On a bright Sunday morning in the mid-September of 1953 President Eisenhower had most things under control. The Soviet Union didn't seem to be launching a nuclear strike that day, and Mrs. Mamie Eisenhower was fulfilling her First Lady responsibilities in a sober and dignified fashion. Not only that, inflation was less than three per cent and the Dow Jones was causing investors to feel a warm glow as they contemplated their own sagacity.
At Harvard University, most particularly at a small annex of Winthrop House known as 'K-Entry,' that control was less marked. Eight young men whose dreams of athletic glory were in various stages of collapse lived together reasonably harmoniously, but with odd outbursts. At the moment, a large red-haired youth who looked like a marine stood triumphantly in the upstairs bathroom and called out to his house-mates,
"C'mere, youse guys."
There was no immediate response, but, when he persisted, three others came carefullly into the room, evidently expecting some practical joke. When they were assembled, Sid Goldman announced,
"I've just had the greatest shit of my life, and you gotta see."
Whanging open the door of the little white cubicle with a force that almost knocked it off its pins, he gestured dramatically within. It was done in the style of a Barnum or a Bailey, and his audience, crowding in, saw an enormous turd which had stuck cross-ways in the toilet bowl, refusing to be flushed. There were congratulations all around, and also some expressions of envy which might not have been entirely sincere.
Sid, the creator of the prodigious BM, was a football player from Brooklyn. Although highly skilled in legal techniques of line play, and some illegal ones, he weighed under two hundred, not nearly enough to have a future as a professional lineman. The alumni who had brought him to Harvard were less interested in Sid's future than in beating Yale with players who weren't academic embarrassments.
In this case, they had underestimated their man. Sid was really quite smart, and people who knew him only slightly were astounded when they found that he was one of the better students in the class of 1955. It was just that, in his third year in Cambridge, he still wasn't sure that he wanted to be collegiate in the manner of the Ivy League. He thus continued to resist that culture, sometimes with something to spare.
Leaving the bathroom, they hesitated on the second floor landing, caught between one force which would return them to their books and another which promised fun and diversion. Tom Williams compromised by proposing a toast to Sid's turd. There wasn't much drinking in K-Entry, but Tom had lots of luque-warm orange juice in his room, and the toast was to be so executed.
Tom's room was the most disordered in the house. There was not only the usual scatter of clothing, books, and sports equipment, but a large pile of miscellania in the middle of the room. He used a lacrosse stick belonging to a departed resident to sift through the pile until he found what he wanted.
A tall slim young man from a Boston suburb and a New England prep school, Tom looked considerably younger than his twenty years. Indeed, to his considerable discouragement, he was occasionally mistaken for a high school student. While his mother claimed that he would eventually be a good-looking man, not even she seemed to think that that day had arrived.
Tom still thought of himself as a baseball pitcher with a seriously sore arm. Although he hadn't been recruited to Harvard as an athlete, he had nonetheless hoped to pitch well enough to get into the Boston Red Sox farm system, in which case he would quit college. The arm, hurt in his freshman year, had remained sore, and had thus kept him at Harvard. Like Sid, he had gradually found increased happiness in non- athletic activities.
On this occasion, Tom had an ulterior motive in proposing the toast. Frozen juice in tin cans had just been put on to the market, but they had no refrigerator in their little house. Two nights earlier, when they had just returned to school, a can left on top of a bureau had exploded violently in the middle of the night. Actually, the can had imploded when the juice thawed, but with a violence that amounted to an explosion. Tom and his room-mate, having forgotten about the can, woke with no idea what had happened. There was cold slime on their faces, but it didn't seem much like any substance that they could identify. It was only when they turned the lights on to find a thin covering of the same stuff over everything in the room, not to mention the torn can on the floor, that they realized what had happened. The next morning, they bought more cans and hid most of them in the rooms of their friends.
The joke, unfortunately, was wearing thin. As Tom explained the problem,
"We've got these six cans left after our bombing mission, and they may go off at any moment. But we didn't want to waste them. We're trying to drink the stuff first."
That seemed perfectly reasonable to everyone present.
Having drunk some juice, Eric, who lived across the second floor landing, pointed out that the remaining cans were bulging inward. He further suggested,
"If we throw them over the street to the river bank, they may explode on impact. Then the squirrels and birds can have a feast."
