Bill Todd -- A Harvard Story
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 Chapter 4


Everyone thought it was crazy, but Tom was giving it a try. His idea was, more or less, to learn something about practically everything. It had always struck him that the best thing about Harvard was the vast selection of course offerings, some quite exotic. While he could officially take only four courses at a time, he could audit as many as he liked. He had always learned more from lectures than from reading, and, apart from the time reserved for rowing, there was nothing to keep him from going to lectures all day long.

The catalogue listed every course with a brief description and the time and place of meeting, for example,

Philosophy 128 Spinoza.

An historical analysis of Spinoza's work tracing his ideas to their origins in the Arabic, Greek, Latin, and Hebrew canons.

Mon., Wed., and (at the pleasure of the instructor) Fri.

at 10. Emerson 103. Dr. Mosenpupp.

The first principle of selection was that, in highly technical areas, one could learn a lot without understanding nearly everything. If one took such a course, it would absorb so much time and energy that there wouldn't be much left for anything else, but auditing was another matter. One simply sat there in a relaxed manner and took in whatever one could, associating freely when necessary.

The other principle applied to the obscure literature departments. It would be a real bear to try to learn Old Slavonic, but the same departments gave literature courses conducted in English. Surrounded by a half dozen people with ears of unusual shape and a command of some almost dead languages, one could learn all about the fifteenth century Kingdom of Lithuania, its bizarre rulers, its cranky literature, and its hysterically crazed peasants. After class, the graduate student in the next seat might remark pleasantly,

"It iss goot zat American peasants do not belief in ze Antichrist, yess?"

Whether or not such sentiments were put forward humorously, Tom always agreed cheerfully to them.

The day started with a lower level physics class that wasn't particularly fascinating, but which would remedy an area of Tom's ignorance. Professors didn't teach at eight in the morning, but the teaching fellow, a rather squirrelly- looking young man, had a sense of humor. There was Benjamin Franklin with his kites, and electric kisses administered by gentlemen with batteries in their pockets. There were also the rather pleasant experiments in which French monarchs had whole companies of infantry lined up with linked hands. Then, with Leyden jars, they had given their soldiers shocks sufficient to make them exclaim obscenely and jump wildly in picturesque ways. Many of Tom's studies converged on the point that, in ages past, life wasn't much fun for those who didn't belong to an elite.

Next came three courses that Tom was actually taking. The first, Sanskrit and Indian Studies 132a, was sub-titled, "History of Buddhism in India." It was obviously a gamble, and the gamble intensified when Tom arrived at the little Sanskrit Library. It was a very high narrow room with just space for a seminar table and chairs between the floor-to- ceiling shelves of books. As far as Tom could see, there was no book with a title he could read.

When Dr. Hsiang, a surprisingly young man with a bright smile and a regimental tie, entered, Tom felt better. He was Chinese, but his English was good and his manner relaxed. The first order of business was to arrange for Tom and the other two students to have keys to the room. This in itself was amazing. Tom had never before been given a key to anything at Harvard, and he was suddenly being given one to what was obviously the holy of holies. It wasn't the time to admit that he wouldn't be able to read anything in the library. Moreover, it would be a wonderful place to come to study. Indeed, it would amount to membership in an extremely select little club.

By the end of the first week, it was clear that Hsiang was more approachable than most scholars. If any of the students had known enough to ask questions, he would have answered them gladly. On the other hand, his lectures were superbly conceived and organized. Tom concentrated just on writing down as much as possible.

It transpired gradually that Dr. Hsiang knew all the ordinary eastern and western languages, and also Sanskrit, Pali, and Tibetan. Moreover, it sounded as if he might know various languages of ancient Central Asia which Tom had never heard of. Not only that, Tom was impressed by Hsiang's philosophical ability when he came to explain the Buddhist doctrines. It was fun to be around real scholars, and this man was certainly that.

After the first meeting of the class, Tom discovered that the other two students, a man and a woman, were from the Divinity school. They were required to take courses on a non- Christian religion, and most chose Islam because it was easy and had no intellectual content to speak of. These two were thus volunteers of a sort. But, still, Tom had expected to be the tyro surrounded by people who spoke Pali or Sanskrit at lunch, that is, people who might become apprentices to Dr. Hsiang. It was odd to find himself the closest thing to a "real student" in the class.

The woman voiced concern as to whether she would be able to do the work without knowing the languages, but the other divinity student, a large man in his mid-thirties, replied,

"Don't worry. I happened to notice that Dr. Hsiang was wearing the tie of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers. I think we're in good hands."

The next class, Oceanic History, was fun and easy. Professor Albion was a breezy old boy who radiated joviality, and seemed to take little seriously. He lived in Portland, Maine becuase Boston wasn't naautical enough, and he came bombing up on the train to lecture. There were, he said, two romantic things in oceanic history, pirates and clipper ships. Piracy wasn't really romantic, but, when sponsored by someone like Queen Elizabeth I, it paid. Clipper ships didn't pay.

