Thursday, December 11, 2008


I am a long-time denizen of the American South, my adopted home...but once there was a time when I was unfamiliar with this part of the world. Hard to imagine, eh?

Aside from our annual trips to South Florida, I grew up with little exposure to Southern Culture. Not that South Florida was southern in any way - it was not, being packed with Yankees - but to get to and from it by car, we had to traverse great swaths of Southland. It was my chance to marvel at exotica like segregated water fountains and to enjoy my annual bottle of Dr Pepper.

That changed when I went off to college. Princeton University, that is, AKA “The Duke University of the North.” For in my freshman year, one of my roommates was an authentic Southern Gentleman.

He was tall, with a ruddy complexion and flaxen hair, David was, and he drove a Fiat Spyder sports car. Unlike many of us, David did not dress like some sort of fucking hippie. He wore Oxford shirts and tweed sport jackets. The effect was not quite professorial; I soon learned that it was vintage Good Ol’ Prep-School Boy.

David eschewed the popular Recreational Medicaments of the time, preferring the drug of choice of the Southern Gentleman: Bourbon whiskey. This he would consume in vast quantities on the weekends as he made his rounds of the eating clubs on Prospect Street.

In the first few days of freshman year, David joined the rugby team. Getting banged up did not seem to bother him, and after a few weeks he was working on a nice cauliflower ear. I’m pretty sure he got through that first year with his teeth intact, but only because he made a strategic investment in a mouth guard. Wimp.

It was David who taught me about the Southern way of life. How to drink; how to party; how to talk to women; in short, how to be a Southern Gentleman. His lessons fell (mostly) on deaf ears back then, but I quietly took them to heart. They have served me well ever since.

We knew that he came from a moneyed family, but we did not know the extent of that wealth until we started visiting him in his native surroundings - a sprawling ranch house in Arlington, Virginia - over various vacations. During one of those visits made a side trip to Horsey Country: Middleburg, Virginia, a tony little village out in Loudoun County that (it turns out) attracts visitors from around the country and has the reputation of being “the Nation’s Horse and Hunt capital.” Fox hunting and steeplechasing! Tailgating! You can well imagine that I felt right at home. (A Gefilte Fish Out of Water was more like it.)

David was the second youngest of five children. There was a big age gap between the eldest three siblings and Dave; his brother Dick - a doctor, as were both Mom and Dad - was over two decades older than him. Next in line were two sisters, Jane and Sally. Then came Dave, followed by his kid brother Paul.

Dick, Jane, and Sally. Hmmm. Those names sounded familiar. But when I found out that the dog’s name was Spot and the cat’s was Puff, I made some sort of snide remark to Hal, our other roommate.

“It’s no coincidence,” Hal responded.

The original Dick and Jane readers had been written (so Hal said) by a family friend beginning in the early 1930’s. When he was casting about for names for his characters, he thought of Dick, Jane, and Sally...inspired by our roomie’s much-older sibs - who were old enough to have been the right age at the time.

Of course, the original Spot and Puff were long gone...but the names lingered on in their replacements.

“Bullshit!” you may cry. There’s no fucking way you went to school with Dick Jane, and Sally’s kid brother!

Believe it, Esteemed Readers. As much as I do, anyway...for that is how the tale was told to me, back in the spring of 1971.

And David? He’s still alive and well. Last time I saw him, it was by sheer coincidence, running into each other at the airport in Greenville, South Carolina about 25 years ago. Since then he has spent a good chunk of his career in the insurance business - at one point he was an executive veep at Aetna, and now he’s a director of an offshore holding company. I keep hoping to bump into him at Reunions...maybe 2009 (our 35th) will be the year.

No comments: