“Wash your own clothes,” Mrs. Emmet had barked out one day. “And you know how to use the iron,” she had told John and Sean, “You know I don’t have time anymore, not with five other kids to take care of. Six, counting your father.” Sean understood the logic in that. After scorching a few shirts and putting extra creases in his pants for a couple weeks, and mopping up the suds, which had the annoying habit of leaking out the top of the washer, he had learned how to do those things. By the time he was in high school, he was pretty good at it.
As he ironed his pants one morning, Sean realized that he sort of enjoyed the work, enjoyed the time spent in the meditative removal of wrinkles from his clothes. He had come to enjoy any repetitive task for the peace he found in concentrating on something other than his parent’s demands, his grades, or his endless obsession with things he could’ve done, or should’ve said, or should not have said.
He could love his parents more. He should never again sin against God. He should study more. He shouldn’t have written love notes to the girls in his fifth grade class. Not only was that embarrassing to have them read to the whole class, but his father brought out the leather strap for that. He shouldn’t have talked in line – he had been dropped from serving mass as an Altar boy for that.
He knew now that the boys in grade school had teased him no more than they teased each other – if only he’d not felt so insulted, he might have had some friends. He worried about everything, this morose boy with downcast eyes. He was afraid of people, even to the extent of crossing the street to avoid having to speak to someone, or even look at them. He knew he’d say something for people to laugh at. Always straightening his shirt, adjusting his pants, or combing his hair, even in his dreams. He used to have nightmares of being chased, or falling into bottomless holes when he was younger, but as he got older his nightmares were about his shirt not being tucked in, showing up in class barefoot, or being altogether nude in public.
Damn, this knee’s torn, he noticed, and yelled up the cellar steps: “Mom, have you got anymore of those patches?.”
“What patches?” she yelled back from the kitchen at the top of the stairs.
“You know, the one’s you iron on?”
“I think so, look in the box on my sewing machine.”
He ran up the stairs, found the packet of patches, and jumped groups of stairs back to the ironing board. He was going to be late for school if he didn’t get going. None of the gluey strips of cloth matched his pants, but he found one that was the right color. Damned things, he thought, When I wanted a corduroy patch I couldn’t find one. Now I’ll have to use one on these pants. It’ll have to do. At least it’s the right color. He carefully placed the patch over the center of the tear, and meticulously pressed the iron around the edge. He pulled the pants on, shut the iron off, grabbed his lunch, ran out the door, across the street, and down the hill to the bus stop. A bus was just pulling away.
Damn it. And John’s gone. He must have been on that bus.
Sean’s brother John had started high school the year after Sean, and since then the years of being inseparable had yielded to the pressures of socialization. John had found new friends, been invited to parties, and even gone on dates. They didn’t talk much anymore, as John was seldom home. The entire family, including John, but except for Sean, roller skated every weekend and one to two nights a week as well. They were either at roller-skating lessons, practices, or contests in three states (his parents had been Tri-State champions). It was not something Sean wanted to do, so he was often left at home to study. Studying, however, had it’s upside. Sean got to stay in the peace and quiet, to study. Nerds back then didn’t have video games, or Internet, or role-playing games, but they had books, coin collecting, and science kits. Sean loved to mix chemicals up to see what would happen. For awhile, he kept a jar of piss and spit and fingernail clippings and hair. The results were disappointing. With real pure chemicals though, he didn’t do much better, often just creating smelly and/or smoking goo. It kept him entertained though.
John combed his hair down, a la Beatles, and even found a part-time job after school and summers on a PC-board assembly line. He never said how he got the job, or where to go, but many years later told Sean that all he would have had to do was to have gone to a place downtown and applied, but he had never mentioned it. Both kids had worked together with a snowball stand for a few years. It made money, but only enough to buy a few pair of socks, or candy, or books, or things like that. They had tried, unsuccessfully, to sell magazine subscriptions door to door. They had both worked at the same hamburger place. Sean liked that job, not for the pitiful amount of money it brought him but for the free food. He was spending increasing amounts of time in the attic by himself (hence the human waste experiment). He read a lot, of course, and studied. He also discovered masturbation. He told John about it, but John had spent his freshman year going to a pre-seminary high school out of state and had learned about it from those guys. Once, they tried doing it at the same time. (If seminary students did it, why not?) It was exciting to discover this fun fact about their penises. “How high can you shoot?” John asked. “Pretty high,” Sean told him. Everything was a competition. After that though, they kept it to ourselves, but it was hard to completely hide it when the covers of your bed were inexplicably tented in the middle of the night. They had discovered masturbation before they even knew what sperm was for or what sex was. John had a vague idea about putting one’s penis in a girl, but neither of them knew how or why. It wasn’t so easy to know about in the 50s and early 60s, and their dad took his time getting around to ‘the talk’, which was actually so vague and confusing they had to complete the lesson through books and magazines.
