“Education: the path from cocky ignorance to miserable uncertainty.” – Mark Twain
[dropcap]C[/dropcap]elia Barnes ran down the steps of the University of Illinois’ Burrill Hall and checked her watch against Altgeld’s chimes. Argh, 5:15 already and no bike today to speed her across campus. Afternoon classes were the pits! At least the seminar fulfilled one of her science requirements.
Buttoning up against the cold, she hoisted her book bag onto her shoulder, and hurried across the Quad. If she missed dinner with her girlfriends and the guys from the second floor, it meant sitting alone again. Or with Joann from the other side of the women’s 4th floor. God, would she ever quit haranguing about Nixon and Vietnam. Yeah, sure Joann’s brother had been one of the many arrested on campus the year before, while protesting Marine recruiting at the Union. Celia knew the history backwards and forwards by now. Three days of protests. Over 300 National Guard troops on campus. Broken windows at some campus town businesses, and a 10:30 pm curfew throughout Champaign-Urbana. Joann’s eyes lit up every time she talked about it. But hell — Celia could hear all that crap about long-haired hippies and how awful Nixon was from her parents.
For God’s sakes, it wasn’t 1969 anymore. All she wanted to do was get her education while meeting new and interesting people. Coming to campus two months, without having experienced orientation, exposed her to bra-less women and people — black or white — with afros, ripped jeans or old t-shirts. So much more diversity than her white-bread Chicago suburb upbringing. Did it count that she had made friends with Jewish boys from Skokie?
The Armory loomed ahead, her favorite building to cut through in the cold, dark, and damp. Darn, a ROTC soldier stood guard near the northeast door. That meant soldiers were drilling, so no cut-throughs. She detoured around the building, seeing guards at every corner.
If only the Mens’ Residence Halls weren’t the farthest dorms from classes… The one negative aspect to living there. How nice, though, that the James Scholar program had given qualified female James Scholars the fourth floor at Hopkins Hall, surrounded by three floors of guys. Many of them fairly cute.
Jogging past several frats, Celia hurried through the Snackbar and arrived at Hopkins Hall just as Carl from the second floor rode up on his bike.
“Hi, Celia. Running late, too, I see. No bike?”
She paused to catch her breath while waiting for Carl to fasten his lock. “Flat tire.” She blew out a puff, “I’m hoping Pete can drive me to have it fixed this weekend. I had to hustle to get here before everyone finishes.”
“Me, too. Hey, I smell fried chicken.” They headed inside.
Near the stairs, they passed several students opening paper napkins to show each other the food smuggled out of the dining hall. A chicken breast. A brownie. A container of fruit yogurt.
Carl moaned. “Oh man, I’m starved. It was a hard day with diff EQ.”
“Ah.” She nodded sagely but really had no clue about it other than it being a math term for differential equations. Whatever those were.
They showed their IDs to the door-checker, following other students past the windows and into the cafeteria line where they placed their orders: white meat for Celia, dark for Carl, mashed potatoes and gravy, green beans, and one brownie for each. After grabbing something to drink, Celia stopped at the salad bar while Carl headed to the two back tables where her friends and other guys from second floor east, nicknamed “the Buccaneers,” usually ate.
“Shut the fuck up, you bitch!” came a shout nearby. Recognizing the voice of Roy — aka “Bruto,” — Celia watched a chicken breast fly toward a tall, sturdy, blonde woman across the aisle from him.
“You’re a pig.” The woman aimed a roll at the burly guy with the five-day growth.
Celia shook her head and made her way to her friends’ table. They never sat at the same table as Bruto and his pals even though those guys never did anything other than leer at them. Still, giving the hard-core rowdies a little distance seemed safer. They didn’t seem to appreciate diversity or brains.
It helped that as soon as Marilyn started dating Danny, one of the normal guys from the second floor, his roommate Carl and their cohorts cast a protective shield around Celia and Patty. She loved being welcomed by people who accepted her at face value. Not like those cliques in high school.
“What’s going on with Bruto?” Celia asked.
Marilyn leaned forward, her long blonde Joni-Mitchell-hair just missing her gravy. “Leah called him a Neanderthal.”
Patty smirked. “When he drags his knuckles on the ground like that, it’s an easy mistake to make.”
They laughed as Celia dug into her mashed potatoes. She eyed the two opponents. The woman curled her lip at Bruto as if a dirty diaper had wafted her way. Bruto’s friends had their heads down, whispering and elbow-nudging.
Carl grunted. “This doesn’t look good. Better eat fast.”
