“Come on,” he said, “I’ll show you a police hold we use. Might come in handy sometime.”“No,” I said, “I don’t want to, not now.” Ignoring me, he proceeded, maintaining a neutral look on his face as he pushed and wrestled me about: no frowns, no tight mouth or squint eyes. Other than us, the house was quiet. I suspected that my mother—I always called her Gladys—was listening from the next room.
By the time she met Bud, Gladys had already been married and divorced several times. I was two or three when my dad, Dutch, abandoned us for the glamorous life of a professional baseball player, after which Gladys began working her way through a string of bad marriages. During these years, I was farmed out to various relatives, all of whom were big on self-reliance and independence, even for the kids in the family. As a consequence, I was used to doing pretty much what I wanted by the time Gladys and Bud shanghaied me to a dusty cornfield in the San Fernando Valley in 1948. I helped Bud build our home while we lived in a ramshackle garage, tended the pigs on Bud’s Valley Farm, and made the best of it at a brand-new high school, but I never had any intention of sticking around. That spring, I’d been accepted to the University of Colorado, and I was one month away from leaving home. But suddenly, as I held my shoulder and stared up at Bud, a month felt like an impossibly long time.
Without a word, I left the kitchen and went to my room in the attic. I packed my army surplus B4 Bag, then carried it downstairs and out to my car. Back in the kitchen, I found Gladys, ashen-faced, sitting alone at the table, looking out the window. “I just can’t deal with this anymore,” I said. “I’m going to Aunt Jean’s. I’ll call you.” She said nothing, just looked at me, but I knew her heart was full of turmoil. There was no hugging, no kissing, no tears. That was the austere way we dealt with emotion in our family, the way she and I had grown up. I walked to my car and drove away to LA. I didn’t see Bud on my way out.
I arrived in Boulder after a thirty-hour bus ride, dressed in Levis and a T-shirt with a nylon bomber jacket and a few sweaters jammed in my army surplus bag. The town seemed quiet and empty. A sign in the bus station led me to the University of Colorado housing office, which found a room for me on Grant Place, at the edge of town. To get to my rooming house, I walked up the hill towards the university and turned onto College Avenue, which began at the campus and ended at the foot of the dramatic red Flatirons. College Avenue was lined with large but rather plain houses and huge old trees that shaded the street. The trees were just starting to take on their fall colors, a change I had never seen before.
I passed a series of big Georgian-style mansions. On the lawns I saw well-dressed young men playing catch with baseballs and footballs. One wore white wool trousers and white suede shoes, while another wore a deep-blue knit polo shirt with a monogram, a beautiful sweater draped ever so casually over his shoulders, his sunglasses tipped back on top of his head. They were shouting and laughing, cavorting around, flashing their perfect teeth, oblivious to anything but themselves. They were like models, not people: so self-confident, so full of themselves.
I stopped in the middle of the sidewalk and stared. This was the first time I had ever seen young people dressed so differently from the way we dressed in LA. I later found out that these Georgian brick Xanadus were fraternities, peopled by young men just like me, but with more privileged lives. Although curious, I was distracted by other concerns like starting college, wondering if my clothes were warm enough, and, most of all, whether I had enough money to live on. I knew nothing about this place but, now that I was here, I was determined to stay.
I picked Boulder based on the advice of a distant cousin who had heard “good things” about the university, and on the number of miles it put between me and Bud. I’d been quite surprised when my last-minute application was accepted, and I was barely able to scrape up the money to attend. I’d already sold my beloved 1936 Ford “Phaeton” sedan and hit up my mother and long-absent father for monthly stipends. It seemed miraculous that Dutch had agreed to contribute to my higher education, though I’d asked him for much less than I asked of my mother. I knew Gladys had leaned on him, and I wondered how Dutch felt about making his contribution, but I needed the money and didn’t care. Even with their support, I would have to work to make my way here.
