It was a quiet Sunday morning in Cincinnati, cool and bright in the September of 1949, and hardly anyone was on the hilltop grounds of the university. Indeed, most of the citizens were either attending church services with carefully controlled cheerful expressions, or were lying, still half drunk, in the tangled sheets and blankets of beds that had never been respectable. Looking down on Clifton Avenue from the rise, one saw one of the exceptions, a rather elegant woman with a dog. She seemed particularly interested in a nearby parked Chevrolet, perhaps looking to see if anyone was in it, as her handsome Airedale, a suitable distance behind her, pooped on the sidewalk.
Up on the hill, a Mr. Jones reached from the ground up to a window and shoved the end of a screwdriver under one corner. His accomplice, Leo, did the same thing at the other corner. They pried in unison, and, just as it looked as if the screwdrivers would bend, a bit of metal shot off from the top of the window, hit the ceiling inside the room, and dropped to the floor. As the window was pushed open, and the other members of the gang came up, Jones remarked,
"The fuckers have started locking the windows again."
The room they were preparing to enter was the so-called "pink room" on the ground floor of the McMicken Hall of the McMicken College of Arts and Sciences which, in turn, was part of the University of Cincinnati. Emblazoned on the side of the building above them were the words,
"Wisdom is the main thing. Therefore get wisdom."
There was in the university an inter-disciplinary group of senior faculty members who met monthly, and who seemed to be engaged in "getting wisdom". Wanting, against all odds, to seem unpretentious, they called themselves, "The Jolly Boys".
The dozen members of the group of graduate students now breaking into the building were also engaged in obtaining something akin to wisdom. However, apart from their different mode of entry, they wanted to go about it in a lower-toned way. They thus called themselves the "Melancholy Boys".
Jones pulled himself up, threw a leg over the sill, and bounced into the room. Leo, an infantryman who had lost one eye at Omaha Beach in the Normandy invasion, scrambled in after him. His movements were less elegant than those of Jones, but equally effective. One of the others, quite rotund and particularly melancholy in facial expression, was lacking in both elegance and effectivness. However, with pulling from above and pushing from below, he was eventually rolled over the sill. When all were in, there was an undercurrent of quiet satisfaction. The room was ridiculed, even by the undergraduates, for its shabbiness and inherent lack of charm, but, on a Sunday, it had an unbeatable atmosphere of torpor and serenity.
After getting cokes from the vending machines in a perfectly legal manner, the Melancholy Boys draped themselves and their feet over the old brown chairs in a variety of attitudes. There was no formal agenda, but it was implicit that serious matters were to be considered. It wouldn't be worth breaking into the Pink Room just to engage in idle chatter.
A young man with big glasses and the pinched pink face of a teen-ager began with a question about the Turing machine, a logically very simple computer that existed only in theory, but which, in principle, could do anything that could be done at all. There were some moderately heated exchanges of views, but the participants eventually came up against "the halting problem", a conundrum rather like the well-known paradoxes of logic. No one present claimed to fully understand it.
Although the Melancholy Boys shared an interest in mathematics and logic, they came from a variety of fields, and might end up discussing almost anything. On this occasion, halted by the halting problem, they turned to the poetry of Rilke. Leo, a Jew from Tennessee with a soft accent, said,
"In that one poem about his ancestors, he has his hero, a young officer, wearing a white silk dress. Prussian militarists aren't usually transvestites."
"He only puts it on because the lady he meets in the castle insists on it. She says that, as long as he wears the dress, he's her servant."
"Does the servant get to make love to her?"
"Obviously. Presumably while still wearing the dress. Would you chaps all wear white silk dresses to please your girl friends?"
"Most of us wouldn't fit into the average bridal gown or whatever."
"Make it a loose nightgown."
No one seemed excited about doing so, and, indeed, there was an uncomfortable silence. The wearing of a woman's dress was suggestive of homosexuality, and Jones was aware that they were coming close to a taboo subject. All were liberals, thinking that people should be allowed to go to it with goats if they so desired, but no one wanted to picture himself in anything but a conventional sexual role. It was only the impish Leo who would ask such questions, and Jones countered by replying,
"Something other than wearing a woman's dress may be involved. This man has just been campaigning. And then he arrives at a castle and falls into comfort and luxury in the arms of a woman. She'd want him to take off his muddy boots and uniform, and she might not have any gents' clothing on hand."
"Rilke's hero was a junior officer, not a common soldier. He might even have taken his valet with him on active service."
"Even so, we know that people who've just come out of combat tend to go at least a little crazy. All sorts of inhibitions disappear."
"Yes, quite a few inhibitions. What about you, Jones?"
"We did go crazy, particularly when we got leave from the Solomons to go to Australia. But the women we met didn't care what we wore as long as we had money."
Someone at the end of the table suggested,
"The combination of sudden safety, sex after long deprivation, and unaccustomed luxury would make most men do more than wear white dresses."
Jones nodded and replied,
"Luxury alone has its effect. I recently had a divorced lady friend who provided every comfort. There was a shower that sprayed on you from all directions, and, for all I know, satin sheets. Then, in the morning, I'd put on one of her ex- husband's robes and go down to a great breakfast."
"Was the robe white silk, Jones?"
"It might well have been silk. I wouldn't have cared if it had been white."
