Salad Days, Part I
Randolph Splitter, Aptos, CA
The sixties were a time of unrest and change, but the college I went to--a small, traditional, geographically isolated men's school--was just beginning to be affected by outside events.
At ten to eight, one Thursday night, my friend Epstein and I tramped across the frozen quadrangle on our way to class. I asked him if he had a date for the fraternity house-party that weekend. In those days, the life of the college revolved around fraternities, and almost everybody belonged to one.
Epstein shook his head. "There's a demonstration in New York I want to go to." The war in Vietnam was just picking up steam, and he was an early opponent of it.
In a few minutes we reached the old, ivy-covered building where the class met and went in. The thick stone walls kept the air inside damp and cold, almost as cold inside as out. The door to Room Three was open. Epstein and I found a couple of empty desks and sat down. Professor Morrison wasn't there yet.
"Maybe he won't show up," I said. Morrison had missed one or two classes already because of the bad weather. I could use the time to catch up on the work I had to do for other subjects.
"No, he'll be here," said Epstein. "It's not snowing and there's a full moon out, so he can find his way."
While the other students straggled in, I leafed through the pages of my Plato. We used an edition that had Greek and English on facing pages. Morrison liked to clarify difficult passages by referring to the original Greek, though none of us could really follow him.
At ten minutes after the hour Professor Morrison arrived. He had gray hair, gray eyebrows, and a gray mustache. He walked slowly. He wore the same belted Norfolk jacket that he always wore. Morrison had joined the faculty back in the thirties. The rumor was that he had been old even then. I wondered how many times he had taught the same subject, the same Socratic dialogues, probably in the same classroom.
"According to Plato," Morrison began now, wheezing, "truth is dialectical." His voice was hoarse and high-pitched. "Now what does that mean?"
The class was silent.
"Smolinski," said Professor Morrison, wheezing more loudly, "do you know what dialectical means?"
Smolinski was a jock whose favorite sports were playing pool and smoking cigarettes.
"No," he said. "I mean, I couldn't really get into the book."
"You couldn't get into the book?" Morrison's bushy gray eyebrows shot up.
"I mean, I read the dialogue and everything. But I think Socrates was nitpicking. Scoring points off the other guy even when the other guy was right."
"Mmmmn," said Morrison.
I raised my hand.
"Wilson," said Morrison expectantly.
"Well," I said, "that's what the dialectical process is all about. Arising out of a dialogue, a conversation between two people. Truth emerges from the dialogue, not from the statements of one person alone. In fact, error isn't really error; it's just part of the process, the process of arriving at the truth."
Morrison, nodding, made satisfied sounds.
"But what if one person's right?" said Epstein, not bothering to raise his hand. "What if one person's right and the other person's wrong? When local authorities accused Socrates of misleading the state's youth, when they put him to death for his crimes, were they just engaging in dialectic? Were they helping to discover the truth?"
Epstein had a point. In the real world, disagreements usually weren't settled so rationally.
"Weeellll," mused Professor Morrison, whinnying like a horse that's learned how to speak.
Smolinski broke in. "Hey, at least they took him seriously. I mean, nowadays, if somebody started spouting philosophy on a street corner, in Greek, nobody would pay any attention to him. Maybe they'd give him a quarter just to make him shut up."
The class broke into laughter.
The seminar finally rolled to a conclusion a few minutes after eleven. I was planning to return to my dorm room to get some studying in before going to sleep, but Epstein asked me if I wanted to go down to the fraternity house for something to eat. Despite the fact that he was a vegetarian--or maybe because of it--Epstein was always hungry. He would devour three or four sandwiches and then eat a bag full of sunflower seeds for dessert.
"Are you crazy? It's almost midnight. I've got hours of homework ahead of me."
"Come on," he said. "We can catch the news on the tube. You need a break."
Wet snow was beginning to fall, drifting down under the streetlights that dotted the campus. The college was built on top of a hill, and the fraternity house was located part of the way down. A ramshackle wooden structure, three stories tall, it was supposed to be white but hadn't been painted in decades. A well-to-do family probably lived there once, in the last century, the servants sleeping in the back bedrooms behind the stairs.
The kitchen was in the back of the house.
"Hah! Banana bread!" said Epstein, pulling the string attached to the light bulb in the pantry.
Mrs. A. liked to make banana bread out of the uneaten bananas that lay around her kitchen getting rotten. Mrs. A. was the house cook. She had remarried after Mr. A.'s death, but in the fraternity house she was still known as Mrs. A.
Epstein cut two thick slices of the bread. It gave off a rich, sweet odor that made my mouth water. "You want one?"
