Not long ago, my grandson asked me to show him a picture of the ship I served on as a very junior naval reserve officer from August, 1953 to February, 1955. I pulled my I phone out of my pocket and typed in USS Vermilion, AKA 107, expecting to see a picture like the one above:
Vermilion was part of the amphibious fleet. She was a freighter carrying 24 landing craft topside and cargo such as jeeps and trucks below decks, which, anchored off the target beach, we unloaded into the landing crafts. We deck officers would then scramble down the embarkation nets, jump into one of the landing craft and lead the way into the beach. This was practice war, not war for real. The Korean war had ended just before I entered the navy.
As the phone warmed up, I wondered if Vermillion had been de-commissioned, maybe even scrapped.
Instead, a video started playing of the ship with its superstructure stripped off, huge square holes cut into its sides, about to be sunk, re-purposed as an artificial reef, to support aquatic life off the coast of South Carolina. I know very well this is an appropriate use for all those tons of metal, but I was struck with an unexpected surge of grief and a feeling that this was terribly wrong. Without her superstructure, she was humiliated, like the traitorous women shorn of their hair and made to walk naked in the streets at the liberation of Vichy France. What kind of reward was this for her faithful service?
Sailors, whether naval or civilian, live on ships. They don’t go to work. They work from home. Now what was once my home, and that of 150 others, was headed for the bottom of an ocean. I thought of the houses on the banks of rivers, drowned when the rivers were dammed to make reservoirs. Are they still houses? If not, what are they now, under all that water?
I began to understand that what grieved me most of all was that Vermillion’s death was death by sinking. Every naval officer, standing watches on the bridge, focuses on seeing to it that sinking doesn’t happen. This is especially true when steaming in formation, which is most of the time. Vermillion was over 400 feet long, with only one propeller and was therefore not very maneuverable. Reversing the propeller at “Emergency Full,” caused the ship to shudder and shake, but it would be almost a mile before her forward motion stopped. If I remember correctly, her turning circle was 2000 yards, but in formation, we steamed 1000 yards apart. A recipe for collisions.
Serving in the Combat Information Center, otherwise known as C.I.C – and also, sometimes, as “Christ, I’m confused!” – I made a mistake that almost caused a collision one night on the 4am to 8am watch. We had just received two orders to be carried out at once: a change of course for the whole formation of many ships and a change of position within that formation. I recommended turning left at standard speed, forgetting that another ship was positioned behind us and to our left – on the port quarter in Navy speak. The officer of the deck took my advice and ordered a left turn, and then I realized my mistake and rushed to the bridge. By then, the officer of the deck had also realized the mistake and had ordered back emergency full and hard right rudder. Vermillion continued turning left and going forward for what seemed like hours while everything shuddered and shook. Indeed, compared to an automobile accident, it did take forever. Our standard speed was 12 knots. The two ships got so close to each other the water between frothed up in spray. Standing on the port wing of the bridge, I could have shaken hands with the skipper of the other ship standing on the starboard wing of his ship. The collision siren on both ships screamed as crewmen leaped out of their bunks. Then the two ships stopped sliding toward each other, running parallel at first, then moving clearly away.
And then Vermillion’s captain took me aside and yelled at me for 45 minutes. I had nothing to say.
Watching the video, my grandson and I saw huge billowing flames and smoke burst out of the Vermillion. Explosives had been planted in her to speed her death. She started to slide under the surface, stern first, her bow pointing toward the sky and slowly disappeared, leaving fountains of water and spray on the surface as air escaped upward out of her. And then she was gone.
And then another video came on. In praise of the virtues of vacationing in South Carolina where the scuba diving is quite special. Fishes, striped bass among them, calmly swimming along the deck , while a singer sings about jumping right in and then no other than John Denver sings about Carolina on his mind. I was especially entranced by a close up of the huge winch for the anchor chain, while he, who is no longer with us, sang on.
I was the officer in charge of the anchor detail. In the fall of 1954, we were sent up the Chesapeake Bay to shelter from a hurricane. The wind was so fierce that, in spite of using both anchors and steaming ahead one third speed, we dragged anchor for several miles. When the storm subsided, we brought both anchors up. The starboard anchor, which is the one that is always dropped, had a thick coil of wire wrapped around it. I sent for a member of the repair division to cut through that wire with a blow torch. Just as he started, I warned him to be careful not to burn a hole in the shackle that holds the chain to the anchor. “What did you say?” he asked turning his head to me, away from his job and burning a hole in the shackle. For the next six months, every time the captain ordered me to drop the starboard anchor, I dropped the port anchor. He never noticed. If he had, he would have yelled at me again – but not for 45 minutes.
