Amherst Magazine

The David Perry Report

 Excerpts on AmherstCollege  from “The David Perry Report”
prepared for his 50thReunion at Noble and GreenoughSchool

Admission

Eugene S. “Bill” Wilson, Amherst’s own legendary Dean of Admissions was kind enough to see me one Saturday morning. Arriving with my father at the appointed hour, we were ushered into Dean Wilson’s office. Introductions made and pleasantries exchanged, Dean Wilson turned to my father and said that inasmuch as he was not applying for admission, it would be appropriate for him to take a walk around the campus while he spoke with me. I do not know if my father expected to be in on the interview or not, but I think he was a bit surprised when told to take a hike. Looking back on the remark, I can see that it was very carefully framed in such a way that one could either be amused or take offense. The interview, it seems, was already underway. My father smiled and allowed as how that sounded like a good idea. I talked with Dean Wilson for quite a while on a wide range of subjects. As the interview was coming to a close, I indicated to him that I had so far only applied to Amherst and Princeton. Even though acceptances were not going out for a while, I wondered if he might give me some indication of my prospects. If they were slim or none, I needed to get some applications in elsewhere. In response, he asked what my first choice of schools might be. I indicated that Amherst was my first choice. He then said, quite casually, “well I guess if you like us that much, we like you that much,” and I was in – just like that. I could hardly believe it.

Classes

Steve Grant and I were introduced that fall to Amherst’s famous “core curriculum,” subjects that every student was obliged to take during their freshman and sophomore years. Ranging freshman year from a creative English writing course at one end of the spectrum to a calculus-physics course on the other, it was intended to be a sort of Marine Corps boot camp of the mind. And it was. No one came away unscathed. The grading was brutal. The program was intended to make it clear that you were nowhere near as smart as you thought you were, and it succeed masterfully at that. The program was also intended to teach you how to think critically within a wide range of disciplines and to introduce you to liberal arts in general before allowing you to major or specialize in one area or another during your junior and senior years. The creative English writing course was fun for me, but it wasn't until the end of the first semester that Professor Theodore Baird boosted my ego even a little bit. Commenting on my response to a question raised in class, he was gracious enough to say: “Mr. Perry that is the first intelligent thing you have said all year.” But calculus, especially when combined with physics, was very near myWaterloo. The fact is, I never really mastered either differential calculus, with all those dy / dx formulae, or integral calculus, with all those damn seahorses. Patient tutoring by Professor Atherton Sprague and some brute memorization allowed me to just chin the bar. I wasn't much better in physics. I can recall an afternoon when a laboratory partner and I were wrestling with a calorimeter experiment and having little success.  Professor Arnold Arons, who did not suffer fools gladly, stopped by to inquire just what the problem was. We indicated that we were not obtaining the expected results. He stated that we needed to try a good deal harder as he thought it unlikely we were going to disprove a law of thermodynamics well established since Newton's time.

Sophomore year was easier, as the subjects in the core curriculum lacked the sort of edge that characterized those of our freshman year. Among these were a two-semester course on the first half of the 20th-century, divided for the most part on events leading up to and during the First and Second World Wars. The course was taught by Dwight Salmon, a colorful and beloved professor of history with a keen knowledge of military affairs. The students nicknamed the course “guns n’ boats.” It was terrific and I got to know the professor very well. I ended up majoring in American history. During my senior year, I helped Professor Salmon grade guns n’ boats exam papers and took a course of individual study under him on the effects of strategic bombardment campaigns during the Second World War.

Beer and Skittles

Just as life is not all beer and skittles, college life is not all academics. I pledged Beta Theta Pi fraternity in the spring of my freshman year. It soon became the center of my social life at Amherst. Students generally lived in college dormitories their first two years at Amherst and then moved off to live in fraternity houses during their junior and senior years. I was Social Chairman, House Manager and Vice President during my senior year. We tapped beer every Friday and Saturday night, as did other Amherst fraternities, but as one of the leading jock or animal houses, we had a more robust budget than most. There were several hard liquor parties as well during the year, including our traditional shrimp cocktail and whisky sour party in the fall and a spring party at which was served a legendary refreshment known among the brothers as “skip-and-go-naked punch.” Mixed in a large plastic garbage can from a complex set of ingredients, it makes long island ice tea (a drink not then invented) look like a simple beverage. It was as stealthy as it was semi-lethal. A clever jungle juice concoction believed to have been originally created by brothers returning from the Second World War on the G.I. Bill.  The fraternity was a fairly rowdy sort of place with a work hard, play hard attitude. Too many crazy things happened to relate them here. Suffice it to say that when the movie Animal House was released in 1978, I exited the theater with a large throng of people including two elderly ladies one of whom exclaimed “why nothing like that could ever have possibly happened!” I was unable to restrain myself from intruding on their conversation by remarking, “Oh madam, I don’t think you quite understand, what you just saw was a documentary!” Both of them retreated in absolute horror. A number of the more outrageous of these events allowed me to hone my advocacy skills, as I was frequently deputized by the brothers to visit the Dean’s Office to explain why we should not be put on social probation. We were not, but it was a very near thing.

