School Days

 By Kenneth Ring, Ph.D.

I was twenty-two when I left Berkeley to attend graduate school at the University of Minnesota. That year -- it was 1958 -- I had graduated from Berkeley, with a Phi Beta Kappa feather in my cap, and a Bachelor's degree figuratively in my hand, and I was keen to go.

I had never been to the Midwest. I had scarcely ever been anywhere. Aside from spending two summers in Brooklyn before the age of 10, I had spent virtually my entire life in California. So the rest of the country was truly a terra incognita for me. I had hardly even ever encountered snow.

So Minneapolis was a shock. Graduate school was hard enough at first. Although I had received a $10,000 scholarship and had been accepted into a very prestigious social psychology program, my graduate school confreres all seemed brilliant and far more sophisticated than I was. Compared to them, I felt myself to be a hick. This did not do wonders for my self-esteem. I would go home to my little rooming house and plunge both into despair and Tolstoy's War and Peace. I did not think I would survive the first quarter and wondered what would become of me.

But I also soon felt that I could not and would not survive the weather either. I did not have a car and had to walk about a mile to the building on campus where the Department of Social Relations was located, which is where I shared a large room with my fellow graduate students (and they were all fellows, too).

My route took me to the Mississippi River, which I had to cross (albeit with the help of a bridge) every morning, and by the time early winter had come, my jaw would be nearly frozen by the time I had reached the other side. And I am not exaggerating. I had never experienced such penetrating, bone-chilling cold. Even if I could manage to survive the rigors of graduate school, I was becoming convinced I would never be able to survive the rigors of a brutal Minnesota winter. 

But soon I was rescued -- or at least distracted -- from my misery through the friendship of two graduate students in my program who had somehow taken a shine to me. Or maybe they just felt sorry for me. In any case, they became true friends and proved to be my salvation.

One was Bernie Saffran, a Jew from Brooklyn (who had the accent to prove it), who, although he was somewhat younger than me, took me under his wing, the way an older and wiser brother would. He educated me and tried to bring me up to speed by telling me what I should read (forget Tolstoy and start reading E. L. Doctorow and Henry's Roth's recently discovered novel, Call It Sleep). An economics major and destined to become an outstanding professor of economics at Swarthmore College, Bernie -- whom I invariably addressed as Bernard while he called me Kenneth -- also introduced me to such then esoteric terms as "stochastic," which has remained in my active vocabulary ever since, as well as making me aware of the critical difference between early and late Marx (Karl, not Groucho, of course, as I had grown up with the latter).

Noting that I loved classical music, Bernie soon told me about a special deal for graduate students concerning the Minnesota Symphony Orchestra, which, I learned, actually held its concerts on campus. "You can get seven concerts for seven dollars," Bernie told me, and then told me how. I might be freezing during the day, but at least on some nights on the cheap I would be sitting in comfort listening to Antal Dorati conduct the orchestra.

My other friend and also a friend of Bernie's was a Catholic sociologist from Milwaukee who had graduated from Marquette. Bernie was loud, boisterous and ugly. Frank was quiet with a wry sense of humor and very good looking. Definitely second fiddle to Bernie, who was our leader, but Frank -- whom Bernie would insist on calling Francis -- proved to be a stalwart buddy, too, and the three of us quickly became an almost inseparable trio.  

I soon learned from Bernie that there was a certain house in Dinkytown -- the area around and to the north of campus -- where we could obtain good delicious meals for the veritable song. Can you believe that their advertisement read "All you can eat for $10 a week"? And that included all three meals a day as well as a big breakfast on Sunday! So once Bernie had alerted me to this culinary godsend, I naturally became a steady patron and took almost all of my meals there. Bernie was always finding "deals." He knew the ropes. In a way, he was both an intellectual and a street smart operator, the way you'd expect a gifted Jewish kid from Brooklyn to be. Frank and I were glad to follow where Bernie led.

Those evenings at that dining establishment -- the equivalent of the Café Momus for us famished graduate students, eager to escape the winter cold -- were memorable occasions, full of fun, laughter and sparkling conversation. Bernie, a slob whose food only occasionally found his mouth, which he felt was mainly an organ for talking, would entertain us with ribald tales of his years growing up in Brooklyn, and then suddenly launch into the virtues of the mad poet Hölderlin, and somehow connect the two. Frank and I were content to listen to the Bard of Brooklyn while covertly eyeing the female graduate students who, if they noticed us at all, probably looked away with disdain.