My grandson was fascinated by the videos and John Denver’s singing. He might take up scuba diving someday. But, after I put this link in here, so you can watch the videos for yourself, I will never look at it again. the sinking: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nUfmb8R_iqs
HOW MISS EDITH OLIVER FOUNDED MISS OLIVER’S SCHOOL FOR GIRLS
LIFE IS WHAT HAPPENS WHEN WE ARE PLANNING SOMETHING ELSE
In April, 1925, Miss Edith Oliver, of Hartford, CT, twenty-two years old, the daughter of a wealthy man, lost her mother to pneumonia. A year later, almost to the day, Edith received the news that she was soon to die of pancreatic cancer. She was furious. She’d had plans. That they were vague did not assuage her rage. She’d assumed she would have the time to develop them.
Her father was thrown even deeper into grief, but he soon discovered his daughter’s sense of affront was strangely healing, a contagious energizer, reminding him that he’d not grown rich by being easily defeated. He asked Edith, “Exactly what is it that you wanted to do?”
She had to decide fast now that time was running out. She said the first thing that came to mind: “To start a school for young women.”
“A school? Will they live there?”
That sounded like a good idea, so she said, “Yes.”
“For sanctuary?” he wondered. “Or empowerment?”
“Empowerment? Yes, empowerment. Of course.”
“A school,” he murmured. “Hmm.”
“Yes, Father. A school.”
“Well, we better get a move on then. I’ll supply the money. You supply the inspiration.”
That very afternoon they started to work. In his brand new 1927 Oldsmobile- which she drove – they went south out of Hartford, scouting for a place to locate the school. They agreed it had to be expansive, a rich combination of meadow and forest, preferably bounded by the Connecticut River, and within striking distance of New York City for exposing the girls to theater, museums and concert halls.
They drove through Fieldington, a little village destined to become a shopping center for affluent people, that was fading at the time, as were the surrounding farms, and came upon two farms next to each other, both unusually large for that area and both bounded by the Connecticut River – and both for sale. It seemed that the God they had stopped believing in was trying to make amends for His cruelty. Edith’s father made the offers that very afternoon; the deal with both farmers was consummated within a week.
In the course of Edith’s father’s success, he’d made many connections and he called upon them now, bringing Edith with him to raise enough additional money to build the campus. It was her idea, not his, that they meet with these potential donors in their homes, rather than their offices, and if the man’s wife, after greeting them and causing tea to be served, started to leave the room, Edith would insist she stay. “This message is for you too,” she would say. “You need to stay and hear it.”
Edith discovered her gift, which she was sure belonged more to females than to males, for reading people’s expressions and their body language. She knew instinctively to temper her assertion to the readiness of the male person she was addressing to accept the scientific fact that women, properly educated, could be even more powerful than men. And, just as instinctively she knew to make the ask for a specific amount of money and then stop talking. She would spend the awkward silence gazing intently at the husband’s eyes and then at the wife’s while the pressure to fill the silence became unendurable. At last, more often than not, the husband said, “That was a little more than I had in mind.” Edith would aim her gaze at the wife, waiting for the reprimand: “We, my Dear. A little more than we had in mind.” When that happened there was usually a flushing of faces and another silence before Edith’s father suggested a sum that was only a little less than the one Edith had suggested, and then looked lovingly at his daughter, who cared so much for other people’s daughters she would spend her last days doing this. In six months, Edith and her father had collected enough in cash and pledges to persuade his bank to loan the rest, payable over thirty years. Maybe they could get a board of trustees formed and maybe even some of the buildings built while Edith was still alive.
A year later, Miss Oliver’s School for Girls was officially in existence, though still without students and their teachers. There was a 20-member board of trustees, 19 of whom were women, and a campus consisting of a dormitory, a classroom building, a small administrative building, each clothed in glistening white clapboard. It was during the digging of the foundation of the administrative building that human bones, pottery, and weapons were discovered, conclusive evidence that Miss Oliver’s School for Girls occupied ground on which a Pequot Indian village had once existed. Native Americans had lived right here! They’d sat under the shade of the ancient copper beech tree, a motherly presence that now shaded the administration building. Already the school had a history!
