In a way, Allen was all that I had wanted to be and was not. He had black flowing hair that topped his six foot muscular frame. He could run and jump and swim -like a fish, he could swim. Me, I was always on the verge of sinking; gasping and spitting water. His only blemishes were adolescent pimples, which he would soon outgrow. He seemed to be unaware of their temporary nature. Every new pimple was a tragedy of major proportions, marring his otherwise-perfect physique. He would stare at it in the mirror, looking like Hamlet contemplating a skull. He swam and ran and lifted weights. And I envied him! But it was only his body that I envied. I certainly had no desire to go through adolescence again -once was more than enough!
I remember the tone of admiration that my Orthodox Jewish uncle used about a pretty cousin of mine: "She looks like a pretty shikse -a movie actress!" This was before the days of Barbara Streisand, when all movie stars looked like Jean Harlow. Not that there was anything wrong with me. I was of average height and weight. Of course, I started loosing my hair at sixteen, and by the time I was in my early thirties, I was as bald as I am now. I used to look older than I was. Now, since I haven't greyed yet, I look younger than my years. I wasn't athletic. "Develop your mind, not your body," my parents told me. I used to admire my best friend's body. Morris was six foot tall and used to work on a farm in Vermont during the summer. His skin was bronzed and he looked like a god. I found out later that he was ashamed of his big nose and thought his height and build of no consequence. He had an Italian chest -no breasts and no body hair. Me, I looked Slavic; with breasts and hair. The hair was kind-of nice, but the breasts always embarrassed me. I was reared in Little Italy, in The Bronx, and my companions were all flat chested. I felt that I was misshapen. Had I been brought up among Slavs, I might have been comfortable with my body. Once, when I was in Italy, I went swimming at a local lake. Anyone could have picked me out as the tourist -I was distinctive among all of those brown flat-chested men. If I wanted to be tan, I would have had to paint it on. The sun turned me red.
When Allen went to college, he had great aspirations. He was going to become a marine biologist and spend the rest of his life exploring the oceans. Like Jacques Cousteau, he would explore the world on a beautiful ship. With his scuba tanks, he would roam the deep and see all of the wonders that the ocean had to offer.
Like me, he would be a scientist, wise and understanding. Unlike me, he would be a genuinely nice person, loved by all. He would not be one of those unapproachable types -not one of those stereotypes of the scientist; aggressive, unfeeling and out of touch with the world. He would be truly loved by everyone, just as his mother was.
When the time came for him to go to college, Allen chose the University of California at Santa Barbara. Why Santa Barbara? I really don't know. Perhaps his reason was similar to mine, when I chose to attend the University of California at Berkeley -it was as far away from New York, and my parents, as I could get. Of course, I had more options than Allen did, having the post-World War II G.I. Bill to pay my tuition. I don't remember whether we told Allen outright that he had to stick with the California State University System, but it was understood that we would have a difficult time of it financially if he went out of the state. Besides, he was interested in marine biology and California had several excellent centers for that sort of thing.
That he was interested in marine biology pleased me. What more could a father want than that his son should follow in his footsteps?
What Allen hadn't taken into account was the fact that there were thousands of young people who wanted to do the same things that he did. And the people in college who were getting the grades and qualifying for the advanced programs were those nerds with eye glasses who weren't expert swimmers, but who spent their time studying zoology and chemistry. Expert swimmers headed for the olympics, not graduate school. The only person we knew who seemed headed for where Allen wanted to go was a kid who had been interested in invertebrate zoology since he was in grade school. He knew the Latin names of everything that lived in the sea, and where it stood in the evolutionary scale. He made Allen feel stupid. How come he, Allen, didn't know all of that stuff? It never occurred to Allen that, if he had been studying marine animals since he was seven years of age, he too would know "all that Latin stuff".
While Allen's older brother Paul had done things gradually; living at home for his first year at Berkeley; then moved to a co-op, and during his last year, went out on his own. Allen was going to make a clean break -leave home cold turkey. I guess that he hadn't reckoned on the trauma of leaving home, having never been away from at least one parent for a prolonged period. When I went to college, it was out of the army. The army had taken care of the culture shock. I went from the bosom of my family to the male world of the army. That and the war were truly shocking. The transition from the military to a university was a pleasant transition.
For Allen, it was much more traumatic than he had expected. The dorm at UCSB must have been almost as much of a shock to him as the army had been to me.
Laura and I visited him once. How can I describe what it was like? There is little in most people's experience that corresponds to what that dormitory was like. My mind goes back to the sixth or seventh grade, when the teacher left the room. Voices changed from normal to frantic; erasers and chalk flew through the air. When the classroom door opened, we all leaped to our seats, where we sat looking like cherubs. I could tell you that it is like an open ward in a mental institution in the days before tranquilizers; but most people have never been in an open ward in a mental institution. If anyone set out to design an environment that would shatter an adult's composure, that dorm would be it. The music was loud enough so that no thought could intrude between the music and one's brain. It wasn't background music and it precluded an awareness of anything but the beat of the music. There was nothing resembling a melody -just a jungle beat with shrill whining in the background. I had been thrown into a pit of snakes and my composure was shattered. I don't know how Laura felt, but I wanted to get out before.... before what? Before I got killed? Before I went mad? -Yes, Yes, all of the above!
