[Opening Ten Pages]
At the time our escapade was deemed notorious. But it almost seems quaint now. It had a moral. It took a long time to put itself together because we did not start out our lives as…well, you can fill in the blank when you get to the end. The story is always more complicated than it first appears. The wrong we fought against was, in retrospect, merely a river of stupid as opposed to an ocean of ignorance in which we now swim. But that river was the headwaters of this ocean.
This is how it happened and I swear to you it’s true.
There is a time in every young man’s life when he drinks too much beer and the summer of 1974 was one such time for me. There was a bar called Kirby’s conveniently located right off the Wichita State campus and not more than two blocks from where I lived. That Jack and I would meet there on that particular night was ironic, or perhaps merely fitting.
Watergate and the impeachment of Nixon were in the news every day that summer. After work I would race home from my part time job to be in front of the television when Walter Cronkite came on the air. There were no twenty-four-seven news channels in those days, which increased the civility and tone of events. The airwaves were not yet infested with spin merchants, programmed into blandly handsome men with too much botox in their forehead or women with too much bouffant blond for brains and cleavage for personality.
Wing Nut Radio had not yet happened either. To this day those nattering knobs of bluster still insist Nixon was railroaded by a liberal press. They are, as they are so often, full of shit. They are convinced, now more than ever to borrow a phrase, if they repeat something long enough, loud enough and with enough righteous indignation, black will be white, lies will be truth and Nixon was innocent. He wasn’t.
Watergate was one of the great public dramas ever. It had a first, second and third act played out in stately fashion, full of wonderful characters, intrigue, back story, side plots, all overlaid with history and wrapped in an enormous civics lesson. It was mesmerizing. Then on a hot night in August the final curtain came down on the great show. Nixon gave his resignation speech and would leave Washington the next day.
After the speech the usual crowd drifted into Kirby’s. The mood at first was surprisingly somber. Everyone was quiet, the way an audience can be hushed after seeing a great play. The emotion and meaning were too great to even speak of for a while, and for however briefly, had to be digested and contemplated.
Then everyone began to drink. Not as they usually did with a casual ease, but with a vengeance and true thirst. It became a celebration. Not surprising for it was a room full of long haired hippies. What was surprising and what has always stuck in my mind over the years was the solemn appreciation which preceded the usual drunkenness. That was the special part, the contemplation of the common citizens, reflecting upon the fall of the king.
At a table in the corner, crammed in elbow to elbow with a pile of people, pitchers of beer disappearing as fast as they could be poured, I found myself next to a guy I had seen around campus but had never met. His face was easy to remember for he had unusual white boy hair that frizzed out into a natural Afro.
“It makes you proud to be an American,” he told me above the din. “It makes you proud the system really worked.” It was Jack Meade and this was the first thing he ever said to me.
After a while there were two girls across the table from us. They had long, straight hair, parted in the middle and wore denim work shirts embroidered with flowers. It is hard to recall the conversation. We talked, they talked. We smiled, they smiled. Pretty soon one of them said, “Would you like to go outside and smoke a number?”
We wound up at their house on Vassar Street and Jack wound up with the better looking of the two. It was something I resented and remember thinking, “Man, he’s fast.” He and his girl disappeared down a hall. I and my girl were soon on the couch getting better acquainted. It’s not that I was so good looking or a lady’s man. Such fast and easy couplings were common at the time. To be young and horny in the 1970’s was to be the beneficiary of good timing.
Soon enough we were at the point where the guy mumbles a few words, finds his clothes and the front door. But Jack and his girl came back into the room. She put on a record, they rolled another joint, and we sat around one of those wooden spools everyone used to use as a coffee table.
That’s when Jack and I had our first chance to really talk, one of those intense and earnest conversations college students have, ranging over history, politics, and philosophy, each of us dropping in names of famous books and authors we knew just enough to quote from. Being so intent on how intelligent we both sounded we ignored the girls, until one told us, “Really, it’s time for you guys to go.”
We did. We went to walk circle after circle in Fairmont Park and continue our discussion of the great issues of the day. We spoke of the sweeping currents of history and how the subject is poorly taught. History was a great river which poured into, forming and informing, the present moment. History was passionate and only the dolts who teach it made it dull. We wondered if religion qualified as philosophy, if Spinoza was greater than Voltaire, why baseball is a better game than football.
Then the issue arose whether Jewish girls were good lovers or if their reputation as cold and un-giving was a lie. Jack had dated three Jewish girls and I had gone out with at least two myself. Based on our own experience we were puzzled by their reputation, for our field work had shown nothing cold about them, no siree. Jack insisted the wildest lover he ever knew was a vixen named Rosenbloom, whose passion was so out of control he could not, out of common decency, tell me everything.
