I HAVE CONTRIBUTED to the alumni fund at Phillips Exeter Academy every year since I left the school, suddenly and involuntarily, in 1958. But for a good part of that time, I used Exeter's annual plea for support merely to round off my checkbook to the nearest dollar. Thus if my account had, say, $725.18 in it, Exeter received a check for eighteen cents. And each spring an asterisk appeared by my name in the school's annual list of donors, identifying me as an alumnus who had given every year since graduation.
This came to mind recently as I was browsing through Exeter's directory of the class of 1958, published for our 25th reunion two years ago. I skimmed through it, trying without much luck to match names and faces. I felt neither nostalgia for the friends-turned-strangers nor affection for the school itself. My own accomplishments there had been dubious -- frivolous, really, by Exeter's standards -- and my vision of the campus had long been one of a place wrapped in New England snows, of dark brick buildings and drab dormitories, of white-haired Latin teachers, severe and humorless in ill-fitting three-piece suits.
Exeter ("Oh, mother, stern yet tender. . . ") was achievement-oriented and, as I recall, generally insensitive to individual emotional needs. Nonconformity, irreverence and undirected fun were not part of the curriculum. On those counts alone I was an outsider, for while my friends were sharpening their intellect, I was honing my skills as a bookie.
In the smoky cellar "butt room" of Peabody Hall, I ran poker and blackjack games, handled bets on major-league baseball games and shot craps with a lot of kids who didn't know the difference between snake eyes and a natural. I knew the odds on drawing to an inside straight, understood the folly of splitting face cards and the wisdom of always backing Warren Spahn, except when he pitched against the Dodgers. I seldom lost. My income soared, to around $100 in a good month, which in those days was tantamont to being a prep-school millionaire. More important, gambling became my mark of identity. At best I was only an average student and a mediocre athlete. But with a deck of cards in my hands, I had few peers.
Somewhere along the line I picked up the nickname "The Joker" and my roommate, Warren Hoge, a New Yorker who understood the value of good times, became known as "Big Julie," in honor, I believe, of the subway crapshooter in the movie "Guys and Dolls." Our room was covered with posters of Frank Sinatra, of Fremont Street in downtown Las Vegas, of Hollywood starlets whose names escape me now, and we both knew the words to Frankie Laine's hit pop song of the day, "The Moonlight Gambler." I kept my IOUs and my dice and cards in a small locked box on the top shelf of our bedroom closet.
On occasion faculty members would conduct Elliot Ness-style raids on our room, bursting in unannounced in hopes of breaking up a game, an offense punishable by expulsion. But the janitor, a fine gentleman named Louie Keech, who rolled his own cigarets and had taken a liking to us, always managed to hear of the pending raids and would warn us. So when the door was flung open, Warren and I would be studying quietly at our desks and, feeling quite smug, would watch the enemy slink away, muttering apologies.
"Lamb, you lead a charmed life," one of my pals, Benno Schmidt, used to say. I remember Ben as a stocky little guy who was always laughing. He was too smart to play cards with me, but his manner was mischievous and irreverent and that alone made him a member of the Inner Circle. I told him once that if his grades improved, I'd hire him on one day as a bodyguard so he could amount to something.
The closest I ever came at Exeter to gaining scholastic recognition was in Mr. Broderick's American History class. I had operated there on the premise that one good joke was worth 10 meaningless dates, and one day when I took my seat at the dark, oak table around which students and teachers sat at Exeter, there was an egg in front of my place. It was balanced on a life saver and bore an inscription: The Francis L. Broderick Memorial Egg is awarded once a decade to the student in History 3 who, though at a disadvantage mentally, works with unremitting lassitude and in the end gets nowhere.
I was the recipient and I was delighted. But I should have been smart enough to realize that most members of the faculty did not share Mr. Broderick's warmth or sense of humor. To them, I was a liability and my janitorial source said they were determined to outwit me, having decided The Joker and Phillips Exeter Academy were on a collison course.
On the night before Christmas vacation of my senior year, I returned to my room unexpectedly while the rest of the students were watching a movie in the gymnasium. I opened the door and went limp with fear. There on their hands and knees were two Latin teachers, a balding, 6-foot-5 giant named Galt and his crew-cut sidekick, Macomber. The former was peering under my bed, the latter pawing frantically through my desk drawers.
At the sound of my key in the lock they looked up, speechless, wide-eyed. I had beaten them again; I was clean. My IOUs were secure in the little brown box, the pint of vodka I had brought back from Boston after Thanksgiving was in the bushes outside. There wasn't much either the hunter or the hunted could say to overcome the awkwardness of the encounter, and so, having forgotten why I had returned to my room in the first place, I backed unsurely out the door, shutting it quietly behind me.
