This post is the second installment in a series about twelve of my engagements with the culture we put between ourselves and nature.

4. Walking Down Broadway. At the end of my sophomore year, I transferred from MIT to Columbia College, where I took up the study of the humanities in earnest during the last year in which that major was being offered. I studied cultural events in the city as extensively as books at the college. I needed a big dose of what the city had to offer.

On a spring night at a little past one o’clock, I was reading in my room, when suddenly I decided to walk the length of Broadway from 113th Street to the ferry terminal in lower Manhattan. Just me and my shadow, my solo wayfarer.

The signs, curbs, venting manhole covers, streetlights, water-towers, few cars, buildings, and people I met have now blended into an impressionistic collage of that walk, all of Broadway compacted into a single image distilled from my moving perspective, largely visual, partly made of sounds and smells wafting my way as I went. That and a sense of great adventure is what I have left. And of belonging right where I was. I can’t recall specific details—they’ve faded away. I must have passed through Columbus Circle, Times Square, Union Square. I can’t remember how long it took. I know I got to South Ferry at dawn, and took the subway to 113th Street. When I got back, I thought of doing it again in daylight, but went off to class instead.

5. Walking to Concord. Thinking about my walk down Broadway reminds me of another walk I made with my younger brother, Peter, a few years later, a cultural walk of a different color because largely rural, not urban. I met him at his apartment near Kenmore Square in Boston at noon on a Saturday, and together we headed west to place stones on the cairn at the site of Thoreau’s cabin twenty miles west in Walden Woods near the famous pond.

Once past Cambridge, we walked back roads the rest of the way, immersing ourselves in the region as we imagined it had been a hundred years ago, and in some stretches still was in the 1960s. Narrow roads, stone walls, farm ponds, and apple trees, which went on for miles, are what I remember. Our feet may have trod the modern ways of Lincoln and Lexington, but our thoughts were with Hawthorne, Emerson, and Thoreau in the Concord of their day. Time warps are available for the doing if you set your mind to it.

We got to Walden Pond at dusk, and I remember scrambling for stones to add to the cairn at Rolly Robbins’ reconstruction on the site of Thoreau’s cabin just back from the pond. Walking twenty miles to add a few stones to a humble monument in the woods seemed a sensible thing to do. We walked into Concord in the dark, sure we would find a bus stop somewhere along the way. Luck was with us, and we just caught the ten-o’clock bus back to Boston. Now that Peter is dead, that walk stands out as one of the highlights of our brotherhood.

6. Routine Engagement. In 1955, I worked as an engineering aide in the servomechanisms group at Boeing Aircraft in Renton just south of Seattle. I had a desk in a giant hangar of a building filled wall-to-wall with similar desks, an engineer seated at each one. That was in the days before cubicles and sound-absorbing tiles, just one big room with a sky-high ceiling. The only thing on my desk was a lever-operated mechanical calculator.

I spent six months making charts and plots on graph paper, a task I was used to from my year of mechanical drawing at MIT. One day my supervisor explained that one of two prototype B-52 airplanes was showing a tendency to veer (his term was yaw) to the side, and he wanted me to plot fuel consumption of all four engines to see if one engine was burning more or less fuel than the others.

The fuel consumption records consisted of a series of actual photos of dials taken during each test flight. I was told which flight to check, and sent to the large hangar where the records were kept. I got the photos in a thick file, read the dials for all four engines during that particular flight, went back to my desk and plotted the hundreds of points I had read from the dials. My graphs showed that all engines were burning the same amount of fuel.

What I remember is the bleakness of the days I spent on that job. Doing the duty I was assigned in a mechanical frame of mind. I was engaged to the extent of doing what I had been asked to do, being sure of my accuracy in reading, writing down, figuring, and plotting long series of numbers. But beyond that I was not personally engaged, just pulling the lever on my calculator again and again. I set up a routine to get through the day, effectively renting out my brain to help solve someone else’s problem. I was in a room full of people, but hardly talked with anyone all day, punching my time card when I left.

At the end of six months, I was drafted into the Army, and left Seattle for basic training at Fort Ord near Salinas, California. Ever since, wayfarer that I am, I have made sure to choose my engagements from among those that appealed to me as much as walking down Broadway at night.

 

I will conclude these posts on cultural engagements with twelve episodes illustrating a few of my personal engagements as divided among four successive posts. Here are the first three.

