Like beads tossed from a Mardi Gras float to one and all, condoms are now available as arugula. There was a time, not so very long ago, (1956 to be precise), when young men were kept isolated from condoms so that the immoral youths would not rub upon their girlfriends in the backseats of family cars and embarrass themselves and their dates by their lack of talent at this delightful activity. It was thus ordained by the morals police that many young women wound up mothering the hell out of innumerable infants. Some of you reading this litany may well be the products of this condomless experiment in eugenics. (The eugenics in question mated the most convincing and narcissistic young males with the most vulnerable and insecure females.)
American swains who had not yet reached eighteen years of age were discouraged from purchasing Trojans, Ramses, Sheik and other latex items by state law and, more chilling, ancient pharmacists who knew their parents and would rat them out. (It is worth noting here that in the olden days condoms only came in one color—grey–and had no texture other than smooth, depriving generations yet to come <ROTFL> of ribs and bumps and all manner of creative landscaping “For Her Pleasure”.)
Those daring young men in my immediate circle who carried a wallet with an obvious circular bulge made by a condom hidden within were knights errant, the coolest of the very cool. Those of us whose wallets lacked that telltale ring had no way of knowing that the cool guys’ rubbers had been in there for 18 months or more and were certain to be about as effective as wearing a colander into a vagina.
To be sure there were any number of self-selected “mentors” who encouraged us to use the rhythm method <which no one ever really understood> or withdrawal which was more of a promise than a reality and never very effective. (There were no Baggies yet and no one thought of using waxed paper or tin foil.) And thus it was that even if one were lucky enough to find a young woman who was ready to throw caution and her virginity to the winds, one required a condom to ward off any number of nasty consequences, including the unplanned existence of some of you who are reading this. (Even though you may have been a “mistake” I am sure your folks loved you just as much as your younger siblings and don’t blame you for ruining their youth and causing their subsequent divorce.)
Our world in the 50’s was rife with tales of “shotgun weddings”, picturing some poor sex addict and his equally unfortunate pregnant target of opportunity forced to flee to Elkton, Maryland where children could get married out of the limelight and the shame-scope. Everyone knew everyone’s business in those days and even if your sister disappeared for eight months to “study” with the Sisters of Extreme Mercy in Pocatello, nobody believed it. The only advice I ever got from my father was, “Don’t knock one up! They’ll sue us for everything we own!” Some of our wilder cronies swore they knew somebody who knew somebody who could get an abortion on demand in a motel in Kew Gardens. “For a hunnert bucks.”
It was a grim and shameful time for unlicensed experimentation.
I was hovering between 15 and 16 years of age. Masturbation had long since taught me that coitus could only be a quantum leap beyond the solitary delights which threatened to make me go blind. Tempest Storm, Blaze Starr, and the very new Playboy Magazine had taught me serially that women were the answer to depression, loneliness, insecurity, some really strange parenting and the unwavering belief that I was an irremediable mistake.
Problem was, whenever I chatted with a girl, danced with a girl or was anywhere near a girl, my mind inevitably bolted onto forbidden landscapes where she and I would get naked and do what I had only read about in the few vaguely pornographic novels which had passed my superheated view. (Most of the bodice rippers broke off the narrative when the passionate couple had shredded one another’s clothes or her bodice. [I had to look up bodice to know what one was.] That was followed by a turgid chapter break. The next chapter always began with the two of them waking up in an embrace with the sunrise, obviating the necessity for telling me exactly what they did and how they managed it that I might someday emulate.) Painfully, I was certain that every young woman I spoke to could read my mind and knew I just wanted to share a chapter break with her like the Hero and Heroine of CHERIE, a novel my 50 year-old babysitter had left by mistake (or on purpose) when I was 11. I was convinced I was thoroughly rotten to the core.
All I needed was to find a person my age, preferably female, who was as rotten at her core as I was at mine. And thus, if I were successful in this hunt, I would require a condom—and maybe a second to double wrap myself so that we wouldn’t be sued for everything my father owned.
And that is the backstory of how I almost ruined an entire school.
I think there were six of us in the car that night in January 1956. It was “Sheesh’s” car. (All names are pseudonymous because, with the exception of me, none of my historical pals have any desire at all to be reminded of how they helped nearly ruin an entire school.) Sheesh had the car because he was 17, had a license and was a day student. He came by his appellation as a result of his always sighing “Sheesh” when you asked him anything he didn’t want to answer. All of us were students at a prestigious boarding and day school in the Boston area— let’s call “Blakely Academy”—three boarders signed out for the weekend and three day students.
Sheesh drove his lovely Ford with Glasspacks, a sound by which I shall ever after judge cars’ exhausts’ deep-throated murmur. We cruised around and for the first hour it was just fun smoking Lucky Strikes, and L&M’s and whistling at women on sidewalks in towns from Dedham to Back Bay. It never occurred to us that no kid has ever succeeded in picking up a date by having five gooney friends making hubba-hubba noises and crying “Wanta Ride?” But it gave us, to misquote Sam Beckett, the sense that we existed.
We existed as men. We were no longer the well-behaved stooges of a system whose goal was to matriculate well-behaved, well-rounded, well-prepared young men for life as a Harvard or Yale graduate. (In fact my class would graduate 48 of us, 25 or so who were admitted to Harvard and nine or ten to Yale.) In Sheesh’s rod we were free of demerits, discipline, training rules and bullying by upper classmen.
We were living on the edge.
But pretending to live on the edge and really teetering on the brink are two vastly different items on anyone’s life list.
For reasons I shall never quite fully understand, I believe it was I who first tossed out the brilliant suggestion that we cruise around the greater Boston area until we found a drugstore where we might buy condoms. I could have suggested we go to Cambridge and look for a bar that served Harvard freshmen and maybe us. I might have said that we should go see a movie in Roxbury. A donut Shoppe in Mattapan. Some coeds in Chestnut Hill from the ill-named Beaver School. But, no, I said, “How about we go look for a drugstore that will sell us rubbers?” We were all way below the legal age which may even have been 21.
