A swarm of brake lights on the highway ahead snapped my thinking from September 1970 to the present tense of January, 1975. As I slowed I sighed, for the traffic was coming to a crawl. Obviously there had been some sort of accident up ahead; the traffic was never heavy heading south into Massachusetts on a Saturday night; it must be a drunk driver, or a truck roll-over, or maybe both. The traffic slowed to a halt, and I saw I’d be bumper to bumper, just edging forward, for a long time. The accident was so far ahead I could see no flashing blue lights of a police car, nor the flashing red of an ambulance.
I drummed the steering wheel impatiently and lit a cigarette, wishing I’d brought a thermos of coffee, and tried to think of what sort of fuss might be causing the so-called “crisis” at Audley’s commune, but I knew whatever it was, it was likely lame and uninteresting. All the issues that brought things to a halt increasingly seemed like much ado about nothing, to me. I’d rather think about things which interested me, even if they didn’t interest anyone else.
So instead I tried to think about the characters Siegfried and Heinrich in my poem-in-progress, “Armor”, but that too seemed lame and uninteresting. My writer’s block was as bad in my car as it was at my desk.
Inevitably my mind drifted back to September, 1970, when my life in some ways was put on hold, or got stuck in a traffic jam, for ten months. Or that is how it felt to me, though I went through some major changes.
I knew I had to shape up, as my wild senior-summer had left me very scrawny and haggard, but I figured improvement was a matter of merely sucking in my gut and mustering some will power. There was not much awareness of withdrawal symptoms, back in those days, and the words “detox” and “rehab” hadn’t been invented. Also, I didn’t want people to know I’d done anything illegal, and, with the exceptions of cigarettes and coffee, all the things I was withdrawing from were illegal. Lastly, I had a great fear of being incarcerated in a nuthouse against my will like my father had been, and so, when I became shaky, I was very good at inventing excuses, such as “eyestrain”. When a sort of “battlefield flashback” (which afflicts users of hallucinogens) occurred, called “re-occurrences”, I just kept quiet about it, and was a bit like Audley Bine was when he managed to function despite hallucinating mummies, though my hallucinations were never so gross or graphic, and tended to involve firm objects shivering or melting a little, and white walls appearing blotched by faint hues of yellow and pink. In any case I was dealing with strange, psychotic stuff which people outside my skull were oblivious to, and I was glad people didn’t know me better. At the same time I felt very alone, and yearned to be better understood.
I suppose it is typical for teenagers to feel misunderstood, and to seek and find a sort of understanding, not by talking with anyone in particular, but rather by listening to the music of an artist who seems to speak what they themselves can’t find the words for. In my case the artist was Jimi Hendrix, and no sooner did I arrive in Britain when he drowned in his own vomit on the outskirts of London on September 18. Some stated the CIA and Mafia had killed him, but I felt misunderstanding had killed him. When Janis Joplin died of an overdose, three weeks later, I felt the same: Misunderstanding killed her. However I also had a strong sense I should be very serious about getting off drugs, or I’d end up like they did. It didn’t matter if it was the drugs or the misunderstanding that killed you; dead was dead. To be honest, on some level I became very scared.
It seemed the strangest thing to me that the very drugs that seemed to increase my understanding should increase my sense of being misunderstood, even to the degree where the loneliness threatened to kill me. I felt great empathy for Van Gogh’s crazed drama, when he so wanted to be heard he cut off his ear. I trudged about at times so moved by the violins of my own self-pity it is a wonder I didn’t walk into a tree, yet at the same time a far saner voice in my head told me to shape up and stop whining and to do ten push-ups. It made for some interesting entries on the now-yellowing pages of a diary, and for interesting poems as well.
To some degree poetry replaced hallucinogens. Despite the fact there was no longer any enthusiastic Audley Bine who wanted to see my poems, I wrote poetry far more than seems possible, considering the rigorous schedule of the school.
I felt like I had joined the marines. There were non-stop classes and exercises. You were never allowed to laze in bed, not even on Sunday mornings, and in a military manner you had to have your bed made and be on time for breakfast or you’d be punished with a “caveat”, which meant you ran around a circle during the one half-day of free time you actually were allowed, after Chapel on Sundays. You had to account for work you did even during study halls and “preps”, which led to some false accounting on my part, for when I jotted down that I had spent time reading assigned books I actually had written poems.
As a spoiled American from the permissive school system of a wealthy suburb, getting smashed into such a disciplined system was a shock, a boot-camp’s nervous breakdown, which involved withdrawal symptoms all its own. But one rather nice thing about the fierce discipline was that I had my nose pushed into the grindstone of British poetry. At first I was offended, but soon I began to understand the punishment was actually pleasurable. I was like an alcoholic plunged into a vat of cold champagne. I stopped struggling fairly swiftly, when forced to read Shakespeare and fifteen other British poets.
(Two things, which puzzled me about the old-school, stiff-upper-lip Englishmen of that time, were the facts that, despite seeming emotionless and macho, they all seemed fond of flower gardens, and poetry.)
Not that they seemed the slightest bit interested in discussing hippy topics like Peace, Love and Understanding. The teachers didn’t even show much apparent interest in lust, fame and greed (though they probably were interested, on the sly.) All that seemed to matter to them was passing tests called O-levels (which were the equivalent of a partial American high school diploma) and A-levels, (which were the equivalent of a partial American college diploma.) A teacher’s worth, his sense of self-esteem, was twined with getting recalcitrant boys to pass such tests, and there was greater glory in getting a teenager to pass an A-level than an O-level. After only six weeks at the school I was moved from an O-level curriculum to an A-level one, which hugely increased my work-load, as I had to learn in two terms what usually takes six, but also plunged me into poetry, poetry, poetry.
At the same time I was plunged into a society of roughly 120 schoolboys between the age of thirteen and eighteen who didn’t care about Truth, Love and Understanding, but also didn’t care about O-levels and A-levels and especially poetry. They were a counter-culture different from the hippy counter-culture, for neither sex nor drugs were available and rebellion had to take different forms. They had a jargon all their own. (If you did your work you were a “suck”, and the art of escaping punishment while avoiding work was “skiving.”) Getting slammed into this all-boy culture forced me to rethink many hippy concepts, for their ridicule was merciless, and having to deal with them also made me long for a woman. Not that I didn’t come to love my comrades, but I think even the most flagrant homosexual might have second thoughts if he had to put up with nothing but men, men, men; day after day, week after week, month after month.
It would take another book to describe the agony and ecstasy of that schooling, and the antics of my classmates. The two hundred poems I wrote would be a distraction, in this work. The three hundred escapades I was involved with would also be a distraction. Let it suffice to say that I did some hard thinking outside of the scope of the O-level and A-level exams. Much involved how the Scots differed from the English, how the upper class differed from the lower class, how teachers differed from students, and what made the American ideology of that time different from the English Empire’s fading glory.
To be honest, I would have avoided much of this hard thinking, if I could have. After two months I was ready to head home. I’d quit drugs, even cigarettes, and weighed more than I ever weighed before (or since.) I was back in shape, and eager to return to the fray. I lived for the letters I received from friends back in the States, which seemed too few and too far between, yet which gave me a sense that there was a sort of societal madness occurring in America, which I wanted to return to and fight.
Not only had Hendix and Joplin died, but the Beatles had broken up. No new albums would brighten horizons like dawn. However George Harrison had arisen from the ashes of the Beatles to write a hit song called “My Sweet Lord.” Also many hippies were joining a movement called “The Jesus Freaks.” At age seventeen this development, to me, seemed very much like a sign people had abandoned rational thought, and had stopped trusting first-hand experience. Where I would not trust any hallucination, they seemed to be trusting stuff without even a hallucination to back it up. Their so-called “faith” was, in my eyes, merely an abdication of responsibility. They needed to think harder, but preferred the sightlessness of blind faith. But I insisted upon seeing.
This involved me in a strange hypocrisy, for, though I knew I needed poetry like an oasis in the desert of life, I also deemed it a sort of mirage. Poetry was a hallucination, which rational thought might note, but also would disregard as “only a dream”. In a sense I was intellectually biting the hand that fed me.
