When I left my home and my family, I was no more than a boy, In the company of strangers, in the quiet of the railway station, Running scared… — Paul Simon, The Boxer
I escaped my hometown St Paul at age 23 in the spring of 1967. It was a pleasant place then if you never went there. But it had become a prison and asylum for me. Mostly because I had problems in school.
I managed to maintain a gentlemanly B- all right, but it was seeing connections or disconnections that I was not supposed to see that got me in trouble.
At age six, my grandmother told me grass was green because the wee people painted it that color in honor of Blessed St Patrick. Only two years later, at eight, our nun told us grass was green because it contained a chemical called chlorophyll. Which is it? Who am I to trust? Grandma and the nun were both holy people.
Or, more broadly, do we live in a magical world of unseen spirits, like Jesus and the Holy Ghost, or in a fact-based world revealed by things like the Periodic Table? Or some combination thereof? If so, then who is the arbiter? Is Truth found in the Library or the Church?
These issues took a lot of my time and since they were personal questions, not extra-credit issues, I got no bump in my grades.
On the contrary, I got in trouble. Once I had to stay after and write fifty times on the board, “I will not get fidgety or disruptive during Arithmetic class.” So I learned the hard way to keep my questions under my thinking cap. But that damn hat was a problem, too, since by encouraging us to think some of us began to think outside the lines. Which in that world was even worse than coloring outside the lines.
I got it at home, too. “Tommy, why do you have to ask questions like that. There are some questions we are not supposed to ask. Even the Pope says that. People are starting to think you are strange.”
In primary school the nuns taught us pietistic stories about an ideal world I doubt even they believed, then brought us down to earth by ordering us under our desks for an air raid drill. “Why doesn’t President Eisenhower fix it so we don’t have to do this, s’ster? He is President. He can do anything.”
In high school we spent an hour in the morning in ROTC studying how to kill in combat. Then in the afternoon another hour in Religion class learning it was wrong to kill. We just accepted that disconnect in 1958. Ten years later that question was tearing the country apart.
In college, humanities majors like me were still taught the universe described by Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas, made of substance and accident. While in the Science Building next door my classmates were introduced to the universe of mass and energy that Einstein had revealed fifty some years earlier. We all had a Minor in Science vs Religion.
Maybe I was home with a Minnesota cold the day the nun told my classmates not to take this stuff seriously. They only taught what they did so Monsignor would continue to grant them their 1,800 calories a day to stay alive.
Then something happened about halfway through college. I began asking questions that weren’t asked (let alone answered) in the Baltimore Catechism, and I started asking them out loud.
So my college said I was sick and threw me under the bus. Thus, approaching the end of my formal education I had to be locked up in a psych ward and be electrocuted every other day due to an excess of Roman indoctrination, or maybe my lack of gullibility. Like the city’s patron saint, Paul, the scales began to fall from my eyes.
The asylum keepers wanted me to know I was welcome back to the reservation if I could just stop asking questions for which there was no acceptable answers. But by then it was too late. I had serious reservations of my own about some of those guys.
The benefit of that hospitalization in 1964 was that I was rejected by the Army when I was called in for my draft physical in early 1965. So upon graduating in June 1967 — the summer of love — with nothing behind me and nothing to bind me, I left St Paul.
After that experience being drugged, shocked, humiliated by my college that had abandoned me — and how many others over the years? — to preserve its own reputation, my hometown would never again resemble Penny Lane with its cheery barbers and bankers and firemen and pretty nurses under blue suburban skies. More and more it had come to resemble the dark foreboding of the Liverpool’s Strawberry Fields cemetery.
But at last I was free so I followed the Number One song in the land that summer, and headed off West hoping to hit San Francisco eventually, with or without flowers in my hair.
As it happened, I went to Seattle instead, to meet my uncle who had been in the Merchant Marine since WW 2. He had offered to help me get a job going to sea. There was plenty of work staffing the merchant ships carrying godknowswhat over to Nam, that summer before the Tet ’68 New Year’s Surprise transformed the USofA like nothing since Pearl Harbor.
Seattle became for me the portal to freedom. I stayed at the Fourth Street YMCA and the first morning there I met an older guy who had been a beatnik a decade earlier. A real beatnik. He claimed he was there in San Francisco the night Alan Ginsberg first read Howl eleven years before.
(I learned later that poem was dedicated to Carl Solomon, a friend that Ginsberg met in a mental hospital. Hell, I soon find out that I had been locked up only two years after R. M. McMurphy’s experiences in the Cuckoo’s Nest had been published. I have found my people, God damn it! I am home!)
I was not just home. I was free! Free at last. free at last. Thank God a’mighty, I was free at last.
