pk School Stories: Freshman Year
Discipline: Fire Sale
College was so wonderful. At least Columbia College was. Certainly it was compared to public school. How compulsory you find attendance at college will depend on your family and its status (or would-be status): but there’s no question that matriculation has not yet been mandated by the legislature.
At last I had found some peers. Not only was jazz not officially despised; I found a half dozen classmates who could really play. Many of the rest actually listened to other great music: knew it inside-out: Mozart, Beethoven … I had one friend who had not only heard of Miro: he had a Miro graphic on his dorm wall! (Not to mention full carpeting. At home, his wallpaper was by Matisse! His family had a Rouault in the living room that MOMA would kill for. The Vlamank on the living room’s opposite wall MOMA would merely cheat, lie, and steal for.)
A fair percentage of Columbia students commute from homes here and there in New York City. But for Freshman Orientation Week we all had to be in the dorm. John Jay Hall held mostly single rooms, but each floor offered a pair of two room suites designed to house three students. It was the cheapest, and that’s what I’d signed up for. A series of compulsory bull-sessions were held in these suites, hosted by a sophomore advisor and populated by the students from that half of the floor.
Economy may not have turned out to be my best choice. Unofficial bull sessions continued to be held in my rooms. The other guys would finish some work and come by, ensuring that I never started mine. One would leave and another would arrive. Who was I to argue with fate? The bull sessions were better than the work anyway, or at least they seemed so at the time.
One more word about the setting. John Jay Hall was a stack of monk’s cells. (See my comments on the historical relation between monastic and academic chastity and poverty in my piece on the History of Universities.) Fine. We were fed elsewhere. We showered and pooped down the hall. To me it was exciting. For one thing, it was named for someone we’d actually heard of years before coming to the institution: John Jay was famous wherever American studies were honored. The view was fabulous. We looked out at the campus from a corner location just above the tennis court. Butler Library was cheek-by-jowl to us. In the distance you could see Low Library with Alma Mater perennially seated before it. In our local quadrangle, a bronze Alexander Hamilton (a Columbia drop-out, I believe) stood in all weathers before the classroom (and faculty offices) building named for him.
Our sophomore advisor turned out to be a real clown: the kind that likes to put toothpaste in your door lock. One day the three of us are entertaining a neighbor or two when the advisor arrives. He has a can of tennis balls, a can on lighter fluid, a lighter, and the frying pan from a backpacker’s mess-kit, the kind where the handle swivels from a screw than tightens it either open or shut. He wants to launch flaming missiles down onto the tennis court: from our window! I didn’t see our fortress as being under attack. But he wants to defend it anyway: feudal style.
No one seemed to think it was a very good idea. He proceeded anyway. Stan Keller, our assigned model of maturity, was, I don’t know: five ten or eleven. I’m five eight. He weighed at the time I’ll guess one-sixty. I weighed one-twenty-two. Stan starts to squirt the fluid onto a tennis ball in the pan. I try to grab his arm. He fights me off. The others stood back shuffling nervously. After all, this is the man we were introduced to as in charge of us! My window is already open. He opens it wide. It’s a big window he could launch through sidearm. I jump on his back, but I’m just not strong enough to stop him.
His defense of the castle is a fizzle. The tennis ball flames all right, but saturated with fluid, it squishes more than bounces onto the clay court. It rolls a few feet, leaving a black track, and just sits there. Nothing like the explosions that Hollywood gives us. Having failed to prevent launch number one, I nursed my defeat as number two followed. Stan left us in gloom, as after a bad lay.
I might not remember the incident at all except for what followed. Someone saw the launch. That someone counted the floors, then the windows, pinpointing the source for the dean. Some one of us said, Yes, the three residents were all present, but it was Stan Keller, the advisor, who did it. No one said who else had been in the room.
Stan was tried, but so were the three of us registered to the suite. When my turn came, the committee of “judges” (also sophomores) announced that we three were also guilty by association. I’d been indignant all along. Now I was incensed.
“What? But I tried to stop him.” They acknowledged it.
“When words didn’t stop him, I jumped on his back. I wrestled with him.” They acknowledged that too.
“But you didn’t actually stop him. Guilty.”
Now there’s a judgment I’d like to see uniformly applied. Slaves are guilty of being enslaved? Women are guilty of getting a black eye? How, once you’ve killed them, are you going to punish the Jews at Dachau for failing to stop you from killing them? What punishment could you add?
Shouldn’t I have been warned that physical insufficiency could cost me there? I don’t remember anything printed with the college prospectus that recommended being able to bench press two hundred. Judo was not included in the requirements. Columbia was supposedly devoted to the intellect. When Chet Forte’s average fell below C, the Dean made national news by yanking him from the basketball team. Ahead of Wilt Chamberlin, the not quite 5′ 9″ Forte was the nation’s leading scorer!
What was our punishment? I don’t think there really was any. The punishment was to my sense of ethics. My respect for my Alma Mater was permanently tarnished.
2004 12 12 These years latter I’m reminded of Lietenant Calley. Columbia put Stan in a position where he had little freshmen under his power. US put Calley where he had villagers to abuse. The war protesters didn’t stop the rape: the war protesters got blamed for the war, got blamed that it wasn’t going well. If we only had uniformity … why then we couldn’t get caught in our abuses.
2012 08 08 Let me add a little context to that Columbia school year 1956-57: Columbia College, John Jay residence hall, Amsterdam Avenue and 114th Street: Stan, our sophomore monitor, came into our freshman suite, two rooms, three guys, the main room’s widows opening over the tennis court, seventh floor, and launched tennis balls dipped in lighter fluid and set aflame onto the tennis court: I was the only one to try to stop him: we all got blamed “equally.” Let me now add stories that Stan had told us about things getting launched from various heights in John Jay Hall that year:
Fill a balloon with water and drop it out the window as some poor pedestrian is passing below on the north sidewalk of 114th St. Stan bragged that some guys dropped a big ballon from the roof! onto a convertible parked with its top down! blew the doors off!
Criminal glee accompanied the story of some Columbia guys tipping the Coke machine from its place in the lobby onto the elevators, wrestling it onto the roof, over the ledge: where it found its own way down, down, down.
Solution? Punish the only guy we know who tried to stop any of it.
I can testify to the truth of the stories I was present for. The rest I only have Stan Keller’s word for. Stories have a way of uprooting themselves from one setting and settling somewhere else. A guy hears a story from Princeton and tells it as a Columbia story. Stories from Berkeley mirgrate to Kent: a year later. I testify to the delinquency resident in John Jay Hall in 1956 1957: I also remember the near universal delinquency I saw at Princeton in 1949. But I was eleven then, what did I know?
I couldn’t judge how much pot was being smoked: a lot, I was told.
I’ll never forget the pretty girl all covered with bandages. I asked her what happened: her boyfriend threw her through the window. I wasn’t there, I didn’t see it, and I was just a kid anyway.
One thing about Princeton, compared to Columbia or Harvard it’s relatively isolated. At any given moment there’s always a Rutgers student on the Princeton campus. But at Harvard there’s also also a Boston College and a Boston University and an MIT student: hundreds of MIT students.
Anyway, stories spread.
One thing: at Columbia we could tell true stories about dropping things from the twelfth floor: I don’t think there were any skyscrapers at Princeton. I don’t think there were any at Harvard, not in 1956.