“College Days” by Henry S. F. Cooper, Jr.

Colleges Days by Henry S. F. Cooper, Jr.


WHEN I GOT TO YALE in September 1952, I registered, picked up the key to my room, and stood outside my door, on the third floor of the center entry of Wright Hall. My past four years at Andover had not been the greatest. Before putting the key into the lock, I was suddenly conscious -a little epiphany -that I was opening a magical door onto a wonderful new life.

Inside, the room was hot and close. None of my roommates had arrived yet. There was dust, the kind of smell you find in old attics, and four mattresses on four beds, some rickety old Morris chairs, four wooden desks, and not much else. I opened the windows. It was exhilarating, in a grimy sort of way.

Outside, lots of strange guys were rushing around with suitcases. In front of Welch Hall, I saw one familiar face -Stoddard Platt, an old friend from grade school. I was glad to see him -he was his same freckled, crew-cut self, and definitely reassuring. He was as dusty, and as full of uneasy excitement, as I was.

We were so nervously excited, so anxious, so determined to do something -anything -that we hopped into my car, drove to New York, and caught the 8:00 p.m. show of “Ivanhoe” with Elizabeth Taylor at the Radio City Music Hall. It was as good a way as any of avoiding the fact that we were brand-new freshmen.

Like the two of us, the entire Class was a bundle of energy, with no particular direction.

On a hot evening, a day or so later, still unpacking, I put my phonograph -a red-leather portable Webster-Chicago -on the windowsill. The mullioned windows were open; “Kiss Me, Kate” filled the air in the room and the courtyard outside.

People above me on one side of the courtyard, their windows also open in the hot muggy night, began shouting at me to turn the phonograph down, or even off.

People on the other side of the courtyard wanted me to turn it up higher.

A year or so earlier, Life magazine had run a big article on the ice-cream riot at Yale, when two Good-Humor men had been competing for the same corner outside Yale Station, as it happened, the corner just outside my bedroom window out back, on High Street. If they had a riot that got into Life, why couldn’t we?

I turned the phonograph down.

“Turn it up!”

I turned the phonograph up.

“Turn it down!”

People spilled out of the entries and into the courtyard, shouting.

People from other Old Campus dormitories -Durfee, Welch Hall, Phelps, even Vanderbilt -rushed over and joined in, all shouting, “Turn it up!” or “Turn it down!”

Everyone seemed to sense that a riot was obligatory -in fact was already happening. The trouble was, nobody knew what to do or where to go. At least our predecessors had been promoting the rights of one ice-cream vendor over another. Someone seemed to have heard that Yale riots always ended by storming the Taft Hotel.

The cry went up, “On to the Taft! On to the Taft!”

Several hundred freshmen moved off the lawn, towards Phelps Gate. The campus cops, though, had got wind of what was going on. Phelps Gate slammed shut, as did several other gates around the Old Campus.

All this had happened in the time it took to get from the overture of “Kiss Me Kate” to my favorite lyric, “Bianca! Bianca! I’d rather give up Sanka than you!” But there was no one left in the courtyard to hear it.

In Which I Go Out for Crew

In the fall term of freshmen year, we had to do compulsory athletics. I chose crew, largely because I didn’t know anything about it. The sports I did know about, I didn’t want anything further to do with.

We started out in concrete rowing tanks in the Payne-Whitney gym. These were simulated rowing shells, with real rowing seats and oars, and two concrete ditches full of water where eight rowers learned to dip their oars and pull. I rather liked this; I thought I was very good. Occasionally the coach, Mr. Pocock, walking along the line of rowers, would stop and stare at me. He was a rough-hewn, likeable man, descended from a long line of Pococks who for generations had coached crews on both sides of the Atlantic. Although I was scrawny (I was six feet tall and weighed 129 pounds), I thought my sinews were rather good, and that Mr. Pocock was admiring them.

One day, he stopped me. “Cooper,” he said, “Come here.”

I felt I was about to receive a great compliment.

“I have been studying you. How would like to be a coxswain?”

I wasn’t sure what a coxswain was, but it sounded like a good thing to be. The bus ride out to Derby took about half an hour. You knew you were coming to the boathouse when you saw a long, low dam stretching straight across the river. Above the dam the river was deeper, wider, and smoother, making a long sinuous pond winding ever narrower upstream. High wooded hills rose on each side. The boathouse was a snappy-looking building with a broad wooden ramp leading down to the water; I had learned enough about coxswains by this time to know that their crews were given to tossing them from this ramp into the water.

