The Shy Mind

While toiling at the Student Union, I repeatedly noticed an odd fellow, always sitting by himself, studying hard if the constant grimaces, gazing into space and intermittent fevered page flipping were any indication. Typically when the Commons filled for lunch or dinner hour with an equal mix of hippies and overdressed ROTC chaps, he would bail out pronto. It seemed he preferred his own society. When someone did stop to pass a triviality, the discomfort of establishing eye contact or even tipping his head in greeting was quite apparent.

He also appeared terribly lonely.

I wanted to meet the guy. Supposing you've read any other entries in this memoir, you might be surprised to learn the reason was nothing more than empathy. Perhaps I recognized a kindred spirit.

Even as a kid, observing people and deducing certain things about them came easy. Part of that is early on I recognized the need to simply shut-up and watch, letting the trail lead where it will. It was pretty clear that to approach this fellow, I would have to tread delicately. It began by casually wiping the tables around him when on my out-front duties (before dish room days), nonchalantly glancing his way once or twice while squeezing out the contemptible soggy gray rag. Then one day, as he was just about to depart, I offered to return his empty tumbler to the conveyor belt, a solicitous savings of a few steps for him. Our eyes met briefly as he proffered a nervous thanks. The following day, emboldened, as he walked into the Commons, I looked over and nodded, and he returned the greeting, still a bit awkwardly, but the point is, he did! 

Do you remember in Dances with Wolves how John Dunbar was able to work up a sense of trust with Two Socks? It requires the patience of Job.

Finally, one afternoon while busing some stuff from nearby tables, I was passing by just as he triumphantly jabbed a jot in his notebook with a sense of finality, set the pencil down and smiled at no one in particular, taking a deep breath and slumping happily back in his chair, stretching long arms out to remove a crick. I sensed this was the moment. Tray in hand, I paused briefly at his table and took a quick glance at what he had written. The page was filled with meticulous hieroglyphs. At the very bottom a bold Q.E.D. shone like a beacon.

As he continued simply to exhale, shedding the tension of all that intense concentration, I said kindly, "Looks tough." He smiled, this time at me rather than the air, and we were off to the races. I dispensed with the tray of dirty dishes and sat down as he proceeded to explain as best he could to a non-believer like me (I wasn't seduced by mathematics until some five years later) what he had just accomplished. It was some theorem from combinatorics and he had finally managed a proof which satisfied his sense of esthetics. That much I understood, although the mathematics was lost on me of course. Nonetheless, he contrived to make up various examples to explain the counting principles involved. Things like: suppose you're at a party with twenty-three wanton women who all need it so bad. Without wishing to catch or spread a venereal disease, what's the smallest number of prophylactics required to get the job done, supposing sensitivity is never an issue? (In other words, you can turn them inside-out, coupling soiled faces, which certainly keeps all participants uncontaminated, though the increasing number of layers may detract from the delight).

In an instant the wall came tumbling down and we talked and talked and talked.

I was still punched in on the time clock, naturally, during that first hour we spent together in conversation.

Every day after that, we sought each other out, peering amongst the crowd for a sign of recognition. Looking back on it now, all these four-some decades later, it seems identical to the opening college scenes in Brideshead Revisited. Really. The motives, the trepidation, the gaining of trust, the mystery: they were all there, just as Waugh described a couple generations earlier.

Ron was exceedingly tall, taller even than me, putting him over 6'4". And he was still scrawnier, bearing every appearance of having never participated in sports. He was reasonably well dressed--in the sort of duds a mother might bequeath before packing him off to school--but in this age of Hair, he stuck out the same way an Amish lad attending Mardi Gras might. Shirts were always long-sleeved, despite the miserable Ames summers. Trousers were close to dress slacks, never blue jeans, encircled by the narrowest belt imaginable. And of course, the shoes were wing-tips with those fruity patterns poked all over, complemented by argyle stockings.

Ron's hair was jet black, including the somewhat scrubby mustache. Due to a scarecrow frame, his cranium always appeared so small as to be out of proportion. I put his age at about 22 to my 16.

Yes, we talked and talked and talked. I wanted to know all about his studies. He was still undecided whether to choose mathematics or physics, and so pursued both just for the hell of it. I noticed that. College shouldn't be a race. He seemed equally at home with applications as he was with the more theoretical aspects. And chemistry held no fear for him either, a fact to play such an important part in our friendship. Note that last word. He never said as much, but I suspected I was his first friend at college. 

I got to see Ron smile.

After a time, he related his strange life's history which fascinated me no end. Originally from New York, he somehow ended up in Iowa during high school--I forget how or why. Naturally, he came from a broken home, living only with his mother. And then he got into all manner of rascality, terminating in Eldora, an institution for bad boys.

