Bill Todd -- A Harvard Story
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 Chapter 2


Tom was convinced that his sore pitching arm was the result of disproportionately strong and weak muscles. In particular, he could generate more force with the trunk of his body than he could deliver with his arms and legs. Indeed, everyone in K-Entry acknowledged that there was something weird about anyone who could be six foot four, weigh less than a hundred and forty, and still be quite strong.

In their freshman year, Sid had tried to turn this weirdness to advantage by recruiting Tom for the football players' off-season recreation, the wrestling team. After all, there was no one else his height who could compete in the one hundred and thirty pound class. Sid thought that the extra reach might be an advantage, and it was in a way. Tom learned the rudiments of wrestling, and enjoyed it.

In the course of this activity, he met little blocks of granite, some under five feet tall, who could have massacred ordinary citizens on the street. There was one wrestler who never turned his head relative to his shoulders. He either looked at one out of the corners of his eyes or turned his whole body. To top off this physical oddity, he spoke a quaint, and apparently archaic, form of English. People like this tended to be formidable on the mat, and Tom never reached the point of appearing in an inter-collegiate match.

He now realized that his inability to defeat those wrestlers had again been due to his unbalanced strength and certain critical weaknesses. Even though he meditated no return to the mats, general self-improvement dictated a campaign of weight-lifting.

K-Entry might not have a great many amenities, but, predictably, they included a bench, bar bell, and a fairly complete set of dumb-bells. They were kept in the downstairs hall, partly blocking the staircase, but no one minded hopping over them.

Each resident thought that he needed to be stronger, and they generally lifted in groups, screaming at one another in order to coax out, not only one last repetition, but an extra one or two after the last. Tom, on his back with the bar sticking half way up, realized that his friends wouldn't be willing to lift the bar off him unless they were convinced that his muscles were totally spent. They were that, but, if he twisted sideways to drop one end of the bar on to the floor, he'd be harrassed all evening.

By some miracle, and a little cheating, Tom got the bar up. He and it were shaking, and, when Eric and Sid took hold of the ends, he quickly got out from underneath before they could change their minds.

As it turned out, Tom had set a new personal record by pressing a hundred and fifty pounds eight times. That didn't impress Sid, who could do a dozen repetitions with two fifty or so. But Sid had a thick body and short arms. The bar moved up and down less than a foot as he pressed it rapidly to the accompaniment of suitable grunts. Eric now said,

"If you allow for the mechanical disadvantage of your long arms, Tom, you're pressing more than I am."

That was nice to hear. It was also good that his right arm didn't hurt when he lifted weights. Tom still hoped to make a come-back and join the Red Sox farm system, but, for fear of ridicule, he kept quiet about it.

Shortly after dinner, Tom, Eric, and Kent set off on the long walk to Radcliffe, the women's enclave on the opposite side of the Harvard yard. It was a fine bright evening of the sort that normally engendered optimism, and a good measure of optimism was needed whenever an approach was made to Radcliffe. The party at one of the dormitories, open to all, was called a "Jolly-Up." The term might have dated back a century or two, but, in a place where the room exits were marked "EGRESS" instead of "EXIT," one had to expect odd terminology. The Jolly-Ups were intended to introduce boys to girls, and vice versa, but, since the dance floor would have eight or ten boys to every girl, the meetings were quite brief and fragmented. A presentable boy might nevertheless go home with a lot of names, and he could later call the bearers of the names at leisure.

Tom suggested hopefully,

"Now that we're juniors, the Radcliffe freshmen might take us a little more seriously. We can at least provide information about courses and professors."

Kent, a blonde young man with a squarish face replied,

"I'm afraid it'll take more than that. These girls may be privileged and elite, but they're still gearing up to hunt husbands. They'll want guys who're headed striaght for the professions."

Eric replied,

"I'm a pre-med. Isn't that good enough?"

"You look too young. These girls'll want to see the beginnings of a bedside manner."

Tom asked,

"Is it that these girls want men, and we're only boys?"

Kent didn't deny it, and they all laughed. Tom realized perfectly well that his problem was the most acute of the three, but, each year, he got up his hopes. There would surely come a time when he looked at least as old as the younger girls.

Eric's case was then discussed. With his prominent sharp nose suggesting precocious curiosity and his intensely youthful bright blue eyes, there was simply too much animation and energy to be compatible with the required sophisticated decadence. But it was conceded that, unlike Tom, he wouldn't be taken for a high school interloper at the dance.

Kent actually could pass for a junior, and Eric went so far as to say,

"With your gentle earnest look and upright manner, you'd have been just the thing in a Victorian drawing room."

Kent replied,

"Girls don't want gentlemen these days. They want guys with the ambition and aggression that it takes to succeed in a profession."

Tom said to him,

"If you say the sorts of things you usually do, you may betray an underlying scepticism of everything that's worthy and respectable."

It was a bit of a joke, but Tom knew the reality to be somewhat worse. Kent's scepticism was real enough, but, instead of being romantically revolutionary, it was a passive one. Kent, it seemed, would be happy to sit and watch while others failed. Any young lady who got a whiff of that would flee quickly.

Radcliffe wasn't much to look at, just another collegiate-looking quadrangle full of brick buildings. They mostly had silly names, and none were as distinctive or homey-looking as K-Entry. They headed for the one which was most conspicuously lit up, Tom remarking,

"I bet generations of young men have had the same mixed feelings we now have on such occasions."

As they went up the steps, Kent replied,

"It may be a good thing that most of those young men are now dead."

Since they were all three compulsively early, they arrived just as the Jolly-Up was starting. A sophisticated and quite beautiful young lady greeted them warmly. She was obviously the hostess for the evening, and Tom didn't take her warmth personally.

