Beavers, Dragons, and Draft Cards
as always for Marcia
Tacony, Mayfair, and Holmesburg are three centuries old neighborhoods (formerly villages) near or along the Delaware River in Northeast Philadelphia. The original King’s Highway with its triple arched span over Pennypack Creek on Frankford Avenue, Highway US 1, dates to 1697 and is the oldest bridge of its kind in the Americas. As a kid I hung out in Tacony Park, went to the Mayfair Movies, and played football with the Holmesburg Boys Club. According to The City of Philadelphia Map I technically lived in Holmesburg; still, I always thought, would say, should someone inquire of my origins, that I was from Tacony as Tacony Park was, as the crow flies, but a Connie Mack homerun’s distance from my row home on Vista Street. All this is to say, that the phrase I will later use, “Tacony coming out” is code for the appearance in the flesh of the spirit of my true unfiltered self: the bottom-line, the essence, if you will, of Eddie, the who I am and what I am, the being shaped by the Tacony environs of my youth, tempered, I suppose, by both the Irish DNA I carry and the Jesuit high school education I received.
I am a freshman in college the first time I experience Tacony coming out.
I am eighteen, in Nineteen Sixty-six, in the Grand Hall of the Dragons, where a lunch hour throng of students seeking higher education in the science, business, and womanly-arts world are hanging out and co-mingling, sadly, within the boundaries of class-consciousness. The Grand Hall at noon can be the to-see and to-be-seen scene for anyone. Fraternities and sororities lay claim to the prominent areas of the Grand Hall with Sigma Zuma Rooma occupying the right-side upper tier of the marble Grand Stairs ascending to the second floor, below and about which the lesser male Greeks assemble. Who stands where is steeped in tradition; privilege grandfathered in. The ground-level marble tile floor or the third floor balcony above the second floor landing is where the majority of students hang, primarily those, who, like myself, commute and live at home.
Now, Drexel is an Institute of Technology; nonetheless, there still are a fair number of women students on and about this urban campus as higher degrees in Home Economics are offered. There’s rumor of a dozen or so girls in the science departments, two of whom are in the physics program with me, both of whom already wear diamonds on their left hands. Consequently, on occasion, I do loco-mote my outsider solo Steppenwolf ass outside the envelope of keeping to myself, out of the Activities Center, across Chestnut Street, to the Grand Dragon Hall, in search of the body language invite of a woman, the second glance, a finger curling hair aside an ear revealed, a woman who might notice me.
Entering the building I am reminded that my love quest began with the first kiss of Post Office - ah, Nancy Nevin was her name and she was as passionate as she was tall - and colors this very moment as I voyeuristically weave my way among these future business administrators, engineers, chemists, physicists, home economists, and professors, looking for a face, the figure, a lingo that attracts me even though I am involved already, going steady, that is, (- that first step towards engagement in the 60s very Catholic Tacony culture that has shaped me -) with Anne, a first year girl at Beaver College with whom I hooked up at a intercollegiate mixer. The posters for the event featured Lady Beavers and Male Dragons, with imaginary offspring resembling characters popular in media culture as mythological and surreal fantasy currently shapes the American post-beat art world. Lothar and the Hand People almost psychedelized the old school Bristol Stomp right out of my Tacony dance repertoire the night I met Anne as I Hippie-free-styled to the electric rock and roll. Forget forevermore, I think, the “Oldies but Goodies” and give me rocking electric guitar from now on. Anne danced with a passionate come-on in her eyes, and I came-on so to speak. Sadly, after a year, I am no longer over-the-top infatuated with my girlfriend. Something - a nag about the angularity of her visage, the petite-ness of her breasts - these oh-so-petty-assessments distract me from the ardor I have for her in every other way. A silly and undeserved vanity prevents me from falling perfectly and deeply in love with Anne. I feel cowardly in my appraisal of her. Unkind. I mean Ms Bunny, my pet name for Anne, Ms Bunny got more balls than me when it comes to our lives entwined. She’s bigger than life heroic. Hell, she frequently climbs out the 1 AM bedroom window of her parents’ house to sneak a rendezvous with me and enlists the lies and conspiratorial deceit of friends to hide her whereabouts from her strict and doting parents when she and I spend a weekend in New York or at the Jersey shore. She gifts me with cartons of Kools she risks her livelihood to lift at her work shift’s close. There is telepathy between us when we look into each other’s eyes. We can almost come thinking about each other, melting with each other’s touch. My first real muse, Anne has inspired me to write my first real poetry. All should be wonderful with us, but subliminal clues inform me: Anne is not my one and only. I wonder: are our pheromones out of sync? Is the algebra of the distance between our irises incompatible? I partially hope the equation of me and Anne will work out (there are many pluses), but know already it will end with the head turning of another woman, the real reason I am in the Grand Hall of the Dragons on a hunt for my mate.
