Childhood Crushes – II: Jennifer O’Neill In ‘Summer Of 42’

I wasn’t alone in wishing I was Hermie. Many teenage boys–American or otherwise-had the same thoughts on seeing Summer of 42, the cinematic adaptation of Herman Raucher‘s memoirish coming-of-age novel, a movie that made me laugh very, very hard during its screening and then left me silent and devastated as I walked back to my boarding school dormitory after a night out in town. (Summer of 42 was released with an ‘A’ (Adult) rating in India, which meant that schoolboys regarded it with more than the usual teen-aged salacious interest. I was able to sneak in to see it because it was showing in a small hill town where security was lax. My first reaction on watching the movie was fury at the Indian censors for their prudish heavy-handedness. Many years on, it’s clear why it got an ‘A’: the teen-aged discussions of sex and a widow having sex with a teenager would have been anathema in India.)

Like other teenage boys, I had enjoyed this story of boys trying, clumsily and hilariously, and succeeding in mixed fashion, to lose their virginity; there were cliches aplenty, but they were bawdy and crude and surprisingly tender too. Looming over it all, over this scene of wartime homefront innocence, where life struggled to carry on as usual in the face of impending catastrophe, there was the beautiful, gentle, affectionate, friendly yet inaccessible Dorothy–played by Jennifer O’Neill–waiting for her soldier husband to come home from the Second World War. Hermie has a crush on Dorothy, from a distance, one seemingly destined to remain as remote worship, but by the end of the movie, thanks to tragedy, they have drawn together, and consummated their relationship in an encounter never to be repeated. The final scene, when Hermie emerges from Dorothy’s bedroom to find her quietly smoking on the porch, where she bids him good night and farewell, established her as a forlorn figure, destined to be lonely and lost in a world suddenly made infinitely crueler. When Hermie informs us he never heard from her again, their ‘romance’ such as it was, further immortalized O’Neill for me.

For weeks afterward, I found myself morose and downcast, wondering what happened to Dorothy. I told myself again and again, she was only a character, but I could not bring myself to believe it. This sorrow, this melancholy, this painful longing I felt; this told me she was real. Surely, such real emotions could not have imaginary, fictional subjects? Somehow, I had become Hermie–without the satisfaction of ever having been kissed on the forehead or lips by Dorothy, having danced with her, or ever being lucky enough to offer some kind of comfort to her when she needed it. I was a teenaged boy–all of fourteen–so it was unsurprising, perhaps, that ‘Summer of 42’ affected me the way it did. But for all that, there was something fragile and tender about Dorothy, something about tragedy meeting longing, that cut through everything and went to the depths of my immature heart.

O’Neill, unlike the first subject of this series on childhood crushes, has devoted herself to an activist cause I cannot get behind; she is now a pro-life crusader. My nostalgia for the past finds no support in the present, a small blessing not to be discounted. In any case, in this story, the character dominates the actual person; I missed Dorothy, but I did not ‘transfer’ my crush to the actress. (Something that happened with Nafisa Ali, and accounted for the greater longevity of that crush.)

On Being A Bully

In the long list of personal moral failures for which I will have to atone, participating in schoolyard and dormitory bullying–even if only briefly, and in attenuated fashion–must rank among the very worst. The only exculpation I can offer in my defense is that I was young, but all bullies in school are; I’m afraid there is little room for forgiveness here. More to the point, I’ve never forgotten the stricken look on the faces of my victims; they will haunt me as few other memories of mine do. I remember both their names; I hope they’ve forgotten mine.

In the fifth grade, my class included a young boy who seemed ‘different’ from us; he dressed a little oddly, spoke in a slightly different voice. He was, in short, a ‘painted bird.’ His minor dissimilarities, his tiny quirks and idiosyncrasies, were enough to produce an avalanche of ridicule directed at him. I watched all of this with a bemused air; I had suffered from some bullying myself earlier, and I knew I didn’t like it. I sympathized with him, but I did not intervene. Neither did I join in. And yet, watching his watching his trials and tribulations did not make me more sympathetic to him, more eager to come to his aid; instead, it seemed to produce a weakening of my moral fiber. One day, in the schoolyard, as we milled around in the break, the hazing grew worse; my classmates seemed to be taking turns in harassing the kid. And then, finally, I snapped; caught up in the madness, I laughed at him, pushed him around, I joined the gang for a little bit of fun. Fortunately, he ran away, off to a distant corner, seeking relief till the bell announcing the end of the break rang. His expression that day jolted me out of my brief exultation; I knew what I had seen, and I knew it was not a feeling I would ever want to be subjected to. I never harassed him again; at year’s end, I changed school and never saw him again either.

In the ninth grade, shortly after I had begun what would turn out to be a two-year stay at a boarding school, I found another ‘victim’; this time, a youngster who had become the target of choice for those in my dorm. He was a ‘freak,’ a ‘weirdo,’ his pinkie finger, thanks to an old injury, standing upright and provoking peals of hilarity; no one spoke to him, and the few interactions he had with others seemed to be dominated by mockery and ridicule. Again, less honorably, trying to fit in, trying to make new friends, trying to show I belonged here, I joined in; it was how I thought I would show I could hang with the rest. My joining the gang of his tormentors only produced a hurt look or two from this youngster; he had, after all, stayed out of the fray when I had been hazed on my arrival at the boarding school. I was a bully and an ingrate, a thought which soon brought an end to any participation in bullying on my part. I retreated, chastened, alarmed by my failure of kindness.

These transgressions were perhaps minor, but they still serve to induce shame; I was often bullied and assaulted in school; the thought that I could ever have done anything to create a similar atmosphere of terror for another youngster filled me with despondence then, and it still does. Now, as a parent, I await the higher grades for my daughter with some trepidation; she will face challenges considerably more onerous than mine. I can only hope she does not encounter too many folks like mine who lost their bearings along the way.

Childhood Crushes – I: Nafisa Ali In ‘Junoon’

I was eleven years old when I saw Nafisa Ali, then all of eighteen years old, play the part of Ruth Labadoor in Shyam Benegal‘s 1978 art-house classic Junoon–Ruth is a young Englishwoman, living on an English military cantonment in colonial India with her family. As the Indian Mutiny of 1857 breaks out, Ruth’s family is attacked in the church by rebels; her mother, grandmother, and her find shelter, first with a loyalist to the English, and then later, with a Pathan obsessed with Ruth, who wants  to marry her and make her his wife. He does not succeed; Ruth’s fate is cleverly tied to the fate of the Mutiny by her mother; when the Mutiny fails, so do Javed Khan’s ‘claims’ on Ruth. But Ruth has–despite her early fear of the ‘mad Pathan’–fallen in love with the man who has pursued her and confessed to his obsessions; in the movie’s final scene at a church where Ruth and her mother are hiding, and where Javed has come to find them, as Javed prepares to ride off into battle to face the rampaging and revengeful English troops, Ruth rushes out to see Javed despite her mother’s disapproval, and blurts out a single word, “Javed!” Their eyes meet; their hearts have too. Then fade to black, as the movie’s epigraph informs us that Javed died in battle while Ruth died fifty-five years later in London. Unwed.

Nafisa Ali in Junoon:

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I walked out of the theater that night, heartsick and crushed. I had fallen in love with Nafisa Ali. Madly, heartbreakingly so. It was the crush to end all crushes. Over the next few months, I wondered if even the fictional Javed Khan’s obsession could rival mine. Nafisa was drop-dead gorgeous; she was stunningly beautiful, a sportswoman, India’s national swimming champion, a long-legged beauty who had found her way into an art-house movie. She was only seven years older than me, a fact that somehow made her more ‘real’; she could have been that girl in the twelfth grade that I had a crush on–and I had had a few desperate ones already.

Junoons final scene completed the legend of Ruth Labadoor; I had come to believe that such a girl had actually existed, that she had actually been love-lorn, and had indeed, died alone, of a broken heart, pining over a love that could not dare speak its name. That magical blending of reality and artifice, whereby I had come to believe a fictional character had walked the earth was complete, made so by my adolescent pining for a beautiful young woman; on screen, she was vulnerable, heartachingly so, and I longed to comfort her, to reach out and hold her hand, and tell her it was going to be OK. And ask her out for a movie, of course.

I went looking for Nafisa; I found her in the odd magazine or two, but nowhere else. She made one movie, and then little else; she faded from public life, and then, stunningly she was married, to an older man, an Army officer. All was ashes. My crush faded, like all crushes do. But I never forgot the phenomenology of that heartache she induced in me.

PS: Nafisa went on to act in a few movies, but never made a career in Bollywood; she is now a social activist in India. She is still stunningly beautiful:

 

On Being Advised To Not Take A ‘Girl’s Role’

Shortly after I began attending a boarding school in the ninth grade, I was approached by our ‘senior master’ and asked if: a) I could ‘act’ and b) if so, was I interested in trying out for the annual school play. I had done some acting in school and youth club plays in the sixth and seventh grades, so I answered in the affirmative to both questions. On  hearing this, the senior master asked me to attend a ‘reading’ that night where we would go over the play’s script. I agreed. When I told my classmates about this invitation, I received many congratulations. Acting in the school play was a prestigious business; being invited to act in it was an honor not accorded to many. I was suitably pleased, and resolved to write home to my mother as soon as I could that I had begun to rack up laurels here in my new school.

That night, I showed up at time in the school library for the reading. I was handed the play’s script, and the reading began. (If I remember correctly, that year’s play was Joseph Kesserling‘s Arsenic and Old Lace.) The senior master pointed at me and asked me to read–again, if I remember correctly–Elaine Harper’s part. (I do know it was a young woman’s role, and Elaine Harper is the young woman in Arsenic and Old Lace. My school was a boy’s boarding school, and we did not import actors or directors for the school play.) I did not mind being asked to play a woman; I vaguely remembered my father telling me that: a) in Shakespeare’s time, boys and men often played girl’s and women’s roles and b) that he himself, in college, had played a woman’s role in A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the college Shakespeare Society. If my father–a man who would go on to fly fighter jets and fight in two wars–could do it, so could I.

Our reading went on for two hours. By the time I returned to my dorm, it was after ‘lights out;’ everyone in my dorm was in bed, and seemingly fast asleep. I quietly changed, went over to my bed, and lay down. As I did so, my neighbor stirred and spoke.

“What role did they offer you?”

“I”m supposed to be a young woman.”

“Are you going to take it?”

“Yeah, it sounds interesting.”

“So, this is just something I want to tell you. Every year there is a school play, and every year, someone has to play the female parts. The boys who play those roles, they become the sissies in school. No one ever lets them forget it. They get teased and bullied all the time. They get called ‘girls’; people copy them walking and talking and putting on make-up. Last year, X did the girl’s role, and no one has stopped teasing him since. You’ve just joined this school; you still haven’t made that many friends. Some people don’t even like you because you’re from the Rector’s old school, and they think you’re his pet. I wouldn’t do it. This is just my friendly advice.”

[Or something like that.]

I lay there in bed, listening to that seemingly disembodied voice whispering at me in the dark. The vision it conjured up for me was equally gloomy; I knew exactly what he meant. I had already seen examples of how quick and efficient and cruel my school’s bullying and teasing was; many boys were permanent outcasts, shunned and sent off to the margins for faults imagined and real. I knew X was an outcast; now I knew why. I lay under a thick blanket, but I shivered nonetheless. I didn’t want to be a girl in a boy’s school.

The next day, I told the senior master I couldn’t do the role. It went to a boy a year younger than me. He was a wonderful actor and brought his role to life. For the next year and a half, every time my class mates and I walked past him on campus, someone would wiggle their hips, giggle, put on a falsetto, and call out his name. He never returned our gaze.

On Bad Memories And Moving On

A few weeks ago, while stumbling around on Facebook, I found an old ‘acquaintance’ of mine: a man who, over thirty years ago, went to the same boarding school as I did. I poked around further; his page was not guarded by his privacy settings from snoops like me. On it, I found a group photograph taken in my boarding school days: a dozen or so familiar faces stared back at me. I hadn’t seen them in thirty-five years. I poked a bit further, as I clicked on their tagged faces in the photographs, and visited their friends’ lists. On one of them, I found a Facebook profile of a ‘senior,’ someone who used to be a member of the class that had supplied the prefects for my last year in boarding school. (I left my boarding school after the tenth grade, after two short years there; this gentleman was the member of the graduating class that year.) On his page, I found photographs of a class reunion, conducted on the campus of my old boarding school. There they were, the members of that graduating class, the ‘Sixth Form,’ ex-prefects included, lounging about in suits and ties,  all of them grey-haired, some pot-bellied, reenacting their glory days by posing in front of various school locations, swapping tall tales about the good ‘ol days.

I stared and stared. Here they were, the officially sanctioned bullies of the senior class in school, the ones given license to enforce the school’s draconian disciplinary code in their own particular style: they could make you run punishment drills, the dreaded ‘PD’s, for a wide-ranging list of offenses; they could hit you with cricket bats or hockey sticks, or just slap you hard across the face if you were deemed insolent; they could tell you to go get your trouser pockets stitched up by the school tailor if you were caught walking around with both hands in your pockets; and on and on it went. They could, and they did. Power of the absolute varietal was granted them, and they exercised it; here, there was no shyness to be found. And it corrupted them, if their interactions with those below them, their subjects, the ones who dreamed of becoming abusers themselves when their turn came, was any indication.

I was tempted to write, as a lurker, in the comments space, “Did you guys reminiscence about the time when you were bullies and beat up those younger and weaker than you?” But I didn’t. They’d moved on; they had to. My memories remained; they had been stirred up by the photographs I had just viewed, and I’d already found other ways to integrate them into my life. (Including writing a book, in progress, about my boarding school days.) The academic philosopher in me also said that these were not the same persons I knew; they had changed, they wouldn’t know what to make of my gate-crashing remark.

