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FICTION on the WEB short stories by Charlie Fish

Growing Pains
by Gary Beck

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Steve and I transferred from Yale to Columbia University for our sophomore year in September 1959. We arrived in New York early so we could go to the National Tennis Championship at Forest Hills. We met lots of old friends from the juniors. Many of them mumbled about how good they could have been. Steve and I had no illusions about our tennis. We were good, but not good enough. We had one minor satisfaction. We saw Andy Klassen lose in the first round of the qualifiers. This time his demented father couldn't save his worthless ass.

We were resigned to finishing school as a necessary chore that would better prepare us for our future commitments. I was already involved in radical politics and Steve was becoming interested in poverty issues, especially related to youth. We shared a large room in a big apartment building on Amsterdam Avenue. The university owned it and it was used for student housing. We were part of a well-to-do enclave that had been carved out of Harlem. The growing poverty ghetto competed with the Ivy League behemoth for lebensraum. The university was a rapacious landlord and owned dozens of good buildings, as well as dozens of firetraps. Harlem didn't have a chance. We occasionally wondered if all American universities were slumlords.

But life in New York City was a lot more exciting than it was in New Haven. Upper Broadway was just around the corner from us and the bars, bookstores and restaurants were far more sophisticated than the carefully monitored places in decaying New Haven. We went to Greenwich Village almost every weekend and prowled the clubs and cafés. I greedily listened to folk singers and Steve looked for girls. It was mutually satisfactory. He had a steady supply of sincere Barnard co-eds, but he was always willing to supplement them with pick-ups in the Village. He was, as usual, much more sexually active than I was, flitting from girl to girl. I tended to develop serious, longer-term relationships that finally broke down from too much political conversation.

When I left Yale, Ted, my mentor in the radical movement, had given me some contact numbers of comrades in New York City. I made contact with them shortly after our arrival and I joined a small group that was developing an anti-imperialist agenda. They were longer on talk than action, but passionately sincere and I quickly established myself with them. I became instant friends with Joanie, who attended Barnard. She was tall, gawky and very drab looking, with frizzy brown hair and plain features. She wore thick spectacles that camouflaged her intelligent brown eyes. She had an awkward way of doing things that others made fun of, but I found appealing. She had a lively, passionate soul that burned to correct injustice. We saw each other almost every day and generally ended up at her dorm, because Steve was always entertaining his latest conquest and Joanie was embarrassed by his uninhibited sexual activities. When I spent the night with her, we'd never have sex, but we'd sleep cuddled together lovingly, finding shelter from the rude world.

Somehow or other Steve and I became more remote from family and friends. My mad lust for Reenie had subsided. I rarely saw her, or my sister Lorna, who were in their junior year at Finch, even though they were only fifteen minutes away by subway. I saw Dad and Mother at holidays, but I was venturing on my own path and it didn't seem to lead me closer to them. Steve still cared deeply for them, but he was also growing away from their values, though he still talked social issues with Dahlia. He saw his mother about once a month and they were still close, but she had built a new career as a psychologist. She was busy developing aptitude and personality tests for corporations to screen out misfits from their potential employees and she traveled constantly.

We joined the tennis team more for the convenience of playing than out of desire for competition. When we were informed that we weren't eligible to compete until our second year on the team, we looked properly disappointed, but we couldn't care less. On the other hand, the top two players heaved a sigh of relief heard round the campus. We were much better players and they were afraid we would replace them. Steve and I continued our old habits of running and training together, but we were spending less time with each other, due to different interests. This never led us to question our friendship and we never wasted a moment wondering if we were drifting apart. We knew we were bound for life.

The semester went by quickly and we went skiing for the holidays. When we got back to school, I started following developments in Vietnam with growing concern. The first Americans had been killed a few months earlier and the military and financial buildup was alarming. When Senator Kennedy announced his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination on January 2nd, it became clear that another round of the cold war was under way. Steve was very excited by the 'sit-in' in Greensboro, North Carolina, and he expressed his admiration for the Negro students who were struggling for civil rights.

The summer of 1960 was a throwback for us. Steve and I decided to have one last glorious fling at tennis, so we joined one of the local amateur circuits. We expended enormous energy, with few victories, but we had a lot of fun. But while we were pounding a dumb ball across the net, Kruschev was threatening to use nuclear rockets on the U.S. if we intervened in Cuba. The cold war was heating up and tough political language became everyday fare. Senator Kennedy won the Democratic nomination and Nixon was selected as the Republican candidate. They were both 'cold war' warriors.

Politics was still our number one subject. We couldn't decide who was the lesser of two evils in the presidential campaign, Senator Kennedy, or Nixon. We both inherited Dad's dislike for the opportunistic Kennedys, but we admired the Senator's ruthless efficiency. There didn't seem to be much to choose from between them. We concluded that the Kennedy charm would tip the scales, if loveable 'Ike' didn't support 'Tricky Dick.' We agreed that neither candidate was worthy of our support, so I distributed literature for the Progressive party and Steve made phone calls for the Liberal party. It was ironic. We were both disillusioned with mainstream politics and we hadn't even voted in our first presidential election yet.

In the fall, we returned to classes, tan, fit and generally uninterested in the academic menu. Kennedy won the Kennedy-Nixon debates. And just a few days after Chubby Checker introduced the 'Twist' to America, Kennedy won the presidential election by 100,000 votes. While the president-elect prepared to deal with the North Vietnam threat to 'Drive the Americans into the sea,' Steve and I gyrated with Barnard girls who were eager to do the 'Twist.'