The next job was to find the right person to be the headmistress. She would hire the faculty and recruit the students. The board appointed a chair of the search committee. Edith was one of the members, but it was only an honorary position, as everyone assumed her cancer prevented her actually doing the work.
But Edith had already lived longer than her doctor had predicted. He was mystified, and not a little embarrassed. Edith’s father began to wonder: was the diagnosis wrong? He took her to a famous doctor in Boston, a Harvard man, of course. Elizabeth lay down on his examination table. The doctor prodded her tummy here and there with long thick fingers. He looked up at Edith’s father and wondered aloud why he had subjected her to the stupidity of a doctor from hick town like Hartford. “Your daughter has a condition which produces, via an excess of gas, consistent discomfort,” he said. He wrote a prescription, admonished her to remove beans from her diet, and stalked out of the examination room, shaking his head, leaving Edith and her father alone to process the news.
The next day, June 10, 1928, the board of trustees declared the search completed. Miss Edith Oliver, 24 years old, with a long life ahead of her, was appointed The Founding Headmistress of Miss Oliver’s School for Girls. There was much celebration and joy – though some of trustees did have a worry: would she be so busy she’d never find the right man to get married to and have children?
They needed not worry. Edith did get married. That very day. To the school. For the next 35 years, she had no time for anything other than the building up of Miss Oliver’s School for Girls. Over that first summer, she recruited fifteen girls to constitute the first freshwomen class and four teachers, each passionate about her subject and the empowerment of young women. Each had a vivid, even eccentric, personality. And each, of course, was female.
Edith established two rules right away. The first: There will be no locks on the girls’ bedrooms in the dorm, nor on the door to the dorm parent’s apartment. “This is a community,” she declared. “We trust each other.” The second – because Miss O’s is a sanctuary too – No male, except immediate family members will ever step foot into a dormitory. The consequence for taking advantage of the unlocked doors to steal another’s possessions, and for violating the rule against admitting males into the dorm was expulsion. Two rules were enough. Most rules really aren’t for governing children. They’re for keeping adults calm.
One day, thirty-five years later, Edith looked out through the big French doors of her office, past the ancient copper beech, and said to herself enough. She’d planted the roots – and they were deep – of a school founded by a woman, run by women, with a curriculum designed by women for the way women learn. Beloved of the alumnae who would never let it die, the school she had birthed and nurtured for thirty-five fulfilling years was a world apart, whose intense culture of academic and artistic richness was celebrated in idiosyncratic rituals sacred to its members.
The very next day, Edith, always in a hurry, informed the board she wanted to resign very soon. She gave them a week to get over the shock and then strongly suggested they choose the head of the history department, a woman named Marjorie Boyd, to be the next headmistress. All of Edith’s suggestions to the board were always strong, and the board was always obedient. After all, she was the founding head. Marjorie Boyd was appointed Headmistress, starting July 1, 1963.
In June, the board of trustees organized a convocation to honor Edith. It was described in full-page articles in The Hartford Courant and The New Haven Advocate, complete with photographs, and was mentioned also in The New YorkTimes. In July, Edith departed for the Grand Tour she had postponed to found Miss Oliver’s School for Girls. In Rome, she met a sculptor. They fell in love. She was too old by that time to have children – which, some say, is why they never married. Some also say she was the model for his rather portly nude statues. They lived happily together in Rome and New York City until she died in 1987 – of pancreatic cancer.
HOW MISS EDITH OLIVER FOUNDED MISS OLIVER’S SCHOOL FOR GIRLSstephendaven2022-05-16T22:30:57+00:00
Every Saturday in March and April of 1946, I’d get in the back seat of our new, post-war Chevrolet, my dad behind the wheel and my mother, bundled in fur, beside him in the front, and we’d drive to some rural place in Connecticut, or Massachusetts or Rhode Island in search of a boarding school whose admissions standards were elastic enough to accept me and where, not incidentally, I’d be happy.
If I had any expectations at all about boarding school, being happy wasn’t one of them. But neither my three brothers nor I resisted the idea. Spending the high school years in boarding school was what “our kind” of people did.