Out on the river, I had mixed feelings. On one hand, sitting the back of a shell, pounding out the stroke with the little wooden blocks on the end of the steering ropes to the rudder, and being pulled up and down stream by eight big guys, was a pretty easy way to fulfill my compulsory athletic requirement. On the other hand, I felt insulted.

I had some of the bigger guys in my boat. (Four years later, some of them went on to Sydney, Australia, as part of Yale’s victorious Olympic crew. I did not go with them.) They all developed a certain hearty camaraderie that comes from pulling together in unison; I, with my little blocks of wood going tap, tap in the wooden thwarts of the shell, felt left out. They were all bigger than me, and marched to a different drumbeat; although I was the drummer, I didn’t feel the beat was for me.

As the long afternoons on the Housatonic wore on, with Mr. Pocock in his motor launch going up and down the line of shells, from the varsity and junior varsity crews all the way back to the two freshmen eights, yelling through his megaphone, I began to get bored. (Ben Scotch, a rival coxswain who -enviable in our profession -was shorter and even scrawnier than I, was at the helm of the other freshman shell. He didn’t make it to Australia, either.)

Worse, I got hungry. At home, my mother always had afternoon tea around five o’clock, with tomato sandwiches, chocolate cake, and little lace cookies, and at five o’clock on the Housatonic, this did not happen. An aching void opened in my stomach.

I began bringing peanut and jelly sandwiches in a brown bag onto the boat. When I got hungry, I would open the bag and take out a sandwich with one hand, while pounding out the cadence with the other.

The guys pulling on the oars got pissed off. They grumbled. But I finished the sandwich and an apple, picked up the other wooden block, and increased the stroke.

The next day, I brought even more food, including some grapes and a bottle of coke. I felt like a Roman emperor, being rowed around the Mediterranean on his barge.

“Cut it out! Stow it!” shouted John Fell, a clean-cut, black-haired fellow who was the stroke, the Number 8 oar, right in front of me; apparently the smell of peanut butter did not agree with him.

The guys were getting mutinous.

I increased the stroke to ramming speed.

The guys sweated.

As the autumn wore on, the shadows from the hills along the Housatonic lengthened and deepened, and by early November, we were rowing in twilight.

One evening, late in the season, while Mr. Pocock was working with the varsity crew at the upstream end of the line, he briefly zipped down to us in his launch and shouted through his megaphone, “Cooper, turn around and row downstream until I tell you to stop.”

With a napkin I wiped some chocolate from my mouth (I gained a pound during my career as coxswain).

I shouted back, “Aye, aye, sir,” and spun the boat around, getting the 2, 4, 6, and 8 oars to backstroke while the 1, 3, 5, and 7 oars rowed forward. I was getting rather good at this.

I was even getting along better with the crew. They liked brownies.

The coach turned the launch around and headed upstream.

I banged out the cadence briskly, as it was cold; the oars splashed rhythmically, making successions of interlocking, expanding bulls-eyes in the water. The crew was getting rather professional.

Maybe the nautical life wasn’t so bad, I thought.

The river widened and the hills fell back as we hurried downstream, stroke after stroke. Our timing was perfect -hypnotic, even.

I had one ear cocked for a command from Pocock, far upstream with the varsity.

The twilight was turning dark. The lights of the boathouse -a long festive row of them, over the slanting dock, over the big doors -hove into view. Soon they were abeam, and then they began moving astern.

Tap, tap, tap. Splash, splash, splash. Stroke, stroke, stroke.

Ahead lay the expanding sheet of velvety black water dappled with reflections -ending in a razor-thin black line. I had never noticed it before. I wondered what it was.

Tap, tap, tap, splash, splash…

John Fell, the stroke, suddenly noticed the lights of the boathouse moving up the river, astern of us.

He looked over his shoulder and saw the thin black line, much closer now.

“Holy Geez,” he said.

He took command of the boat, ordering all hands to backwater together like mad. Still we moved forward.

