Sunday, January 17, 2021

Not Even Not Zen 221.10: Wake for Robert Gallagher, Part 10

Robert Gallagher, Wake

Crazy Roommates

When they returned to Maryland in the fall of 1958, my father went to work for IBM. He was still taking classes at the university. My mother had at least a year and a half left to get her bachelor's degree. Under the circumstances, they needed roommates in their rented house.

One of their roommates was a woman named Valerie Solanas. She was a student who had tried to stab several men on campus in arguments with them, so she needed to move out of the dorms. She talked my parents into letting her have the upstairs room. However, Solanas got into fights with their guests.

My father warned one of them, Arno Wasserman, a fellow graduate student who lived a few houses down on Calvert Road. Arno stopped by once or twice per week to eat their food and chat.

"Help yourself," my father said. "But don't tease Valerie."

It was the wrong thing to say. A few weeks later, Arno met Valerie coming through the living room. He couldn't resist talking to her. It got political.

Teasingly, he asked her, "What, don't you think men are superior to women?"

Valerie spit on him. She turned and ran into the kitchen. Arno could see she was opening and closing drawers. She pulled out a carving knife. Suddenly, Arno realized that my father had been serious and he tried to bolt out of the house. Solanis blocked him and chased him around the ground floor a few times before he locked himself in a room and escaped out a window. Even on the street, she followed. Valerie chased Arno all the way to his house. He had to lock everything on his first floor. His own roomates were not amused.

Arno stayed friends with my parents. Thereafter, though, he met them for lunch at the student union. He never again visited them in their Calvert Street home.

Valerie never actually paid rent. She promised and promised. My parents finally had to ask her to leave. Valerie moved to California. She wrote a book, the SCUM Manifesto, which my father owned and I read fron his library when I was an adolescent. Then, less than ten years after being their roommate, Valerie shot Andy Warhol. In her brief interactions with Warhol, she came to the opinion that he was sexist. What she did in response seems consistent with her character. In fact, after shooting Warhal, she turned the gun on another man. The gun jammed. Valerie walked out of the building, found a police officer, and gave herself up.

At that point, my parents stopped trying to keep up with Valerie.

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Not Even Not Zen 221.9: Wake for Robert Gallagher, Part 9

Robert Gallagher, Wake

A Visit to Europe

In the summer of 1958, while still enrolled at the University of Maryland, my mother and father decided they should visit Europe. They were both working all-out for their degrees and my father had jobs besides but he quit them for the summer. They didn't have money for airplane tickets. Instead, they took a cargo freighter for forty bucks and brought their bicycles and backpacks as cargo. When they reached land, they traveled by bike and stayed in youth hostels for two dollars to ten dollars a night. If they couldn't find a hostel nearby, they camped for free.

"Bicycling made me fat," my father would tell me later, many times. What he meant was that his habits on a bike weren't sustainable when he stopped. He got in the habit of eating candy bars as he biked.

In Great Britain, my parents averaged between 40 and 90 miles per travel day. (And presumably my father ate a lot of candy bars.) They knew the mileages from their maps and the marked distances between youth hostels. They didn't consider the cycling to be difficult except for once. The 90 mile ride was their longest and it was through a cold and lonely stretch of Scotland. When they got to their hostel, which turned out to be unfriendly, they pretty much collapsed in the beds assigned to them. The worst part was bicycling most of the day through the rain.

Despite the occasional unhelpful hostel keeper or shop owner, they found most people to be friendly no matter what the country or circumstance. There was always someone willing to talk, to advise them on the best or cheapest food and drink, or to hoist their bikes onto a flatbed and drive them for a while.

In Denmark, they tried hitchhiking and got a ride right away.

"I don't normally pick up hitchhikers," warned the truck driver. "No one does. But I noticed you are American."

He told them the little things he'd noticed about them that made them different. Those were the clothes, the Schwinn bicycles, a backpack patch with American style English on it. "Don't change," he advised. "No one likes our hitchhikers. But you, well, people like to have pity on Americans."

He went on to describe the various things that were wrong with all the various peoples and cultures of Europe and why he would (mostly) not give any of them a ride anywhere.

My parents logged their travels that summer, over 2,000 miles in total. They saw a score of different countries and cultures. What's more, biking together suited their marriage. Even though they were working hard and living cheaply, they were figuring out how to do it together.

