No. 2: Baptism

“Other highlights of orientation will be introductory academic lectures and symposia, a Saturday night concert with Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, and throughout the entire weekend, the Class of 1972′s all-important first look at itself.”

–The Plymouth Daily Clarion, September 11, 1968

Harold turned off the stereo and ran for the door. The perennially silly, poignant, hopelessly obtuse rite of initiation into The Plymouth Way known as “Orientation” was, thankfully, drawing to the end of its third and final day. Now, like the hundreds of other weary, stupefied, proud, relieved, apprehensive parents who had dutifully driven to the upstate campus to experience this peculiarly American rite of passage with their generally grumpy, if not necessarily wholly unappreciative children (and successfully survived the rubber chicken served at the big welcoming barbecue on The Slope, not to mention President’s Rankin’s deadly two-hour Convocation speech about the Mission of The Forward-Looking University in Today’s Dynamic Society, the obligatory last minute father-son/mother-daughter lectures about Studying Hard and Getting Ahead and Looking Neat and Being Careful and Staying Away from Radicals and Riff Raff, plus the endless schlepping up and down that Godforsaken hill!) Max Rothman was patiently waiting in the lobby of College Hall 4 for his elder son, Harold Rothman Class of ’72, the first member of the Rothman family ever to attend college. They were getting dinner at the Howard Johnson just outside of town.

As usual — especially when he met his father — Harold was late. Years later, when he was living in Manhattan and, at the insistence of his mother, who remained convinced there was something seriously wrong with him, in psychotherapy (“It all started at Plymouth,” Selma Rothman, who had pointedly stayed home that long-ago September, would moan. “It all started up there!“), Harold would realize, with the help of his overpaid, otherwise useless West Side psychotherapist that there was, in fact, a reason why he kept his father waiting. I was because, he came to understand after his 121st session, he liked getting his father mad. He would change the behavior. (Though that was all he would change.)

But that was many years into the future. For now, all Harold knew was that he was late. And that his long-suffering father was waiting downstairs. And that he was probably mad.

Slamming the door in a hurry, Harold nearly fell over three of his floormates: Roger Binkin, a lanky, shaggy-haired Aggie from Buffalo with just a trace of freak to him; John P., a crew-cut engineer from Pittsburgh with a Polish name he hadn’t learned how to pronounce yet; and Kenny Mindrone, a bespectacled engineer from somewhere down south, who was lying on the ratty hall carpet.

Harold smiled. The topic of this, the first official Hall 4C Floor 2 bull session, was girls. Of course. The testosterone-driven scene vaguely reminded him of one of those old World War II movies he used to watch on Saturday afternoons on the old Crosley black and white television back home, when his parents were away and he had the set to himself. You know, the scene in which the lovelorn recruits/draftees/sailors (etc.) discuss the respective merits of the WACS or nurses they had just met in town at the regimental dance or base hospital.

“Hey,” Binkin was saying to P., “did you see that one with the long black hair and the flower in it? Man,” he said, looked heavenward, “she reminds me of Joan Baez.”

“Yeah,” Mindrone chimed in on cue, as the exultant, whooping sounds of the Fifth Dimension’s “Stoned Soul Picnic” pouring into the hall from someone else’s room, “that chick was something else, wasn’t she?”

Come on down to the stoned soul picnic, come on down–

“Nah,” P. was saying, shaking his head, “ain’t my type. Not into hippie chicks.”

“Ah,” Binkin said, dreamily, as if he had just returned from shore leave, “speak for yourself. I think she’s the living end.” As if on cue, P. and Mindrone looked at each other and smiled.

Maybe she is cute, Harold smiled to himself. But wait until I bring Martha up from the Island.

And so it went.

***

A half mile away, on the other side of Sasparilla Gorge — and the other side of that remorseless fundament of Plymouth life known as The Ratio, i.e., the 3-to-1 ratio of men to co-eds, as distaff students were known in those days — a kindred, if somewhat less desperation-informed conversation was taking place among the second floor residents of Mary Belch Hall.

