Silk Road Incident (Willie Williams)

Editor’s note

Originally a member of the of class 1967, Willie joined our class in the Fall of 1967, fresh from a sabbatical at the University of Chicago, to graduate with us in June 1968. He’s given us permission to include a section from a work in progress that mixes the real and the historical, with the semi-real and the fantastic. To set the scene: in the fall of 1967, Willie appeared in the Stevens-Caskey suite in Wood House, soon to be joined by David Sipress. Only the former two lived there, the latter two, however, set the tone for the year, leading Tom Stevens to muse, in a reflection on the 40th anniversary of the release of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club whether the space we occupied might be better known as Strawberry Fields. The Williams-Sipress duo went on to blaze some significant trails post graduation; no one knows for sure if any (or how many) horses were stolen before a cartoonist and a school teacher, programmer and technical writer emerged.

One thing I’ve discovered while writing these recollection pieces is that my memory has gaping holes. I’ve mentioned that I don’t remember whose idea the Comiskey Park incident was. And later, you’ll find I don’t remember whose idea the bus trip was. But here the hole is that I don’t remember going to college. Not being in college. I’ll write some about that. I don’t remember getting to college. I’m pretty sure my dad drove me. But I remember nothing about the drive, which must have taken two days. Is this from a faulty memory, or the wondrous subconscious? Did we discuss my future? Did Pop reminisce about his college days? I don’t remember.

We probably did a bit of both. Mostly, we probably did what people do on long drives, we drifted off into our thoughts as we looked at the country we were passing through, and had shards of conversation, triggered by the combination. Pop might have said, as we passed through a hilly part of Ohio, “This looks like the farmland in Argyle, New York that my grandparents lived in.” Then we would talk about great-grandparent stuff. Neither of us wanted to talk about important matters.

I had gotten a letter from the college, requesting that I read The Ox-Bow Incident before arriving, and that I be prepared to discuss it the first night, at some kind of orientation gathering. I had not been able to get more than a dozen pages into it before concluding that I wasn’t about to discuss no Ox-Bow Incident. I probably paged through it in the car. If I had to, I would say that I hadn’t known what an ox-bow was, but was disappointed to learn that it was just a place. I do think it’s a good word, though, and might at some point use it for a dog’s name.

My only memory of the trip, and it’s a dim one, was getting out of the car in front of the Freshman Quad, lugging a few boxes and a suitcase up to my room with my dad, then going out to the car and hugging him goodbye. Pop had met my roommates, Art Lutzke and Bill McClung, in the third floor suite, and declared them to be fine fellows. As I watched him drive off, I had a moment of wishing I were going with him, but turned and jogged back up to the room.

Art and Bill had already mostly moved in, and were tending to finishing touches. Bill said to me, gesturing to a doorway off the common room, “Art got here first, so he’s got the single, and you and I are in there.”

“Works for me. Where are you guys from?”

Art said, “I’m from New Jersey. Newark.”

Bill said, “I’m from Brockton, south of Boston. Say, do you like to be called Bill? Or Billy? It said William on the list we got.”

I said, “Well, you’re Bill, so I’ll be Billy. I’ve been both.”

Art said, “You’re from Chicago, aren’t you? Right in the city?”

“Yeah,” I said. “On the south side, near the university.”

Art said, “It’s rough on the south side, isn’t it? Like Newark.”

“I guess. The university area is pretty nice.”

Bill said, “We’ve got a couple of days to settle in before classes. I think I’ll take a walk around the campus, and down to Main Street. Can I get either of you anything?”

We said that we couldn’t think of anything, and he went out. Art said, “Do you know what you’re going to major in?”

I said, after a pause, “I guess English. I’ll see. How about you?”

“Definitely poli-sci.”

I said, “Poli-sci. Like politics?”

Art said, “Yeah, politics. And government.”

“Good,” I said, “You can teach me. I don’t even read the papers, except the sports pages.”

I don’t think this sat well with Art. I said to him, “I’m not kidding, Art. I hope you’ll help me with that. My school didn’t teach current events or civics, or even chronological history. We had courses like ‘Communication’ and ‘Patterns of Culture’ instead.”