I had paid dues I cannot describe — beatings by priests that even if reported ended up in the circular file.
And I had experienced teen depression but in my Catholic mind that was despair, and I was taught despair is so offensive to God that He could never forgive it. For if you doubt His infinite mercy, it so offends God, His forgiveness is impossible. At all. Ever. Got it?
I could go to Africa like Albert Schweitzer and spend my life healing sick, but I was going to hell whatever I did with the rest of my life. This insidious notion is instilled in dogmatic Catholicism and is called a Sin Against the Holy Spirit.
This is what happens to a belief system based on the law of love that is taken over by lawyers obsessed with their love of the law. God-fearing, nature-fearing, women-fearing, death-fixated, sad men dressed all in black claiming they alone can access the mind of God.
This particular piece of kaka — despair cannot be forgiven — was dreamed up by the guy my high school and college were named after — St Thomas Aquinas. (Only later — way later — did I find out that just before he died, Thomas repudiated all that he had written. Yet 700+ years later his self-repudiated writings are still the core of Catholic higher education. And continue to this day, even to influencing the majority of members of our Supreme Court and their Medieval view on human sexuality.
But I left all that in the psych war and on the football field the night my classmate and I received our diplomas. And there was an end of it.
Goodbye Mom and Dad and thank you for everything. It could not have been easy for you, especially the past couple years when everyone knew your kid was a nut case. Now I’m leaving on a jet plane, and I don’t know if I’ll ever come back again. Looksee, out on runway Number Nine, a big old 707’s set to go.
Wait, one more stop. The Triangle Bar near the UofM campus. ‘Spider’ John Koerner, Dave ‘Snaker’ Ray, and Tony ‘Little Sun’ Glover were performing. And the girl in the crowd watching them as intently as I watched her, dressed in such tight yellow spandex you could tell if the coins in her pockets were heads-up or tails-up.
What a summer to be set free. It must have been like the feeling of someone let out of prison after 23 years for a crime he did not commit.
I was free to go to Pike Place Public Market in the morning for a cup of real coffee. Little guessing Seattle would soon become the coffee center of the world. And would bring the name Starbuck, the honest, steadfast, and ever-loyal first mate of the Pequod doomed under the mad Ahab, to the ends of the earth.
I had gone up to Duluth the summer before to get my Seaman’s Papers from the US Coast, swearing I was not a member of any Commie group like the Dante Alighieri League (among scores of others.)
Now Uncle Al helped me get membership in the Marine Cooks and Stewards Union (MC&S) and introduced me to the union head in Seattle.
My notion of unions then was only from On the Waterfront, and in that union office I imagined honest workers like Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) were routinely beaten up by corrupt union officials, like Terry’s brother Charley Malloy (Rod Steiger) or Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb).
A few days later, Al had to ship out, but he gave me an envelope filled with cash and told me to give it to the union head to secure a job.
I lived in such a cloud of idealism that I put the envelope away. I was too pure to get my first job based on bribery.
A popular play on Broadway then was Man of La Mancha. I think I really saw myself as a kind of Don Quixote, off to tilt at the windmills of the world.
Yes, exactly, a knight with his banners all bravely unfurled now hurled down his gauntlet to the heathens and wizards and serpents of sin. I would not bend to the corruption of the world that beat up an honest man like Terry Malloy. I may have stopped going to Mass, but by God, I was still an altar boy at heart.
(I was — and I probably still am — like the Don. He was the last remnant of the Age of Faith, going out to do battle with the godless new technology of his time — the Windmill. Sure, it replaced jobs, but also permitted the creation of Holland. And, as ever thus, the Don and I would both eventually land flat on our ass.)
For six weeks I trudged the two miles from the Y to the hiring hall near the Space Needle, but my ticket never came up when open jobs were called out — mostly due to having no seniority. I was down to my last $70.
With that I could fly to San Francisco and join the Diggers, who were providing free lunch to all the hippies in Golden Gate Park. Everything else was free too, so was the word in all the public parks of Seattle: free crash pads, free weed, free love. My little Catholic head was spinning.
Or, I had met a guy who worked at Boeing who said he could get me a job there the next day. They were hiring like crazy. With a new BA in English I was sure to get a job as a tech writer. And with $70 I could buy a suit and a white shirt and tie to start work the next day. I knew, with resignation, that I would eventually have to work in a corporation. But not so soon. Not right out of school. Maybe not until I was 40 or so.
Or, for $70 I could take a bus back to Minnesota, defeated, dejected, and depressed.
But wait, the envelope. Yea, ideals are good, but… So the next day I went to the union hiring hall, met the boss, and put the envelope containing I don’t know how much squarely on his desk. Instantly, he knew to put his hat on top of, as if this was a frequent occurrence
And the day after that, at the 4 pm call my ticket came up. To ship on the S/S Xavier Victory, leaving at 6 am the following morning, carrying cargo to Qui Nhon, Vietnam with stops in Formosa (now Taiwan); Yokosuka, Japan; Subic Bay in The Philippines; Midway Island, and Honolulu, HI, USA.
Was I for or against the War? There was still no consensus in the US then. That came a year later with the Mobilizations. I was going to go to make up my own mind.
Get right up to the Public Health Hospital, I was ordered, before it closed, to get ‘the cocktail’ — mix of various vaccines to fight what was going around in SE Asia then including Bubonic Plague — the black death — in Vietnam.
You’re kidding, right? That died out with Boccaccio. (I continued to see the world as an English major.) Indeed, young, dedicated Viet Cong women — bar girls and hostesses promising “Me love you long time, Joe” — were letting themselves be inoculated in order to inflict ten GIs before they died. Giving rise to the expression, “Take ten.” It was that kind of a war.
I was walking on a cloud back to the Fourth St Y. I was leaving tomorrow for lands that existed only in the imagination. Asia has still out of bounds for most Americans. China shut out the world during the Cultural Revolution. Half of Korea was shut off, and the Southern half was poverty stricken. Vietnam was a war zone, and soon Cambodia and Laos would be as well. Japan was just opening to global business, but any product marked Made in Japan was still expected to break the first day.
I was going into a brave new world with no hangover from the past. I did not for one moment think of going to Asia to convert the pagans. (As, in the 1950s, all of us students in parochial schools used to go door to door in the neighborhood to collect nickels and dimes to feel the pagan babies of war-torn China, Korea, and Indochina.)
No, I was going to have me some goldarn adventure.
There was a bar around the corner from the Y, and I would sometimes go there at night for as schooner of beer (for one thin dime).
The barmaid was my age but she looked like she had probably fifteen years of life experience on me. She was pretty… attractive… lusty; like Marsha Mason in Cinderella Liberty. Not having a sister, the only girls I knew were my Catholic schoolmates and they started scaring me into silence back around seventh grade.
Before this last night in Seattle, I would take my schooner and sit by myself in a banquette against the wall and watch her and the other down-and-outs have a good-ol-time.
This last night, I actually — against everything drilled into me in the Midwest: don’t talk to strangers — said hi as she poured the beer. I told her I wouldn’t be coming in again, not that she would have noticed or cared. I was going to Vietnam and leaving tomorrow.
I retired with my drink to my corner. When I finished it, good guy that I was, I took the empty glass back to the bar. And as I left, she called after me, “Hey boy.”
“Do you know how to keep a hard-on?”
Wait, what? I didn’t think polite girls back home even knew what those were. Yes, I was that naïve, and going soon onto a war zone. She must have seen a bad outcome.
She answered her own question, in the face of my stupefaction. “Don’t fuck with it.”
And then she said, “Hey, kid, take care of yourself over there. Okay? I want to see you come back here. God knows I’ll still be here.”
At about 3 am the beers and the Bubonic Plague vaccination met each other. I woke up fearing I was going to die, then afraid I was never going to die. The sheet was soaked with sweat, I was gagging and about to pass out. Maybe I did. Because the next I knew my alarm went off at 5 am.
I got the bus and got to Pier 90 at 6 am. I signed the Articles as a BR4. I think that was a union name for cabin boy.
And so we started sailing north up Puget Sound, until we came to the Strait of Juan de Fuca, then turned left. (That’s called ‘port’, flatlander.)
Passing Port Angeles, a Post Office craft came by and the Purser tossed a locked leather satchel onto the deck of the boat below. And that was the last physical contact with the landed.
It was sundown on a Friday evening in July when we sailed out past Cape Flattery into the North Pacific. I went to the back end of the ship. (It’s call aft, kid.) The United States of American that had extended infinitely in all direction in my mind all my life was now a single light in a farmhouse somewhere on the Olympic Peninsula.
Then I went forward to see what there was to see. It was the blackest night I had ever seen. And we were sailing into it, setting off across 10,000 miles of open Pacific at about 17 mph.
There was a chop as you get when you are still on the Continental Shelf. But by the next morning we were clearly at sea with the deep pulse of Mother Ocean mutually massaging the Ocean of Air above to create the weekend weather for Seattle, Portland and beyond to the Rockies.
So I headed to my bedroom (fo’c’sle, kid) and got in bed (bunk, punk).
My schooldays were finally over. My education was about to begin.