Sunday, January 3, 2021

Not Even Not Zen 221.8: Wake for Robert Gallagher, Part 8

Robert Gallagher, Wake

Getting Into College

When Robert Roberts walked down the stairs of the US Army discharge facility, he stepped onto the dirt of Monterey, California. He held a severance check in his hand. He didn't know where he could stay but he had a little time to find a room and a job.

Without any particular sense of direction, he worked as a floor referee in a roller rink where he learned to skate backwards and dance on skates, as a grocery clerk, as a blackjack dealer in Las Vegas, and in other occupations, each for a few weeks or a few months. He liked moving from place to place. He changed jobs and towns in quick succession until a high school friend got married. Doris asked him to be an usher in her wedding back in Baltimore, which is when he headed back east.

After her wedding, he tried being a real estate broker in a Baltimore bank, a clerk for a law firm, and a stockbroker for Baker and Watts. He hired on as a pressman for a printer, a day laborer for a construction company, and as a cement mixer for roads and buildings. (Once, as we drove out of the way on a camping trip, we passed over a bridge my father help build. He shrugged to my mom and admitted it was ugly but he was happy to see it in use.)

One of his friends told him that a college might accept him as a veteran even though he hadn't finished high school. He was eligible for the GI Bill. So he put in applications at Georgetown University and Maryland University. Georgetown asked for more paperwork. He sent it to them but he didn't hear back. In contrast, he skipped his orientation meeting for Maryland but they sent him an acceptance package. He figured, "Well, this is where I'm going."

Two weeks into the fall semester, he got a letter from Georgetown saying, "Why didn't you show for your orientation?" It turned out they had admitted him, too, but they hadn't sent a notice.

Undergraduate Remembrance

Unlike the younger students, my father had never graduated from high school. He felt underqualified and self-conscious about it. He stood out in other ways, too. As a freshman, he was older than the college seniors. In his class picture of nine hundred, there were two men with beards. One of them was my father. The other was a professor. Those were reasons he knew he had to work harder. In fact, he took so many classes and did so well that he realized he could get his bachelor's degree in three years. That would leave him room on his GI Bill eligibility to get a master's degree.

Unbeknownst to my father, a young woman from Annapolis had won a double-handful of academic scholarships to University of Maryland - my mother, Elizabeth Ann Stockett.

Ann had gotten straight As in her high school. Her level of achievement plus an essay and an interview won her a Senatorial Scholarship, one of two given each year. She won other scholarships to cover her books and living expenses. In fact, she qualified for so many financial awards that she had to give some of them away.

My parents were both interested in languages, psychology, and philosophy, so they ended up in some of the same social circles. Also, for the first time in his life besides the signal corps school, my father was studying hard. Or so he thought until he compared himself to Ann.

Ann had suitors and flatterers around her. Some drove from military bases to see her. Others bought her gifts. Some tried to get her drunk. One tried to climb into her dormitory room. My father watched from a distance for weeks and listened to her laugh about them.

They hung out in their large, loosely-knit circle of friends with John Palmeroy, Betsy Friedman, Bob and Sybil Sampson, and Dick Spotswood. Some of their friends gained local prominence, later. (Dick Spotswood hosted a radio show.) Two years ahead of them in the same disjointed crowd was "the puppet guy" who went on to create commercials, local television shows, and eventually The Muppets. (His name was Jim Henson.)

Note: my parents were sure that although Henson was nice enough, he was destined for obscurity. He was playing with puppets, after all. That's why, in 1962, they agreed on two possible names for me: Kermit and Eric. I'm grateful they chose Eric, since The Muppets ended up not being so obscure and also because I administered to the Kermit network protocol in grad school, which would have been extra weird if that was my name.

For a while, my parents merely hung out in each other's general vicinity. My father clued in, eventually, that "Ann didn't like any of her suitors." Somehow, possibly with her help, he asked her out.

"We went on one date and suddenly we were a couple," is how he put it later. "What I didn't know is that your mother had already made up her mind about me."

Pretty soon, they started plans to live together and marry. It didn't slow down their advancements through school. They shared a group house off campus. My father worked as a librarian for the university, then for the American Philosophical Society. He took more philosophy and psychology courses, plenty of english and history, and learned from my mother's study habits that he had been taking it easier than he'd realized.