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Monday, 05 October 2009

Disobedience

By Brenton "Sandy" Dickson

Life’s a series of stages and adjustments. Toilet training, puberty, girls, school, work, marriage and children. But it’s the aging thing that I have been rebelling against. I barely noticed 30, 40, 50 and even 60. But 70 was another matter. I was always good at math and 70 could be easily subtracted from other even more frightening numbers.

 

Oscar Wilde wrote, “Disobedience, in the eyes of anyone who has read history, is man’s original virtue.” In my early 30s, I observed rebellion from a distance. I was too old for Woodstock. I watched the late 1960s on television. Civil unrest was prevalent; sit-ins and walkouts were the order of the day.

In a brief span of two months in 1968, two prominent Americans, Dr. Martin Luther King and Senator Robert Kennedy were assassinated. Later that summer, I was afraid and confused as I watched the Democratic Convention and the riots taking place outside Chicago’s International Ampitheatre. I wondered what it all meant. Were we headed for anarchy, or perhaps a police state?

           

Soon afterwards on PBS, I saw talk show host David Susskind ask actor Peter Ustinov if he thought there would be a revolution in the United States. Ustinov replied, “Oh good heavens no. You can never have a revolution in this country because there’s always a weekend coming up!”

    

My childhood disobedience was controlled. As a preteen, I was one of those obnoxious brats who would slither through a wide group of skiers waiting to get on ski lifts, sneaking by scores of irritated people in order to reach the front of the line in the shortest possible time. I ignored “trail closed” signs at ski areas, and once paid the price by breaking both bones in my right leg.

At a boy’s camp when I was 12, I smoked cigarettes as frequently as I could get my hands on them.  (Curiously, I never smoked again.)

Many years later, I was one of four people who slipped into the steward’s office of a yacht club in Gloucester, Massachusetts and called the police to report that our 50-foot yacht had been stolen. The sleek yawl had just left the club carrying two newlyweds, my cousin Marian and her husband Eddie, en route to the municipal dock where a car was waiting to whisk them to Boston’s Logan Airport and their honeymoon.

About two hundred wedding guests watched in horror and amusement as two red-and-white, 40-foot U. S. Coast Guard cutters with lights flashing and sirens blaring, apprehended the bewildered couple and the yacht’s rightful owner in the middle of Gloucester Harbor.

 

At college, I was a member of a somewhat rebellious fraternity. Unlike the other houses, ours was located on the other side of town, a mile off campus. As a result, we enjoyed considerable independence and behaved accordingly.

We housed around 25 students in a late-19th century home and annex building. The house had extensive hallways and fire escapes. These architectural elements made the town’s fire safety officials happy, but frustrated college authorities because they provided ideal egresses and hiding places for unauthorized female visitors.

 

We were not openly rebellious. We simply disregarded a number of the college’s rules and regulations. I always had the sense that the dean would have preferred that we did not exist. His dilemma was that if he closed us down, he would have had no place to house our 25 residents.

 

Annually, we elected new presidents who would try, with limited success, to maintain order. They had to respond to continuing complaints related to our late night boisterousness. They had to ensure that beer bottles and trash were kept off the lawn and sidewalks in front of the house, which was located on the major north-south route that went through town.

During my junior year, the neighbors complained about firecracker noise. Our then president, Loring, was determined to stop this activity and to apprehend the culprit. (Who incidentally was me!)

 

I must have been paying attention (for a change) in chemistry class, when I learned that material soaked in saltpeter would burn at a slow and steady pace once it was dry. I put this information to use by making fuses out of cotton string. As a result, I was able to strategically position a cherry bomb, light it, and be sitting next to Loring in front of the latest TV episode of Gunsmoke when the explosion occurred a minute or two later.

Dutifully, I would join the quickly assembled posse that spread out to block all of the escape routes around the scene of the crime. In fact, I participated in investigating these transgressions with such enthusiasm that I was appointed co-chair of the committee to stop them. Eventually, they did stop. I can’t remember whether I experienced a momentary lapse into maturity, or whether I simply ran out of cherry bombs.

 

I recall one Middlebury Winter Carnival weekend, when we produced a life-size ice sculpture of an MG sports car with a dead Dartmouth Indian secured to the right front fender like a slain deer. It was in front of the house and right on U. S. Route 7.  As soon as it was completed, this artistic creation was disqualified from the Carnival competition, and it was ordered to be demolished by college and town officials.

It was. But, not before it had been photographed by the Rutland Herald and the Burlington Free Press, as well as by scores of tourists that were either passing by or in town for the festivities.

Much to the chagrin of college authorities, the Vermont press chose to feature our sculpture in their Monday editions rather than the more tasteful contest winner.

 

We were a chapter of a national fraternal organization. However, we had little if any use for their secret rituals and regulations. While we were politically incorrect in displaying a deceased Dartmouth student dressed like a Native American in our ice sculpture, we were ahead of our time by ignoring the ethnic membership restrictions of the national organization.

At one time, when the last names of two of our new members raised red flags at the Indianapolis headquarters, we went to great lengths to placate the authorities. We provided them with convoluted “proof” that one had connections that traced him back to William the Conqueror, while the other was a direct descendent of George and Martha Washington (who, by the way, never had any children!).

Like the dean, the national headquarters also wanted to get rid of us, constantly maintaining us on probation.

 

During my senior year, two national home-office representatives were dispatched to Vermont to investigate our activities. For their benefit, we sang the fraternity song before meals. The senior officers, of which I was one, wore our red and white robes at evening meetings. (Previously, these had been only used inappropriately at various social functions.)

At one point during a meeting, Jeremy, one of our younger members, doused his mouth with soapsuds and shaving cream, and crashed to the floor at the feet of our shocked visitors, flailing about in a fake epileptic attack.  Several of us rushed to his aid and carefully carried him to a nearby couch to recover. Our guests were so emotionally moved by their experience that they returned to Indianapolis giving us a glowing review. Our probationary status was removed, but only briefly.

* * *
 

As I look back on my youth through memories such as these, I am horrified by its triviality and insignificance. While I enjoyed some success in my professional career, I must conclude that the world (with the exception of my children and grandchildren) would be just fine without me.

In spite of this, I am determined to defy the calendar and to act and feel younger than my age until I cease to exist. Social activist, Maggie Kuhn, wrote, “Old age is an excellent time for outrage. My goal is to say or do at least one outrageous thing every day.”

 

What a good idea!

[EDITORIAL NOTE: All elders, 50 and older, are welcome to submit stories for this blog. They can be fiction, non-fiction, poetry, memoir, etc. Instructions for submitting are here.]

Posted by Ronni Bennett at 02:30 AM | Permalink | Email this post

Comments

bottle

I absolutely loved this story. I too vow "to do at least one outrageous thing every day."

There's a Ghost Editor on this website who edits comments. :-)
I am sorry that I wrote something that maybe wasn't flattering.
It's interesting to me how the Ghost Editor is watching 24 hours a day. :-)
jjhjr


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