Art said, “You’ll be fine. My father told me that’s a really good school you went to.”

“I hope so.”

I was about to ask him if he wanted to go somewhere for dinner later, when a voice in the doorway boomed, “Williams, you necrotic turd!”

It was Dave Hanni, with Wally Pugh, two fellows from near Chicago whom I had met during the summer. We had hit it off, my friends and theirs, at a couple of parties. Dave played banjo and guitar, and Wally played keyboard and bass, and they would, after college, be part of a band named the Joyfull Noise, whose album my kids and I still listen to. At those parties, my friend Tom had played with them, and everything clicked.

They dragged me down to their room, on the second floor, across the hall, and introduced me to their roommate Howie Kestenbaum and to a mischievous and extremely direct fellow from upstairs named Paul Sloan. Paul was from near Nashville, and his opening gambit with me was, “Billy, hold tight to the reins, we’s a-going for a wild ride.” He then ran out of the room. I shook hands with Howie, and asked where he was from.

“Maplewood, New Jersey. Near South Orange.”

Howie was about 5’6” and very muscular. He was a State wrestling champ and a math whiz. He became a Ph.D in astrophysics, and stayed some nights with homeless folk in the cold, to know what that was like. He died in the World Trade Center while waiting to change elevators on the 79th floor as the second plane came in. We know this because a co-worker was there with him and survived, staggering down seventy-nine flights of stairs.

Hanni had put on Bob Dylan’s first album, which I had not heard, and as we were listening to his version of “Man of Constant Sorrow,” Sloan burst in wearing full jockey racing gear: boots, helmet, spurs, goggles, vest, gloves, leggings, racing silk, even a jockey whip. He marched around with the whip under his armpit, shouting, “Yes, indeed. A wild ride. A wild ride. ” Then he grabbed my belt at the back and yelled, “He-yah, Billy. He-yah, Billy. Let’s ride on out. Let’s go.” And he yanked me to the door, then released me and ran back upstairs, to return five minutes later, in jeans, as if nothing had happened.

Paul was 6’2”, which seemed awfully tall for a jockey, but he had already ridden in big races, including the Iroquois Steeplechase. A few days later, on a warm afternoon as several of us were lounging around outside in the quad, I heard Paul talking, up in our suite. I called up to him to toss down my economics text book. A couple of minutes passed, and I forgot about my request, when a tremendous crash erupted behind me. I turned around and saw my record player smashed on the ground. I looked up and Paul was leaning out of the window.

I stared up at him, blankly. He called down, “You said your record player, didn’t you?” I figured there was no use asking him why he had done this, and simply tossed the smashed player in a trash bin. A couple of days later, I returned from class to find a new, better, record player set up where the other had been.

The next weeks were a combination of classes, the library, and uneventful trips to women’s colleges. Evenings were passed, after returning from the library, by hanging out in different rooms in the entry, mostly in Hanni’s, Kestenbaum’s, and Pugh’s rooms, playing and listening to music. The first weekend, Little Anthony & the Imperials performed at the college concert hall, and there had been a party attended by buses full of students from Smith and Skidmore. But all I managed was to get a little drunk, ending up back in the entry, talking with Howie, who said, “My dad told me these would be the best years of my life. Bullshit.”

I did really well on my first English papers, but got a reality check on the mid-term exam. The exam consisted of one question: to read, and then write an analysis of a poem entitled “My Papa’s Waltz.” The name of the poet was not given, and for all I knew it was by some hack. It was an account of a father dancing roughly with his son in the kitchen, before drunkenly dancing him off to bed. I didn’t like the father, and felt sorry for the boy. My take was that this was a resentful remembrance. Professor Bushnell felt that I had missed the point, and should have been tipped off by the choice of the endearing word “Papa’s” in the title.

A week later, I was standing by the window of our suite’s common room, looking out at several classmates tossing a football around in the quad courtyard below. I saw Tony Kronman walking diagonally across the quad, with his left hand holding a transistor radio to his ear. He slowed as he got to the center of the quad, then stopped. The football bounced near him, and a classmate ran over to get it. He picked it up and started to turn to throw it, but then held it, and walked closer to Tony. Soon the others gathered around them. It was Friday, November 22. I ran down to find out what was up. We listened to the reports from Dallas for fifteen minutes or so, then went to the dining hall building, where there was a television. There we saw Walter Cronkite’s announcement.