Those trips were long and the passing countryside dreary. If April is the cruelest month, March is the bleakest in New England. It was lonely in the back seat without my brothers. My older brother Henry was already ensconced in Andover and it would be several more years before my parents thought either of my two younger brothers were old enough to leave home.
The only exploratory visit I remember in any detail was at Deerfield, where I was interviewed by Mr. Boyden, the school’s celebrated founder, a jolly and avuncular person who reminded me of Santa Claus. It was clear I was supposed to like him. Maybe that’s why I disliked him. Maybe because he interviewed me rather than the other way around. I didn’t have the presence of mind to interrupt him with questions to help me decide if I’d would be happy there. For all I know, I would have, but I doubt it.
Pomfret School, at the time for boys only, in the north east corner of Connecticut, accepted me, provided I repeat the fourth form, British parlance for tenth grade. My mother delivered me there in September, 1946.
The first thing I noticed when we drove onto the campus was that the buildings were sheathed in red brick. They were beautiful, stately, even to my untrained eye. I didn’t know anything about architecture, but I sensed instinctively that this place was even more royal than those other schools, clothed in their Puritan white clapboard. This was a place for the upper portion of the upper class. Later, I learned that the architectural style was Georgian, named after 18th century British kings. I didn’t feel like a prince.
My mother and I got out of the car. We had no idea which of the buildings was the dorm where I was going to live. We stood there hoping someone would come and tell us, and it dawned on me that I’d be incarcerated here until Christmas vacation, which might as well have been forever. My mother felt the same – I knew because why else but to hide her feelings would she turn away from me? I still wonder whether if I had got back in the car, in the front seat this time, she would have got behind the wheel and driven us home.
A man in a blue suit and a white shirt and red tie hurried toward us. His black hair, lightly greased – not cool for grown-ups of the Anglo-Saxon variety– was combed straight back. “Mrs. Davenport?”
“Yes,” my mother said.
“And this is Stephen?” Turning to me, smiling.
“Yes,” my mother said again. “We call him Steve.”
“Hello, Steve, I’m so glad you are going to be with us. I’m Mr. Banks, your dorm master.” I’d heard the so. Only women were allowed to substitute that word for very. But he put out his hand to shake, and I felt better already.
Then, turning back to my mother, “I’m so sorry you had to wait here. I’d been waiting at the other entrance to greet you.”
My mother was embarrassed to have not read the instructions. “Oh! Were we supposed to enter there?”
“No matter. Let me help with the luggage.”
He and I carried my footlocker into the dorm, then down a long hall. I was sure we were headed to a huge gloomy space, like in a Dickens novel, where a whole class would sleep together.
Instead we entered a big room, flooded with sunlight. There were two beds. “You get your choice,’ Mr. Banks said. “Your roommate hasn’t arrived yet.” Then turning to my mother, “I’ve arranged some refreshments for you and Steve in my apartment. You, especially will want fortification for your drive home.” He didn’t need to add, Because you’ll be alone, away from you son.
In his modest living room, he served us tea and little sandwiches with the crust cut off. “I’m so grateful,” my mother said, and a half hour later when it was time for her to leave, “So very glad you are Steve’s dorm parent!”
Now years later, whenever I think of Muddy Banks, whose real first name was unknown to us, I feel a rush of affection. He was incapable of anger, even when we pinned a wet sheet to the door of his apartment in the middle of the night and then made a lot of noise so that he rushed out to find out what was happening and collided with the wet sheet. Splaat! Later in the year, he fell for this again. Or did he just pretend to?
He was the French teacher. By senior year, my classmates and I were reading Victor Hugo and Guy De Maupassant in the original, and writing essays in French. I even wrote some very terrible poetry.
And on a bitter winter evening, supervising the study hall whose brown walls imprisoned the low performing students, while the winter wind rattled the windows, he caught me reading John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row instead of doing my homework. I was ready to hand it to him to save him from the offense of taking it from me, but he didn’t put his hand out“I love that book,” he whispered, and continued his stroll down the aisle between the desks, and I realized he too would have loved to be under the Monterey sun, next to the blue ocean, comporting himself with carefree people who conducted their lives according to no one’s rules but their own.
