Straying Home: A Memoir of Changing in Place

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Bill wore his springy black hair down to the upper reaches of his collar, and I owned a pair of Frye boots, but neither of us was entirely at home in the ‘60s.  Bill’s father told me once about driving in a panic from Long Island to Morningside Heights after seeing live news footage of the student strike at Columbia and arriving to find a trail of blood leading into Bill’s dorm room.  The blood belonged to an injured student who had run down the halls calling for help.  Bill had opened the door, invited the stranger in, and was helping him clean the wound on the back of his head where he’d been hit with a police baton, when his father burst in.  Bill’s father was tremendously relieved to discover that Bill had not been out on the campus when the violence began; typically, he’d been in his room reading.  It wasn’t that Bill was indifferent, he was—like a lot of people of our generation—overwhelmed and confused.

It was very much the same for me.  I had no idea where I stood on Vietnam or race issues or free speech.  It all seemed so complicated, and was only made more complicated by the family ties that wound like bright ribbons in and out of current events.   My uncle was the chief federal prosecutor in New York; my grandfather had been president of the American Bar Association.  Reason and due process were values that trumped everything else in my family.

My father had been the dean at Dartmouth College through most of my childhood and into my first two years in college.  By the spring of my sophomore year, the spring of 1969, college campuses everywhere were going off like depth charges. The issue at Dartmouth, still a men’s college then, was ROTC—the Reserve Officer Training Corps—and whether it should be allowed to remain part of the college program.  In the middle of that tense spring my father drove the hour and a half down I-91 from Hanover to Northampton to spend Father’s Weekend with me.  I had been home just a couple of weeks before and the change was remarkable: his features looked as though they were sliding towards the center of his face, and the hair at the back of his neck had turned silver.  He was almost 40, and for the first time he looked his age.  He was exhausted.

There was something in the news every day.  At the University of Wisconsin National Guardsmen used clubs, bayonets and tear gas to clear a demonstration calling for a Black Studies program; at Harvard 200 students had been arrested and dozens injured in a protest over ROTC; at CCNY Puerto Rican and African-American students occupied the administration building and broke into the president’s office; at Columbia, where the whole campus had been a battle zone the spring before, African-American college and high school students held a sit-in at the admissions office; at Cornell armed African-American students draped with bandoliers exited a building after a 36-hour occupation.  My father’s days had become a series of negotiations, with the campus SDS, with the faculty senate, with the chief of the state police.  Something was going to happen sooner or later; the best he could do was try to keep it from turning as violent as it had on other campuses, to maintain some sense of process.

Smith was agitated, but nothing like the men’s and co-ed campuses. I hadn’t particularly thought about Smith being a women’s college when I chose it. My grandmother and my aunt had both gone to Smith, though both of them had left after their sophomore years to get married. I had applied early decision; the acceptance letter came two days before Thanksgiving  (“I have an announcement!”) and I coasted through my senior year of high school with a comforting sense of certainty.

When I arrived on campus the following fall with my new clothes and wing chair and desk lamp, Smith was still very much the same college my aunt had attended in the 1950s and even that my grandmother had known in the 1920s.  All the students lived in what were called houses—dorms really, but each with its own dining room and kitchen, each with a living room with a working fireplaces and a grand piano. In the evening after dinner one of the kitchen helpers would put a big wooden bowl of apples on the piano for students to eat upstairs while they studied (or in those days just as likely listened to Jimi Hendrix, or read Mademoiselle, or smoked weed in their rooms with a towel stuffed under the door).  Although it no longer predominated, the accent that my mother called “Long Island lockjaw” was still prevalent: a kind of flat, sardonic drawl that drew out vowels, and dropped consonants, so that “that” became “thaa”, god became “gaah”, and class became “claaass”.

As my father and I sat in the Northrop House dining room eating roast beef and Yorkshire pudding surrounded by my housemates and their gruffer, older, masculine reflections, he told me about his meeting at the state police headquarters in Concord.  He didn’t want a repeat of Columbia.  He had requested that if—when—the police were called in, they would come unarmed and would not use their nightsticks.  The meeting went well; the chief of police agreed to everything my father asked.  As they were leaving the chief recapped their agreement. “He said ’OK, no guns, no nightsticks, as few arrests as possible,’” my father told me.  “It was a huge relief.  I was almost out the door when he added ’So just the tear gas, right?’  ‘No, no!’ I said.  “No! No teargas!’”

We both laughed.  “You know,” he said, folding his napkin into a neat triangle and into a triangle again “it’s a strange feeling getting dressed every morning knowing that by the end of the day you might be on the national nightly news.  I read somewhere that you should never wear a white shirt on television.  I put on a blue shirt every day now.”

The last activity on the weekend schedule was a Sunday afternoon screening of Casablanca. ”You’ve never seen it?”  my father said. “How did that happen?”  We walked across campus and sat in a darkened lecture hall with dozens of other fathers and daughters.  Halfway through the movie I heard an enormous sob to my left; my father—my father who never cried, who was never angry, who was never sick—was weeping uncontrollably.  Up on the screen Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman were in gauzy flashback, riding in an open convertible and laughing. “Paris?”  Humphrey Bogart said bitterly.  “I remember Paris.  They wore gray and you wore blue.”

“That’s what I resent the most about all of this,” my father whispered in a voice clotted with tears.  “Your mother and I never have time to do that anymore.”

His face was still red and wet when we came out blinking into the spring sunshine.  Two boys who I recognized as Dartmouth students looked at my father and began to laugh, but my father stumbled past them with his eyes nearly swollen shut with tears.  Because my mother wasn’t there to say it, I said it for her:

“Little piss-ants.  Come on Dad, let’s go.”

Three weeks later when I came downstairs for breakfast some of my housemates were sitting in the living room reading the newspaper.  “Oh my gaah,” one of them said, rattling the newspaper in her excitement.  “Look!  Liz’s father’s in the New York Times!”  I took the paper and there was a description of my father being shoved and carried out of his office in the middle of the night.  There was no photo, but I knew his shirt was blue.

Written by lizseymour

February 26, 2008 at 4:44 pm

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