I soon got a part-time job as busboy in the cafeteria. When I wasn’t working, engaged in ROTC activities, or going to class, my hangout was the lounge in the student union. The lounge had comfortable easy chairs, classical music piped in, a lot of magazines, and it was free. I had never heard any of the music they played and quickly developed strong, utterly uninformed opinions about which composer was best. At first I decided on Gustav Holst, because I loved the soaring romanticism of his Planets symphony—like a Hollywood movie, only better. Later they played the Brandenburg concertos and other works by J. S. Bach. Despite my total lack of quantitative sensibility, I was moved by the symmetrical architecture of these pieces, and I elevated Bach to first place.
I went to the lounge nearly every day, mainly to be around people since I knew no one. I discovered The New Yorker, but went through it primarily for the jokes and fancy ads. I also discovered Town & Country magazine. One day I came upon an article with pictures showing a group of Princeton men walking across that beautiful campus on a windy fall day, laughing, gesturing, and talking animatedly. They were dressed in the most wonderful clothes I had ever seen. One wore what I later learned was called a “Chesterfield” coat, dark-gray flannel with a black velvet collar. Many of them wore white suede shoes, aka “white bucks.”
Prior to college, nothing like “high culture” had ever intruded upon my consciousness. The only exposure I’d had to elites was through Hollywood movies, and I loved watching actresses lounge around in silk outfits, having breakfast in bed, men entering night clubs in tuxedos. But I spent most of my childhood years living with my mother’s parents, who were simple folk. I’d never heard anything other than country and popular music, and hardly anyone I knew read books. Our family never socialized except among themselves, and we never went to restaurants. In fact, except for my schoolteachers, I’d never met anyone who had gone to college or traveled, except to Tijuana for the day. Although one high school friend of mine lived in an upper-middle class part of LA, I didn’t pay much attention to our lifestyle differences, except to note he had more money to fix up his hot rod. Now I imagined myself strolling past gray stone buildings with these Princeton men from Town & Country, kicking the fallen leaves. The images in that photo reminded me of the mythic lives portrayed in the movies, except that I passed by something similar every day on College Avenue.
By mid-October, it had turned cold at night, and the trees now blazed in rich hues of burgundy, rust, and gold. I loved it, although I was cold a lot of the time. A number of events took place at the fraternities that fall, including a series of open houses, as well as a weekend of homecoming parties. I spotted elegant, richly dressed young women coming and going from these mansions, socializing with the fraternity boys. These women were my age, yet they looked like pictures from a fashion magazine, not like any women I had ever seen. I had no idea what barriers there might be to moving into those higher social realms, or how one went about it, but I felt increasingly motivated to find out.
That spring, a guy named Carter sat next to me in ROTC class. Since he was a sophomore, I asked him about the fraternity and sorority system: who belonged, what you had to do to join, how much it cost, and so forth. While we talked, he casually mentioned that he was a Phi Delt, which was the most toney of the fraternities on College Avenue. I perked up. I had heard that the frats would be holding open house in a few weeks, and that they would be inviting potential members. To my delight, and without my asking, Carter invited me to the Phi Delt open house. I dipped into my small savings, accumulated by working extra hours in the cafeteria and reading textbooks in the library instead of buying them, and bought a poplin Haspel sports jacket and de rigueur “white bucks” for the occasion.
I tried not to appear nervous as I walked up the path to Phi Delt’s hallowed precincts. Stand up straight. Smile. Look self-confident. Remember your manners, I thought. Carter met me at the front door and introduced me to the “brothers.” Then I stepped across the threshold. The inside was as beautiful as the exterior, all walnut-paneled with a huge fireplace, paintings and tapestries on the wall. I had never seen anything like it. There were probably twenty-five guys standing around chatting. All well-dressed, all smiling and animated. I watched, determined to emulate them. I guessed that most were Phi Delt wannabes like me.
A waiter came by with a tray of hors d’oeuvres and glasses of wine. The talk was low key, just some general conversation about life at Colorado, where I was from and so forth. I never felt that I was being interrogated to see if I was good enough. Gradually, I relaxed, feeling that I had been accepted. I felt a warm glow when I left.
Just before the end of that semester, Carter informed me that I was invited to become a Phi Delt pledge. Moreover, I was invited to live at the frat house for the coming fall. “It’ll give you a chance to learn about Phi Delt and to get to know the brothers,” Carter said. I felt pretty good about myself. Opportunity had shone its light on me.
