Bill Todd -- A Harvard Story
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 Chapter 7

Stealing from Hospitals

Some people thought it indicative of K-Entry's thinking that it continued to carry on a water balloon fight with people who lived on the fourth floor of the building opposite. If a balloon were thrown perfectly from the ground, or from K-Entry's second-floor front porch, it might, against all odds, pass through a partly opened fourth-floor window to wreak havoc inside. One wouldn't be able to see that havoc from K-Entry, and it would surely be denied by the Pittsburghers above, but it was still possible to believe.

In the course of forever attempting the nearly impossible, K-Entry was continually bombarded from the heights. Indeed, its residents had been hit by the watery contents of whole waste-baskets as they approached the door to the main building, directly under the windows of the enemy. But it had never even been suggested that they sue for peace or enter into negotiations.

Some of the same people who thought K-Entry quixotic also thought that Tom's self-imposed schedule was masochistic. However, as he explained to one of Kent's "foreign" friends,

"I'm enjoying myself. But I don't do much reading in my courses."

"How do you manage that?"

"In philosophy, you can make up theories and write little papers without doing any reading at all."

"What if your theory closely resembles some existing one that you didn't know about?"

"That's okay. A professional philosopher would be totally embarrassed in that situation, but that doesn't apply to undergraduates. It's happened a couple of times, and I've been congratulated for coming close to some position I didn't know existed."

"I guess, at some point, you'll have to make the transition to thinking up things that haven't been thought before."

"I do a tiny bit of it now, but that's mainly a graduate school kind of thing. They're lovely to undergraduates here but tough on graduates. Graduates are supposed to read a lot and know what's what."

Later, when they were alone, Kent asked,

"So you're going to graduate school to become a professor?"

"That seems to be what taking one course after another until there aren't any left leads to."

"I'd probably do the same thing if my grades were better. As it is, I'm obviously not going to be a professor."

"It's hardly an exciting prospect. There are, for example, all those jokes about professors."

"Those who can do something do it. Those who can't teach."

"That sort of thing. Ineffectuality carried to an extreme."

Kent nodded and replied,

"Many people associate professing with being harmless."

"And no one wants to be harmless, not in our society."

"Well, I went around to the job placement center the other day, and asked them what I could be."

"Let me guess. A professional magician?"

"A lot less exciting than that, Tom. They told me that I might end up as a curator in a museum of natural history."

"Curators probably aren't any more harmful and aggressive than professors."

"If we ever manage to arrange another blind double date, I could start by telling the girl paired with me that I'm extremely interested in preserving the hind legs of prehistoric squirrels."

"And I could sound really enthusiastic about burying myself so deeply in the ivory tower that it'd take bloodhounds to find me."

"No wonder girls treat us the way they do. Except that you've got one now, one that likes philosophy in fact."

"I've just seen her once. It's promising, but there's a long way to go."

"Is there an existing boy friend?"

"I don't even know."

"I might be able to murder him."


"I'm thinking of offing myself. There'd be nothing to prevent my performing some small service for you first."

Kent smiled to show that it was a joke, and then remarked,

"From what you've told me about her, I don't think there'll be a boy friend. There'll only be some little intellectual kid with big glasses who studies with her and hangs out with her after school."

At lunch, with all of K-Entry at their usual table, Peter announced a preliminary result of an initiative he had been urged to take. Since he had so many actual and potential girl friends, and no one else had any, the idea had been to switch excess girls from himself to other members of K-Entry. There were thus eager listeners as Peter explained,

"I wrote to this girl I met at a party in New York a month or so ago. She's fairly attractive, and she's just written back. I'll write, saying that I'm studying too hard to be able to do anything else these days, but also suggesting that one of my room-mates would like to correspond with her. Then, one of you guys can write, perhaps inviting her up here, and also getting her to bring some friends."

The girl's letter was passed around the table. It referred to Peter as "a charming dancing partner", which caused some amusement, but everyone agreed that it looked like a promising beginning. It was also decided that Eric was the one who should write on the grounds that he was best at disarming people's suspicions.

It being assumed that Eric would be successful in inveigling this girl to visit Cambridge, the question then arose of how many girls she should be urged to bring with her. Howie signed up, but Steve, who would be able to have as many girls as he wanted once he became a doctor, merely smiled. Sid sounded as if he might participate, but Tom doubted if he really would. Sid had once remarked to Tom that there were girls in Redhook, Sid's disreputable part of Brooklyn, who would go with him into an alley, remove their underpants, and put one foot up on a handy window sill in order to accomodate him. Girls had no mystique for Sid, and he was as unlikely as Steve to invest any significant amount of time in chasing any who weren't standing there waiting to be caught.

Jimmy, of course, volunteered. He had never had a real date, and would snatch at anything that offered. Tom himself, knowing that it was far too soon to count on anything with Sharon, was favorably inclined. That left Kent, who was often immobilized by strong conflicting feelings when it came to girls.

On this occasion, he asked Peter a couple of questions. When it turned out that Peter's acquaintance was a secretary, and not a college girl, there was general approval. It was agreed that most college girls were too choosy, so much so that K-Entry, apart from Peter, didn't stand much chance. Howie, who worked in a boiler factory in Sunduskey, Ohio in the summer, said,

"I keep hearing how much prestige Harvard has. It's time we put it to work with people who aren't used to it."

