invective.  He couldn’t get any more out, and just kept coughing the word ‘girls’ at the windshield.  That was the last trip I ever took with The Pink Whale, and the last time he ever talked to me except to bark an order.

This was 1958, remember, so being gay was not even possible.  The Pink Whale, now that I look back on those days, was undoubtedly gay.  He might have just been precious and sensitive, but I don’t think so.

On the other end of the spectrum in our teacher menagerie was Bob Jeffries, macho-man.  He drove a Corvette, sped a flat-bottom speedboat over the flooded Farmington River, banging and bouncing over the rough waters, spinning and turning back over his wake, jumping the waves he had made.  He was the football and basketball coach, had a beautiful wife, bulging biceps, but not much upstairs.  Who cared?  We wanted to be him, and he knew it.  He lasted only one more year after I arrived.  He had been zooming on the river back and forth in front of the high bank where the school was perched and where over a hundred students were watching and cheering.  Dumb Jeffries kept waving to the adoring crowd, gunning the engine, and flying over his wake until he hit what was later found out to be a big wooden support that had drifted down from Hartford where it had come loose from the Buckley Bridge.  He hit it full speed, and when he did he was launched out of the boat as if he had been ejected out of a fighter plane.  He flew up at least twenty feet, tumbled and twisted, until he came down hard, landing on the same wooden strut which had demolished his boat.  He lived, but broke just about every bone from his waist up. 

Dave Halloran was the history teacher.  He was tall, patrician, and walked with a limp – and old war injury. It gave him style and gravitas.  He talked exactly like William F. Buckley who had been a classmate of his at Yale.  He chose his words carefully, selecting only the most abstruse and literary.  We loved him.  He had a drinking problem, but that too only enhanced his image.  He must have become an alcoholic in the jungles of Burma fighting the Japs.  Who wouldn’t have?

There were others. The Headmaster was a thin, ugly man who, rumor had it, had a dog’s jaw, a replacement for his own jaw which had gotten shot off in the war by the same Japs that had turned Mr. Halloran into a boozer.  What lent credence to the story of the dog’s jaw was the funny way he talked, sort of stiffly like a ventriloquist, barely moving his lips.  The jaw, we figured, had no real hinges, and he had to talk through his uppers.  To make matters worse, he had a harelip way of talking, forcing puffs of air through his nose which gave his speech a kind of snuffly, breathless quality.  He was really hard to understand.

Mr. Worthy drove a Renault Dauphine, one of the first small European cars to be sold in America along with the Volkswagen Beetle.  He used to roar around the quadrangle and the peripheral roads on campus at full speed, barely braking for corners and drifting through them.  He used to take us for rides, and in addition to the daredevil maneuvers on what had become his own personal racetrack, he was able to shift without the clutch.  “Very simple”, he said.  “Just listen for the RPMs and when they are as high as they should be in one gear, just throw the gearshift up a notch, and off you go”.   It seemed an amazing feat until you tried it, which I didn’t do until twenty years later when I borrowed my mother-in-law’s VW.  I was so drunk that I snapped the clutch cable, and was forced to return home by pitch. 

Finally there was Mr. Vandenberg, the Latin teacher and organist.  He was crippled, had bulky and ungainly braces on his legs, and lurched his way from class to class, clanking and clattering because of the ill-fitting metal supports on his legs.  We all wondered how he could play the organ since you have to pump the foot pedals for the bass, but he managed somehow, although the passages from the great Bach fugues that he loved were all punctuated with what sounded like a loose drainpipe in a wind as he yanked his tin-man legs up and down the low register.

I was really glad when I finally left Lefferts after three purgatorial years.  Although college had the same trappings of dorm rooms, refectories, classes, and discipline –  they didn’t call Lefferts an Ivy League prep for nothing – it was pure luxury.  You didn’t have to eat at the Commons, the vast Freshman dining room.  You didn’t have to go to class; and best of all you didn’t have to stay on campus.  I spent more of my four years at college away from it than at it.  I drove to Smith, Holyoke, Vassar, and Wellesley in borrowed cars which always broke down in the middle of the night in the middle of Connecticut, but who cared after a hot night with Muffy from Oyster Bay?  I went to New York and roamed the city.  I went to Mardi Gras, spent Spring Break on the beaches of Fort Lauderdale. 

So, Lefferts prepared me for college, but not in the way my parents had intended.  Being free as a bird in New Haven, released from the prison of boarding school, was sheer pleasure.  I muddled through with a Gentleman’s ‘C’ because of all these flights and adventures, and in retrospect I wasted a perfectly good Yale education.  Perhaps because I had blown off both academic and extra-curricular pursuits in search of pussy and a good time, my son vowed that he would not waste his Harvard education.  In the end my parents’ investment in Lefferts paid off much later than intended, indirectly, and in ways exactly opposite to what they had planned.

“Did you really hate Lefferts that much?”, asked my mother recently in her 90s.  I was hoping that after 50 years I would finally get an apology for pushing me out of the house.

“Yes”, I replied.

“Well, look how you turned out”, she said; and I was left, as always, to ponder her meaning. 

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