Going Back

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Now we sat together on the couch in the Memorial Union library, and I did not ask her down to the Rathskeller. It was impossible that I do so, for the Weezie Clarks of this world are not for inviting down to Rathskellers. Permit me to explain, although some readers will not understand. Those readers are called . . . women. Oh please! Don’t call me a genderbiased chauvinist. I know all about it. Gloria Steinem was a guest at my wedding. She roomed with my wife on Junior Year Abroad. But what it is, there are men, a majority, I believe, who when young see selected dream girls as personages beyond reach and aspiration. This transcends time, background, personality, position, destiny. There was a young man of the last century who used to stand at a certain town square and stare each night at his Weezie Clark. He never spoke a single word to her. Once he wrote her an unsigned letter saying he was off to pursue studies elsewhere. When he returned, he wrote, they would marry. She threw the incomprehensible letter away, never connecting it with the silent kid who used to stare at her. Decades later a historian came to a widowed old lady to ask if she remembered that letter. And a fellow who used to gaze at her? The historian had talked with a boyhood friend of the young man. Vaguely it returned to the old lady. Imagine when she learned that her long-ago admirer’s name was Adolf Hitler.

Well, Hitler . How about Geraldo Rivera? Did you watch the program where he goes back to his college reunion? All he could talk about was wanting to see the blonde cheerleader who terrified him. He had interviewed the great of the universe, Geraldo let us know, but to interview Charlene! Then we follow him and his camera crew and see him almost gibber as he tells her how great she was. Then there’s the Robert Redford character in the film Indecent Proposal , who speaks of seeing a girl in the subway once thirty years earlier and that not a day has gone by since then that he hasn’t thought of her. Same thing for the Mr. Bernstein of Citizen Kane —saw a girl in white, with a white parasol, on a ferry. Never forgot. And my friend Richard, who had his Emily, and my friend Clyde with his Nell. “She didn’t walk on the ground, she floated above it,” Clyde told me. (A week later, when I had occasion to telephone his office and was told he was out, I said, “Let him know Nell called and she’s at the motel, waiting.” “What?” asked Clyde’s assistant. “Just give him the message.” An hour later Clyde called back. “You’re a dirty old man,” he said bitterly.)

I suppose such girls as these evoke in the boys who study them the imagined best of their era. And of anyone I ever took note of, Louise, Weezie, Miss Clark, then and later meant the fifties. She was, it seemed to me, so right for the times, calm, unruffled, healthy, reserved, polite, confident, serene, demure, every hair in place. Turbulence, trouble, problems—they could never touch her. In this she reflected our University of Wisconsin campus as we, the luckiest generation in the history of the country and the world, Depression and Germans and Japanese beaten by others for our benefit, went about getting something of an education although the classes were almost always deadly boring—not relevant, as would soon be said. There was absolutely no discussion of politics at all, no profanity in front of girls, no foreign food save for Italian plus Madison’s sole little Chinese restaurant, a rigid twelve-thirty deadline for girls on Saturday night, when dates ritualistically kissed before half of each couple made for dorm or sorority house and the other half went away into the night, thousands of lips meeting all over campus. There was no fear of the future. You wanted to be an engineer, go study it, get your diploma, go to work in the field as soon as you got out of the Army. You wanted to marry an engineer, go be a home economics major, find one, live happily ever after.

We were all very much of a piece, a great collection of what in Europe was once called the officer class. Miss Clark and I had some twenty-six hundred fellow graduates, and a search of The Badger ’s individual photos reveals precisely three faces recognizably black. The track team was all white. The basketball team was all white. There were many more boys than girls, for while a family might stretch itself to send a son to college, it would never do so for a daughter. Let her get a job, or married.

From our couch Miss Clark arose, returned The Fountainhead at the desk, and went away. Ten years or so later at a New York City party I fell into conversation with a young woman who turned out to be a D.W. grad of my era. She looked a sorority-girl type. I asked which one. Delta Gamma.

“Then you knew Ginny, of course.”

THERE WAS NO discussion of politics whatever, no profanity in front of girls, no foreign food save Italian.
 

“Oh, sure.”

“And Louise Clark.”

She asked, “Were you a member of the I Love Weezie Club?”