I had no special ties to the college I went to (I
was a scholarship kid at an Ivy League school) so when I get the alumni
bulletin, which still comes even after several moves without ever notifying the
college, I usually toss it away unread. This time for some reason, maybe
because I'd recently retired and had more time to go through the mail, I opened
it, turned to my class?s page, and found out that Lee Berman, my roommate, had
Since my retirement I'd started doing free-lance
pieces for our suburban newspaper and on this afternoon I was interviewing a
local artist named Bernardo for a story. Before I left, my wife gave me a
shopping list of some things to pick up at the supermarket on the way home.
I found Bernardo's studio and looked at a few of
his paintings, works of abstract expressionism I suppose you'd call them. Such
paintings usually mean nothing to me but the disparate objects in these had
been put together with intelligence and the effect aroused definite feelings,
although just what these were I found it hard to say.
During the interview, I learned that Bernardo, like
myself, was from New York City. It was warm in his studio and he broke out some
beers from a little refrigerator, which we drank while we compared the
neighborhoods we'd grown up in and the schools we'd gone to. Like most artists,
Bernardo wasn't reluctant to talk about himself. He'd had an interesting life,
having driven across the country in an old broken-down van, churning out his
early canvasses and trying to seduce the local women, until ending up in
California. By the time I returned home I had a little buzz on and it wasn't
until pulling into the garage that I remembered the shopping I was supposed to
* * *
"It's as cold as a witch's tit out here," said
Wolfe. This was at Seventh Army Headquarters, Stuttgart, back in 1954. "Fuckin'
A," said Roth, stamping his feet in the snow, trying to keep them warm.
"Come on," said Sergeant Gold, "this isn't a
fucking convention. You're supposed to be on guard duty."
We broke up and went our separate ways around the
perimeter of the motor pool. It was one of those clear cold nights when the
stars gleam like ice, Christmas Eve, which was why we, the company's Jews, had
drawn guard duty, the Christians presumably observing the birthday of their
I wondered if Lee, 50 miles north in Heidelberg,
was also on guard duty. We'd concluded that the college had put us together
because we were both Jewish, although we had nothing else in common. Lee was
from California; his family was comfortably middle-class; his father was a
lawyer. I came from the Bronx; my family was poor; my father was a plumber. On
our first night at college we'd stayed up late talking, mostly about sports,
and I'd told Lee about seeing DiMaggio in Yankee Stadium and explained how his
style was different from that of Ted Williams.
During the long hours going round and round the
motor pool I wondered if I'd be able to get up to Heidelberg so I could tell
Lee about our company: Sergeant Gold, who went to town to see Wagnerian operas;
Luther, whose German girl friend wanted him to whip her before having sex;
Wolfe, who always had an angle and was said to be making a fortune on the black
After a while, trying to stay awake, my mind
resorted to lines of Shakespeare and scraps of poetry remembered from college.
Lee and I had both been English majors; he was going to law school after
getting out while my own future remained unknown.
Toward morning, even Shakespeare failed but on
getting back to the guardhouse there was a pleasant surprise. Wolfe had
smuggled in a bottle of whiskey, which he handed around, first looking at
Sergeant Gold. "Shit, go ahead," said Gold. "I'll have some myself."
* * *
When we'd gone to see the movie Henry V, the new
one, our teen-age son had come with us. To his credit, he'd liked the movie and
had even bought the tape of the film's soundtrack. Now, on the night of the day
when I'd read the report of Lee's death, when the house was quiet, my wife out
playing bridge with the "girls," I put on the tape. While I listened, I thought
of a lot of things: Stuttgart, the weekend I'd spent in Heidelberg with Lee,
that first night at college when we'd talked long into the next morning.
I fast-forwarded the tape to the part where Henry
and his soldiers are walking through the battlefield, surveying the casualties
of Agencourt. The effects of music are even more difficult to describe than
those of painting. But the soundtrack, the singing in Latin (of which I didn't
understand a word), gave rise to a mixture of feelings - anger, compassion,
above all a deep sadness - which were powerful, even if only half understood.
Listening to that chorus of men, tears streamed down my face.
"Damnit," I said out loud to the empty room.
"Damnit, Lee. Damnit."