This is the fourth installment of my memoir: “The Imperfect Logic of the Heart.”(Three Chapters and a Prologue) The book is available on Amazon. I am reprinting it here chapter by chapter.
Over 50 years ago I became a freshman at the University of Wisconsin. In 1962, JFK had been our president for two years. The Bay of Pigs had already happened. Marilyn Monroe had been found dead in her bedroom. Ken Kesey published “Cuckoo’s Nest” and James Meredith registered at Ole Miss. A new guy Bob Dylan was being talked about by the hip kids from New York. The “times were a changing.” I was hoping they would change for me as well.
There were only a few of us going to Wisconsin from Shaker so I would not carry the metaphoric “old baggage.” I would not be Betsy’s boyfriend, the “dancing guy” or the guy who apparently was not smart enough to be asked to take any Advanced Placement Classes. I was the guy who felt an enormous responsibility to excel at college and be the one person in the family who would earn a degree. This was not to be a vacation.
My parents waved goodbye in Cleveland and I flew United to Chicago, traveling light with only a couple of bags, and then took North Central Airlines to Madison. The North Central flight was a chewing gum plane that didn’t sit parallel to the ground. You angled up to your seat where you could light up a cigarette if you wanted and chewed gum to keep from losing your lunch while the plane bounced around at low altitude.
I was enrolled in Adams Hall, one of the school dormitories on the north side of the hill, reasonably far away from the private dorms and the fraternities which were all on the south side of the hill. I was in one of the “farmer” dorms, called that because most of these dorms on the north side were populated with Wisconsin kids right off the farm.
From 1840 to 1880, Wisconsin was considered “America’s breadbasket” because one-sixth of the wheat grown in the nation came from Wisconsin. But wheat was hard on the soil. As yields fell so did prices and farmer’s started to look elsewhere to “feed crops.” Dairy farming took over, helped by technology and training at the University of Wisconsin and the German and Scandinavian immigrant families who specialized in the European-style cheeses. Wisconsin became known for its Swiss cheese and became the leading dairy state in the nation, producing more butter and cheese than any other state.
One of my first friends, Terry, was living on a local farm before school. He was a sweet kid who wanted to study to be a meteorologist and be a weatherman on TV. Several weeks after school started Terry found out I was Jewish. He asked if he could feel my head. I asked why. He said he had heard that Jews had horns. He was not being intentionally offensive, he was just curious.
My roommate who would share my tiny room was not off the farm but rather off the planet. He was a “pocket protector,” slide rule kid with the top shirt button buttoned. He had a robotic like sound and cadence to his voice a preview of what I would hear form a famous astrophysicist. In all fairness he treated me as well as I deserved since I avoided him as often as possible. Today, I cannot even remember his name.
But as I became comfortable exploring the campus, it was clear I was living on the wrong side of town and would not meet kids that had a background similar to mine. The Jews were on the other side of the hill. And they were not like any Jewish kids I had ever met before. The fraternities were already having their early rush so, out of curiosity, I checked it out. My dad in his day was the president of his ZBT fraternity at Ohio State and so I was a “legacy,” someone they had an informal obligation to accept. The truth was I wanted nothing to do with a fraternity. The last thing I wanted was a new label. But I was invited to some parties and so I went. It was the “Animal House” era.
The kids were mostly from two tribes, neither one of which resembled my own. There were the rich Highland Park Jews and the cool New Yorkers. Chicago kids all wore the same uniform: Bass Weejun loafers, khaki pants and yellow or blue Gant shirts. The New York kids wore early Army surplus. The New Yorkers to my astonishment read the paper every day, visited the student union for collective conversation about current events, and knew what was going on, not just in sports but in the world. If either group was asked about my tribe they would have used the label: “goyim Jews” or possibly “poor midwestern secular.”
Once classes started I spent little time at Adams Hall. I had free time and spent most of it at the library. I took a written test and a physical test that allowed me to “pass” on gym. An essay I wrote, after it was reviewed, allowed me to pass on freshman English. I had a lot of time to explore the campus and Madison.
I was chasing a Bachelor in Science instead of a Bachelor in Arts so I could avoid any foreign language requirement. But I was feeling guilty about the cost of college without a vocation in mind and felt that I should actually learn how to do something, so I also enrolled in the commerce school. It required one semester of a basic accounting course. A little more about that later.
