Monday, May 30, 2016

Sons Of Xavier Keep Dancing - An Interlude In My Account Of The Decline Of The Regiment

I left off this account of the decline of the military at Xavier High School in the Fall of 1968, as we started our Junior Year.  Those of us who got good grades and stayed out of trouble  were already cadet corporals and thanks to a wave of rank inflation that finally reached our class would add three stripes and finish the year as Sergeant First Class.

The War Goes On And On And On

The war and opposition to it was no longer a crisis. It was a condition.  Richard Nixon was elected President promising a secret plan to end the war.  The secret remained secret throughout his first term, although American involvement had peaked and began to decline.  1968 was as bad as it got, but 1969 was not much better.

As I indicated in the last piece a Catholic peace movement had started in force and everybody was now divided into hawks and doves.  But as happens with these things, the controversy about the war became just one of those things.  Life went on.

A Wonderful Life

And frankly, that year it was as they say a wonderful life.  In both high school and college, junior year was the best. I doubt that it is universal, but there is really something magical about junior year.  There is still some promise of a future but you have probably to some extent found what your place is in the mini world of your school.

At the second night of my 45th reunion where all the five-year classes were gathered having dinner in the new gym, I had this thought as I walked by the various tables. The tables not far from us plus sixty guys, the classes from say 20 to 35 years out were going through the stage of their professional life that corresponds with junior year in either high school or college.  You have been there and done that, but there are still quite a few years of doing to still do.  You probably have some sense of what the limits of your achievements will be, but there is still potential.  There is much behind you but there is still quite a bit ahead.

I'm planning on focusing on non-military matters in this post, but my "military" job as a junior was so extraordinary that I can't let it pass.

The Arms Room

 While the non-classroom piece of militaria for most Xavier students was weekly drill with their battalion. My regular weekly duty was one day in which I was NCOIC (non-commissioned officer in charge) of the Arms Room.

Despite the anti-war sentiments that had made their way into my mind the typical American boy who played "war" with his friends and watched Combat religiously had not gone away.

And for that boy, the Arms Room was a garden of delight.  It is only a slight exaggeration to say that it would outfit the heavy weapons platoon of a WWII rifle company.  Lots of M-1s, some M-1 carbines and BARs, a .50 caliber machine gun, a mortar and some 1911 Colt .45s among other wonders.

I and the freshman under my command, a kid named Tracy, issued M-1s to the X-Squad so they could practice on the roof and did an inventory of everything including stuff that rarely, if ever, left the Arms Room.

In what  I considered a somewhat perverse development, our commander also started having us drill on the roof even though we did not march in parades and reviews.  I think the rationale was that the Juniors needed the practice for the upcoming OCS, that was Major Smullen's innovation.

The amusing thing about drilling on the roof rather than in the armory is that we would sometimes attract the attention of young women in the apartments across Sixteenth Street.  There are stories about some of those young women being careless about the drapes while wandering about their apartments unclothed.  But I never witnessed that.  I'm sure I would remember if I had.

So yeah, we were interested in girls.  Well almost all of us, but we covered that in a previous post.  And that was one of the reasons that Junior year was magical for me.


Although I sometimes had thoughts of somehow connecting with girls in the Fairview Cliffside area, I ended up doing most of my dating through the Xavier "mixers".  Every few weeks or so a too loud garage band playing on the stage of the new gym on Friday while we circled around gathering up courage to ask girls to dance.  We were allowed to wear jacket and tie rather than uniform on those Fridays.

Once in a while I would hit it off which might lead to a date or two.  Sometime in Freshman year, I ended up with a full fledged girl friend.  Meeting her parents and getting involved with her friend group.  She lived in Stuyvesant Town, which was called the Irish Ghetto.  Her father worked for Metropolitan Life, which I think owned Stuy town and had  graduated from Xavier.  It continued through Sophomore year and somehow just tailed off.

Then in junior year, something extraordinary happened.  We were encouraged to go to the football games.  School spirit you know.  As I think about it, not too many of my friends bought into that.  My memories of going to the games except the big one against Fordham where we were all required to go are largely solitary experiences.

Possibly the last non-Fordham game that I went to, because my every other Saturday job would convert to every Saturday, was against St. Cecilia's.  A bit of football trivia that every Xavier graduate will have to work into a lengthy treatment is the seven blocks of granite.  It was a famous line of the Fordham University football team in the 1930s.  One of the blocks was Vince Lombardi, who started his career coaching St. Cecilia's.  Another block was Leo Paquin who coached Xavier and never moved on.

