No. 6: When He Began Thinking Otherwise

All this — that Plymouth was seemingly being run by dogs, not to mention going to the dogs, along with the country itself (as a steadily increasing number of faculty believed) — all this ambient craziness wouldn’t have affected Harold Rothman as much if he hadn’t already been going through some pretty heavy changes himself. What do you call getting senioritis when the whole goddamn country’s got senioritis? Call it freaking out.

Or, as Harold preferred, call it “rough water.” An avid canoeist — a sport he had been introduced to and eventually helped instruct at Treasure Island Day Camp — Harold liked to see things in canoeing terms. Rough water. It reminded him of his menschiest moment, back in ’66 when he and 20 other 14-and15-year-olds had gone canoeing on what turned out to be a surprisingly treacherous patch on the Housatonic River. The camp fathers, generally careful to pick “safe” rivers for these expeditions, had goofed this time. One moment there the happy campers were, paddling along, admiring the pleasant Connecticut scenery, swatting flies and trading fart jokes. Then rocks started appearing. Big Ones. Then the water started foaming. A few kids (and at least one counselor) began to cry.

Fortunately, Rothman’s sternman, Bill, a level-headed junior from Adelphi, kept his head. “Tell me when you see a rock!” he shouted at Harold. “And make sure your life jacket is secure! And don’t forget your J-stroke!

“Rock on the left!” Harold, exhilarated, had shouted out. He saw a mist. There was a roar. And then they went down — and somehow, paddling furiously, got through it.

Wow, Harold thought as he daydreamed one afternoon in his dorm bed, the Doors wafting out of his roommates’s stereo providing counterpoint: Break on through to the other side, break on through to the other side…

That had been a trip, you know. Just like the past year. Wow. Just one year ago he’d essentially been this nerdy loner 16-year-old who wore chino pants and Hush Puppies and liked to take photographs and was studying hard to become a — what? — aeronautical engineer! Hard to believe, that’s what he’d thought he wanted to be, after being impressed into a high school program called the Extra Honor Science Corps (or X.H. for short, to give it that cool NASA-like sound), a weird educational offshoot of the space race wherein hand-picked high-I.Q. students were force-fed hard sciences for three years so they’d grow up to be good little Werner von Brauns and beat the Russkies.

Then, around the end of 1967, Harold had begun thinking otherwise. Began thinking that maybe, maybe, the folks to whom he had hitherto entrusted his X.H. prospects had no idea what they were doing, no less where he was coming from. Which, of course, was, like, art, creative writing, as opposed to chemistry and metallurgy, you know? I mean, here Harold had virtually been raised as an artist — had gone to pre-school at the MoMA, for Christ’s sake! — and he was going to be an aeronautical engineer? Fuck that.

Harold was a full-fledged rebel with a cause now (and if anyone cared to notice, a pretty mixed-up kid, as well). First, in December, there was the turtleneck incident, when Harold had been forced to serve detention for wearing a perfectly respectable turtleneck shirt — one designed by his father, no less! — rather than the button-down one proscribed by his fascist principal. Fuck that, too.

Meanwhile, continuing to emerge from his hermetic Science Corps bubble, Harold decided he wanted to be in with the in-crowd, which, in the winter of ’68 meant one thing: being against the war! (You also had to dig the Doors. And, just to be safe, have seen Bonnie and Clyde at least twice.) Not, like any sentient young American, he hadn’t begun harboring some doubts about the war. Still, even he was surprised that spring when he found himself standing in front of Jefferson High wearing a trench coat, bush hat and long hair, handing out leaflets for the Strike Against the War while his classmates looked on, agog.

Harold had realized that his quest for anti-nerddom was succeeding when Mindy Draxler, one of the girls in his class who had previously been oblivious to his existence, turned around one day and said, “We’re all noticing the changes you’re going through, Harold, and we’re all rooting for you.”

So now he had a cheering section! From nerd to BMOC in less than eight months. Wow! If she only knew.

About the gun, for example.

For three weeks that spring, Harold Rothman had been in possession of a loaded Mauser pistol, a war souvenir of his father’s he had found in his parents’ closet, which (fortunately unbeknownst to them) he kept in a storage closet in the basement of their apartment building. He’d taken it onto the subway when he visited his Movement friends in the city at night, worn on a holster, in fact. Not that Harold, poor, mixed-up Harold had — goodness! — any notion of actually shooting someone with the thing. He just wanted to hear what it’d sound like. Even went out with it in the middle of a thunderstorm and tried to pull the trigger; still couldn’t do it.

Then came the night in May, a few weeks after Martin Luther King was shot, when both the ambient cultural and Harold’s personal craziness reached its apogee. He had just gotten his acceptance to Plymouth Architecture, and was going to see the Doors at Fillmore East. He’d taken the gun with him, and afterwards, walking down St. Mark’s in his supercharged state, Harold took it from its holster and playfully pointed it in the air — whereupon, at that very instant, a police car turned the corner. Harold, belatedly listening to his inner sternman, had carefully re-holstered the loaded pistol, returned it to his parents’ closet, and realizing how close to the rocks he had come, never touched it again.

All of which might give you some idea of where Harold Rothman, Plymouth University Class of 1972, was coming from. Fortunately, he was no longer in possession of a firearm. But there were others on the Hill who were, and in due course they would make themselves known.

Break on through to the other side…Break…Break…Break…OH YEAH!

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