While the other components of Winthrop House, and the other houses lining the Charles River, amounted just to glorified brick apartment houses, K-Entry of Winthrop was a white frame house, separated from the main house by some fifty feet. It had apparently been acquired in some haphazard fashion, and, surprisingly, had never been torn down to make room for something more picturesque.
There was a little second-floor porch in front of the house that the residents used to throw water balloons at the neighboring houses, and, in this case, they could easily throw orange juice over the busy street to the flat grassy area between the road and the river. Before Eric could throw a can, the others noticed a couple strolling along on the bank, deep in conversation.
The man looked quite academic. It wasn't only his wire- rimmed glasses and skewed bow-tie, but his unathletic forward bend and the somewhat petulant twist of his scrawny little neck. The young woman, rather attractive in a rarefied floaty way, seemed to be taking him quite seriously. It was possible that they were discussing poetry.
The residents of the house had evolved their own little sub-culture, and, at the dining hall they were often addressed collectively as K-Entry. Although some of them were well-read, the group attitude was hostile to poetry, and to all literary endeavors. One of the party pointed to the intellectual across the street and said loudly,
"I know him. He was my freshman English instructor. He's an asshole."
Even though Eric tried to restrain his friends, the cans were soon airborne.
The first can landed on the concrete sidewalk just in front of the couple, and there was really a rather remarkable orange outburst. Tom, watching intently for the fall of shot, noticed two more hits and some duds.
The young lady was fixed up rather elaborately, with a dress and high heels. While it wasn't common for Harvard or Radcliffe students to go to church, it did look as if this couple might have been headed there. Some literary people, for example, affected high-church Episcopelianism. Whatever her religious stance, the young lady seemed disinclined to turn the other cheek. On the contrary, she waved her juice- covered arms rather aggressively, alternately shrieking and swearing.
Hiding below the railing but peeking out, they were fascinated by the spectacle in front of them. Eric pointed out,
"The guy must be in shock. He's just standing there, looking down at his clothes."
Someone suggested, not entirely seriously,
"It may take him some time to square his most recent experiential data with his general background information."
Eric wanted to run out and offer assistance to the couple, but was asked,
"Are you going to claim not to be responsible?"
"Well, it wasn't my idea to throw the cans at anyone."
It was interesting to watch as Eric approached the juice- covered couple. He first pointed down a side street, evidently suggesting that the assailants had fled in that direction.
The young lady had a lot to say, but didn't seem to be accusing Eric of anything. Eric had taken out a damp towel, which she applied to her face and hair, but it only converted the gel into juice which ran down her dress and puddled in her shoes. Before long, she took her still poorly oriented friend and marched him off toward Harvard Square.
Eric, who had been diagnosed as having stomach cancer the previous spring, was always being vaguely helpful to people. Unfortunately, he was a little like a Boy Scout whose good deeds never turned out to be very effective. He came back looking as if he might throw up, but everyone was used to that and asked him about the couple. He replied,
"The guy didn't say anything at all."
Sid broke in,
"He must not have any sense of humor."
"It may be rather limited. The young lady is very angry. I think she suspects K-Entry."
"It would've distracted them if you'd thrown up on the grass in front of them."
"I dare say, but I think I'm going to keep my cookies today. At least if I go up to the sandwich shop instead of the dining hall."
It was a little later when Tom, also skipping lunch at the dining hall, walked up the street with Eric. They had communicated sporadically over the summer, but Tom had been with his mother in Europe for the last month. He now asked how things were going.
"Not bad. Persistent nausea, but no worse than last spring. I've been running and lifting weights and feel reasonably strong."
"Are you going to play on the basketball team this year?"
"Probably not. I'd be afraid of another Frogler episode."
Eric was referring to something that had happened in Lincoln, Nebraska the previous winter. Someone had decided that it would be a good idea for the Harvard basketball team to tour the basketball badlands of the midwest. They lost every game by huge scores, but they hit bottom in Nebraska. When they were behind by almost fifty points in the fourth quarter, Eric, who had been on the bench with a cramped muscle, was sent in. His last name, 'Frolger,' had been mis-spelled as 'Frogler' in the program, and was announced as such. The bored crowd was delighted and started to chant the name in unison. Whenever Eric touched the ball, there was thunderous applause. When he scored a basket, the crowd sounded as if a national championship had just been won. Even after the game, his autograph was in demand. Apropos of that episode, Eric said,
"I never know when I'm going to vomit, and it might happen in a game. Do you think the crowd would go wild and cheer?"