Sean had gradually retreated into himself, spending more time than usual at the library, or browsing comics at the drugstore. Or he would hole up in the attic with classic novels like War and Peace, The Grapes of Wrath, or To Kill a Mockingbird. His favorite reading was Science Fiction, especially the mix of easy to understand science and science fiction by Issac Asimov. Sometimes, however, he cut pictures of half-naked women out of his father’s True Adventure magazines, which he then hid among the rafters under his bed.
Aside from that, he spent a lot of time in clubs after school: Science, Coin Collecting, Camera, computer, and even in burlesque shows (which the school called plays). Those were odd, since the school had no girls, so they wore wigs and sock-stuffed bras and took on those roles. (This was a very different time.) Even the captain of the football team and many of the teachers got into the act, donning wigs and dresses. These were Christmas plays, and The Poly Follies. They were not serious drama, but just for fun; with even a faux can-can. Sean couldn’t cut it as a dancer, but ended up as a female nurse with a line or two that year. One time he was a folk singer – not too bad at that. Other times he was one of many singing sailors or soldiers crowded onto the stage. Drama showed up later on with the introduction of the Drama Club. The first production, Mr. Roberts, had only one woman, but they borrowed her from the girls’ high school, which was now next door. A new school had been built during his junior years. Sean got a part in one of the girl’s school plays: Sorry, Wrong Number, in which a man plots to have his wife killed (yes, those were indeed very different times). He was the hired killer, and all of his lines were delivered into a fake phone. There was only one girl and her drama club director, so he didn’t get to meet any other girls in the school.
So far, his adventures with the opposite sex had been, simply put, painful.
He had dated his fourth cousin Theresa; fallen in love with her. His mother had urged him to get to know her, even though it bothered him to have his mother and her mother involved. He hadn’t wanted to initially, but he agreed to take her to a CCD dance (Confraternity of Christian Doctrine – for Catholic students not attending a Catholic high school). She was breathtakingly beautiful. Dancing with her close, besides the thumping of his heart and the burning heat everywhere her body made contact with his, he also noticed how stiff her hair was. The style at that time still included beehive hairdos, glitter sprinkled onto it before the hairspray hardened. Of course, when you are 15 and you have a beautiful woman in your arms, such things as glitter sticking to your face hardly matter. He was dumbfounded, of course, to have danced with such a beauty. They had dated a little after that, once going to a swim social at the Knights of Columbus pool. There was music there, but the girls danced among themselves. Sean was torn between wanting to dance with Theresa and his fear of being laughed at. The boys stayed in their corner, the girls in theirs. Thus continued Sean’s pattern of regretting all of his actions, obsessing over everything he should have said or done.
Still, he had seen Theresa more and more. He would stop by her house on the way home. She was also the oldest in her family, and often in charge of the younger kids. Usually her parents weren’t home. One time, after he’d been doing that for awhile, she led him by the hand upstairs into the bathroom so they could kiss. Sean was nervous. “Maybe we should go into the bedroom,” he suggested. Theresa shook her head and shut the bathroom door. She put her arms around him. He wanted to kiss her real bad, but there were those other kids running around, and two nearly Theresa’s age, so he didn’t want to get caught. Her father was really strict. They had barely gotten started when someone knocked on the door. It was one of her sisters. She was needed downstairs. Theresa left. Sean jumped behind the shower curtain. He had thought the sister would leave, but since she came in and closed the door, he jumped out and and went, “Boo!” He left the house right away, more embarrassed than he had ever been.
Sometimes John would show up there. He knew where Sean was, of course. They had always been together before this, and it was not unusual to have one know what the other was doing. Sean did not, however, expect him to hit on Theresa, but that is what he did. He went so far as to try to get her to think Sean looked like Howdy Doody, the puppet from the children’s show years earlier. Sean did have the big ears and goofy grin. However, Theresa told him about it, and he resented John for that. Puberty tends to do that. New friends push out old friends, especially if the new friends are female.
