Fifty years ago, in the fall of 1957, two thirteen-year-old boys were enrolled at an elite, boys-only New England boarding school. One of them, descended from wealth and eminence, would go on to Yale, then to a career as a navy officer and Vietnam war hero, and finally to the U.S. Senate, from where he would fall just short of the White House. The other was a scholarship student, a misfit giant of a boy from a Pennsylvania farm town who would suffer shameful debasements at the hands of his classmates, then go on to a solitary and largely anonymous life as a salesman of encyclopedias and trailer partsbefore dying, alone, twelve months after his classmate's narrow loss on Election Day 2004.
It is around these two figures, John Kerry and a boy known here only as Arthur, the bookends of a class of one hundred boys, that Geoffrey Douglashimself a member of that boarding-school classbuilds this remarkable memoir. His portrait of their lives and the lives of five others in that classtwo more Vietnam veterans with vastly divergent stories, a federal judge, a gay New York artist who struggled for years to find his place in the world, and Douglas himselfoffers a memorable look back to a generation caught between the expectations of their fathers and the sometimes terrifying pulls of a society driven by war, defiance, and self-doubt.
The class of 1962 was not so different from any other, with its share of swaggerers and shining stars, outcasts and scholarship students. Its distinction was in its timing: at the precise threshold of the cultural and political upheavals of the late 1960s. The world these boys had been trained to enter and to lead, a world very similar to their fathers', would be exploded and recast almost at the moment of their entranceforcing choices whose consequences were sometimes lifelong. Douglas's chronicle of those times and choices is both a capsule history of an era and a literary tour de force.
About the Author
Geoffrey Douglas is a former newspaper publisher, editor, columnist, and reporter whose work has appeared in more than thirty magazines. He lives and works just north of Boston.
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The Classmates Privilege, Chaos, and The End of an Era
By Geoffrey Douglas
Hyperion Copyright © 2008 Geoffrey Douglas
All right reserved.
Chapter One Familiar Strangers
The boy sit on the toilet in the center of the half-frozen meadow, bolt upright as we pass. He is fully clothed and zippered-wearing the same stained trousers and jacket we will see him in every day and night for a week-his feet planted an inch deep in the muck, the smile on his face so dumb and unmoving it seems almost to be carved.
"I recall there was a thin layer of ice on the water," one of us, our class president, will remember in an email decades later. "It is a truly painful memory. It was painful even then."
The boy is fifteen or sixteen like the rest of us, but different in almost every other win. He is bigger by far: six-foot-two or -three and well over two hundred pounds, with broad, nearly square shoulders and the short, thick neck of a dockworker or heavyweight wrestler. His clothes are a joke among us: fifteen-dollar polyester blazers from Sears or Robert Hall, trousers that stop an inch short of his ankles, heavy brown, mud-caked oxfords that never get shined or changed. Everything about him is a joke: his clothes, his helmet haircut, his caveman's rolling shuffle, the hard, white stains on the crotches of his pants. But we are careful with our laughter, because his temper is volcanic and he is stronger than any two of us.
His name (the name I will call him) is Arthur. It is said that he is from a farming town in Pennsylvania, that he has come to the school on a scholarship, and that he has been "all the way" with a girl-in the back of a hay truck, as the story is always told. There is a rumor that he once righted a tipped car singlehandedly to free the driver inside, and another that he is physically afraid of his father (which conjures images of a family of Goliaths). But it is hard to know what is true. He seldom talks about himself (in contrast to the rest of us, for whom self-talk is a daily staple), and almost never talks at all when there is a group around. But he will sometimes explode into laughter-a sudden staccato chain of throaty roars, like a man choking on his dinner-for what seems no reason at all. Beyond these few things, and his enormous size and strength and uncouthness, he is a mystery to us all.