My girlfriend turned out to be very bad, when it came to writing letters. She wrote a single letter in the fall, and sent me a card in the spring, despite the fact I wrote her a long letter every few weeks. Meanwhile my best friend wrote all the time, but wrote while high on LSD, so his letters held little that was comprehensible, and sometimes were a just smear of watercolors with no words. However a few other friends wrote scattered letters which mentioned things that piqued my interest, one of which was that Audley Bine had started a commune. I heard that “My Sweet Lord” was played on the commune’s stereo non-stop. I felt like I had missed something; obviously Audley hadn’t lasted long as a teacher at a boarding school in New Hampshire, but I received no answers to the letters I sent across the sea inquiring, and Audley himself never wrote me.
In a strange sense feeling so cut off from the people I had known turned them into dreams. My girl friend stropped being real and became a poetic image. I actually had vivid dreams about her and other old friends, and wondered a little if there was some sort of transatlantic psychic contact, but then I’d give myself a sort of slap and tell myself to get real. But what was real, if the people who meant so much could just melt away?
When I first arrived at the school the days were still a bit longer than the nights, but one thing that astounded me about that northern latitude was how swiftly the days grew shorter. If I’d been scientific I’d have noted that, where each day was three minutes shorter in New England, each day was six minutes shorter in northern Scotland, but rather than scientific I was poetic, and was struck by a sense of swiftly deepening darkness and growing gloom. Before I knew it I felt like I was fighting for my life, simply staying sane. The sun seemed to barely start rising in the sky before it gave up and went back down again, when you could see the sun at all, and it didn’t just rain. Some days were just a brief time when the blackness turned deep purple. Then, to truly test me, in the midst of this darkness the English postal workers went on strike, and week after week passed without any mail at all, from January to March.
Surviving the winter changed me. For one thing, I entered it seventeen years old and exited it eighteen, and eighteen seemed very old to me. I felt it was high time to stop being juvenile, and to grow up and be grim. But a problem with that northern latitude was the days grew longer with the same astonishing speed they’d grown shorter, and the increasing floods of intoxicating daylight made it hard to be grim and serious. I was given to manic moods and bouts of irresponsible behavior, which seemed less than mature to me, as my poetic inclinations warred with my newfound discipline.
I actually had achieved a lot, not merely in terms of becoming physically fit, but in terms of absorbing an amazing amount of intellectual stuff, (perhaps knowledge or perhaps trivia). While American schooling taught more, in those days, when it came to justifying thought (and coming up with excuses) American schools dropped the ball in terms of exposing one to other’s minds. Consequently I could write as if I was an expert on Mark Twain when I had read nothing but part of Huckleberry Finn, primarily focusing on my own thoughts, responses and opinions. The British schooling required far more actual reading, and I read more in a month at the boarding school than I had read in four years at an American high school. After an initial period of disdain, when I scorned being exposed to “old fashioned” writers, I suddenly became a sort of human sponge, completely absorbed in meeting a cast of witty characters who seemed strangely alive even when they’d been dead for centuries. My American teachers would have been astonished to see me work so hard, but the thing of it was: It often didn’t seem like work, any more than it seems like work to head off to a pub and hear an old sailor tell a good tale. It became obvious that, besides getting myself in physical shape, I was in good shape when it came to passing my A-levels in English, (and also Economics). However it was at this point that becoming sane came very close to killing me.
The weirder parts of my thinking had faded away with the winter darkness, and I’d climbed beyond the various withdrawal symptoms I’d suffered, and my thinking had become very “straight”. Not that I didn’t still venture off into poetic landscapes, but I knew poetry was just a form of dreaming-while-awake, and to some degree I belittled it as something that was less than “real”. I was increasingly a realist, and, until I could see some sort of proof beyond hallucinations, I was increasingly an Atheist.
One test to my atheism involved the castle ghost. Of course, you can’t believe in ghosts if you are a true Atheist, but a number of boys claimed to have seen the ghost, and I was not about to exclude myself from such fascinating discussions over some piffling technicality. Anyway, I could contribute to the discussion, though I called the ghost a hallucination, when I saw it.