Sean had been in the Boy Scouts for a time, although both he and John had switched to the older-age, more sophisticated Explorer wing. As Explorers, they would do things like visit a Nuclear Power plant or an aircraft carrier (the USS Enterprise), fly in a small plane, or run the Boy Scout encampments. At one such encampment, they had played poker long after the younger boys were put to bed. No lights for the younger Scouts, and one of the other Explorers had produced a bottle of Thunderbird (a bottle of the cheap whiskey was embedded in a wooden post at the entrance to Camp Thunderbird).
Then there had been that party at one Explorer’s house. Sean brought Theresa with him. When he had gone to her house to pick her up, her dad had warned him not to come home late, or he’d be waiting for him with a shotgun. This was going to be the ideal chance for the two of them to do what they wanted, away from siblings and adults. They danced to Louie, Louie, and other rock ‘n’ roll. The song was reported to have hidden meanings, and even deliberately-slurred profanity. (The song was banned on many radio stations and in many places in the United States, including Indiana, where it was personally prohibited by the Governor. The FBI became involved in the controversy but concluded a 31-month investigation with a report that they were “unable to interpret any of the wording in the record.”)
Inexplicably, Theresa disappeared. Sean waited for her to came back from the bathroom, but no one stays in a bathroom that long. He had been completely crushed. There were boys and girls going off together, and he’d seen Theresa with Louis, whose house this was. Louis was a weird one, claiming to have an incurable disease that would kill him in a few years. Sean never found out if it was true, but Louis used it to impress girls that he was dying and accelerate the ‘game’ from base to base. Sean could have killed him when he saw him return from another part of the house with Theresa, with her hair and makeup messed up. I couldn’t believe she’d go off with Mr. Sleezy after the way we’d danced and touched on the dance floor. It was very late by then, so Sean called his dad to pick them up to get Theresa home. She had avoided his eyes, but it was obvious she’d been drinking. Her dad was at the door, but he didn’t say anything. Sean had never called her or gone over after that. Maybe John did. He probably told him about it, or he heard from one of the other boys. He was the type to tell their mom, who would have called her cousin, Theresa’s mom. Theresa called Sean. “Sean, I’m really, really sorry. Louis gave me some wine and I don’t know what happened. Can you forgive me?” Sean said, “No.” It sounded too forced of an apology to Sean, he just couldn’t buy it. Never saw her again. He heard, not long after, that she had run off to Texas with an older guy.
Then he discovered opposition to The War.
A rally had been held in Sean’s high school auditorium, and leaflets were scattered around the parking lot. Sean picked one up as he got off the bus. He’d had to wait fifteen minutes for another bus, and ten minutes waiting to transfer. He was late.
“The war in Vietnam is central to all the problems of America,” he read. He skimmed the paper quickly, intending to throw it away, but certain phrases caught his attention: “A war of questionable legality and questionable constitutionality.” “Questionable?” Sean wondered, “Who is this George Romney character? The only thing wrong with Vietnam is that we don’t drop the bomb and get it over with.”
His eyes kept reading, even as his brain disputed what his eyes saw: “The United States…cannot stand apart, attempting to control the world…by violent military intervention.” “What?” he said out loud, “We have a right to be there, we were invited.”
And there was more, and Sean couldn’t stop reading: “Our role is not to police the planet. A war that is not defensible even in military terms. A war which is morally wrong.”
Sean folded the leaflet into his pocket, he’d read it later. He ran into the main building of the school, and screeched into his assigned seat.
“Hey Test-tube! Make any babies lately?” Ellis called out. Bill Ellis was no friend of Sean’s, having one time taken a slice of dill pickle and dropped it in a rip in Sean’s pants. At the mention of Sean’s nickname several other boys snickered and jeered. Sean ignored them. He’d given up trying to explain artificial insemination or test-tube babies, and he wished he had never heard of the ideas at all.
It had all started with an English assignment. Sean had read The Biological Time Bomb and used the idea of artificial insemination as his topic for the oral presentation. He thought he’d done a real fine job. There were supposed to be questions at the end, but his classmates just stared. Finally Frankie Marconi asked: “Do you think women shouldn’t have babies?” and Sean fell into the hole in the ice that Frankie had broken.
Even as he tried to explain that he was just giving a report, the questions started coming: “Are you against sex?” “Did you ever have sex, Sean?”
“You don’t have to answer that, Sean,” the teacher interrupted.
“No,” Sean said, defiantly boasting of his moral superiority, but secretly wishing he could be more like Frankie.
“Don’t you like girls?” “Didn’t you ever eat a girl out?”