But suddenly, overnight, school stopped. Was school over? Was everything over?
Someone turned out the lights. Everyone I knew left school and went home to possibly die with their families. I could not afford the long trip home, even by greyhound, so I remained at school during what we later learned was called the Cuban Missile Crisis. It lasted from October 22-28. When it was over, I remember thinking it was time to start reading the paper. I didn’t want to die ignorant of basic current events. Having survived, I became more confident that the world would not end while I was at school. But if I was going to love college I needed to try to find somewhere else to live. The problem was that my parents had signed a mandatory one-year contract at Adams Hall. Somehow I needed to break the contract.
I found the manager of the dorm (also a midwestern Jew) and did my best to describe how unhappy and suicidal I felt in the dorm.
“Could I please just move out?”
His response was to suggest I get immediate mental health counseling. Not liking his response, I suggested we cut the shit.
“What do I have to do to get out of here.”
His response was: “There is nothing you can do.”
A brain storm hit, and I said:
“I forgot to put on the application that I eat only kosher food. I can’t eat at the dorm cafeteria.” I was sure this would work.
But he responded: “Not a problem, we can make an accommodation for you. You are not the only kid that has ever requested kosher food.”
Now pissed, I responded, “Maybe, but I am the only kid who is going to show up every day dressed like a Sephardic Jew. I am also going to, with great gusto and volume, shout the prayers over bread at each meal.”
To make sure he understood I began shouting: “Baruch atah adonai eloheinu melech ha’olam.”
I think he admired my attempt or believed I was crazy because he compromised by allowing me to move out at the end of the semester with no penalty. And I did. Into the ZBT house, before I had even pledged.
I am not sure why they let me move in without being a “brother” but maybe it was because they didn’t have anyone in the fraternity exactly like me and after all I was a legacy, or maybe because they found me an interesting amusement. And they didn’t have anyone in the house who didn’t dress like them. I hardly had any clothes and what I had I wore every day. My outfit, was a maroon sweater and a green corduroy sport coat with brown patches on the elbows. I had chugga boots with two eyelets. No hat or gloves.
The rent they wanted to charge me was less than what I was paying at the dorm but I would have to figure out food. I couldn’t eat at the house without being a brother.
So I got a meal job.
My first meal job was at the one Jewish fraternity you pledged if you were certain you would never get into any of the others. The so- called “loser” fraternity. I was the new employee so I didn’t get to wait on tables. I was Mr. Pots and Pans. This was actually a good gig because I didn’t have to be there while the meal was being served. I could come in anytime, just so I got the work done.
The cook, Essee, approved of my efforts and let me eat whatever I wanted from the current day’s meal or the one before. She had the weird belief that if she put a drop of iodine on her tongue every day she would never get sick. If I doubted my memory, 45 years later on an OAT trip to Viet Nam, I met someone who had the same job a few years later with Essee. She was still using the iodine.
So now I was set with a place to live and meals but I needed a little spending money. My parents and grandfather paid the tuition but that was it. I was on my own for the rest unless I became desperate and needed help. I never did. I worked in a ladies shoe store for a few months until they suggested I buy some clothes if I wanted to remain working there. My next job was cleaning a kitchen at a real restaurant.
Meanwhile I was studying hard and enjoying my freedom. For the first time in many months, I was self-absorbed and not thinking about Larry my parents or Betsy. The difficulty communicating with Ohio in some ways made it easier to become a true Wisconsinite. I became involved with Wisconsin’s Symposium and remember George Wallace coming to speak while I was an usher. My first taste of politics.
Freshman classes usually involved a large lecture where you did not interact with the professor. Later in the week you would meet with the quiz instructor who usually was a graduate student. If you actually attended the lectures (most of my friends did not) and met the quiz instructor, a grad student just a few years old than you, you probably got a much better grade. I knew all my quiz instructors and also frequently had coffee with them at the student union. These relationships had their ups and downs.
I found the courses interesting and after Shaker frankly easy. But maybe it was just because I was studying harder. My advanced algebra course was easier than the algebra course I had taken at Shaker. I had a perfect score on all the tests at the time my quiz instructor and student union friend invited me to join a club he thought I might enjoy. He described it as a club where a lot of New York kids discussed current events. I signed up but for some reason, I can no longer recall, never actually went to a single meeting. My failure to attend proved persuasive when many years later my brief inadvertent membership in the SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) was causing concern with my ethics approval required to take the Attorney Bar in Ohio. Somehow I was on the FBI radar screen and my membership had to be explained before I could become an attorney.
