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Ten Truths

As the year ends, I thought I’d try my hand at writing maxims – universal truths – ten in ten days.  Here are the results

#1. Albeit distantly, we are all related.

#2. We don’t know far more than we know.

#3. If God has a language it is probably mathematics.

#4. Shame – both collective and private – prevents us from understanding human sexuality.

#5. Words are more powerful than we realize.

#6. Fear is what divides us – not guns, not religion, not race.

#7. Many of the world’s conflicts can be traced to such phrases as, “I am the way and the light.”

#8. Patriotism is not a badge; it’s a responsibility.

#9. As finite beings, we cannot hope to comprehend the infinite, yet there is no shortage of those making the claim.

#10. Thoughtfulness is rarely a crowd response.

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The Triple Zoom

Winter term of my freshman year, the drinking age was eighteen and several of the guys in my dorm and I decided to hit fraternity row. It’s a bucolic little street with maybe a half-dozen fraternities lined up on each side. It’s anchored on one end by Baker Library and on the other by the President’s home (neither of which did much to dispel the revelry one enjoyed there).

Late that night, Chuck, Lefty, Hilliard and I found ourselves in the basement of Beta. There was a crowd but nothing specific going on – no band or cocktail party – just beers on a Friday night. We were standing near the back of the basement where four guys were playing a game of “Zoom, Schwartz.”

Zoom, Schwartz is a drinking game. While the rules are simple, the game itself is difficult to play – especially if you’ve been drinking. It’s a verbal game of tag where players stand in a circle and bark out one of four commands to tag another player – who then has to use one of the four commands to tag someone else. If you speak out of turn or fail to respond quickly enough when you are tagged, the game stops and you are required to drink. You are only allowed four drinks to a cup of beer and if you get tagged three times in a row, you chug.

The four commands are, “Zoom” – which designates the player at whom you are looking. “Schwartz” – which designates the last person who spoke. “Budeman” – which designates the person to your left. “Perfigliano” signifies the person to your right. On this last, the shortened “Figliano” is considered an acceptable contraction due to the speed of the game.

So much for the rules. Back to the basement of Beta.

“You guys want to play?”

It took us a nanosecond to say yes. Freshmen aren’t always welcomed into upper class sanctuaries, let alone invited to join in their fun. I had an older brother who belonged to Bones Gate (another fraternity) where they played a similar game called Wales Tails (‘nounce pronounce the prince and four, regular Wales Tales, the prince calls on…) So, I thought we could hang.

I was wrong.

They were so fast! “Zoom, Zoom, Shwartz, Budeman, Figliano, Boom.”

“Boom? BOOM? Drink ‘shmen!”

We couldn’t follow them. It was like watching a professional team play against a high school. They owned us. And we were too embarrassed to quit. Once they realized that we couldn’t keep up, they started to single each one of us out, ganging up to force three mistakes in a row. We were chugging left and right. It was a nightmare. The drunker we became the worse we played. Finally, one of us booted and they kicked us out. We returned to our dorm in shame.

The next morning we met up at Thayer Dining Hall.

“Unacceptable.” Hilliard said, shoving his plate away.

“They fucked us.” Lefty was so made he could spit.

Chuck drummed his fingers on the table. “We can’t go back there…not unless we get better.”

I lifted up my head. “So, let’s get better.”

We chipped up a keg, I called Mo’s and within an hour we were set to go in the common area of our dorm. We circled around a trashcan and made a vow that none of us could leave the game until we booted.   We nicknamed the game “Boot, Shwartz.”

We played all day. We stumbled through the first hours, but as time moved on, we began to feel the rhythm of the game.

“Zoom, Shwartz, Figliano, Budeman, Budeman, Schwartz, Zoom.” We became supercritical of each other. “That was a roving Zoom. Drink!” “Too slow. Drink!”

Eventually, we all booted into the can and had to stop.

Sunday morning the keg was still there. So was the boot bucket. Each of us took our places and again we began.   One beer in and we were back up to speed. We started using headfakes, double Zooms. We got so good, if felt like we could read each other minds.

“Zoom-Zoom, Budeman, Figliano, Figliano, Shwartz, Shwartz, Zoom, Schartz…the sequences got longer and longer…it took a minor miracle for someone to make a mistake. No one booted on Sunday.

We were ready. The next Friday night, we met outside Beta, our faces solemn.

“We got this.” We high-fived each other and went inside.

Same basement. Same guys. They seemed surprised that we had returned. We got a beer and talked amongst ourselves, waiting…hoping to get the invite. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see the Beta boys discussing it amongst themselves.  They were laughing, remembering how poorly we had played last week. Finally, one of them shrugged and they all nodded.

“You guys want to play again?”

“Yeah, if that’s okay with you guys.”

“Your funeral.”