We decided Jewish girls had an undeserved reputation and were victims of calumny, perpetuated by comedians and writers, mostly male and from their own tribe. Then the thought occurred maybe Jewish girls gained this reputation after marriage, when their sexual behavior might change. Or maybe they were different with goys. We decided our sampling was too small to be scientifically accurate and more investigative field work was in order.
The sky had begun to lighten in the east when we parted, each of us happy to find a new friend. The odd thing was Jack and I would not see each other for fourteen years. In a few days he was off to hitchhike around Europe and we did not connect again before he left. We would meet much later when we both had short hair. Well, one of us had almost no hair, and we both would be card carrying members of the middle class. Then we stepped off that path in a grand fashion. But we will come to that.
One last note: when Gerald Ford walked Richard Nixon out to the helicopter on the White House lawn, where Nixon gave one last wave, climbed in and then lifted off, that was the precise instant the 1960’s ended. When Ford walked back inside and took the oath of office the 1970’s began. The calendar may have it different, but facts and truth are not always the same thing. There are times when facts miss the truth.
Fourteen years later I was married, had a mortgage and was thinking of voting Republican in the fall. For six years I had been teaching history at Ark Valley High School, my life arranged into a dull though reasonably happy routine. Then my marriage went to hell.
Asking around for a good divorce attorney a friend gave me a name. At the appointed hour I was in a law office in downtown Wichita. There was nothing familiar about the man when he came down the hall to introduce himself. Once behind his desk he started taking down the necessary information. Married five years, no kids, I was a teacher. She worked as a secretary for a group of architects, though that ended when she went back to Virginia.
“Virginia is her home?”
“That’s where I met her,” I said. Then I added, no doubt fishing for approval as my confidence had been rocked in the past months with a marriage falling apart, “I was doing research on the Civil War.”
“Really,” he said, for the first time sounding interested instead of merely professional. “You writing a book?”
When I said I was, he was impressed. This was a reaction I was always getting from people and for a few years this response gratified me, an ego stroking people would freely give. It was a great ice breaker at parties when someone might introduce me as “Teddy Thompson, he’s writing a book on the Civil War.”
“Ohh,” the ladies would say.
“Ahh,” the men would say, many of them invariably remarking, “I always wanted to write.”
“Well,” I would say modestly, smiling at my shoes, before lifting my chin resolutely and remarking, “it’s a lot of hard work.”
This was always followed by the same questions for which I never developed good answers. “Is it published?” or “When can I read it?” But the man across the desk did not ask the obvious questions, but asked two intelligent ones instead. “Are you doing original research? Did you go to source material?”
“I spent six years doing research,” I told him. “Virginia, Tennessee, Georgia, the Smithsonian, the New York Public Library. I went to every major battle field.”
“Really,” he said.
“Worked for a summer as a guide at Gettysburg.”
“I wasn’t with the National Park Service. I was a private guide. It was a great summer. Kind of dull at night, I mean there’s only one little college in Gettysburg.”
“Six years you did this?”
“Happiest years of my life,” I admitted. “Met my wife, well, now going to be my ex-wife, at the Virginia Historical Society in Richmond. She was a librarian there.”
This was an exaggeration. She had just started and was a page or intern. It was true she would bring me boxes of old letters to look through and for a week, without permission, brought me a file they had on Jefferson Davis. This made her feel like a secret agent and was a form of delicious rebellion. Later I came to see rebellion played a part in our entire love life. It should be mentioned she was beautiful, blonde, and named Jenny.
“Those were the good days,” I told him.
“Then what happened?” he asked.
There wasn’t a quick answer to this. There were a lot of smart ass replies I could have given. Life happened. The great bitch reality bit me on the ass, bit me down to the bone and held on, kicking me with hunger and desolation until I had to pay attention.
The modest inheritance I had from my grandfather finally ran out. Despite my best attempts at penury I could no longer sustain myself in cheap hotels and cafeterias as I roamed the country in an old VW bug, gleaning odd bits of first hand history in unlikely spots. The small jobs I took here and there helped. I was a flag man on a highway crew outside Fredericksburg, a night clerk at a hotel in Chattanooga, as well as a guide in Gettysburg. All this so I could haunt battlefields, libraries, historical societies and meet weird old widows who had a cache of ancient family letters written by Civil War soldiers. My notes would grow to fill twenty-six boxes, which I would pack up and ship home to my parents.