By the end of his first night there, he had managed to craft a master key to open all doors. Ron described in great detail the device he had contrived to do so, a rather clever elastic drawn affair to withdraw the wax impression up the arm once taken (no wonder his predilection for long sleeved shirts). A quick trip to the boys metal shop, a little filing and he was in business.

We talked and talked and talked. 

His next tale became my Aesop's Fable. Eldora attracts a pretty warm lot, and all the guys there picked on him no end. Especially the head ruffian, a king-pin who demanded obedience from all the other kids. Apparently he was relentless in his attacks on Ron and made the latter's life miserable.

Part of the day-to-day routine involved jaunts into the neighboring woods for some outdoor activity. Methodically, meticulously, surreptitiously, Ron began collecting leaves of poison ivy and soon had quite a bale with which to work. After visiting the lab for chemistry class, he was able to secretly extract the oil from the leaves, through some sort of decoction process over an alcohol lamp. It's all alchemy to me, but before long he had the essential oil of poison ivy concentrated in a small vial, which he then soaked into the cotton ends of some Q-Tips.

So, in the joint shower room one day, Ron slipped accidentally, bumping awkwardly into the roughneck leader who had made his life so miserable. The thug never noticed the envenomed Q-Tip swabbing right up the crack of his rear end. Later that day, the bully was admitted to the infirmary where he spent an unpleasant week. Makes me think of that old joke with the punchline "twin achers" in lieu of "twin acres." In any event, it sounds like Charmin wasn't soft enough after all.

Ron and I had a lot in common. Or perhaps, he merely helped me codify random thoughts which had been percolating previously. In any event, we talked and talked and talked.

Back to the Student Union. One day, Ron mentioned to me that the formula for tear gas was a piece of cake, supposing you could lay your hands on the ingredients. My curiosity was piqued, and I plied him for lessons in chemistry. Bromoacetone was the name of the substance in question. The requisite acetone and sulfuric acid would be easy enough to acquire; my good friend Armpit had a rather well stocked laboratory in his basement. The main problem was, where to get the liquid bromine?

The Gang prowled everywhere in general and had long memories. After just a moment's reflection, I suggested we visit the swimming pool at the Men's Gym on campus this Friday night, after closing. Sure enough, in an unlocked closet we found a quart of the stuff, an evil looking, brown/maroon substance, apparently used in very dilute quantities to disinfect swimming pools. We were on pins and needles hauling it home, knowing it was fairly toxic.

Our first go was a tiny batch of tear gas, no more than a teaspoon, which found its way into the mop bucket at the Campus Lutheran Church. It had the desired effect, clearing out a youth service in the basement and warranting a write-up in the Daily Tribune. The perpetrators were never discovered, of course.

The next batch was considerably more substantial, a full liter. Three or four of us huddled around the graduated cylinder in Armpit's basement, his parents away for the weekend. Very carefully, the liquid bromine was poured in, followed by the acid which acts as some sort of reagent. And then the acetone.

It was spooky as hell, straight out of a 1930s Universal monster movie. You could hear the solution crackle, like static electricity, and then the bromine began to emit puffs of vile purple smoke. The liquid in the cylinder started to churn, creating even weirder sounds and then...kaboosh!  

In an instant, the entire one liter contents rocketed from the glassware, straight upward like a cannon ball, vaporizing instantly. Apart from a nasty brown stain on the ceiling, there was no other sign of the substance; it truly had become gas in the blink of an eye. Which by the way was beginning to water at once.

Now remember, a teaspoon of the stuff rendered a church basement uninhabitable earlier, so imagine what a liter did to Armpit's house. I was already halfway up the staircase when it became clear this was a war zone.

As mentioned, Armpit's parents were gone that weekend. When they returned on Sunday, the house was completely off limits. The fire department was called in and quarantined the place for a week while it aired out. Armpit's parents were quite vexed when the entire family had to move in with a grandfather for the duration. Moreover, the fire marshal began asking some pointed questions related to the Lutheran Church escapade. But as usual, The Gang carried out a protestation of innocence with aplomb.

Back to Ron. I guess we queered the pitch. A little earlier that week he was just about to reveal the formula for Spanish Fly. But because of the newspaper coverage, he reneged, thinking we couldn't be trusted. His vast chemical secrets were locked to us now, but I didn't hold it against him. We probably did seem like loose cannons.

I have no idea whatever became of Ron, whether he completed degrees in mathematics or physics, whether he eventually opened up to others, whether he found happiness in life. I also don't know if he even survived, for truthfully, he always seemed to me to be walking a tick-tock razor path. But assuredly, I will always remember the coming together of two shy guys in the Commons and learning so much from each other. Ron was more than a good friend, he revealed why the best juvenile delinquents value intellect. And we talked and talked and talked.

Yes, I recognized a kindred spirit, no doubt about it. 

Next installment: A Cockroach Saved Me from Ruin

No comments:

Post a Comment