Wednesday, September 11, 2013

In the Blink of an Eye -- College Boy to Cold War GI

Many years ago I had a younger brother – now long gone. Jeff Sharlet was his name – he died during the Vietnam War. Seven years between brothers was a big gap in the ‘40s and ‘50s. When I went off to college, Jeff was a 10-year old. As often between younger and older siblings, he tended to look up to me as big brother.

But communication being what it was in those days – expensive long distance phone calls, ‘Your three minutes are up’; or slow snail mail – it wasn’t easy for a college boy and a 7th grader to keep in touch. Complicating the problem, I had a falling-out with my father and chose not to go home very often. Jeff would send me occasional letters during the ‘50s, describing his schoolwork and athletic progress. 

He usually wrote at greater length about his ‘social life’.  At one point he and another boy had a crush on a popular girl, but feeling he was falling behind in her affections, Jeff decided to outflank his competition: “She lives right near us so I plan to go over to her house to get to know her better.” I never did hear how that turned out.

Meanwhile back at college, I and everyone I knew was reading F Scott Fitzgerald, whose writings about the Jazz Age of the ‘20s were enjoying a posthumous revival, including his  re-issued This Side of Paradise (1920) set at Princeton and, of course, The Great Gatsby (1925). We were also avidly reading J D Salinger’s ‘Franny and Zooey’ stories in the New Yorker.

College life in the elite schools of the East back then was far removed from everyday concerns. Sure, there were wars, but early in the decade President Eisenhower had brought the Korean War to a stalemated end and had generally kept us out of France’s losing struggle to hold on to its Indochina colony.

The more nebulous ‘Cold War’ between us and ‘them’ – them being the Soviets – was hardly a compelling concern at New England’s old, all-male colleges. Aside from classes – most students were headed to law or medical school – the chief weekend preoccupation was trying to get up to Northampton in central Massachusetts or down to New London on the Connecticut coast – that’s where the girls were. Longer term planning in that halcyon environment involved the big parties, fraternity house parties when everyone scrambled to bring in dates from the ‘Seven Sisters’, the all-women’s colleges scattered across the Northeast.

Wesleyan University campus, Middletown CT, mid-‘50s

Somehow I got the notion I would become a novelist. I wasn’t the only one – not a few young men in those years harbored literary ambitions. However, I seemed more in a rush than my peers. Philip Roth had begun publishing his short stories and early novels, and he wasn’t that much older. To further my ambition, I took the sole ‘Creative Writing’ course on offer at the college. It was taught by a young literary critic, an Egyptian, educated in Cairo and America, with an undefinable accent – perhaps British colonial. Anyway, he was very good. We were expected to turn in a story a week, and sometimes he would read a good one aloud – once one of mine.

While busy trying to craft my weekly story, the idea came to me to write a full-scale novel – credit the unbridled romance of youthful dreams. I would tell the story of a beautiful Scandinavian girl I had known at another school, a girl older than I and certainly much worldlier. I felt we were close – she had long, wheat-colored hair that caught my eye – but in actuality she artfully eluded my reach.

In my imagination, the girl became akin to ‘Rima’ of W H Hudson’s Green Mansions (1904), a lyrical novel set in the Amazon. A South American man has to flee the capital and encounters the enchanting but mysterious Rima of the rainforest. Was she real or a fantasy, now I can’t remember, but initially when he’d reach out, she would tantalizingly slip away in the mist.

To work on ‘my novel’, I had to cut classes. Several friends also swept up in the web of wannabe writers cheered me on. The manuscript progressed, first a handful of pages, then dozens. More classes were sacrificed to my muse, but not the Creative Writing class. As I became increasingly intoxicated with my dream, I thought to myself that I really needed more uninterrupted time for the ‘book’.

So I decided to drop out of school. Tried the plan on my parents by phone; they didn’t think much of the idea. Spoke to the dean who politely questioned the wisdom of such a move. But headstrong and caught up in the romance of the thing, I pushed on with my plan to withdraw. When I announced my intention to my writing instructor, I expected him to understand, to say something like of course you must follow your dream.