As Celia reached for her water glass, Patty shoved against her shoulder. “Dinner roll at two o’clock!”
Celia jerked back in her chair, avoiding a slam at her ear by only inches. The roll bounced on the floor beyond. “Hey!” As she half-rose to see who threw it, a chicken wing dropped into Patty’s gravy and potatoes, splashing both of them.
Celia stared down at her white top and purple bell-bottoms. Damn, so much for doing the laundry yesterday. This could leave grease spots. She and Patty dipped napkins into their water glasses and quickly wiped the mess off as much as possible.
Bruto jumped to his feet. “Now!” He and others pummeled Leah’s group with tomato slices, chicken pieces, and whatever else was on their plates. Leah and her friends retaliated.
Celia and her friends dove under the table. From below, they could see students hiding under other tables and feet of students running for refuge elsewhere. Suddenly a guy shouted, “One more piece of food and all of you will be reported to Student Affairs.”
The room quieted immediately.
Celia and her friends peeked over the top of the table. The tall, blonde Resident Advisor, Ken Dahlberg, whom she and Patty called “Ken Doll” for obvious reasons, stood in the aisle. Several beige-jacketed food service workers lined up next to him.
One was a short woman in her sixties with steely eyes. “My name is Mrs. Nelson. I want to introduce Javier and Jimmy here.” She pointed to a thin man of about fifty with graying hair and a younger man with a clubbed foot. “These gentlemen are my building service workers.” Her voice rose in volume. “And now they now have to clean up YOUR mess because YOU can’t behave like civil human beings. I invite anyone and everyone to help them clean this up. Any volunteers?”
Celia elbowed Patty. “Good for her.” A few seconds passed.
“I’m waiting!” said Mrs. Nelson.
Celia scanned the crowd. Bruto, and his main henchman, “the Farms” grimaced, then raised their hands. Leah, her group, and Bruto’s friends did the same.
“Ok, get cracking then.” Mrs. Nelson motioned to the volunteers to come forward. As they did, she said, “Javier, could you and Jimmy take these nice people to get cleaning supplies? Thanks, everyone. And remember. I’m watching you.” She watched while the grumbling opponents followed Javier and Jimmy.
Marilyn sighed. “Well, that’s that. Let’s finish eating.” They and the guys who didn’t fight cleaned off their seats and sat down.
Danny shook his head. “I don’t get why Bruto just doesn’t ignore that Leah snot.”
Patty waved a fork as she finished chewing. “Aw, come on. It’s so easy. Grunts like him probably can’t get attention any other way. He’s probably got a crush on her. Maybe she knows it. Maybe she wants to show him tough she is, too. Whatever. So she pushes his buttons. It’s not hard. Besides, scenes like this bring him attention.”
“Trust the psychology major, but one of these days it may bring him trouble with the university,” Celia said. She considered Patty’s theory. Bruto, as big as a bear and every bit as hairy, probably was seeking a big strong mate. God knows, Celia would hate to meet Leah in a dark alley. But at least she didn’t seem like the kind of person who would help Bruto in his dastardly deeds, like Farms did the previous Saturday. Why would anyone set the 2nd floor lounge sofa on fire? Fortunately, they yanked open the window and tossed it out before the smoke swept down the hallway. Being on a locked fourth floor had its good points but not if the Buccaneers were arsonists.
The miscreants returned with cleaning supplies and mops. The guys took one area while the women took another. Celia perused the guys. “By now, I’ll bet the university’s probably wishing they hadn’t put all the troublemakers together in the same dorm to keep on eye on them.”
Patty sponged at her shirt again. “It’s a good thing my parents could care less about what happens here. I never tell them anything about what goes on here. They only call to tell me how wonderfully my brilliant brother is doing at MIT.”
Celia nodded. “Every weekend when I call home, after Mom finishes telling me what I missed on ‘As The World Turns,’ she asks if I’ve met any interesting guys. I tell her ALL the guys are interesting.” She didn’t mention her mother’s two requirements for an appropriate boyfriend for Celia. First, a good Catholic boy. Hah! As if any of them even went to church anymore. Second, he had to be a Democrat.
Celia laughed. “She thinks that because James Scholar women were invited to turn this place coed, all the guys here must also be James Scholars, and thus I’m supposedly living among geniuses. Shoot, all it takes is keeping a 3.5 average. That’s not too hard.”
Several of the guys guffawed. Danny rolled his eyes. “Spoken like a liberal arts major who takes biology seminars where you can knit during the whole time. I don’t know anything about those first floor guys, but those newbies on the third might have a few James Scholars. Some look like real nerds. Certainly, none of us second floor guys could be accused of being genuises.”
