August 21, 2011

Going away to college was a very crucial period in my development, as I’m sure it is for many. It allowed me to both lose myself and find myself. It was a place where my metamorphosis could unfold away from the security and constraints of home. It is where I started to become me.

It was during this time that I met Neil. He was a senior, a unique and fascinating individual, and the most brilliant mind I have ever encountered. He was slight of build with wild curly brown hair and wire-rimmed spectacles. A small grin was always upon his perpetually squinting face as though something about the world was amusing him.

His standard dress consisted of corduroy pants, a flannel shirt, an old Army jacket, and cowboy boots. Cowboy boots! How cool was that! Nobody wore cowboy boots then, no less a hip genius from a small town in Pennsylvania going to a Catholic university in New Jersey. Two things I was most definitely not (nor am I now) was hip or stylish. But I knew Cool when I saw it. I had to get me a pair of those!

A bus ride down South Orange Avenue into Newark brought me to an old fashioned Army Navy store. It was there that a few of us aspiring hipsters would go in search of Cool: military shirts with epaulets, patches of all manner to sew on those shirts, Navy pea coats, fatigue jackets, and — for some strange nonmilitary reason — cowboy boots. I sized them up. There were all styles and colors and decorations from deep maroon cowhide to green snake skin to bright red Mexican-themed models. The simple black ones with the white stitching were my choice. Far out, yet safe. That was me, all right.

Many eyes were raised at the sight of these boots, none more quizzically than my parents’. They instinctively knew better than to do more than protest mildly, however, recognizing a Statement in their evolving son when they saw one.

These boots were indeed more than just odd footwear. They were an outward symbol of the change going on within me, a reflection of both my rebellion and my search for identity. Neil crystalized this in his clothing, his views, his very being.

This is the fellow who painted Float Ismael in large white letters on the back of his Army jacket. When asked why, he said it was a prayer for humanity, taken from Moby Dick. He was the guy who was beat up by greasers one night walking from the bus stop in Vailsburg and could later philosophize stoically about the social dynamics of the attack and its causes.

I still remember vividly some of our late night conversations in the commons area on the second floor of the Boland Hall dorm where we both resided. One time I was rambling on in praise of the Doors’ Strange Days album when he asked, “Do you know what ‘Horse Latitudes’ is about?” I was taken aback by this question, partly because it was unexpected and partly because I was stunned by the prospect of trying to provide an answer to my idol when I had absolutely no idea.

“Well,” I stammered, searching desperately for a reasonable sounding response, “I think it’s about sex.”

His chuckle at my answer was not at all malicious, just genuine good humor. He proceeded to explain, not in a patronizing or condescending way, but more like that of a professor offering kindly elucidation to a novice student in need of guidance while walking across the campus green. He told me about the Horse Latitudes, an area in the ocean where the winds would cease, stilling the great ships in the doldrums during the age of sail. Water, already in short supply, could run out as the sailors waited for any breeze to help them on their way to salvation. In a sometimes desperate move, the captain would order the horses being transported to be jettisoned, and over the side they would go, plunging horrified into the blue-green depths.  The light bulb in my head flashed on! Jim Morrison’s screaming  phrase “in mute nostril agony” replayed itself in my mind, now with a visual image to match, the flaring nostrils of the beasts signaling their absolute terror as they sank beneath the waves.

It’s about sex?! What a dope!

Another time, after observing an exchange between myself and Tony Bovenzi, someone my own age but also of an unreachable but more calculated level of Cool, Neil asked me, “Do you think it’s possible for one person to totally dominate a conversation?” I was clueless as to how to answer; I wasn’t even sure of the question at the time, but it did make me think, something apart from the norm for me after a mere conversation. I fretted that he might mean ours, and he may very well have, but his asking opened a door for me to grow, probably his intent.

Then there was the motorcycle. Neil was a motorcycle guy, just another part of the enigma. He spoke of Nortons and Triumphs, entrancing me with the romance and adventure of the open road with the wind in your face and freedom in the form of the blacktop stretched out before you. I wanted one of those, too! Money, however, was a problem, as was my age: too young to make a legal purchase. When I found the small red Honda for $300, all 150 cc worth, it was Neil who signed for it. Not the throbbing black and chrome thunder steed I envisioned, but a motorcycle nonetheless. My motorcycle.

Neil rode it to my house in Bergenfield with me perched humbly behind; I owned it, but didn’t know the first thing about riding it. Neil quickly taught me on the side streets around my old neighborhood, and I learned to shift gears deftly while leaning through the turns. He had been absolutely right about the feeling it gave you.

My parents were away, so Neil slept over. He looked for something to read before turning in. I scrambled through some paperbacks I had picked up at a book sale somewhere — I didn’t think a reread of Black Beauty or Hans Brinker, the only kind of books on my shelves, was quite what he had in mind. He looked through them, and with his usual wry grin, selected from the ragtag pile something entitled The SCUM Manifesto, a raging tract by an ultra-radical feminist. He never mentioned anything about it, though I’m sure he read it cover to cover, and I hadn’t enough confidence to ask.

The next day I drove him back to campus by car, stopping briefly at my sister’s apartment in New Milford to show off my new nephew, Robby. I wasn’t sure how he’d react to this family interlude, but I didn’t let that prevent it, which in the end proved to be wise. Sometimes, I learned, you impress the most when trying to impress the least.

Neil graduated shortly thereafter and moved on to the University of Iowa, the mecca of English literature graduate students. He became a professor out there, and later, finding an outlet for his considerable social concern, the manager of a small Iowa city. I called him once, bolstered by beer late in the night of my bachelor party. I was hoping to sound more intelligent as an adult than I had as a college sophomore, but I have the feeling that was not quite the case with Neil still being the senior sage most likely dominating the conversation.

Both motorcycle and boots became part of the past when I finally embarked on my “real” adult life, married and teaching school. The little red Honda had sold quickly to another young guy with Harley visions and very little cash. Having recently had a near brush with my Creator on the bike, it was not so traumatizing to see it go, especially to such an excited buyer. It also took a bit of forgery on the bill of sale — since Neil was legal owner — as well as a letter of explanation to assuage Neil’s parents, who received official notification of the transaction in the mail which baffled them, not knowing of the bike’s existence.

Saying goodbye to my boots occurred much later and was far more difficult. After the death of my parents, my sister and I set about emptying the house we had lived in for the first two decades of our lives, not an easy task. The garage was my final assignment. After salvaging many of my father’s beloved gardening tools, I opened the peeling wooden doors of the large cabinet he had built in the back corner of the garage. There they were, the boots, forgotten for years, now covered with sawdust and webs, seed shells spilling out of the holes where the worn soles once joined the uppers, home now to mice, but somehow still proud, still rebellious. I stood and stared, a dust-flecked ray of sunlight catching the yellowed stitching in that dim vault.

These were the boots that were part of my personal history. They were there during all of my growth and change through the crazy excesses of the late 1960s. These were the boots that marched on Washington, the boots that paced nervously on the night of the first draft lottery during the height of the Vietnam War and the campus riots following the Kent State massacre, the boots that rode my first motorcycle, the boots worn in the summer of a young lover’s heartbreak. After I had returned from my Peace Corps service, these were the boots that saw me through my disoriented and cynical reimmersion into America. Most of all, they were the tangible manifestation of my relationship with Neil.

Though my first urge was to take them, I left them there. They belonged to a completed chapter in my life, one that would finally close along with the rumbling door of that empty old garage.



  1. I just reread this post. You are very kind. You are also as very good writer. Think about publishing. Neil

    • Thank you, Neil. Coming from you, that is quite an honor.

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