During my three years wasted at a small liberal arts college in Wisconsin, I survived the football team, the fraternity I joined, and the gunfight in Madison.
I went there to play football, but I knew I wanted to be a writer, somehow, so I quit the team a week before the first game. Also, I was slightly distracted by the knowledge that my high school girlfriend was pregnant. That worked out—-not in the way you’re thinking—-and meanwhile I pledged a fraternity.
The fraternity was a locker room writ large, a good way to ease myself into the life of an ex-jock. Everybody got to be exactly the asshole he wanted to be in high school. Me, too. Mainly I wanted to read and sulk and drink some more, like real writers did. I never went to class, but I took the tests, and I filled dozens of notebooks with short stories, sketches, poems, overtures to novels—-hundreds of earnest, disposable pages I left in a dumpster on my way out of Wisconsin.
After three years my grade point average was 0.75, and I had 60 hours of credit. (I hadn’t been drafted because my lottery number was 296.) I was a combination of town drunk and court jester—-an amiable ironist—-except that I kept getting in fights with both townies and fraternity brothers. I put one of the brothers in the hospital by kicking him in the face after I floored him with a lucky right cross. (He had nearly run me over with his car earlier that night, in a panicked flight from a local bar.) Another one of the brothers stopped this assault by choking me like a cop does, until I was unconscious.
Finally the dean of students, a former Air Force pilot whose office bristled with plastic models of jet fighters—-of course he barked every sentence as if it were an order—-expelled me.
But not before the gunfight in Madison.
My last year at Carthage, I was the rush chairman of the fraternity, which means you recruit pledges in the fall semester, and then shepherd the little bastards through their ordeal—-their hazing and initiation-—in the spring. It was the last time I took any responsibility in an administrative position until, thirty years later, I became vice-chair of graduate education in the department of History at Rutgers University.
One of the outworn traditions my fraternity nurtured was the walk-out, a weekend excursion when the pledges “kidnap” a brother and head out of town, to be followed, maybe, by active members in a pantomime of a medieval carnival, when the peasants turned the world upside down. The kidnapped brother was John Phillips, who would be my best man the first time I got married-—to that high school girlfriend—-and who, after a career at Johnson Wax which placed him in London for three years as the director of Human Resources, would end his life in an advanced state of dementia, bagging groceries in Racine, Wisconsin.
I went along for the ride as the rush chairman, but, unlike a chaperone at a bachelor party, I was a participant-observer, an anthropologist avant la lettre. There is nothing to focus the mind so well as a ritualized binge.
I was in the lead car with Phillips and three pledges (there were four cars and seventeen guys altogether). We pulled into a parking deck in downtown Madison, our destination, and just as we swung into a space, a car full of drunken townies cut us off. A promising start!
We pile out of the car and start mixing it up with these shitheads, but it’s an even match, more like a scrum than a brawl, and nothing like what you’ve seen on screen. In these situations, you tend to square off, back off, and let the really angry guys draw blood. And so it devolved that night. Nobody was much interested in getting bloody, one way or the other.
But then one of them opens the trunk, straps on a holster, pulls out a gun, a real revolver, an old-time six-shooter, and fires a shot in the air.
“Now what, motherfuckers?” he says as the concrete replies with thunderous approval.
We quickly agree that the parking space is theirs. By this time our flotilla of cars has filled out, but not even seventeen drunken frat boys—-we had a cooler of beer in each car for the trip from Kenosha—-are stupid enough to charge a man with a loaded gun. So we find another parking deck and choose a bar. An hour later we’re laughing about this uncanny event.
A couple of the pledges are from Madison, and they recommend we head for a roadhouse east of town. “They got music, dancing, women, or we could start a fight,” one of them explains.
So we head out on a four-lane highway, Phillips is driving and I’m riding shotgun. We’re still laughing when the shitheads whiz past us. The guy with the gun is waving it out the passenger window as if he’s a cowboy shooting up a cattle town in a bad Western. For some reason, Phillips accelerates and pulls up alongside the other car—-he doesn’t yell anything, he just looks over at the guy with the gun, then slows down.