My best friend, John Sherman, had quit Exeter before the start of the year, having decided he was much too young to be in prison. (Before leaving he had written in my yearbook, "Davy, I haven't quite figured out your philosophy yet, but it's for damn sure you've got this school beat. . . . See you at Harvard.") Like myself, John had been a rebel, resentful of the loss of freedom and the abundance of mindless restrictions that were inherent to life at the academy. ("Lights out in there! It's 10 o'clock.") As far as I could tell, John's only shortcoming was that he was a Brooklyn Dodger fan, not a Milwaukee Braves fan, and we used to carry the argument over the merits of the two teams from Exeter to New York City where, with fake IDs I had doctored up, we shared occasional vacation weekends, tanking up on beer at a 54th Street pub called the Las Vegas Club. We could always count on Warren to show up with three stylish dates, one for each of us.
Warren and I returned to Exeter on the train from Boston at the end of Christmas vacation, just one semester short of graduation and freedom. Galt, the Latin teacher, greeted us at the door of Peabody Hall, his face crossed by a wisp of a smile for perhaps the first time in his life. The dean, he said, wanted to see us immediately. Dean Kesler did not normally work at 8 p.m. Sunday nights, and I knew this had to be serious. Twenty minutes later I was fidgeting outside his office, waiting for the summons to attend my own execution. The door opened and one of my gambling colleagues, John "Aces High" Stein, walked out, his own inquisition over.
His face was ashen and he whispered out of the side of his mouth as he walked by, not breaking stride, "He knows everything. He's got your box with the IOUs." Indeed he did. He had led a war party of faculty raiders into Warren's and my room over the Christmas holiday, scooped up the box and taken it to a locksmith to be opened. Today I suppose one could sue the dean for burglary, but in that era students learned early that they had no rights, no privacy, no recourse.
Dean Kesler was of medium height, stocky, with a square jaw and thinning, slicked back hair. My mouth went so dry when he beckoned me into the big stuffed chair in front of his desk that I couldn't swallow. "We know," he said flatly. "I know," I said, trying to steady my voice. If I had been a murderer, I could at least have pleaded for mercy. But Exeter tolerated no violation of its unwritten code that there were no rules at the academy until you broke one. Exeter, I was reminded, was not educating young men so they could go off to Harvard or Yale and become gamblers.
It is ironic now to examine the 25th-reunion directory and see what has become of my former classmates. Most did precisely what Exeter expected of them: They went to an Ivy League university, stayed in the East, married, raised children, got good jobs and seemed to be living fulfilled lives. But it is interesting to note how the Exonion atmosphere that stifled me also seemed to have invigorated others, how a handful from the class of '58 became the nonconformists as adults that I had been as a youth.
One former classmate from whom I never remember winning a dime is an astronomy professor and has written a book, "Playing Blackjack in Atlantic City." Several are writers, two are actors. One is vice president of New York's Off-Track Betting Corp., another operates bicycle tours in Vermont, a third is a farmer, a fourth a self-employed vintner in France. "At 35," writes a resident of Cambridge, Mass., "I was going under with alcohol. Been working on it since a day at a time." He said that he and his male lover had been living together for five years, adding, "It's been a wonderful time learning what it is to be who we really are. . . ." Five members of the class of '58 are listed on the last page of the directory under "In Memoriam." I remember one of the boys quite well; thinking of him, I see only the face of a blond, crew-cut teen-ager and I can not imagine what he looked like as an adult or how he could have been dead for 13 years.
Two days after my interrogation by Dean Kesler, the faculty met and voted -- unanimously, Louie Keech told me as he sat by the furnace, rolling a cigarette -- to expel The Joker, Big Julie and Aces High. I was too terrified to tell my father what had happened, just five months before graduation, so I telephoned his secretary and asked her to relay the news. In retrospect, I think the only thing that worried me about leaving Exeter was the reaction of my father, an uncompromising man who believed in abiding by the rules and finishing what one started. Leaving itself seemed a pleasant adventure, a reprieve from endless, tiresome regulations (I think even having a radio in your room was cause for dismissal), bed-checks, tea dances with partners held at proper length, coats-and-ties-to-class, morning chapel sessions and Sunday church. (The student church monitor was on my payroll and always marked me present, though I didn't attend a service for two years.)
My father arrived at the campus in his 1953 black Buick on a Saturday morning to collect me and my two suitcases. He met briefly with Dean Kesler and, I was relieved to learn, took an immediate dislike to him. "The Germans are always difficult," he said. Dad was indignant that Kesler apparently advocated the use of secret-police tactics to gather evidence, and this helped sap the anger I had feared he would vent on me. Still, the 90-minute drive back home to Boston was a long and silent one.
Being home was great fun. High school ended at 1:30 each afternoon, enabling me to get to Suffolk Downs in time for the third race. I became a client of Nate's, a bookie who sold newspapers in Brookline village. I thought little about Exeter and even less about what I was going to do with my life. John Sherman and I met one snowy weekend in New York and gave Warren Hoge a call, and an hour later the three of us were quaffing beer at the Las Vegas Club with three attractive dates. "I don't think my mother has forgiven you," Warren told me. "She says you're a bad influence."
