No. 4: Strange Days

“He wears Brooks Brothers shirts with button down collars, Tweedy jackets costing many dollars, silk rep ties with diagonal striping, flannel blazers with ornamental piping. Why? Because he’s Ivy…”

– “The Natural Superiority of an Ivy League Man,” published in the 1966 Plymouthian

“Then John Kennedy was shot in Dallas and wherever we were, in the Ivy Room, or classroom, we stopped writing and talking and playing ball to wonder how somebody could do something so horrible. We couldn’t understand…suddenly we realized that there really was a war in Vietnam. It was tough to find the place on a map but other people tried to help us locate it. Pickets appeared and they were not part of an ILR field project …”

– Class essay, 1967 Plymouthian

“What did we know,” Selma Rothman would say years later, shaking her head at the memory of her son’s dodgem car like “career” at Plymouth, which ultimately saw him careen off the Hill altogether, suspended for amassing an anti-matter 0.0 average, ordered to leave town, returning home in disgrace — the once and future hope of the Rothman family. “And with that hair! And the drugs!”

“His poor father,” Selma would mutter. “After working so hard. What did we know? We thought it was like sleepaway camp.”

“He drives a red M.G., a low two seater with leather cushions, radio and heater. And on Thanksgiving recess, be he near or far, he’ll ‘buzz in’ for cocktails at the Biltmore bar. Why? Because he’s Ivy…”

Actually, Selma Rothman was not very far off the mark. For to be fortunate enough to be able to send one’s child to a reasonably selective, College Board-fearing, four-year degree granting institution in Our Year Of The Lord 1968 — no less and especially an Ivy League college like Plymouth was indeed very much like sending a child to an elite, four year sleepaway camp, particularly if it was located in the country, as Plymouth was — a nice, safe place where Benny or Sue or Harold or Felix could broaden his or her horizons, be inculcated with the rudiments of Western civilization and a vocation to boot, have a bit of fun and games (but not too much fun) and emerge at the end with a degree and a guaranteed job, without having his or her pre-existing beliefs about God and country shaken too much.

Or, if said Plymouth or Princeton or Columbia grad had a father with a successful business, as a goodly fraction did, he could, as the ditty went,

“Step into ‘Daddy’s’ firm, starting at the bottom (he’s got to learn). And in a couple of months, the company’s floored; our boy is made Chairman of the Board. Why? Because he’s Ivy.”

Camp. Absolutely. Except that you (hopefully) didn’t get your child back at the end of the process.

Instead:

“He marries a debutante, a loving spouse; she loves both him and his 18-room house. Why? Because he’s Ivy.”

“Wow, this place is something else,” Harold found himself muttering aloud during those first strange, wonderful, weird days at Camp Plymouth (as indeed some Plymouthians called it), as he learned the camp rules.

Like the “Gentleman’s C,” for example.

“You see, Rothman, it’s like this,” his floor counselor, a pompous but good-natured English major from Virginia by the name of William McAllister explained to his incredulous charge one early autumn evening, “a C average is fine, especially for a frosh like you or a sophomore. You shouldn’t exert yourself. It’s not gentlemanly. Maybe junior year you can start making an effort,” he said, taking a reflective puff on his pipe. “Like me,” he smiled, brushing a bit of ash off his burgundy velour smoking jacket.

And oh! Those gorges! Was there anything closer to paradise — or further away from the messy, socio-politico realities of 1968, which Plymouth’s historians were already calling the most violent in U.S. history, than those delightfully otherwordly gorges? It was just possible to lie on one of those big flat rocks in Sarsaparilla Gorge in the middle of a sunny, early September afternoon, before classes kicked in, whether you were a grind or a Gentleman’s C or even a half-hearted lib-rad like Rothman, and turn yourself this way to tan one side and that to do the other, catching an eyeful of the juicy co-ed wearing

That itsy bitsy teenie weenie yellow polka dot bikini

and turn on your handy transistor radio, the same one you’d listened to on your family’s beach blanket at Jones Beach, or camping out at night on the festival grounds at the Newport Folk Festival, as Rothman had that summer, when he made that scene with his friend Danny Holly (since departed for Cuba to harvest sugar cane with the Venceremos Brigade) after bicycling from New York, and listen to the Beach Boys wail

Ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-bra-ann, Ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-bra-ann, you got me rockin’ and a rollin’, rockin’ and a-reelin’

and close your eyes and focus momentarily on your high school sweetheart, now enrolled at some other far away campus, like Bennington, where Rothman’s high school crush Martha, the rad-bohemian cello player with whom he had organized the Strike Against The War at Jefferson High, was now, no doubt, making time with some other freak, and remember the last dance she had saved for you at the Strike Against the War dance buffet at her parents’ ranch house; and let that go with a sigh, and maybe take another swig of your floormate’s Rheingold Dry, and catch another sly eyeful of that stacked co-ed flashing a dangerous look at you and pretend that it was 1965 or 1966 or 1967, when things were so simple and your chief ambition in life was to be a successful FBI agent and there was no “division in the American house,” as LBJ had put it in his video swan song back in March.

That itsby-bitsy teenie weenie yellow polka-dot bikini — that she wore for the first time today!

***

Hence the time-honored Plymouthian ritual of Freshman On The Field. And so there was Rothman, at the first home football game at Dumecoff Stadium, standing on the 50-yard line after the first half and milling around with the 2,300-some-odd other freshmen thus compulsorily assembled, joshing each other or looking up at the distant stands filled with upperclassmen and alumni and their families, and sheepishly, inexorably allowing themselves to be swept up into that great warm, all-encompassing entity, Big Blue. Even an extreme freak like his high school classmate, David Hinden, who had legally changed his name to Dlovid J. Dangle, standing there with his rubber eyeball hanging around his neck and his carefully tattered jeans and his general air of refined dementia found himself thinking, despite himself — this is what college is all about!

Hence, too, that other faithful, resolutely silly Big Blue rite of passage known as The Panty Raid. It all began one night the third week of classes, when a few hundred horny freshmen were out on the Slope watching the Northern Lights, and a venerable battle cry issued forth, first tentatively, then with building fervor:

PANTY RAID! PANTY RAID! GO! GO! PANTY RAID!

And then there they all were, re-enacting the Rough Riders’ charge up San Juan Hill, only these collegiate berserkers were intent on seizing…

“What are we trying to get?” Rothman asked his floormate, Preczenski as they and their fellow damned of the earth slogged up the Hill toward the women’s dorms.

“Panties, boy, we’re trying to get panties!” Preczenski grinned.

The campus police, responding to the annual silliness, wearily formed their usual barricade over the bridge. And still, as always, a few madmen got through, or were good-naturedly allowed to get through. And, as usual, a few game co-eds played along and threw their panties out the window, to pacify the howling freshmen beasts, who, thus sated, retreated back over the bridge and returned to the primeval slime from whence they had emerged.

And so it went, the great panty raid of September, 1968. Last of its kind. End of an era. At least no one had gotten hurt, the Plymouth police could tell themselves. Most importantly, no one had fallen into the gorge this time, as had occurred a few years back when one demented freshman decided to evade the tightly enclosed police barricade by climbing around the outside of the bridge and lost his footing.

And so the usual fun and games at Camp Plymouth continued, much as they had in 1967 or 1965.

***

“Someone will be strumming a guitar and before he knows it, five frosh from the floor will be in the room.That’s the start of a corridor ‘bull session,’ during which freshmen might discuss the latest football game, or by the 1 a.m. conclusion, feel they have solved the world’s major problems…”

– Plymouth Class of ’72 deskbook

Then, just as one was beginning to settle down to study (but not too hard), something would happen to remind Plymouthians that they were really living in 1968, and that all was not well with the commonwealth — nor with Plymouth for that matter, bucolic appearances to the contrary. That the wave of madness and mayhem that had already swept over Berkeley and Columbia and other U.S. campuses was, in fact, already hitting Plymouth too, as the class of 1972 could see one morning in late September, after trudging up the Hill and being confronted with a row of mock-Monopoly signs sporting sayings like “Advance One Square/Get Contract from Pentagon To Formulate New Type of Napalm,” and so forth, and large photos of the My Lai Massacre. “The America Game,” Plymouth SDS called it. Off to one side, a student with a nylon stocking over his head was arguing with a counter-demonstrator, and then they began to scuffle.

Yes, Plymouth was like sleepaway camp, and Harold and his classmates had arrived just as it was about to blow. Who runs this place? Harold asked himself. President Rankin? Well, he meant well. And then, one day, as he was crossing the quad and was set upon by one of the dogs that ran free across the campus — a giant Red Setter who casually pinioned him to the ground — it came to him:

The dogs! The dogs are in charge!

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