Massachusetts was famous for its restrictive Blue Laws, “Blue” being a word which may have been “disparaging” of the moral codes. Puritans and, later, Roman Catholics, felt a necessity to restrict the sale of alcohol on Sundays, as well as the sale of anything except a newspaper and a bottle of aspirin. Condoms to minors? No freakin’ way! It was a dead cert that Sheesh’s car contained no one that night who looked a day over seventeen.
I don’t believe I believed we would succeed, but at least it was a goal, however absurd. It might even be the grist for a tall tale or two on return to the dorms Sunday night.
For other reasons I shall never quite fully understand, the rest of my pals gave their assent. Sheesh pulled into a spot across the street from a Rexall Drug Store and I was voted first man in, it having been my idea. I shall not lie: I was terrified I would be arrested for fraud, lascivious carriage (whatever the hell that was) or felonious depravity.
The “safe” buying caper itself has become a cultural cliché, famed in movies and novels of adolescent agony. The squeaky-voiced teen walks boldly (or an approximation of bold as an adult might appear bold which in no way approximates a real adult male who is entitled to keep from impregnating anyone he finds) into the local Rexall, a company that once was the go-to local purveyor of everything from Trojans to a diet candy called, mirabile dictu AYDS. No CVS or Walgreens, these were local franchises and great places to hang out…wooden floors, hanging lamps, ceiling fans, a real pharmacy in the back with real empty capsules which could be filled by a male (almost always) who had mixed up various elixirs on marble tiles. He could hear you coming by the creaking of the floor.
Like every movie loser I cleared my throat and picked up some Mennen Spray Deodorant in the green plastic squeeze bottle, placed it before the elderly man wearing the white coat buttoned to the neck like Doctor Kildare enjoyed while curing typhoid.
“I’d like some condoms as well,” I intoned, looking for basso profundo but only dredging up something between a tenor and castrato.
I avoided his eyes at first but figured I’d look more adult if I locked eyes with him. Big mistake.
“How old are you, kid?”
When one sees the executioner’s hand start to move on the lever that opens the trap door, a wise man abandons hope. “Eighteen,” I replied, settling the question as to my wisdom.
“No, you’re not,” he said in a voice frozen from years of dishing out sulfa and penicillin and gentian violet for trench mouth. Our mothers told us that we had to use straws when we drank at the soda fountains or we’d get trench mouth. “Do you still want the deodorant?”
And yes, just to prove I wasn’t a fraud, I bought the Mennen Spray deodorant instead of leaving it there in a huff. My pride has always been misplaced owing to—never mind. I am tired of talking about my parents.
Back in Sheesh’s car I gave a report, was praised for trying and booed for buying the deodorant like a wuss. Sheesh powered up and we trooped off to the next and the next, each time trying a different personal shopper. When we all had failed, we switched and sent in pairs of purchasers with the same pathetic results.
And then, when we became really bored with this overwrought caper, I was recycled for the last attempt, this time in Dedham, a block down from the blue lamp that hung over the entrance to the Police Department. No sooner than I saw the blue light I went back to the car and leaned in, suggesting in my sit rep that this had all the potential for a disaster involving Dedham’s finest and a Roman Catholic legal system that trumped even our Zeus-like Headmaster’s ability to inspire fear.
Sheesh and the rest of my bored merry band accused me of being a chicken and suggested that, inasmuch as it had been my idea in the first place, I should damn well better get my “homo” ass in there and succeed. (“Homo” was employed liberally in my era, never as a term of endearment. Gay marriage was six decades away and the only people I knew who used the term “gay” were in the theatre.) More frightened than before I entered the Drug Store (whatever it was called) and decided against buying extra toothpaste as camouflage for my real objective. “I’d like some rubbers,” I said, devoid of all forms of subterfuge.
Perhaps it was my defeatist attitude—I had given up all hope—or my pathetic demeanor that made the square-shaped-middle-age-white-coated pharmacist, say, “What kind?”
Absolute eons passed between his question and my reply.
“Uh, Trojans?” I sure as hell wasn’t going to get all exotic and say, “French Ticklers?” Moreover I had no idea if he was going to sell me some or was just testing me before destroying my hopes and asking the Dedham PD to stop by and ruin my chances of getting into Harvard, Yale or Princeton.
“You want ‘em with the reservoir tip?” he asked, calmly, perhaps secretly enjoying his role as Charon, launch driver to Hell.
Inasmuch as the only reservoir tip I had ever experienced was an athletic sock, I felt I should shoot the works. I was going to go with whatever he said so as not to piss him off. “Yep,” I replied, unaware that I was now at risk of wrecking my chances of getting into any college not located on Staten Island. I could not hear the vast karmic void opening offstage, a cavern which would forever label us as the worst malefactors our school had ever suckled at its didactic bosom in 158 years.
“How many?” the registered pharmacist, a man of science with diplomas on the wall behind him and the sworn duty to uphold ALL the laws of The Commonwealth of Massachusetts, not just the ones he agreed with…like making you sign the drug book for Terpin Hydrate with codeine even if he suspected you were going to drink it on the rocks.
“Two,” I replied.
“They come in three or a dozen.”
“I meant two of the dozens,” I said, starting to feel as if I were Alan Ladd in “OSS”, putting one over on a Gestapo dummkopf. I started looking all around now, feeling that this was a pharmacy I could be comfortable in. Next time I had pneumonia I’d swing by and make me the purchase of some Aureomycin. (They were $.50 a pill in those days. Very expensive.)
“You want 24 Trojans with the reservoir tip?” he inquired, startled that I was pushing the envelope. Either I was the most amazing juvenile Romeo he had ever known or I was exactly what I was—a thrill-seeking kid who didn’t know a reservoir tip from a ball-gag.
He went to the large chest of drawers behind him. They were polished wood with brass holders for the cards which indicated the contents written in aqua Parker ink with a wide nib pen.
“Brap! Brap!” went the drawer out and then back in. He slapped the two white and red boxes on the counter, asked me if that would be all.
