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by Anthony J. Mohr
I caught the flu on a Saturday in late February 1965, just in time to miss a party. Now it was Tuesday, March 2nd, with me in bed on the day the Knights would choose their new members. Knights was Beverly Hills High School’s honor service club for junior and senior boys, whose members wore black pullovers with a white Maltese cross sewn on the right at chest level. I already belonged. At the start of my senior year, the Knights had voted me in. We ushered at school plays, raised the flag each morning, manned the cafeteria’s malt and hash lines—all easy duty.
It was also the week the faculty would choose the new members of Beverly High’s top academic society, Lektos, Greek for “the chosen one.” Unlike Knights, there was no application process. The teachers in each department would meet and pick their best students—one for every two hundred. In my feverish state I tried to imagine what the teachers would say about me.
I’d also received a note from my father, who was in Sweden with his second wife, trying to rescue his career. He wrote about filming a pilot he hoped would become a television series.
My mother came into my bedroom. She wore a skirt and a camel-colored sweater over her blouse, all smelling freshly cleaned. She’d arranged her brown hair in a bun. “Have you finished your soup?” she asked sweetly.
I had, moments earlier. The taste of her chicken noodle soup remained with me, along with its soothing smell. Only half of a Ritz cracker was left in the bowl. “Where’s Stan?” I asked.
“Still at work,” my mother said. I didn’t realize it was only two in the afternoon. Of course my stepfather hadn’t returned. He wouldn’t come home until 6:30. Stan set an example for his employees.
Before my mother picked up the food tray, she put her hand against my forehead. “You’re a little warm,” she said, sounding concerned. “I’ll make you a cup of tea.” My mother’s tone comforted me.
Tracy called after school let out. She was president of Adelphians, the honor service club for freshman and sophomore girls, whose members strolled the campus wearing red cardigan sweaters emblazoned with an A.
I’d met Tracy in summer school. We hadn’t fallen in love, only “in like.” Tracy was petite, with a Coppertone tan. Her nose seemed big for her face. Worse, she was battling acne. She did have compensating attributes and wanted me to know about them. “I have nearly a perfect figure,” she’d said once. I’d never verified her claim but could vouch for her superb intelligence. In their senior poll two years later, Tracy’s classmates would name her “brainiest.”
“Everyone’s out sick,” Tracy said. “Would you believe a master absence list of seven pages?”
I envisioned the list—seven printed computer sheets. Beverly High had recently bought an IBM mainframe, a monster so large it had an anteroom all to itself. The list contained our names and the student numbers the machine assigned to us, as in Mohr—Anthony J—520900.
Almost a quarter of the Adelphians were absent, Tracy said. “But we had to run the election anyway.”
So did the Knights. Nobody gave me a satisfactory reason why they couldn’t postpone the vote for a few days until I (and several other sick Knights) had recovered. I was frustrated about missing the election, a two-step process I’d been looking forward to viewing from the inside. First you filled out a four-page application that asked for everything you’d achieved in school. Then came two essay questions. In order of appearance: What does the Knights sweater mean to you? Why do you want to be a Knight? I have no idea where these questions came from—a teacher or a student.
The group voted by secret ballot. Keith, president of the Knights, triaged the results, with the top third admitted, the bottom third rejected, and the rest placed into “Discussion”—exactly that, an evening meeting at Keith’s house, the night I was sick.
“I talked to Laurie,” Tracy said. “She voted over the phone.”
“Good,” I said. “I’ll call Keith after he gets home and do the same.” I pulled the blanket up to my neck.
“Ruthie and Susie are sleeping,” Tracy continued. “Their mothers will have them call when they wake up.”
Despite my fever, our talk was making me happy. Also special, part of the main, the honor club girl and the honor club boy sharing honor club problems from the safety of our bedrooms.
In the background I heard Tracy’s mother say, “Darling, would you like steak for dinner?”
“Sure,” Tracy said. Then she asked me, “Who do you want for Knights?”
As I answered the question, I burrowed deeper into the freshly laundered sheets and pulled the telephone—the part with the rotary dial—onto the bed, which knocked an empty cup off the nightstand and onto the carpet. At least I hadn’t tipped over the clock radio. I pushed the receiver against my ear and played with the cord.
Tracy asked, “Are you voting for Henry Curtis?”
