Richard Moore

Princeton Dreaming

My stepfather, Bud, pushed me across the kitchen, slamming my shoulder into the sharp corner of a hanging kitchen cabinet. I held my breath as pain seared through my shoulder and back. I knew I’d been hurt, but I didn’t want him to know it, so I didn’t cry out. Bud had been “showing” me boxing moves and wrestling holds since my mother ushered him into my life at age fourteen. I hated it, but he was much bigger than me and I didn’t know how to stop him. 

“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, gesturi