The aroma was overpowering. I grabbed a slice and poured myself a cup of sour, reheated coffee from the pot that was always simmering on the stove. Epstein found a plastic cup and filled it with milk from the gleaming metal dispenser known as the cow.
While we were sitting at the kitchen table, Brillo bounded in and milked the cow. Everyone called him Brillo because he had a rough black beard that grew wildly over his face. He nodded to me, then tossed a verbal grenade at Epstein.
"Epstein, you flaming asshole, what're you doing here? I thought you hated Mrs. A.'s cooking."
Epstein tended to complain about meals at the fraternity house. Either there wasn't enough food or there were too many things he couldn't eat or he was tired of spaghetti. To the rest of the fraternity members, Mrs. A.'s food was sacrosanct. They treated complaints about her cooking like attacks upon their mother.
"I was hungry," said Epstein, with a deadpan expression. "I like banana bread."
Brillo laughed. He and Epstein liked to taunt each other; it was a game they played. When Epstein was finished with his banana bread, he asked me if I wanted to see what was on the tube.
"I told you, I've got a lot of work to do."
"Oh c'mon. We just got here. We can't go yet."
"Yeah," said Brillo, "you just got here."
I shrugged my shoulders. "Let me finish my coffee. I'll be there in a few minutes." After Epstein left the room, Brillo poured himself another glass of milk. He turned to me. "Listen, Henry, can you give me some help with the Latin homework?" We were in the same Latin class, a class also taught by Professor Morrison.
"Sure. What's the problem?" I said, although I mistrusted Brillo's sudden friendliness. He rarely spoke to me unless he wanted something.
Brillo went to get his copy of Virgil's Aeneid. When he came back, he explained that he was having trouble with the passage in which the hero Aeneas communes with the spirits of the dead.
"You know," he said as we were going over the translation, "the dead didn't have things so bad in those days. Sure, they were trapped in the underworld and all. They couldn't go anywhere. But they could think, they could talk. Shit, they were almost alive."
"Sort of like Professor Morrison," I said, laughing.
After twenty minutes Brillo felt he understood the constructions. "At least I won't flunk," he said. "You wanna check out the tube?"
"Okay," I answered. What the hell; another few minutes.
From the hallway outside the tube room, we could hear Johnny Carson cracking one-liners. When I opened the door, I saw familiar figures draped over couches and chairs. Lying on a dirty, threadbare sofa the color of split pea soup, taking up most of it, was an enormous mound of flesh, nicknamed Goon. He was drinking a can of the local beer. With his wispy blond hair and tiny gold-rimmed glasses too small for his head, he looked like a giant coddled egg.
"Hey, what happened on Cronkite?" Epstein was saying. "I wanted to see Morley Safer's report from Vietnam."
"Commie!" spat Goon, with gleeful sarcasm. "We didn't watch Cronkite tonight. There was a vote, and we decided to see Gilligan's Island instead."
"Oh God," groaned Epstein.
"Knock it off!" said a pear-shaped creature named Perugia. His voice was deep and raspy, like a frog's. "I've got an organic chem midterm tomorrow."
Perugia was premed. He was sitting in a greasy vinyl chair with a book open in front of him, trying to study. Either he found it easier to study with the television on or he couldn't bear to miss Johnny Carson. He was smoking a cheap, smelly cigar.
I sat down on the floor and watched Johnny bounce jokes off Ed. Ed laughed; Johnny smirked.
"Wait a minute," said Brillo. "We did see Cronkite tonight. They showed the Marines pacifying a Viet Cong hamlet." He gave a deep, resonant laugh, his teeth gleaming yellow-white against the backdrop of his black beard. "You should've seen those thatched huts burn, Epstein. It did my heart good."
"You fascist bastard," said Epstein.
Goon and Brillo laughed; Perugia muttered to himself.
"I'm going," I said to Epstein. "I've got homework to do."
My date that weekend was a young woman named Becky, who attended a women's college fifty or sixty miles away. On Saturday night I was lying next to Becky on the floor of the fraternity house living room, behind a couch. The living room rug had been rolled back and the floor turned into a dance floor. A local rock band was blasting away at the other end of the room, which was pitch dark except for the flashing red lights on the amplifiers. My mind was swimming because of the loud music or because I had too much to drink. Following fraternity custom, I had stashed a pint of gin in the built-in bookcase along the wall, between a book on famous battles of the nineteenth century and something by Louisa May Alcott. My hand was somewhere inside Becky's dress, exploring the smooth surface of her skin.
All of a sudden Becky said, "Hey, where's Epstein?" spoiling the mood. "I haven't seen him all weekend."
