A Troublesome Aristocrat
There is, according to Kurt Vonnegut, one true American class. It has produced a great many men of letters, a good proportion of the governers of the eastern seaboard states, and all of the full-time birdwatchers.
Despite an inability to claim the highest office since the time of John Quincy Adams, the members of this class have always occupied a good many positions of power and influence in both Republican and Democratic administrations. Most of these people have thought that they were enlightened, and most have tried to use intelligence to soften the more barbaric tendencies of their countrymen.
Hal Holmes, a young man of twenty three, had been born into Vonnegut's true American class, and hadn't, so far, done anything which would get him thrown out of it. He now stood on a street corner in Washington near the National Archives Building as traffic snarled.
It was already hot at ten in the morning, and the frustration was considerable. The nearby drivers, trapped in their steaming cars, had a green light. But their way was blocked by other motorists, less considerate than themselves, who had pushed out into the intersection and been caught there.
One long sleek black car, whose closed windows picked it out as one of the few to have air-conditioning, had managed to block two lanes of traffic coming cross-ways, and was the object of considerable horn-blowing and some shouting. Hal felt sympathy both for the embarrassment of the unseen driver of the black car and for those who would miss the light because of it. Calling to the driver of a nearby car, Hal said loudly,
"That's a mighty good car!"
The driver smiled briefly and looked away. Hal's theory was that most Americans identitified primarily with their cars, and that their moods could be improved by complimenting those cars.
As the light changed and he crossed the street to catch the Friendship Heights trolley, it occurred to Hal that his father must often have walked along these same streets. That wasn't an unqualified recommendation for either the streets or his father. Hal's father had been, and still was, an expansionist. Hal, by contrast, was a contractionist. Most problems, he thought, ultimately came down, not only to eating and drinking too much, but to gathering to oneself too much money, too much property, too many interests, and too much responsibility. In short, doing too much.
Where the elder Holmes had been an industrialist, a member of the Atomic Energy Commission, and an ambassador, a man who could move, or at least prod, almost anything in the direction he wanted, Hal wanted to move nothing but his own body.
The trolley clattered along brightly, the breeze coming in through the open windows, and Hal settled back to enjoy himself. He liked watching pretty girls, both on the sidewalk and in the car, but he prided himself on having cultivated such an appearance of pleasant straight-down-the-middle uninspired mediocrity that no one ever suspected him of salacious or prurient watching. It was an accomplishment never to be noticed at all, whether watching or not, and he felt that he was being more successful in that area with each passing year.
Friendship Heights was a place that Hal suspected his father had never been. There was a Howard Johnson's with its familiar orange roof, a People's Drug Store, and a clutch of people wandering around, no one of whom had ever done anything significant. It was a nice atmosphere, relaxed and pleasant. Indeed, it was one in which Hal was tempted to linger. These people didn't have fathers who expected notable accomplishments or older brothers who had killed themselves for obscure reasons.
Hal found himself going along the store fronts, nodding appreciatively at the jewelry displayed in one of the windows. It glittered a good deal more than anything his mother would have worn, but Hal wondered if glitter might not be a good thing. Whether or not it was intrinsically good, he reflected that it would make it easier for him to pass unnoticed through life if as many other people as possible glittered as much as possible.
The bus that pulled up in front of the trolley stop was marked for Bethesda, and Hal climbed aboard, smiling and nodding at the driver. They were soon rattling up a hill past a golf course, and it wasn't long before they reached another town center, this one also rather nondescript, whose main feature was a Hot Shoppes restaurant at an intersection. Hal had never seen a Hot Shoppes before, but he immediately felt that it was the right place for him.
Being a little early, he sat at a corner table and ordered a coke. He then began to think about his Harvard friends. There had been the football and basketball players from Brooklyn with whom he had lived for years. He got on well with them in a casual way, and admired them much more than they could ever have realized. But there had never been any intimacy.
There was another friend, Joe, who was closer, but who had been suborned by Hal's mother. Hal was the sort of man whose mother worried about him, and, on at least one occasion, Joe had been sent, his way paid, to see if Hal was "all right." Hal had never really trusted Joe after that.
