Sunday, October 31, 2010
The moment I met up with them the night before sailing I knew I was back in a horribly familiar place. From various parts of the country we had come to the Henry Hudson Hotel over by the West Side Highway across from the ships’ berths from where a Holland-American Line student ship would depart the next day for Europe. A half dozen boys and girls were already there, congregating in one of the anonymous carpeted bedrooms, and the scene was dominated by this burly guy Bruce from Akron, Ohio who did all the talking. No chance for me to get a word in, hard as it was to speak at all, and I thought I might never connect with any of the girls here – the sad, puppy-like blonde from California, the olive skinned, sharp featured girl from New Jersey, the firm pug nosed girl from Boston, the intelligent New York girl who said her father was a state supreme court judge. Bruce never stopped talking. Saying the obvious. There we are, he said. Here we are, he said. Now you look very ready, he said. And the girls watched him, and the other boys, who seemed small and retiring, did too. A running commentary as if we were all part of nothing more than his own story. Annoying and frightening for he seemed to have power here. Like the ones who used to make fun of me before it became clear to me and the world that I was bright and that a pretty girl could love me.
Out of the blue Bruce started making fun of me, for I hesitated to speak and that seemed to tell him I was an enclosed intellectual. He leapt on my not being able to speak by asking why I was so afraid, asking it in a way that did not require an answer.
Why was I here? The previous summer while in Europe with the family I had had this idea they all scoffed at that I would become a poet and live in Paris. I had been able to so clearly see myself in a small basement restaurant such as I so far knew only in fiction, a warm dark place with red and white checkered table clothes, glowing candles with cheerful wax dripping down the sides, me and a generic warm dark girl in black leaning in over the table, forehead to forehead, she making love close up with her eyes as we talked in shared intensity about something. Monet? Keats? Socialism?
And there I had been with this fantasy last summer while on the one hand in Paris and on the other back in the family. Which had opened up new worlds but also made it seem to me that I could never get safely beyond the family’s version of my life. In
boarding school, which at first had been a place of dread, I had entered worlds beyond the family, and my victories in school had been confirmed by my growing popularity in summer in the White mountains. But back in the family everything else in my life could seem flimsy.
And then our Southern grandmother had offered Peter and me new trips to Europe. There was this outfit called the Experiment in International Living, based in Putney Vermont, that was popular with parents in our Connecticut town. It set up groups of young people for summers abroad to live in foreign families. Most of the groups were for college students, but they had this one group for just graduated secondary school seniors. Not for Paris. Rather for Holland, which I knew mainly from sappy children’s stories about blonde kids in wooden shoes, sexless little blonde girls in dumpy cloth hats. Hans Brinker and his silver skates. Funny little dogs pulling funny little carts. But I jumped at the chance to board a ship again and leave an old life behind. Though I also thought that just maybe what I really wanted was back up to the White Mountains – despite this pull to sail away from whatever it was that bound me.
Oh god, how stupid, I said to myself, sitting cross legged on brown wall-to-wall hotel room carpeting, looking at possibly unattainable girls, back now at the starting point, back as dumb and dull as I had seemed to people before I was seen to all but a handful as bright and interesting – back in the dark past when I was defined by my twin brother whom the family adored and who had learned to read four years before I did.
There on the brown carpet I silently spoke to myself trying to feign connection with what was around me. I was saying to myself, as I used to do years back, “Dee Dah Duh.” I was
back to using on myself the sounds that came from Mortimer Snerd who was on the radio every week, a buck-toothed ventriloquist’s dummy who was supposed to be comically stupid.
Bruce looked down at me on the floor and said “We won’t bite you.” And then he cut off the chance of anyone else saying anything by starting to sing “Walkin’ my baby back home,” about him getting a girl’s makeup all over his face, a song I knew would take me back to this awful moment if I ever heard it again.
On the ship we met with our elders from the Experiment in International Living, Hal and Nancy. From them we learned the words to song about a long ago Dutchman doing heroic things against the Spanish. We were warned that the Dutch were sensitive about what was happening right now in the East Indies in the big colony that they were losing without any Western powers coming to their support. In the passion I had for peace and justice as part of my coming to know that I was not always to be seen as stupid, as I had been putting together these worthy cause idea, I had not noticed the war the Dutch were fighting against brave, freedom-loving revolutionaries in Java.