He turned the boat sideways to the current. We lost momentum. We bumped gently up against the dam, sideways, giving us a good view down the ten-foot drop to the concrete footing below. Fortunately the river was low, so the water was not going over the edge.

Without John, we would have shot like an arrow over the rim, with goodness only knows what consequences.

We rowed silently back to the boathouse. The other boats were just coming in, shepherded by Pocock.

“Where were you going?” he said.

In Which I Turn Twenty-One

I was famous among some members of the Class of 1956 because I was the only person they knew who had never smoked a cigarette or drunk alcohol. This was indeed wonderful, and on the street people used to point me out to their friends. I felt a little freakish.

The reason for my abstinence was not because I had a strong moral sense, but rather avarice, because my parents had offered to give me (as they had with my two older sisters and older brother) a thousand dollars if I didn’t smoke or drink until I was 21. They had all made it, and it never occurred to me that I wouldn’t. My father -no teetotaler himself -explained as his motive that if we ever became alcoholics later in our lives, it ought to be helpful to look back on this period, when we were 17 or 18 or 19 or 20, and had gotten along very well without alcohol. Fortunately, I have never had to put this theory to the test -though, over the years, as I have looked back on this period, it has sometimes inspired me to reach for another glass.

I rather enjoyed my celebrity, and I also found, that with my friends at Mory’s or at cocktail parties, I was able to get as high on ginger ale as anyone with a beer. I had a great time at parties, being able to carouse with the best of them, apparently operating on fumes alone. And people always seemed to be amazed.

Then, one day, it all came to an end. My 21st birthday was at the beginning of our junior year, on a Wednesday in November, 1954. I had mentioned the upcoming event to a few friends, but by and large kept it quiet about it. I wasn’t all that sure I wanted to come of age. Among other things, I would lose that which had made me special.

As Tuesday evening wore on, I felt a little sorry for myself. It looked as though I was going to reach my majority all alone.

About 11:30 a friend of mine, David Calleo, a senior who lived upstairs in my entry in Pierson Collage, remembered. He was a lively, good-natured fellow, head of the Political Union, and hence a very take-charge sort of person, a good organizer.

“What are you going to do at midnight, when you turn 21?” he asked.

I said I would be in bed, asleep; it was just another day.

“No, you’re not!” he said. “This is too great an event to miss! We all have to be there to help you take your first drink.”

He made a few phone calls. My roommate Charlie MacLaughlin, who was already asleep, was gotten out of bed. Ben Scotch, Stoddie Platt, Martin Bowen, Steve Bonsal, and others poured out of various entries around Pierson. Andy Dempsey came over from Branford. Phone calls were made as far away as TD, to round up Warren Zimmermann and Aubrey Goodman. About a dozen people were milling around my room, in the hallway, and out on the Pierson lawn.

What to do? Where to go? Mory’s was shut, but the Old Heidelberg, in a white frame building out the back gate of Pierson, was open. We hurried across the street. We had to hurry; the O.H. would close at 1 a.m., along with all the other bars in New Haven, in compliance with Connecticut’s Blue Laws.

In other words, my friends has a one-hour window of opportunity -from midnight, when I was officially 21, until 1 A.M. when the bars closed -to help me lose my alcoholic virginity, and beyond that, to get me absolutely stinko, potted, pickled, and fried. Nice guys.

We sat at a big round table with initials carved in it -not as many as in the tables at Mory’s, but a respectable number nonetheless, as befitted Yale’s #2 watering hole.

Everyone wanted to buy me my first drink. As I clearly had no preferences, they took it upon themselves to educate me. Everyone did me the favor of buying me his own favorite beverage. Soon, in front of me, there appeared a long row of martinis (some with twists, some with olives), Manhattans, stingers, Brandy Alexanders, and much more. My friends, of course, did not stint themselves; for every drink they bought me, they bought one, and then another, for themselves.

We waited until the hands of the clock over the bar were both pointing straight up, the minute hand obliterating the hour hand. Midnight. The moment of truth had come. I was of age.

Everyone pushed their own favorite drink a little closer to me.

I was in no hurry. In fact, I was savoring the moment. I felt a little sad about losing both my youth and my celebrity at the same time.

I picked up the nearest stinger. Eyes followed it to my lips. I sniffed it and put it down.

Everyone groaned and had a sip of their own drink, to encourage me.