Frank, whose table manners were as impeccable as Bernie's were atrocious, and who tended to be quiet in contrast to Bernie's volubility, seemed already to be "sweet" (as we said in those days) on a graduate student with the memorable name of T. Anne Cleary who was destined to play a pivotal role in my own life, though not a romantic one. Anne was apparently some kind of wizard in statistics but was enrolled in the School of Child Development. I don't think Frank ever got to "first base" (as we also used to say then) with Anne, but then as a good Catholic, Frank was not a lascivious sort of fellow. In any case, we all did eventually strike up a friendship of sorts with Anne, one consequence of which I will have occasion to describe shortly.

However, I have to interrupt my story to tell you of the tragic way Anne's life was to end three decades later. I had not stayed in touch with her after graduate school. But recently I learned that she had had become a distinguished professor and beloved academic administrator at the University of Iowa. I was horrified to discover that it was there, in 1991, that she was shot and killed by a deranged student. I was both shocked and devastated at this dreadful news and thought about it for days afterward.

It's hard, after that kind of interruption, to return to my reminiscences of my first months in graduate school, but I must continue with my story nevertheless.

Although I enjoyed the camaraderie of my friends -- we were having our share of high jinks by then, especially at night -- and friendships with other graduate students I was meeting, there was still one problem. I was still living far from campus, still without a car, and still freezing my tuckus off on my long trek to campus. And, if anything, the winter was getting even colder and snowier. I wasn't sure how much longer I could endure living this way. I remember thinking, "Why would anyone choose to live in such a godforsaken hell hole where you risk frostbite if you're outside for more than ten minutes?" Of course, I'm exaggerating, but you get the idea.

And in light of what I have just told you about Anne, it is almost creepy to bring her back into my story in the early winter of 1959, because it was Anne who was then to bring about the most important event in my life as a graduate student in Minnesota. She had also, inadvertently to be sure, found a way to keep me from freezing to death when I had to make my way to the university in the morning in sub-zero temperatures.

I first noticed her sitting across from me in the library, and I remember the exact date, too -- March 11, 1959. A small dark-haired girl with a studious expression on her face, which was also small with a somewhat pointed chin. She was no beauty, but there was something quietly appealing about her, and I found myself surreptitiously looking at her from time to time.

Concentrating on her book, she took no notice of me. I was oblivious to her.

Sometime afterward I happened to be visiting Anne at the School of Child Development where I saw this girl again. And it turned out that she was a good friend of Anne's so she introduced me. The girl's name was Elizabeth, and she was a second-year graduate student in that School.

I don't remember exactly what happened after that, but I must have asked Elizabeth to have coffee with me (in those days, I drank coffee). Anyway, I soon got to know a bit about her, and I remember one of the first things she told me was the she had recently lost ninety pounds! She had once weighed 215 pounds but was now a svelte 125. Wow, that impressed me. But the most important thing I learned about her almost at the outset was -- she had a car!

Kismet! Salvation!

We soon found that we seemed to have a lot in common although our backgrounds were very different. She had grown up in St. Paul, the only girl (she had two brothers) in an Irish Catholic family (though her mother was a Protestant). She was wicked smart, laughed easily and was fun to be with.

And she had a car.

It seemed both wise and prudent to cultivate a friendship with her, a close friendship. Close enough to earn car-riding privileges. Before long, indeed, she was picking me in the morning and driving me to school. And to other places, too, of course. Soon I wasn't spending nearly so much time having dinners with Bernie and Frank. I was out on the town with Elizabeth.

Six months to the day I first saw her, we were married. At twenty-three, I had acquired a wife -- and a car. It was September 11th.

*******

I was happier by the time the snow started to melt in Minneapolis, and although spring -- which I was later to learn lasted about ten minutes before the oppressive heat and humidity, prefiguring the proverbial "long, hot summer," took over -- was still a month or so away, it was already a new season in my life. Having a girlfriend now in Elizabeth was certainly a major reason for my newfound cheerfulness, but not the only one.