Danny continued, “I gather you haven’t told your parents about Bruto and the Buccaneers?”
“Hell, no,” said Celia. “They’d just get upset and that’s all I’d hear about. Mom would probably want me to switch to a new dorm. Full of stuck-up rah-rah girls like I knew in high school.”
Across the table, Rob, a heavyset junior about six foot tall, looked up as if he wanted to say something. Had he ever spoken to them before? Celia thought back over the previous two months, but realized he usually focused on stuffing as much food as possible down his throat, rarely speaking to anyone. “You want that brownie?” he asked Patty as he gnawed on a drumstick.
Patty wrinkled her nose. “Nah, it’s covered with potatoes and gravy.”
“Can I take it? I need another dessert and they’re beginning to limit how much I can take. Easy enough to wipe off the potatoes and gravy.”
Geez, the guy already carried about 80 pounds more for his height than he should. Did he want to look like Bruto?
“Sure, take it.” Patty put the brownie on his tray.
“Thanks.” He looked at her again. “I know what you’re thinking. I’m too fat already, right? You know, I didn’t always look like this.”
Danny nodded. “Show ‘em, Rob.”
Wiping his hands on a napkin, Rob pulled out a wallet and slipped a photo from behind his ID. “This was me about two years ago.”
Patty’s eyebrows rose and she passed around the photo of a much trimmer Rob. “Golly, Rob. Um… That’s quite a change.”
“Thirty more pounds to go.”
Celia held the photo. “You want to gain more?”
“Hell yeah. My draft number’s 96. Way too close for comfort.”
“I’m 245,” said Dave.
Another guy looked up. “I’m 327 so that’s good.”
Carl pushed his chair back and rose. “I’m getting more food.”
As Carl left, Celia thought about her brother, a junior at SIU. His number was in the 200s, too, way above the projected high number of 125 for possible drafting that year.
Rob continued. “See, with a low number, I need to be too fat to draft. You know, this fall they changed the rules that mostly affect freshman and above students. They’re automatically classified I-A. But for people with student deferments born in 1952 or earlier, we can stay deferred as long as we convince the draft board we’re full-time college students, and haven’t graduated or reached the age of 24. I already had one physical. They told me to lose weight and gave me blood pressure medicine. Not that I’m taking it.” He gulped down some milk. “No way am I going to Vietnam.”
Staring down at Rob’s photo, Celia recalled Skip, the neighbors’ son across the street at home. A varsity track star who graduated from York High in 1962. Went into the Army, then to Vietnam. Shot in the spine during an ambush. Told he’d never walk again. Proving the doctors wrong later when he struggled on crutches across the stage at her school assembly in 1969 – to a standing ovation from all students. In constant pain, but handling it somehow. Got married. Soon after, diagnosed with cancer. Then his wife left him. Finally, Skip hanged himself.
Choking back the ache in her throat, she handed Rob her brownie. “Here. Have mine. You want me to get you another?”
The Buccaneers’ mimeographed invitation was pushed under her door a few days later, inviting the recipient to a fake trial on the following Sunday afternoon. Bruto — Defendant v Leah — Complainant, according to the invitation.
At the appointed time, Celia joined her friends heading for the 2nd floor lounge. “I don’t understand why Leah would even go along with this. It’s nuts.”
Marilyn shrugged. “Perhaps she figures she’ll wipe the floor with him. Bruto asked Danny to be his lawyer since Danny’s planning on law school next.”
Patty rolled her eyes. “This ought to be good. Let’s see if matches up to Perry Mason.”
The lounge room’s furniture had been arranged like a court room, with a small desk and chair at one end for the judge’s bench and a seat for a witness. Two other tables, each with two chairs, faced the judge. Ken Doll sat in the judge’s chair, glorious in a black kimono with a red dragon on each side.
Behind the tables set aside for the “lawyers” were three rows of chairs, already occupied. Pete — Carl’s and Danny’s other roommate — motioned to Celia from his position by the windows in front of the covered radiators. They hurried over.
“Good thing you came now,” he said. “There’s barely room to move.”
“Where’s Carl?” Celia asked.
“He said he had something to do. Just as well. Danny and I are going out later to get him a birthday cake to surprise him. He turns 21 tomorrow.”
Celia, Marilyn, and Patty perched themselves on the radiator and tried to listen in, but with all the hubbub, it was impossible to follow any conversation.
A guy near the door rose and whistled for attention. “Listen.”