Muddy Banks’ opposite was Mr. Joseph Barrelle, (pronounced bar/ell) the Latin teacher, whose specialty was finding reasons to flunk us. Permanently on display on the blackboard in the front of the room in large letters was the list of 13 “Flunking Matters” that would automatically earn us a grade of 45 on our day’s oral translation. You just had to begin making the mistake, just say the first word, and he would turn in his swivel chair behind his desk and rap on the blackboard with a long pointer at the specific flunking matter and tell you to shut up, and call on the next student. Everybody but the two or three boys who had a special talent for Latin lived in fear. We sat cramped in ugly brown combinations of chair and desk, each bolted to the floor, the classroom itself as rigid as Mr. Barrelle’s personality and teaching style, waiting to be called on to render into English the assigned 15 lines of Caesar or Nepos – or some other unbearably boring person who had been dead since the beginning of time. Why he thought that normal humans would be pleased to know that all Gaul was divided into three parts or give a shit where Caesar’s fucking impedimentia was stored I’ll never know.
Maybe because when I asked him that very question in those very words, he refused to explain?
Mr. Joseph Barrelle had a special hatred for me . Probably because when I entered his classroom the very first time and saw his name written on the blackboard, I said, “Good morning, Mr. Barrel.” I guess he didn’t like being addressed as something to store vegetables in. How was I supposed to know how to pronounce his name? He didn’t answer that question either.
Mr. Barelle had a way talking that sounded if his vocal cords were in his nose, and had a strange habit of lingering on a part of a word. One day, after I’d translated a passage ineptly though avoiding flunking matters, he asked me “Davenpooorrrtt, can you swim?”
“Yeah, I can swim.”
“Gooood, because then maybe when you grow up you can get a job as a lifeguaaaard.”
“I’d rather be a lifeguard than a Latin teacher,” I said. I expected a reaction, anger, some kind of punishment, but he just rolled his eyes at the absurdity of the notion that I had any choice.
David E, the least capable of us all at accurate translation, came back from Christmas vacation of our fifth form (junior) year fortified with a trot, our word for a translation into English. Designed for the purpose of fooling the teacher, it was small enough to fit into the bigger book whose passages we were translating into English. What David didn’t know was that his trot contained passages, unfit to be read by students that had been removed from the schoolboy version. Why David didn’t notice this, I can only guess.
Poor David. Did Mr. Barrelle know? Did he read David’s mind? Did he have the original, unexpurgated Latin text by memory? Why else assign 15 lines exactly preceding a section devoted to a detailed description of sexual intercourse between a politician and somebody else’s wife? David read those 15 innocent preceding lines with unusual aplomb. “Thank you, David,” Mr. Barrelle said. “You must have eaten something for breakfast that woke up your brain. Would you honor us by reading the next section?”
“Sure,” David said, smiling victoriously. Then he resumed. He got to the place where penetration was about to occur, before he realized what he was reading, and stopped.
Mr. Barrelle let the ensuing silence get louder and louder. Then in that weird nasal drawl of his, “David, how much is 45 minus 45?”
No answer from David.
“Yup. Zeeeero,” Joseph Barrelle said, making a show of entering David’s grade for the day in his grade book.
David,a most affable boy whom it was impossible not to like, started to cry, and Jack W, sitting in the desk behind me, murmured just loud enough for me to hear. “That prick’s gonna pay for this!”
And pay he did. Or maybe what I remember was the visualization of how we would make him pay that came to me when Jack, Win C. and I made our plan. It is hard to believe that we would not have been severely punished, maybe expelled. I still don’t know. Nor care. Real is real whether actually lived or imagined.
Jack, Win and I always got to the field before football practice started. Win, our quarterback would throw passes to me, and Jack, who starred on defense would cover me. So, that afternoon, when Mr. Barrelle took his daily walk, always cutting across the same part of the field every day at that time, as regular in his walking as in his dispensing of 45’s, there would be a very satisfying mistake-on-purpose collision.
We watched Mr. Barrelle approach us through the apple orchard that was near the field. “I hope he doesn’t notice we aren’t practicing where we usually do,’ Jack said.
“Don’t worry,” Win said. Nobody would think we’re evil enough to plan this.”
When Mr. Barrelle got to the specified place on the field, Win called the number of the pass play we had planned: a long, banana shaped route, my favorite pattern. Jack would stick with me all the way. Everybody would understand that you can’t see somebody who’s dumb enough to get in the way of a pass pattern when two guys are fighting for a ball flying overhead.
