A Concussion At Dartmouth

I have made a lot of awful decisions in my life, but most of them were bunched up in a year-and-a-half period when I was 18 and 19 and full of testosterone and teenage-boy bluster. Like all males of that age, my prefrontal cortex — the part of the brain that handles executive functioning and judgment — was undeveloped, and the notion that there was a tomorrow or next year or next decade never occurred to me, like it never occurs to all 19 year olds.

When I was a senior at St. Albans in 1950-51, I had applied to four colleges: Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth and Princeton. My best pal at St. Albans, Nick Kotz, who lived half a block away and who I drove to class with every morning of our senior year, had visited colleges together in the fall of 1950. We went to Dartmouth and to Yale, but at Yale we first went to the DKE house that was famous for having the longest bar in the Ivy League. While having a beer there, we heard there was a fabulous party going on in an eating house in Princeton, so we promptly headed south from New Haven to party at Princeton, having only seen the inside of the DKE house and a beer glass at Yale.

When we visited Dartmouth, Nick and I were greeted by some of the most popular guys at St. Albans — Johnny Barto, Ralph Lee, Tom Bradley and Jim Rill — all at the SAE house. We were snowed. We loved the isolated, cold college not because of the academics but because of the popular St. Albans guys who we wanted to emulate.

When I got letters from the four colleges, I had been accepted to Dartmouth, Yale and Harvard, but rejected by Princeton. I suspect Princeton denied me because six classmates with better grades had been admitted, and Princeton probably capped the admittance at six. Four of us chose Dartmouth — myself, Nick Kotz, Bob Alvord and Dick McCormack. Nick stuck it out and graduated with honors, Bob transferred after his freshman year and I left at the end of my first semester sophomore year.

I have often thought if I had selected Yale instead of Dartmouth, would my college experience have been different. I don’t think so. I was totally unprepared to be on my own, make my own decisions and handle money.

In my freshman year at Dartmouth, I was assigned a room in Lord Hall and a roommate from Milwaukee (his name maybe was Larry Kretchmar?), but the week I moved into the corner room, I was informed that Larry wanted to live with two friends down the hall, so I was assigned a new roommate. I’ve forgotten his first name, but I think his last name was Boudreau, like the Cleveland Indian shortstop, Lou Boudreau. At any rate, he was a tall, sturdy hockey player from Lawrence, MA (I think). He was not a preppie, and on a hockey scholarship — a blue-collar type. I hated him.

We argued constantly and wound up not speaking. He asked for another room about the same time Bob Alvord, my second -best friend friend from St. Albans, decided that he hated his roommates (also in Lord Hall) and asked for a new room. It all worked out, and Bob and I became roommates in a lovely corner room on the top floor of Lord Hall.

Bob and I had a ball together. We’d been very close at St. Albans, so we knew each other’s habits and quirks. Bob was a grind. He was a serious student and a serious athlete. He made the freshman basketball team, and I’d go to most of his games, at least those games that were in the middle of the week because I spent the weekends visiting Smith. I stayed with Tyler Abell and Ralph Pagter in their room at Amherst and hitched a ride from Amherst to Northampton to visit Marianna Moran and then Joan Bryant.

At the end of the spring semester our freshman year, Bob and I and Tyler Abell drove across the country — a trip I’ll write about in another story. When the three of us were in Los Angeles, I heard that a job with the Republican National Committee that I had applied for (with my St. Albans and Dartmouth pal Jim Rill) earlier in the spring had come through, so I flew home to take the job and left Bob and Tyler to drive back to DC without me, which, looking back on it, was typically thoughtless.

Therefore, for the last several weeks of August and the first week in September, I worked in the Washington Hotel for the Republican National Committee, which was trying to get Dwight Eisenhower elected president. I worked for Frank Kluckhohn, an author and public relations operative. My job was to look at the AP and UP news wires and check for news items that involved agriculture. I would rip off news releases from Democrats from farm states, quickly look at a huge notebook that contained the Republican platform and messaging on agriculture policy and then draft a press release responding to (attacking) the Democratic statement. I would then show the draft of the release to Kluckhohn, who would usually make a few minor changes, tell me what member of congress to attribute it to and then I’d call that person (aways a man), tell him that we wanted to release a statement under his name and read the release to him. I always got approval.

I wrote dozens of press releases about a subject I knew noting about, for a congressman I didn’t know and for a candidate I’d never met. It was politics.

The work was challenging and exciting. Jim Rill worked in a nearby room, and we’d meet after work at a local bar, often the Old Ebbit Grill, with other campaign workers, many of whom were GIRLS. We drank and we had fun. We even went to a campaign rally in Philadelphia’s Convention Hall on September 4 to be part of the enthusiastic crowd that listened to Ike’s speech about his peace plan. Heady stuff.