Regardless, being in Englewood the game did not have a big turnout on the Xavier side, but that was not the significance of the game to me.

A girl had come to the game with her brother, who was a year behind me at Xavier. I'm going to call her Kay, which is not her real name.  We started talking and somehow or other we hit it off.  I asked her out.  Probably to a Xavier mixer for the first date, which did not make a huge amount of sense, since she lived a reasonable walking distance from where I did.

Still it was great riding home with somebody on the Orange and Black bus.  Even though there was a Xavier connection to our meeting, it was a major boost to my self-esteem that I had actually met and asked a girl out in a situation not designed for that.

Kay was really wonderful and we lasted a few months.  I really still kick myself that I let the relationship wither.  I was never able to articulate why I did that. I remember discussing it with my friends who went to Cliffside High with her.  I made this lame comment about Kay's friend group that I met and Alan Jacobs, who was absolutely the coolest kid in Bergen County, told me that I was being ridiculous.  He knew some of them and thought that they were cool.  So they must have been.

Maybe after a couple of years of therapy, I might be able to write more on that relationship, but there is not much more Xavier connection to it, so I will move on.

It was back to the mixers and that leads to a romantic epic that carries over into senior year.

On Being Tall

The circumstances of my upbringing made girls somewhat mysterious to me.  Systems were designed to have boys and girls live in alternate universes that only occasionally interacted.  One thing I did learn though was that there was this rule that a girl's date should be taller than she is or at the very least not shorter.  It was not an absolute, but it was pretty strong.

That was probably a factor in my success with Kay, who seriously outclassed me. She was about as tall as I was - over six feet.  She was also very smart, probably Regis smart, which from what I can gather might not have been a normal path to popularity at Cliffside High.

As I reflect on this.  I'm thinking that the gift of my height that I failed to appreciate was punished in the subsequent year.  But before I get into the story, I'll tell you a bit about my friend Victor.

Mutt And Jeff

At Xavier, my closest friend group was Tom Burns and Mike Oleske, with whom I ate lunch everyday and had out of school adventures with.  They usually involved drinking another painful topic I am passing over in this treatment.  Tom had pulled John Sabini into our orbit.  The common bond was Jean Shepherd.  I could try to explain the appeal of Shepherd to teenagers like us, but you wouldn't understand.

I also had a close friendship with Victor Donovan, but that was not that integrated with anything else.  Victor was part of what I now call the Gang of Five that Junior Year was Greek Honors, AP Latin and AP English.  Victor also took German as did I, so our schedules were identical.

There is this odd thing when I mention Victor to other guys at reunions. Very few seem to remember him.  Like I start wondering if he was my imaginary friend.  As it happens we both went to Holy Cross and majored in English (I switched to history), lived on the same corridor as Freshmen and hung out together there.  As a matter of fact, Victor was the only one of the sixteen or so other Xavier graduates in my Holy Cross class that I spent a lot of time with, but that of course is a more advanced story.

Victor was actually of about average height but I think possibly because of his brothers he would sometimes get belligerent on behalf of the oppression of short people.  When we were visiting Holy Cross, his mother said to me my mother as we were walking ahead of them "Look, Mutt and Jeff", which kind of annoyed him.

I think Victor had a somewhat more engaging life in his neighborhood in Queens than I did in Fairview.  He had a long term off again on again girl friend in his neighborhood in Flushing, so he may not have hung around Xavier as much as I did. At any rate, Victor plays a key, though largely passive, role in this part of the story, so it was important to introduce him.

The Junior Ring Dance

I met this girl named Barbara at one of the mixers Junior year.  I don't remember which of the Catholic girls schools she went to, I don't think it was Notre Dame or Holy Rosary and those are the only two I can think of right now and I am not inclined to go on another research project.  She lived in Secaucus which to a person in Fairview without a car is one of those you can't get there from here places.  Often the only way to get from one point in New Jersey to another was to take a bus into Manhattan and another one out.

The Junior Ring dance was coming up. I asked her to it and she accepted.  As I recall it was an extremely watered down prom like thing held in the new gym.  Jerry Snee told me that helping plan the Junior Ring dance was a step in his campaign to become Colonel - go figure.