Poor Jack! He only managed a glancing blow. I arrived an instant before Jack, and Mr. Barrelle was already flying through the air, upside down. I wish I’d been a little more skillful in my timing so Jack and I could have equally shared the satisfaction. We kept on running for another dozen yards or so to show Mr. Barrelle, who might have been dead for all we knew, how insignificant he was when away from his Flunking Matters. Then trotted back to watch him get to his knees. “You should watch where you’re going,” Jack said in his most paternal tone.
“Yeah,” Win said. “Its dangerous out here. Did you get permission from your mamma?”
Formal practice was about to begin. We jogged to where the other players were gathered around our coach, Mr. Mansfield. I could tell by the way he was staring at us he had seen what we’d done. We were in trouble for sure.
But Wendel Doolittle (Manny) Mansfield didn’t say one word to us about it.
A few days later, David E, and I were playing against each other in a scrimmage, David on offense and I on defense. On a certain play, David’s assignment was to block me. He missed the block and I tackled the ball carrier for no gain. “Let’s run it again,” Manny Mansfield said. Now I knew what was coming, so it was easy for me to ward David off and tackle the runner again. “Let’s do it again,” Manny said. We did, with the same result. “Nice try, David,” Manny said. “Sometimes a defensive player knows what’s coming, especially late in the game, right?” David nodded. He was on the verge of tears. So was I. “Good,” Manny said, and we did it again. Once more the same result.
“One more Time, David?” Many asked.
Please say no, I thought. I remember not hearing anything, not a sound. Our world had gone mute with tension. But I still can’t figure why I felt the stakes were just as high for me as for David.
David nodded his head and we lined up again.
This time he collided into me harder than I had ever been hit up to that time. He got his shoulder pads beneath my forearm shiver and ran right though me, and the runner went right on by, and now Manny was the one who was trying to hold back tears. “Nice block, David,” he said. “I’d follow you in a war anytime.”
How did he know that that David only needed one more time?
Manny never bloviated about courage and determination, never gave an inspiring speech before a game and never once talked about winning. And most important, he never raised his voice to any of us. He taught us technique.
Years later, after Manny had retired, I paid him and his wife Priscilla a visit at their home in Florida. I told him about the recent birth to my wife and me of a daughter, Elizabeth Wendel Davenport. “We call her Wendy,” I told him. Once again, Mr. Wendel Doolittle Mansfield was suddenly trying not to burst into tears while smiling. It took me a moment to figure out why: Elizabeth was the name of a beloved aunt, Wendel my father-in law’s middle name. Of course, I didn’t tell him that. I did tell him, though, what was true then and still is: how glad I was that my daughter would go through her life bearing his name.
We had other fine teachers: Mr. Cooper Ellis, the owner of many tweed jackets adorned with leather patches at the elbows, an open model T car and a contagious love of literature, would make a big show of guzzling Milk of Magnesia to sooth his ulcer whenever we said stupid things in class. Mr. Henry, our history teacher, referred to always as the Little Red Hen because his political opinions were too far left of Hitler’s to be acceptable to royals, marched around his classroom, a long pointer on his shoulder like a rifle. It had a bicycle bell on it, which he would ring, then prod a student in his chest, asking “and what do you think Mr. Steve?” No classes I took in college or graduate school were as exciting as the Little Red Hen’s and Coop’s
Late in my fifth form (junior) year we got the glorious news that Mr. Barrelle would resign in June – “to pursue other opportunities.” We were surprised. He seemed to us to be the most powerful person on the faculty. I was on the staff of the school newspaper in charge of writing headlines, our method for which was to write several versions on the blackboard so everybody on the staff could see them and suggest improvements. But when I got to the blackboard to write the headline for the article about Mr. Barrelle’s resignation, I was surprised to discover my mind was blank. After several minutes I still hadn’t written anything. Mr. Ben (Benny to all of us) H., the faculty adviser to the newspaper, celebrated for his quick intelligence, sauntered across the classroom and stood next to me. “What are you working on?”
“Mr. Barrelle’s resignation.”
“How many spaces are allotted?
“Well, that’s easy, he said, without an instant of hesitation. JOE BLOWS.
“Amazing!” I said. I couldn’t have come up with that in less than a year.”
“But you aren’t gonna allow it, are you?”
“That’s what I thought.”