1. Rush Week. In 1951, I was living in a fraternity in Boston as a sophomore at MIT. Early in the term, fraternities entertained prospective pledges from among the incoming freshman class. I was particularly struck by the mental acuity and good nature of a student from India. I took him around the house, played Ping-Pong with him, sat with him at lunch, and thought he made an excellent candidate.

After lunch, the president of the fraternity took me aside and told me I was doing a great job stringing the boy along, making him feel welcome, while there wasn’t a chance in hell we would pledge a dark foreigner.

My response to that news was to find an apartment near Kenmore Square and to quit the fraternity I could no longer belong to because of its Whites-only policy, which I naively hadn’t realized was part of its deep-South traditions from post-Civil-War days. I haven’t stepped into a fraternity house for sixty-four years.

2. Pierre Monteux conducting Berlioz. In a recent post I mentioned coming upon a Boston Symphony performance led by Pierre Monteux conducting Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique. That was one of the most moving experiences of my college life, which I stumbled into during a Wednesday afternoon walk when I found the door open at Symphony Hall. A sandwich-board on the sidewalk announced an open rehearsal, so, out of curiosity, I went in and sat in the back row. I knew Berlioz from WGBH broadcasts, but had never been present at a live performance. Monteux raised his baton just as I took my seat.

What caught my attention was actually witnessing the different instruments and sections playing the music that I heard with my ears. It was the simultaneous presence of hearing the music and seeing its lively performance at the same time that astonished me. My eyes and ears reinforced each other, adding to an experience I had never had until that day.

It was the seeing that sticks with me, the actual display of sounds being produced through human effort. Violins, cellos, bases, brass, woodwinds, tympani—I can see them all. The standing percussionist striking the suspended chimes with a small mallet produced sounds I had never fully appreciated until then. He is with me today as I write these words, making a guest appearance in my mind, reminding me of my discovery of what “in concert” actually means.

3. Tripping on the Long Island Railroad. In Seattle’s Roosevelt High School, I took all the physics, chemistry, and math classes that were offered. By my senior year, there were no more to take. Back in Hamilton, my ninth-grade science teacher had sent home a note telling my parents that he thought I had a knack for science, and might pursue it as a career. In Seattle, I took an aptitude test to see if that was really the case. In disbelief, I looked over the bar graph of the results: I was high in arts and humanities, low in science. Stupid test! I instantly dismissed it. As a senior I went all-or-nothing, applying to MIT and no other school. For good or ill, I got in.

The first year was made up solely of meeting core requirements, with one token humanities course. In my second year I took differential equations, heading toward a major in physics—I thought acoustics sounded nice. But I ran out of steam, and decided to quit school. My mother got on my case and convinced me to see out the year. Which I grudgingly did. I went to a counsellor, and applied to Columbia in New York as a transfer student. I was scheduled for an interview on the Columbia campus, so arranged to stay with friends of my parents on Long Island the night before, and took the bus from Boston to New York, then the LIRR to Port Washington.

A memorable trip under heavy skies. I spent most of my time staring out the rain-spattered window at heavy wires strung next to the tracks on what I still think of as telegraph poles. From my perspective looking out the window, the wires rose to the level of the crossbars on successive poles, then fell in great swoops in between, rising and falling like waves mile-after-mile, putting me into a kind of hypnotic trance. I wasn’t thinking about anything—then the truth burst upon me: There is no God! There can’t be any God because I can’t square God with those wires, which are absolutely real. I was totally engaged with the rhythm of the wires strung along the tracks; there was no room for God in that experience. He was superfluous. Irrelevant. God, I saw, was a vain conceit of ancient peoples in all their innocence. It was not a rational thought, it simply came to me as a bolt out of gray skies and those up-and-down wires.

It was one of the most powerful realizations of my life. Transformative. Everything up to then culminated in those lilting wires along the Long Island Railroad. It was like a dam had burst inside me as a declaration of undoubted truth. Farewell, creator, ruler, judge, and confessor. Banished by clarity. Blessed clarity washing over and through me. Had I been that wishy-washy all those years? I abruptly discovered I was capable of independent thought. Well, not thought, really, but profound insight. I knew I was right; my entire life until then added up to that moment. Childhood fell away; everything would be different from now on.