That left only Tom. Whatever his faults, Tom was a person who would never be approached by one's mother. It also helped that he was in philosophy. While Hal was sceptical about philosophy in the strict technical sense, it had the virtue of cutting its practitioners off from mainstream American culture, the culture in which Hal nevertheless hoped to cloak himself. And, of course, there was enough money in Tom's background so that he wasn't put off or over-awed by Hal's situation.
As Tom Williams made his way to the Hot Shoppe, he was looking forward to seeing his friend again. He was also glad that no one else would be with them. The last couple of times, Tom had been at philosophy conventions in Philadelphia, where Hal was teaching in a boarding school, and had taken a philosophy friend along to meet him. The first time, it was an Englishman, a spontaneous and hearty young man whom everyone liked. The second time, it was a young woman whom Tom hoped to impress. On each occasion, things had seemingly gone quite well. But, each time, the minute they had dropped Hal off, Tom's companion had virtually exploded with negative feeling. The Englishman had exclaimed, "what a pitiful hopeless fellow," and the woman had asked Tom how he could stand being with "that man."
Both reactions utterly baffled Tom, and he had been too hurt to seek clarification. Hal had been perfectly pleasant and amiable, and they had talked about things of mutual interest. Surely, Tom thought, no one had said or done anything that could have offended anyone. On the other hand, Tom's colleagues had been people with more social experience than Tom himself, and he wasn't inclined to simply dismiss their judgments.
When he came into the restuarant and saw Hal waving restrainedly to him with a smile, Tom thought his friend was looking very well. He was quite a large square-cut young man who looked seriously intellectual, but not academic or professorial. As he approached, Tom decided that Hal looked like the sort of serious intellectual who might also be a serious tennis player.
Not being sure where they wanted to eat, Tom ordered only a coke. They then started talking where they had left off a year previously, as if there had been no gap.
Hal had majored in cultural anthropology at Harvard, and, more strongly than anything else, he believed in distancing oneself from one's own culture. There was no reason for thinking that any one culture was any better or worse than any other, and, among the thousands of cultures, past, present, and future, it was unlikely that the one which one happened to be born into was worthy of particular notice. On one's own, it was possible to formulate principles of value and behavior which at least suited oneself. That having been done, one behaved accordingly, whether or not that behavior happened to be a part of the culture in which one found oneself.
Tom had arrived at a similar position, not by studying anthropology, but in the abstract. This shared belief, with its normative implications, was the basis for their friendship. They both thought of their own culture as something which would overcome them if they weren't vigilant, and that it took a constant effort even to be aware of the areas of encroachment. It was then implicit between them that each would act as a critic of the other and point out areas in which the defenses needed to be improved. The situation was somewhat complicated because Hal, having rejected his culture, wanted to then turn around and hide in it as if he had no reservations. Tom didn't follow him in this last twist, but knew how to allow for it.
After a while, they began to exchange notes and gossip. Tom asked about a common acquaintance in college, and Hal replied,
"He's a social climber. I passed him going in the opposite direction at least a year ago."
"Any luck with girls this year?"
"I've got a great poster of Marilyn Monroe that I had framed. I put it on the inside of my bedroom door, where the students won't see it."
"Did you have it framed at that little place across from the school?"
"Yes. They did a good job."
"Won't that start rumors? As I recall, the students all go in there to buy film and get their pictures developed."
"If there's any talk, I'll them that she's my third cousin, once removed."
It had been Tom's impression, when visiting the school, that the relations between Hal and the students had been rather formal and strained. Still, it was good that Hal seemed confident in that area.
Seeing a tray of food that looked edible go past, Tom and Hal decided to order. The turkey dinner came with a suspect gravy, but most of it could be pushed to one side. The French fries and cranberry sauce were standard issue.
While Hal was content to sit and talk for many hours, Tom had always been concerned to keep moving and keep doing things, partly for his own sake and partly for Hal's. He had originally suggested that they go for a an evening cruise on the Potomac on an old river steamer that still survived, and, when they finished their early dinner, Hal seemed willing enough.