On the contrary, he was quite taken aback and suggested we have coffee at the college bookstore down the street. He said I had some talent, but should remain at the college and nurture it. I was tactfully adamant. Finally, in mild exasperation, the professor sputtered very uncharacteristically – he had a precise way of speaking – “Stay in school, finish this, this ‘chickenshit’,” by which he meant the ‘credential’, the BA degree, “then try your hand at writing.”

Looking back as an academic myself, I’m guessing he probably felt some responsibility that a student in his writing class had gotten so carried away that he was taking the radical step of leaving the college – in mid-term no less. Dropping out of school in the mid-‘50s was not very commonplace – it was generally assumed everyone would move forward in step with their entering class, from Freshman Orientation to Commencement four years later. Nonetheless, I packed up, received a small going-away party from my friends, and hit the road.
It was early November, and when I got home – where else would a penniless novelist go – my father was surprisingly understanding. He said I could use the finished basement as my workspace. Now free of all responsibilities and assured of three squares a day, I’d go down there every morning to write, but somehow things didn’t go as smoothly as I hoped.

 It was quiet – brother Jeff was off at country day school from early morning to late afternoon after sports practice. I had a table, a comfortable chair and a goose-neck, yet the typewriter was mostly silent. Oh, I managed to knock out another 15-20 pages, but they lacked verve and spontaneity without the zing of cutting classes back at school.

Weeks passed – I paused for Thanksgiving of course – and it was soon more than a month of undisturbed time with little to show for it. Did I have ‘writer’s block’? How could I when I wasn’t even a writer yet except in my romantic self-image. It was time to take stock. What did I have of the great American novel in waiting – maybe 70 largely descriptive pages absent any dialogue.

Neither I as a character nor my Rima had uttered a direct word on the page. Instead, as author, I spoke for both of us in the third person. I thought to myself in the quiet of the house – who could imagine a Fitzgerald novel or a Salinger story without dialogue, and vivid, lively dialogue at that.

I had to face the music. Upstairs at dinner, I told my father – my mother was there too – that it wasn’t working, that I’d have to give up writing the novel. He took the news well I thought, no ‘I told you so’s’. Instead, he calmly outlined my three options at that point in my young years – after all he was a pragmatic businessman.

I could go to work for him in the business, or back to college, or fulfill my military obligation – America had a draft back then, and if you weren’t in school or otherwise deferred, the draft board inevitably expected a two-year stint in the Army. After all, we were in a Cold War with the mighty USSR.

It was my choice, my father said. I sure as hell wasn’t inclined to go into business — in fact I’d been running away from the prospect since graduating from prep school, the same one Jeff was then attending. Back to college – oh god, not after I’d just left propelled by my friends’ high hopes that I’d make it, write the novel. That left just the military.

Shopping around the recruiting offices between Christmas and the New Year, I came up with a couple of options for avoiding the draft and the strong possibility of the infantry. One was a Navy cadet program designed to turn out pilots, the other a special, little-known outfit nominally under the Army, but actually autonomous. It was the military arm of the National Security Agency (NSA), the nation’s secretive communications intelligence agency which relied heavily on linguists for translation work and interpreting. The catch was that both required more than the draft’s two-year max – the Navy wanted a 5-year commitment, the intelligence group three. That was an easy decision.

I gave the Army Security Agency (ASA) three years of my life, and they in turn gave me a year’s training in a Cold War language at a military school on a scenic stretch of the California coast. Then two years’ of intellectually stimulating and very pleasant duty followed in an attractive German city. In effect, I had a great Cold War, frequently writing home extolling the toney German social circle I’d lucked into, weekends in the famous spa town Baden-Baden, skiing in the Alps, trips to Paris, and other adventures.

The author (see arrow) at the race track, Baden-Baden, summer ‘57

Jeff, restless in college and impressed with all this, decided to follow in my footsteps – dropping out and enlisting in ASA with the promise of a European language. But instead of the good life in Europe, Jeff got a bad break, ending up in the war in Vietnam, a Vietnamese linguist. But that’s a story for another time.

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