It was spring, 1939. Dad, after fifteen years in Rumania, had risen to become head geologist for Esso in Europe. Now he was being transferred to Zagreb, Yugoslavia, there to become Esso’s exploration manager. All our belongings were packed and stored in Bucharest, ready for shipment. In March, Dad rented an apartment in The Hague, Holland, on Koninginnegracht. We spent our Easter vacation there. (Fond memories of picturesque streets, acres of tulips, and smiling, friendly people!)
Summer came, and with it another visit to America. The weeks passed quietly for us as we visited relatives in Ohio and Oklahoma. August was about to close its ledger; it was time for us to return to Europe, so we entrained at Tulsa for New York.
As we stepped out onto the station platform in Chicago, the headline struck us with all the force of a massive ocean wave: WAR! Hitler had invaded Poland. Hopes for peace had been smashed on rocks of hatred and nationalistic greed. To return now to a war-ravaged continent would be foolish. Dad was transferred to the head offices of Esso at Rockefeller Center, in New York City. Our belongings, packed and ready for shipment to Zagreb, had only to be rerouted to America.
We settled eventually in the New York suburb of Scarsdale, at 90 Brite Avenue, in the Foxmeadow section. For the next nine years this was to be my home, or rather my point of perennial departure.
While I was still a small child my parents had enrolled me at Kent School, in Kent, Connecticut. This was a church school for boys, run by Episcopalian monks. I was not scheduled to enter Kent for another year, however. Meanwhile I was placed at Hackley, a boys’ school near Tarrytown, New York.
And now the Divine Fisherman began once again to reel in His line determinedly. Looking back after all these years, it is easier for me to summon up a certain proper sense of gratitude to God for holding me so closely in check. At that time, however, I’m afraid gratitude was not my uppermost sentiment. A month earlier my expectations had been bright. I was returning to The Downs for a happy final year there, surrounded by good friends. Now, suddenly, I found myself at thirteen the youngest boy in the lowest grade of a high school where the only familiar feature was my own perennial status as a “foreigner,” a status which, as a born American returning to live in his own country, I found particularly difficult.
Even my accent, now English, set me apart from others. But whereas formerly, in England, my American accent had occasioned little more than good-natured chaff, here, my English accent marked me for derision. It took me at least a year to learn to “talk American” once again. I have never learned to do so perfectly.
Heretofore I had never in my life heard a dirty word. At Hackley it seemed, once I’d been initiated into the new vocabulary, that I heard little else. In the past, swing music had been only an amusing pastime. Here, it was practically a religion. Sex had never before figured in our conversations. Here, it was virtually an obsession. Aggressive behavior, rudeness, insensitivity to others as affirmations of one’s own independence from them — these seemed to be the norms. School “wisdom” included such precious advice as “Silence is golden — and also healthy.”
The fact that I was just entering puberty made the problem of adjustment all the more difficult. In truth, I could see no good reason to adjust. Rather, I tended to enclose myself defensively within psychic walls, like a medieval town under siege. One or two of the boys were friendly to me, but to the others I seemed merely an import, dumped on American soil quite unnecessarily, and, considering the solid worth of the domestic article, even presumptuously.
In the room next to mine there was a boy of fifteen, named Tommy Maters, who weighed two hundred and twenty pounds to my one hundred and seven. Tommy was a bully. My “English ways” were, to him, an insult to the flag of America. It wasn’t long before, dissatisfied with merely voicing his disapproval, he advanced to open threats.
I’m not sure he was quite sane. One morning I awoke to see him peering in my window, an air pistol in his hand. As I leapt to safety behind my desk, a bullet struck the other side of it with a thud.
What bothered Tommy about me, I think, was not only the implied insult of my un-American ways, but the fact that I wouldn’t acknowledge my self-evident inferiority by cringing before him. Later that day he made it a point to sit next to me at lunch, the better to express his opinions. Throughout the meal he criticized my appearance, my vocabulary, my table manners. (“Don’t you know you should spoon your soup toward the far side of the bowl?—peasant!”) I paid no attention to him. Finally he muttered, “Boy, am I going to get you!”
I knew he meant it. Back in my room after lunch I pushed the dresser up against the door, which was without a lock. Tommy arrived shortly afterward, breathing threats. He rattled the doorknob, then leaned heavily against the door, puffing dire predictions with mounting fury. At last he succeeded in shoving the door open, rushed into the room like an enraged bull, and proceeded to beat me with such uncontrolled rage that it really seemed as if he wanted to kill me.
“I’m going to throw you out that window!” he panted again and again. (We were three storeys above the ground.) Throughout the beating he kept his voice low for fear of attracting the attention of others on our floor. Somehow the ferocity of his whisper sounded more threatening than an angry shout.
What could I do, small as I was? I lay motionless on the bed, face down, waiting for him to exhaust himself.
“Why didn’t you cry for help?” a friend asked me the next day.
“Because I wasn’t afraid.”
Interestingly, the fact that I took Tommy’s beating calmly, and never thereafter altered my attitude toward him, left him without another weapon to use against me. People commonly see physical victory as conclusive, but true victory is always mental. One’s conqueror may feel conquered in turn by a spirit that he finds he cannot reach with physical weapons. Tommy, from this time on, gave me a wide berth.
Though I was released now from his bullying, in other respects my life at Hackley grew no happier. I sought escape in the music room, where I practiced the piano for hours together. My unhappiness stirred me also for the first time to a longing for religion. Perhaps, I thought, I would become a missionary. I expressed these aspirations, somewhat hesitantly, to my cousin Betty when both of us were at my parents’ home in Scarsdale. She was horrified.
“Not a missionary, Don! There’s too much to do in this world. You wouldn’t want to bury yourself on some primitive island!”
The vigor of her reaction shook me in my still-frail resolution. What, after all, did I really know about the missionary calling? Self-doubt was in any case becoming my own private hell.
After a year at Hackley School, the time came for me to enter Kent.
Kent is an Ivy League prep school; it ranks high, scholastically and socially. I entered it with high hopes. But I soon found that the general interests of the boys here were essentially what they had been at Hackley, with the addition of a sort of “All for God, Country, and Our School Team” spirit in which arrogance played the leading part. The Kent student was expected by his peers to embrace every social norm, to like or dislike all the “right” people, and to boast of his proficiency in all the “right” activities, particularly those related to sex and drinking. Woe betide that hapless youth who danced to a different piper. To laugh with the loudest, tell the dirtiest jokes, shout boisterously when merely passing the time of day, smile expansively at everyone (“Oh, hi, Don!”) in a bid to get others to like you: These were the banners of success. Conformity made one eligible for that supreme reward: popularity. Nonconformity exiled one to a limbo of disapproval and contempt.
Experience had shown me that I had the ability to make friends. But what was I to do when, try as I might, I simply couldn’t share the enthusiasms of my fellow students? It was not a question, as it had been in England, of relating to new realities on their own level. In England, principles at least had been concerned. Here I could find none — only egotism, selfishness, and self-interest. I might have been able to stand my ground firmly had I been able to out-shout, out-boast, and out-laugh others. As it was, being somewhat reserved by nature, I was unwilling to offer my ideas where I felt they were unwelcome.
Instead I became intensely introverted, miserable with myself, certain that my life was already, at its outset, a failure. In an environment that demanded absolute conformity, my inability to conform seemed like failure indeed. Gradually it became as evident to others as it was already to me that I was simply one of that unfortunate breed, of which the human race will ever produce its allotted few: a misfit, a general embarrassment, a creature of subnormal ability.
Yet in my heart I knew this judgment was false.
I tried my best to enter into the life of the school. I joined the school paper, reporting sports events with a hopeful heart. My first two articles, however, spelled my undoing; my humorous touch on so sacred a subject as sports was considered almost blasphemous. When I wrote that the fatness of the goalie was fortunate, for it made it more difficult for the ball (or the puck; I’m not sure which) to pass, the editor smiled with amusement, then appeased his conscience by withholding further assignments from me. I joined the debating society, but found I couldn’t speak in defense of issues to which I wasn’t sincerely committed. I became a member of the French club, but my fellow members were for the most part lonely outcasts like me. I played football. I rowed. I sang in the glee club.
Nothing worked. There was almost a kind of shame in the few friendships I did form, a tacit understanding that ours was a companionship in rejection.
At times I was actually afraid to leave a roomful of boys, lest my departure give them the opportunity to talk against me. Nor were my fears groundless: I knew, from the times when I stayed, what uncomplimentary things they had to say about those less popular boys who happened to be absent. One day, after passing a couple of classmates on the stairway in our dormitory, I overheard one of them, who obviously didn’t care whether I heard him or not, laugh derisively, “What a sad case!”
The worst of it was, I had no clear grounds on which to refute him.
During this gloomy period, religion might have been the comfort for me that it had been at Hackley. Kent was, after all, a church school, and most of the boys there were moderately religious; at least, I recall none of them grumbling over the required attendance at worship services. But religion at Kent seemed as though preserved in formaldehyde. With the exception of one jolly, elderly brother who taught no classes, and who was, I think, a little foolish, the monks seemed a joyless lot, uninspired and uninspiring in their calling. The church services were heavy with the consciousness that one went through all this simply because it was done. Religion at Kent inspired me to look almost anywhere but to God for solace and enlightenment.
Soon I was seeking both of these fulfillments in the realm of ideas. Always a bookworm, I began diving into the worlds of James Fenimore Cooper, Sir Walter Scott, Keats, Shelley, Shaw, and other famous writers.
At fourteen I began writing a novel of my own. The influence of Cooper was evident in my setting: A pioneer family living on an isolated farm in Oklahoma was attacked by red Indians. Only two boys escaped massacre by fleeing during the confusion. Earnestly, at this point, I counseled the reader not to think harshly of the Indians, “for they had been oppressed by the white man ever since he came to this continent, and had had their hunting grounds taken away and changed into towns and places of civilization.… Nor must you think ill of their scalping methods, for that was just the coustom [sic] among the indians, and though we may think it cruel or repulsive, surely some of the things we do are just as bad, if not more so.”
The two boys escaped into a nearby forest, pursued by Indians. Deep in the forest they discovered a cliff, scaled it to a high ledge, and there rested, thinking they’d arrived unobserved. Minutes later, one of them happened to look down from their ledge, “and drew back in astonishment, for there, not five feet below him, was an Indian, and following him came three more, the last two carrying guns, but the others without them for greater agility. Just then the foremost one heard him and uttered a word that would correspond to our word ‘Shucks!’ For they had planned on a surprise.” (How often I’ve chuckled over that Indian’s disappointed exclamation!)
The boys, having nowhere else to go, fled into a nearby cave. It led them down, down, deep beneath the surface of the earth, past unspeakable obstacles including huge spiders in a stream that tried to block their progress and devour them. At last, to their amazement, they emerged into another world, inexplicably sunlit and beautiful. Here Indians and white men lived happily together in perfect brotherhood: hence the title of the novel, The Happy Hunting Grounds.
All this was, of course, pure escapism. Yet it also reflected a feeling which I think comes to many people from time to time in their lives: the deep, inner certainty that their true home is elsewhere, that they belong in heaven, and that the present world is only a proving ground for the soul. As Jesus said, “No man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven.”1 This certainty is born not of speculation, but of deep astral memories that have become dimmed by more recent, earthly experiences.
Unhappiness and suffering are necessary for the soul’s unfoldment. Without them we might remain satisfied with petty fulfillments. Worse still, we might remain satisfied with ourselves.2 My personal unhappiness at Kent School inspired me to ponder the sufferings of mankind everywhere. Could anything be done, I wondered, to improve the human lot?
Surely, if all men would truly accept one another as equals they would be much happier. I worked out a laborious system of government in which no man possessed any personal property, all things being owned in common. Though I don’t think I realized it at the time, my ideas were similar in several respects to those preached, though hardly practiced, under modern communism. But as I pondered the matter more deeply, I came to realize that most men are not capable of living in a voluntary state of nonpossession. A few people — monks, for instance — might be non-attached enough to consider nothing their own, but to force nonpossession on humanity at large would be tyranny. Dictatorship, even in the name of the common weal, would inflict more abuses than it could alleviate.