The tired old steamer, at a wharf in Washington's small harbor, probably dated from the last century. She was double- decked with a pilot house sticking up and a tall single stack pouring out smoke behind it. A large open hatch above the engine room revealed the combined engineer-fireman stoking his boiler. While the steamer as a whole was worn and dirty, rather like a soiled and slightly cracked egg-shell, the little triple-expansion steam engine was polished and gleaming. Tom and Hal watched as the engineer adjusted valves and fussed with his engine, wisps of steam drifting out of joints with a moderate hiss. Then, when bells rang, the engineer shoved a lever and opened the throttle to set the propellor shaft turning. The unseen propellor churned water under the stern with a succession of gurgling noises while the low-pressure cylinder exhausted into the condenser with a whoosh. Even the efforts of that little engine were enough to cause the whole structure of the steamer to creak and groan.
Tom and Hal went up to the upper deck, the boat rolling slowly as the modest crowd moved to find seats. They found theirs just forward of the pilot house and relaxed into them. It was a rather listless early summer evening, no longer terribly hot, with a pale blue sky swallowing up the much increased column of greasy black smoke they were now putting out
In midstream, they drifted for a minute before slowly gathering forward way and turning downstream. Three young women then appeared on the deck and stood forward, leaning over the rail to look down at the steamer's bow wave. Tom said quietly to Hal,
"They're fairly attractive. And they may be government secretaries looking for men. People keep telling me how many more women than men there are in Washington."
"If they wanted us, there'd be something wrong with them."
"Why that? We rank fairly high in most of the qualities that are considered desirable."
"We wouldn't know how to approach them. We'd say something serious or ironic, and they'd just look at us and turn away. They want someone who can be the life of the party."
"I don't know about you, but it's generally thought that I can be humorous now and then."
"But you wouldn't be able to be humorous now, with them, in the right way."
Before Tom could reply, three young men passed along and went up to the young women. Tom and Hal couldn't hear what was said, but an animated conversation soon sprang up. Tom said,
"I think those guys already knew them."
"I don't think so. But at least one of them knew what to say."
There were two destinations for two different sorts of passengers. One was Mt. Vernon, the home of George Washington. People could disembark there, poke around the grounds, take a tour of the house, and be picked up two hours later. The other destination was right across the river in Maryland, a little island on which there was legal gambling. The steamer would wait there while people tried the various kinds of slot machines and games, and then take both groups back to Washington. Veterans of the cruise sometimes amused themselves by speculating which passengers would choose which destination. Hal and Tom unanimously, and, without hesitation, chose the gambling place.
The steamer got up to something like eight knots, and, as they sprawled back and watched the slowly darkening Virginia hills slide by, the two friends spoke of their jobs. Hal had been teaching for a couple of years in the prep school he had formerly attended. It was a highly experimental school in which many unusual things were attempted, but, as he said,
"Whatever you do, there are an awful lot of students who just don't want to learn anything. Nothing works with them."
Tom had been just such a student at that age, and he thought that he could identify with them almost as much as with Hal. However, he understood the other's frustration, and he also sensed that Hal's teaching career wasn't going to last long. He was then not surprised to hear,
"I'm thinking of quitting and not even going back in the fall. I've got another project that seems more worth-while."
It went without saying that Hal wouldn't be paid to engage in this other project. When Tom asked, Hal swore him to secrecy, and said,
"I'm trying to discover the best place to go to avoid nuclear attack. Not only for myself, but for other right-thinking persons. The idea isn't just to survive, but to find a reasonable way of living in whatever sort of world might be left."
"I wouldn't bet on being able to do it anywhere in this country."
"No. It couldn't be here. But there's no reason to prefer this country over any other. Countries aren't any better than cultures."
It was part of their joint position that the reasonable person is neutral between such things, and that any sort of nationalism or patriotism is a mistake. There could be no reason to give anything to the average American, or his country, while depriving anyone else of it. To the extent that one had to pick a country, one did it on purely practical grounds.