A little later, Albion remarked that the Portuguese colonizers in India, a tiny little group in the midst of multitudes, had tried to breed a new race which would combine the virtues of both. The products of this breeding had unfortunately combined the laziness of the Portuguese with the dishonesty of the Indians. They had then been formed up into a sort of marine reserve force that occasionally patrolled the gulf in broken-down warships. More often, they caroused in Goa. However, the carousing was limited by the fact that three men had to go in together to buy a decent outfit. One would then wear the suit and harrass the local women while the other two remained at home in their underwear. That might have been romantic in its way, but it also hadn't paid.

His head happily full of images of the Indo-Portuguese Marine Reserve, with admixtures of pre-Buddhist ascetics burning their fingers off and Greater Lithuanian peasants torturing accused witches, Tom went off to his philosophy class.

Philosophy was a funny business. There were some half dozen stars in the department at Harvard, and they were impressive in their way. Smart and supremely self-confident, they competed with each other, each trying to convince students of the merits of his position. The only trouble was that they weren't usually very reasonable. If a clever graduate student, or even an undergraduate, gave one an argument he could use against the others, that argument would be accepted gladly and the student promoted to the rank of most favored student. This rank, like that of most favored nation in world trade, could be shared by many.

On the other hand, none of the stars wanted to listen to much contrary argumentation. Each had a standard set of replies to almost any objection which could be put. It wasn't so much that those weren't good replies, but they had been used so many times in slightly varying circumstances that they sounded a little like the replies of a politician to hecklers. It seemed impossible for these men to even temporarily adopt a neutral position and consider matters dispassionately.

Tom had arrived, as a sophomore major, just as the best- regarded figure in American philosophy, C. I. Lewis, was about to retire. He had taken Lewis' last course, which would be something to tell the grandchildren if he should have any so inclined. It had, indeed, been exciting and informative, and the somewhat distant and waspish Lewis provided at least one kind of model for a young philosopher.

Each philosophy student who did well enough got his own individual tutor with whom he met every week or so. Tom was the only member of K-Entry who had that privilege, and he was originally assigned to John Soames.

Soames, a man in his fifties, was one of those poised to become co-equal stars when Lewis retired, but Tom found him less impressive than the others, indeed hardly impressive at all. With a silver shock of hair draping off to one side, Soames' lectures had less subtlety than those of his competitors, and he at times verged on sermonizing. He was the only philosopher at Harvard who seemed to be Christian in any obvious way, and it was easy to wonder if he weren't a Jesuit who had been let in by mistake. When Tom had suggested reading Aristotle in their tutorial, Soames had replied, as if he were being unduly harrassed,

"If you don't read Greek, then we'll just have to read Aristotle in English translation."

The other members of the department, who weren't pedants, would have thought that the main ideas could be grasped perfectly well in any language.

Tom had escaped from Soames at mid-year, and had signed on with a younger, newly-arrived member of the department. Rod MacDuff. An obvious Scot in appearance as well as name, he was, as far as Tom could see, just as good a philosopher as the established stars. But he was also one who could set up a problem in a lecture, and, wonder upon wonders, seem unsure as to its solution. He always did turn out to have a solution, which he might have had from the beginning, but, in the meantime, it was possible to carry on a meaningful discussion.

In addition to being MacDuff's tutee, Tom took all the courses that he offered. However, he needed others to fill out his schedule, and was now headed for Metaphysics, taught by D. C. Williams.

Williams, a short cheerful man who seemed to like some students, covered everything from the problem of universals and questions about time and space to the existence (or non- existence) of God. He seemed particularly amused by John Soames, whose philosophy he ridiculed on suitable occasions. The Aristotle - Aquinas combined position was, Williams said, the worst possible philosophy, at least among those of comparable scope and organization.

Williams tended to upset religious people, not so much by what he actually said, but by his apparent assumption that no one in his right mind would want to be religious. Among the assigned texts was the work of J. M. E. McTaggart, an old Scots philosopher and a militant atheist. While McTaggart was dry going and abstruse at the best of times, he had evidently been more engaging as a person. Tom had, the year before, come across a biographical reference to McTaggart in which it was related that he would attempt to steer a conversation around to Jesus Christ. He would then remark,

"I don't much like him, but I do admire the pluck he displayed on the cross."