Lefty started. We double-zoomed them and although they were surprised, they were quick enough to return fire. We began to use head fakes. We anticipated each other’s moves. The Beta boys started to falter. After ten minutes, they were drinking as much as we were. We adopted their tactics, imitated their moves. They started to get angry.

Now the alcohol was working against them. Their faces grew serious. Ours, on the other hand, were exuberant. We knew we were winning. They tried to gang up on one of us, but we diverted the attack. After a really good head fake, one of them spoke out of turn. He drank. When he started the game again and we pegged him with another head fake. Same result.

“Fuck.” He knew we were coming for him. His buddies tried to deflect our assault, but we were faster. We were pounding him with commands, but despite all our pressure, he remained resilient. We had all of his attention now and could see the determination on his face. He wasn’t backing down and we couldn’t seem to catch him. He was playing at a higher level – until the triple-zoom.

You have to be really good to pull off a triple zoom. We had practiced it enough, but too often, the second or third player would speak too quickly, disrupting the order of commands. Speaking out of turn was a drinking offense, so the ploy backfired as much as it worked.

Hilliard set it up. He was grinning an evil grin and looking at my ear on each command, so I knew he wanted to try it. I looked at Lefty and he had seen it too. With a smirk, he nodded. We played along, waiting for Hilliard to get called. At long last he caught a Budeman. He took a deep breath. I looked at Lefty’s ear. Lefty looked at the Beta boy.

“Zoom-Zoom-Zoom.” We spoke almost in unison. The call bounced from Hilliard to me, from me to Lefty, and from Lefty to the Beta boy in under a second. By the time he realized it was aimed at him, it was too late. He had taken to long to respond.

“Fuck!” He was furious.

We were laughing.

“Get the Fuck out of here!” His face had turned crimson.

“You have to chug first.”

“Get the fuck out of here!” The room had quieted. We suddenly were in unfriendly waters. Guys were lining up behind Beta boy.

“Time to go,” Hilliard whispered. And go we did.

I never got invited to join Beta. Neither did Lefty, or Hilliard, or Chuck. But, I’ll never forget the look on that guy’s face after the triple zoom. It was worth it.

It was so worth it.

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Tin Soldiers

I grew up in a quiet little place called Briarcliff Manor. It was off the beaten track, a “village” dwarfed by three larger towns. Fewer than one hundred kids graduated high school with me and I’ll bet half were around twelve years earlier when I attended Miss Barnes first grade class.

Not much went on in Briarcliff and our parents liked it that way. We had a police force, but not much in the way of crime. We had a “main street,” but it had stores on only on one side of it. For the most part, during my formative years, days were filled with playing football, basketball or baseball (depending on the season), hanging out, reading comics, riding my bike and trying to figure out how to talk to girls.

Our high school stood in the center of town next to the community pool, the park and the library. It had a large green lawn, a flagpole and a circular driveway out front for the buses to come and go. It looked like a Spanish fort, with high stucco walls and an imposing facade. Everyone called it “The Alamo.” The Rec Center used to sho
w movies against its front wall during hot
summer nights and families would turn out, sit on blankets to watch, “The Mouse that Roared” and “War of the Worlds.

Briarcliff High School 1909 Number 2
Photo courtesy of Briarcliff Manor – Scarborough Historical Society

Oddly enough, The Alamo was an
appropriate name for 1970, when this story takes place, as most of our
parents were desperately trying to keep the outside world from invading the quiet life of our little village. Six years after the
Beatles had landed at JFK, the country had transformed itself into something unrecognizable to them.

Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, The Doors, Meatloaf were merely symbols of the type of change rocking the country. The Kennedy brothers had been assassinated; so had Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. People were marching in the streets for civil rights, women’s rights and against the Vietnam War.   With the invention of the pill, the sexual revolution was in full swing and our parents were more than a little worried.

You could see the change in school. Boys started wearing their hair long; everyone sported jeans and tie-dyed tee shirts. Drugs found their way into student lockers and everyone was talking about the Vietnam War. Congress had done away with the college deferment and instituted a lottery system for the draft. All 18-year old males, including those in that year’s senior class, were eligible.

Although, I loved the music, I was largely unaffected by the changes going on. The son of a Marine, my hair was still short and my politics, if you could call them that, were conservative. At the time, I was thinking of going to West Point. I found the changes that many of my friends were going through perplexing. I hung back, preferring the company of my football buddies, and kept my nose clean.

Critical to this story is Kevin Johnson, a junior at the time. Kevin scared the crap out of me. There was a nervous edge about him – an “I don’t give a shit” edge – that a straight-laced fourteen-year-old boy like me found incomprehensible. Making matters worse, he didn’t like me. If he walked into a room, I’d check for the location of all the nearest exits before I took my next breath.

