Cover art – Edwin Forrest Ward
A Mix of Physics, Alcohol, Gambling,
Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan and Sex:
These Things Don’t Necessarily Add Up
to Lost Virginity
A little more than fifty years ago, in the summer of 1966, I was working for the Atomic Energy Commission in an unpublicized basement laboratory of the Customs Building on Houston Street in Manhattan. Drexel University had arranged the prestigious paid internship as I was, at the time, majoring in Physics at Drexel. The six month commitment involved intellectual and spiritual challenges - I mean there was a war going on in Viet Nam and I was working for the government responsible for the war; there was also petty conflict – my three math major roommates and I couldn’t really come up with a satisfactory formula for a division of labor, for sharing our one bedroom apartment in Queens. Add to this the uneasy euphoria of living away from my inner city row home (and mother) in Philadelphia for the first time in a place where the drinking age was eighteen. Throw a wonderful young woman of a girlfriend who was very much in love with me into the mix and I was overwhelmed with prospects and commitments and confusion. Not to mention I was Catholic.
At the time of my internship I paid more attention to Bob Dylan than I did to my studies, my work at The A.E.C. and my faith (or lack of). Bobbie D truly seemed to be the prime mover in changing my world. He was responsible for bringing white America – people like myself who grew up in uber segregated overtly racist Philadelphia into the Civil Rights Movement and singing a language that could be employed to protest injustice in America and abroad. Two years earlier at The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Martin Luther King’s “I have a Dream” speech was followed by Dylan singing “Blowin’ In The Wind” and “Only a Pawn in Their Game.” Whereas I had memorized all the words to every Dylan song released at the time (some 90 or so), I could not recite – other than E=MC squared - any of the differential equations and quantum theorems necessary to express an understanding of modern physics. I originally had chosen physics as my major because I wanted to rock the world as I believed Einstein had in 1905. I sought someday to shed new light on the nature of things (and people) and change understandings of how the world works. Also, practically speaking, what better way to wow the women of my dreams is there than Einstein-ing them? “I’m majoring in Physics” had the kind of cache that I believed got a girl’s attention. That’s how I had met Ann at a college mixer in the spring of 1966.
Ann was a bright-eyed blonde who went after what she wanted with a fierceness that was beyond the norms of 1966. And she wanted me. She’d do most anything to be with me. She lied to her mother and father, climbed out her bedroom window to rendezvous with me after her exceedingly protective parents went to sleep, stole cartoons of Kool cigarettes for me from the Mom & Pop store where she worked part time, cut classes at Beaver College to play Frisbee with me when I was out of class, and had friends lie to cover for her when she came for the weekend to visit me in New York. Put crudely yet succinctly, Ann had more balls than the entire Rugby team at Drexel.
As I shuffled through my days at the AEC – measuring particulate matter in the air in ventilation systems pre and post filtration – something as uninspiring as the office politics that surrounded me, I knew I already was on my way to the underground where there was “darkness at the break of noon,” where there was poetry not physics, where there was love not war, where there was art not religion, where there was risk not steady employment. Ann – or what she represented – meant more than cold fusion. Love meant more than a new unified theory of the universe.
At the time my sister Carol worked for the Pennsylvania Railroad as a keypunch operator; not the greatest of jobs, but one that came with passes for all family members to ride the Pennsylvania Railroad; hence, I could travel for free from Philly to New York and vice versa. Most weekends, for reasons of economy, I went home. I needed to save as much money as I could from my job, in order to pay my tuition, as my family had not the means to do so. I kid you not when I say: my family was never more than a dollar or two ahead.