We have paid him to be on this toilet today. Someone has paid him: fifty cents or a dollar or maybe a little more, because he will do almost anything for three or four quarters (he will do worse than this before his time is done at the school and because quarters, or dollars, mean nothing to the rest of us. And someone has dragged out this junkyard toilet from somewhere and hauled it to the meadow and set the time and spread the word around the dorms: "On the way to chapel Sunday-another Arthur show."
So he sits now in the meadow with his feet in the icy mud and smiles his dumb, determined smile. And the rest of us file past, slowly, in clusters, on our way to breakfast or to Sunday evening chapel-it might have been either one, a gray April morning or the dying light of a Sunday late afternoon, and too many years have passed now to say which-adjusting neckties, buttoning shirt collars, whispering and gawking and ready to laugh.
But no one laughs. Or almost no one. And what laughing there is is thin and nervous, and dies just past our throats-its memory years later will bring pain. A few of us look away.
The sense of wrongness spreads quickly, like a bad smell coming to ground. We walk faster-all eyes averted now-until the boy and his toilet are behind us and out of sight.
THE FIRST THING I DID WHEN the photo came to me, by email, from a classmate I hadn't seen in more than forty years, was to count the faces in it. There are 105 of them-of us-as nearly as I can tell, lined up raggedly, more or less by height, all of us in jacket and tie, on the steps of the St. Paul's School auditorium. We are fourteen years old; a few of us are fifteen. Almost no one is smiling. We are a very somber group.
I am in the front row: shoulders flexed back, head cocked to one side, feet spread wide-James Dean or Elvis, or a gunslinger-next to my best friend, Rich DeRevere, a scholarship student with a buzz cut who will be a radio reporter and the father to a girl and a boy, then will die in a Florida hospice at the age of sixty-one, a year before I will know he is gone. There is mowed grass in the foreground, wide white columns to our backs. It is a weekday afternoon in the fall of 1958.
Once I'd counted the faces I began to study them. I studied them for hours, one by one and in clusters, enlarging then reducing, going up and down the rows, until an afternoon and an evening had passed.
There are the timid ones, who bunch their shoulders or shrink behind others: the swaggerers and the lip-curlers (I am one of these) whose sad, shallow bravado still hurts a little to see on record today; the sullen ones and the serious ones and the ones with the goofy looks. And there are those, even at fourteen-Lloyd MacDonald, blond, square-shouldered, and taller than the boy to either side, who will be our senior-class president; Bob Mueller, future hockey-team captain and head of the FBI; Peter Johnson, brainy and irreverent, who will be named editor of the school's literary magazine, then will die outside a Vietnamese city called Qui Nhon-who seem already to have mastered the secret, of never seeming to try.
It puzzled me why I felt so drawn to the photo. It wasn't one I remembered; I remembered almost no photos at all. I had been expelled from St. Paul's a year short of graduation, at the end of my fourth year there-breaking a long family tradition with what my father would call the "stigma" of my disgrace-and my memories prior to that had not been happy ones. I owned no yearbooks, had never attended a reunion, had kept up with no one in the class. Yet I could tell you at least something about every face in that picture, and I remembered nine-tenths of the names. And I kept going back to it. For all the confusions and small remembered terrors those faces stirred in me, I kept on going back. I still do.
It's been more than two years now-I understand better today what it is that keeps drawing me back. There is a strangeness that comes, for me at least, in looking at old photos. A sadness mixed with wishfulness, a mixing-up of time. To look backward from here to there, but also, by looking back, to be there again, only now to be looking forward: to know that this hey would thrive and that boy wouldn't, that this one would climb vertically, almost unimpeded, while that one would have terrible troubles, that the level-eyed calm of a boy in the back hid a secret, that the vivid talents and visible sureness of another would be squandered in an early death. There is something intrusive in the feeling, but also seductive, like looking through a door left open by mistake.
JOIN KERRY IS IN THE FOURTH row. He is one of the serious ones: lips pursed, eves furrowed, head tilted a little awkwardly to avoid being obscured by the boy in front of him. (He would graduate, four years later, among the tallest in our class, though he was still, at the time, among the shortest.) It's hard to know what he might be thinking. He looks, for the moment, perplexed.