It was in early May when our moment of truth arrived – a breach in The Alamo. It began with an announcement by President Nixon that the U.S. would bomb Cambodia (to stop the North Vietnamese from using that country to make end-run attacks on our troops). College campuses all across the country were in an uproar of protest, with sit-ins, marches and candlelight vigils.

One such protest was held at Kent State University. Although it started out peacefully, unruly behavior among the protestors and some poor decisions by the mayor of Kent caused the situation to escalate into violence. The mayor called on the governor to issue a state of emergency. The governor concurred and called in the National Guard.

A second day of protests started and the confrontation continued to mount. Someone set fire to the ROTC building and a thousand protestors surrounded the blaze to cheer. When police and fire fighters arrived at the scene, they were pelted with rocks. In the ensuing exchange a student was bayoneted. The governor called the protestors “un-American” and vowed to “eradicate the problem.”

Cooler heads among the students tried to prevail. Several showed up the next morning to clean up the mess from the riot but were ordered off the streets. The protestors tried a new tack, holding a sit-in in hopes of securing a meeting with the mayor and the university president. The National Guard used tear gas and fixed bayonets to disperse them and several more students were stabbed.

A fourth day of protest started and the Guard was ordered to clear the campus commons. After tear gas canisters were ineffective, the Guard again fixed bayonets and marched on the protesters. They succeeded in dispersing a majority of the students, but some remained on the steps of a nearby campus building. They heckled the Guardsman marching back through campus. One of the Guardsmen, a sergeant, turned and fired into the protestors. Twenty-nine members of his platoon turned and fired as well. In all 67 rounds were fired, killing four students and wounding nine others. Two of those who died were protesters; two – including one young man who had been in the ROTC – were simply on their way to class.

kent_state_shootingTheir deaths rocked the country. Back in Briarcliff, Doc. Pruitt suspended his lesson plan and opened our 9th grade history class to discussion. I was stunned by the vitriol of the opinions on both sides and I couldn’t believe anyone could see it differently than I did.

“Who started the violence?” I demanded. “Who torched the ROTC building?” The debate became heated and at one point I shouted a slogan used often back in the day. “If you don’t like our country, why don’t you leave it?”

After class the argument spilled out into the hallway. Everyone was angry. Kevin came around the corner with a look of exuberance on his face. “Someone lowered the flag to half-mast. It’s for the four students!”

“Well that’s not going to happen,” I said, and, without thinking, stormed off to the front lawn. Kevin followed, stalking my steps.

“What you going to do?” Menace poured from him.

“Raise it back up.” I kept my eyes ahead, afraid to look at him.


“It’s just not right.”

We went back and forth all the way to the flagpole. Kevin was so mad he was spitting. I untied the cord securing the flags but he grabbed it above my hands to stop me. Here it comes, I remember thinking. He’s going to beat the shit out of me.   But, I wasn’t backing down.

“What’s going on here?” Bob Prout, the dean of students, seemed to appear out of nowhere. And he wasn’t alone. My older brother Jim, Michael O’Hagan and Deryl Seemayer (three of the biggest guys on the football team) all stood behind him. My confidence was magically restored.

“Someone lowered the flag to half-mast. I came to raise it.”

“Go ahead.” Dean Prout folded his arms.

With a look of betrayal and fury Kevin flipped us the bird. “This is all bullshit!”

He stormed away as I pulled on the rope to lift the flag. I felt vindicated in my actions. I felt proud to have faced down my fear. And, I felt relieved that Kevin didn’t beat the shit out of me.

But, looking back on that moment, I see the world a little differently. Kevin was right. And I’m ashamed to say that it would not be the last time that I found myself on the wrong side of history.

Although there was plenty of blame to go around in the tragedy at Kent State, just as there is in the state of our politic today, I got caught up in the rhetoric.  I lost my perspective. It was a shameful day and a lesson in what happens when antagonists double down on their righteousness. Those students didn’t deserve to die and their death was a national tragedy. They deserved to have our flags lowered on their behalf. To function, democracy requires a unique talent – the ability to listen – especially by those in power, and especially if they carry guns.

No one was listening that day in Ohio on either side and we all paid the price for it, especially those four kids. They deserve our apology and, for my behavior that day, so does Kevin Johnson.

You were right, Kevin. It was all bullshit. And I’m sorry I wasn’t smart enough to see it. Maybe next time I will

Meā culpā, meā culpā,meā máximā culpā.

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Skins vs. Shirts

In Briarcliff, there is a community park right in the center of the town. In the old days it was adjacent to the high school and its playing fields. It had a pool, tennis courts, a pond, a library, lots of green grass – just about everything a kid could need during the summer months when school was out.

When I was ten, it was all about the basketball-603039_960_720pool. But as I grew older, I found my true love…basketball. One of the tennis courts at the park was made of cement and doubled as a hoops court. I spent most of my summer afternoons there after work wearing out my high, white, Converse All Stars in a never-ending game of five on five, “skins” versus “shirts.”