Everyone strained to hear. Suddenly Mikey McBroom appeared at the door, blowing into a trumpet, blaring out the tune “Garryowen,” a song Celia recognized from soldiers’ parades in John Wayne movies. One of her favorites. Another guy stayed in tune with a small drum. Everyone clapped and even Leah’s crowd laughed.
The musicians headed to the back of the room, quieting when Danny stopped in the doorway, arms folded across his broad chest. Instead of his usual motorcycle and lumberjack attire complete with red bandanna wrapped around his head, he wore black jeans, a red shirt with white tie, tan blazer, and large wraparound sunglasses. His thick brown hair bounced against his neck as he marched toward the lawyer’s table, the red bandanna peeking out of his back pocket. The Massachusetts sophomore who they nicknamed Billy Budd followed him in western sheriff regalia and a cap pistol in a white holster. Then came Roger “Dutch” Masters wearing full Mountie garb, leading a handcuffed and sweat-suited Bruto by rope around his ample waist. Bruto plopped down next to Danny. Eddie Bildo whom everyone called “Dildo” approached the bench with a large book covered in brown paper wrapping, on which was written in large black letters, “BIBLE”.
More people pushed in, finding spots along the wall. One guy who sometimes dressed like Colonel Sanders in a white suit and gray derby hat came instead wearing his steam train crewman outfit.
Judge Ken pounded on the desk. “Ok. Let’s get this show on the road.”
Sheriff Billy Budd raised a hand and pointed out the window at the flag flying in front of the gym across the street. “Everyone up to say the Pledge of Allegiance.”
The crowd jumped to their feet, pressing hands to hearts and racing through the Pledge.
As they all settled back in their positions, Judge Ken waved to Leah. “You may proceed.”
Leah rolled her eyes. “Come on, Ken. I’ve already apologized for my part in the food fight. I thought I’d see what this thing was all about but I have no interest in playing this stupid game. I thought someone from Food Service might be here. Apparently not. So tell me if I owe anything for the mess and I’ll talk to my parents about it. Otherwise, go on without me.”
Good, Celia thought. Why make this even more ridiculous?
Ken pursed his lips. “I can’t blame you. Well, it turns out, Food Service isn’t going to make any waves about the food fight, but they expect everyone–” He waved a finger at all the people in the room. “EVERYONE to behave themselves. This was a one-time thing, get it. Any further such behavior may result in expulsion. Need I say more?”
The room grew quiet. The guys knew that, more than likely, expulsion would result in being drafted. Celia could see Rob, the heavyset guy, across the way, digging into a bag of potato chips.
Ken looked at Bruto. “Do you have anything to say?”
Bruto turned to Danny and whispered. Danny whispered back, then finally stood up. “Your honor, my client wishes to plead guilty to having started the food fight. He begs forgiveness from Leah and the court.”
Bruto then rose. “Yeah, what he said.” He turned to his opponent. “Sorry. It got out of hand. Can I offer a beer as an apology?”
Leah looked like she was actually considering it, then extended her hand. “Nyah. Let’s just shake on it. Okay?”
Most of the attendees clapped and grinned. Some of the guys frowned. “We wanted a real trial,” someone muttered. As people stood to leave, two policemen appeared in the doorway.
“Wow, dig the uniforms.” Pete chuckled. “I wonder where they got them.”
“Danny Slater?” one of them asked.
As Danny joined them with a smile, the policemen closed the door.
Everyone began speculating about who found fake cop uniforms. With a hand on the doorknob, Bruto laughed. “I’ll be it’s Crazyman.”
Celia and Patty grimaced at each other. This didn’t seem like the work of the Charlie-Manson-lookalike who blasted his speakers toward the courtyard and danced around wearing an Indian war bonnet to “They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Hah, Hah.”
Marilyn smirked. “I’ll bet Carl’s behind this. He made some excuse to skip this. And he’s friends with Crazyman. Probably teamed up with him to pull a fast one on Danny.”
Bruto held up a finger for quiet, then opened the door a few inches to peer out. From behind, Celia could see his shoulders slump suddenly. He turned around, color draining from his face. “Holy shit. They found a body and are pretty sure it’s Carl. They want Danny to identify him.”
Celia and Patty waited for Marilyn to return from Danny’s dorm room. Normally on Sunday late afternoons, doors banged, people laughed, voices carried from down the hall as people made dinner plans. Instead, now the entire building seemed to be holding its breath.