I went back to Dartmouth, but not with the enthusiasm that I had for the Eisenhower campaign. My father was ill. He was seeing doctors constantly. He had his spleen removed the previous spring and was now in an out of the hospital with some unknown condition that required blood transfusions. He was weak, drawn, not himself. I was confused and worried because my father had always been the strong, dominating, disciplining authority in the family — the rudder. I had not idea what direction to go without him.

I had been a star on the Dartmouth freshman soccer team, and when I went back to school a week early for varsity soccer practice, I was not surprised that I was one of two sophomores who made the first team. I was right inside and Dave Conlon was a halfback on a soccer team that would go on that year to win the Ivy League, but without me. After the first game, I came up limping from an old wound I had suffered at St. Albans and that had kept me out of football for most of my Sixth Form (senior) year — a blood condition in my thigh muscles that didn’t allow me to run. Dr. Pollock at Dartmouth told me I had to stop playing soccer, I was devastated.

I had been unsuccessful academically my first year at Dartmouth — all Cs, Ds and Fs — too many trips to Smith, too many nights playing poker, going to the movies and drinking beer, but I had been successful in soccer, so it was my only badge of self-worth.

First semester sophomore year was also the time when you pledged to a fraternity. Pledge week was a drunken orgy of stress and posturing. I did not live in a dorm but in Wigwam, an area on campus consisting of small, single huts, mostly for married students and outcasts who couldn’t find a roommate. Bob Alvord had transferred to Haverford, near Philadelphia, because he hated the isolation of Dartmouth and wanted to be near a big city that had a symphony orchestra. So I didn’t have a roommate and wanted to live alone, so I moved to Wigwam, which, as I learned later when I worked for him at CBS, is where Russ Barry lived after he got married to his first wife, Phyllis.

Living alone was not a good idea. I didn’t have the discipline to get up on time to eat breakfast and then go to class, so I typically did neither. To get company, more and more I went to see Joan Bryant at Smith. I was madly in love with her, hormones racing, but the relationship was not working the way I wanted it to. We necked and petted passionately, but no intercourse. I was desperate, obsessed, plus my grades were tanking.

During fraternity rush week, I really wanted to get into the Theta Delt house. I thought the coolest guys were there, especially two roommates of Jim Rill  — Ralph Destino and Al Donahower. Both were juniors and incredibly charismatic, especially Al. He smoked Luckies, played poker and bridge and was the clear leader of the non-academic pack. My kind of guy. Jim Rill was an SAE, as were Ralph Lee and  Tom Bradley, and they rushed me hard. My father had been an SAE at Northwestern, so he wanted me to pledge SAE. I also went to the Beta house, where the jocks were and to the Sigma Nu house where Nick eventually pledged. But the DKE house is where the hard party animals were — the drunken DKEs.

I was bitterly disappointed when I was told that I would not get an offer to join Theta Delt, so I had to choose between the DKEs and SAE. I made the wrong choice. I went DKE. Looking back on it, I think it was an expression of rage and rebellion. Rage because my father was dying, rage at not getting into Theta Delt, rage that I couldn’t play soccer and rage that I couldn’t consummate my relationship with Joan. I’d show them; I’d be a drunken DKE.

Soon after I pledged, I knew I had made a mistake. I had disappointed my friend Jim Rill, disappointed my father and sunk deeper into the hole of self-worth. I was living alone, eating alone and brooding.

On election afternoon, while votes were being cast for Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson, I joined a pick-up touch football game. On one play I was carrying the ball in a mad dash around left end. I was tagged hard and fell out of bounds, bashing my head on the ground. I don’t remember much after that, but I made it back to my hut in Wigwam and woke up 14 hours later. I staggered to the infirmary and was told I had a concussion. They wrapped my head and told me to stay quiet and not drink for a week. I looked at it as a great excuse not to go to class.

My memory is dim of a mind that was dim and of a time that was dim, but this I do remember: It was the lowest time in my life up to that point. Worse than moving to Alexandria from Battle Creek, worse than being bed ridden with poison ivy with my eyes swollen shut and my testicles swollen to the size of a large softball and worse than being sick in Battle Creek with scarlet fever. I had made a series of awful choices, I was alone on an uncomfortable bed in an aluminum-sided hut in a cold state, my father was dying, I couldn’t get laid, I was flunking my courses, I had pledged the wrong fraternity and I had a concussion.

The least worrisome thing was the concussion — it would heal — there was no healing in sight for the other problems.

Because I had flunked out of my Naval Reserve course in my freshman year, I was kicked out of the Naval Reserve. The war in Korean needed cannon fodder, so I had received a draft notice to report for basic training in January, so this was another woe to add to my list. Still, the least of my worries was the concussion.

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