I did let it be known that I was a young Socialist, another matter for Bruce to use to make fun of me. I let it be known in the discussion groups that I was on the side of justice, though outside the groups I was almost paralyzed, even if somewhat confident that eventually they all, except Bruce, might respect my intelligence and maybe even like me – if not so much as I was respected and liked by the kids in the White Mountains. Such respect could be some compensation. It was not what I wanted. I wanted to be in the swim of life, honored because I had become suave, not because I had a mind, I wanted to fall in love with someone like one of these girls here who seemed so profoundly unavailable to me. I remained okay in the discussion groups led by Hal and Nancy but outside such structures I was almost lost. It would have been worse had it not been that we could buy beer on the ship even though none of us was older than 17.
We slept in dark dormitories deep down into the ship, probably below the water line, scores of bunk beds all in one great room that you entered after going through the areas near the kitchens where dark little servant men in fez-like caps from the Dutch East Indies were busy pealing various vegetable things that would go into the hearty but tasteless meals. The not garbage-like smell of the kitchens was one knew I would never forget.
In the dormitory an older boy asked me about some papers I was scanning that were headed with the initials NFL. I thought everyone knew about the National Forensic League. Bruce had already noted, and used against me, that I knew so very little about organized sports.
At one point a crew cut older guy in the dormitory is confronting Bruce. It seems Bruce has been reading and talking disparagingly about what is in somebody’s journal. Nice for me to see that Bruce did not get away with it.
Bruce starts to tease me pretending friendship, saying I am in love with a girl in the group, making fun of me and also of the girl.
When the ship gets to Rotterdam the kids in the families we will stay with are waiting on the dock. Our Dutch brothers ands sisters is what they are called, and this seems to me like a misuse of language.
To the edge of the group is a dark, intense looking boy. We all shout back and forth and it turns out that he is to be my Dutch brother. Bruce says look at that guy Fred will be with. Look at him. Just like Fred. Bruce is dismissing the guy already, the way he has been dismissing me all along. And I cannot believe anyone in the group except me sees anything wrong with Bruce, and the anyone, me included, would ever challenge him the way that older boy in the dormitory did. Bruce is removing all possible validation from
my “Dutch brother.” He has found something else to take away form me.
At first I remained painfully shy in this Dutch family in Heemstede, a place of spotless clean brick streets lined by very old brick houses near actual dikes and actual windmills and a nearby museum filled with works by someone named Franz Hals, who had portrayed 17th century Dutchmen with the sort of exuberance that I could understand if not emulate. Eight Americans, none of us more than 17, in families with eight Dutch kids a couple of years older than us since they apparently did not move into life at the same rate as Americans. At first I remained painfully shy, as I had been much of the time on the student ship over. One of the guys in our group had talked of how he felt we were moving back in time as we crossed the Atlantic. I felt as if for me all time were the same time. The group was still dominated by that bully from Akron outside the group I still felt under siege, even though I had not evidence the van der Werfs were anything except kind. There was a warmth in the house that I found appealing but out of reach. I was on my guard, almost unable to speak, there with the van der Werfs, my counterpart Dirk, his outsize younger sister Bertja, his warm little mother and sometimes his first mate brother, whose name sounded like “Flip.” But I still could not fight my way out of whatever it was that enclosed me. I would long for nighttime when I could be alone in my bed upstairs.
Dirk and I bicycled against a bitter headwind to a freezing cold beach place on the coast to meet his failure father, who had left the family long ago to seek his fortune in the East. We had a big Indonesian style meal, all sorts of Chinese like dishes, called Rijsttafel and listened the man bluster on about his life’s failures. That was interesting, but back with the family, I was so disconnected that they thought I should try another family for a time. There my counterpart was a hazy guy actually named Rembrandt van Dyke whose well traveled jovial father spread out in worldly conversation to such an extent that Rem disappeared.
While I was with the van Dykes I stayed up most of several night s listening to the Democratic convention from Chicago on the Voice of America. There was constant talk of a nasty old bigot from South Carolina who vowed to bring back legal racial segregation in the schools. But a really inspiring governor named Adlai Stevenson, who among much else was an orator, won. If only my life battles could be fought so neatly.