Eric looked appalled at this suggestion, but, as he took issue with it, Tom saw that Kent was amused. Tom was sure that Kent secretly agreed with Howie, except that nothing could be as straight-forward for him as it was for Howie. It was hard to imagine Kent actually seducing a girl, but he might find one somewhere who would enter into some sort of intimacy with him, be it only conversational. The unfortunate thing was that it was even harder to imagine a girl who would join Kent in the long and rather weird conversations that he favored. But, then, it occurred to Tom that a secretary might be more likely than a college girl to just let him go on, merely nodding at the right times. That might turn out to be enough.

It was later, when Tom and Peter were alone in their room, that Peter said,

"I hate to let Kent loose on some unsuspecting girl."

Peter might not be doing very well in his classes, but Tom had always respected his insights into people. Concerned, he replied,

"I'm sure he wouldn't attack her, or anything like that."

"No. But it might be a terrible date. Can Kent talk about anything that doesn't have cosmic significance?"

"Sure. He's quite affable with people he's just met."

"It seems to me that he's falling apart."

"Do you think his room-mates think that?"

"They don't notice much. They study, and then get release by participating in our little K-Entry escapades. As long as he doesn't interfere with their work, they wouldn't care if Kent started blowing bubbles out of his ears. Anyhow, you know him better. What do you think?"

"He's got this basic problem."

"How to spend ten billion dollars?"

"Not exactly. But it's the opposite of, say, Steve's problem. Steve needs money, and he's setting up the groundwork for making it. It's pointless for Kent to try to make money, and, given that, there's not a lot of point in doing a lot of things.

"So what's there left to do?"

"His family, particularly his father, wants him to accomplish something significant."

"Like inventing a new physics?"

"That would be acceptable. Or anything that's respectable and makes people take notice in a big way."

"I'm glad I'm not expected to do anything like that. It'd depress me a whole lot."

"It does depress Kent."

"Isn't it amazing how all that money can be a curse instead of a blessing?"

"I suppose no one would believe it if they hadn't seen it first hand."

"I've seen it first-hand, and I still don't believe it's necessary. There's something wrong with Kent that makes him react in that way."

Tom wasn't easy enough in his own relations with Peter to disclose that Kent had joked about suicide. He also didn't want to become known as one who could explain Kent. He said only,

"This isn't the first problem K-Entry has had. I imagine that Kent can be helped to at least muddle through."

It was obvious that Peter wasn't going to contribute much on that score, but he seemed to accept the principle easily enough. He went so far as to say,

"There are a number of pairs of people in the house who don't really like each other very much, and who probably won't see each other after we graduate, but there's an amazing amount of group loyalty in K-Entry. Almost like an army unit in combat."

While Tom and Peter had been close as freshmen, they were, as they probably both understood, one of the pairs who wouldn't keep in touch in later life. But that had never been made explicit, and, Tom hoped, never would be. One of the advantages of K-Entry loyalty was that all such differences could be half hidden in a larger cause. Anyhow, who knew what might happen? If Tom got a girl, he might come to a better understanding with Peter.

The spread-the-wealth with respect to girl friends project blew up a couple of days later. Tom found the mailbox completely stuffed with letters from the girl, Barbara, to Peter. There were no less than seven, and they took them over to lunch, where they were distributed to the group.

The letters were much more familiar, and were often embarrassing. When they figured out the order in which they had been written, there was, indeed, a progression. Without any reply from Peter, Barbara had apparently created her own love fantasy, and re-enforced it with each letter. Everyone agreed that it was scary. It was Eric who said,

"I suppose these letters will keep coming."

Tom replied,

"We obviously can't switch her to anyone else, even if we wanted to at this point."

It was finally decided that the best thing would be for Peter to write Barbara and tell her he had just gotten engaged.

On his way up to the yard for the afternoon classes, Tom was joined by Eric and Kent. Eric, still thinking about the letters, said,

"We should never have started that."

Tom replied,

"We've done every crazy thing anyone could imagine to find girls, but I guess we've reached the limit. We'd better just settle back and be neuter gender, as you suggested."

Kent remarked,

"I wonder if that girl was naked when she wrote those last letters."

Eric replied,

"I don't think you're making progress in the neuter gender direction, Kent."

Tom broke in,

"Neither am I. I bet Peter could get her to send him pictures of herself naked."

Eric was laughing despite himself at the failings of his friends. He finally said,

"I'll have to think of something to do to prove I'm not a prude."

Just then, Eric staggered a bit and caught hold of a telephone pole. After a minute, he straightened up and said,

"I almost threw up again. I guess I was laughing hard enough to upset my stomach."

As they got under way, Tom suggested,

"Maybe it was the food."

"I may get to the point where I have to get nourishment by IV tube."

"Would you have to go down to the infirmary to get that?"

"Supposedly. But Peter goes out with a nurse sometimes, and he thinks he can get her to steal the necessary equipment from the hospital."

Eric smiled, as if to acknowledge that it wasn't his usual style to get people to steal things for him. It also wasn't lost on Tom that Peter was willing to do things for Eric that he wouldn't have done for Kent.

Bill Todd -- A Harvard Story
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