At any rate for the Junior Ring dance Victor's girl next door was in on again mode.  Unbeknownst to me and also of no apparent significance she exchanged phone numbers with my date.

Further attempts to date Barbara came to naught so I moved on.

The Military Ball

The Military Ball was the high point of Xavier's social life.  I think it was open to all classes, but it was mainly a senior thing.  It was held in some sort of fancy venue rather than the gym.Mike Oleske introduced me to his sister Mary, a junior at I don't remember which of the girls schools, which now launches a Jean Shepherd style diversion

Tom Burns and I had gotten into the habit of walking up Fifth Avenue to the Port Authority Bus Terminal.

With your solid knowledge of Manhattan geography, you realize that that is a decent hike.  The rule of thumb is that 20 city blocks makes a mile so the northbound piece of the trip 16th to 42nd is over a mile.  To shorten the walk a bit it would have made more sense to go up the Avenue of the Americas, which everybody called Sixth Avenue (I think they finally gave up on trying to change that), but Fifth Avenue was more engaging and of course it would have been shorter to cut over to Eighth Avenue on 40th Street, but we were 16.

The walk as we did it had us go three blocks on 42nd Street.  42nd Street from Times Square to Eighth Avenue was tragically Disneyfied as the twentieth century drew to a close, but in 1969 it was the type of place people from Sodom and Gomorrah would visit when they wanted to let loose a little.  Just breathing the air on that block was a near occasion of sin.  The mere titles of the movies could trigger impure thoughts.  Besides Tom and I like to walk.

During one of these nearly daily treks, as I think we were passing the Empire State Building, the upcoming military ball was under discussion.  Tom, in his deep wisdom, issued a solemn warning - "Just remember, you are the blind date".  A Jean Shepherd scholar would recognize the reference immediately.  In case  you haven't read In God We Trust - All Others Pay Cash recently, the meaning was that by introducing me to Mary for Military Ball purposes, Mike was definitely doing me a favor, Mary maybe not so much.  In the not very long run that proved true, but I suspect, particularly given what happened, she did not regret it.

A week or two before the military ball, there was a special dance at the high school.  Seniors brought their military ball dates to that dance.  A committee, composed I think of Xavier mothers, selected the queen of the military ball and her four princesses.

As I have noted before my primary reference group what I call the Unclique and the Gang of Five, which consisted of myself and seven others (Mike Oleske was also in both groups) was altogether remarkable for our military mediocrity all holding ranks within one standard deviation of the mean rank of Master Sergeant,  Thus I think it is of interest to note that two of the four military ball princesses were Mary and Victor's girl next door,

You might recognize the reason for the height rule from the yearbook picture of the Queen and her court with their consorts.  Victor is second from the right.  If his date had been standing in front of him he would have been entirely invisible. You have to take my word that I am second from the left.

Of course, Tom was right about the blind date thing, I was quite smitten with Mary, but she not so much with me. but Victor's girl next door would play a role in my next "dating adventure"

Getting Asked To A Prom

Prom was a really big deal for some girls.  I think it was mainly about the dress - kind of like having a Sam Browne was the thing about being an officer.  The girls at the single-sex Catholic high schools have to get their dates from somewhere and there is that height rule.  All that works to explain the phone call that I got probably in March 1970 from Barbara.  The purpose was to ask me to be her prom date.

Sometime afterward, Victor told me the story behind the story.  He and his girl next door were in off again mode not speaking to one another.  She came storming into his house to ask him a question.  She needed my phone number.

I have to go into imaginary mode.  Sometime, probably early in Sophomore year, if not eighth grade, Barbara had started working on her prom plan.  The main thing, clearly, is the dress, but the date is also an important element.  What all the elements of her ideal prom date might be, I have difficulty conceiving.  I'm thinking that quite likely I had few of them.  However, I did have the sine qua non. I was taller than she was.  So my dossier was added to her file of potential prom dates.  Included in the dossier was contact method - the phone number of Victor's girl friend, who despite her failure to follow the taller than rule understood it and could be relied on.  There was probably some sort of backup contact plan - perhaps a surveillance team cruising the streets of Fairview looking for awkward adolescents in peculiar uniforms.

As the time approached and she began to get desperate, my file was finally opened and with some chagrin, it was acknowledged that I might do.  And of course the phone number of the girl in Queens, who knew, but as it turned out was not speaking to, the boy who knew me was there.  Sisterhood apparently trumped pride so Barbara now had my phone number and called.