The teacher broke in with: “That’s enough, let’s get back to the reports,” but before he even finished speaking, Ellis had answered for him: “Yeah, I’ll bet if he did, he’d use a spoon.”
Sean avoided people now, but he noticed the snickers. Once in a while, someone would ask him a straight question, like “Do you believe all that?” but it was usually just an excuse for more laughter, so he ignored the jeers.
Lately Sean had begun to wonder more about other, newer things. He read a lot, and since the war in Vietnam was in the newspapers and on TV every day, he’d read everything he could find on both sides of the issue. The news media in Maryland was anything but biased against the war, but he found out that there was opposition. Demonstrations were news, and there were plenty of those just forty miles away in Washington, D.C. He’d read about peaceniks, but the pictures in the paper were of religious groups with priests and nuns in the middle of ban-the-bomb demonstrations.
Then there was the news one night that the Pentagon was surrounded by a huge group of people who wanted to “exorcise” the place. He watched people being arrested. That’s exciting, he thought, those people are standing up for what they believe, even though they know they’ll be arrested. Then one day, there was local news: two Jesuit priests had dragged files out of the draft board offices in Catonsville, not all that far away, and poured blood on ’em. After they were arrested, and released, they did it again, using homemade napalm to actually burn the files. Sean was impressed.
He read all he could find about the war in Vietnam, and decided that the Government should withdraw from the fighting and leave the Vietnamese to solve their own problems. Sean remembered the leaflet that he’d picked up. He remembered the name of the candidate: George Romney. Unfortunately, Romney had dropped out of the race to be the Republican candiadte for President. Now there was another candidate calling for peace in Vietnam: Eugene McCarthy, a Democrat. That was good enough for Sean. He went down to the Students for McCarthy office near the medical school, and even though the people there were all college students or older, he was treated respectfully. These were the”kids” – according to the media – “McCarthy’s kids”, and they had rushed to support Sen. Eugene McCarthy when he’d made opposition to the war in Vietnam the focus of his campaign for President. Sean felt secure with them. They were rich kids, and they were older, and more mature, but no one seemed to be taking them very seriously either. We’re all in this together, Sean thought.
At first he went door-to-door with leaflets and other campaign materials, but he wasn’t much of a talker, and he found politics about as rewarding as selling magazine subscriptions. Then there was the trip to Indiana. He shared a seat with Lenny, a college student, someone who said he was a member of S.D.S., the Students for a Democratic Society. They rode together on the way back and always found time to talk together at the McCarthy office, or went door-to-door together.
As he carefully stretched a shirt-sleeve out one morning, meticulously smoothing out both sides, he thought about Indiana. The trip had been, well, educational. He had had interesting conversations with Democrats who seemed to believe as he did, but he knew how they were going to vote when he saw the smiling pictures of Pope John XXIII and Pres. Kennedy enshrined together on their mantelpieces or TV sets. Robert Kennedy was the late President’s brother, and he had suddenly entered the race too. Damned rich kid, Sean thought, Why should I support somebody like that? It pissed Sean off to hear Kennedy blurbs on every radio station and see expensive TV commercials, and full-page newspaper ads for this rich kid. And he’s using his brothers name to get elected President, Sean thought.
Then there were the allegations that the governor of the state was illegally using state offices and state employees to campaign for office himself. Governor Branigin had some kind of favorite-son plan to keep as many votes away from both McCarthy and Kennedy as possible, and then instruct his state’s delegation to vote for his own choice for President. Sean was outraged. This ain’t Democracy, he fumed, and he decided, Politics sucks.
After Sean returned to Baltimore, he did what he could to influence people to vote for McCarthy, but, after all, not only was he too young to vote himself, but so were his peers. He watched the democratic national convention on TV. His father joined him. They didn’t do much together anymore, but before Sean could be surprised, they both saw police charging into crowds and maiming people. There were demonstrators yelling at the cops, and the cops were breaking heads, and arresting everyone they could grab, including bystanders. They even knocked cameras out of the hands of reporters, and knocked TV cameramen down.
Sean and his father just stared at the screen, and then looked at each other. “I can’t believe what I’m seeing,” Mr. Emmet said.
“It’s incredible,” Sean answered. Damn, I missed it. “Did you see those students get clubbed and arrested?”
“Yeah, and they weren’t doing anything. I saw it myself.”
The results of the convention were disappointing. Sean knew his father, as a Republican, didn’t care much, but he had really expected McCarthy to get the nomination and go on to win the Presidency, and end the war. Instead, even though Robert Kennedy had been assassinated, McCarthy had lost, and lost big, to President Johnson’s vice-president.