Undoubtedly she was right. But I took no small amount of satisfaction when in May, five months after my expulsion, my former Exeter classmates put me at the top of three categories in the senior class poll: "Most Likely to Succeed," "Done Exeter for Most" and "Operator." In looking at that poll in my scrapbook the other day, I noticed several arcane divisions that I would be hard-pressed today to define: "Nego," "Poso," "Sarc," "Un-Co," "Thumper," and "Hacker." Someone named Elijah Lovejoy headed the "Nothing" category.
College took me to Maine and the Army to Okinawa. Later I wandered west, drawn inexorably to Las Vegas. It was probably my good fortune that I ended up with a job not in the Sands or the Desert Inn but on the Las Vegas Review-Journal, as a $90-a-week reporter. My golden luck on the tables faded quickly; in Vegas I was just another stiff ground down by the house odds. Other newspaper jobs and other cities -- Oakland, San Francisco, Saigon, Denver, Los Angeles, New York, Sydney, Washington, Nairobi, Boston, Cairo -- followed, and a book, "The Africans," was writen.
It was not until the spring of 1981, after an absence of 23 years, that I returned to Exeter. I was then a Nieman Fellow at Harvard, on a year's sabbatical from The Los Angeles Times to study Third World politics, and driving one April day from Portland, Maine, to Boston, I noticed a sign on the interstate that said, "Exeter 13 miles." I took the turn. The New Hampshire countryside was soft and green, awakening from winter in a burst of flowers. I passed through small villages and came upon the town of Exeter. At the far end, near the river, was Phillips Exeter Academy. Its red-brick buildings were covered with ivy and the bell tower of the Administration Office soared above the cluters of elms and maples. Not a stone or a walkway seemed to have been changed. The campus looked lovely in the glow of spring; I had to admit that.
The convertible top of my 1970 Buick was down. I parked by the quadrangle, watching a group of students sitting with open books under a maple tree, wondering if they thought of Exeter as a prison, as I had, or if perhaps all the school offered intellectually had given them a freedom I had never understood. The academy was co-ed now, and crew-cuts, of course, were gone. The sunshine was filled with many ghosts.
The pains and joys of growing up came flooding back and Donald Dunbar approached me as though out of a mirage, walking purposefully across the mall. He had been one of my favorite teachers, a genuinely nice man and, more important, a hard-core baseball fan like myself. He had once seemed so much older than I; now he felt like my contemporary. I recognized him first and called out. He walked over to the car, his hand extended. "Hey, Dave," he laughed, "Look what the wind blew in." Don -- it being no longer necessary to call him Mr. Dunbar -- was headed for the weekly faculty meeting and insisted I join him.
I felt strangely tense entering the large room with columns and paneled walls and heavy drapes. But the men gathered there, contrary to my memories of ogres, all looked remarkably human. Graciously skipping the details, Don introduced me merely as a member of the '58 class and mentioned a few of my wanderings as a foreign correspondent.
Several heads, now covered with gray hair or little hair, turned toward my seat in the back of the room. "Why, Lamb," said my former English teacher, Mr. Heath, as though he had seen me only yesterday, "I thought you'd be at the dog track today."
Later I was asked if I would give a lecture on journalism to a group of seniors, and I eagerly accepted. I started with a brief anecdote about being expelled and said that the more experiences a writer has, the more material he has to call on in his professional life. There wasn't much response; the students just kept scribbling notes. It was a good group, though, bright, wholesome, inquisitive in a question-and-answer session at the end, and the mixture -- girls, boys, minorities -- was far more representative of society than the WASPish Exeter I had attended.
Don asked me to stay for dinner, but I said I had to get back to Boston. At the edge of town, I stopped at a small restaurant I had passed often as a student. I ordered a double martini and the special, scallops. It had been a pleasant day and I lingered over dinner, reading the sports page of the Boston Globe and wondering what had happened to the other reprobates in the class of '58. I smiled, remembering the question John Stein had asked me when we met in Washington years after leaving the academy. "Now tell me the truth," he had said. "Did you cheat me at Exeter?"
I never did make it to my class reunion. Perhaps it was just as well, now that I am a more generous contributor to the alumni fund, to have left my discoveries of the past with that brief April encounter. It has been a long time since I've done any serious gambling and had I returned to the reunion, I would have been chagrined to admit I had forgotten everything Exeter had taught me: I wasn't even quite sure anymore whether three-of-a-kind beats a straight or whether it's the other way around.
EPILOGUE: Warren Hoge is foreign editor of The New York Times. John Stein is an attorney in Washington concerned with the victims of crimes. John Sherman is a senior staff member of the House Ways and Means Committee. Benno Schmidt this month was named the 20th president of Yale University.
The author is on leave from The Los Angeles Times, where he was most recently its Cairo correspondent, to write a book about the Arab world.