He is the reason, today, that I have the photo at all. It came to me by way of a classmates' email group that formed the spring before the 2004 election, originally to share reactions to a magazine story that appeared around that time. Headlined "John Kerry, Teen Outcast," it had opened with an account of John being booed, in absentia, at our fortieth St. Paul's reunion, then gone on to detail how reviled he had been at the school ("Forty-two years after the fact, many of his classmates still mock him ... They dislike him so much they've frequently helped his political opponents.").
I don't know how true any of this is. I don't know if he was booed at that dinner or not-Lloyd, our president, who gave the toast that allegedly drew the boos, swears that he wasn't-or how many of our classmates have continued to hate him with such feeling. It's hard to get most of them to say anything at all about John. Some claim to be gun-shy from being misquoted by reporters who called before the election (probably a third of the class got such calls, in search of school-day remembrances); others just smile and shake their heads when I ask them, or go suddenly quiet on the phone.
But whatever anyone's feelings on John today, it's fair to say that, as a classmate, he wasn't widely liked. Nor was he any sort of leader in the class. So it is ironic, these many years later, that he would be the one to unite us again.
But it has happened that way. The email group, which began as a handful of classmates with that single small focus, quickly took on members and widened its scope: first into a discussion of the campaign and its chances, later to the values behind it ("I would vote for John whether I liked him or not ...," "My heart is with John, [but] my conservative instincts haven't really changed much since our school days"), and finally to other, less political things. Through the summer, then fall of 2004, there were emails on Iraq, gay marriage, the economy, school prayer, flag burning, God, woodwinds, Bob Dylan, the Yankees, the Red Sox, a hundred other things. By the weekend before the election, more than two-thirds of us still surviving-fifty-odd late-middle-aged men in at least four different countries and something like twenty states, some not having talked to a classmate in decades-were getting and sending messages at a pace of twenty a day.
I would never have expected this. I don't know what I would have expected, probably something not so different from the pabulum of life-landmark highlights I'd read from time to time over the years in the school's alumni magazine ("After nineteen wonderful years working as X and living in Y, Susie and I have decided to close out this rich and rewarding chapter in our lives ..."). But this was nothing like that-it was better, braver, richer by far. It felt kind of magical, at least for a while: like stepping through a door back into that photo, trading voices, hearing echoes, sharing our astonishment at having evolved.
As the weeks passed-first before, then after the election-the messages grew more personal. Old memories were reprised and recast; there were exchanges on work, family, failed relationships, art, music, creaky knees, the creepage of time and age. One classmate wrote in to recall, among other things, an old English teacher's epic nose-blowings ("He would pull out from his tweed jacket sleeve a large handkerchief, would unfold it ceremoniously, blow loudly, then return it with great dignity to his sleeve. It's what I remember most about third-form English."), another to share his recollections of "the peace, the quiet grace" of Sunday evening chapel, Two classmates, both former marines, recalled aspects of their time in Vietnam. A journalist from Connecticut wrote to share the news of his father's recent stroke and death. A lawyer from Maine, whom I remember mostly for his withering sneer and mirror-shined English loafers, told of how religion had reentered his life after law school ("I wonder for how many of us our religious education has proved to be important?"). A doctor from the West Coast wrote to tell of an early life of depression, drug use, and multiple divorces: "But I've emerged into my sixties in pretty good shape ... very much a lightweight in terms of planet accomplishments compared to some of you, but have found an appreciated niche here in [my community] and in my children's hearts. And that will do."
The most prolific, by far, was Arthur. Arthur the hulk, the toilet-sitter, the class jester and pariah: Arthur of the filthy, crud-stained fifteen-dollar suits and revolting public hygiene, who would suffer any debasement for a fistful of quarters, was now a salesman of mobile-home parts in western Virginia: alone, never-married, and nurturing-incredibly-an abiding fondness for his long-ago school.