“I’m good,” I said, getting cocky, not believing my incredible good fortune and totally unable to consider this could be anything but wonderful for my future.
I leaped and skipped my victory dance back to the car. “No way!” my peers cried aloud. I felt like I was on the first step to becoming a legend. After all, I had 24 rubbers! Two dozen’s worth of inarguable coolth! “How many?”
“Two Goddamn dozen?! That is fucking amazing!” As boarding school boys born to privilege, we tended to curse more than absolutely necessary to assert our desire to be, above all fucking else, COOL. My real chances of being cool at that or any other time in my life registered someplace between James Dean and Pinky Lee. (You’ll have to look that one up on Bing or Google.)
My best friend, Mark, demanded a visual on the items in question. I tossed him the brown paper sack as Porthos would have tossed a coin to a lad holding his horse. “Holy sheep shit,” he said, amazed and at the same time laughing outrageously at the idea of a reservoir tip. “Do they all have these?” he asked.
“Just the Trojans,” Clayton Torrance IV said with the complete assurance of a florid-faced 17 year old who didn’t know a thing about reservoir tips. Clayton had a loud voice and huge biceps which made us believe most of whatever he said. “It gives a place for the jizz, so it doesn’t migrate anywhere,” he added, gaining confidence in his ability to make up knowledge on the fly.
“I gotta get me some,” “Fusser” said from his corner of the back seat. He was smaller than everyone else, way cooler, and fairly secretive. He had been caught smoking a Chesterfield behind the chapel in his 8th grade year. One more smoking infraction and he would wind up having to go to some lesser school like Nobles and Greenough or Brown & Nichols. Two cigarettes’ worth of smoking on campus meant the end of your chances of being anyone…ever.
Fusser was called Fusser because he was OCD before it was invented. He kept the neatest desk in study hall and occasionally rearranged the bulletin board when no one was looking. He liked the tops of all the announcements to line up even though he dressed sloppily and without regard to the dress code…tie shoes, hair above the collar, necktie neatly ironed.
“Lemme outa here,” Fusser mumbled from a hoarse throat. His voice was always a mix between catarrh and bronchitis. He and Clayton IV climbed up and over and out. They kind of ambled, with an affected casualness, into the target Drug Store only to return minutes later with four dozen Trojan Enz.
“Did the pharmacist think you were weird coming in right after me?” I asked, suspecting that soon we would all be busted for absurd over-consumption of age-specific latex.
“Nah, he was cool,” Clayton replied. “Because we were.”
Ten minutes later we had a car with six students and a gross of the forbidden barriers between us and disease, between us and having our fathers being sued for everything they owned. The laughter inside that car was just this side of hysterical as Sheesh accelerated past the blue-lit Dedham PD. I think Mark may have given the finger to the buttoned-up cop shop.
On the way back to Mark’s house, we stopped off and tossed a greasy black lighted bomb-shaped kerosene lantern into a snowdrift. Just to underscore how totally anti-social we were. We were as close to “Blackboard Jungle” as our school was ever going to get.
Unbeknownst to us, the clock of fate had already begun to tick with an ominous tock as we boarders returned to campus that gloomy Sunday evening just in time to show up for dinner and chapel.
By accident or, if you are a Deist, Divine Design, The Reverend William Sloane Coffin was our guest preacher in the Memorial Chapel. Bill Coffin was to be, at that young age, the hippest, slickest and coolest visiting speaker we would ever hear. He stared out as we sat yawning in rows, upperclassmen first and lower toward the back—watched over by our democratically elected Head Monitors, the straightest arrows on campus. (Not a clown or anti-Christ among them.) “You gentlemen are all members of ‘The Vegetable Bloc’,” Rev. Coffin declared with a friendly ironic grin and a strange nasal sort of Bronx accent.
Unused to being assaulted with irony by a man of God, we laughed. What a hoot.
“You are fat, dumb and, worst of all, Happy!” he continued.
We almost cheered. I do not recall the rest of his diatribe against the entitled and comfortable members of our generation. To a person (the Girls’ School boarders were also present towards the back of the back) most of us believed Coffin was speaking about the other people around us or our parents. He wound up with an exhortation to leave fat-dumb-and-happy and become involved in the vital social issues of our day—segregation, poverty, and a military industrial complex which threated to catapult us onto the rocks of history. Jesus, he insisted in other terms, had balls and we needed to grow some.
I thought he was delightful, but surely overstating the facts. It would be decades before I realized Coffin may have been a man with human-type faults but being wrong was not one of them.
As we boarders ambled back to our dorms that Sunday evening an upperclassman came up to Mark and me and asked, “You guys got rubbers?” The upperclassman was named Billy and had once told me and three other guys that you could make women crazy with your finger. He knew. He had done it. But he didn’t tell us how.
Mark and I swiveled our heads to make sure we were not being observed by faculty or finks. In retrospect, I now know we should have marched ourselves right then and there up to the Headmaster’s front door and thrown ourselves on his putative mercy. If outsiders knew the specifics of our mission in Dedham 22 hours later we were already headed to perdition.
Blinded by the attention we were receiving from a cool upperclassman, Mark and I replied, “Who told you?”
“I don’t remember,” Billy replied. “You selling?”
I remember shrugging. Unbeknownst to me I was now standing on the icy precipice at the bottom of which rested a guillotine. “Maybe,” I said, only postponing the inevitable for a few nanoseconds.
“Five bucks,” Billy said. “For one.”
I looked at Mark. Mark looked at me. I nodded. “Sure,” I replied, computing that now I only had 23 condoms in inventory. I had plans to use a few for “scientifically experimental purposes” so that, if and when the moment arrived, I would not be all thumbs in front of whatever woman had agreed, insanely, to lie with me as they used to say in The Bible. Moreover, that five bucks paid most of my overhead in one fell swoop. Beyond that, Billy was an upperclassman. We had something he wanted. Nobody had ever wanted anything we had!
Our stars were on the ascendant and Mark and I and the others were going to ride this newfound fame to places we had only dreamed of—and some we hadn’t thought about…ever.