The hostess led them into a large room, prepared for the party with streamers. Tom would have enjoyed just walking behind her and taking in all her fluidly moving parts, but she added to his enjoyment by looking back over her shoulder and smiling, as if to promise unspecified delights. These delights were naturally to be supplied by others, and they headed for the only other people in the room, three girls sitting in little chairs on the opposite wall.

Dressed for the dance and talking animatedly with one another, the girls didn't seem to notice their visitors until Tom and his friends were half-way across the room. Tom, trying to appear reasonably cosmopolitan, noticed that Eric and Kent, fanned out to his right in line abreast, also had moderately pleasant, if not expectant, expressions on their faces. Then, suddenly, after the briefest exchange of glances, the girls jumped up and came rapidly past Tom on his left. Before anyone could say anything, they were gone. The hostess, obviously taken by surprise, swore under her breath. She then said,

"I suppose there's no point in trying to explain or excuse atrocious manners."

Tom and his friends were better than almost anyone at laughing at themselves and making light of situations such as this one. In the course of doing so, they got a great deal of the nicest kind of attention from the lovely young lady, who turned out to be engaged to a medical student.

When the dancing started, Eric suggested, playfully, that they should cut in on the girls who had run from them. Kent demurred, and, noting that the Jolly-Up would have depressed even those who were jolly to begin with, he urged a quick exit. As soon as they were outside, Eric said,

"There was a lesson there."

Tom asked,

"Was it that we should give up all approaches to girls?"

"No. The upshot was that a beautiful young lady spent some time with us in the most pleasant way."

"That was because she was embarrassed when the other girls fled."

"Granted. But, still, she seemed to enjoy herself. If she meets one of us in the Yard, and isn't in a hurry to get somewhere, she'll stop to chat."

Kent replied,

"It's going to take imagination to continually put charming young ladies in such embarrassing situations that they'll feel compelled to talk with us."

"It won't take that much. She liked us because we made it obvious that we had no sexual designs on her."

Tom replied,

"I would've had designs if I hadn't known that it'd be hopeless."

"But you did know that. The other three girls fled because we looked at them with lust in our eyes."

It was one of Eric's half jokes, and he continued,

"A lot of women will put up with us as long as they see that we won't attempt to touch them with our fingers, or, for that matter, with anything else. We need to pretend to be neuter gender."

Later that evening, the call came to form a skirmishing line. This was one of few times when everyone put down their books and studies. They formed up in front of K-Entry, and went over the fence in front, one by one. The parkway along the riverbank was lit only dimly by archaic street lights, and there was little traffic at that time of night, possibly because motorists didn't like having Harvard students on one side of them and creatures that might emerge from the primeval ooze of the river on the other.

Having found the barely visible center line of the road, they waited for a car. When one appeared around the bend, Tom and his friends began running down the line away from the car, each separated from the one in front by about forty yards. Sid was in the rear, and, when the car, going about forty five, was about to pass him, he cut quickly in front of it, dodging away just before he was hit. The driver, frightened, slammed on his brakes. Then, just past Sid and beginning to think about resuming normal speed, he found Tom in front of him. Tom dodged away when he heard the squeal of brakes a second time.

By the time the car got to the seventh man, Kent, it had slowed so much that he was able to run continuously in front of it. At that point, Howie, a basketball player from Cleveland, came from the driver's left side at an angle and hurdled completely over the hood of the car. As the driver gave vent to a certain amount of confusion and frustration, the whole skirmishing line reversed course and went in search of another victim.

Having discombobulated a number of motorists, the skirmishing line went back over the fence into K-Entry. The uniformity of personality and behavior which must have impressed the motorists quickly dissolved. Sid and two others went right back to their books. Tom had always admired them for their ability to study some eight hours almost every day, month in and month out. He himself couldn't begin to approach that level of discipline, and, when he had once compared himself unfavorably to Sid and Howie in Kent's presence, the latter had replied,

"Those are the guys from homes without any money. They know exactly where they want to be, and they take satisfaction in getting there, one day at a time."

Kent was himself from an extremely wealthy family, and he hadn't the slightest idea what he wanted to be. He had begun by doing well at Harvard, but, as it seemed increasingly unlikely that he would achieve anything really significant, he worked less on his courses. He had finished the last semester with mostly Cs, and now, as often, he seemed disinclined to study. They settled down in Tom's room with warm cokes, and were joined by Eric. Sitting happily on a pile of clothing and sports equipment in the corner which did duty for a chair, Eric joked,

"I have enough ambition to be a pre-med, but not enough to study."

That was essentially true. Eric's family was lower-middle class economically, and it seemed to have been settled, even before he got to Harvard, that he would be a doctor. But he wasn't a "real pre-med" like Howie or Steve. He just happened to be smart enough to blow through the courses without working terribly hard at them. Tom replied,

"I have enough ambition to think I ought to study, but not enough to study."

Eric said,

"You may not know what you want to be, but a profession is finding you by default. Even if you don't do anything, you'll end up as a philosophy professor."

Kent nodded in agreement, adding,

"Your family is affluent enough so that you don't have a sense of purpose. You'd drift like me if your teachers hadn't marked you out as one of them."

"I do have a marked inability to distinguish the real from the imaginary, and that seems to be valued in the philosophy department."

Eric asked,

"Is that what allows you to read military history and Dostoyevsky when you're supposed to be working on your courses?"

"Apparently so. I do read almost half the required material in my courses, though."

"In graduate school, you might manage to get two thirds of the way through the lists. It sounds like a nice life."

"Being a professor? It always sounded pretty futile to me."

"But you'll be one unless you very soon make strenuous efforts in some other direction. Are you likely to?"

"Probably not."

Bill Todd -- A Harvard Story
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