By then, I had also been able to effect a transfer from the original program into which I had been accepted, which had brought about a kind of existential crisis for me, to one that was much more congenial to my talents and interests. This had led me into the then burgeoning field of experimental social psychology where I could study under the direct supervision of two of the leading men in the field. One of them, Harold H. Kelley, I had actually met at Cal, where he was then a visiting professor. Since I had graduated in January, I had to wait until September before I could begin my graduate studies. In the interim, Kelley had hired me as his research assistant, and came to take a personal interest in me. As kind as he was gifted, he induced me to change my mind about where to pursue my studies (by then I had already been accepted by several top universities) and follow him back to the University of Minnesota where he was already a full professor. When the university made me one of those Godfather offers I couldn't refuse, I was compelled to decline those I had received in order to saddle up and head to the north country.

As it turned out, when I had to confess to Kelley that I was having a hard time at many levels coping with the demands and trying exigencies of life as a graduate student in Minnesota, he suggested I would surely do much better studying directly under him and another distinguished social psychologist, Stanley Schachter, and he proved to be so right. Kelley saved my ass, and I will never forget his solicitude for me. In the years since, I have often wondered what would have become of me had it not been for Kelley's wise and decisive intervention during that critical period of my life.

The best thing was, I could still retain my place at the Lab for Social Relations and continue to hang with and get to know my fellow grad students there. Soon enough, I was a regular part of our fun and games, too, which consisted at that time of intense cribbage matches and bridge games during lunch. And of course, I continued to see and have my adventures with Bernie and Frank as well.

But, naturally, the hugely consequential change in my life involved my relationship with Elizabeth whom I was now seeing frequently. As I soon discovered, Elizabeth was a very bright and dedicated graduate student, specializing in child development. It was clear that her professional interests were paramount in her life, and, at the time, mine were also. So at that level, we were very compatible.

Although we enjoyed each other's company and relished our shared intellectual and professional interests, it was clear that Elizabeth, who was a virgin when I met her, was socially and sexually something of a disappointment. She was not a sexually-oriented woman and there was nothing sensuous about her body or manner. I suppose, if I wanted to be unkind, and I don't, some would have described her as a bit of a "cold fish." She laughed easily enough, but her laugh had a somewhat metallic, harsh quality that was off-putting. Somehow, although she was now a small woman without any outward physical deformities, inwardly she still seemed to be that shy, awkward and socially somewhat inept fat girl she had been for so many years before I had met her.

It will not surprise you, therefore, to learn that our sexual life, certainly at first, was far from satisfactory or even enjoyable. But the fault did not by any means lie entirely with Elizabeth's inexperience. I, too, had had limited sexual encounters before coming to Minnesota, and I'm sure I was a distinctly fumbling, bumbling lover at first. This was really relatively new territory for both of us and we were having a hard time finding our way. Eventually, as all couples do, we managed to figure out "how to do it," but our sexual life was never what I'm sure both of us hoped it would be. It was dutiful, but it lacked passion. Passion wasn't in Elizabeth's make-up either. Her strength and gifts were in her mind; her body seemed to be more or less a forgotten afterthought. This would prove to be an insuperable stumbling block a few years later, but at the time of course neither of us could know or anticipate the anguish it would cause us.

Still, apart from those issues, we seemed outwardly and were in fact a happy enough couple. True, Elizabeth seemed to lack any real interest in or talent for any of the domestic arts, but since we did not live together, at least to begin with, that wasn't a real problem. Since we both were relatively well off as graduate students due to our respective scholarships, our solution was simple: we ate out a lot! And we enjoyed doing so since it gave us plenty of time to chat about our work and our other interests, and provided ample opportunity to get to know each other better.

Since I was Jewish and Elizabeth had never spent time with any Jews, I took it upon myself to introduce her to what I jokingly called "Jewish cuisine" -- the Jewish deli. At that time, there was an area of Minneapolis called St. Louis Park that was a Jewish neighborhood, so we often went to a deli there. Elizabeth came to like the food well enough, which pleased me, but we were both offended yet also amused when the wealthy Jews from the local temple paraded in. I'm afraid that they embodied the usual stereotypes -- fat men with their "stogies," and heavily made up women draped in glitzy jewelry in fur coats. Well, we liked the food, anyway, and each other.

In due course, Elizabeth felt it was time for me "to meet the family." They still lived in St. Paul, where Elizabeth had grown up. Her father, Tom, was Irish and very affable. But he was a hemophiliac and had suffered a lot because of that condition. Her mother -- I'm fairly sure her name was Mabel, but I have honestly forgotten -- was a rather fat woman with, I remember, very large arms, worthy of a football tackle. I should perhaps have drawn the obvious conclusion about how Elizabeth herself would turn out as she aged but I don't believe it even occurred to me at the time. Her older brother Tom, who was slender like his dad, and her younger brother Mike, who was a bit pudgy like his mom, were both cordial to me, though I must have seemed like an alien to them. I had the impression at the time that they were just glad that Elizabeth was at least dating someone now -- anyone!