Learning the Beverage Business

My tour of duty as Social Chairman offered some interesting lessons on how the world works. The fraternity had traded with a particular package store for a number of years. I thought it would be a good idea to get a competitive quote from the other package store in town. Prices for alcoholic beverages were fixed by law, but I knew that special deals were sometimes done nonetheless. Dealing with a fraternity where a good portion of the brothers were not of legal drinking age, exposed a package store to some very serious legal risks. But no one could remember a day when either of the package stores in town got nicked. I was soon to learn all about such things.

I started off by introducing myself to the proprietor of our regular package store and indicated my interest in a competitive quote on the pricing of the beer and hard liquor that we would likely require for the year. His response was that we could get to that in due course but he first wanted to know what I was going to do about the bills outstanding. I was appalled to learn that my predecessor had run up over $800 in unpaid bills (more than $5,450 in today’s dollars). I was perfectly well aware that none of the brothers would have the slightest interest in paying off those bills, and I was also perfectly well aware that if they were not taken care of in a satisfactory way, the college would surely hear about it. Frustrated that competitive pricing was not an option, I told the proprietor that we would work off the unpaid bills as the year went along, although I had at the time no idea how I would be able to accomplish that. He readily agreed to my payment plan,  no doubt delighted that he had secured our business for the year on a captive basis. He then proposed, as far as the beer was concerned, that he deliver one free keg of beer for every five kegs we ordered. Deal done.

I placed our first order for Schaeffer beer, a standard non-premium out of New York. It wasn’t great, but the price was right. Shortly thereafter, two rather beefy Anheuser- Busch representatives showed up at the fraternity house one afternoon asking for me.  They didn't beat about the bush (so to speak), coming right out and asking what it would take for me to order Budweiser instead of Schaeffer. I indicated that we would gladly drink Budweiser but we couldn't afford it unless the price was the same or less. They indicated that, as a premium beer, it couldn't be offered at a lower price to the package store but perhaps there was something they could do to make it worth my while in another way. They then proposed an arrangement whereby they would visit once a month and reimburse me in cash for the difference in price based upon receipts for the number of kegs purchased, with a little something extra for my trouble. I took them up on their offer. One of them then took out a large roll of bills, peeled off a couple of $20 bills, and handed them to me saying that they would be back. The fraternity now drank premium beer to great acclaim, and I turned in the cash to the package store.  Reimbursement for the price differential on the fifth keg we received as a discount plus my trouble money of $40 a month began to eat away at the unpaid bills. Not enough to pay them all off by the end of the year, of course, but a new opportunity to do so soon appeared.

As in most college towns, town and gown in Amherst were two entirely separate worlds.  I enjoyed living in both worlds and became very good friends with Elliott Thornton, our fraternity janitor. When there were no interfering morning classes, I generally went with him for a morning coffee break at the Town House Restaurant in downtown Amherst. It was a gathering place for many of the locals and, in the morning, the only place in town where runners hung out to take down bets on ponies, dogs and numbers. Chris, who owned the restaurant, loved to play the ponies and laid down some major bets. Bitching one day about having to pay the package store for the hard liquor we needed, Chris offered to help. He purchased whatever I needed, sold it to me for cash at the wholesale price, and stashed it in the service alley behind the restaurant for pickup after closing in the dead of night. Like all good business arrangements, it worked well for both of us.  Chris got to deduct the purchase price as a restaurant business expense and pocket the cash. I got to apply the under budget savings toward the remaining bills outstanding,  which turned out to be just enough to pay them all off by the end of the year.

The reason the package stores in town never got nicked became clear to me as a result of a chance visit to our package store one morning and the answers to some questions I later had for Chris. When I entered the store, it was empty save for a clerk and the proprietor who was engaged in quiet conversation with another gentleman way in back. The clerk asked what he could do for me. As I was on a cash delivery errand and wanted a receipt from the proprietor, I thanked him and indicated that I wanted to speak with the boss. He told me it might be a few minutes, perhaps hoping I would come back later. In any case,  I wandered about the store looking at the stock for about five or ten minutes when I noticed the clerk out of the corner of my eye take a bottle down from the shelf, put it in a brown paper bag, and place it on the counter nearest the door. It seemed a little odd,  since no one else was around. Shortly thereafter, the gentleman came out from the back and, without stopping to pay, picked up the bag on his way out. The proprietor came out and apologized for the delay, saying he had to deal with an A.B.C. Inspector who did not like to be kept waiting. Chris later explained how it all worked. In return for a not too rigorous examination of records and procedures or for overlooking anything but the most egregious infractions, the inspector makes his preference in liquor known. A bottle of the liquor is discreetly slipped to him at the end of each visit. The inspector takes it back to his car and fills up cartons in his trunk. When one or two cases are full, he visits a wholesaler who buys what he has for cash at less than the producer’s normal price. The wholesaler then puts the bottles back into inventory and resells them at a higher than normal profit.