The next week was like a waterspout off Key West: a funnel-shaped cloud filled with condensation causing awe and wonder but rarely any destruction. Words cannot express the height and depth of my delight at being famous. It had always been part of my M.O. to confuse attention with love and thus I was giddy with exaltation. From odd-ball with a sarcastic tongue and middling grades I was on my way to becoming legendary.
To be sure we were as careful as we knew how to be. We had verbal assurances that everyone would keep our secret. Besides, we had the Ace in the hole: if you bought a condom from us, you were now as guilty as we were for possession. What could possibly go wrong?
Miserabile dictu, we were completely unaware of the fundamental truth all schoolmasters keep to themselves, to wit: A very small percentage of all children in schools find overwhelming personal validation by acting as double agents. Instead of identifying downwards with the rest of us schmucks, they identify upwards, with the power structure, with “The Man”. They eventually grow up to be life-long Republicans, happy to vote against their own economic interests because their ersatz Father Figures claim that unregulated peons are more dangerous than an intelligent oligarchy.
Sunday morning, eight days after the wild night in Dedham.
In my dorm all was comme il faut. The four Roman Catholic students had left earlier to attend their oddball, lower class palace of worship where they bowed down to statues of whackadoodle martyrs and obeyed all the orders of a celibate foreign potentate. (That was not intended as an insult to the RC faith, but a common perception held by my peers and mostly by my father who disliked Roman Catholics more than Jews.) Nobody messed with them because, being of Irish extraction, they were tougher than most of us. Mark and I were dressing to attend the Episcopal Church up the street. Our school was non denominationally Christian and there were only two identifiable Jews who usually went Unitarian. We had to go to one of the local protestant churches in the neighborhood each Sunday morning. (I had failed to tell anyone that my mother’s father was named Leovy which is Levy with an “O” in it. My mother told us we were a different fraction Jewish every time we kids asked. I believe it got as low as 1/32 when I last asked. No one appeared to know my secret. In those days it was typical for our students taking third class English and reading THE MERCHANT OF VENICE to do burlesque Hebrew accents all over the campus. “Oh, my ducats, Oy my daughter …oyyyy vey!” The expression “He Jewed me down” was in common parlance whenever we sold things to each other.)
Jews were not the only minority regularly pilloried. There were no people of color of any hue on campus unless you count a few wealthy Venezuelans, a Colombian and, ultimately, an exchange student from Pakistan.
(I gag as I write these bits of history, and I take no pride in my culture as it expressed its insecurities. It gets worse.)
A popular after lunch recess activity was called “N__G_R BABY” and nobody thought twice about its political or moral ghastliness. It involved throwing a tennis ball to the top of the middle school roof and calling out the number of another player. If he dropped the ball as it came down, he was an “N” and then an “I” and so on. When a player had “earned” all the letters, he had to stand there while we chucked the tennis ball at his butt. It didn’t really hurt except for the fact it normalized racism in the most cavalier fashion. (I don’t recall any faculty member ever coming out and telling us we were horrible little racist shits.) I guess racism wasn’t supposed to count until you did something really mean to a person of color’s face. (William Sloane Coffin’s sermon had not sunk in yet. His bus rides to Selma were still ahead of him and us.)
Mark and I “two-blocked” our neckties and headed into the hall, only to be stopped by the presence of our housemaster, a portly bachelor in his 40’s who had been nicknamed “El Tigre Gordo” by some of the Spanish speaking students. His face was unreadable. That was odd.
“We’ll be late to church,” Mark opined.
“You won’t be going to church today,” El Tigre replied with a dark strength just above a whisper.
“What will we be doing?” I asked, sensing instantly that we
were not about to be inducted into a highly secret honor society.
“Come with me,” he replied, turning on the heels of his well polished, resoled shoes. Years after I would recall that all of his actions that morning were standard CIA/MI5/FBI/Military Police procedure for treating suspected terrorists. Give nothing away, start no discussions of guilt or innocence, raise the anxiety levels through silence and unaccustomed behavior.
We followed El Tigre down the stairs and out the front of our dorm. We followed him across the quad towards the Main School Building where lay study hall, most of our classrooms and the… administration offices. I looked at Mark who did not look back. By this time I imagine neither of us had any fantasies about our destination or the reason for this deviation from Holy Communion which we desperately needed at St. John’s.
Oddly, I did not pray on that awful walk. I barely breathed. I was terrified and ashamed. I don’t know which was worse, but the concoction was toxic. My face was hot, my fingers were cold. The only comfort I might have taken from this fate was that it was deserved. Many times in my early childhood I had been cruelly blamed for things I never did, so I was really screwed up on the subject of shame. Shame was the monster under my bed at night, the alien in my closet, the ghost in the outhouse, my closest companion in all manner of guises. Embarrassment was her cousin and one of my worst fears.
This was gonna be good. The tears were filling up my reservoirs, just screaming for release behind my exhausted duct muscles.
El Tigre Gordo walked into Meade Hall with unwonted efficiency. His shirt cuffs were showing three quarters of an inch both left and right. I let Mark go inside first, wishing I had the resources—no, the balls—to slam the door and run as fast as I could to Route 128 and hitchhike to Iceland.
I followed them in.
The marble floors and wainscoting echoed our footsteps like the sounds they used on my favorite radio program, DRAGNET, when Sgt. Joe Friday was returning from hours on the streets of LA obsessively doing the kind of detective work that caused him to live, unmarried, with his mother, in what was clearly an uncool lifestyle.
But I was not Joe Friday.
“Wait here,” El Tigre intoned, pointing to several chairs in the hallway outside The Headmaster’s Office.
Mark and I sat, at attention, hands under our armpits, arms across our chests. My eyelids were hot.
“Miller,” El Tigre said from just inside the outer office of the inner office of The Headmaster of Blakely Academy, Franklin Seymour Lloyd.
I looked at Mark who shot me the briefest of looks. I stood and entered the outer office of the inner office. El Tigre turned and entered the inner office. I could still bolt for freedom. Hell, I was only 15 and a half. I had my whole life in front of me. I could lie about my age, join the Marines and start all over again after my hitch.
I entered The Headmaster’s Office.
Franklin Seymour Lloyd was the son of Professor Seymour Alton Lloyd, the grandson of Professor Franklin Bigelow Lloyd, all renowned as educators—men who had spent their lives in the oxygen-free atmosphere of Cambridge, Harvard, Groton, Phillips Exeter, Phillips Andover.
Franklin Seymour Lloyd was the kind of aged that comes with the word “dry” attached. His skin was dry and creased, his sense of humor was dry and elegant. His features were like the north face of some bit of granite shipped from Vermont. His eyes were blue and bordered by laugh lines which made him beloved. His wire rimmed spectacles were perfectly round. His laugh was dry, his voice was parched. Upon entering any room he could light up the place. His presence was electric. His sense of himself had long since been decided by the gods on Olympus and his nickname on campus was, obviously, “Zeus”.
On this notable Sunday morning, he was not in his pew at The Congo Church up the lane and he was not happy about that or anything else. He did not speak until I had taken the chair provided for me in front of his immense mahogany desk. The extra skin on his cheeks and throat vibrated with barely repressed rage.
His words were chosen with disdain as if he would rather bathe in hot tar than speak them to me. “Mr. Miller, you and your confreres have brought the worst disgrace to this Academy in its entire history.” We both knew that the school was established in 1798. I noted that he did not ask me if I were guilty of anything.
“Not satisfied to keep certain latex items to yourselves, you and the others of your despicable group…” He paused, I guess, unwilling to get to the retail phase. “…marketed these banned items throughout the Academy. A vile and disgusting lack of morals and an unforgiveable violation of the student code at Blakely.”
I assumed that Constitutional guarantees did not apply here. Acting in loco parentis, Franklin Seymour Lloyd could be as unreasonable as my birth parents. Thus he never had to ask why I might have done what we both knew I had done.
When I first entered his office, I believed that I felt as ashamed as I could ever feel. By this point in his screed my shame had broken all records for self-loathing and terror. Tears had begun to release themselves unbidden from my eyes. I dried them from my cheeks with my woolen sleeves. It never occurred to me that in 60 years condoms would be doled out freely everywhere but in Roman Catholic Men’s Rooms. If only I could have known then that 50+ years later I would think this was the most wonderfully absurdist moment in my entire life and not care who knew what I had done.
As in any good absurdist work, whatever the author says is crucial is crucial, even if it seems absurd, that being the point. In today’s society, I am guessing that this generation’s Headmaster would chat about “teachable moments” in lieu of making each of us feel like the loathsome little scumbags we were. In fact I was at an alumni schmoozing cocktail party for my wife’s prep school in the mid 60’s when the school guidance counselor told the group that the second time a student is caught smoking, he or she gets the choice between a suspension or an addiction workshop. An elderly alum cried out, “..the student gets the CHOICE!?” That was the adult version of WTF back then.
As I write for readers in the 21st Century I am well aware that it takes serious imagination to see our misdeeds as repulsive as the Faculty saw them in 1956. (Our acceptable level of racism was much worse seen from 60 years later.)
Making buying a gross of Trojans a “teachable moment” in the ‘50’s would have been impossible anywhere but at The Putney School in Vermont where children were encouraged to be themselves. Like many of its epigoni our academy was based on the classic Brit model, replete with irrational bachelor floor masters, excellent classics, modern languages, English, sciences and Sports. Nowhere in our upraising did it say that we should each try to uncover our authentic selves. We were taught to stand whenever an adult entered the room, open doors for upperclassmen and women, sign out whenever we set foot off campus, not own radios until we were 17 or thereabouts, wear bathrobes in the corridors. The school did everything our parents would be hard pressed to accomplish on their own but with much more whining.
We could pass for gentlemen even if some of us were not.
Teachable Moment? We were being taught to stifle it, Edith. We were the lumps of clay. They were the sculptors. Years later I learned from the staff of the Education Department at UMASS that children who had discipline problems were less able to project themselves forward in time. They were not necessarily morally bankrupt. Had my friends and I had any sense at all we might have projected ourselves forward into the austere offices of Franklin Seymour Lloyd. With tears rolling down our collective cheeks.
I did not look up at Zeus when I asked, nigh breathless, “Should I …go back to my room… and pack… my things?” I was anxious to end this torture. I knew I was guilty. Evidently he knew I was guilty and I had no excuse except for youthful exuberance. (To the best of my knowledge “youthful exuberance” has never worked as a legitimate defense anywhere at any time. It was almost always used as in one of The Goon Shows when a character was asked why he had murdered so many people? He replied, “I guess I’ll have to put it down to ‘Youthful Exuberance.”)
I was terrified at the thought that I would have to call my parents and tell them on this Sunday morning I would be coming back to Long Island for good. “Mom? Dad? I have been busted for selling rubbers to all the kids at my boarding school.” (Did I mention that my parents were in The New York Social Register?) But I had been a disappointment to my parents before and I figured I would be the identified shit as usual. My older brother and sister were measurably more brilliant and my younger brother was a great kid whom everyone loved.
“No,” the Headmaster said. “Your case is of such a nature that it will take time to uncover its ramifications and measure its impact. Your actions have cast an immense stain on an institution which has been 158 years in achieving a reputation for excellence. You are to return to your room. You are ‘on bounds’ until further notice. You will meet all the other obligations of your program, classes, sports, etc. “
“When will we know…uh…your decision?” I asked, much preferring the thought of immediate firing to the agony of waiting days and days in shame and ridicule for the final spiked shoe to drop.
“When we tell you,” Franklin Seymour Lloyd replied, totally devoid of any joy in making me squirm.
I left his office, tears puffing my eyes and cheeks, unable to look Mark in the face for fear of showing just how scared I was. I was not at all cool.