I paused. Henry had become the first person to make friends with me in the sixth grade, when I’d moved to Beverly Hills. He was a pudgy kid. Faculty and students alike considered him a behavior problem. Put simply, Henry often acted like a smart-aleck and at times downright nasty. Despite that, I appreciated his wit. But during the eighth grade, he learned that a popular girl had invited me to a party, and then he turned on me. He told everyone my father’s acting career had slipped, and he was right. To make matters worse, he said, “The only reason Jill invited you to her party is to give her friends something to laugh at.”
“That isn’t true,” I said.
Henry gathered his face into the most patrician look possible—nose in the air, lips slightly parted, eyebrows arched—before going on. “It is. I can tell. I consider myself a coffee-cup psychologist.” Then he said, “You know, Tony, you’re very boorish.”
Henry was wrong. I went to Jill’s party and nothing unpleasant happened.
Nevertheless, this exchange had played into my lingering sense that I had no business among the parks and the palm trees of Beverly Hills; that even though my mother and Stan had been married since 1958, I remained a substandard boy from a broken home, the only broken home in my homeroom.
By high school Henry and I had more or less made up. I still enjoyed his rapier mind. Nobody mimicked people like he could. He created a hilarious movie poster based on the algebraic term “function.” Our driver’s education textbook contained a picture of a car ascending a hill with anticrepuscular rays beyond the summit. Above them Henry wrote Heaven. It wasn’t the first item of school property that he’d mutilated.
Maybe I was too forgiving. Now that the Knights had taken me, Henry was treating me well. Once, after French class, Henry led me through the subjunctive form. But I couldn’t forget his cutting remarks. I wanted my father to write me with good news about his pilot, which I could then casually mention to Henry.
“I don’t know if I’ll vote for him,” I said to Tracy. Also, if Henry made it into Discussion, it would be amusing to hear his answers to the essay questions, especially What does the Knights sweater mean to you?
For a moment or two, Tracy remained silent before asking, “Do you think you’ll make Lektos?”
The question probably raised my fever. “Maybe in social studies,” I said.
On the floor next to my bed lay a textbook—Physics: An Exact Science. The science department would never pick me for Lektos.
I changed the subject. “I got a letter from my father.”
“Any luck with a series?” I heard a clicking noise, Tracy flipping a Life Savers against her teeth.
“Not yet,” I said. “They’re still working on the pilot.”
Tracy was too polite to observe that at age fifty, my father probably would never lift himself out of the B-list of actors, let alone land a series. Instead she said, “I saw him on a rerun of a Western, I think The Rifleman.”
Squeeze Play. The title of the sole episode in which my father had appeared. Although he had movie-star good looks and epitomized savoir-faire, my father’s career had been slipping since 1956, the year he’d left my mother and his one television series had left the air. His last two attempts at a series had not made it past pilot season. Now he was trying again. “Money’s tight,” he said often. Once, seated at the breakfast table with his second wife and me, his head bowed over a cup of coffee, he’d whispered, “I need work.” I didn’t respond; I thought about Stan, with his own company, and felt rescued.
I waited an hour, then called Keith.
I’m sure Keith hadn’t voted for me the first time I’d tried to join Knights. We’d known each other since the eighth grade, when a girl I’d liked had picked him—a slightly built boy with elfin features, but Keith was the better dancer with a silkier voice. Then in the ninth grade, he ran against me for class vice-president and won.
In a tone that suggested impatience, probably occasioned because I’d started the call by asking, “How’s it going?” Keith said, “So Tony, are you ready to vote?” He began reading the list of applicants.
“It’s confidential, you know,” Keith said in a lofty manner.
Was it really? A written ballot would have been secret, all right, but thanks to my voting over the phone, Keith would learn every one of my choices. I had to trust him.
I said, “No.” I always had trouble conversing with Bob.
Another name. Another no.
“Yes,” I said quickly.
Another yes, followed by three noes.
I paused again.
“Tony?” Keith said. “Henry Curtis.”
Keith’s attitude sharpened my memory of the eighth grade and what Henry had said about my father and me.
“No,” I said to Keith in a steady voice and I felt no guilt.
“So,” Keith said after we’d finished the list, “you want seventeen new members.”
“I guess so,” I said.
“That’s not,” Keith said, “so bad.” He elongated the last word until it sounded like a cross between scorn and grudging acquiescence.
I asked, “Can I call you tonight and participate over the phone?”
“I guess so,” Keith said.
I needed a nap. Talking with Keith always made me tense.
When I woke up, Stan stood in the doorway. Thanks to my fever, he looked like a six-foot blur. “What did you learn today?” Stan asked quietly. It was his standard after-school greeting.
“Nothing,” I slurred. I must have been thinking about the physics chapter I’d yet to read.