Don’t Go Near the Water

Dave Riall was Beta Theta Pi’s President and Captain of Amherst's wrestling team our senior year. Dave and I represented our chapter at the fraternity's annual convention held in August, 1962, at a large resort in Ashville, North Carolina. It was my first trip south of the Mason Dixon line, and an eye-opening experience. Dave’s chief wrestling rival through his high school and college years was Jim Ferguson, who was, by coincidence,  President of the Beta Theta Pi chapter at Wesleyan and Captain of its wrestling team as well. We arrived in Ashville a day ahead of the kickoff of the annual convention. About one o'clock in the morning we were roused out of bed by a call from one of the hotel’s reception desk clerks who indicated that he had a very serious problem on his hands.  Asked what that might be, he said that no Negroes were permitted to stay at the resort or to use any of its facilities. Dave and I had never thought twice about the fact that Jim was black. Refused a room even though he had a reservation, Jim had asked to speak to Dave. We argued it out with the desk clerk to no avail, who simply said that he would be fired if he allowed Jim to register. We dressed, went downstairs and, over the clerk's objections, invited Jim to stay in our room for the night. We told the clerk that we would take the matter up with fraternity officers and his boss in the morning. Although discrimination of this kind was no doubt familiar to Jim, it certainly was not familiar to us, and we were outraged. By the time we got down to breakfast, the entire management of the hotel was well informed of the situation and quite ready to enforce its discriminatory rules by having Jim evicted. Dave and I immediately got in touch with the President and other senior officers of the fraternity, indicating our outrage and unwillingness to participate in the convention unless Jim was allowed to stay and fully participate. He was, after all, President of one of the fraternity’s chapters at a major university. One of the interesting things about Beta Theta Pi (founded in 1839 at MiamiUniversity in Oxford, Ohio) was that its charter never included an exclusionary clause based upon race, religion or national origin, unlike most other fraternities. But, in most areas, particularly in the South and in the Midwest, it was certainly exclusionary in practice based upon prejudice alone. The negotiations over this with the management of the hotel and with fraternity officers, who were 30 + years our senior and nowhere near as sympathetic as they should have been, were intense to say the least. The situation also split fraternity chapters over the matter, with Southern chapters lobbying for an enforcement of the rules and others lining up in support of our position. In the end, a rather shameful bargain was struck. Jim would be allowed to register, stay at the hotel and fully participate as a delegate to the convention, provided he agreed not to use the swimming pool. The civil rights movement had a long road ahead.

Dining at Joe’s

Joe's Diner was easily the most colorful restaurant in Amherst. Venerable it was, elegant it was not. A very small railroad car sized Diner wedged in the back of a narrow L-shaped alleyway between three other buildings, it catered primarily to locals and to students looking for a late-night beer and something to eat. Walking down one leg of the alleyway, you entered the Diner to find a couple of small tables to your left and the main portion of the Diner running at a right angle down the other leg. The main portion of the Diner was barely large enough to manage an aisle, a row of stools, a narrow lunch counter and a galley kitchen. Joe, who was the night cook but not the owner, presided every evening. Silver haired, with a complexion the color of library paste, he chain smoked Chesterfields while he worked, one almost always dangling from his lips. The food was typical American diner fare but for one special dish of Joe’s invention that was a great hit with students. The dish had different names depending upon the circumstances. Joe insisted that it be called an "unmentionable" if there were any ladies present. If no ladies were present it could more familiarly be referred to as a "shit burger." It consisted of a hamburger patty or two, melted cheese, fried onions and a fried egg (all swimming in grease) in a toasted bun. A dash of ash from one of Joe’s Chesterfields no doubt occasionally went in there as well. Along with the usual condiments, it was a truly formidable dish.

What made the place unique, however, were the many fabulous local characters that also frequented it – Brad, the Senator, Frenchy, Midnight Mary, and the Rat Catcher among them. Art Tague, one of my closest friends in college, and I really loved the place and we were down there very frequently of an evening after having hit the books.  Brad was a Middlebury graduate with a degree in chemistry who worked at UMass as a chemistry laboratory assistant during our time. He was also a profound alcoholic, drinking steadily all evening long. The remarkable thing was that he had a prodigious, nearly photographic memory of the works of Shakespeare and would almost always win a game he liked to play with students (a beer being on the line). A quote from one of the works of Shakespeare would be offered up by the first contestant as a challenge to the other to quote back the following line. If the responder was successful, he got to offer up the next quote for a response and so on. The first to miss a responding line bought the beer. He drove students – English majors in particular – absolutely crazy with this because they underestimated him, thinking him just a town drunk, and because he usually let them go first.

The Senator was my nickname for a tall, rather gaunt, gentleman probably in his early 60s who would appear from time to time, always in the bag. As far as I can remember he never spoke to anyone other than Joe, and then only to order a beer. He always took up a standing position at the end of the aisle facing an old-fashioned cigarette machine with a large mirror. Between sips of beer, he would deliver rambling, grandiloquent, and largely nonsensical political speeches in the rather florid style of William Jennings Bryan. I never learned who he was or what his background was – no one seemed to know. Everyone just ignored him and simply let him be.

Frenchy was the town's nickname for a small, feisty French-Canadian local who made his living as a janitor or day laborer around town, never holding any one job for any length of time. He could be quite a handful when he had a heat on and was almost always in some kind of trouble. What made him interesting were the stories he made up and told about his early life in the North Woods. They were real whoppers, fully in the Paul Bunyan tradition. Frenchy, however, did not take well to any suggestion that his stories were anything other than God's own truth. If questioned, Frenchy would jump up and challenge anyone to a fight. Joe would have to throw him out on those nights.

Midnight Mary was our nickname for a truly tragic soul. Born of a poor local Polish farm family, she was as homely as God ever made any creature and of more than ample girth. Denied any advantages in life, including anything more than a rudimentary education, she fended for herself as best she could as a cleaning lady and as a lady of the night for the temporary pleasure of assorted low-life characters around town. As such,  she was branded the town whore, someone to be looked down upon by those who had no one else to look down upon. As she did not come into the Diner all that often and as seating in the Diner was at random, it was quite a while before I happened to sit next to her and engage her in a conversation. The conversation itself was of no special consequence, but I found her to be very pleasant and extraordinarily cheerful given her lot in life, hardly someone to be looked down upon by anybody in any way. One late night when I was helping Joe close up, I asked about her. Joe turned to me, became very serious, and told me of her background. He said that she truly had a heart of gold, was generous to a fault within her means, and had helped a lot of people in need. She did not deserve the public scorn she had to bear. Joe was apparently very protective of her and would not tolerate any impoliteness or abuse from anyone toward her, having made it very clear to anyone crossing the line that they had better clean up their act or be out on their ass. I could tell how very strongly he felt about this. A good lesson on not judging folks by their appearance.

Late every evening a gentleman in his mid-60s would enter the Diner and sit by himself at one of the tables near the entry. He talked with no one and apparently lived on his own as something of a hermit. Joe would fill a large plate with as much food as it could hold from that night’s evening special – meat loaf, turkey, mashed potatoes, vegetables, etc., whatever was still available. A dollar bill would be laid upon the counter and the man would take his food back to the table in silence and eat it all very slowly. He was a man of mystery who no one seemed to know anything about except that he desired more than anything else to be left alone. One night when Art Tague and I were on our way to the Diner, we decided that we would try to satisfy our curiosity by attempting to strike up a conversation with the man and find out as much about him as we could. If it was clear he did not want to talk, we would not press the point. We stopped by his table and indicated that while we had seen him many times, we had not had the opportunity to make his acquaintance and would like to do so if he would be willing. To our great surprise, he invited us to sit down. We found out that he lived on a very modest veteran’s pension from the First World War. We also learned that he spent most of his time in the library at UMass studying food and nutrition. It was clear that he was quite intelligent and apparently very well read in that field. He said that he lived by himself and that he found it very difficult and sometimes even frightening for him to mix and talk with other people. No one talked about traumatic stress disorder or syndrome in those days, but I have since thought that his apparent psychological problems were no doubt service related. He wanted us to know, however, that he felt obliged to society for the pension he received and that he tried to compensate for that in return by dealing, at least in a small way, with mankind's most serious threat and scourge. His study of history, food and nutrition had led him to believe that rats were the most serious threat facing human beings and he therefore spent a portion of every day attempting to rid the area of rats by what he called the “natural method.” We did not dare ask what he meant by that. But the nickname, Rat Catcher, that we gave to him originated from this statement. As our short conversation appeared to tire him, we thanked him for his time and left him to his own thoughts. As we got up to leave we told him that, if he would ever like to chat with us again at any time, we would be delighted to do so, and that all he needed to do was to say something as we walked by his table on our way into the main part of the Diner. We saw him many times thereafter but never spoke with him again.