The boys talked with great authority about the ghost, though they tended to disagree a lot about major details, and even about whether there was one ghost or several different ghosts.
The majority opinion was that the ghost was named Margaret, and that she was the daughter of a Duke who ruled back in the 1600’s. Margaret wanted to marry her true love, but the Duke wanted her to marry some person she did not love. He locked her in the top of the castle, but she planned to elope with her true love. As she started to escape, descending out the window on a rope, her father barged in and caught her, and she was faced with a choice of being hauled up and captured and forced to marry someone she didn’t love, or letting go of the rope. She chose death, but didn’t get to go to heaven, and instead had to hang around the castle trying to live out the rest of her life without a body to do the living with. She’d been at it three hundred years, and apparently still had more disembodied living to do. The boys claimed they saw her ghosting about the upper floors of the castle. Some boys said she cried out for her lover, and others said she moaned because she’d realized suicide was a bad choice, and that a couple decades married to a jerk was preferable to centuries stuck upstairs in a castle.
When I had my own hallucination I told no one about it, for I figured I’d just get put in a straitjacket if I did so. It was only months later, when I knew the boys better, that I entertained them with my tale, and was promptly mocked and derided, because they insisted no self-respecting ghost would ever haunt in the manner I described.
For one thing, my hallucination didn’t take the form of a young woman, and rather just was a black shape. It occurred in the fall, when the days were still getting drastically darker and a wind was roaring off the North Sea and beating against the windows of my dorm. The dorm had originally been a single, vast, guest-bedroom for the wealthy, but now had five, small metal beds scattered about, with foot lockers at the bottom of each bed. My four roommates were breathing the soft serenity of sleep, but I was tossing and turning in some private agony, yearning for sleep to come spare me. I flopped over and glowered out through the open door into the yellow-lit hallway, and then noticed a small, black sphere just hanging in the air by the door. I thought it must be some mote in my eye, and blinked to make it go away, but rather than going away it assumed the shape of a small, black, blunt comet, spiraling around and growing larger, speeding up, and then rocketing away down the hall. I swallowed, decided screaming would do no good, and flopped back over to my other side, and yearned even more desperately for the oblivion of sleep, and was granted my wish.
The other boys especially disliked my dismissive attitude. Somewhere I had read that people saw black shapes just before a migraine headache, and even though I hadn’t had a headache, I decided the black shape was one of those.
The subject of ghosts and suicide came up again one mild spring evening, when there was suddenly daylight after first prep and before dinner. We had a tiny bit of free time then, fifteen minutes when we were suppose to put books needed for first prep away, and take out the books needed for second prep, but actually was a time the boys used to hurry away into the castle grounds, just past the view of teachers, for a cigarette. I had fallen off the wagon, in terms of tobacco, and joined a group as it slouched down a groomed path through budding rhododendrons, puffing small, silver clouds of smoke that hung in the calm, until we paused by a small graveyard for the past’s various dukes and duchesses, noticing a relatively new grave just outside the wrought iron fence that marked the consecrated ground. Apparently a teen aged child of the current duchess had taken his life while away at boarding school, and apparently suicides weren’t allowed to be buried in consecrated ground. The boys were discussing their theories about why this rule existed, when one boy became exasperated.
It was Peter, a short young man with red curls, amazing freckles, big ears, bright blue eyes, and an amazing wit. He was an adept “skiver” who seemed to dislike study, but to be very smart, and to enjoy holding the most unlikely opinions. If there was a new way of looking at an ordinary thing, he’d go out of his way to find it, as if he found life boring and was trying to spice it up a bit. His dorm was on a different level of the castle, and I never had gotten to know him very well because he avoided all sports, the same way he avoided all study, and also because he hung out with a different group of friends, but the little time I spent with him was always rewarding.
