For those of us who lived in Hanover House, there were times when the real Arthur Wilde was revealed. One came in the fall when wife Hilde went back to Oslo for a month, taking their adopted son Bobby with her. Hilde, a fair-sized fortyish blonde with a pained mouth, had been imported from Norway some time before to serve as Wilde's wife. Her job was to lend respectability, and, each evening, after supper, to serve tea and cookies in their living room. We were expected to attend at least once a week.
I don't remember the small talk, but I do remember the smell of their quarters, and I remember her hands. The room smelled of musk. And her hands: they shook. They danced all over the place. The tea would more often than not splash on the silver service tray, along with the milk. She would drop the cookies; it was a miracle that she made it through tea-time without putting everything on the floor.
Hilde had been subject of a fantasy that my one friend Claude and I had cooked up, which we reported to some of our more wide-eyed younger class mates. Claude was a excellent story teller, and he reported that once he had come into the master's apartment on an errand and had found Hilde crumpled up on the floor, at the bottom of the stairs. Wilde, according to him, was standing up on the landing, staring down at her through his thin, steel-rimmed glasses. "Get up, Hilde," he hissed. "Get up at once. Don't just lie there. Get up now." Hilde, according to Claude, lay there, scarcely moving, moaning.
It was during the times that Hilde was away that our normally sullen Master would suddenly change into something else again. House meetings came each evening at 7:30, and in her absence, they turned quite jolly. He would dash through the roll, singing out the names, "Abbott, Anderson, Blake, Carmody, Evans..." There would be a light-hearted reading of the school bulletins. His sudden merriment would infect the thirty of us. We would laugh at his jokes and know that as long as he was a widower, we were his boys. We learned, too, that the moment she returned, the dark clouds would gather, and we would again go through our meetings as before --- somber, quiet, sedate.
§ § §
Our other revelation about Wilde came about in, of all places, the communal shower. On the many afternoons when everyone else was out on the playing fields, friend Claude --- who loathed sports as much as I did --- would join me in the shower next to our rooms. He was a merry sort, and because of our outsider status, we got to be quite chummy. Showers were our joyful, and very innocent, diversion.
Once installed under the hot waters, we would launch into song, in close harmony --- quite nicely, I believe --- giving forth with the top favorites of the day. Because of the acoustics of the shower-room, our songs would bloom lushly, much as we were blooming:
Smilin' at me,
Nothin' but Blue Skies
Do I see...
As it happened, our shower room was right next door to the Wildes' apartment. The warblings of the two of us, singing about never seeing the world looking so bright, never seeing things going so right, must have been a siren song to our doughty master. Every now and again, while we were locked in our duet, the door would pop open and into through the accumulated steam would come plump-bellied Arthur Wilde in rubber shoes, a towel perched uneasily around his sizable waist.
He would lay his glasses on the windowsill, undo the towel, and climb into the shower next to us, muttering something about Bobby being in the bathtub which made it so he was forced to come and shower with us. It was all quite intimate, since there were no partitions and only three outlets. His presence, though, would quickly put the kibosh on our musicals. He was business-like about soaping himself up and showering off, and was out of there within ten minutes, but his presence was such a gloom-spread that we would be loathe to break into further song, and would depart shortly after he did.
From this perspective a half-a-century away, I sometime catch myself wondering about Wilde. I wonder about him and Hilde. I wonder about him and his job. Especially, I wonder about what it must have been for him in the presence of all that scarce-contained lust in the Wrestling Room, or in the steamy shower with two naked sixteen-year olds, for that precious five or ten minutes, every few weeks (it wouldn't do to overdo it; he had to be careful). What did the pure libido and the vision of these two not uncomely pubescent boys close enough to touch...what was it like for him?
I was tall and thin probably more fetching than I thought. Claude was gloriously handsome, fine shoulder muscles, pectorals, thighs, buttocks. Today, with his dark eyes and sly face, he could be a pin-up in Playgirl Magazine. What did it do to the old man's soul to be so close to his two lovely young charges, in loco parentis, in the buff? When one of us bent over to scrub a fresh young thigh or foot, did his heart go into spasms. When he glanced (he must have glanced; I don't know; I avoided his gaze) at our fresh limbs, our scarce-haired privates, the tiny buttocks, did that mask, the one he had so carefully framed and kept in place for so many years, did it slip --- just for a moment?
When he was done wrestling with the devil, would he later permit himself be engulfed by ecstasy? Did he use the precious moments with us for storing up visions for that time when he, alone, could resuscitate the images burned in to the plates of his mind --- and, slowly, moving slowly with himself, caress each shadow, every shy protuberance?
§ § §
By the 11th grade, I had finally found my way around most of the sand traps of that school. To this day, I am proud of the fact that I survived, that I didn't go under, that I didn't cave in to the nightmares that shook me so during my first year there. I think that my pride-
of- survival is in some way tied to my deep regret, a regret that will not permit me to go back, despite many invitations, to visit, even for a day --- to see again, with these rheumy eyes, that glorious campus, the grave of three of my most precious years.
Regret, they say, is a continuing unwillingness to forgive the self. If so, I'm guilty. But my pride at survival measures that regret. I survived the school; I survived Wilde; I survived my tormentors.
Jack flunked out after that first year. Ed? I found that if I ignored him whenever I passed him by, it did strange and wonderful things. Once I stopped acknowledging his presence, he left me alone, even became somewhat fawning. Wilde? I ignored him too, outside the perfunctory "Sir" when asked if I was present at house meetings. The bathing facilities of my new room were, fortunately, far from his own.
§ § §
Because of all this, I found a new way, one I had never experienced before: a world of solitude, and learning. Me alone in my room, surrounded by words and ideas and books and studies --- building, within and without, walls of silence and contemplation and writing. It's a place I came to treasure then, one I still treasure, even now, fifty years later. What you are reading at this moment grew from what they gave me.
It is required, even by the most bitter of us, to forgive. I have come to forgive the school for creating that harshness I have described here, for, after all, we were men and boys forced into a skewed paradise where no true love nor affection could be shown.
I survived and, after all these years, am able to look back on that time and those people with not only forgiveness, but even a half-foolish feeling of sentiment --- one which those of us nearing the grave must perforce award to those that helped to mold us.--- L. W. Milam