"Epstein?" I repeated, trying to make the connection.
"Yeah, Epstein. That friend of yours. I haven't seen him around all weekend."
"He went to a demonstration. Against the war."
"Oh, right. I forgot he was into that."
In fact, Epstein spent most of his free time studying the history of Vietnam and the origins of the American involvement there. Plus, he read all the current news he could get his hands on.
"Well, people are getting killed over there," I said.
"I'm not in favor of the war," said Becky. "But demonstrations don't do any good. They don't change anybody's mind; they just make people angry."
""We've got to do something," I replied. "I mean, it's hard to go to school and pretend nothing's happening." Perhaps without consciously being aware of it, I had come to the realization that the war was wrong and that I needed to do something about it.
Suddenly I saw the hulking figure of Goon standing over us. He said something which was hard to catch because of the volume of the band.
"What? What'd you say?"
This time he bellowed. "I said Epstein's on the phone. He wants to talk to you."
"Epstein? On the phone? Now?"
Goon thudded away without answering.
I got to my feet uncertainly. There was a pay telephone in a tiny closet under the stairs. I threaded my way in the dark across the living room, through clumps of drunken, sleepy dancers.
The closet was lit by a naked forty watt bulb. I picked up the dull black receiver of the pay phone.
"Epstein! Is that you?"
"Yeah. Listen, can you pick me up? I'm at the bus station."
"The bus station? Now?" The station was located twenty miles away in the major city of the region, an economically depressed mill and factory town that had probably seen better days.
"Yeah, I decided to come back early."
I thought for a moment, my mind beginning to clear. "Shit, okay. I'll be there in thirty or forty minutes." I put the phone back on the hook.
I found Becky and told her that I needed to give Epstein a ride. We located our coats in the tube room, where several overtired people had crashed. My car keys were in the pocket of my coat. On the way out the door we passed Goon. He was sitting on the floor in the hallway, leaning against the wall, sipping beer from a large plastic cup. When he finished swallowing, he belched.
"Hey, Wilson, where are you going?"
"To the bus station. To pick up Epstein."
"That fucking asshole? Let him walk."
"Goon, the guy needs a lift."
Goon belched again and said, "Ahhh, what the fuck! I'll go with you. The party's dead anyway."
My car, a functional '59 Ford the same dull black color as the telephone, was sitting outside on the snow-covered driveway. After several tries the car started, and we rattled off down the cobblestone hill. It was cold outside and the heater didn't work very well. Becky cuddled against me to keep warm.
"Doesn't this thing go any faster?" said Goon, who was sprawled across the back seat.
"Am I going slowly?" I said. I felt sober, but exhausted. I was too tired to concentrate on going fast.
After half an hour we left the backcountry roads and entered a neighborhood of locked warehouses with iron grills on their windows. The overcast night sky was very dark, and the icy streets were deserted. The only signs of life were a couple of bars that seemed to be open, red and blue lights flashing in their windows.
When we reached the bus station, Epstein was standing in the doorway. Becky opened the car door, and he climbed into the back seat.
"What are you doing here, Goon?" said Epstein, surprised to see him.
"Just passing through, Epstein. I got tired of partying."
"Oh yeah? You should've come to the peace march."
"How was it?" I asked. "A lot of people?"
"Yeah, it was great. The police counted a hundred thousand, but I bet there were half a million. Factory workers, Black Panthers, mothers pushing baby carriages, old lefties from the thirties, Trotskyites, clean-cut high school kids. It was like Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. Even the cops lining the parade route were in a good mood. They were laughing and joking and flashing the peace sign."
"The cops?" said Goon, sounding puzzled.
"Yeah. Marching down there with all those people, I felt, I don't know, a sense of belonging. I felt that the people filling those streets constituted another America, the real America, and that I was part of it."
"Fucking Communists," said Goon. He rolled down the window, letting in a blast of arctic air, and spat out on the frozen road. "Real Americans are over in Vietnam fighting for their country."
"The Vietnamese are fighting for their country," said Epstein, raising his voice. "It's their country!"
"Let's hear some music," said Becky. She turned on the radio and spun the dial. "I wonder what's on this time of night." The station she stopped at was playing the Temptations' song, "My Girl": "I've got sunshi-i-ine... on a cloudy day."
Becky started singing along. Then Epstein joined in, bouncing and rocking in the back seat. "When it's cold outside, I've got the month of May." It was cold outside; inside too. I began to tap my fingers on Becky's knee. Suddenly Goon chimed in as well, sounding like a cross between an alto saxophone and a wounded water buffalo. "One thing makes me feel this way...." With Goon's massive weight testing the shock absorbers, the car seemed to sway back and forth in time to the music. "My girl, my girl, talkin' 'bout my gi-i-irl."