“Good! Glad you’re learning how things need to work.”
“Yeah? Mr. Barrelle didn’t think I was learning anything. He kept telling me the only thing I was going to be good for was lifeguarding.”
“Really? A life of sun, surf, pretty girls in bathing suits? Sounds okay to me – except in the winter.”
“And I always said I’d rather be a lifeguard than a Latin teacher. We were a broken record. Both of us.
“Oh, poor Joe,” Mr. H said. “I wonder what was eating him?”
Latin was required only through our 5th form year. The last thing I wanted was another year of Latin. I didn’t sign up.
I had no way of knowing that Joe Barrelle’s replacement, Mr. David B—a chain smoker who therefor was known immediately to everyone as Butts – would turn out to be so different from his predecessor. Gentle, funny, a brilliant story-teller, who made the relevance of Latin to the mastery of English vocabulary and sentence structure clear, he brought the classical Roman world alive. I’d made a big mistake.
Years later, when I was teaching English at Kingswood-Oxford School in West Hartford, CT, he joined our faculty where he was equally as effective as he had been when, as a much younger person, he’d been at Pomfret. We became good friends. One day over coffee in the faculty room, he challenged me: could I think up a more stunning example of a mixed metaphor every day than he could? We’d find a time to compare and declare a winner, sometimes with advice from anybody who happened to be listening. He usually won. We got more and more competitive as the weeks went by and spring approached.
David died long ago – gone to that place fine teachers go to teach the angels. But whenever I think of him, he’s as alive as ever. I’m in my classroom together with teenagers, the most supple minds on earth. Each time, I remember trying my best to reveal a different beloved story, play, essay or poem. But what David does is always the same. He opens the door, sticks his head in, waits for me and the students to notice him. “I have many irons in the fire I, he announces, “and they are all bearing fruit.”
I went to a very prestigious, excellent boys-only boarding school deep in the woods of New England, graduating in 1949. The school was covered in ivy, both the real kind and the metaphorical. We wore blue blazers, grey flannel pants and ties to classes and to every meal, even to breakfast which was required and was served so early that in the winter it was still dark. The crest on the breast pocket of the blue blazer said Certa Viriliter. Translation: Strive manfully. Everybody knew – because everybody took four years of Latin, of course. But I liked to tell innocent visitors it meant Drive carefully.
Now that the school is co-ed, I don’t know what the crest says – or would if the students still wore blue blazers. Work hard, everybody doesn’t have the same panache. The faculty was superb; learned, passionate about their subjects, caring. Even then, I understood that some of my schoolmates were cared for more faithfully in loco parentis by these tireless people who taught four classes every day, then found the energy to coach sports, direct plays, advise literary magazines and newspapers and parent dorms, than they were by the real parents at home. Those teachers’ lives were clearly not their own. Most of them were men. I’m still grateful for the rigorous curriculum they delivered to us. Some of them had very attractive wives, the subject in that monkish boyhood world of much lurid speculation and sexual fantasy.
Most of us were WASPS whose families had been in America for many generations. Our fathers all worked in offices and wore suits with vests; our mothers all stayed home in nylon stockings, civilizing the family, running the house, doing charity work. We had one Italian, zero African-Americans, and several Jewish kids, one of whom was named Jerry. He pretended not to mind being referred to as Jerry Daju, any more than I minded Steve the Tree because I am tall.
During the summer vacation before my senior year, I dated a girl from the wrong side of the tracks. In our house my father, seventh generation Yale, Skull and Bones, required us to come to dinner in a shirt and tie – just like at school. When I picked my girl up for our dates, her dad would be eating supper in his undershirt. But in the navigation of that summer world, away from boarding school, my girlfriend was the sophisticate, not me.
In my senior year I invited her to the autumn prom weekend, the two highlights of which were the football game on Saturday afternoon, against our traditional rival, and the formal dance on Saturday night. I’m sure now, though I was too naïve to notice then, that of all the girls who came to that weekend, my date was the only one who attended a public high school. She was the only one who had to travel any cultural distance to be comfortable in a school which was also the students’ home, and where there was only one gender, where the teachers were called masters, almost everybody was wealthy and dressed all day every day as if they were going to a wedding or a funeral. I’m sure she was the only girl in attendance that weekend so may years ago who had never set foot in a country club or a yacht club and who didn’t have a parent who’d graduated from college. She went to mass every Sunday morning with her family; we went to an Episcopal chapel every evening, where the lectern was supported by a white marble statue of a knight in armor, kneeling with his sword in one hand and his helmet in another.
