Wednesday, March 12, 2014

From TING AND I: A Memoir, At Cornell 1960-62


In September 1960, after a summer as head counselor at a small local summer camp, and a very pleasant romance with Rhoda, my co-counselor, I entered Cornell.

I love to joke. One person described me as a child as being “ebullient.” My motto is from Horace Walpole, “The world is a tragedy to those who feel and a comedy to those who think.” Mostly, I find life funny. My first year at Cornell was anything but funny.

When I first arrived at 5406 University Halls (building #5, 4th floor, room 06), my roommate had preceded me. Jerry was stereotypical New York City, regardless of where he actually came from. He was NYC in speech, manner, dress. In his closet were a dozen, perhaps even two dozen suits. I had, at most, one. There was an income/wealth disparity.

For many of the students, including me, Cornell had not been their first choice. They may not have respected it the way those would who had aspired to go there. They were noisy, especially at night, often crude. I was disillusioned, depressed, sometimes angry. My fight record that year was two wins, no losses, against bigger opponents, as usual.

To cover living expenses I worked cleaning tables and washing dishes eight to twelve hours a week at Willard Straight Dining Hall. Boring and definitely not classy. Kind of thing to build character or at least a great familiarity with the tunes on the jukebox, including “Moon River,” “Warsaw Concerto” and “Scotch and Soda.” It helped pay the bills, as I was on my own.

Athletics for me that first year included intramural basketball and preparation for and participation in the freshman boxing tournament. Boxing was very tiring, even when the rounds were short, maybe two minutes each. Three rounds to the fight. By the third round, the fighters were exhausted. My record: one win, one draw. Good enough, and I had enough.

Physics, easy for me in high school, was hard: my first mid-term exam performance earned me 17 out of a possible 100 points. I jokingly asked the teaching assistant, “Is this my grade or my seat number?” Even graded “on a curve,” it was a relatively poor performance. In preparing for the exam, I had not worked on enough problems, having been satisfied to have understood the general principles, the big picture, or so I thought.

I had lost my religious faith and yet had retained conservative political views that put me in the minority at Cornell. The horror of the Nazi treatment of the Jews, as described in Erich Maria Remarque’s Spark of Life, shocked me. How could God let such a thing happen? Without God, unfortunately, there seemed little on which to base moral choices. Eventually I came to “Do onto others,” echoing Christ and, essentially, Kant.

Albert Camus and existentialism influenced me, too: one should make of one’s life a canvas, a work of art, one of which you could be pleased or proud. My mother’s advice was along the lines of “Don’t do anything you would need to keep a secret.” Of course, more easily said than done.

Not misbehaving was made easier by the paucity of those of the female persuasion. The ratio of men to women was high, perhaps four-to-one, and a freshman had little chance when compared to an upperclassman. With so many more guys than girls on campus, I rarely had a date.

I do remember going out with Judy, a pleasant, rather plain fellow frosh I had met during Freshman Orientation. We had a nice enough date, but we did not follow up. Sophomore year, Judy returned after summer vacation, transformed. She had undergone rhinoplasty (“nose job” in Cornellese), bleached her hair blond, and dressed very well. She had become a real knockout, with lots of suitors. It must have been more attention than she could handle, though, because by senior year, she had stopped bleaching her hair and stopped dressing up, looking more like the girl I had dated originally. Thoreau summed up such a situation thus: “Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes.” Robert Frost entitled one of his poems, “The Lovely Shall Be Choosers,” in which the choices often turn to have unpleasant, unexpected consequences.

Academically, as well as socially, I was just getting by in my freshman year. After only one semester, I wanted out. My parents convinced me to give it another semester.


After another summer of being head camp counselor with Rhoda, who was from the Upper West Side of Manhattan, smart, attractive, athletic, and having what my mother described as a “Miss America figure,” I returned to Ithaca, to share a double room in Boldt Hall, much nicer than my freshman digs. Looked old. Had Ivy. My roommate was Miles, tall, smart, athletic, good-looking, and wealthy, quickly snapped up by the leading Jewish fraternity on campus, leaving me with a double room and without a roommate. Two plusses: more space, more privacy. My class work went better. My mood improved.

That fall, I “pledged” and then “de-pledged” a fraternity, Phi Epsilon Pi. I return to the Phi Ep story below. I was not fully the frat type. “I wouldn’t join any club that would have me as a member,” as Groucho Marx once said about himself.

Underscoring my unsuitability for fraternity life was the series of fights I got into, one much-too-early morning, with the fraternity located across the street from Boldt Hall. It was probably a spring Friday night. I wanted to study, and they wanted to party. I was sober and tired. They were drunk and loud. I wasn’t the only one to complain. Catcalls went back and forth to and from others at Boldt Hall and the brothers at the fraternity. Campus police were called, came and went, ineffectually.

I was fed up. I dressed, marched into the frat house, went upstairs and told the guardian of the record player to turn it down. “Turn it down yourself,” he replied. As I did so, he jumped me, but I put him down. On my way down the stairs another guy grabbed me. That was a draw, broken up by the brothers. On my way out, a very big brother came after me. I got in one good punch, then down I went. He could have been a lot meaner but wasn’t, so I merely got a fat lip and a bruised cheekbone. I felt good, though. Something had needed to be done. It wasn’t just the noise, but also the demeaning catcalls from the fraternity that seemed to require my direct action.

One bright spot my sophomore year was “Great Poets,” a course I took with Professor Forrest Read. The course fulfilled an English requirement and met at a convenient time, two considerations that outweighed the import of the topic. Poets? Maybe I’d meet some girls there. Prof. Read came to English literature after having started out as an engineer, so we had a technical bent in common. The poets were great– Donne, Pope, Keats, Robert Browning, Yeats and Frost–and some of the poetry has been unforgettable for me. I do not recall finding a girlfriend there.

I was pleased by what Prof. Read did when I, uncharacteristically, disputed a grade. He had given me a poor grade on a paper, thinking I had badly misinterpreted one of Donne’s poems. In his office I made the case for my interpretation, and he graciously backed down, raising my grade from 75 to nearly 100. On another paper, he was even more generous. We talked about other topics as well, and he gave me some good, avuncular advice. He was one of the few people I have admired. That could be a theme.

My grades improved, though not uniformly.

Another bright spot: my social life improved greatly. I forget how I met Ellen: brilliant, beautiful, violin-playing English major from a New York City suburb. Daughter of a far-left M.D. from New Jersey, she and I disagreed on many things, but we had somehow fallen for each other. She once said she had a “thing” for Christian guys. That matched well with my “thing” for Jewish girls, especially smart, pretty ones....

Despite some ups and downs, we went through the year as a romantic pair, and she replaced Rhoda as my co-counselor at the summer camp, my last year there. When I met Ellen again fifteen years later, she was still smart, attractive, sensitive, and still wholly at odds with me politically. A marriage would have been doomed.

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