Everyone, of course, was stunned. I went back to my entry, and found Art weeping. I called my parents. Since things were still unfolding, I went back to the dining hall, where it seemed most of the class was now gathered around the TV. There was very little talking amongst us. Soon Oswald was arrested at the Texas Theater, after he killed officer Tippit. Many of us returned to the dining hall TV the next days. On Sunday, we saw Oswald killed by Jack Ruby. That day, Kennedy lay in State at the Capitol, and on Monday he was buried.

I hadn’t paid a lot of attention to politics, and the effect Kennedy’s assassination had on me was to enforce a feeling of life’s purposelessness. Fortunately, the purposelessness of life didn’t seem like a necessarily bad thing. There were still good things. But the assassination seemed a random thing, like a meteor striking. After a surrealistic week or so, things got somewhat back to normal. But after this blow, I think everyone was eager to go home for the holidays.

The holidays in Chicago were a mixture of catching up with friends on what our first college months had been, and simply taking comfort in home. Just after Christmas, my high school sweetheart, Wendy, and I went to see Bob Dylan bring the house down at Orchestra Hall. This was a big moment for me, and I think for everyone there. My dad had taken me to Orchestra Hall through the years, to see Arthur Rubenstein, Yehudi Menuhin, David Oistrakh, and other great performers. But here was something different—convincing songs about injustice, sung by a 23 year old. “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” which I hadn’t heard before, was searing.

That music found its way into the college. Hanni and Pugh had found other musicians, and they were playing the songs of Ian and Sylvia, Dave Van Ronk, even the Beatles. Ian and Sylvia came and gave a great concert in the gymnasium, arriving late with much of the audience sitting on the floor as they made their way through us to the stage, their guitars held above their heads, their clothes full of cowboy glitter. The Country Gentlemen, with their most famous lineup, played in the concert hall. The Beatles dominated the charts, but nobody listened much to radio, and they weren’t as popular as in the cities.

In the Spring, I played on the Freshman baseball team. It was great fun, especially since we won all our games. We played our home games on a field tucked away north of the campus, that I don’t think many students even knew was there. We were a society of our own. One play we pulled off in almost every game was the delayed double steal of second and home. With runners on first and third, the runner on first would break for second after a delay, so the catcher had plenty of time to throw him out. As he threw, the runner would break for home, and the shortstop receiving the throw would heave it home, always too late. It wasn’t Major League Baseball.

As June approached, I had no plans, and a friend asked me if I’d like to be a counselor at a camp near Lake George, New York, at which he had connections. I said fine, and he arranged my hiring. I went back to Chicago first, to see my folks and friends. Then I hitch-hiked back east. At a rest stop on the New York Thruway, I left my suitcase outside and got a cup of coffee. When I came out, my suitcase was gone. I showed up at Camp Timlo with just the shirt on my back and little money in my pocket. The director of the camp found this disturbing. The campers were not to arrive for several days, and he set us to clearing fields. I took up with a muscular fellow named Ed, who was part of the maintenance staff, rather than with my fellow counselors, who seemed to already know each other.

It was hard work, but it was fun working and chatting with Ed, who had good stories. One morning we were awakened in the dark and told that the horses had gotten out. Rounding them up took most of the morning. That afternoon, over the PA system at the camp office, I heard, “Bill Williams, report to the camp office.” I jogged up to the office, worrying that this might be bad news from home. They told me to go into the director’s office. I approached his desk and said, “You wanted to see me?”

He looked at me for quite a while, then said, “Bill, we’re going to have to let you go.”

I puzzled a bit over what he meant, and said, “I’m sorry, let me go?”

“When you’ve been in this business as long as I have, you get a sense of when someone isn’t going to work out.”

I said, “You mean you’re telling me to leave?”

“Bill, we’ve got kids from good families coming up here.”

I looked at him, while my mind exploded. I needed him to go further with that assessment. “I don’t understand. What are you saying?”