"Crowds are weird. I suppose they might if it was a dull game."
"Yeah. I guess there are worse things than that, but I could use the extra time for study anyway."
Mt. Auburn Street, which separated Harvard Square and the Yard from the houses on the river, wasn't particularly exciting. Apart from the bizarre Lampoon building and the now almost abandoned Claverly Hall, formerly an enclave for the rich, there were only scattered shops, restaurants, and parking lots. Tom and Eric turned into a cafe which didn't look as if its food would do anyone's stomach any good. The food, in fact, compared unfavorably to that of the dining hall. But they liked the proprietor.
Frank was a man of middle size and middle age who could have gone unremarked almost anywhere. But, when he spoke, it was with a marked and vaguely Italian animation and enthusiasm. He was obviously delighted to see them. Tom suspected that he hadn't really expected to see Eric alive again. It was only after Eric mentioned his illness that Frank asked if he was seeing a doctor.
"No, it's pretty obvious that there's nothing they can do for me. I eat carefully and slowly, and I'm doing okay."
Frank departed considerably from the menu to produce something appropriate for Eric, and it did seem to go down well. Tom and Frank both knew that Eric was a committed, if somewhat irregular, Catholic, and that religion figured in some way in his struggle with cancer. So far as Tom knew, no one had ever asked Eric whether he thought he could actually overcome it. It was like him to persevere with his studies and activities even if he thought there was no hope.
As they ate, Frank asked them how they were doing for girl friends. Tom replied for both of them,
"Pretty shitty. There are none in sight, or even on the horizon."
"Don't they have dances and things where you can meet girls?"
"They do, and we go, but I wound up with three one-time dates last year."
"In the navy they'd bring in exactly the right number of girls for each dance. I'd wait until everyone else had chosen their partners, and then I took the one that was left over. That way, I invariably got the nicest girl."
Neither Eric nor Tom reacted favorably to that idea, and Eric said,
"I bet you just did that out of gallantry. You knew you could cheer up the girl who'd just been destroyed by being chosen last."
"No. I wouldn't hesitate long enough to make it obvious. I'd see in advance which girls might not be chosen, and I'd be real quick to move in."
"My mother'd disown me if I did that. She claims that, if you marry the girl no one else wants, instead of being grateful, she'll take out all her accumulated bitterness on you just because you're there."
"The prom queen can also make you miserable when she finds out that life doesn't live up to her expectations."
"Yeah, I suppose she could. So what do we do, aim for the middle?"
"A lot of average looking girls have exaggerated ideas of their own attractiveness and desirability. A good bet for you, Tom, is a very tall girl. Even if they're pretty, they've been teased and shat on a great deal. They don't expect as much."
The discussion, which was far from the first on the topic, ended inconclusively.
After eating, they played a pinball baseball game in which one player pitched by choosing buttons (for fast ball, curve, or let-up), while the other, pressing a lever, swung the bat. The ball sometimes dropped into a hole representing a fielder, but it could go between them for a hit, and even hit a wall. Home runs were rare, but it was particularly satisfying to drop one into the seats.
On the way back, they discussed Frank's long-standing policy of letting customers operate the cash register, and even borrow small amounts of money by putting an IOU on a spike. Neither Tom nor Eric had ever heard of any other place doing anything remotely similar, and Tom remarked,
"Of course, there's an ideology behind it, like the one for selecting girls. I wonder if people ever do steal from him."
"You'd think someone would, sooner or later.
"I'm sure he'd deny that it's ever happened."
Eric gave his quick little smile and replied,
"It may be that he never counts up."
"He may also think that his customers are a select bunch."
"We're mostly students, but not entirely. You sometimes see someone who looks rather seedy in there."
"The funny thing is, Frank's had all sorts of adventures. He must've intimately known people who'd rifle the pockets of an accident victim in the street."
Eric smiled in a slower more reflective way as he replied,
"I'm sure he has. Yet, despite that knowledge, he perseveres. I may be eating a lot of his toast and soup this term."