That was depressing. And then political arch-conservative Richard Nixon won the Presidency anyway. Sean no longer had anything to believe in. His one chance to stop the war – and actually do something important – had failed. He felt like a fanatic who had lost his faith, but he dutifully went to a meeting called by one of his high school’s history teachers. Mr. Blond was fresh out of college, and he’d been to a convention of the Students for a Democratic Society. Sean hoped to hear something exciting. He wanted to do something. Blond, however, told them about a convention unable to agree on a single plan of action.
“What do you think should be done?” Blond asked this small collection of high school intellectuals, and then the arguing started. “I think we have to start organizing for the next election,” said an engineering student. “No way,” yelled a writer on the school paper, “I think we need to get out there on the streets. Now.” “Yeah,” a science major added, “We tried the electoral process. It didn’t work. Now’s the time for action.”
“You’re all crazy,” shouted Vernon, a rich “liberal” from the suburbs, “This is America. We have to work for change legally. We had our chance this last election, and we lost. You can talk about protests if you want, but I’ve got better things to do.”
“Like what?” Sean wanted to know.
“Well, like being a volunteer, and collecting money for needy causes. There’s lots of good things we can do.”
“That won’t change anything,” Sean replied.
“At least I’ll feel good about myself.”
Sean thought about the people dying in that war, as several other people loudly reminded Vernon. The meeting broke up after that, as people took sides and most left with Vernon.
Sean took the bus to Lenny’s, instead of home. His parents wouldn’t expect him to come home right away, they’d expect him to be with his Science Club, or Drama Club, or something like that. He had to transfer twice, because Lenny lived up near the State Teachers College that he was about to graduate from. Sean enjoyed the respect Lenny showed him and his ideas.
On the way, he wondered about marijuana and why it seemed to have no effect on him. He had smoked it three times already, making the rounds with Lenny, visiting Lenny’s friends. At first he had refused it, but eventually he had sucked the harsh smoke into lungs that were scarred from several bouts with pneumonia and years of breath-stealing asthma, and he had chocked so much that Lenny’s friends had stopped laughing long enough to worry about him. Again and again he made the effort, trying in vain to feel what the others felt. I wonder if Lenny gets high. He never seems to hold it in his lungs at all, and then he starts giggling and laughing right away. It’s probably all a trick, some kind of mass hallucination, he thought, like the way people in a crowd say that they see what other people see. I wonder if John’s smoked?
Lenny lived alone, in a small rented room. They talked about religion, and politics, and drugs.
“Hi Sean. Good to see you. You want a beer?”
“No. Thanks, but I really don’t like beer. Smells like rancid piss. Hey, listen. There was a meeting after school today. One of the teachers talked about a convention of SDS that he went to. He said that there was a lot of arguing and that people split up into different factions. He said SDS doesn’t know what to do anymore. You know anything about that?”
“Oh, I don’t belong to SDS anymore.”
“Well, it was getting to be like that. There were a lot of arguments over strategy, people dropped out, and the chapter broke up. It didn’t make any difference, we weren’t doing anything.”
“What are you into now?”
“I don’t know, I don’t care about politics. Look who we have for President. Hey, you know what? I have a friend who guides people through LSD trips,” Lenny offered Sean, “Do you want to try it sometime?”
“Nah, I don’t think so, I hear people do strange things when they’re tripping.”
“Yeah, like what?”
“Well, like jumping out of windows, and stuff like that.”
“That won’t happen with David. He’s a trained psychologist. He knows how to keep people from freaking out.”
“He’s done acid, himself. It’s amazing, but he always seems to know just what you’re going through.”
“Have you done it?” Sean asked.
“I’m not saying,” Lenny answered, pushing his face into Sean’s and trying to sound mysterious, but coming off corny, like a bad actor, laughing like the villainous landlord in an old melodrama. Sean enjoyed Lenny’s company, not that he didn’t suspect that Randy was just a little weird, but because of it.
“You’ve gotta try it, Sean.”
“Maybe. But hey, it’s late. I’ve got to get going,” he told Randy.
“No, stay awhile,” Lenny pleaded.
“No way, man, I’ve got homework to do. See ya’ later.”
“Hey, listen, come back Friday, we’ll go down to David’s.”
“All right, maybe then.”
Sean wondered about David on the way home, wondering if LSD really was OK, but mostly he wondered why Lenny wanted him to try it so much.
Soon, his curiosity would lead him to the mythical drug.