The Price of a Civics Lesson
© Copyright 2021 by Elliot Wilner
Bob spoke a kind of English that was real hard to understand. That was, first of all, because of his accent, which we thought was fake. We recognized that kind of accent from the movies, mostly crime movies, where a lot of the gangsters had that kind of accent. So, we thought that Bob was imitating a gangster, or maybe he was actually a gangster. But Steve, who had relatives in Brooklyn, said that people there really spoke like that. It was also hard to understand Bob because he usually talked while holding a cigarette in one corner of his mouth. And even when he didn’t have a cigarette in his mouth, he still moved only one side of his mouth when he talked, like the actor George Raft in one of those mobster-underworld movies.
What was worse, a lot of the time, even when we could make out Bob’s words, we still didn’t know what he was talking about. What was a hoagie? Who ever heard of a hoagie? It turned out he was talking about a big sandwich of some kind. And what was a broad? Well, a broad was some kind of girl, apparently. There were a lot of words we had to learn in order to talk to him. And who knew these places that he talked about? Coney Island? The Catskill Mountains? Grossinger’s? And Flatbush Avenue – was that street really the center of the known universe?
It was the way he dressed, too, that made Bob seem kind of foreign. Usually, he was dressed in a tee shirt and pegged pants, pointy shoes and a leather motorcycle jacket. He was short of stature, his hair was red, cut in a ducktail style, his eyeglasses were horn-rimmed, and there was usually a pack of Luckies rolled into a sleeve of his tee shirt as well as a solitary cigarette stuck behind his ear. Although the way Bob dressed seemed to be an act – like he wanted to stand out, to be seen as a tough guy, maybe even a juvenile delinquent – it didn’t really fool anyone. There were some tough guys in school who wore motorcycle jackets, yes, but they actually came to school on motorcycles -- while Bob came on a bus. Besides, tough guys didn’t wear horn-rimmed glasses.
In any case, it turned out that he was just a little ahead of his time as far as his fashion sense was concerned. Before long, a lot of the guys in school were dressing the same way as Bob, wearing pegged pants and all that, probably because they were seeing that style in the movies. One such movie was Blackboard Jungle, about an inner-city school where a bunch of tough kids had taken control and were dictating the rules to the administrators and teachers. Maybe that was the kind of school Bob had come from, or wished he had come from.
Anyway, a few months went by and we gradually got used to Bob. We played ball a lot; it was easy to relate that way. Actually, Bob didn’t play ball that much, but he would talk ball a lot. At least we knew whom he was talking about when he went on about his team, the Brooklyn Dodgers: We were all baseball addicts -- and proof of our addiction was the loyalty that we demonstrated to our team, the woeful Washington Senators – so we knew about Duke and Campy and Oisk and Peewee and the rest of the Dodgers. When Bob would reminisce about the Dodgers, as he often did, they were forever playing the Giants at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn. Bob seemed not to know or to care that there were six other teams in the National League. And he seemed not to care that we had a major league team in Washington – because the only teams that mattered to him were the sanctified Dodgers and their eternal adversaries from Hell, the Giants. By the way, did I mention that Ebbets Field, the Dodgers’ stadium, was located on Flatbush Avenue?
After I had gotten to know Bob pretty well, he told me that he had been, for several years, a student at a yeshiva in Brooklyn -- the Yeshiva of Flatbush, as I seem to recall (which was definitely not the school portrayed in Blackboard Jungle.) He didn’t appear to mind one bit that he was no longer a yeshiva student. It was a matter of pride, however, for him to note that the yeshiva was located on Flatbush Avenue, not far from Ebetts Field. To be sure, Flatbush Avenue had become holy ground because of Ebetts Field and not because of the yeshiva. Sometimes I had a suspicion that Bob was “on the lam,” that he had escaped from the Yeshiva of Flatbush and was hiding out in Washington. I thought he might have planned to remain in Washington only until the bounty hunters from the yeshiva had given up searching for him. Then he would return willingly to his native habitat, hanging out in Ebetts Field by day and Coney Island by night, smoking cigarettes, shooting pool, talking to broads – in short, living the life of a Brooklyn aristocrat. In Washington he seemed to be like a fish out of water, whose only hope was for a quick release and a return to his natural element, which was Brooklyn.
It was in the spring of 1954, our senior year of high school, when the McCarthy Hearings (as they came to be known) were being conducted by a subcommittee of the U.S. Senate. Joe McCarthy was a Republican senator from Wisconsin, whose one and only political ambition was to expose and root out communists – real or imagined – from their jobs in the U.S. government. He claimed to have a list of more than two hundred communists who were employed by the State Department and were covertly collaborating with the Russians. McCarthy was neither the chairman nor the ranking member of this subcommittee, but he set the agenda and thoroughly dominated the proceedings with his bombastic accusations. The hearings were televised to a national audience – the first instance of such a broadcast – and immediately became “must-see TV” for millions of viewers. Truth be told, in those days there wasn’t much else to view on daytime TV. Unless you were infatuated with test patterns.
The McCarthy hearings had most of the elements of a soap opera: good guys and bad guys, dramatic accusations and equally dramatic counteraccusations, even an occasional innuendo concerning homosexuality. A femme fatale was the only element that was missing. The hearings were viewed by an estimated eighty million Americans and quickly became the topic of a national conversation. It was a soap opera staged more like grand opera, featuring a huge cast – McCarthy the star performer -- that played out every day, Monday through Friday, morning and afternoon, from early in the spring until early in the summer of 1954. And every day people would line up by the hundreds in the hallways of the Senate Office Building, hoping to gain admittance to the hearing room where they might become eyewitnesses to history.
By May of 1954 we were well into the second semester of our senior year of high school and most of us had received acceptance notices from one college or another. The days were already hot and humid, as one could expect at that time of the year in Washington, and the windows of the classrooms were opened wide because air conditioning was still a novelty and not available in any of the public schools -- or in any public building, for that matter. (Air-conditioned movie theaters were the favored places of refuge from the heat and humidity of Washington; it was worth the price of admission just to pass a couple of hours – or more, if the theater were showing a double feature – sitting in the theater and sipping an ice-cold Coca Cola.) During those days we spent more time gazing out the windows, dreaming of the summer to come and the college experience that awaited us by summer’s end, than we did attending to our teachers. So the invitation that Bob issued to me during the last week of May should not have come as a total surprise.
“Yo Zach, you innerested in goin’ downtown wit’ me tomorrow and seein’ Senator McCarty?”
This question seemed to come out of nowhere, after Bob and I happened to meet up in the boys’ bathroom, near the end of the last period. I had slipped out of the physics lab, and Bob had just finished band practice, and we didn’t have much time to talk because we both had to return to our classrooms. “Les you and me meet at da front door afta da bell rings,” Bob said, “and I’ll tell you wha’s the deal.”
So, we met at the front door after the three o’clock bell had sounded, dismissing us from school, and we started walking toward the bus stop. I was pondering what Bob had said to me in the bathroom.
“What did you mean, ‘seeing Senator McCarthy’?”
“Hey, y’ know, Senator McCarty, da guy who’s singlehanded savin’ dis country from da commies. I’m gonna go t’da hearings tomorrow, I wanna have a talk wit McCarty.” There were almost too many ideas in that brief statement for my brain to assimilate all at once.
“Wait,” I said. “For one thing, tomorrow’s Thursday. We have school tomorrow.”
“So? Whassa big deal? So what if we skip school fer one day, d’ya tink anybody will even care? When I was at P.S. 362 in Brooklyn, I used t’skip school all da time.”
“Bob, you’re not in Brooklyn anymore. And I think the people at our school do care. You know, we’re supposed to graduate in three weeks. Do you want to screw that up?”
By now the bus had arrived, and we climbed aboard. We Pwould be riding the bus for about fifteen minutes until we reached Bob’s stop, and that gave me time to consider what he had suggested. I hadn’t skipped a day of school in my life. But being a spectator at the McCarthy hearings would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, wouldn’t it? Probably millions of high school kids would jump at this opportunity, wouldn’t they? Except they lived in places like Topeka, Kansas, or Boston, or San Francisco, and I was living in Washington, D.C., just a few miles from the building where the hearings were taking place… and how could I not seize the opportunity? But wait, wouldn’t the vice-principal’s office notify my parents if I didn’t show up in school? And the reprimand I’d get from my parents could be worse than the reprimand from the school. And would Columbia, the college where I was going to be enrolled in the fall, be informed of my delinquency, and what would be the consequence of that?
Of course Bob had thought through all of these possibilities and was quite at ease with his plan. He proceeded to give me a civics lesson on board the bus.
“Look, tink about dis like it’s a field trip. Are ya learnin’ anyting in school dese days? Nuttin’, right? Ya jus’ sit dere and look out da windows, right? And yer sweatin’ so much yer shirt sticks t’ da back a’yer seat. D’ ya realize dat Senator McCarty, who’s a real Amercan patriot, is gonna change da course of histry? He’s exposin’ people at da State Department who wanna destroy our democracy! Did Miz Kellogg ever tell ya about comminists in da gov’ment? No, you never heard nuttin about dat in her Civics class. Dis school ought’a be proud dat we’re goin’ downtown t’learn first-hand about our gov’ment, and yer parents should be proud’a ya, too, and Columbia should be damn proud havin’ youse as one a’der students.”
By now we had arrived at Bob’s bus stop, but he decided to stay on the bus so that he could persevere in his effort to enlighten me (or corrupt me, as I saw it) about the educational benefits of his planned “field trip.” My resolve to resist his blandishments was rapidly weakening, I must admit. Not because Bob had persuaded me of McCarthy’s righteousness, or of my need for a civics refresher, but because I really wanted a day off from classes. This last semester of school had, ever since I received my letter of my acceptance to college, become anti-climactic. There really wasn’t any point in working hard to earn an “A,” because I was already accepted and a “C” wouldn’t have mattered. Bob was right, I was spending those spring days in school just daydreaming, either gazing out the window or gazing at the clock on the wall. So, why not? Why not go downtown and do something that would be perhaps “educational” but most definitely exciting?
We both got off the bus at my stop, and we walked together toward my house. “Bob,” I said, “didn’t you ever get in trouble when you skipped school, back in Brooklyn?”
“Nah, we used t’do it all da time and it wasn’t any big deal. How else were ya gonna watch da Dodgers play da Giants at Ebbetts Field if it was a tree-game series in da middle of da week and all da games were day games? Ya did what you had t’do. The principal used t’send notes home t’my parents, but he would giv’em t’me t’carry home, so my parents would’n ever get t’see ‘em. My ol’ man didn’t really care so long as I was getting’ good grades in school. I did get priddy good grades, if ya wanna know. He had much bigger problems wit’ my kid brudda, Nate, who was prackly a juvnile delinkent.”
You did what you had to do. Apparently that was how things worked in Brooklyn. I think I gained a great deal of insight into cultural relativism that day. Skipping school, I realized, was just a relative thing, a cultural thing. Like eating a hoagie or talking to a broad, it was just something you learned to do. Could I learn? I had never, before Bob, personally known anyone at Wilson High who had skipped school. Of course I had read Tom Sawyer, and I knew that Huckleberry Finn hardly ever went to school, and I remembered Mickey Rooney playing hooky in the movies -- but was I capable of doing that?
That business about daytime baseball games at Ebbets Field did, fortuitously, strike a chord with me. It was an indisputable fact that the baseball team we all followed in Washington, the Senators, were a poor excuse for a major league team. They finished last in the American League year after year, and there was no incentive on anyone’s part to skip school in order to watch them play. Except, that is, for one day every year: Opening Day, the first game of the baseball season, which was a very big deal in Washington. Everyone wanted to be at the stadium for that game, even the President of the United States attended every year. Opening Day would invariably be the only game of the entire season that would be a sell-out -- even standing-room tickets were available for purchase -- notwithstanding the team’s miserable prospects for the upcoming season.
Every schoolboy in Washington wished to be at the stadium for Opening Day. But there was one major obstacle standing in the way of that goal: Opening Day was always scheduled for the first Monday in April, and that day was definitely not a school holiday. Many a father was ready to take his son to the Opening Day game, but how could that be “legalized”? It would strain credulity if a hundred boys from the same school were to call in sick on the same day. So, an unwritten covenant had been created, which was binding upon the school administration and the parents: The kids would stay in school until lunchtime, when they would be spirited away by their parents, and the administration would pretend that they had been present in school for the whole day. And this could now serve me as a precedent, an unchallengeable excuse for me to attend the McCarthy hearings! If a kid could skip school for a baseball game, then, duh, couldn’t a kid skip school for a field trip to the U.S. Senate?!
“Okay, Bob, I’ll go with you tomorrow.” He looked me in the eye, as if to assure himself that I was serious. He was a little surprised but gratified that his civics lesson had apparently worked on me.
“Ya won’ regret it,” Bob said, “I guarantee it’ll be sometin’ you’ll always remember. And you’ll get t’meet Senator McCarty.”
We had almost reached my front door by now, but I didn’t want to go in the house yet. Even though I was feeling self-righteous about my impending truancy -- thanks to my confidence in the Opening Day argument that I had formulated -- I wasn’t ready to face my mother. I was sure that she would just look at my face and suspect me of plotting something nefarious. So I suggested to Bob that we walk back in the direction of the bus stop while we discussed plans for tomorrow.
Our plan was to leave home at the time we would usually leave for school, so that our parents wouldn’t suspect what we were up to, but instead of taking the bus headed north on Connecticut Ave, we would take the bus headed south, all the way to Pennsylvania Ave, where we would transfer to the streetcar that went up to Capitol Hill. The hearing in the Senate Office Building usually started at 10 am, and we hoped to arrive at least an hour early in order to secure a place in line. Food wasn’t permitted in the hearing room, we knew, but we could conceal some candy bars in our pants pockets and make that do for our lunch.
We arrived back at the bus stop just as a bus was approaching. We shook hands as Bob was getting on board the bus, as if to seal the deal, and I headed back to my house once again. It began to dawn on me, as I was walking, that I was looking forward to this adventure with Bob not only because of the civics lesson that he had promised but because the idea of skipping school was, in truth, a bit thrilling. Twelve years of elementary school, junior high school and high school – and only now, less than a month away from graduation, was I experiencing the thrill that comes with openly defying authority! I, Zach Green, was actually going to skip school, play hooky, become a truant! And wasn’t being a truant just a step away from being a juvenile delinquent? Thrilling thought!
Then I had some second thoughts: What about truant officers? Was there a truant officer at Wilson High School? I had read about truant officers in the newspaper, although I had never actually seen one. Did Wilson’s vice-principal, who was responsible for discipline at the school, automatically contact a truant officer whenever a kid skipped school? Or did he just send a note to the parents? If so, would he be giving me the note to take home, just like the principal did at Bob’s school in Brooklyn? Wait, let me think again about the truant officer: How did he actually do his job? Did he come to your home and arrest you, put you in handcuffs and all that? Could that really happen? Or am I exaggerating about all this, and in truth the vice-principal could hardly care about a senior who took a day off from school? Surely the vice-principal had a lot of other things on his mind these days, more important things.
There were a couple of other thoughts occupying my mind, though, as I stealthily entered my house, avoiding my mother, and walked upstairs to my bedroom. I couldn’t concentrate on the homework that my Latin teacher had assigned. Read a speech by Cicero? God, haven’t these speeches been translated into English by now? I couldn’t wait to be done with Famous Roman Orators. In three more weeks, I mused, I will have, thank God, read the last verse of Latin that I’ll ever have to read in my life. Lying on my bed and closing my eyes, I tried to focus on something that had been puzzling me: My friend Bob boasts that he is a conservative Republican and a supporter of Senator McCarthy; okay, but just when did that happen, and how did it happen? I didn’t know any kids in school whose families were far-right Republican. My parents and all their friends were liberal Democrats, and so, I believed, were Bob’s parents. When it came to politics, most of us kids just believed whatever our parents believed. What had happened to Bob?
In truth, my friend Bob had been consistently liberal in his outlook until just a few months ago, when Senator McCarthy began to dominate the headlines. He and I were both members of our high school’s Debate Club, and he would often choose to defend liberal positions on topics such as segregation (our school was segregated during the years we were enrolled there), labor unions, foreign policy and the like. He was sympathetic toward socialist causes, on occasion even expressing sympathy toward certain policies of the Soviet Union -- which I think he did just for the sake of provoking an argument. Bob really enjoyed the Debate Club, because he really enjoyed arguing. I suspect that had been part of his education at the Yeshiva of Flatbush: learning to argue. So, maybe that was the whole deal about McCarthy: he just wanted to argue with everyone, so he was acting like he was a “super patriot “ who agreed with everything McCarthy said or did but in reality didn’t mean it.
Then I was troubled by something else Bob had mentioned concerning our trip to Capitol Hill tomorrow. He said that he was planning to meet with McCarthy while we were at the hearing. How on earth was he going to pull that off? We would be lucky simply to gain admission to the hearing room, and how could he possibly arrange a one-on-one meeting with the senator? And if he did try, and I was with him, wasn’t I going to feel like an absolute idiot? No, if that’s what he wanted to do, he would have to do it on his own -- while I would be riding the streetcar on my way back home. But I couldn’t dismiss the possibility that Bob would succeed; he certainly had what people in Brooklyn would call moxie. He had tried to explain that word to me -- I think it meant something like confidence, or maybe overconfidence.
I got up from my bed, picked up the Famous Roman Orators book and proceeded to read the Cicero thing, because, I had to admit, I really did want to get an “A” in Latin, even if it wouldn’t matter as far as Columbia was concerned. Then I heard my mother’s voice calling from downstairs, “Zach, your father’s home, it’s time for dinner.” I wasn’t looking forward to dinner with my parents, because I was sure I would be displaying a guilty expression on my face, and my parents would notice that immediately. Also, for Wednesday dinner my mother always served a tuna fish casserole, which I had been eating for at least twelve years by now. I wanted to say goodbye to the tuna fish casserole just as fervently as I wanted to say goodbye to Famous Roman Orators. Wouldn’t it be funny, though, if the menu at the Columbia College cafeteria were to include tuna fish casserole on Wednesdays?
My father was seated at the table when I came downstairs. My mother had already set a bowl of tomato soup at my place. After saying “hi” to my father, I sat and kept my head down while I spooned the soup into my mouth. My face felt hot, and I thought that if I were to look up my father would notice my flushed cheeks and would ask if I was all right. Instead, he was, of a sudden, consumed by a vicarious nostalgia.
“Well, Zach, your high school career is going to be over in three weeks, isn’t it?”
“Yes, Dad, I suppose so.”
“I can remember when I was in your shoes, a senior in high school. The best days of my life. You’ll miss Wilson, too, eventually, so just cherish every day that you’re in school. I know that you won’t slack off during these last few weeks, that you’ll make every day count.”
I was sure that by now my cheeks were the same color as the tomato soup that I was spooning into my mouth. All I could muster by way of reply to my father was, “I will, Dad.”
“Zach, I’ve hung your clothes for tomorrow on a hangar in your closet.” That was my mother speaking, but I didn’t know what clothes she was referring to, and I looked at her blankly. “You haven’t forgotten, have you,” said my mother, “that tomorrow is the day for your class picture?”
Ohmygod. Oh. My. God. Of course I had forgotten! In all likelihood there had been an announcement over the school’s PA system shortly before today’s closing bell, to remind everybody about the next day’s photo shoot, but of course that was probably when Bob and I were talking in the boys’ bathroom. Ohmygod. I’ve got to talk to Bob. There’s no way we can go to the McCarthy hearings tomorrow! If my picture were not to appear in the Wilson yearbook, and if I were not to be included among the three hundred and thirty other seniors gathered on the front steps of the school for the graduating class picture – because I had played hookie that day – my parents would never speak to me again.
It was absolutely essential that I get on the phone with Bob and cancel our plans for tomorrow. But we had only one telephone in the house and it was in the kitchen. And my parents were in the kitchen. My mother would be remaining in the kitchen for some while after dinner, too, cleaning up, even after she had washed the dishes and I had dried them. Should I, maybe, volunteer to do the clean-up, and that would get her out of the kitchen early? No, that would be suspicious, since I hadn’t volunteered to do the clean-up ever before in my life. Maybe I could go down the street to my friend Jack’s house and use his phone. But then I would have to call Jack to let him know I was coming -- and tell him why I was coming -- wouldn’t I?
I finished my dinner quickly (after just two spoonfuls of the casserole) and went back upstairs to my bedroom. I could see, hanging in my closet, the neatly ironed shirt and newly dry-cleaned suit and necktie that my mother had prepared for me. The senior class pictures were a big deal for my parents. I lay on the bed and thought about my options. One option, maybe the only one available, would be simply to stand up Bob, not meet him at the bus stop but go to school as usual. He could go to the hearings by himself, he didn’t really need me.
But wait, didn’t I have a duty, as a friend, to remind him about the photo shoot? Wouldn’t his parents be angry, just like mine, if they found out he missed the photo shoot because he had skipped school? I had to do something. So I continued to lie there and ponder. While pondering, I glanced at the poster that I had taped to the wall above my desk: It was a full-length photo of Sammy Bought, the Washington Redskins’ quarterback -- whom I idolized -- posing in his glorious burgundy-and-gold Redskins uniform. That reminded me that Bob (who wasn’t a fan of football, only baseball) had a poster of Senator McCarthy taped to the wall above his desk.
“Zach! You have a phone call! It’s Bob on the phone!” That was my mother’s voice, calling from the kitchen and interrupting my reverie.
“Thanks, Mom,” I shouted, “I’ll be down in a minute.” And to myself I added, “Thank you, God!” Bob had no doubt learned about tomorrow’s photo shoot, too, and that would be the reason he was calling. My mom was still in the kitchen cleaning up, so I picked up the receiver and, stretching the telephone cord to its limit, walked into the adjoining pantry while holding the receiver snugly against my ear. With my back turned toward my mom, Bob and I carried on our phone conversation. Bob did most of the talking, and I needed only to respond with the occasional “hmmn” or “yeah,” so that my mother wouldn’t have any clue as to what we were discussing. Matters were settled quickly: We would postpone our trip for a day, until Friday, but nothing else would change.
As I carried the telephone receiver back into kitchen, I though that my mom, who seemed to have lingered longer than usual after putting away the dishes, was looking at me kind of funny. She must have thought it odd that I had uttered only a few monosyllabic words in the course of a five-minute conversation with Bob.
“Is Bob planning to show up for the photo shoot tomorrow?” My mom’s question took me by surprise.
“Sure, why wouldn’t he be there?”
“Well, you know…because he’s Bob. Do you really think he cares that much about being included in the class picture? And does he even own a necktie?”
Bob had visited our house many times during the past three years, occasionally staying for dinner. Once, after a Wednesday dinner, he had even praised my mom’s tuna fish casserole, which showed how much moxie the guy had. But, on the other hand, he hadn’t been shy about letting my parents know that skipping school every now and then wasn’t really such a big deal.
“Don’t worry, Mom,” I replied, “he’ll be there. His dad has ordered him to be there. And he’ll be wearing a necktie.”
When I met up with Bob at school Thursday morning, he was wearing a checked sport coat, over a pink dress shirt and a knitted tie. We posed for the class picture on the steps in front of the main entrance to the school, with the girls standing on the lower steps and the boys on the higher steps. This was an arrangement that didn’t necessarily make a lot of sense, since several of the girls on the lower steps were taller than the guys standing behind them. In the published photo Bob’s face is barely visible, poking out between two blond bouffants. Anyway, he showed up, and I did, too. We both made our parents happy.
Friday morning, we met up at the bus stop near my home and set out for Capitol Hill. Bob was wearing the same clothes he had worn to the photo shoot the day before. I just had on a collared shirt and chinos. Bob talked animatedly, during the long bus trip downtown, about the important work that was being done by Sen. McCarthy in these hearings, how he was the only one in the Senate who was standing up for our democracy. He inveighed against the “lily-livered liberals” who would sell us out to the communists, etc., etc. I had heard all this stuff from Bob before, but, aside from Sen. McCarthy himself, I had not heard anyone else talk like that. Then, again, I had never before met anyone from Brooklyn. Maybe this was another example of cultural relativism. Bob further emphasized to me how important it was for us to attend the hearing, so that we could demonstrate our support for McCarthy and, if possible, communicate our support to him personally.
We arrived at the Senate Office Building a few minutes after nine a.m. The Senate Caucus Room, where the hearing was to take place, was at the end of a long corridor, and we could see that there was already a sizeable number of hopeful spectators standing in a queue that stretched about the length of a football field. The doors to the hearing room would open only at ten minutes to ten, just prior to the start of the hearing, and the spectators knew they could expect standing-room-only, since most of the seats were allocated to the press corps and government officials. We took our places in the queue, recognizing that we had only a slim chance of being admitted. Only two hundred spectators could be accommodated, we were told by the guards, and we estimated that there were at least three hundred people ahead of us.
Promptly at ten minutes to ten the doors were opened and people began to file in. By the time the doors were closed there were still fifty or so people waiting ahead of us. The guard at the entrance explained that more spectators could be admitted only when those who were inside exited (presumably because they had tired of standing.) We figured that we might need to wait a couple of hours before being admitted, if we were to be admitted at all. I was resigned to quitting, but that option was, of course, the thing farthest from the Mind of Bob.
“Jus’ stay where y’are and hold our place in da line,” Bob instructed me, “and when I signal t’ya, come t’da entrance where da guard is standin’. I’m gonna talk t‘da guard.”
“What are you --- ,” I started to say, but Bob was gone. I didn’t know exactly what he had in mind, but I was sure that he was going to employ some of his Brooklyn moxie and that the result would cause me embarrassment. I watched as he walked toward the entrance – effectively jumping the queue – and approached the guard. I tried unsuccessfully to avert my gaze as Bob engaged the guard in conversation for a full minute or more, while occasionally gesticulating in my direction. Then, abruptly, he looked directly at me and waved his right arm excitedly, motioning for me to join him at the entrance to the hearing room.
I hurried down the corridor to the head of the line, in front of the entrance, where I saw Bob and the guard shaking hands. Immediately upon my arrival the guard pulled the door open and the two of us were ushered inside. The hearing had not yet been called to order, but I could see the senators all seated on a long, arcuate dais – and, yes, there was Joe McCarthy, bigger than life, seated near one end of the dais. We wedged ourselves into a crowd of people standing in a side aisle of the room. I was dumbfounded to find myself actually inside the hearing room, and I urgently wanted to ask Bob how on earth he had contrived to make this happen; but the chairman of the committee, Senator Karl Mundt, was now pounding his gavel and calling the session to order.
From our position in the side aisle, near the front of the room, we had a pretty good view of the proceedings. A lot of the faces on the dais and in front of the dais looked familiar: Joe McCarthy; Senator Mundt, the chairman; Roy Cohn, chief counsel for McCarthy; Robert Stevens, the Secretary of the Army; Joseph Welch, counsel for Stevens; Ray Jenkins, counsel for the subcommittee; and a lot of other senators and special counsels. Those were the faces that had been appearing daily on the nation’s television screens and on countless magazine covers. Most unforgettable was the sinister face of Roy Cohn, who was seated directly behind McCarthy and constantly leaning forward to whisper words of venom into the senator’s ear. Those words would, after a few seconds’ delay, then issue from McCarthy’s mouth. Was it possible that our faces might be appearing on TV, too? The TV camera would occasionally scan the packed ranks of spectators, and we made sure to wedge ourselves deeper into the crowd whenever it seemed that the camera was pivoting in our direction.
It was not only the faces of the participants that seemed so familiar, it was their voices, too – and most of all it was the voice of Joe McCarthy. McCarthy did not disappoint: He really did speak in a nasal sort of drone, drawing out the letter “r” as he repeatedly intoned, “Misterr Cherrman, Misterr Cherrman! A point of orderr…” We loved that line, which had become familiar to TV viewers nation-wide and identified as McCarthy’s mantra. Bob had perfected his mimicry of “Misterr Cherrman…”, using it to hilarious effect during recent meetings of our Debate Club. The debate that was going on before our eyes was hard to comprehend, however, as McCarthy and the lawyers were constantly interrupting the testimony of Secretary Stevens with one objection after another, all of them based on technicalities that were far beyond us. I found it exhilarating to be there, nonetheless, in part because I thought we were witnessing something historical, and in part because I wasn’t sitting in a hot, humid and boring classroom.
During the course of the hearing some of the spectators exited and we managed to position ourselves close to a deeply recessed window, which afforded us the opportunity to hoist ourselves up onto the windowsill and gain an even better view of the dais. But after twenty minutes or so we were spotted by one of the guards, who ordered down from our comfortable perch. So we were forced to rejoin the crowd of standing spectators. At about 12:30 pm, Chairman Mundt again pounded his gavel and announced a recess for lunch; the committee would reconvene at 2 pm. By now we had been on our feet, or perched on a windowsill, for more than three hours, and I was grateful for the recess. I was eager to find some place, indoors or outdoors, where we could sit and eat our Hershey bars. But that wasn’t the Mind of Bob.
“Look,” Bob said, “I checked da direct’ry, and Senator McCarty’s office is upstairs, on da tird floor of dis building.”
“So?” I was feigning surprise, because Bob’s intentions were obvious.
“We should go upstairs an’ meet da senator, tell’im dat he’s doing a great job. He’ll probly stop by his office, eider before lunch or afta lunch.”
I made a half-hearted attempt to argue with my friend. “What makes you think that the senator wants to meet with you? You’re not even one of his constituents. You’re not from Brooklyn, Wisconsin, are you?”
“No, but I’m Amercan, and Joe McCarty’s workin’ for da good of all d’Amercan people.”
“Look, Bob, I need to sit down and I need to eat something.”
We compromised. We found a bench farther down the corridor where we could sit for a short while and eat our candy bars, and then we would go upstairs to McCarthy’s office. I knew that nothing would come of that expedition, that it would just be a waste of time and that we would soon be on our way back home.
“Y’know,” Bob reminded me, “we can’t go back home dis early anyways. We can’t show up at home before tree-tirty at da soonest.”
He had a point. A good point. Our parents would certainly ask why we had returned home from school so early. After we finished eating, we rode an elevator up to the third floor. I followed Bob down another long corridor, gradually dropping farther behind as we neared McCarthy’s office. Bob entered the office and, after hesitating or a minute or two, I followed him in. The outer office was empty, and we sat down on a sofa. Soon a receptionist appeared and Bob rose to greet her.
“How do you do, Ma’am. I’m Robert Kaufman and I’m here to see Senator McCarthy.” It was remarkable how his diction had improved all of a sudden. And he spoke with such self-assurance. To me, this was yet another awesome display of Bob’s moxie.
“I’m sorry,” she said, “the senator is not in.”
“That’s okay, Ma’am, we’ll wait.”
The receptionist arched her eyebrows but said nothing, so we sat down again. When a half-hour had passed, with no one coming or going, I suggested to Bob that his quest was futile and we should visit the cafeteria in the basement, where we could have a decent lunch. He agreed, reluctantly, and we exited the office. Bob turned left, believing that to be the route to the closest elevator. But I was sure that there was an elevator close by on the right and I called for him to follow me. At that moment, as we turned right and started walking down the corridor, I became transfixed by the approach of a tall, stately and gorgeous woman, walking in the direction of the office that we had just exited.
Walking beside this striking-looking young woman, holding her arm, was a burly middle-aged man with a balding head. I was so taken with the woman that I scarcely took notice of her escort. But Bob took notice immediately and approached the man -- who was, of course, none other than Senator McCarthy -- and eagerly began shaking the senator’s hand and, at the same time, unloading what was no doubt a well-rehearsed speech:
“Senator, I’m Robert Kaufman, and I want you to know that I’m extremely proud of the work you’re doing for this country, and all good Americans are proud of you, and we need to expose and get rid of every commie and every pinko…” No joke, his diction really had improved. It was like we were back in Debate Club.