At this time also I wrote a one-act play, titled The Peace Treaty. Its subtitle was, “Every Man for Himself.” It was about a group of cave men, tribal chieftains, who got together after a war to determine the conditions for peace. One of them who, like all visionaries, was ahead of his time, proposed an idea that he claimed would banish war forevermore. His plan demanded a generous spirit of international cooperation among the different tribes to replace the inter-tribal rivalries and selfishness that had prevailed hitherto. The other chieftains professed great admiration for his ideas. It soon became clear, however, that they understood him not at all, for when it came to the question of what sacrifices each would have to make to ensure peace, each suggested a few “minimal” improvements in the original plan, with a view to getting as many concessions as possible for himself. The peace treaty was finally thrown out, as chieftains scrambled for whatever booty they could grab for themselves.
At the close of the play the hero soliloquized: “If God existed, would He allow all this?… But — of course He exists! How could life have come to this earth without Him? Ah! I see it all now. Yes, God exists, but He wishes mankind to live under hard conditions, for it is only under such that Man can prove himself worthy of the Kingdom of Heaven.” God cares, I concluded, but wants man to earn His blessings, for without victory over greed, paradise itself would become but another battleground. Man, I was saying, is not perfectible through mere systems, but only by working conscientiously on himself.
The play ended with blows and shouts offstage, followed by gunshots, then cannonades, then bombs, and finally one bomb, mightier than all the rest. And then: silence.
The harsh reality of human greed was the stumbling block on which all my dreams of political salvation became shattered. At fifteen I began writing another novel, about a man who foresaw the destruction of modern civilization, and decided to do what he could to preserve its most constructive elements. Far out into the wilderness he went, and there built a utopian community. Aiding him were experts in various fields, men and women who understood that expertise must be rooted in wisdom and love, not in mere knowledge. This little community kept the lamp of civilization burning while the rest of humanity bombed itself back to the caves. The group then returned to their fellow men to teach them a better, more constructive way of life.
The more I thought about my visionary community, the more compellingly it attracted me. From an escapist dream my concept gradually evolved to a spreading network of intentional communities within the framework of present-day civilization. Someday, I resolved, I would start such a community myself.
It isn’t often that one’s boyhood dreams are fulfilled later in life. With God’s grace, this dream has been. That tale, however, must await the telling until a later chapter.
I gave much thought also at Kent to the possibility of paranormal phenomena — prophecy, telepathy, and the mental control of objective events — and to the question of what life must be like after death. I wondered whether I might serve my fellow man better if I tried to develop extra-sensory powers myself. But no, I decided, this whole subject was too remote from common experience to be widely meaningful. Instead I would share with others through the written word whatever insights I gained into life’s truths. By clear common sense, perhaps, I would inspire in others a loftier vision.
While I was mentally improving the world, however, my own little world was rapidly deteriorating. A few of the older boys evinced a positive dislike for me. Ineptness I suppose they might have excused; not everyone, after all, could hope to match them in their excellence. But while self-admittedly inept in their ways, I had gone on from this recognition of failure to develop other — to them, inadmissible — interests. Was not this implied rejection of their standards an unthinkable presumption? They began threatening openly to make my life “really miserable” next year, when a few of them would be returning to Kent as student body leaders.
I felt I could take no more. In tears that summer I pleaded with Mother to take me home.
Stroking my head tenderly, she said, “I know, dear. I know. You’re like your Dad. He’s always been shy when people didn’t want what he had to give them. Yet he has so much to offer. And so do you. People haven’t understood it, but never mind. Stay home now, and live with us who love you. Here you’ll be happy.”
What relief flooded my heart! I never saw Kent again. Who can say whether I might yet have coaxed a few useful lessons from its dreary walls? But I felt I had taken from them every blessing I possibly could. I was ready now, inwardly as well as outwardly, for a different kind of schooling.
- John 3:13.
- “Because thou sayest, I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing; and knowest not that thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked: I counsel thee to buy of me gold tried in the fire… and anoint thine eyes with eyesalve, that thou mayest see.” (Revelation 3:17,18)