These were the sorts of things they had often discussed far into the night in Cambridge. Not only that, they remained as planks in the platform of their ongoing friendship. Tom had become aware of no reason for re-thinking these positions, but, as he pointed out,
"I'm now working for an organization that doesn't think Russians and Americans are equally deserving. In fact, it wouldn't be much bothered if all the former were killed if a reasonable number of the latter survived."
"You've successfully infiltrated the American defense establishment."
Tom looked around quickly. What, he wondered, would happen to him if the wrong people heard such a remark being addressed to him? Hal seemed to have no inkling of such possible consequences, and went on to ask,
"Can you fudge things enough to make the American military less likely to start a war?"
Tom, uncomfortably aware that he had told Hal more than he should have about his job, explained quietly that even if someone could make the Soviets seem to be more formidable than they really were, it would have unpredictable consequences.
"Strength on the other side, instead of deterring an attack, might make them attack sooner."
That seemed to convince Hal, who then said,
"Anyhow, it'll help a great deal if you can tell when an attack from either side is likely to come."
It sounded as if Hal were already assuming a nuclear exchange, and was deep into planning a little commune on some island on which there was an abundance of food and water. Such things would be fantasies with most people, but, if Hal felt like it, he could buy such an island and invite Tom to come along. Before Hal had a chance to invite him, Tom said,
"We'd feel pretty silly if we went off to some island, and then nothing happened. It might also get boring."
That sort of consideration didn't seem to weigh much with Hal. He seemed likely to go on with his planning, and perhaps recruit others. In a moment of near panic, Tom wondered if Hal would tell others that he had a friend in the defence department who was giving him secret information about the probable date of an attack. The security people wouldn't care that Hal and his friends were only idealistic cranks and weren't Soviet spies. But Tom then calmed himself. Hal didn't have any other real friends. Whatever he said, he'd never actually recruit anyone else.
Just then, the steamer went full astern and began to turn. They could see Mt. Vernon up on the hilltop, and they were evidently going to land at a wharf that was half-hidden in a cove. They both stood at the rail and watched the rather intricate manoevering that was required to bring the steamer in.
Once the respectable people were ashore and the steamer backed out, there was an almost palpable loosening of the atmosphere. They soon came in view of the little gambling island, and, since it was only a few feet above water level at the highest point, the whole establishment could be taken in from the upper deck. Bordered by swamp, there was a little amusement park with what appeared to be a broken ferris wheel and a dilapidated merry-go-round. Leading from it to the wharf was a sort of broadway with snack bars, various gambling booths, and, next to the wharf, an outdoor cafe. Tom said,
"It certainly looks squalid. But sort of cheerful."
"Disreputability is almost bound to be more interesting. I bet the people who run the gambling booths have tattoos and picturesque scars on their faces."
"I'll be disappointed if there isn't an old hag telling fortunes."
"You can't have that next to the gambling."
"People would want gambling predictions, and they'd come back and kill her if they turned out to be wrong."
"I bet she gives ambigous predictions that can be defended under any circumstances."
It turned out that there was no fortune-teller. There were quite a number of little shacks, most having only a roof with two sides and no fronts or backs. There were various card games, including black-jack, but slot machines out-numbered everything else. Hal said,
"I guess the real gambler wants to be able to confront chance with as few intermediaries as possible."
They ended up watching a man who was in a shack that had only a single machine. They counted for a while and saw that he put roughly three times as many silver dollars in as he got back. Curious, they then followed him to the cafe.
The gambler was a man of forty or so with a moustache that seemed designed for twirling. His family, consisting of a wife and two young teen-aged girls, were waiting for him in the cafe. When they saw him, he smiled broadly and displayed a handful of silver dollars. He then sat down while being congratulated, not only by his family, but by the people at neighboring tables.