Their driver slows down, too, so we’re neck and neck, and the guy with the gun raises it, points it at us, and smiles. This time Phillips flips him the bird and speeds off. Now it’s a car chase right out of “Bullitt” or “The French Connection,” but we’re by far the faster vehicle and there’s no other traffic.
“Why the fuck did you do that, John, are you fucking crazy?” I scream this over the impossible sound of the engine, a 1965 Chevy Malibu, a four-barrel V8 with 220 horsepower.
He doesn’t respond, he’s concentrating too hard on driving. One of the pledges in the back seat yells “Your turn is coming up on the right, you’ll see the sign, it’s like a dirt road!” Phillips cuts the lights.
I look back, no headlights coming over the hill, so as Phillips makes the turn, I’m hoping we’ve lost the shitheads. We careen into the parking lot and scramble out of the car, but here they come, spitting dirt and gravel as they spin past the tall grass that surrounds the place.
I say “Run!” and the pledges take off. Phillips and I watch as the guy with the gun gets out of the car and walks toward us, no smile now. We back toward the exterior wall of the bar, our hands instinctively raised, I look over at John and think, “Don’t do anything stupid,” and I realize I’m addressing myself.
The guy says, “I got a gun, don’t you get that? What, you gonna outsmart me, college boys? Gonna outrun the bullet? You think this is a movie?”
Now he’s close. I notice that nobody except him has left the car, and it’s still running. I also notice that he’s pointing the revolver at my forehead, and that the distance between the barrel and my face is approximately 18 inches. That puts him roughly five feet away from me. These are the mundane calculations you make when there’s a gun to your head.
And I notice that Phillips, four feet to my left, is inching away from me. The guy moves the barrel of the gun to John’s forehead and says, “Stand still motherfucker, I swear I’ll fucking kill you.”
I take a baby step to my right and the barrel swings back, the guy says, “I’m a kill you too,” and now I’m wondering if he really means it. I think, “Am I going to die here in Madison, Wisconsin, on a field trip with my fraternity brothers? What’s the matter with me? Why am I here?” These are the questions you ask yourself when there’s a gun to your head.
Phillips moves again, and I slump a little as the barrel moves back toward him because now I know we’re both dead, but then John grabs the guy’s wrist and points the gun up, just like in the movies, and, just like at the movies, I watch the scene unfold as if I’m not in it, as if slow motion is real time, then finally I reach out and grab the guy’s other wrist, step backward, start pulling him to his left, swinging him in a close arc, hammer-throw style, just one circuit until his face hits the driver’s side door of the car he came in.
He falls backward, more or less unconscious, into my arms, so I heave him onto the hood of the car face down. I turn around, I’m about to faint, and there’s Phillips twirling the six-shooter like he’s a gunfighter. Nobody in the car has moved.
“What the fuck, John, what the fuck was that? You almost got me killed, man, Jesus fucking Christ, what, are you crazy? This is not the wild fucking West, this is fucking Wisconsin, you understand me?”
“You can have the holster,” Phillips says, “I’m taking the gun.”
The guy on the hood of the car stirs, he turns over, he moans, he says, “Can I have my gun, man, it’s like an heirloom, you know, it’s been in my family a long time, it’s kind of important to me, you know what I mean?”
I laugh hysterically, I’m still about to faint. I look over at Phillips, and then back at the heir apparent, and I decide to beat the shit out of the guy without the gun. I start, but I stop because John says, “Enough, leave him alone, we got the gun.”
I left Wisconsin for good two months later. I didn’t see Phillips again until I got married, but we corresponded meanwhile—-I still have his letters from Camp Lejeune, where he completed basic infantry training for the Marine Corps, calling it “a teenagers’ race war” organized by the officers in their midst.
After the wedding, though, I never saw him again. I tracked his wife down 30 years later, when I heard from an old fraternity brother that John was dead, of dementia. I asked her how it was toward the end.
She said, “It was pretty bad. He didn’t know me. The kids, either. Everybody was a stranger. Even the brothers who visited, David, Tommy. . . . Nothing.”
I asked about the gun. She said, “Yeah, he kept it all these years. Must’ve told that story a million times . . . Always said he was glad it was you there alongside him, because you were the crazy one.”