I went back to LA over the summer. It was like reentering a still life. The few inquiries friends and family made about my college experience were limited to generic questions like “How’s college?” or “What’s your major?” to which I answered “Fine,” or “None yet.”
Gladys used her connections as a police sergeant to get me a job as an apprentice carpenter that paid much better than any summer job I could have landed. I stayed with Gladys and Bud, but only because my construction job was nearby. Between the long hours and visiting friends nights and weekends, I spent very little time with them.
I actively avoided Bud, who had taken to calling me “college boy,” but when we ate as a family there was little I could do. One night at the dinner table in our small kitchen, I mentioned that I had read a science fiction story by Edgar Rice Burroughs about a civilization in the center of the Earth. In this society, different groups had become racially mixed and now everyone was the same color: shiny black with green eyes. Thus, no more discrimination based on color. “Wouldn’t that be a great solution to racism here on earth?” I asked. “Besides, that sounds like a great color combination. A lot better than fish-belly white, anyway.”
Gladys agreed it was an interesting idea, but Bud blew up. Red-faced, he said in a loud voice, “For Christ’s sake, do you really want everyone to be black? Is that the kind of crazy shit you learn in school?”
Bingo, I had touched a nerve. I smiled and said no more.
With the extra money I made that summer, I bought a rattle-trap ’37 Chevy sedan. As I repainted it and rebuilt the engine, I kept repeating in my mind that I would be going back to be a Phi Delt in no time. I savored the prospect of driving through the vast Southwest, by myself, all the way to Boulder.
That fall, I moved right into the Phi Delt house. Seen up close, my frat brothers didn’t seem stuck up or phony. In most ways, I felt I was just like the mysterious young men I had witnessed only a year earlier.
My clothes were one exception. Nearly everyone but me had wonderful, expensive apparel. While I was dying to dress like that, I lacked the money, so when one of the Phi Delt brothers, who represented the best local haberdasher, offered showings of clothes at the frat, I observed the “trunk show” from the back of the room. At that time, the fad was so-called Ivy League style, which featured conservative colors, three-button jackets with no shoulder padding (called “natural shoulders” in Ivy-speak), plain-front trousers, button-down shirts, and rep or foulard pattern ties. I liked these showings, even though they sometimes made me uncomfortable. As much as I admired the Ivy League style, some “design details,” such as a purely decorative strap and buckle across the back of men’s trousers, struck me as
useless and therefore ridiculous.
One day, I needed to get something from my suitcase in the storage room. I spotted one of the brothers and asked him to show me where my bag was. “Sure, Rick. It’s in the basement, follow me.” He led me to the store room and turned on the light. I spotted my suitcase right away, but also noticed several large cardboard boxes piled high with clothes.
“Hey, Jim,” I said. “What’s the deal with all these clothes?’
“They’re just cast-offs, stuff guys left behind. They don’t belong to anybody now. Guess we’ll have to give them to the Salvation Army someday.”
As Jim left he asked me to turn the light off when I was done in the basement. After I recovered the needed item from my suitcase, I rummaged through the boxes and found two pair of gray flannel trousers and several silk ties of high quality, all rumpled but in perfect condition. I could hardly believe my luck.
A few days later, I made a second great clothing find, at the Salvation Army store on skid row in Denver. There I found, among other things, a black alpaca suit jacket with matching vest, which fit perfectly. The jacket and vest were from an earlier era, but perfectly suited to what I understood to be Ivy League style. On several occasions, I wore various combinations of these cast-offs at the frat house and invariably got effusive compliments. When a brother asked, “Hey, man, where’d you find those great clothes?” I replied, “Oh thanks. I picked them up in Denver on my last visit.”
As a Phi Delt pledge, I was subject to hazing, which began as soon as the initial welcoming was over. Every night, pledges had to carry matches and cigarettes, just in case a brother asked for one. After the Sunday dinner, the best meal of the week, there was a “pledge evening,” during which pledges and brothers mingled for a lengthy session of brother-dominated Q&A. “Rick,” they said, “tell me quickly, what’s on at the movie theater in town? Who were the phikeians referred to in the Phi Delt oath? Why aren’t your shoes shined better?”