I was focused on broad international issues and I dreamed of curbing the brutal American exploitation of third world countries. Steve was more concerned with the causes of poverty in the richest country in the world. He wanted to help the poor at home, before trying to help the needy in Africa and Asia. We both agreed that America was no worse than any other government, and better than most, but I insisted that we had to measure up to a higher standard.

Steve and I began to diverge on how to deal with government abuses. My radical friends increasingly advocated violent resistance, and I found myself responding to their appeal. Steve loved the idea of non-violent resistance and we argued more and more about methods. In Eisenhower's farewell address to the nation, he warned about the growing influence of the military-industrial complex. He didn't explain that the military-industrial complex flourished during his eight years in office. He didn't offer a blueprint on how to restrain them. Our new president established the Peace Corps, which I thought was a clever political tool to get rid of young idealists, who might stir up trouble at home. Steve complained that some of our brightest youth were being sent to other countries, while our inner cities and rural areas were decaying.

As I became increasingly involved in radical activities, Steve began to lose interest in literature. He changed his major from English Lit to history and social sciences. His rationale was that if he was going to spend time institutionalized, he might as well learn something practical. He still wrote poetry, but it was social issue oriented and its message was more meaningful than literary. The more that Steve became aware of social issues, the more we disagreed on how to deal with the events of our time.

When Cuban exiles launched an invasion of Cuba on April 17th, at the Bay of Pigs, we followed the news in fascination. Since our ill-fated expedition to Cuba, the politics of the island had been a source of regular discussion. Steve turned completely against Castro, who I still defended as an anti-imperialist leader of the people's revolution. We watched the military fiasco become a tragic farce. A few days later, President Kennedy expanded the U.S. role in Vietnam with more military advisors and money. I was totally against American involvement in Vietnam and Steve felt that international communism was a real menace.

"We're sending American troops 10,000 miles away to kill rice farmers, who just want to feed their families," I said bitterly.

"It's not that simple, Randy. Vietnam can become another communist outpost in Asia that threatens our interests."

"What interests? Uncle Ben's rice? It's a rural country made up mostly of peasants, who could not care less about the cold war."

Steve refused to see that. "If Vietnam joins China, they could threaten Taiwan, Japan, the Philippines and even India."

"So what? We don't need American boys getting killed for ungrateful Asians."

We were far apart on how to deal with Vietnam. But we were both thrilled by the Freedom Riders, who defied segregationists by dramatically taking buses into hotbeds of prejudice, where they were insulted, abused and attacked. Steve and I spent the summer of 1961 registering voters in North Carolina. We were only welcomed by a few whites and looked at suspiciously by local Negroes, who still had to live there after we left at the end of the summer. Our work was frightening and exhilarating, and erased many of the strains over the differences in our political beliefs. We proudly sent Dahlia postcards that kept her informed of our efforts. It felt good to keep our promise to her.

School seemed exceedingly drab when we returned and we determined to remain, but it tasted like yucky medicine. We didn't even know if it was good for us. President Kennedy again expanded the American commitment to Vietnam, with more military advisors, 'green berets,' the glamorous new Special Forces and lots of money. The political truce between Steve and I shattered in the accelerating assault on Vietnam. Two weeks after New Year, 1962, one new attack followed another. U.S. Air Force pilots sprayed pesticides between Saigon and the coast to destroy V.C. supplies and defoliate their jungle cover. This was chemical warfare and Steve didn't even try to defend it. The pilots dropped pamphlets that informed the farmers that the pesticides were harmless. No one was convinced. I was outraged at the flagrant violation of international law and spent more of my time with my radical friends, discussing how we could stop the government abuses.

American involvement in Vietnam continued to grow. Then President Kennedy announced the resumption of nuclear testing in the atmosphere, in response to Russian testing. As radiation and fallout spread, Jacqueline Kennedy paraded her fashionable clothes and bouffant hairstyle to the entertainment of the public. Cuba was a growing thorn in the American side and in September, Congress passed a resolution that the U.S. would use "Whatever means may be necessary including the use of arms," to contain Cuba's subversive activities. Then, on October 22nd, President Kennedy told the nation that the Russians were preparing missile bases in Cuba. Anger and terror competed for the state of the union.

The crisis rapidly unfolded as we established a naval blockade of Cuba, to prevent Russian ships from landing missiles. Threats of nuclear exchanges had children huddling under their desks in school, practicing air raid drills. Panicky adults built air raid shelters. Then they created lunatic scenarios about how to deal with neighbors who threatened to force their way into the shelters. I was sick over America's role in bringing the world to the edge of destruction. We had to know better. I vowed to work against a government that was so careless about the future survival of humanity. Steve and I were far apart on solutions to the dangers of nuclear war. But when Ted Kennedy was elected to the U.S. Senate in November, we both agreed the future of the republic was in peril.

We endured school and finished our senior year, although our patience was tested to the limit. Steve was involved in volunteer work at a community center on the lower east side. I planned to join Ted and a small, select group of dedicated radicals who were determined to resist the government’s oppression. After graduation, Steve moved into an apartment on the lower east side and asked me to share it. Instead, I moved into a townhouse in Greenwich Village that was owned by a wealthy sympathizer for radical causes. I missed Steve's reassuring presence, but Joanie joined us and at least I had one friend I could confide in.

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