And this was the place where Allen was supposed to use to study, to work, to accumulate knowledge and understanding. My first reaction was that I should complain to the university administration. But what good would that do? If they were made aware of the situation, they would attribute it to "the natural high-spirits of youth." That's how people schooled in Emerson talk. The only thing to do was what the university people did -leave and forget it.
"Let's go find someplace to have dinner!" I said, eager to leave the place.
As I think about it now, I am again struck by the similarity of the dormitory to an insane asylum. As do most people, I see sanity as quiet and madness as noisy. I am not too disturbed by people who manage to be very crazy and, at the same time, very quiet. I think of the films of masses of people with their arm raised in the Nazi salute, shouting "Sieg Heil! Sieg Heil! Sieg Heil!. Madness is not necessarily a private pursuit -mass insanity exists as surely as the private kind. From the Nazis, my mind, with its characteristic perversity, goes to a football game. The people in the stands are all standing up and cheering wildly because a man has transported a fusiform ball across a line. I went to a football game once and it terrified me. Of course, I don't dare tell anyone about these feelings. Anyone who feels that way about the great American game of football has to be either crazy or a communist. Later, when I talked to Allen about the noise in the dorm, he admitted to me that he now understood why I had insisted that our kids either turned the radio down or turned it off.
He had always had his own room and now he had to share one. His roommate, Roger, was an engineering student and, although they had gone through high school together, it was hard to imagine two personalities more different. Allen was basically people oriented; made friends easily and was very empathic. Roger was aggressive, bright and, girls excepted, was more interested in things than people. He teased Allen about the troubles that he was having with math. Allen couldn't understand why Roger was so insensitive. Wasn't he, Allen, one of the more popular kids in high school; likable, kind to everyone. What Allen failed to understand was that someone who was not likable and popular might resent a fellow student for his popularity. While Roger was dating a girl who was destined for medical school, Allen had the pretty cheerleader-type girls calling him on the phone every evening, asking him to take them to the school dance, or a movie, or just for a drive.
I have no way of knowing what Allen went through during that first year at college. He just barely passed his courses and had to drop one math course, or risk failing it. This didn't bother me too much. I attributed it to culture shock and home sickness. My first year in college was similar. Yet, it couldn't have been too bad for him; he had a girl friend, whom he brought home one week end. In short, he seemed to be dealing with his problems in a reasonable, although not altogether satisfactory, way.
That summer, he brought Debbie up to our mountain for a visit. Debbie was a psychology major. To me, that meant that she probably intended to get her MRS before, or soon after her BA. Of the psychology majors, very few end up as psychologists. She was pleasant and seemed bright enough. I found that I liked the girl and, had Allen told us that he intended to marry her, I would have approved. I wish now that he had. It would have added some stability to his life.
As I would have expected, they spent a lot of the time off somewhere, by themselves. Yet, their relationship didn't seem like a flaming love. There were no bells ringing; none of the compulsion to touch that I associate with young love. It seemed more comfortable than anything that I had experienced with a girl when I was his age. They behaved more like old friends than lovers. There was never any question of their sleeping together in the guest cabin. Allen was too proper for that. Were they sleeping together? I have no way of even guessing. Allen hid his feelings well and Debbie gave no indication of anything except that she was very fond of Allen. I thought it strange, in this, the post sexual revolution era, that two people would behave as they might have behaved some fifty years before. My prying took the form of a single question, which I asked Allen when we were alone: "Are you two serious?"
"No," Allen replied, "we're just good friends."
That ended that! How little I really knew about my own son.
At the end of his second year he informed us, by letter, that he was serious about a girl and it wasn't Debbie. She was, he told us, with a group of itinerant musical evangelists and he, Allen, had been "born again in Christ." I thought that love can make a fellow do pretty strange things and that either a break-up or a marriage would cure his temporary insanity.
My wife Laura seemed more upset than I was; she having been brought up as a hard-shelled Baptist. Laura was reared in a fundamentalist church and had learned to detest the hell-fire and damnation type of religion. In her first marriage, she had switched from the denomination of her childhood to a mild form of Episcopalianism and then, when she married me, to no religion at all. When we were contemplating marriage, she told her parents that I was a Jew, which upset them immensely. If she had told them the whole story, that I was a Jew-Atheist, they might have drummed her out of the family. I was surprised at Laura's reaction when Allen asked us to go to meet his new love at a revival meeting in our area -she adamantly refused to go. Laura usually "did the right thing." I fully expected that her ingrained politeness would have mandated that she go. Her repugnance must have been very intense. Yet, she was not anti-religion. She insisted that grace be said when her parents visited us and when we visited them. When we stayed with a minister friend at Lake Tahoe, she went to church and, I believe, enjoyed it.
She told me that she had nightmarish memories of
preachers who damned people to hell for doing the things that
came naturally. Laura wasn't one to quarrel with her God-given
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