Then I returned to the van der Werfs and as part of the Experiment in International Living’s program Dirk and I went off to a big farm for what was supposed to be a week. We were shown to our room upstairs in the farmhouse. It had about 10 beds in it. A young Scotsman was just leaving. He said this farmer had a racket going for he got free labor by supporting all the various student exchange groups that came to Holland. He said that it was common knowledge the farmer had collaborated with the Germans. In the evening one of the farmer’s sons was driving for fun an old tractor that had giant steal cleats rather than rubber tires. He drove it over a brick walkway, crumbling the walkway, which seemed, like so much in Holland, to be hundreds of years old, and no one cared. The next day we were out in the fields with pitchforks hoisting hay from hay ricks into a big horse drawn cart. Often when you lifted the hay up from a rick a mouse would run out. The farmer’s children – there seemed to be an infinite number – stood around waiting, and then with glee pummeled the little mice to death with rocks.
Late one day Dirk and I gathered our things and walked away from the farm without a word to anyone. As the sun was setting we walked along a dike holding back water that reflected the yellow and golden rays. Yellow and golden though it was still chilly. We found a café, had beer, then more beer, and caught a bus. Finally it seemed that I was not only in a place I where belonged but that I could rise to any occasions ahead. And the next week I met a wonderfully unhealthy looking girl we ran into at a club that featured robust tennis and rowing. She kept telling me what a bad girl she was. This was hopeful.
So Dirk and I were friends now. But the one in our group that I hit it off with most was a tall guy named Arnaud Dauder, son of a clergyman who was open and confident and as politically advanced as me. We talked about everything, from girls to socialism. And then when the whole group was on a weeklong canal boat trip around the country Arnaud and I and Lois from New York left the boat for two days in an area in the south called the teardrop of Holland which before the war was German territory that poked into Dutch territory in an area the shape of an upside down teardrop. It had been given to Holland after the war but now, seven years later, was still populated almost entirely by Germans. We spent days going around interviewing all sorts of Germans, asking them why they did what they did, for which we got no answers. Arnold would interpret for Lois and me. He would try to get them to speak Dutch, and then French and then English, and only reluctantly would listen to German. We took our quest to the local priest, who had apparently gone along with the Nazis, but he was evasive and said that what we were talking about was not his business.. Then we pounded on a huge door and got in to see the Burgomaster. And we were shouting at him before we were through. Later I realized how frightened these teardrop Germans most have been of us, we representatives of the occupying forces that had come in after Germany’s shame and defeat.
All the Dutch kids in our group were being educated, which meant here that they spoke English and French and German nearly as well as their native language. But they all said they would go to almost any lengths not to use their German. The German occupation with it cruel horror was far from being forgotten or forgiven. When the burgomaster said something in German Arnaud would pretend not to understand.
Arnaud was a near pacifist, and I had become a pacifist as well as a Socialist in boarding school when pacifism and socialism seemed clearly good in themselves as well as antidotes to the world I had come from. But even as he talked of the Germans, many of them old enough to be our grandfathers, it was as if the Dutch took them to be subhuman. There was a newspaper story about something that had happened recently on a ferry boat. A German had been hurled over the rail and actually drowned, and no one did or said anything and there was practically no police investigation.
At one point in the canal trip we were joined by someone new, a girl named Hilda van Bolerick who came in late because her family was late getting out of what remained of the Dutch Eat Indies. Hilda had flowing brown hair and mocking green eyes and a deep tan. No one in Holland, I had noticed, was tan in the summer. I practically never saw the sun that summer in Holland. Also, Hilda wore bright lipstick and even her toe nails were painted red, something that was not seen in the parts of Holland we were in back then. And there was more. Hilda shaved her legs. She actually had smooth, tanned legs that were shaved, something else I had not seen since I left the student ship.
And we found corners for tentative necking, just like it would have been if instead of going to gray cold Holland I had spent the summer in my usual place up with our gang in the White Mountains.
Things were working out so well that when it all took an ominous turn I was more surprised and shocked by my sudden vocally violent anger than were the surprised and shocked people around me.