“I’m saying that I don’t think you’ll fit in here. But I’ve got an alternative for you. A family that has a house on Lake George is looking for someone to look after their kids, and asked if I could help with that. You would stay with them and keep their six boys busy and out of trouble.”

I said, “Wait, I’m not good enough for your campers, but I’m okay for those boys?”

“I talked to Mrs. Gabriel about you, and she said you sound fine.”

So it was arranged. The Gabriel’s had the only house on an island off of Bolton Landing. There were six boys, from 6 to 12. The father was a doctor, and came up from New York every couple of weeks. He told me my job was to make sure the boys exercised so much that they slept soundly through the night. In the evenings, we played a version of freeze tag in which I was always “it,” and they could unfreeze each other while I was freezing another of them. I slept soundly through the night.

They had a Boston Whaler for water skiing behind, a sailboat, and a couple of racing shells that I sometimes took out on the glassy lake before the kids woke up. I liked Mrs. Gabriel and the kids a lot, and was really happy there. My Chicago friends Dan and Brian visited, and we had a night in Lake George Village where we got separated into our own adventures, and somehow found each other at daybreak. I even had a brief romance, near the end of the summer. Because I had spent no money, I left with the $600 that Mrs. Gabriel had waited to pay me when I left.

I knew what I was going to do with that money, but didn’t mention it to my parents. When I got back to college for sophomore year, I lived in a single room in a dormitory, but took my meals at Wood House, the former Zeta Psi fraternity. The college had abolished fraternities, replacing them with “houses.” At the end of Freshman year, we all went into a lottery, either alone, or with 2-5 others. I went in with Hanni, Pugh, Sloan, and Kestenbaum. Paul had a car, now, and we went up to Bennington College often. It could be an intimidating place.

Last year, Art and I had gone there, and he had convinced me to wear a tweed jacket over a sweater, and my Bass Weejuns. We would go into a residence house, and sit in a common room, and try to make conversation with girls there. Eventually, either we would walk out and hear their derisive laughter behind us, or they would walk out and we would hear their laughter after they closed the door behind them. I realized I was lacking in cool. So this year, I looked around, and found a motorcycle I could afford. To my delight, I found a Triumph 650cc for $600.

Wally went with me, and drove me home on my new bike. I took it to a quiet street south of town, to practice riding it. I did this a few times, before riding it a bit along Route 2 and Route 7. Once, riding on Route 2, west of town, a Harley Davidson pulled up next to me. The rider, wearing all denim, the sleeves cut off his jacket, a handsome jaw protruding from his craggy face, glanced at my bike, then called to me, “Wanna open it up?” I called back, “Sorry, I’m just practicing.” He frowned, then shot off and was out of sight in seconds.

Meanwhile, I had met a girl at Bennington. Linda was fun and funny, and her set of friends were constantly making up little performances, like appearing as Charlie Chaplin in “The Gold Rush.” I was charmed, but felt out of my league. But soon we were staying together.

One morning, when Linda had stayed with me, I suggested that I drive her back to Bennington on the motorcycle. It was a brisk October day, and the Pownal Valley was gleaming. We took the shortcut off Route 7 that leads to the Bennington Monument. At the monument, we turned left, then right onto Vail Road. After a minute or so, we approached the right fork onto Silk Road. As we entered the turn, a car was coming toward us, and was cutting the turn so as to be on our side of the road. It slowed almost to a stop, and I tried to get inside it, but caught the edge of the road, and lost control of the bike.

The bike swerved into a tree, throwing both of us into the air, and somehow onto the pavement. I looked over at Linda, and asked if she was okay. She said she thought so. I tried to stand up, but saw that my right leg was flopping around at the knee. I then passed out, and woke up in the hospital. Wally, Paul, and Howie came by, full of smiles. They had been told I had broken my leg. Wally said they had gone to retrieve the bike, but that its fork had been so bent it was unsalvageable. I asked them if they had seen Linda. They said they had called her, and that she was just bruised.