I also had become friends with my accounting professor and told her I made a mistake becoming part of the Commerce School and wanted to drop accounting, which was eating up too much of my time with its time consuming homework. I had an A going at the time we discussed my wanting to drop the course. She told me to be careful that to drop a course you had to do it in the first six weeks. Apparently I forgot that and in week seven went to my dean and asked to drop the course. He said: “You are too late.” There was no discussion. The fact that I was doing well was irrelevant. He told me that if I had had a better excuse relating to sickness or a family problem he might have considered my request, but not liking the Commerce track was not good enough.
I stormed out of his office mad as hell and never went back to accounting. The quiz instructor who liked me gave me a C for the semester as a gift for being her friend. I would pay more attention to the rules in the future.
One of those rules related to social courtesy. My unacceptable conduct sent me back to the dean’s office.
I was not dating at all in college. I can’t explain why except that Betsy was on my mind and I felt dating would be unfair to her. I suspected she was dating but some sense of honor made it taboo for me. My ZBT roommate asked me to take out his girlfriend’s roommate as a favor to his girlfriend. He said she was actually beautiful and was in fact in a Wrigley’s chewing gum commercial on television. He offered his car for the evening.
The early part of the date went fairly well. She really was beautiful and we had a fairly normal initial conversation. But she didn’t like the first restaurant I suggested and wanted to talk about nothing but her commercial, as if she had won the academy award. Her exaggerated feelings of self-importance finally drove me a bit mad and I pulled the car to the curb a few blocks from the student union and told her to get out.
She said: “You’re kidding?”
I said: “I am not. Get out!”
She said: “You can’t be serious”.
I said: “I am.”
She finally did get out and reported me to the Dean. This was serious and but for my excellent grades could have been fatal. I was put on social probation. I wasn’t sure what that meant but I guess it was like strike one, maybe two.
It was not until my third year of college that I began to realize that I was not as stupid as Latin and Shaker had made me feel. I had almost all A’s except for Accounting and Geography. I figured Geography would be an easy science but it turned out to be extremely challenging. You learned about tectonics and isobars and all the natural sciences. No high school geography maps were involved. It was tough but fascinating. But what really turned the corner for me was when my first full professor called on me and addressed me as Mr. Schwachter and seemed genuinely interested in what I had to say.
When it became time to join ZBT or move out of the house I elected to stay and became a pledge. I managed to avoid most of the pledge nonsense by saying I had to go to work. It was generally accepted that I was the one ZBT who was without deep pockets or in my case any pockets whatsoever. Also no member wanted to mess with the guy who was writing their history and English papers for a small fee. (Anything less than a B and they got their money back).
But when the final “hell week” started, I had lost patience with the whole silly nonsense and was ready to quit. The final night event was staged to keep us up all night blindfolded in our room with African music blasting (Babatunde Olatunji). We were then taken to the “sacred room” where we would become members or wash out. The trick was to tell us separately that we didn’t make it. And wait for us to cry or get hysterical and then they would say: “Just kidding you made it”. This routine was probably older than my grandfather’s Rotary Club.
I actually did not know the script but when they told me I didn’t make it I just replied:
“Fine, I was only becoming a member because I didn’t want to look for a new place.”
My sponsor told me to please not tell the brothers what I said. I did not and respected his love of something I found silly.
In my third year, Betsy had finally come to visit. She went to a frat event with me and of course all the fraternity brothers fell in love with her and suggested once again “what the hell was she doing with me, much less sleeping with me in the Lorraine Hotel.” To sleep in the hotel with Betsy required a diversion to get around the guard who protected all the young supposedly virginal visitors. I’m not sure how we did it but it did involve walking up at least six flights of stairs to sneak to her room.
My final year of Wisconsin was fantastic. The truth was that I had already earned enough credits to graduate by the end of my third year and so didn’t even need to go back to Madison for the fourth. This time I returned to Madison with money I had saved during the summer at Camp Roosevelt and with a course selection that was one hundred percent fun. Basically I took one art history course and every English course I had always dreamed of taking if I didn’t need a political science degree and a B.S. This new curriculum allowed me to lie in bed all day and read.