Late in the day, at a time there would have been a sunset if the fog and clouds had lifted, several of us were sitting on the bunks in the big cabin where the boys slept on the canal boat. We started talking about the pretty girls in the group. And we realized that if they were in their cabin they would be able hear us, for between the boys’ and girls’ cabins there was a divider that did not go quite all the way up. What we were doing seemed funny, talking while knowing the girls could hear us but pretending we did not know that. And then I was the one doing all the talking. The other boys seemed receptive, but it was all coming from me. And then I was making fun of each of these girls who had seemed so inaccessible to me. The California girl was dumb, the New Jersey girl blatant, one girl was too tall and another had hairy arms and the makings oaf mustache.
And suddenly I was alone.
Hal took me on a long walk around the quite rural place where the boat was docked for the night. He talked about all sorts of things that we had both found interesting – Rembrandts in Amsterdam, the political situation in the East Indies, and he finally got around to the strange events of the night. He didn’t seemed to be judgmental, just puzzled. As was I. He said he couldn’t understand why I had talked that way knowing I would be heard. I couldn’t either.
But after that it was more like a haunting bad dream than something that had actually happened. A week after we were back the group boarded a small bus early one morning. On the bus the New Jersey girl spoke, as if for all of us, to the Boston girl and the guy who felt we had moved back in time. She said how happy we all were for them since the two had clearly become a couple, and she was telling them how we all felt they were handling their romance so well. We had lunch in Luxembourg and before dark were in Paris where we had clear double rooms, with bidets in them, in some sort of school. Since I had been in Paris before, I began to act as a guide. I led everyone to Place Pigalle where Peter and I had been to a dark nightclub full of seedy women and watched a wild dance billed as an apache dance in which the man, a thuggish guy in a beret, kept smacking the girl, whose prettiness and some sweetness shown through her studied hardness.
While we were walking a Dutch couple left the group to go into one of those seedy nightclubs. When we came back that way we found the two sitting on the sidewalk outside the gaudy club. A huge bill had been presented, and the manager would not let them out until they handed over their watches. So there they were on the sidewalk in front of the nightclub when the rest of the group, led by me, came along. They were sad but amused, for passersby had been dropping coins on the pavement in front of them. We decided to all sit on the curb and warn passers-by to stay away from this cheating establishment. We sat there for an hour and then a waiter came out to return the watches.
Bruce was wandering hand in hand with Nelly the Dutch sister of the California girl. He was singing, over and over, “Walking’ mah baby back home.”
I had thought I would be with Hilda Paris, but it turned out she had a pre-arranged rendezvous with a curly haired medical student who had her to himself until he returned her to the bus the day we departed.
I was in Paris but I was not in Paris. No rue St. Honoré hotel. No drawing in charcoal across from the Opera. No pretty naked Olympia music hall dancers. Worst of all, no Monet and Manet and Renoir. We did go to the Louvre and see the Mona Lisa, the Winged Victory and the Venus de Milo. I was there but not there.
And was sad to leave Holland where these people – Dirk and his sister and brother and little mother were more like family than any actual family I had known in the sense that I did not feel they were watching me, and I did feel that they wanted life to be good to me.
On the trip back we drank a lot of Bols gin. At one point they fooled me by putting more gin in my beer each time I turned around and I got so drunk that the next morning I could not remember the evening. But this was in fun, not like the cruel teasing at the start of the trip. Bruce seemed to have gotten smaller and hazier. And I was continuing to get comfortable.
And yet I wasn’t sure there was any way I would see any of these people again.
On the student ship going back I chatted with two genial guys who had finished their first year at Harvard. Two guys from Holderness would have been in their class to I asked about them. They were both very taken with Dmitri Nabokov, eccentric, brilliant, rakish Dmitri. And they could not stand Corky Muller, who was one of the dumb, cruel athletes who had done so well socially at Holderness.
And while we were talking I was wondering why I did not select Harvard. Why I was going to Princeton. It was too late now to change. It was as if I could no longer back out of Princeton than I could back out of my family. And IL knew for certain that at Princeton Corky Miller would have been a great success.
The parents were there at the dock to meet me. And Peter was with them. All three spoke of how they they were that Peter and I were about to start college, Peter at Columbia, me at Princeton. They Had been in the White Mountains. They were sorry to tell me that my dog Moxie with whom I had been having adventures for six years, had run away in the woods up there. Peter said my former girlfriend Kitty looked lovely. He had taken her to summer theater play and written in her program “She walks in beauty, as the night.”