I also recall that afterward we went to see a ball game in St. Paul and that we had seats in the stands right in back of home plate. I remember that night because of something ghastly that happened to me, which still causes me pain to think about. Someone hit a foul ball in back of the protective netting and it was coming right to me. Mittless but undaunted, I reached up to catch it so I could impress Elizabeth, and, naturally, being the klutz I am, I muffed it and promptly turned fifty shades of red.

Fortunately, I was good at something else that really did impress Elizabeth -- my skills as a bridge player.  In those days, bridge was still a popular avocation, and as I had grown up with a card-playing family, I took naturally to bridge and was a regular in our games at the lab. Elizabeth showed a real interest in the game and she quickly became a proficient bridge player, too. In fact, I have to admit that in time she became an even better player than I was, but the two of us made a good team. At that time, I had become friendly with another grad student named Karl Hakmiller, and his wife, Marie, who were avid bridge players themselves. So in those days, we often went to the Hakmillers' house and played many a rubber.

Eventually, bridge became quite an addiction for both Elizabeth and me, and we each liked to read and discuss various books on bridge, bidding systems and the like. This also boosted my esteem rating with my lab mates since we were then accustomed to read and discuss the daily bridge column in the New York Times. For bridge geeks like us, our heroes were not sports stars, but champion bridge players whose skills we admired and whose exploits in bridge tournaments we followed closely.

But bridge is or can be a dangerous game. One time, Elizabeth and I stayed up all night playing bridge with a couple of other grad students (not the Hakmillers) and once it had become light, we decided to drive out to a beach at one of Minnesota's ten thousand lakes. We narrowly avoided what surely would have been a fatal accident that would have nipped our nascent bridge careers in the bud. Needless to say, that cured us of all-night bridge marathons.

By now, the spring quarter was soon ending and the heat of summer before the summer was already upon us. Since neither Elizabeth nor I had any special duties during the summer, I suggested that maybe it was time for her to meet my family. They still lived in California, of course, but since Elizabeth had never been there, she readily agreed.

We had saved enough money to be able to fly out there, but for one reason or another, we kept having to postpone our trip until the very beginning of September.

My folks -- my stepfather, Ray, and my mom, Ro (short for Rose) -- were then in their forties and lived in Berkeley where they managed the apartment building in which they lived. They received Elizabeth warmly, and of course my mother delighted in showing Elizabeth all my childhood treasures -- my artless drawings of fighter planes during World War II, my postcards, full of spelling errors, that I had sent home during my summers with my grandfather in the Gold Rush country of California (they afforded many a laugh), photos of me as a kid, etc. At any rate, by the time our visit was drawing to a close she had learned quite a bit about me and had become very fond of my parents. Elizabeth and I had grown closer, too.

A few days before we were due to return to Minnesota, I had an idea.

"Let's get married," I said.

Elizabeth looked stricken.

My parents whooped it up. They were all for it.

Elizabeth remained doubtful and conflicted, but three against one soon led to the decision in favor of the majority.

But how to get married in a hurry? My dad took charge and found a justice of the peace named (fittingly enough) Kelley, who agreed to perform the ceremony the next day.

Elizabeth broke out with a terrible case of hives. At the ceremony, her face was still a study in unsightly red blotches.

Elizabeth's maiden name was McLaughlin. Justice of the Peace Kelley beamed. "This is my first all-Irish wedding," he proudly told us. We didn't have the heart to tell him. Well, two out of three, anyway.

Elizabeth and I spent our honeymoon on a Greyhound Bus back to Minnesota.

We didn't have enough money to fly home. In fact, after buying our tickets, we hardly had any. My father in a fit of uncharacteristic generosity laid a twenty-dollar bill on me, accompanied by a bag containing a dozen bagels. Our wedding present.

Elizabeth and I, somewhat numb but excited, took our seats. It was a scene out of "The Graduate" at the end with Ben and Elaine on the bus, wondering what they had just done.

When we reached Nevada for our first rest stop, I decided to see if could increase our remaining cash by playing the slots. Mistake.

It was just bagels all the way home.

Married now without a sou to call our own.

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