Later, a doctor came in and told me they were trying to save my leg. The leg below the knee had swollen so much that they had to remove most of the calf and shin muscle. The condition was called compartment syndrome. After another day, the doctors in the Bennington Hospital said they didn’t have the equipment needed to figure out what was happening, and they transferred me by ambulance to Mass. General Hospital in Boston to have an arteriogram. The arteriogram showed that my popliteal artery was clotted. The team considered it too risky to try unblock the artery, and the hope was that collateral circulation would provide sufficient flow to the lower leg.

My condition was precarious enough that they put me in a Stryker Frame, an apparatus consisting of a plank to lie on, held between two 7’ diameter hoops mounted on a base, so the plank can be positioned at any angle, and it can also be rotated. The intention was to keep changing my position, and hence the gravitational stress on my arteries.

The team was headed by Robert Linton, a vascular surgeon who had performed many operations lasting over eight hours. He was a cheerful and optimistic man, and looked in on me on Christmas morning, with a green and red necktie. One doctor on the team was not as optimistic, and came around by himself a few times to prepare me for unhappy results. He thought the chances of saving my leg were slim. A nurse, named Hattie, was a godsend. She somehow made little adjustments in my positioning, dressing, or swaddling that stopped the pain.

My childhood friend, Tim, sent me a letter, without fail, every day. He always clipped the Jumble from the newspaper, and included it with the letter. I don’t know how he did it, since he was in his first year at college. Tim is the most caring person I’ve known, until I met Susan, twenty years later. All those letters are gone; I kept them in a box under my bed, and must have forgotten about it when I left the hospital after six months. Perhaps it’s for the best, since reading them would be wrenching.

My brother dropped out of college, when he heard, and came to Boston and got a job as an orderly at the hospital. David would drop in on me several times each day. In January, my parents drove from Chicago in a blizzard. The turnpikes and the Thruway had cars assemble together, and had them follow a convoy of plows and sanders for 700 miles. Once I was past the month of morphine and Stryker Frame, hospital life became almost pleasant. My fellow patients were, by and large, interesting and nice, and it was a good period for reading.

I had the time to tackle epic novels like Magic Mountain and War and Peace. I loved Saul Bellow’s Herzog, which seemed to spend most of the year atop the Best Sellers list. On another plane, I had a TV, and watched “Shindig!”—often with my brother. It had Tina Turner, Bo Diddley, James Brown, Jackie Wilson, The Supremes, Lesley Gore, Sonny and Cher, The Beach Boys—even the Beatles and Rolling Stones. Life wasn’t so bad.

I thought I was improving, but in late-January, the pessimistic doctor came and told me, “They’re painting a rosy picture for you, but you could look down in a week and find your toes as black as olives.” And that’s exactly what happened. They had to do a transmetatarsal amputation. I’d known from the start that sports, for me, was over. So this was just an incremental setback. Or was I destined to be the Soldier in White from Catch-22? Wendy came to see me—she was with her future husband now—and we had a laugh so hard that it had to have come from a humor as dark as Heller’s.

The months went by, and I was occasionally visited by Dick Coggeshall, a doctor who had been a student of my father, and had become his friend. In April, Dr. Coggeshall said to me, “Are you planning to stay here forever? I think it’s time for you to leave the hospital.” He had talked with Dr. Linton, who thought it was a good idea, and we arranged that I would stay with the Coggeshalls for a few weeks, then perhaps move in with my brother at his Myrtle Street apartment, just a couple blocks from the hospital, on Beacon Hill.

Dr. Coggeshall came to drive me out to his house in Weston. Phillips House, where my room was, the part of Mass. General that faces Storrow Drive along the river, has a pull out to an entrance. Coggeshall pulled up and parked at the entrance, and I came out, on crutches, which I’d gotten pretty adept with. My brother had brought my stuff down, and loaded the car. I got in, and Coggeshall pulled out onto Storrow Drive. I freaked out, thinking he was driving like a madman. I exclaimed, “Why are you speeding like that?”

He said, “Look at the speedometer, Bill.” He was going 20 MPH. I had been basically stationary for six months. Furthermore, the last time I had been on a road, I had smashed into a tree. I had some physical and psychological readjustment to do.

Willie Willams

Leave a Comment or Reply

Required fields are marked with *. Your email address will not be published.