Did I mention that everywhere in America, in collegiate hangouts, in family dining rooms, in bivouac tents, in dorms, in television broadcast booths, on subways and buses, in taxis, on trains, coming and going, whether sitting or standing, there is this elephant in the room of every American sentient being’s thinking, and its name is Viet Nam. The war over there infects daily life over here. Personally, like every other guy in the Grand Hall, I carry my connection to the war, a draft card, in my wallet. Right now, right here, among the ogling and flirting, the testosterone and estrogen, the fraternal and neighborhood camaraderies, the angst of war is present. What is invisible (the elephant in the room) will, nonetheless, cast its shadow today across the Grand Hall floor as a student group from the University of Pennsylvania intends to address the Drexel student body about some protest doings at The University of Pennsylvania, a student sit-in that had made the televised nightly news the day before. With benefit of permit and permission from the Drexel Student Council, a PA, a podium, loud-speakers and microphone-stand occupy the second floor landing, where as rumor and mimeographed bulletins have it, a small group of pacifists and anti-establishment protestors will be explaining why the Ivy Leaguers are holding a sit-in at the University City Science Center some six blocks west of Drexel. Institutes of Technology and Ivy League Universities, their students, generally speaking, have little to do with each other, and that students from the University of Pennsylvania are addressing Drexel students is odd, a first time. The perception over pinochle and coffee at the Activities Center where I spend slack time between physics classes, atomic and otherwise, is that the U of P-ers will be talking down to us from their ivy towers. According to the notices I’d seen posted on student bulletin boards, one of the scheduled topics will be the use of napalm and Agent Orange defoliants, recent gifts to the military from the world of DOW and university science, something chemistry majors might find engaging. Also on the agenda: citizen plans to discourage city planners who hope to raze yet another impoverished neighborhood nearby– one deemed blighted (blighted, that’s bullshit for black) – for the sake of increasing the availability of real estate to feed the expansion dreams of city planners, school administrators and federal industry insiders, looking for more room to incubate ideas concerning visionary weapons of war.
“Get a haircut” is the first disruptive taunt leveled at the first speaker, a Student for a Democratic Society, to stand at the microphone. The SDS-er’s speech about the reasons for the sit-in over at 3711 Market are graphic: the burning flesh of pajama clad women and children in remote jungle villages, of pristine delta patties and farmland destroyed for generations to come by DDT and Agent Orange, of dead and wounded eighteen year old American soldiers, most of whom were compulsorily enrolled, i.e., drafted. His passionate argument is met by the disapproving rumblings of the Frat boys, the Zigma Zuma Roomas, who occupy the stairs closest to the podium. “Let us see your draft card, Commie” and “America, Love it or leave it” and “Kill the Gooks” follow, with the last turning into a chant fortissimo with a pep rally beat, louder than the amplified voice of the speaker, who ends his acoustically drowned out presentation with arms and hands extended, a two fingered peace sign on both extremities, a gesture met with a hundred frat boy middle fingers.
The U of P student activist then turns over the microphone to an older gray-haired man wearing a clerical collar atop black clergy shirt, pants and shoes, a Protestant minister, I presume. He stands silent at the microphone, composing himself, taking in this elevated high noon scene, of hundreds of students on the stairs and floor below, most of whom are generally ignorant of the world outside themselves and who will be hostile to his position on the sit-in at The University City Science Center. Most would argue that scientists need science centers near science schools. Poor people should be glad to move from their poor neighborhood. Case closed.
Now in my heart of hearts, as a future military officer in training, a member of ROTC, Reserve Officer Training Core, I’m not sure what I think. About the sit-in. About the war. About the razing of a neighborhood. About me with a draft deferment given all my friends from Tacony who have been drafted or volunteered to serve. About communism, democracy, socialism, activism. About what this preacher is going to say.
Fortunately for my soul and me, a defining moment in my life now occurs as the man in black prepares to address the assembled. As it turns out, he, the eldest male in the hall, does not get to be heard, because as the reverend ritualistically brings his open hands together, palm to palm, for a moment of invoking the presence of his take on god, a waterfall of water, poured from buckets in the hands of Sigma Zuma Roomas leaning over the third floor balcony, rains down upon him. A wrath of water, you might say, and what water misses him explodes forcefully off the marble landing, engulfing the electrical extension cords about his feet that supply the PA with power and soaking the PA enough to short the system out. Catcalls, jeers, applause, and cries of feigned horror fill the Grand Hall. Sparks fly out of the PA and a sizzling sound accompanies the smell of shorted capacitors and overheated rubber.
A wet priest and a silenced microphone is all it takes for Tacony to come out for the first time, as sound and time and tempo change and righteous anger dwarfs all fear or sense of impropriety. I rush up the stairs, barging past and through and somewhat into the jeering Zigma Zuma Roomas between the minister and me, to reach the top of the stairs. I must be thinking without words (if that is possible), because I have no clear understanding of where I’m going with the words erupting from my mouth. I bellow like Edwin Forrest’s mad King Lear an insanity of insults at the laughing students leaning over the balcony above. I roar words like pussy and punk and dipshit, insults directed at every male above and those right in front of me on the steps. I’m so infused with a furious intolerance for those who would so disrespect an elder, no matter his opinion, that I understand the meaning of the word jihad. I think, worst-case scenario, the priest, he could have been electrocuted. I shout out: “Anyone here who thinks this man was treated right, please come to the top of the steps so I can kick your ass from here to the banks of the Schuylkill River. Come on, you are all so fucking brave, you Zigma Zooma Roomas, plotting your disrespect. These men got more balls than anyone here. Be brave now. Really. Come to the top of the stairs and see if you can water me without reprisal. I’ll fucking drown your ass in the sewage of your mind. Really. Dig this you wimpy mother-fuckers, anyone who tries to shut this man down again will have to deal with me.”
(As if I am now in charge) I issue a command in the direction of those assembled behind the podium: “Fix the fucking PA. I want to hear what this man got to say.”
Agonizingly uncomfortable moments of silence follow as the innards of the PA are examined and repaired by the Drexel student technician in charge of the sound, some two minutes or so, during which time not a man in the room takes me up on my offer to fuck with the preacher in my presence, given the enigma that I am, my face to the world: the violent pacifist, the warrior who is anti-war, the one so unlike the present many, so politically incorrect, someone willing to fight for peace, as oxymoronic as that be, as oxymoronic as holy war and eminent domain.
And, . . . the preacher does get to have his say as I stand at the top of the stairs, an Edwin Forrest air of noble Metamora about me, not hearing a word the cleric says, because I am up river in Tacony where I learned early on what I carry to this day: to silence the weak it takes but bluster and a threat (no matter how empty, how un-back-up-able).