"You all have offered a lot of stimulating and good and kind thoughts in our exchanges about Kerry and other matters," he wrote the week of the election. "A number of remarks about myself were forwarded to me on the general topic of the 'gentle giant' ... I thank you for your extraordinarily kind remarks, which I probably did/do not deserve."
I must have missed those early "gentle giant" messages-though there would be many more like them in the months to come. But his emails were a deluge. They began two or three weeks before the election and continued until more than three months after. I don't know how many there were-twenty, thirty, maybe more, sometimes two or three thousand words at a time-about politics, sports, business, integrity, encyclopedia sales, his sick mother, his early life. The messages were impassioned, often embarrassingly personal. He wrote of an illness that had nearly killed him two years before, and of the resolve be said had grown from it: "to make things a little better while we are here, and to improve our eternal characters for whatever may come beyond." He leaned heavily on clichés-also on allegories-cited self-help books, quoted Vince Lombardi, and referred more than once to The Creator. He seemed driven by the need to connect.
"I have decided that this discussion group merits some of my quality time for several reasons," he wrote in a February 2005, late-night email. "I can learn and share with other privileged and smart people just as I can, and have, with those much less so. I wish to change the world for the better, though the odds of doing a lot of that are dicey. In the meanwhile, I can continue working on myself and who knows where some of the sparks of that effort may fly."
Most of us ignored him. When someone would respond, Arthur would write back promptly-to us all. "Thank you for caring and responding," he'd begin. Then would come the monologue ("Suppose you are an astronaut ..."). When someone would try to rein him in, which happened more than once, his response was always benevolent: "One classmate has good-naturedly pointed out that I can be long-winded. Guilty, no doubt. Perhaps turgid and bloated, too. At least I hope to be credited as a forthright searcher for higher truth."
He was lonely. That much seems clear. Also that he had forgiven us-if he even felt any longer (but how could he not?) that there was anything still to forgive. I used to wonder this sometimes. We must all have wondered it, at one time or another during those three or four months of what he liked to call his "epistles": How does he remember us? How could he share himself so nakedly given the degradings he suffered at our hands-cruel jokes and hazings, public humiliations for which he'd be paid several quarters or a dollar to endure? Or had he managed somehow, in his need for connection, to forget that they even took place?
One of the ways he had earned his quarters, especially during our first year or two at the school, was as a kind of enforcer. If you had a score to settle with someone, or just were looking for a spectacle at the expense of a boy you didn't like, you might engage Arthur for the job. I was at the wrong end of this once. I have no memory of why I was the target, or of who had contracted for Arthur's muscle that day; what I remember is being grabbed by the arm on the way out of the lower-school-eighth-grade-dining hall, dragged in a headlock upstairs to the third-floor fire escape, and either pulled or pushed through. Arthur came through with me, got hold of my lower legs, picked me up, and tossed me-literally tossed me, as you might toss a rug for cleaning-over the fire-escape railing, where he held me by my ankles twenty feet from the ground. I remember that his palms were wet against my bare skin, and that, although I was certain he wouldn't drop me on purpose, I was terrified he might lose his grip I held very still, said whatever it was I was made to say-"I am a fairy," "I am a homo," "I promise I'll ...," there must have been something-then was lifted hack over the railing, set right-side-up and let go. Through it all, Arthur never hurt me or was any more forceful than he needed to be, though his strength was greater than any I had felt in my life. I remember feeling that he wasn't enjoying my terror; he may have even told me so. He may have even smiled, or said something gentle or consoling, before he set me free.
Excerpted from The Classmates by Geoffrey Douglas Copyright © 2008 by Geoffrey Douglas. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents
Author's Note xi
Familiar Strangers 1
Measuring Up 55
Chapel Mornings 85
My Father, Myself 111
The Artist Soldier 147
Loving Widely 171
Outside the Circle 199