Ever the optimist, Stan said, “I think we’re going to get the order we’ve been working on.”
I said, “That’ll be great.”
“Looks like you won’t be going to school tomorrow,” Stan said.
“Guess not,” I said.
We talked another minute or two, and then I fell back to sleep.
The first time I'd tried for Knights, halfway through my junior year, they turned me down. A friend told me I’d made it into Discussion, but when it was time to vote, not enough hands went up. No reason, my friend said. It just didn’t happen. I’ll admit it now: I cried, and as I did, I tried to imagine what the group had said about me while sitting in someone’s capacious living room—the senior jock lying on the long, white couch with his boot on the glass coffee table, gulping a Pepsi and saying, “You know that Tony.” Another boy gazing through horn-rimmed glasses at the moonlit swimming pool far beyond the bay window as he asked, “Tony Mohr. Who’s he?”
The rejection had stung harder the next morning when, trudging to my locker, I saw part of the initiation rites. The Knights were running their blindfolded initiates through the halls, then up and down a staircase. I’d tried not to look but couldn’t avoid hearing their hoots and hollers. Then, toward the end of lunch hour, the new members had emerged onto the front lawn, wearing their sweaters and honor club smiles while, dressed in my plain clothes, I ate a sandwich that tasted like library paste. I never wondered, as I do now, why a school would allow, let alone sponsor, clubs whose members could wound so many so deeply.
That night, although I couldn’t attend Discussion in person, at least I would hear it.
When he answered the phone, Keith sounded annoyed. The banter of the members filled the background.
“Tom Linden,” Keith called out.
I said, earnest as always, “Tell them that he’s been doing a great job on the school paper.”
Keith aimed his voice in the opposite direction. “Tony said he’s been doing a great job on the Highlights.”
Keith paused a beat before telling me, “Okay, he’s in.” Then, to the group, he said, “The next candidate is Randy McMichaels.”
The members started talking, too softly for me to hear.
“What are they saying?” I asked.
“Tony, this isn’t going to work,” Keith said.
“I’m sorry,” Keith said. With that he hung up. Of course he did. Now I realize that Keith couldn’t chair a meeting while holding a receiver, and I’d failed to think fast enough to ask him to pass the phone to someone else.
I lay in bed feeling glum. Now I’d miss the heady lift of being able to judge my classmates. I wouldn’t hear Keith reel off everyone’s credentials. I wouldn’t hear exchanges like, “Irving says he has perfect attendance and helps with campus cleanup,” at which point the group would break into laughter, followed by a chorus of “Noes.” I’d been especially eager to hear the answers to our two essay questions. In my application I’d spewed out palaver about the Knights sweater and its Maltese cross symbolizing honor, character, and service. (Today I’d probably write that the black Knights sweater evoked a 1930s fascist youth rally.) Why did I want to be a Knight? Like so many others, I’m sure, I’d prattled on about serving the school. At the time I thought my answers were splendid.
Once the Knights had accepted me, nothing else mattered. I forgot the pain they’d caused me the year before, and now missing Discussion was akin to missing Christmas.
My fever dropped the next morning, but outside it was drizzling, and neither the doctor nor my mother would let me return to school. I picked up my physics textbook and managed my way through three pages.
At four Tracy called. “Lektos came out,” she said. “You didn’t make it. I’m so sorry.”
Rejections have hurt me in many places. A punch in the gut, a vise to the head. This rebuff suctioned air from the lungs. I felt as though every erg of the energy I’d regained had vanished, leaving me supine on the sheets. I managed to ask, “Are you sure?”
With as much sympathy as she could muster, Tracy said, “I’m sure.”
“Not even in social studies?”
Later Stan gave me a pat on the shoulder. “You win some and you lose some,” he said.
“I don’t understand,” my mother said. “You have such high grades.”
I returned to school the following morning, the day Lektos was inducting its new members.
Toward the end of lunch, as I walked into the school’s main hall, Mr. Quandt, the chair of the social studies department, loomed in the distance, wearing his trademark black suit. I think he was the oldest member of the faculty. He looked it—bald, a pinched face with pinpoint eyes, and a straight-edge for a mouth. Mr. Quandt’s voice resembled his name, a quacking sound that filled his speech.
Farther down the hall came Henry, and the instant he saw Mr. Quandt, he raced in. “Why didn’t you choose me for Lektos in social studies?” he said loudly.
I slowed down. So far neither Henry nor Mr. Quandt had seen me. The hall brimmed with students running to somewhere or talking to someone. Their chatter, coupled with slamming locker doors, prevented me from hearing Mr. Quandt’s answer.
