This past weekend was my 50th college reunion. I would’ve liked to see my old college pals, but there was one memory that gave me pause. Back in 1967, when I was a senior, hanging around campus until graduation day, the class of 1917 had their 50th reunion. The highlight of this event was the traditional parade of honor, in which all the alums who were on campus celebrating reunions – 50th, 25th and 10th primarily, marched in grand style, class of 1917 leading the way, through the center of campus, to the great auditorium where we had our weekly gatherings known as “collection.”
What stayed in my mind all these years was the image of that parade, the class of ’17 in the van, proudly holding their identifying banners and signs, looking to my young eyes like survivors from “Night of the Living Dead” or some unimaginable holocaust. The crutches and canes, the wheelchairs, the withered grays and yellows, smiling lips pulled back over too-perfect teeth, intending to signal joy, but awakening in my mind images of the death rictus. I wanted no part of that parade!
Fortunately I had another gig this past weekend. The American Literature Association was having their annual convention in Boston. It was quite a deal – over 1200 attendees presenting more than 100 papers on all aspects of American literature. Along with a couple of colleagues from the Gloucester Writers Center, I was giving a presentation on the origins of the Maud/Olson Library. Sounds pretty stuffy, I know. But what we were really doing was screening a 25 minute road trip buddy movie about driving this library across the country, from Vancouver, Canada to Gloucester Mass. It’s an enjoyable flick – a little learning, a little laughing, and some gorgeous country. You can view it by clicking on this link
I was quite surprised to see a used book seller set up in the main hall at the ALA Conference. A book seller of whom I’d never heard! Dozens of folding selves, stacked three high, holding thousands of scholarly books on all topics.
No rares, but good, clean, academic tomes in the $10 – $250 range. I did a little comparison shopping on vialibri and his prices held up well.
What surprised me was that this guy was from a town about 30 miles west of Gloucester. His name was Jeff Orrell and he ran a business called Basileia Books. I’d never heard of him because he made his living selling books almost exclusively at academic conferences like this one – or the Boston Early Music Festival, or the annual meetings of the North American Patristics Society, the Medieval Society of America, Renaissance Society of America, etc., etc. The only bookseller in the joint with a captive audience. Sales, I probably don’t need to tell you, were brisk. He also sells on ABE, but develops customers at these conference events and sends them custom-tailored lists of books in their subject areas.
I’ve often marveled – occasionally in this blog – about the book world’s delicate and complex Eco-system. Here was a viable example right down the road from my house!
But back to my college career – and the fact that today is Memorial Day.
Having completed my education, and not wishing to prolong the experience, I did not apply to grad school and, as a result, was immediately drafted. The Vietnam War was going hot and heavy in those years. I didn’t know much, but I did know that college grads served their country by leading platoons that got shot to ribbons. In hopes of not being killed in some far-away rice paddy, but also because I was a young idiot, I beat the draft (two years of service) by signing up for four years in the US Navy. Owing to a brief stay at the Delaware County House of Correction and an ill-advised, testosterone-fueled conflict with the recruiting officer, I was refused admission to officer’s school, and left with no choice but to apply as an enlisted man, a regular old Swabbie.
But that was all right, because the Navy promised me the job of my choice.
Seriously. The recruiting come-on in those years was that the enlistee was allowed to choose three things he wanted to do in the Navy – there were hundreds of jobs, referred to as “ratings” to choose from, everything from electronics technician to medic to boatswain – and the Navy would give him one of the three.
So I chose Journalist and Photographer’s Mate, two jobs for which, by education and temperament, I was superbly qualified. Then, because I couldn’t find another job that remotely fit my skill sets, I chose the silliest one I could find… Shipfitter (which was the shipboard equivalent of a plumber).
I sat back to wait for my acceptance at Journalism or Photography school and sure enough, within just a few days, was awarded a set of orders to proceed to Shipfitter school in San Diego.
That was the first of many things the Navy taught me about the world – things I never would have learned in college or grad school. Indeed, as Melville famously said of his whale ship, a sub tender (USS Sperry) was my Yale College and my Harvard.
I hated it, but I was a better person when I got out. Broader, anyway. And I think it’s a shame that all young men and women today aren’t required to be thrown in with other young men and women – people they’d never encounter in their civilian lives, to dedicate a year or two of service to their country. It wouldn’t have to be slinging a rifle. They could work in schools or hospitals, or build roads or repair bridges. The main thing would be to get them out of their self-absorption into the company of others with whom they must cooperate in order to achieve a greater goal.
The point of this exercise would be to remove forever from the ruling class those draft-dodgers and wimps who never spent a day in uniform, politicians who think nothing of sending our young men and women out to be killed and maimed in the service of a country they themselves have never served.