"And you gave this lady up?"
"So luxury wasn't enough?"
"I began to wonder if I was safe. She had too many plans for me."
"Were you more afraid of marriage or going soft?
Jones was non-committal, but Leo replied,
"The hero in the poem seems to worry about one or both of those things. He takes off the dress, puts on his armor, and goes into battle. He then gets killed."
"I think there are better solutions to the problem."
None of the Melancholy Boys seemed inclined to argue the point.
After climbing out of the window and leaving wisdom behind, Jones drove his old car down the hill from the university through funny little streets with German names. They were filled with little red brick houses, each having an ornamented cornice of pressed tin. The housewives seemed to spend a good part of the week sweeping their front steps and sidewalks, but, on Sundays, they were arrayed for church in frumpy finery. Some people thought the whole business quaint and folksy. For better or worse, it certainly made the tourist feel as if he or she were living in the nineteenth century. Jones, hardly noticing his immediate surroundings, was looking for a glimpse of the Ohio River.
Jones had joined the navy in the spring of forty one, right out of high school. His motives were mixed, but prominent among them was a desire to get out of his home town and away from the sort of employment that was available there. Half the boys in town felt that way, but Jones thought more deeply. With a war obviously coming, it would be a good idea to beat the rush and maneuver himself into a favorable position.
The navy was clearly a way of avoiding the trench warfare of the army, and the food was reputed to be much better. While the army would have to survive on whatever could be dragged through the mud and cooked over a can of sterno, cooks aboard ships with ample equipment and supplies would turn out quantities of tasty food.
Jones quickly found that many "sailors" remained on shore to drive garbage trucks at navy bases or hand out uniforms to new recruits. Such vocations, while safe, were too pedestrian. Besides, he had always liked the feeling of being afloat.
After a brief stint on a garbage scow, he managed to become a gunner on a PT boat. The motion of a PT boat at speed took some adjustment, but the girls showed much more appreciation for a sailor on a PT boat than for a naval garbageman, in whatever way the latter might try to disguise his mission.
Almost immediately on arriving in Cincinnati, Jones bought an old twelve foot wooden rowboat. The problem was finding a place to keep it. After a period of hiding it in obscure places on the river bank, which invited theft, he found a better solution. He first cut the front bench seat of his old station wagon in half and removed the passenger half. The back seats were removed altogether. Then, by lowering the tailgate, he could slide the boat in, albeit with the stern sticking well out. The boat, of course, remained there when it wasn't in the water. While his infrequent passengers had to sit in it, he liked the feeling of having the bow at his elbow as he drove.
The Public Landing in the middle of downtown Cincinnati dated from the time of the old steamboats, and perhaps even before. It consisted of a vast cobblestoned slope which could accomodate the river at most of its various stages. An old print showed it thronged with stevedores unloading steamers and rolling barrels up the slope. There were also markets under awnings, concession stands, and randomly scattered citizens trying to cheat one other. The Public Landing was no longer the main hub of economic activity in the city, but it backed up to still-used warehouses, and there were tall buildings at no great distance.
The river was usually either rising or falling, and, on this Sunday, it was up a little from the bottom ("pool") stage and rising slightly. One of the few remaining steamboats was moored just away from the water's edge, but there was plenty of room for Jones to back down with his boat.
The process was interrupted when two teen-aged boys with fishing poles took up position directly behind the station wagon. They had large droopy hats which rose to points, dangerously loose overalls, and looked better adapted to horse-drawn wagons than to automobiles. Jones, backing with his door partly open, called,
"Watch out, here I come."
He said it with a smile, but also with force, as if he would kick their asses with the same smile. The boys moved briskly, and Jones backed almost to the water before jumping out. One boy, tall with a receding chin and prominent ears, asked,
"You ain't a goin out there in that little boat are ya?"
Jones was assured that he would be "sucked down", and that, having been sucked, he would be devoured by giant catfish lurking near the bottom. The boy was obviously serious, but he was, equally obviously, a recent migrant from the hills of Kentucky or Tennessee.
In order to calm the boy, Jones whipped out, in a fluid movement, an impressive double-edged knife he had taken from a captured Japanese soldier. It was useful around the boat, and also seemed to make a comforting kind of statement. As he brandished it and assured the boy that any marauding catfish would "get it right between the fucking eyes", he could see that he was making an impression. In fact, both boys backed off a few feet, babbling in an obscure dialect.
They didn't offer to help while Jones dragged the heavy hulky boat out of the car, but, of course, he didn't need any help. He was able to ease the stern over the slippery moss- grown cobble-stones without getting his feet wet, and then lowered the bow to the stones with a gentle clunk before pushing it out. The boat was soon afloat, tugging gently at the end of the painter, and was suddenly graceful as it sat lightly on the water.
The car had to be moved in case the river rose significantly in the three or four hours that Jones would be rowing. Grounding the boat, he looked at the boys, wondering if it might be part of their culture to push the boat out into the stream and run away during his brief absence. That probability would be decreased if he gave them something to do and involved them in his project. He therefore handed the painter to one boy, saying,
"Keep the boat there and kill anyone who tries to steal it."
He had discovered that some residents of "Cincinnata" were rather like the people who inhabited the jungles of New Guinea. They already had myths, were open to new ones, and could be manipulated with dramatic outbursts.