The walk back to my dorm was cold, lonely, and colored by inverse ratiocination. My limited ability to think rationally was turned on its head as I prophesied doom of the worst sorts, leaving no room for any kind of future. In one swoop I had destroyed my life whatever that was. I would never be able to hold my head up and look anyone in the eye again. My reputation was sealed. People at The Cold Spring Harbor Beach Club or The Lloyd Neck Bath Club would wince and turn away whenever I showed up. I might as well join the Marines and try to win the Medal of Honor by killing myself to save my platoon. Nothing short of that would cleanse my future or obliterate my past. “Victor Miller? You mean the dirty guy who sold rubbers at prep school and then saved all the guys in his platoon?”
At lunch that afternoon I was aware that all the faculty heads of table were giving us the evil eye. Some of the upperclassmen were in on the scoop and shook their heads as we passed by. Mark and I tried to make jokes about it quietly between ourselves but we were each aware that the jokes were lame, thready, lacking our usual jazz. “Gallows Humor” is only funny to the hangman.
“Jesus, are you guys in trouble,” my roommate said. “What the fuck did you think you were doing?” He was a dorm monitor and received the jungle telegraphy earlier than most. He failed to mention that I had gifted him with two condoms for free a week earlier.
“You think they will kick us out?” I asked, pretty sure he was in the know.
“They have to,” he replied. “What kind of message would it send if they let you birds go free? The Board of Trustees aren’t about to pretend it didn’t happen. You might as well have raped the Headmaster’s wife.”
“Jesus,” I said. The fact that he was equating selling condoms with rape did not seem all that absurd to me at the time. That’s how upside down 1956 could be.
I did not sleep well that night or any other night that week.
The regular school week was punctuated by whispers, strange looks and the occasional pointed remarks by one or more of our classroom teachers—especially our English teacher, Frederick Eaton, an aging wisenheimer who asked a question on “The Scarlet Letter” by saying, “Perhaps one of The Dirty Boys would care to answer that?”
Titters and giggles. Nervous laughter at us from the students who were not in trouble, preternaturally happy that those weren’t their necks on the chopping block.
“What are you going to do when you get home?” Sheesh asked me Wednesday morning. I was sitting at my desk in study hall before school so that no one would talk to me. I knew what the “conversation” would sound like, always ending up with us being stupid dumbasses who shoulda known better. Some of the day students asked us which pharmacy we went to after telling us we were dumbasses.
I shrugged, half afraid to be seen speaking with him. “I dunno. Maybe go talk to the people at Huntington High School. I wanted to go there in the first place. Maybe I am finally getting my wish. It’ll kill my parents, but fuck it.” I was trying to speak as if things would work out. It didn’t feel real, but it kind of helped. “You?”
“Join the Navy,” Sheesh said, knowing that his eyesight wasn’t good enough to get into any branch of the armed forces. “Become a bookie.” He shrugged.
We were called back to Franklin Seymour Lloyd’s office the following Sunday morning.
There were six armchairs lined up against the far wall of the Headmaster’s Office. That was different. The Dirty Boys entered in single file and took seats there. We wore dark suits, white Oxford shirts, subdued ties, tie shoes and muted socks. Not one of us crossed his legs.
Against the far wall our housemasters or advisers sat staring at us with expressions you would never want to see on your own returning jury’s faces. We were written off as being beneath contempt.
Zeus cleared his throat as he stared at each of us in turn. He tapped a file folder in front of him, betraying not the least jot or tittle of sympathy for our feelings. He was not a sociopath, but the feelings and opinions of students were rarely of paramount importance at this rarified level in the “sleepaway school” educational model. We knew that we were not to speak unless spoken to and so we sat there looking neither left nor right, avoiding as many eyes as possible.
“I have had extensive meetings and conversations with the Academy’s Board of Trustees concerning the repulsive situation which your lack of judgment has caused”, Zeus proclaimed. “As a direct result of your gross indifference to common decency you have brought shame to the school, its faculty and to each and every student who lives by its code of ‘Truth and Honor’.
“The universal reaction to your egregious behavior which, besides being a willful violation of Commonwealth statutes that could result in your being arrested, has been to terminate your membership in our community.” He paused and we assumed that the pause meant we were dead meat. I cleared my throat and leaned forward to exit asap.
“However, certain members of the Board of Trustees, after studying each of your cumulative records, argued for allowing you to remain under the strictest and most stringent conditions in order to discover if, indeed, your lives and reputations can be salvaged.” He looked at each of us in turn. “I must ask you boys two questions and I want you to consider them carefully before you reply. First, Do you believe that you are worth keeping here at Blakely Academy and second, Do you truly wish to be allowed to remain?”
I could hear the sound of ten other lungs refilling with oxygen. The fucking school was going to be magnanimous? We were going to be allowed to stay? They were going to be Christian? No fucking way!
Zeus asked each of us the two questions and noted our replies in his file folder. To a man we answered “Yes” to both questions to stave off the worst kind of public humiliation.
“’Yes’ is an easy word to say,” Zeus continued, “but now I shall specify under what conditions you will be allowed remain here. First, you shall all be on final probation until the end of the current school year. Any further infraction of Academy rules will be met with immediate expulsion. Second, a report of these events will be included in your cumulative records and will be relayed to the colleges of your choice—-“
Sharp intake of breath by all 12 of our lungs. Holy Jumping Judas Priest. We were only here to get into the college of our choice. What college in its right mind would accept six students who would probably grow up to be pimps?
Headmaster Lloyd continued: “—UNLESS your records from here until your graduation are unblemished.”
Twelve lungs released air.
“Further, for the next six weekends the six of you will be required to work for the Grounds Crew, shoveling snow off the walks, the hockey rink, and any other manual labor required. This is intended to act as a reminder of your incredible lack of judgment and in its public aspects as a signal to the rest of the student community that we hold ourselves to a higher standard than that to which you corporately descended.”
That’s bullshit, I thought.
“And further”, Franklin Seymour Lloyd intoned, “each and every one of you will be required to hand in to your housemaster or your Day School Advisor the entirety of your collection of these certain latex products.”