By all rights I never should have had a chance with Jenny. Her father was a retired Marine colonel who had done combat tours in three wars. He would not approve of anyone dating his daughter, his only child, unless that man was a Marine. Or grudgingly, if she was ever going to date “one of those Army pussies” he had graduated from West Point, preferably at the head of his class. It bears mentioning I had shaved my beard and cut my hair before meeting the Colonel, though even at that early date I was losing hands full of hair with every shower.
That a Yankee from Kansas, and a civilian at that, had become interested in his girl might have occasioned red faced rage and real threats of physical violence. But it was a tactful bit of lying that won me his good graces. He had written a book on the Civil War himself. It had been self-published, which is more correctly characterized as vanity publishing. There were about a thousand copies of Lee’s Eternal Glory moldering in card board boxes out in his garage. Jenny had given me a copy. It was three hundred pages of hero worship. Robert E. Lee was next only to Jesus, though maybe a bit better, as he had most of the savior’s virtues, plus he was a soldier.
So when I met the man the first words out of my mouth were about what an outstanding piece of work Lee’s Eternal Glory was, citing points of erudition and insight never before seen by lesser mortals. Within minutes I had compared him favorably to Tacitus and Thucydides. That it was undisguised flattery never seemed to have occurred to him. If you are starved for flattery, honeyed words are merely long disguised truth now thankfully revealed.
That first night we traded Civil War trivia for hours. Impressed with the depth of my knowledge and mission he began to like me, to even look forward to my visits. After a month he compared me to the great English historian John Keegan, who also had a bum set of legs. It was the greatest compliment I have ever been paid.
On a memorable afternoon he took me to his VFW Club, introducing me as a “scholar writing an important book about the Civil War.” This impressed almost no one and within minutes the question was floated, as I knew it would be, if I had served in Vietnam. At that point I stood up and marched around the table, pointing at my feet.
“Gentlemen, the Marines wouldn’t take me with these feet, or the Army, or the Navy, or even the stinking Merchant Marines. All I can say is goddamn all the doctors.”
The men looked at my feet with pity and at me with what I hoped was forgiveness. I was born with my two big toes fused together. The doctors cut them apart of course, but I grew up the most pigeon toed man in all of America. This kept me out of the service. This was a relief yes, but also a disappointment. What historian doesn’t have a fascination with the military?
Part of me regretted not being born earlier and thus denied the chance to fight in the “good war” that was World War II, when they would have taken me bad feet and all. That Vietnam was not a good war was a small sorrow for me but a colossal one for the country.
Unlike legions of Republican hypocrites however, I never became a chicken hawk in my later years, bloodthirsty from the safety of an arm chair while escaping military service in my youth. There is a decent argument to be made the Iraq war happened because a whole flock of chicken hawks had to compensate.
The Colonel was from the true warrior class. He had been in places like Peleliu and the Frozen Chosin. That I knew of these battles, obscure in history though not in Marine lore, scored major points with him. One day I said to him, “Everyone thinks opera singers are divas. But some of the biggest divas in the history of the world were generals.” He liked that and added a few more names to my list.
The Colonel could tell wonderful stories but could not write them down. His words turned stiffly formal on the page, probably the result of too many after action reports written in cover your ass bureaucratic speak. There was talk of me ghost writing his memoirs.
You might ask where the Colonel’s wife and Jenny’s mother was during all this time. She was in the living room, smoking carton after carton of Kent cigarettes, watching television. If you discounted the number of times she acknowledged my presence by saying “Hello Ted,” she said exactly six words to me over the years. Even around the dinner table she didn’t speak but simply smoked, the television blabbering away in another room. Hers was a passive aggressive assault against her marriage. Once I saw her tap cigarette ash into a gravy boat she was about to serve her husband. Catching my eye she glared at me, daring me to say something. I didn’t.
My time in Virginia came to an end. With money gone and beautiful girlfriend waiting I came home to commit to paper my great treasure trove of research. It turned out I was a decent scholar but like the Colonel a lousy writer, a point I was not then ready to concede. My parents began to ask pointed questions about me making a living. As completed pages were not rolling out of my typewriter, my dad would actually stand outside my bedroom door and listen for such activity, my youthful spree was over. It was time to get serious about joining the middle class. I would be a history teacher.
For a while I thought about a doctorate. Then I chanced upon a professor at a party who after about nine gin and tonics told me, “Son, you have a better chance of getting the clap from the Czarina of Russia than you do of ever getting a job with a PhD in history.” So I decided to be a high school teacher.