Again and again, they chewed over the few facts they’d learned before Marilyn returned to the room that Danny and Pete shared with Carl. A gun, his body found in Leal Park. Where the hell was Leal Park? The map of Champaign-Urbana showed it near the Lincoln Lodge Hotel on University. Why had Carl been there?
Celia checked her watch. “Maybe we should go downstairs and see if we can help somehow. I’m tired of sitting here.” Gotta do something! Go for a long walk to get her head straightened out, hug Carl’s stunned friends, find a ride to Leal Park to see what it looked like. But she couldn’t leave. Not until she knew more.
Patty shook her head. “Those guys all knew each other since childhood. Danny needs Marilyn now. Shit. I can’t imagine how horrible this is for Carl’s parents.”
Footsteps approached and they hurried to the open doorway. Marilyn trudged toward them from the stairs, wiping her eyes.
“What the hell happened? Was it a robbery?” Patty asked.
Marilyn lay back on Celia’s bed, rubbing her forehead. She breathed deep. “Suicide.”
“No!” they yelled.
“He left a note by his… “ She choked. “Addressed to Danny, with his dorm info on it for the police. Apparently, he never registered for classes.”
“What? But everyone knows you gotta stay in college to avoid the war. He had a college deferment! What was he thinking?” Celia asked.
“His lottery number was so low. It took over his every thought. He wrote Danny that there weren’t any jobs out there for engineers anyway.”
“So he just set himself up to be drafted? That makes no sense. Besides, I saw him riding off on his bike every morning, coming back for lunch and off every afternoon to classes. He was always talking about studying in the library. He said it was too noisy here. Just the other day–”
“That’s what he TOLD us. I guess he felt overwhelmed by everything, so he gave up. Danny said he’d been depressed now and then in high school. He found a notebook with Carl’s scribbles about war and dying. He also found a receipt for a pistol Carl bought a few weeks ago. And a letter from the University about him not registering and having to leave school.”
“Oh, shit.” Celia slumped down on the bed next to Marilyn. “How are the guys?”
“Pete’s very quiet. Danny cried. He’s blaming himself for not helping him more, for not seeing what was happening. I stayed until Carl’s parents arrived.”
Patty walked back and forth, talking more to herself than them. “I don’t get it. He acted okay. I never saw a thing, and I’m in psychology, for godssakes. We’re supposed to see problems developing.” She stopped. “Didn’t he seem fine all the time to you guys? Joking all the time?”
Celia thought back to dinner on food fight night. Carl’d been chirpy when they met outside by the bike rack. But then… “Remember when Rob talked about staying fat to avoid being drafted and some of the guys shared their lottery numbers?” Celia said. “Carl went for more food. Didn’t mention his lottery number. Since then, he’d been pretty quiet.”
Marilyn sat up. “He left a note for his parents. He wrote Danny that he felt awful about everything. Said he couldn’t face life any more. And he sure couldn’t face being sent to Vietnam. Thought it was a senseless war. He wasn’t afraid to die, but didn’t want to kill.”
Goddamn it. That fricking war. Over and over, hurting people, whether active soldiers or not. Students, friends, family members, colleges. How ridiculous of her to have ever thought she could ignore what was happening.
Voices carried up from the courtyard. They moved to the window to look out into the darkening early evening, still strangely warm for such a gray day. Crazyman from the first floor and most of the Buccaneers, still in their costumes from the fake trial, stood across from each other in the center of the courtyard, hands at their sides. Celia hung partly out the window. Across the way, she could see other students opening their drapes and looking out their windows. With Crazyman there, she couldn’t trust that he wouldn’t do something outrageous. “Please don’t play ‘They’re coming to take me away’,” she mumbled. “I couldn’t stand it.”
An older couple and Danny, carrying two suitcases, entered the courtyard, walking towards the parking area. “Carl’s parents.” Marilyn teared up. “Danny packed up Carl’s stuff.” She reached for the Kleenex box that Patty held out.
Moments after Carl’s parents and Danny disappeared from view, Mikey McBroom raised his trumpet and began to play “Taps” while the Buccaneers slowly walked back inside. Celia and Patty crossed themselves, muttering the Lord’s Prayer.
When the tune finished, Celia hugged her two friends and they left. This must be some kind of joke, she thought. Carl couldn’t be dead. This was just something the Buccaneers put together. A sick charade. She watched as Danny trudged back quietly through the courtyard by himself.
Celia stared out the window for another few minutes at the empty courtyard. Finally, she picked up the telephone and dialed. “Mom? Hey, you asked about the people I’ve met here. I want to tell you about some of them.”
*Fictionalized, based on true events. Names have been changed.