Tom, trying to find a girl who wasn't religious, had taken to repeating McTaggart's remark (as if it were his own) to girls he danced with at the Jolly-Ups. None had responded in a really encouraging way, and some had developed a sudden need to repair to the ladies' room. Indeed, Tom could discover no one except Williams who seemed to much like either McTaggart or his philosophy. Even the author of a book on McTaggart had, in his foreward, defended his choice of subject matter by declaring that greater philosophers than himself had spent more time on greater nonsense. All of this rather inclined Tom in McTaggart's favor, and, as Williams purred on, taking from McTaggart the things he happened to like, Tom settled back pleasantly in his chair.

After Williams' class, Tom scooted back to the house for lunch with K-Entry. Instead of plates, they ate from compartmented trays made from some unknown substance. Some people thought that the food tasted of the trays, and, in any case, the taste wasn't usually very good. Still, they were hungry and ate a lot. Even though one could go back for seconds, not to mention thirds or fourths, there was a certain amount of stealing edible-looking food from other trays. One ordinarily ate with one's left hand while holding a knife in the right for defensive purposes.

Apart from eating, the main object was to get someone so involved in conversation that, in the course of spooning up food, he would move his tray gradually and unwittingly toward himself. Then, occasionally, the center of gravity of the tray would pass the edge of the table and the while thing, including glasses of milk and juice, would dump into his lap. It wasn't considered fair for others to nudge the tray along, and it didn't happen very often. But, when it did, there would be a standing ovation from the whole dining hall of over a hundred Winthrop men. It didn't happen that day, and Tom ate hurriedly so that he could audit some courses in linguistics and history.

About ten that evening, there was a call from Peter, Tom's roommate, who was outside in the alley. This wasn't for a skirmishing line, but for an infiltration exercise.

Peter was a basketball player whose ability would have taken him far beyond the Ivy League, and perhaps even to the NBA, but for the fact that he couldn't shoot. He could steal the ball on defense, block shots, and drive the lane in beautiful style on his way to missing a layup.

Peter was also an extraordinarily good-looking young man. Tom's mother said that he was better looking than a movie star because his face had more character. The girls seemed to agree. No one else in K-Entry ever turned up with any girls, but Peter had more than he could handle in any sense of that term.

It was legal to bring women into the house in what were called, "parietal hours," but those had usually expired when Peter appeared in front with a girl. While the residents of K-Entry themselves routinely went over the locked gate in the fence with a hurdling motion, it was so high that even Peter, a strong man, couldn't singlehandedly lift a girl over it without disarranging or tearing her costume. It took two others to help him perform infiltration, and, despite a certain risk of unpleasantness from the authorities, Tom and Kent went out happily.

The girl was standing in the darkness in the middle of "fender alley," the little driveway between the house and the main road. She was tall, with glossy black hair, a full- skirted red dress, and matching shoes, but her face was in the shadows, and was turned somewhat away. She had presumably agreed to come to Peter's house, but might not have realized what a production it would take to get her in. Peter went over to her and spoke briefly, and she then came back on his arm, leaning on it to steady herself as she picked her way over the broken pavement.

Peter performed the introductions in a low voice so as not to alert the tutor and his family two floors above them. Diana was, of course, very pretty. She smiled hesitantly at them, but was also flushed with embarrassment. Like the others, she was probably afraid of being thought "loose" by Peter's friends. Tom knew better. Peter always chose girls who were considered "nice." They were, not only virgins, but girls who thought that their reputations depended on the assumption that no boy had ever disrobed them in the slightest degree. Peter had a knack for getting them to do things they couldn't have imagined doing a few hours previously.

When Kent went over the fence to help Peter, it looked a little as if Diana might flee back to the car. She was too well dressed to be a Radcliffe girl, but, in other ways, not wordly or sophisticated enough to brazen it out. Kent noticed, and, with his gentlemanly instincts, stepped back. It was then that Diana, perhaps thinking that her reputation was already gone, nodded at Peter and stepped forward toward the gate. He picked her up and swung her up so that her feet and ankles projected over the gate. Tom, facing outward, took both her slim ankles in his hands, noticing the soapy feeling of her nylon stockings.

Girls usually tried to be modest at this point, but it was almost impossible. In order to get Diana's skirt to clear the gate, Tom had to lift her feet high, thus providing himself with a view of the white skin above her stockings. Indeed, since he could hold her ankles a little bit apart without being too obvious about it, he was able to see more of this girl than he was ever likely to see of anyone he might meet at a Jolly-Up.

Kent moved in and pushed Diana's hips up, a not unpleasant task in itself, while Peter, who would soon investigate everything, supported her shoulders. Diana was slid over the gate, and Tom, moving one hand and arm up her legs, took her weight. She was actually quite small and light, and, with her rapid breathing, she felt like a little frightened animal in his arms. Peter always teased him that he delayed in setting the infiltrators down on their feet, but he didn't delay very long. And, as Tom was quick to point out, one had to take one's thrills where one could find them, particularly since one would have to spend the night on the couch in Eric's room.

Bill Todd -- A Harvard Story
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