YearsMore than physical loss, regret is the plague of old age. Pain and incapacity may leaven one's spirit; regret diminishes it. I suspect that any of the peculiar actions of the aged --- going on strange new journeys, spending money wildly, taking up with companions who are so different (in years, in taste, in world-view) --- are attempts to banish this regret.
The thought of what we did, or what we should have done, or what we might have done during our lifetimes comes to haunt us most powerfully during sleepless nights. We wake up again and again, can't get back to sleep, no matter how we pray, meditate, commend ourselves to sleep; no matter what drugs we take, no matter how we try to hush the monkey mind.
For me, now approaching my seventh decade on earth, the deepest, most pervasive feeling of regret has to do with the years right after World War II, when I was stationed in one of the most lush private schools in the country.
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My parents, a typical rich, closed-off, closed-up family from the old south, shipped me off to an all-male preparatory school in New Jersey. It was an expensive prison --- dozens of turn-of-the-century buildings, mostly of a dark red-brown hewn stone, surrounded by a carefully trimmed garden of flowers and trees and grass --- a breathtaking sweep of grounds and architecture that so often flows from immense wealth and immense restraint. The grounds had been designed by Frederick Law Olmstead of New York's Central Park fame.
The name of the school is unimportant, except to me and my memories. So let us invent one, or at least, recreate it. In its very earliest incarnation, almost a hundred-
and- fifty years before my appearance there, the school had been called The Maidenhead Academy. I like the prim Victorian sound of it, the hint of virginity, so let us use it for this narrative. Many of the students during my time were still quite virginal, and the design of the place was Victorian --- so it is appropriate.
The rules of Maidenhead were onerous, especially to one who wanted to be out and about in the world of the late 40s. No leaving the campus after dark. Three weekends off during the school year. Two weeks for Christmas, ten days for easter --- three months for the summer (complete with summer homework in form of a reading list). The rest of the time we were subject to a myriad of strict rules and unsmiling masters. The ideal was Prussian, which meant that we wore uniforms at all times (jacket and rep ties) and addressed the masters as "sir." We were always called by our last names.
It took me a year to find my place there. At first, my southern accent was a source of great merriment to my schoolmates. Because of it, they were sure that I was not very bright, which generated a fair amount of hazing. It took me several months to banish it, to get rid of the soft vowel-shifts and the "you-all's" and "over yonder's."
The head of our house, Hanover House (the oldest structure on campus --- 1810) was a plump stolid middle-aged chemistry teacher by the name of Arthur Wilde. I learned, eventually, that his field was not chemistry --- which he taught with almost no verve and little interest --- but sports, and most especially, the beautiful athletes that he coached. His favorites in the first year I was in his house were Ed Anderson (football) and Jack Lawson (wrestling). Both were what the gays now call "hunks."
I was tall and, I probably a bit fey. I was six foot four, weighed 125 pounds, and was not the "athletic type." I would have been best at basketball or swimming, but to appear so in the gym where my bony body would be revealed to all was unthinkable. I wasn't interested in studies, and had but one friend --- so I spent much of my time hidden away in my dormitory room, longing for the buddies I had left back in public school.
Since I was definitely not Wilde's favorite, I quickly became Ed's football, and Jack's half-Nelson. They did weekly practice on me, whether in-season or out, whether they needed it or not, whether I needed it or not. Either or both of them would barge into my room in the evening while I was studying and let me have it a few times on the arm or in the belly or on the head. When I could no longer pretend they were not there, I would start to snivel. This worked --- they would turn in disgust and stomp out. During this intercourse, my roommate, the enormously rich son of a decadent French family, would pretend to study even more fervently than I, the son-of-a-bitch, leaving me in the hands of these bullies.
There was no way I was going to report them. Master Wilde loved them: they spent many happy hours gossiping and laughing in his office with him, and I knew instinctively there was no way to fight City Hall.
I was, I hasten to add, not the only one who received their attentions. Once I came upon Nicholas Peneopolus, down in the mailroom, being pummeled by Jack. Nick was a plump, pasty, hard-working student from Greece, a cum laude regular. Jack was hitting at him, much as he did me, and Nick, trying to get away from him, whined even more than I did.
He looked so helpless, was such an echo of me, that I told Jack to stop. He did, and he reared up before me --- I could see his funny heart-shaped mouth inches away from me, the smell of cigarettes (despite his athletics, he was a pack-a-day man). He tightened his fists, bunched up his shoulders, and told me that if I didn't shut the fuck up, he'd paste me right up against the wall, next to the mailboxes.
I found out later that Nick was from the shipping magnate Kulukundis Family of Athens. I've read about their legendary fortunes several times since those days when I knew him in school. I often wonder if he remembers me trying to save him and his pride, but I have yet to get my check, or my freighter, in the mail.
§ § §
Wilde had another function on campus outside of chemistry, being house-master, and buffing the egos of lovely athletes. He was master in charge of the Prom-Time Wrestling Room.
The Wrestling Room was a dark cave on the third floor of the gym, heavy with the aroma of sweat and jockstraps. During the winter months, it was filled with the grunts and groans of the school wrestlers in competition with each other, or with the nearby schools that were supposed to be our enemies --- Hill School, George School, and my favorite (in name if not in reality) The Hun School.
At Prom Time, the Wrestling Room was, however, transmogrified into another kind of wrestle. The school fathers knew that unleashing several hundred co-eds on our campus for forty-eight hours could lead to a series of fire bombs from the students' explosive, pent-up libidos. Rather than fight it, they set the weekend up in such a way as to let us get our rocks off in acceptable fashion.
As Prom Weekend neared, we students were invited to loan our easy chairs --- each room had a hoary overstuffed chair, usually of Victorian dimensions --- for the duration. They would be carted off on the last Thursday before the festivities to be set up, side-
by- side, there on the third floor of the gym.
There would be one other change in that bear-cave. The usual 300-watt ceiling lights would be removed from their cages; soft red lights would be installed in their place. Thus, for the two nights of the prom, couples who wanted to get a bare whiff of lust and a heavy jolt of frustration could adjourn to this elevated passion-pit and stay there as long as they liked. As long as they observed the strict rules:
- Feet on the floor at all times.
- Kissing, whispering and hugging permitted, but no hanky-panky.
- Excessive fondling and the unbuttoning or unzipping of articles of clothing not tolerated.
- Any moves in the direction of the Beast with Two Backs...perish the thought. (Violators to be ejected at once.)
And who was there to watch over the placement of hands and fingers and legs and feet and osculating lips of our couples? Our Master, Arthur Wilde.
As I conjure up this steamy, ill-lit scene, I can see him now, busy-busy, pacing back and forth in the narrow aisles set up about the seventy or eighty chairs --- chairs filled with a writhing mass of tuxedoes and taffeta, with the music (perhaps "Blue Skies") drifting up from below. Wilde moves ceaselessly, noiselessly, on little cat feet. He has a dim flashlight in hand to make sure that under the chaste lights, the Great Beast --- the one that would bring all crashing to earth in the Prom Time Wrestling Room at Maidenhead School --- gains no purchase.--- Carlos Amantea