Ooops. Alan Farley, our straightest arrow, our best-behaved Dirty Boy, our least likely to show up in a Boston suburb with condoms, cleared his throat and raised his hand.
“Farley?” Zeus said.
“Sir, what if…some of these…uh…obj—items—have…uh, been—disposed of?”
Zeus looked as if Farley had just cut a wet fart in front of the entire group. He quickly replied: “Provide a list accounting for each and every one of these…” he winced…”items.”
“Shall I just write down—“ Farley started.
“DISPOSED!” Zeus said with his voice almost cracking. He rushed to his last announcement. “I have called each of your parents and asked them to come to the Academy this week so that I might explain to them the severity of your infraction and the steps the school has taken to insure it will not happen ever again.”
Holy shit, I thought, safe inside my head with my own vile and disgusting verbiage. My parents would have to drive five hours from Long Island. This was not going to be cute. Maybe I should have taken the choice of Huntington High School instead.
“Dismissed,” the exhausted Headmaster said.
In our minds we bolted out the door. In reality we marched solemnly into the outer office, the corridor past the black and white photographs of the graduates who had died in World War II, and, finally, outdoors.
“Holy shit,” Sheesh whispered.
“Amen,” Farley muttered.
“Infuckingcredible,” I said.
“That was mighty white of the Board of Trustees,” Clayton urged.
Fusser said nothing until he added, “I hate all those bastards.”
“Shovel snow off the hockey rink?” Mark asked.
“While being watched by the rest of the student body going ‘Tsk-tsk’,” I added.
“I still say it was mighty white of the school not to throw us upon the dustbin of history,” Clayton opined lifting the discussion to an opaque level.
We shut up, aware that we were being followed by our dorm masters and advisors. It would not do to appear relieved and it is very difficult to show gratitude on one’s face, especially from behind.
El Tigre Gordo caught up to us and stopped us, backed up by his cohorts on the faculty. “I hope you are all grateful that The H.M. fought for you out of the kindness of his heart. Otherwise you would all be packing your suitcases at this very minute.”
“Yessir,” we choraled, trying to appear more grateful than relieved. As a member of the Dramatic Society I had acted in all the plays, but I was not a good enough actor to “play” gratitude on my face.
The housemasters and Advisers strode manfully off leaving us in the middle of the giant quad to explore our feelings.
“Fuck them all,” Fusser said. “I wanted to be kicked out.”
“What about our parents?” Farley asked, very tentative.
“Why couldn’t they just make a phone call?” I asked. “My Mother and Father have got to drive up here and back just to hear that I am a fucked up little shitbag?”
“Ya’ think Zeus couldn’t use the word Trojan over the phone to your father at his office?” Sheesh said. “What’s that all about?”
“I hate them all,” Fusser mumbled. “Fucking lying hypocrites and douchebags.” To the best of my knowledge, at least in our circle of conversational acquaintances, the word “douchebag” as an epithet was a relatively new word choice. (It had come into use circa 1950 and has since been used to the point where it has lost all flavor and punch.) Fusser was, of course, in the vanguard of linguistic opprobrium. And that made him very cool.
OK, here’s the thing: I have been holding this back since the very beginning of this history. It might have ruined the surprise, but I can’t keep it to myself.
FRANKLIN SEYMOUR LLOYD NEVER INTENDED TO KICK US OUT!
Here is my proof.
In 1960 my sister was married to a successful Boston Attorney. She had actually been married to him since 1954. They lived in Chestnut Hill with their delightful daughters (eventually 5 in number) and played host to me whenever I hitchhiked up to Massachusetts from New Haven.
On one of those truly wonderful weekends (my sister and her husband were terrific entertainers and included me as if I were important and that was the nicest gift anyone could ever give me) my brother-in-law confided to me that he had just had lunch that day with Judge Grantholm, the Head of the Barkley Academy Board of Trustees, a scion of Boston’s aristocracy, jurisprudential as well as cultural. My brother-in-law, let’s call him Bill, happened to mention that he and my sister were hosting me for the weekend and mentioned I was a graduate, class of 1958, named Victor Miller. The Judge, as Bill reported it to me, nearly gagged on his watercress as my name recalled for him one of the worst times he had ever experienced as the spiritual and moral and financial guide of Barkley.
To the avid listener, my brother-in-law, the Judge was visibly exercised as he recalled how everyone on the Board of Trustees and the Administration and the faculty of Barkley wanted us tossed onto Clayton’s “dustbin of history” or, more better, buried under tons of loam for the new football field. To a man they were revolted. The Dirty Boys represented everything in the universe that was NOT Barkley Academy. We were toxic. There was no antibiotic that could ever expunge our spreading stain.
“But you didn’t expel them,” Bill said, himself a graduate of Groton, much chic-er than Barkley.
The Judge paled. His wattles vibrated. “We knuckled under to fear,“ he said quietly.
“Of my brother-in-law and five idiots?” Bill inquired.
The Judge paused. “Of scandal,” he replied. “Pure and simple.” He took three quick sips of water. “We had no doubt that the negative publicity would find itself featured on the lower right-hand corner of the front page of The New York Times, just as that mess at St. Simon’s did ten years ago.” He reminded Bill that Barkley was a school which features “parallel education”, a girls’ school on one side of the street and a boys’ school on the other. Between them lies a massive wooded cemetery where males, females and those goddamned latex things could congregate if not in reality at least in the minds of the public. Who would send his daughter to our sister school if he felt we were providing every little weasel with the means to liberate his precious little girl from her virginity?”
I was goggle-eyed as Bill unraveled the story of how a school’s duplicity had us totally buffaloed. We believed every word they said about how kind and generous they were being to us…except, perhaps, for Fusser. We truly believed we had ruined the school in one embarrassing swoop.
Liars! Menteurs! (I took French all five years at Barkley.) Hypocritical prigs.
And then it struck me. Judge Grantholm had told my brother-in-law the truth a mere four years after the event, knowing that Bill would undoubtedly spill the spoiled beans to me. I could puzzle for decades over his motives. Did he want Bill to tell me that they won, making us actually believe they were being Christian and not weasels? Or did he want me to know how really disgusting they thought us to be?