Even though the hazing wasn’t constant, I found it extremely annoying and bristled inwardly when I was subjected to it. I loathed the earnest, adolescent silliness of these male conceits.
I began to notice a low level of cultural sophistication among the Phi Delt brothers. Almost all the talk at meals and other social occasions was about sports or the next party—never about music, or books, or even movies. One brother kept up a daily monologue at the table about how he wore his jock strap at least twelve hours a day so he could run and work out before and after classes. I had expected more, but still felt special living at the frat house. When the fall parties came along, I finally met those lovely female creatures as one of the anointed.
Late that semester, my philosophy professor announced, “I would like to congratulate Miss Olson for writing the best exam, and for the best term paper, of anyone in the class.” He nodded toward a woman in the front row with a smile and a bow. I was stunned, deflated, since I had believed that I was the smartest in the class. I approached her as we left the classroom.
“Hi-I’m-Rick-congratulations-on-your-performance-back-there-are-you-free-for-a-coffee?” I said, not stopping for breath. “I’d love to hear about your term paper—on Hume was it?”
I noticed her beautiful blonde hair, her calm manner, the elegant way she smiled. “Sure,” she said, “I’ve got time. Student union?”
Her name was Diana. Over coffee, I was impressed by how articulate she was, by her vocabulary and soft manner. She was the daughter of a classics teacher who had decided to “come west” for college. Her goal was to major in English literature, then get a job at one of the large publishing houses in New York. I thought to myself, This is the kind of woman I have been looking for, but until now I wasn’t aware of it.
One Saturday night, I went to a party alone at another fraternity. A few Phi Delts were there, too, but after a routine greeting I stood alone. There was plenty of beer and, to my delight, a small jazz group. I gradually got into the mood and before long was moving and jiving around, while everyone else just stood around, listening. After about thirty minutes of this, I glanced up and saw Diana. She stood at a distance, watching me, smiling. I waved hello. She walked over. “Looks like you’re the only one having a good time,” she said.
I stopped jiving. “Yeah,” I said, nodding my head towards the others in the room. “But these frat types must think I’m either high or nuts. Guess my country origins are showing. What do you think?”
“Looks like you are the only free spirit here. Who cares what they think?”
“I guess you’re here with somebody,” I said. “Let’s get together in the next day or two.”
“Love to,” she replied.
We began to meet regularly at the student union for coffee. Marlon Brando was all the rage, and I read that his latest movie, Julius Caesar, was playing in Denver. Diana agreed to go with me, and we drove down one evening in my1937 Chevy sedan, “The Unit.” We talked over aspects of the production on the drive back. It was probably the first time I ever had an intellectual discussion with a woman, and I found it very satisfying. The countryside between Denver and Boulder was dark, uninhabited prairie, and the soft lights from the dashboard shone on Diana’s face as she spoke.
On a cold night near the end of the semester, I and my fellow pledges were rousted from bed and herded out of the Phi Delt house. “I think you weenies need a little exercise!” the president said. “How about a little jog to the top there?” He pointed to the tiny light glowing at the top of a low mountain a few miles from Boulder.
The dirt road to the top began at the edge of town. We alternated jogging and walking up the road in near total darkness, with only the dim glow of the lights from town to moderate the dark. The few brothers accompanying us yelled out when to jog and when to walk. At first, the pledges talked and joked among themselves. Gradually, as we got tired, the talking stopped and we just trudged upwards, our progress punctuated by shouts of encouragement from the brothers.
“Hey, guys, not too much further.”
“Are we having fun, gentlemen?”
I started shouting my own encouragement, corny stuff like, “Let’s show the brothers what we can do!” and “Keep it up, phikeia, don’t drop behind!”
After my third outburst, one of the most physically intimidating of the pledges yelled back at me, “Why don’t you shut the fuck up? Who needs your cheerleader bullshit?” Several voices chipped in with, “Yeah, shut up.”
I realized that I had badly misread my role and the feelings of the other pledges. Chastened, I said no more for the rest of the outing. I felt like a jerk, and continued to feel self-conscious well afterward, though no one ever referred to the incident. The feeling that I h