Tom and Hal sat at a nearby table, and, when the man left after a few minutes, they followed. The man went first to the check-cashing place, and they could see him writing out a check. He then returned to the same solitary machine and started in again. When he again lost his stake, he headed back to the cafe, doubtless to declare his winnings. Hal said to Tom,
"I bet I could fix that machine so that he wins next time."
Tom was doubtful, but Hal was good with electrical gadgetry, and they approached the shack from its open rear.
It was quite an informal operation, and the panel in the back of the machine was missing altogether. The part that held the coins was presumably locked, but there were many exposed wires, not to mention a fairly complex mechanism.
Hal was poking with his fingers and Tom was looking over his shoulder when a rough hand reached past Tom, grabbed Hal and flung him backwards. Hal seemed too startled to react as the man shook him angrily and glowered at Tom. Tom attempted to explain the situation, but the man was large and extremely unpleasant looking. He was also cursing and telling them they were headed for jail. As if to emphasize his point, he threw Hal against the flimsy wall of the shack and smashed his fist against the side of Hal's head, knocking his glasses off. Tom, his head full of images of the awful consequences of going to jail, hit the man with a long left lead followed with a straight right. The results were surprising. The man was himself knocked against the wall, and then, on bouncing off, he dropped to his hands and knees. Hal and Tom were already running.
There was almost nowhere to run except for an area of scrub and small trees which quickly gave way to the swamp. Tom said,
"They'll catch us if we just swim to shore. We'd better swim across the Potomac."
Hal seemed disinclined to argue, and Tom guessed that he had in mind his father's reaction if he ended up in a Maryland jail, probably charged with trying to steal money from the machine. For his part, Tom assumed that he would be fired from DRI. He could still go back to Michigan, but it was hardly the way he wanted to leave.
They were both wearing shorts and sneakers, and, although their legs got scratched badly as they broke through the brush and into the deepening water, they were able to retain their footing.
When Tom reached water that was some three feet deep, he was able to lie on his back with his feet off the bottom and pull himself between the shrubs. It was now quite dark, and he called softly to Hal, whom he heard struggling nearby, asking him if he were all right. Hal replied,
"I'm all right but I lost my glasses and I can't see a damned thing."
Tom whispered back,
"There seems to be quite a commotion there, and it's headed in this general direction, but I bet they won't wade in after us.
"No. They'll probably try to wait us out and leave a man posted to watch for us."
Just then, some pistol shots rang out from the shore some fifty yards distant. Neither Tom nor Hal had any idea where the shots landed, and Tom said,
"They're probably shooting at shadows. When we start swimming, we'd better do breast stroke and not splash."
"Do you think they'll come after us in a boat?"
"It's possible. Maybe we'd better start across. Keep your sneakers on if you can. We'll need them on the other side."
As Tom slid gently into the deeper water, he found it easy to swim with his sneakers. It turned out that Hal could see enough to follow him, and, once they were well clear of the shore, they headed across the river at right angles.
It wasn't long before a little boat with an outboard motor came out from the island. When Tom saw that it was headed for them, he told Hal and continued his gentle breast stroke with his head under water, raising it only every third stroke to breathe and catch a glimpse of the opposite shore. He didn't look back at the boat, but could hear the propellor noise under water.
As Tom swam slowly along, wondering what he could be charged with if he were caught, there were other, much louder, propellor noises coming from a different direction. There had been a number of pleasure boats going up and down the river, some quite large, and he guessed that this was one.
Tom tried to get as deep as possible so as not to be run down, but he was too bouyant to get down very far. The new boat went off to the side anyway, and, when he came up, he heard only a much diminished zinging noise which soon disappeared altogether. After swimming toward Virginia for a short time, Tom looked back for Hal and saw him being hauled aboard the small boat by two men.
As Tom continued his slow stroke, keeping his head under most of the time, he heard the boat as it circled and zig- zagged. It came really close only once, the propellor making a very unpleasant noise, and it then receded. He was about half-way across the river when the boat gave up the search, and the rest was easy.