On Fridays, during the ninety-minute train ride from Grand Central to Philly, I usually played pinochle for money with a bunch of older men. Initially they took me for a novice card player whom they hoped to fleece, but a novice I was not. I’d been playing pinochle with my family since I was seven years old. My parents and sisters and I played for pennies and the focus-as-a-family playing cards allows, whereas the guys on the train played for dollars and the braggadocio that playing cards allows. We snarked, broke balls, bragged, and snide-commented our way the entire train ride as we shuffled, cut, dealt, bid, played and wooed the three card kitty; the patter of card playing Philadelphia wise-guys belongs to a universe where Roberts’ Rules of Order don’t apply, and feeling like one of the older men - counting cards, counting trump, counting losers, counting suits, counting coo, gambling and winning money, bragging about Irish luck, plying the card skills I’d learned from my mother – was exponentially more rewarding than the prestige of my Atomic Energy Commission credentials. Fortunately, rare was the time that I didn’t arrived at Holmesburg Station in Northeast Philly without having double or tripled in an hour and a half the pay I’d received for working forty hours at the AEC, thereby learning early that there are ways outside the norm to make a buck. I had January’s tuition in the bank by October! Punching a time clock was not nearly as thrilling as making a forty hand - against all odds - in spades, a sort of differential equation I took to heart.
As I said, Dylan was the hat I wore although I did have hair like Einstein; thus when Ann came to stay with me for an overnight in July of 1966, after rendezvousing at Grand Central, we chased after music and poetry, not science. After drinking half of the bottle of wine I had concealed in a paper bag, we went in search of the ghost of Bob Dylan, to Greenwich Village on a hot summer Saturday night and paid two eight dollar covers to enter the Cafe Wha?, where a coke was another eight dollars, and where a skinny twenty-four year old black kid with hair curlier than mine wearing blue denim bibbed overalls sat in a corner with a pair of guitars, a microphone, and an amplifier with a reel-to-reel on the floor. He exhorted the audience – mostly suburban kids from Jersey – to get enthusiastic because a demo was going to be recorded this night and crowd appreciation would go along way to his getting, as he said “that contract in the sky.” I had been expecting an acoustic Dylan-esque folk scene – as I knew that Dylan had played his first gig in New York City in this very room in 1962, but what ensued was like nothing I had ever heard. The guitar playing was ear dazzling and driven and mad and improvisational and outrageous while the singing was sensual and intimate. “Crazy, wild, psychedelic, sexy, furious” is what Ann said. I was too blown away for words. The guitar player’s name scribed in gold and silver across his black guitar case was spelled strangely: Jimi.
Now after the show, Ann and I returned to my place in Queens. It being the weekend, my roommates were not around, as they regularly went home to their parents in Jersey and Maryland and Pennsylvania, meaning Ann and I would have the pad to ourselves and we would probably get around to the elephants in the room of our relationship: our virginity. Of course we were not virgins when it came to orgasms. But sex as in copulation was just not something we had had the opportunity to partake of. In cars and movie theaters and on blankets at the beach, these are not places where full nudity and penetration are going to happen. Unfortunately, things didn’t work out as dreamed.
When we climbed into bed a bit tipsy from our finishing off the wine, dizzy with Hendrix sounding in our heads, enthusiastic and shy with the puppy love that we owned, inexperienced with nudity and flesh against flesh, it so happened that we when we began to embrace, skin to skin, and kiss, I got had the most monstrous erection I would ever have. And when Ann took me in her hands I had the most monstrous ejaculation I most likely would ever have. Embarrassed by my inability to control myself and by the amount of cum that seemed to come from me and cover Ann’s stomach and thighs, my ego was tattered and my manhood so spent there was no way on earth I would be able to penetrate her safely, if at all, and thus I resorted to something I had only fantasized about: the cunning linguist within orchestrating an intense climax for Ann. Spent and satisfied - however awkward our technique - we felt bliss . . . and, upon reflection, blessed in a strange 1960’s parochial Catholic sort of way: the silver lining amidst the cloud of a bungled first-time was that we were able to bring virginity to the people we would later meet and marry. To this day, I can still see Jimi in his overalls playing guitar strings with his teeth and with the brass buttons of his outfit and I can envision Ann in her birthday suit, so beautiful, so willing, so loving. Sadly, not long after this Jimi-Hendrix-not-five-feet-away-from-me-CaféWha?-Saturday-night experience fifty years ago, Ann and I broke up for no good reason. Puppy love is after all only puppy love no matter how pure and intense.
And because I do believe in “taking what you have gathered from coincidence,” it must be noted that some fifty years after I heard, really heard, music for the first time in my life, after not losing my virginity, and not getting Ann pregnant as would most likely have happened given our lack of contraception and our Catholic belief that making love was purest when engaged in for the purpose of procreation, a grandson was born to me whose name is Jonah Hendrix!