Peter had spent five long years at the school, and I assumed he had never seen the ghost Margaret whom others talked about. If he had, it was inconvenient for the stance he chose to take at that moment, which was a stance of fierce Atheism. He spread his palms and shook his head and loudly wondered how his fellows could be so unscientific. Then he insisted at length that science had never grasped a ghost with calipers nor noted a change in temperature in haunted places, but instead had proven without doubt that life was only a coincidental concentration of electricity within a complex chemical reaction. When we died we just reverted to the chemicals we’d come from, and then, to prove his point, he nimbly pranced to the side and stood on the green grave of the suicide, stooped over, plucked a blade of grass, and claimed, “This grass is chemically no different from any other grass, and this doesn’t make me a cannibal”, and then he chewed the grass. The other boys exploded into exclamations over how disgusting and gross Peter was, as he laughed in delight, and I strode to his side and called the other boys cowards, stooped, and chewed my own blade of grass. Then we heard the distant bell ringing, snubbed our cigarettes, and hurried off to dinner.
After my initial delight over Peter’s antics faded away, I was struck by a profound wonder over how utterly meaningless life was. I shared a cramped study in a small turret with two other older boys, but for some reason both boys were away, and I was alone there, doing my studying, when the wonder overwhelmed me. I looked out the window at a beautiful view of green springtime by a benign, azure sea, aware I’d triumphed over the darkness of winter and the impossible work-load necessary to pass my A-levels, and it all seemed completely worthless. What did it matter, if in the end I’d just die and turn into chemicals feeding green grass? Success or failure, victory or loss, it all came to the same end; in the end it amounted to nothing. So why was I putting it off?
I smacked down my pen, stood up, and walked down the halls past the deserted dorms to a dorm with a window that overlooked a three story drop to a stone terrace. Why was I putting it off? Far away I could hear a house senior yelling at the rowdy boys in a second prep classroom, shouting that he’d give them all caveats if they didn’t pipe down and study. Was there some sort of caveat given for suicide? Through my brain drifted Hamlet’s soliloquy.
“…….To die, to sleep–
To sleep–perchance to dream: aye, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause…….”
Must give us pause? Why must it “give us pause”? Was the “pausing” not all due to superstition? There wasn’t a shred of scientific evidence to back up the taboo against suicide. It was just an inbred fear of death, some biological advantage that kept chemical reactions going and breeding and continuing to put off what was inevitable: Death. But why put it off? Why wait fifty years for what could be done now?
My poetic side had no answer. My pragmatic side, which had helped me survive all the symptoms as I went through drug withdrawals, had achieved a total victory, and I had become a complete Atheist. All poetic thought was dismissed as mere hallucination, all spirituality was swept into a dustbin made for all things irrational and unreal.
I leaned further out the window and dared myself to just do it. Why be such a chicken? Just do it. Why wait fifty years? It will all be over in just a second.
Just then, as I teetered on the brink, a black shape came through the wall at ground level and hurtled up at me. Startled, I fell back from the window. Then I hurried back to my study and went to work as if nothing had happened. It was only after five minutes that my stunned brains were able to wonder, “What the fuck was that?”
My pragmatic side immediately went to work explaining it away. I decided fear-of-death is a powerful instinct, a product of countless millennium’s worth of survival-of-the-fittest, evolved into a power ingrained into human biology and chemistry that defies rational thought. If you try to push against it it pushes back in a powerful way. What I had seen was that power manifesting as a striking hallucination, for I had felt no physical wind as the blackness hurtled up towards me.
But in a schizoid manner my poetic side was utterly unscientific, and mused, “I wonder if that was Margaret? She would know suicide is not an escape, I suppose. Maybe that was her way of advising me against it.”
Thirty years later, during a school reunion, I returned to that window, looked down, and shuddered. I alone know what a close call it was. The odd part is that there was nothing particularly wrong with my life at that time. There was no reason except that I had no reason.
At the time I still thought of myself as an Atheist, but the experience was a wrench in the works of my pragmatic certainty. A flaw existed in the diamond of my “straightness”, a fatigue in the metal of my will. It shows up in my poetry with the appearance of illogical things, like ghosts. It reappeared in my life as the desire to find some good marijuana, and to go back to error, seeking a window to another world.