I picked up the next drink, a Bourbon on the rocks, sniffed it, and put it down.

Everyone sighed and took another encouraging swig from their own glass.

The crowd was in the palm of my hand, or so I thought. I was milking the moment.

I repeated this again and again, to the same accompaniment. When I had sniffed all the drinks, including some new ones that had mysteriously appeared (donated to the cause from surrounding tables), and got to the end without having a single sip, there was consternation.

I picked up the first drink all over again, and sniffed it to see if it was any different from the last time I had sniffed it. I did that with all the drinks.

The consternation was building. They were becoming annoyed. They felt cheated.

Still I hesitated, like a timid swimmer afraid to take the plunge.

Finally, at ten minutes to one in the morning, Calleo said: “Enough of this horseshit! I will drink three times anything you drink.”

That was too much for me. I picked up the three nearest martinis and quaffed them down.

There was general joy and pandemonium.

Calleo, good to his word, performed the astonishing feat of downing nine martinis in the remaining ten minutes. It is possible that the bartenders, ever watchful for the wellbeing of Yalies, watered down some of them; nonetheless it was an extraordinary feat, and he would pay for it later with an acute case of hepatitis.

Calleo and I -possibly because of the shock to our systems -were the only sober people in the group. After walking everyone else home, he propelled me over to the Waldorf Cafeteria where we ate several Danish pastries.

“One piece of advice,” he said, “is you should never drink on an empty stomach.”

Now he tells me!

In Which I Don’t Get Into Keys

One way to keep from being bored at Yale was to break into other people’s tombs -those mysterious, windowless stone structures, some like Egyptian temples, others like Greek treasuries, that housed senior societies. Interest in doing this peaked in senior year, when the people inside were apt to be friends of yours.

My roommate Stoddard Platt and I were particularly active in these lines. Once, at a party, we stole a key from Ben Scotch, thinking it would let us into the basement door of Book and Snake. It was the wrong key. We hurried back to the party, where we had an awful time returning it to his pocket without his knowing we had taken it.

Skull and Bones, on High Street, looked unfriendly and impregnable.

But Scroll and Key, on the corner of Wall and College, seemed friendly -inviting, even.

One evening in April of senior year, Stoddard and I were walking in front of Keys, when one after another several friends of ours, walked up the front steps, opened a big metal door, and disappeared inside.

We couldn’t help noticing that the last one in had left the big door ajar.

In the gathering dusk, we quickly climbed up and went in.

Instead of finding ourselves in the elegant drawing room we imagined, we were inside a tiny cement lobby; the real door was in front of us, bolted solidly shut.

There was a light switch by the door. To see better, we switched it on. Nothing happened. We switched it off. We switched it on again. Nothing happened. Maybe the light, wherever it was, was inside the tomb.

We switched it on and off several more times. Still nothing happened.

We heard a noise outside.

We started down the steps. There was a privet hedge around the building; lurking spookily in back of it we saw several figures in grey flannel suits; as we came down, they bolted around the corner of the building. I recognized, or thought I recognized, Percy Chubb, John Rindlaub, and Erastus Corning.

Stod and I hurried around the corner and looked after them; we were just in time to see the last one disappear into a small door at the back of the building. A bar of light crossed the lawn; the door clanged shut and it was gone.

Clearly, I whispered to Stod, the light switch had indeed turned a light on and off inside the tomb, and the guys inside had been annoyed enough to go out the back door and sneak around to the front to see who was bugging them.

“Stoddie,” I said. “I’ll tell you what you have to do. You go back into the front entrance and flick the light as hard as you can. I will hide near the back door, and the next time they come out that way, I will slip in.”

I went out and hid by the back door.

Time passed.

I walked quietly around to the front. I could hear a steady click, click, click. Good old Stod!

I went back to the back door.

More time passed.

I slid back to the front of the building. Click, click, click.

Then I heard a bold-curdling scream.

The big metal front doors burst open, and in the light Stod cleared the front steps in one leap, jumped the privet hedge, and disappeared up College Street, with six figures in grey flannel suits racing after him.

We had miscalculated: the guys had come out the front door this time, not the back.

Later, Stod came home. His jacket was ripped and his face was scratched by the privet hedge, but otherwise he was in good shape. He didn’t have much to say.