By this time Mrs. McCarthy had slipped away and entered a nearby ladies’ room, and the senator was becoming a bit impatient with Bob’s peroration, so he interrupted and, putting his arm around Bob’s shoulders, began to speak in his famous drone: “Son, we need the support of patriotic young people like you, and with your help we can win this fight…” Then they walked together into the senator’s office, McCarthy’s arm still around Bob’s shoulders, presumably to continue their conversation and share ideas about the future of the country. It was something of a revelation for me to hear McCarthy speaking without any prompts from Roy Cohn. At times during the morning hearing, I had fantasized that Cohn, his mouth never more than a couple of inches away from McCarthy’s ear, was actually feeding words into the mouth of a dummy, as if Cohn were the well-known ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and the senator was his dummy, Charlie McCarthy. (I’m not making this up: Bergen had actually named his dummy “Charlie McCarthy.”)
Shrinking behind the two of them, I paused at the entrance to the outer office, where the receptionist caught sight of me and asked if I would be joining my friend in the senator’s private office. I muttered some sort of clumsy demurral as I slinked away, and, after wandering about the corridor for a while, I found my way to the cafeteria for a bite to eat.
The reason I wandered about for a bit was that the elevator was not down the corridor to the right, in which direction I turned once again, but to the left, as Bob had originally assumed. But where would Bob have found himself if we had turned left? Not in McCarthy’s office, you can be sure, but in an elevator. Years later, when I would reflect on this serendipitous turn of fortune, it would bring to my mind a Robert Frost poem: “Two roads diverged in a wood…I took the one…and that has made all the difference.”
I did not return to the Senate Caucus Room for that afternoon’s hearing, but I did linger in the cafeteria until past two o’clock, hoping to time my departure from Capitol Hill so that I would arrive home at the usual time, at about half-past three. My parents never found out where I had been. The vice-principal never contacted a truant officer. I didn’t see Bob again that day, after he and McCarthy entered the senator’s office, but I had no doubt that Bob would be staying for the afternoon hearing. Maybe McCarthy, for all I know, invited him to take a seat on the dais, right behind the senator and next to Roy Cohn. (When I met up with him the next day, he would neither confirm nor deny that scenario.) McCarthy was censured by the Senate in December, 1954, after which his political career was effectively over. He died two and-a-half years later, of alcoholism, leaving behind a twenty-six-year-old widow. McCarthy had married for the first time only a year prior to our encounter with him and his wife, Jean, outside his office. Jean was less than half his age, and she was, as Bob observed at the time, “a beeyootiful broad, a real lookah.”
Bob soon recovered from his fling with McCarthyism, becoming a born-again liberal Democrat, but he was never quite able to explain – to us or to himself -- why he been so infatuated with McCarthy. I think it had something to do with Brooklyn, with the need to project a tough-guy image, an image of a guy who possessed real moxie. He liked to emulate tough guys, and McCarthy was certainly a good model. I never learned much about the content of the discussion Bob had with McCarthy that day in the senator’s office, but I’m sure he wasn’t reticent when it came to expressing his opinions, and I’m sure McCarthy listened in appreciative wonderment.
Eventually, Bob became a highly respected physician and the father of three children, living in a suburb of Washington, D.C., in a big house with a swimming pool, and studiously cultivating a taste for French wine. And he always voted Democratic. But I remember him when he was a kid from a place called Brooklyn, who had seemed like a foreigner when he arrived at Wilson High School in Washington, D.C. What do I think about that now? Well, I would say that it takes no time at all to remove a kid from Brooklyn and relocate him to an altogether unfamiliar city, but it takes a lot of time to remove Brooklyn from the kid. That much I can say.
Oh, I did learn one more thing, which Bob confided to me several weeks after we had attended the hearing. How, I asked, had he managed to jump the queue and get us inside the hearing room? He told me that when he approached the guard at the entrance, he said that we were on assignment from our school newspaper and that we ought to be seated with the press corps. The guard appeared dubious about that, so Bob shook hands with the guard -- while pressing a couple of dollar bills into his palm.
By god, that guy really did have moxie!
Elliot Wilner is a retired neurologist, living in Bethesda, MD. Since his retirement, he has – with his wife’s indulgence – enjoyed a long-deferred dalliance with writing.Elliot Wilner has submitted numerous essays, stories and poems to literary journals, and several have been published. He will attest that he has never received a penny for any of his published pieces.