I was a football player, so I handed her off for the duration of the game to a friend. I like to imagine that she and he enjoyed each other’s company as they watched the game in the pouring rain. She felt shy and unsure of herself in this strange world; and he felt shy because, not being an athlete, merely a good musician and fair poet, he was of low rank. I am sure, though, that my date, who generally watched football played before large crowds on Friday nights in a stadium, wondered how such mediocre football as we played on a field next to an apple orchard could generate so much passion. She didn’t know the spectacle she was witnessing had as much to do with sibling rivalry as sport: two branches of the same royal family fighting for honor.
At the dance, though, my girl was a star. Not only was she a beautiful young person, she was clearly the best dancer on the floor. My friends, especially the stags, danced with her a lot. They would saunter out from the outskirts of the gym, trying their best to look like Cary Grant, and tap me on my shoulder, “May I cut in?” they’d say. I was very proud of myself –as if her beauty and her grace were my creation, but near the end when there were only so many dances remaining, I shook my head and said, “No you can’t. This was so long ago that boys held girls close when they danced. If you were in love – or thought you were – which is just as much fun and a lot more convenient- dancing was an exquisitely romantic and sensual experience.
After the dance, she and I took a walk. The rain had stopped and it was warm, but it was too wet to sit down. So, clever me, I led her to the auditorium, where as I predicted no other couple would think to go. Alone together in there, still glowing from the words of love songs we had danced to, we did a lot of hugging and kissing. Our world was a chaste one. Hugging and kissing was all we dared – and was enough. Then I took her to where she was staying, which happened to be the Headmaster’s House. It didn’t occur to me to wonder how she felt staying in a house so large it could have contained several of the one she lived in. Nor how the word headmaster would ring in her ear. I was supposed to have her there by 1am. I was vaguely aware it was past that time when we walked in.
The headmaster had steely blue eyes and grey hair, parted exactly down the center. Think a sober F Scott Fitzgerald grown tall and stern. But I’d been around long enough to look right through that stern look and see his kindness underneath. But my date had not. So, when, just as I gave her a final kiss at the foot of the stairs, the headmaster appeared in an elegant bathrobe at the top of the stairs, she must have been appalled. And when he said, half way down, still towering over us, and pointing to his wrist watch, “Davenport, you are 43 minutes late. Where have you been?” I’m sure she was. She had no idea we were late. She would not have permitted it.
“OH, are we late? I’m sorry. I must have lost track of the time,” I said, with the insouciance only the privileged can muster. I had nothing to worry about. He was too kind and too well bred to name, right there in front of my date, whatever penalty was ascribed in some ancient ledger somewhere to this particular dereliction. That would happen later, man to boy – if he didn’t forget. He wouldn’t kick me off the football team, or add a damning note to my college applications. I would have to wait table for an extra week, or rake some leaves. The rule I’d broken was the kind you felt proud of getting away with if you did, or chagrined for being dumb enough to get caught. I hadn’t cheated on an exam or stolen something from a dorm mate. “Get to bed, young lady,” the headmaster said, sounding fierce. I’m sure it was his way of expressing his relief that she was home, safe in his house. He had a daughter of his own. She moved past him and fled upstairs. I never saw her again.
She left the next morning, on the first train out, long before the weekend was scheduled to end. When I telephoned her, her sister answered the phone and told me not to call again. Home on Christmas Vacation, I went to her house and knocked on the door. Her sister came to the door and told me to please, just go away. “Tell me why,” I said, hoping that she would say that her sister left because she was disgusted with me for getting her in late, but I knew she wouldn’t. My date had been humiliated, made to feel small, less worthy than her hosts. There was no way she felt she would ever be included, even if she wanted to be.
Needless to say, the school, co-educational now, is vastly more diverse than when I attended it. We do make progress after all. It is probably unnecessary to point out, but worth pointing out anyway, that the more diverse the school is, the more energy needs to be focused on including everybody in the community so that no one will ever feel the way the lovely young woman who was my girlfriend for a very short time felt on that weekend long ago
A Weekend I Wish Had Never Happenedstephendaven2022-05-18T17:38:28+00:00