The Virginia bank was muddy, but easily scaled. Tom found himself in a deserted patch of woods at the base of a hill. He wasn't particularly worried. Hal's father would rescue him by having his attorneys pay off the amusement park, and, in the meantime, Hal could be depended on to say he'd just met Tom and didn't know his last name.
Taking off his clothes and wringing as much water out of them as he could, Tom danced around to partially dry himself before putting the clothes back on. His sneakers were so gobbed with mud that he decided to simply walk in them until it gradually fell off. He still had his wallet and lots of money, and it was necessary only to walk inland until he found a road. He doubted that his crime was serious enough to occasion a search for him by the police of another state, but he'd still keep out of sight to the extent practicable.
It was only when he started to climb the hillside that it occurred to Tom that Hal might not call his father. To Tom, Hal's father was a relaxed and friendly man who might even think the episode funny once he had sprung his son. No one who knew Hal in the slightest would believe that he was trying to steal money from the slot machine, but it was only too characteristic of him to try to play Robin Hood. There would be some ongoing jokes at Hal's expense, and perhaps some gruff but genial advice for Tom, and that would be the end of it.
On the other hand, Tom knew that Hal regarded his father in an entirely different light. Those jokes, soon to be forgotten by the older man, would wound Hal more deeply than anyone but Tom could imagine. Hal might well prefer to spend a few days in a Maryland jail. However, it might be a good deal worse than that. That part of Maryland was just like the rural south, the land of lynchings. They wouldn't lynch Hal even if they thought he was a thief, but they might well beat him. Tom wished that he knew someone who could tell him something of the realities of Maryland law, as practiced in the out-back.
Having started diagonally away from the river, Tom soon came to a creek. Turning up it, there was about a mile of hard slogging along the wooded bank before the creek narrowed and came out of the woods. With relief, he saw a main road a short distance in front of him, and, just down it, a rather motley collection of houses and buildings. Tom was mostly dry by this time, and, after pausing to knock mud off his sneakers and straighten his hair, he climbed up on the road and headed for the town. He soon came to a sign which announced it as Hybla Valley, and then another one indicating that he was on Route 1 with Richmond in one direction and Alexandria in another. There might even be a bus.
Tom had made a decision on his long walk, and, when he saw a phone booth outside the only gas station, he placed a collect call to the Holmes family summer home in Maine.
The phone was answered by Jackson, the general factotum and solver of problems for the household, and Tom told him exactly what had happened. There was then a pause, and Hal's father came on,
"Are you sure he's being held by the police, Tom?"
"No. But they must have been pretty mad. I think they would have called the police."
"Hold on the line a couple of minutes. I'll make a call on the other line."
Tom could imagine a call going out to a partner in a prestigious Washington law firm, and wondered how long it would take such a person to make an impact out in the boondocks of Maryland. Mr. Holmes came back with a couple of questions, relaying the answers to the party on the other line, and then said.
"I've got inquiries being made now. We'll get it fixed up."
"Hal won't like it that I've called you, but they were rough- looking people."
"Those kinds of people can be brought to heel very quickly by a show of influence and authority. And, if it looks like being simpler and quicker, they can be bought off. If I can, I'll have it done without Hal knowing I was informed."
"That's good. I'm sorry we got in such a ridiculous mess."
"It was Hal's doing, wasn't it?"
"I should have stopped him."
"What about you? Are you all right?"
"I seem to have escaped. I swam the Potomac, and I'm now in a little Virginia town on Route 1. There's a bus I can take back to Washington."
Mr. Holmes had already heard about Tom's job, and said,
"Tom, it's absolutely essential that you not be caught. Don't surrender to any gallant impulses and give yourself up. And don't tell anyone about it at work, no matter who they are. Things like this can come back to haunt people in surprising ways, even many years afterwards."
Tom promised not to tell, and Mr. Holmes said,
"Okay. If you don't hear from Hal directly, call back here in a couple of days."
As Tom hung up, he found himself both relieved and amused. It wasn't
necessary to worry about Hal. As regards himself, Mr. Holmes thought it
normal for a young man to eventually achieve great prominence, at which
point an old charge of assault could prove embarrassing or worse.