Betsy had tried out a college career at Michigan State but apparently was not that enthusiastic. She returned to Cleveland and was working in a retail store. We were still an item and in fact I had taken the Greyhound home more often to see her.
Roe v. Wade was not the law of the land in 1965. Abortion was not legal, but like prostitution, the law did not stop nature’s calling and particularly unwanted pregnancies. Every spring break and after Christmas break, girls would come back to Madison and get admitted to the hospital because they had received a botched illegal procedure in Chicago.
Today you can go to the drug store and know in minutes whether you are pregnant. In ’65 you had to go to the doctor as Mr. and Mrs. and see whether you killed the rabbit or not. The test could take some time, during which you drank too much and slept too little.
Betsy and I went through this nightmare. How it was resolved is not part of this narrative. But it certainly brought us closer together. Close enough for me to ask Betsy’s father if he would approve my getting engaged to his daughter. He seemed relieved to say yes. Dr. Jac and I had become buddies.
Aside from my English and art courses, I decided to take an advertising course. I was a fan of the periodical Advertising Age and was always interested in ad copy and ad presentation. A few weeks into the course our professor gave us an assignment to enter the Hershey chocolate contest. Hershey had never advertised in print media, apparently never feeling it was necessary. Now they were going to advertise in print for the first time and the contest was to create a campaign.
My approach was to riff on the successful Volkswagen ads which had spartan copy and a large picture of a Beetle. My campaign featured a solo picture of a large Hershey bar, an American flag and the slogan: “Hershey, the Great American Chocolate Bar”. I have heard that slogan since and wondered. My layout and copy won a regional award and I was off and dreaming of applying to the Northwestern School of Journalism, which offered advertising courses.
But that wouldn’t happen because I was engaged and already accepted at Case Western Reserve Law School in Cleveland. The school was happy to have me without requiring me to take the new law school admission test.
My fate was sealed. But before my return to Cleveland there would be a little more excitement. One night I took a break from my new meal job at a girl’s private dorm and went to the fraternity house for a dinner. They were electing officers for the fraternity. There were speeches and arguments and then as a joke someone put me up for an office. I declined to speak but in some kind of a protest vote I was elected treasurer, which was a good thing because that office allowed me to go to the national convention in San Francisco the following month on the frat’s dollar. The house bought my ticket direct from Chicago on a jet. I turned in the ticket for a prop flight and droned on but pocketed the savings for spending money in San Francisco.
Something else changed my life that year. Humorology was a fraternity-sorority event that was the hottest ticket every year. The fraternities and sororities would pair off to create a Broadway style original mini musical to be performed before the entire Wisconsin audience. Original songs, and original story and choreography. Awards like Tony’s were given out for the best in several categories.
The Humorology committee produced the show. To be on the committee was political because the it also decided the fraternity sorority groupings for the event. I was drafted to be on the committee probably because I was known as an outsider, not a real frat fan, and not from Chicago or New York. The thought was that I would be objective and not favor ZBT, often a winner no matter who they were paired with.
Katherine was also on the committee. I had never seen her before. It’s hard not to be drawn to someone who seems strangely and obviously interested in you. It took one date before we became a couple and I was sure I was falling in love. In a few dates she knew most of what there was to know about me, including Betsy.
I learned later that her father was superintendent of schools in a Chicago suburb and that Katherine was a super athlete and scholar. But she was also irreverent, sneaking out of her sorority house at night to be with me, going on extended trips to Chicago with me. Weekends at Wisconsin Dells. What was I thinking? I was engaged to Betsy! What I should have been thinking is what Katherine already knew,: I was not ready to be married. I was not ready to go to law school. I was not ready to move back to Cleveland.
Betsy was invited and was coming to Humorology. Katherine and I were giving an award together. She sat next to Betsy during the ceremony. Betsy returned to Cleveland. If she suspected my affair she said nothing. None of my friends ratted me out. In a few weeks I would go home to marry. Katherine was amused by my dilemma but never pushed me to alter my course. She knew I was also not ready for Betsy or Katherine. There was no way I could perform my codependent ritual with Katherine. I think she loved me but she clearly didn’t need me.