In the Rearview Mirror

All Hail 53 Years Later

     I was a green kid from a small town when I first set foot on Northeastern’s quadrangle in the fall of 1963. There were only 53 in my high school graduating class; the crowd of families and friends at my high school graduation was smaller than the packed auditorium for my first Western Civ. lecture. WOW!

     I had never needed “study skills” before, wasn’t sure what the term meant. A single night’s reading assignment for one NU class was greater than an entire semester’s worth of reading back in my high school’s Advanced Placement classes.    

     In college, I expected to lounge on the green bank of a nearby river, textbook in hand, enjoying the soothing sight of canoes and swans drifting along in the shimmering water. To my delight, I learned there was a public park nearby, with a small river and quiet green areas for study. “The Fens” sounded intriguing, so I took my blanket and books in search of this Elysian field (I was an English major). 

     Yikes! The Fens was a swamp. Simply a swamp, with a turgid, stagnant meandering wastewater of sludge and beer bottles (they did make the ooze shimmer, though) and the bloated bodies of wildlife that could not swim or chose this tributary of the Styx in which to end it all.  

     No canoes or swans could drift by in that muck, but some human life forms came drifting by on shore. This fascinating parade was very friendly, some offering, “Shay, honey, waddya shtudyin?”  One generous gentleman my father’s age invited me to join him in a drink from something wrapped in a paper bag. 

     Having completed the short course in Urban Wildlife 101, I escaped to campus, that concrete patch on the banks of the MBTA Green Line. 

     In an effort to neglect my studies, I sought collegiate-variety distractions. I participated in a Mayor of Huntington Avenue competition, wearing weird eye makeup and a chenille bedspread toga to support the candidacy of LEOpatra, one fraternity’s candidate for the office. I played (badly) on the women’s softball team for a semester. I tried out for a part in “Born Yesterday,” but was not chosen to “strut and fret across” the Drama Department’s stage. I attended rallies, protests, gatherings of the disgruntled. I gave free haircuts to the activist lads who were canvassing for Clean Gene in his bid for the presidency. I had no training in the tonsorial arts, but my “AFTER” was an improvement over their “BEFORE.”        

     In 1966, academic freedom became an issue, when a student, Prudence Pissmire, complained to NU administration that a fellow student’s creative writing assignment contained language offensive to her. In my creative writing class, the professor wondered when we would “… get over this sex kick,” so the Henry Miller wannabes among us were put on notice. The administration was squarely on the side of the prig and the professor; it was back to the lavatory walls for us English majors who wished to exorcise our prurient demons.  

     I spoke at a rally organized by Michael Berman on this burning issue. The News coverage of this event included Bob MacDonald’s All Hail column, a funny send-up of the passion and posturing of the speakers, his understated commentary highly entertaining. It made me laugh. Bob became my first college crush, and I became an All Hail addict.  

     I had written a letter to the editor on the topic, and the News printed it in its entirety in the same edition, to the left of MacDonald’s column. My letter’s attempt at irony was about as subtle as a cough at a Covid clinic, but I was published! In the News!   

     I can’t recall how I was lucky enough to become the All Hail columnist in my last years at Motheaten. Editor Peter Accardi, a friend who knew how skillful I was at rankling others, was confident that I could “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable” (his motto as a journalist). 

     I had arrived. Now this was college! 

     I loved everything about the News: the student staff, Advisor Harvey Vetstein, even the office itself, which was small and smoky and crowded, but always busy. While my contribution wasn’t very important in the scheme of things, I felt as if I belonged. 

     What did I write about? The health service (a den of antiquity); the student council (Stoodink Cowsmell); Silver Masque (Silver Flasque); LBJ (El Bow Jab); final exams (A square root is neither a square nor a root. Explain); graduation ceremonies at Boston Garden after the circus had moved on (the elephants are gone, the smell lingers on, here comes a new batch of clowns).

     Encouraged by Editor Accardi, whose distinctive cackle indicated a good column, I was an equal-opportunity deadpan snarker. I didn’t play favorites: If someone or something needed a barb, I delivered. 

     I was surprised when the targets of my take on matters were not amused, but actually offended. Some sacred cows were more thin-skinned than I thought healthy; they should have been able to withstand the gentle zap of my cattle prod (dipped in a little vitriol) (OK, a lot of vitriol) with greater forbearance.  

     Not only did I offend the NU readership, but I was also able, with one of my columns, to honk off the listening audience of a Boston radio talk show (I forget which one). My “Open Letter” was an answer to a spoken word record that hit the airwaves in the fall of 1967, “An Open Letter to My Teenage Son.” 

     Written by Robert Thompson and read by radio personality Victor Lundberg, with “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” playing in the background, the message from a father to his son begins gently enough. The tone is civil and paternal as the father gives his views on teenage behavior, long hair, war (wrong, but necessary), America’s great freedoms. By the end of the record, however, Daddy-o goes from paternal to paternalistic in one sentence. “If you decide to burn your draft card you might as well burn your birth certificate at the same time, for I have no son.” These words are spoken as the hymn reaches crescendo: “His truth is marching on!”    

     The record sold over a million copies in the month after its release; it seemed as if radio stations countrywide were playing it every hour.    

     In my All Hail response, “Open Letter” the son points out the hypocrisies of his father and his father’s generation, their corruption of American ideals, their jingoistic saber rattling, their “patriotism.” At the end of the letter the son asks for his birth certificate. “I’m not going to burn it, Dad. I’m going to carry it in Mom’s purse when I go down for my physical… hope this works as well for me as it did for you in the Korean War.”  

     The radio station recorded my words, read by an actor in a deep theatrical voice, patriotic music cranked up in the background. I thought it was an excellent parody and pretty funny. Many disagreed. Many. Whenever the station aired it, callers would respond, spitting and fuming and foaming at the mouth. 

     I was invited to appear on the station’s evening broadcast and answer calls from the listeners. I had heard my share of Boston’s radio talk shows and knew that this poor station’s bleep machine would probably melt down. Also, I expected a few excitable types might meet me after my appearance to discuss matters in person. Somewhere someone was probably heating up the tar, and feather pillows were being simultaneously disemboweled for a party in my honor. I declined the invite. 

     I didn’t even listen to the broadcast; that’s the kind of crusading columnist I was. (I was at a Jonathan Kozol lecture, true that.)

     I’m a coward, I admit it, but I like my head planted firmly on my neck and not on a pike. Presently, that 75-year-old neck sports serious wattles; in the words of Joan Rivers, “I expect a Presidential Pardon at Thanksgiving.”