Henry had more courage than I. I was too meek to challenge the Lektos vote and, beneath it all, did not feel deserving. I may have occupied a place above Henry in the school’s hierarchy, but I fell below the dashing intellects whom Lektos had chosen.
Henry spotted me. “And you didn’t pick Tony Mohr either.”
Mr. Quandt turned and when he saw me, he walked toward me and said, “Tony, what have your grades been in social studies?”
My answer came out fast. “Straight A’s.”
He asked who my teachers had been.
I told him. Mr. Fish. Mrs. Creutz. “And you for civics.”
Whenever Mr. Quandt wanted to sound avuncular, he could, and he did so now. “You may know that Mrs. Creutz is gone; she has a new job. Mr. Fish is absent this year on sabbatical, so when the rest of us in the department met, we didn’t have a complete list of qualified students and we overlooked your name.”
I held my breath.
“We are going to select you for Lektos,” Mr. Quandt said. “You have an outstanding record.” He offered me a trace of a smile.
Thrilled, I stammered out a “Thank you.” I couldn’t think of anything else to say.
The warning bell rang. Still wearing his little grin, Mr. Quandt said, “Don’t be late for class.”
“But,” I heard Henry yell as I trotted off into the din of the hall. Whatever he said to Mr. Quandt and whatever Mr. Quandt said back to him, I’ll never know. Henry never told me. Whether because of his grades or his attitude, Lektos continued to keep him out.
Over dinner Stan asked if Lektos held an annual banquet that, like the Knights and the debate team, parents could attend.
I told him I didn’t know yet. Stan always came with me to the banquets. My father had been absent on those occasions, in Europe usually. He liked it there.
Later that evening Stan said, “I’ve never known anyone who’s gotten more out of high school than you.” He was sitting on the edge of my bed. I sat at my desk, my physics book opened to a page featuring a concept which, as usual, I couldn’t figure out.
I said something like, “I guess.” And I smiled.
“We got our order today,” Stan said. In a voice sounding satisfied but barely above a whisper, he said, “It’s a big contract. Everybody worked hard. We deserved it.”
On Friday, March 12, 1965, Highlights announced the new members of Lektos. They’d had time to add my name to the roll. Both my mother and Stan hugged me.
The same Highlights issue listed the new members of Knights and Adelphians. Knights had taken in fifteen candidates, “not bad,” according to Keith.
Over the phone Tracy and I talked into the evening. Both she and my parents thought I should wait another week before staying out late. “Congratulations on Lektos,” she said. “That’s really good.”
Was it? Despite Mr. Quandt’s praise, I believed that I hovered on the edge of Lektos, kept out by accident, let in by chance.
“Thanks,” I said to Tracy.
Tracy said, “I’m so glad you took Tom into Knights. I’ll bet they turned down what’s-his-face…”
“Yeah,” she said.
I said, “Keith told me he didn’t even make it into Discussion.”
Tracy popped one of her Life Savers before saying, “He’s a creep.”
I didn’t feel sorry for Henry. I was too busy reveling in the snobbery and privilege that came with a Knights sweater, topped off now by Lektos.
Tracy and I talked until close to midnight, then put down our respective receivers long enough to brush our respective teeth and crawl under our respective covers, me in a T-shirt, Tracy in pajamas, so she said. In the dark, I shifted my telephone onto the bed, this time without knocking anything over. I'm sure Tracy had an easier time with her Princess phone, which was light and had a dial that glowed. Her parents had given it to her for Christmas.
We talked about our teachers and tests, about college and class council, about Boys’ League, Girls’ League, forensics, the Highlights, the yearbook, the golf team, tennis team, track team, swim team, the talent show, the spring play (John Dos Passos’s USA), about dances, picnics, parties, car rallies, someone’s sweet sixteen, the honor clubs again, the beach, the whole of our Ptolemaic world. I scrunched the double blankets around me and savored the warmth. If I could purr, I would have.
We made a date to go cruising the following Friday in the Thunderbird convertible Tracy’s parents had given her on her sixteenth birthday. We’d drive into the hills or out to the beach—maybe both places, with KRLA furnishing the soundtrack. If it wasn’t too late, we’d stop for ice cream at Wil Wright’s, Blum’s—somewhere in Beverly Hills.
We didn’t talk any more about Henry. I was through thinking about what he’d done for me and what I’d done to him. My exquisite mood was a rarity, which I refused to let guilt destroy. Nor thoughts of failure ruin. Maybe that’s why Tracy and I didn’t mention my father either.