“Did you see that guy with the black glasses and tie dye shirt?,” Mary Philester, a pert Fine Arts major from Miami, was saying to a group of her new friends, a friendly blast of Herb Alpert’s trumpet wafting out of one of the rooms.

“Yeah, he was kind of cute,” said her roommate, Maxene Stein, a Home Eccie from Queens, with just a trace of a sneer. “If you like that type,” she added, after a beat. “Fortunately,” she continued, switching to her best faux-Scottish accent, á la Maggie Smith in “The Prime of Miss Jean Brody,” “we girls have The Ratio on our side.”

Giggling, they returned to their rooms to prepare for the Spawn on the Lawn Party that Sigma Alpha Alpha was throwing for frosh women that night.

***

“Chicken pot pie was good,” said Max, as he and his son finished their dinner and climbed into the tan ’70 Oldsmobile sedan. Perhaps the car wasn’t as spiffy as that of some of the four thousand odd parents who had driven up, he thought to himself, but it wasn’t anything to be embarrassed about. Anyway, Max was never one to care much about status or material things, an anti-materialism — or, perhaps more accurately, non-materialism — which, as would soon become alarmingly clear, had already taken firm root in his peace medallion-bearing son. Max Rothman was just pleased that he was able to provide for his family. And, though he never talked about it, like most of the other parents milling about Plymouth that weekend — particularly those who were seeing off their eldest sons or daughters off to college, and especially the fifty or so who were foreign-born — he was churning inside. “To think that I, Max Rothman, who had come to the United States as a refugee from Nazi Germany and whose first job was an assembly line worker at the Ideal Toy Company, would now be accompanying my oldest son to an Ivy League university. Unbelievable. Unbelievable.” Next to his war service as an intelligence officer with the 84th Division, this was probably the proudest moment of his life.

But Max didn’t verbalize these feelings. And his self-involved 17-year-old son, as much as he loved and revered his father, didn’t have a clue where to look for them.

At least they didn’t have another fight about The War, which Max still believed in, and Harold most demonstratively didn’t,. The retired lieutenant colonel had fought on numerous occasions that year with his son, during one of which, while driving the family back from the beach at Fort Totten, where he liked to take the family on summer weekends, he’d nearly swerved off the road.

“Yeah, the chicken pot pie was good,” Harold agreed as they drove back to campus.

“Let’s sit here for a second,” Max said, pointing to a bench, as a late-arriving parent brought his son’s bags in.

“Sure, Dad…Dad?”

Harold looked at his father. Behind the sunglasses, he could see that his father was crying. It was the first time he had ever seen his father cry.

And so it went.

***

The next day — the first day the sun had shone all week — the members of the freshman class of the College of Art, Architecture, and Planning assembled in front of Cleveland Hall as instructed for their class portrait.

“Okay,” the putative photographer declared, as the 60-some-odd aspiring Corbusiers/Wrights/van der Rohes good naturedly fell into place.

“One, two, three!”

Suddenly Harold heard a splashing sound. He was wet. So, he saw, was everybody else.

The shock-baptized freshmen looked up to see 20 upperclassmen with mischievous smiles and empty buckets staring down at them.

And so it went.

****

Withal, Orientation Week 1968 differed very little in spirit or content from Orientation Week 1967, or Orientation Week 1948, for that matter. Instead of jazz or bebop, it was acid rock that wafted out of dorm rooms; instead of ponytails and beehives, the girls now wore their hair long with flowers. Nothing significant had really changed, though. Max Rothman and the thousands of other parents who drove home that Saturday could do so safe in the thought that the firestorm of unrest and turbulence that had already infected Berkeley and Columbia and other liberal-leaning, urban-based campuses would pass by the remote, rock-ribbed Plymouth.

Of course, as they would soon discover to their collective dismay, they were wrong. Indeed, Plymouth, safe, conservative Plymouth — the only Ivy where, Max was pleased to note, a sizable number of students attended class in the uniforms of their respective ROTC units (the other Ivies having banished ROTC to protest The War), and even drilled en masse on the Arts Quad! — was about to blow.

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