As we turned up the road that led to the campus, I thought I saw the first faint streaks of daylight seeping over the top of the hill. I could tell it was going to be one of those clear, brilliant winter days that make you forget how cold it really is.
A few months later my draft board sent me an induction notice. Student deferments were being phased out, and people were scrambling for ways to dodge the draft; joining the National Guard, fleeing to Canada or Sweden, shooting off a toe. I applied to become a conscientious objector. If any war was worth fighting, the one in Vietnam wasn't it. But my request was denied. I decided that when the time came, I would refuse the official oath of induction, claiming that I should be considered a conscientious objector after all.
"Don't worry," I told Becky on the phone, although I was as worried as she was. "They don't arrest you on the spot. They just send your name in to the federal prosecutor's office."
"But what if something goes wrong?" She was talking rapidly. "What if they throw you on a bus going to boot camp? Or put you on a plane to Vietnam?"
She sounded as if she were really concerned about me. I tried to reassure her. "It's not going to happen. I might have to go to jail eventually, but nothing's going to happen right now." I needed to get a lawyer. Still, the way I figured it, five years in jail was better than a one-way trip to Vietnam.
I had to get up at four in the morning in order to reach the induction center on time; it was located near the bus station where we had picked up Epstein. A nondescript concrete building with no sign on it, no identifying marks that I could see, it had probably been a warehouse until taken over by the Army. The neighborhood was busier than it had been in the middle of the night. Across the street was a white washed hamburger stand advertising Coca-Cola. Even at six in the morning it was open, serving hot coffee to construction workers and policemen.
The induction center was busy too. I walked up a steep set of stairs. When I reached the top, a man with a clipboard checked my name off a list and directed me to a small, airless room where ten or twenty other guys were getting undressed. Despite what I had told Becky, I was nervous. The whole thing reminded me of a trip to the doctor or the dentist. There were rows and rows of wire baskets along one wall of the room. I put my clothes in one of the baskets, my my keys and wallet in a paper bag which I placed on top of my clothes. It was like going to prison; in twenty years, when I got out, I could get my keys back.
For the rest of the day we paraded around the building in our underwear, filling out forms, taking tests, having our weight measured and our blood sampled. Each phase of the induction process took place in a different part of the building. In order to find our destinations, we had to follow one of the brightly-colored lines that were painted down the middle of the corridors and stairs like the yellow brick road in The Wizard of Oz. Barefoot, we wandered from floor to floor, our noses to the ground. One baby-faced kid wandered around naked. He explained, innocently, that he had forgotten to put on underwear that morning.
At one point in the afternoon, many hours after the day had begun, all of the inductees were herded into a large, empty room. With its high windows and its lofty, cavernous ceiling, the room reminded me of a cathedral. Either that or a gym. Were we going to pray or play basketball? As it turned out, we were told to line up on the blue line that ran along the side of the room and face the wall. A man in a white lab coat stood alone in the middle of the room. He too was holding a clipboard.
Okay, men, he began, drop your shorts, bend over, and spread your buttocks. We want to see if you have any problems in that area. He said area as if he meant a difficult subject like calculus or Latin which we might be flunking in school.
The doctorif he was a doctorstrolled down the row with a little flashlight, peering into peoples assholes. The experience was humiliating, but a little less humiliating because it was happening to everyone. Stripped naked, stripped of our education, our parents money, our different backgrounds, we were joined together in a bizarre initiation rite. High school dropouts and college students, some a little younger, some a little older, we formed a community, like Epsteins fellow protest marchers, except that we had not come there voluntarily. The initiation rite reminded me of the fraternity initiation ceremony, when the first-year pledges became full members of the fraternity. They wore rented tuxedos and sat in the cellar of the fraternity house all day long with black hoods over their heads. It was always a hot, stifling day in June, even more stifling in the cellar. One by one the pledges were led upstairs, not knowing what was coming. Finally, still hooded, they were whacked on the ass with their own wooden pledge paddles by a couple of upperclassmen. That years Brillo and Goon.
The last part of the induction process was the psychiatric interview. When my turn came, I entered a sparsely furnished cubicle and sat down on a plastic chair. Since I was still in my underwear, the plastic felt cold against my skin. Another man in a white coat sat behind a desk, reading one of the forms I had filled out. For a minute he studied my answers, saying nothing. Finally he looked up.
Thats right, I said. Following Epsteins example, I had stopped eating meat. Mrs. A.s vegetables were a lesser evil. Im a conscientious objector. I dont like to kill things.
Updated Thursday, January 28, 1999