Whitey

For whatever reason, my hometown and especially my neighborhood was overrun with Presbyterians. At the time I thought that faith to be fairly liberal-minded (a prejudice engendered by my being thrust into the middle of it with no prior consent), and indeed by high school years our local church, at any rate, was speaking out in opposition to the Viet Nam war. Seemed okay to me, if you're going to be stuck with an institution not of your own choosing.

But there are Presbyterians and there are Presbyterians.

My mother, while a good mother when in less superstitious moods, could be vexsome, insisting upon Sunday School and then later my attending church services against my will. That's hardly fair. A youngster has had no opportunity to read, learn, think or explore. Pushing a religion on a kid under those circumstances is no different from what the Symbionese Liberation Army did to Patty Hearst.

Nonetheless I had it reasonably easy, even if Sundays were the day of the week to dread. Not so smooth, as I remember it, for my friend Whitey.

He and I started kindergarten together, concluding with both being members of The Gang in high school. In grade school days he lived a mere half-block away from me and so we often spent many afternoons together.

Even then, I fretted for him. Oscar Wilde wrote:
But youth smiles without any reason. It is one of its chiefest charms.
Hair so blond it was white, Whitey never seemed to me to smile very much for a lad of five. That didn't change much as the years progressed. Brooding I would call his temperament, someone Shakespeare might plop down in the middle of Hamlet.

I sort of gathered he grew up under the strict hammer of godliness when one warm evening he was visiting and we were about to turn on the television to take in the newest episode of The Untouchables. He then indicated that he wasn't "allowed" to watch it and begged off. Even then the notion of censors riled me.

One Sunday, I spent the afternoon at his place, staying for evening "supper" with Whitey and his parents.

Supper consisted of a bowl of popcorn. It was as though the Governor of Pentonville had extended the invitation.

While certainly a healthy diet may have been at play here (and his mother was a dietitian), I read "hair shirt" into this meal. After all, Sundays are supposed to be somber, aren't they? Years later I picked up A River Runs Through It by Norman Maclean and saw a similar sort of Presbyterianism in it. But at least Norman's father fly-fished.

However, my relations with Whitey didn't always lead to such remorse. As a very young lad, I had an overnight at his home just down the street. One thing that has always stayed with me is that he had a bulletin board in his bedroom. On it were pinned beautiful pages from This Week Magazine, a color supplement with the Sunday paper. These showed some amazing artwork by Chesley Bonestell, depicting moons around planets, rocket ships, close-ups of what Mercury might look like baking under the Sun and so forth. That was the era in which outer space would rescue us from an indentured life. I was surprised he had saved them.

Getting ready for bed that night, I was conducted to the top bunk in his room, which had the attraction of a view straight through the flap-out window to the south. And there they were! The planet Mars, not far from Antares. Two red beacons to make me dream of life elsewhere in the universe. Truly, even as a lad, I knew how to recognize these guys, thanks to my nights of stargazing with the well-rounded naturalist Mrs. Carr on Stanton Avenue.

It was a great way to fall asleep: dreaming of what's out there.

As the years wore on Whitey and I drifted apart a bit, even though we both ran with The Gang in high school. It seemed to me he was becoming more and more quiet. But he was still a trustworthy colleague in nefarious deeds. One night we swiped an entire case of soda pop from the Campus Lutheran Church and drank enough in one spell to bring on instant diabetes.

Senior year in high school definitely had overtones. Viet Nam loomed. We were all getting old enough to realize that religion, any religion, was a yoke if not an outright lie. And Whitey got more and more reticent.

The school yearbook (entitled Spirit) was a joke by then, although the cheerleaders and jocks seemed to think it was pretty cool. So, the hippies in my class published an alternative yearbook entitled Lack.

In it is a beautiful picture of Whitey, shirtless, hair to the shoulders, rubber tubing round his forearm to raise a vein, hypodermic in hand. Looking into the lens with a beautiful "what the hell is your problem?" expression as the needle finds it home.

Posed? Probably. Impious? No doubt. But my good friend really was broody and only he could have conveyed so much with that look.

Next installment: A Twittering in the Trousers

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