The Economic Impact

Usually when I relate the prom story, my main emphasis is on the enormous financial hit that I took. I could probably get into a fairly elaborate bit of amateur sociology about social class and economics and, who knows, white privilege.  The effect of the way Catholic high schools, particularly Jesuit schools, ran was to suppress social economic differences among the students in the school, but of course you probably didn't go to a Jesuit high school unless your family was at least middle class in attitude.

And middle class in attitude would probably be the best explanation of the life my mother and I were living in 1970 regardless of the fact that we were statistically living in poverty.  Probably the biggest signs of our lack of affluence were that we did not have a car, were heating with coal and the house she had inherited from her mother was falling down around us.  Both my brother and I did not get driver licenses until we were 24.

 On the other hand, there was no question that I was going to college.  My mother's family, the Lyons, had been more or less one of the founding families of Fairview.  Fairview has historically been peopled by the most recent batch of the wretched refuse yearning to be free.  Suppression of immigration after the twenties allowed a couple of generations to actually stay in place.  In that type of environment having an ancestor who had been in the Civil War was the equivalent of being a Mayflower descendant in the rest of the country.  In retrospect I think a number of breaks I got were related to respect for my mother's family.

At any rate, I had developed some odd habits of frugality from our circumstances.  For example those long walks with Tom Burns.  Tom indicated that he was motivated purely by the exercise and the pleasure of walking.  I on the other hand had a fiscal incentive. My mother gave me two dollars every day.  That covered round trip on the Orange and Black bus to the Port Authority, two subway tokens and a drink with the lunch that I brought with as much as a quarter left over.  I would buy the two tokens every morning but on many days only use one.  After about a month I would have an accumulation of subway tokens that allowed me to stop buying them for a while giving me the munificent sum of forty cents in extra spending money.  Talk about feeling prosperous.  Forty cents went a long way in 1969.

Barbara indicated that her parents were paying for the limousine that was being shared with two or three other couples, but I had to rent a tux.  As I recall that was forty bucks, an enormous sum.  That was a weeks take home pay from my summer job packing dresses as Lou Mallas Inc or nearly a month's worth of Saturdays on Tony Genaro's bread truck.

And then after the prom we were going to none other than the Copa Cabana.

That was also on me and I think may well have been another forty bucks after a scam pulled by the maitre d'.  It still bugs me.  As we were riding over in the limo the topic of a scholarship that the state of New Jersey had for everybody who did well on a certain exam or something.  I didn't get that scholarship because I had another scholarship, everybody else because, you know, they weren't as smart as me.  The maitre d' scam proved this.

The guy was very suave, kind of looked like Peter Graves in the original Mission Impossible

He just asked us if we were all over 18.  When the check came we saw we had not hit the minimum so we ordered another round.  Silly us.  Since we ordered the round after the check came it got tacked on.  But then the bastard really nailed us.  He comes back and says "I always try to get 15% for my people"  Each of the guys then threw in another couple of bucks.

On the way back I did the math.  We had been about twenty cents short.  If I had been  thinking quicker I would have told everybody to hold off and thrown in a fucking subway token.  Nobody else seemed that excited about it.  They also did the picture scam.  I forget what that cost, but maybe it was worth it.

It is an excellent illustration of the height rule in action,

The Down Side Of The Single Sex Schools

I have often remarked that I think single sex high schools are a very good idea.  I don't think I have ever met a woman who did not go to one who agreed with that sentiment nor a woman who went to won who disagreed with it. A story somebody told me that best illustrates the principle was from someone I knew in church.  She was pretty attractive and had a very positive personality so it was not surprising that she had been a cheerleader.  She also took calculus.  Only that didn't go too well.  She was the only girl in the class and got a distinct sense that she shouldn't do well and ended up dropping it.  Anyway that is one of the downsides of coed schools.

The downside of the single sex schools is that there is not as much opportunity to deveop ordinary friendships between boys and girls. I don't think that offsets the upside, but what do I know?

Maybe The Next One Is The Final

I am rather dissatisfied with this particular piece, but I am launching it anyway.  I would love to get an account of the Prom night that cost me eighty dollars from the view point of Barbara and her friends.

Peter J Reilly CPA is still over six feet tall, but not nearly as good at chess as he was when he was 18,  He is less mystified by women than he was then, but that is not saying a lot.

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