There were no refs. None were needed, as calling “foul” was considered unmanly. We rarely kept score, weaving up and down the court with moves we’d copied from Walt “Clyde” Frasier or Earl “the Pearl” Monroe. The real trick was to do Elgin Baylor’s last-minute kick to keep you hanging during a jump shot.

It was hot, sweaty, grueling work rewarded only by the crisp ka-chunk of the metal net when we scored. Players came and players went but the game never stopped. When the soles of our Cons cracked, we’d wrap them in athletic tape and get back in the game. It was glorious. And I loved it.

Which is why it is so difficult for me to admit to being the worst high school basketball player in Westchester County. This, unfortunately, is no exaggeration. During my senior year, Doc Pruitt’s high school basketball team had the worst record among Class C schools (the smallest and therefore lowest ranking schools in the county). And I was the worst player on the team.

Actually, I was one of three worst players. There were thirteen boys on the team. Of those thirteen, five started every week. Another five made up the second string. That left three for the bench. And the bench is where we sat every day – even during practice. The five starters would play the five second stringers for two hours while the three bench-warmers would sit, watch, and wait for wind sprints at the end of the day.

I used to tell myself that I was a victim of training too hard for football, so that when winter came around, I wasn’t “basketball ready.” If only coach Pruitt would give me the chance to get my basketball legs, I’d be fine. But, the truth is, I wasn’t very good. By the time I was a senior, my body wasn’t built for basketball, it was built for knocking people down. And for the most part, when I got on the court, that’s what I did.

Being one of the three benchwarmers was embarrassing. Every Tuesday and Friday nights, we’d parade into the gym in front of the whole school in those short shorts and sleeveless tank-top shirts (a humiliating experience for those of us with acne) and then sit at the far end of the bench so that Coach Pruitt would have faster access to the first and second squads. The three of us never got to play. It didn’t matter if we were losing by thirty points. (Notice I didn’t say up by thirty points? We were never up by thirty points). Even then, we were expected to “keep our heads in the game” and cheer for our starters.

I hated it.

As the weeks went by and my situation did not improve, I grew angry. How could I improve if I didn’t play during practice? One day after watching yet another two hours go by, I’d had enough.

“I’m quitting,” I told the coach.

“I thought Gleasons didn’t quit.” This was a reference to my two older brothers; Doc was telling me that I was shaming my family’s reputation.

“Coach, I’m not even playing in practice.”

“Fine. You’re off the team.” And that was that.

Except that it wasn’t. I started watching from the stands. Having played a sport every season since I could remember, I wasn’t used to spectating. I liked it even less than watching from the bench.

And then a funny thing happened at a Friday night game. One of the other two benchwarmers, a boy named Wade, decided he too had had enough. Instead of sitting next to the team, head in the game, and cheering on his fellow players, Wade sat several places to the right – apart from the team.

In addition to the angry looks he got from Doc Pruitt, the move caused murmurs from the stands. What was he doing? Didn’t he want to play?

The next game, he again sat apart, but this time he brought a newspaper and started reading the comics. The whole auditorium spent more time watching him than the team. The next game, Wade wore sunglasses and wrapped his legs in a beach towel.

The crowd fell in love with him. When we got behind, they chanted, “WADE!” “WADE!” “WADE!” After two or three games of this, Coach Pruitt caved to the pressure and put him in the game.

It brought down the house. The entire student body stood and stomped their approval on the new gym’s wooden bleachers. By season’s end, Wade started playing more than some of the second stringers. From my lonesome spot in the stands, all I could do was shake my head with envy. Wade had found a way into the game while I had taken myself out of it.

It took me a long while to understand what had happened and a few more failures to learn the truth: Humor can be more powerful than anger and a clever protest more effective than a principled stand.

Wade, next time we meet, the beer is on me.

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My Mom’s Corona

I have a typewriter.  It’s sits on a bookshelf in my office next to a few of my favorite collected first editions.  An old metal collapsible Corona, it’s a Spartan-looking machine with two tin spools that stretch an ink-laden ribbon across the face of its carriage. Individual metal keys labeled with the letters of the alphabet stand out from its frame.  When pressed (more like punched), they lift a thin metal arm with the appropriate typeface out of the belly of the beast.  The typeface strikes the ink ribbon to stamp its image onto a sheet of paper rolled around the rubber carriage. It still functions (“works” being too strong a word).

TypewriterMy mother gave it to me. The daughter of Polish and German parents, (which is a story all by itself) she grew up in Hamburg, a small town outside of Buffalo, New York.  A bright, confident, athletic young woman, she was passionate about music and so impressed her piano teacher that the woman gave her an upright Krakauer piano to further her musical talent. Continue reading

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