Regardless of his motives, the six of us had to spend the oncoming week in a newer but more awful dread—our parents being let in on our shame.
I was told that my parents had arrived on campus the next Saturday morning. I was not invited to see or speak to them until the following day when my father came to pick me up and drive me to where he and my mother were staying in Cohasset. He said nothing as I got into his car, signed out by special arrangement with my housemaster. I was not cool. My father and I had not been close since 1948 when he found it increasingly difficult to relate to me or my siblings. I was afraid. I was ashamed. He didn’t need to say a word.
Ten minutes later he offered, after clearing his throat, “Your mother was afraid you had knocked up some poor girl.”
I didn’t know if I should have been relieved. Was selling condoms worse than not using one and sleeping with some girl whose lack of virtue approximated mine?
I think I said, “Unh-hunh.” All I knew was that any pride my father had ever had in me was gone. Even though I hated the way he slurped his grapefruit at breakfast, I still had wanted him to be proud of me.
“Whose idea was this little escapade?” my father asked eleven miles later. Commander John D. Miller, Jr. had been in the U.S. Naval Reserves when Pearl Harbor happened and the next thing he knew he was commanding a Destroyer Escort in the North Atlantic, dodging German torpedoes. Later he was shifted to the Pacific Theatre fighting off Japanese Zeroes who tried to fly down his smokestack. I did not know it at the time, but I don’t think he was ever the same afterwards. He was never comfortable with us if we ventured anywhere into the land of odd. It made him anxious and then angry. After the war he had a nervous tic while driving that would have been a parody of Parkinson’s if it hadn’t been so sad. He never sought help for it. He and my mother believed psychotherapy was a ridiculous invention which invariably made everything the mother or father’s fault. That didn’t stop our mother from telling us that almost all our complaints were psychosomatic.
I lied to my father.
“I don’t know, Dad,” I said. “It was just kind of all of us. It kind of just happened.” I was, at that time at least 92% certain that it was I who had steered our adolescent craft between the Scylla of Lust and Charybdis of Risk. Unlike Odysseus my pals had not filled their ears with beeswax so as not to hear my siren call.
“Hmm,” my father said. He twitched in his seat as if his spine needed realignment.
The rest of the trip to Cohasset was silent, except when he offered that he and my mother had considered punishing me further by not letting me get my driver’s license this summer after I would turn 16. But, he said, on further consideration they adjudged that the school’s punishments should suffice.
Thank Heaven for any mercies, I thought. I had come down with a wicked head cold the day before they arrived on campus and this time I was convinced that my mother was probably correct. It was psychosomatic.
I kept waiting for my parents to come down on me hard but somehow their having been born and raised in New Orleans for all those years—in a city where every one of their fathers had mistresses or could tell you where the “Houses of Ill Repute” were—conditioned them to be more accepting of men’s fascination with genitalia, theirs and those of whatever sex they choose.
Jack and Barbara had drunk their fill during Prohibition and beyond. The Depression had given them a good scare but not enough to send them to California to become migrant farmers. My father had tried the brokerage business in stocks and then cotton and never starved. My mother’s father was a well-to-do maritime lawyer in New Orleans who had married the slightly whacked out daughter of the Episcopal Bishop of Louisiana who may or may not have been over fond of laudanum. She wrote poetry and hung out on the ledges of hotel rooms from which my mom had to drag her back to keep her from offing herself.
Somehow I believe their backgrounds in The City That Care Forgot made them partially immune to the severity of The New England sense of propriety and extreme version of sin. Hester Prynne had never fully paid for her unwise desire to find comfort in the arms of a lying sack of shit man of the cloth. Many of my father’s generation had inherited a distinct aversion to Yankees with differing ideas about what legally constituted a citizen, dating back to The War of Northern Aggression.
After all, my mother had first attracted my father’s attention at a debut ball by mixing a drink in her mouth…ice cube, followed by scotch and then a splash from a soda water siphon, swallowing, spitting the ice cube into a nearby spittoon. That would hardly have passed for proper behavior from a socialite on Beacon Hill in Boston.
“Don’t do it again,” Commander Miller said as we arrived in Cohasset.
(My mother, God bless her, confided in me years later that she was shocked that the school felt they had to deliver the news in person…that neither mail nor telephone would have sufficed. And, years later she thought the whole affair was blown “..way the hell out of proportion.”)
For the next six weeks The Dirty Boys travailed as members of the grounds crew. The actual grounds crew found us mildly amusing. One of them told me any time I wanted a rubber, just to ask him. He had a supply.
The rest of the student body quickly tired of finding us amusing and we were stuck actually doing the work together. Like so much of my life, the law of inverse consequences took over and we enjoyed ourselves for four of those weeks, bonding even closer than before. Having slipped past the ultimate fate, we could now joke about it as if we had never quailed at the sight of Franklin Seymour Lloyd.
That June as we passed to the next level we were also passing the test to which the school had put us. Not one of us had gotten into more trouble necessitating our expulsion. If any of us had to confess, I suspect we all would answer that we were happy for the way things worked out. During our reign as Condom Salesmen to the masses there was always the terror that we would be caught. Our punishment actually released us from that fear, though it was always uncomfortable when one of the faculty members would make a point of slipping our evil into a casual chat, as in, “So, Miller, what’s your next crime spree going to be?”
It’s all you got.
Would I do it again if I had the chance?
Just who would give me that chance?
And yes. We all got into Harvard and Yale and other Boutique Universities because our cumulative records were clean as the driven snow.
And yes because I loved being that guy. After the shame passed a dozen or so years later, I dined out on my tale. People loved hearing about that crazy car full of kids on a quest to be cool. Eventually I wrote a screenplay about it that never sold because nobody gave a damn about condoms which, by that time, had become as common as arugula.
My adventure in retail has become an amusing oddity, like books on eugenics and texts on why masturbation causes psychosis, premature ejaculation and hair loss.
Times have changed drastically.
But I was famous then.
And isn’t that the same thing as love?