I clicked out, and moved on. And wrote here instead.

The Joys Of Crying

I cry easily; so I cry a lot. Many, many things set me off: movies, songs, talking about my parents, a sportsman’s death, showing my daughter music videos of songs that I listened to as a teenager, Saturn V liftoffs, the misfortune of others in the world’s ‘disaster zones,’ witnessing random acts of kindness on the subway, a busker hitting all the right notes, political disaster–the list goes on, and it doesn’t seem to settle into a coherent pattern. Nostalgia features prominently here; as does a new-found vulnerability and fearfulness made vividly manifest after my daughter’s entry into this world. I’m an immigrant and adult orphan, so memories are especially precious; and I suspect they color my perception of most things I encounter on my daily journeys through work and parenting and the usual reading and writing. (A beautiful turn of phrase, a fictional character’s terrible, tragic fate can also get the tear glands working overtime.)

As I wrote here a while ago:

I’ve become a better, not worse, crier over the years. Growing up hasn’t made me cry less, now that I’m all ‘grown-up’ and a really big boy. Au contraire, I cry–roughly defined as ‘tears in the eyes’ or ‘lumps in the throat which leave me incapable of speech’ even if not ‘sobbing’–more. There is more to cry about now, more to get the tear glands working overtime: more memories, more days gone by, more nostalgia, more regrets, more friends gone, never to return, more evidence of this world’s implacable indifference to our hopes and desires–for ourselves and ours. I cry in company–sometimes, when I’m trying to tell a story and realize I cannot proceed; I cry when I’m alone. I cry on my couch when watching a movie. And just to make sure I’m a genuine New Yorker, I’ve cried on the subway.

Truth is, crying feels good. It is actually intensely pleasurable; to cry is to feel alive, powerfully so. I am not jaded and cynical, impervious to things that should hurt or feel good; crying tells me I’m still capable of powerful emotional responses, that I have not become blasé to this world’s offerings.  Crying slows things down; for its duration, there is an intense concentration on the engendered emotion. All else falls away; in a world of eternal distraction, in which time has sped up, where all is a whirl, crying is a blessing.

But crying isn’t just a reaction to an external event or stimulus; it’s an act of communication with oneself. Crying is informative, a message from self to self. It tells me what hurts, what feels good, what I remember, who I miss, what got under my skin, and stayed there. It informs others too, of course, about who I am, but that is not its most important function. That honor is reserved for the self-knowledge it makes possible, the picture it completes of me, the reminder it provides that I’m many things and many people, spread out over time and space, still trying to hang together.

Letting Your Childhood Make Your Parenting Easier

To be a good parent, think like a child. Well, that was deep. Let me see if I can unpack that. First, think like the child you were, or imagine and remember yourself as being; in any case, this is the best you can do. Now, think about what your perception of your  parents was like in that time of your life–again, as best as you can remember it. Take as long as you like. (Some of us might need extended therapy sessions to induce such self-knowledge.) Got that? Good. Now, open your eyes, and look around at your parenting world: are you now open to the possibility your child might be perceiving the world–and your place within it–the way you  used to? And if that is the case, do you have any reason to imagine your child needs the  parenting you think it does?

I make these suggestions to reduce some of the parental anxiety that comes from a peculiar sort of overburdening of the child: ascribing to him or her fears, anxieties, needs, beliefs, that exist largely within parental fancies and imaginings.  The best antidote to such anxieties is the thought experiment I describe above. (Standard caveats about neurotic responses to my suggestions apply; neuroses will construct parental memories as feverishly anxious as they need to be in order to sustain present parenting patterns.)

I am drawn to make such claims because–as might be imagined, I revisited an episode of parental anxiety, and was able to mitigate it somewhat by casting my mind back as I described above. When I’m alone at home with my daughter, I often fret about whether she is sufficiently occupied, whether she can be alone by herself while I attend to something else that needs my time. Because I often suffered from loneliness in my teen years (and sometimes even later), my usually melancholic disposition drew me to project these same feelings onto my daughter, causing me untold worry if I were to ever consider stepping away from her; I would imagine her lost and bewildered, wondering what to do, floundering about helplessly in her isolation. But when I thought back to what my reactions were as a toddler when left to my devices by my parents–as far as such memories can be trusted–I realized I had been rather comfortable in those circumstances: I had daydreamed, played with my limited collection of toys, browsed through picture books, or just investigated perfectly ordinary physical objects in my surroundings. Interestingly enough, those times had been rather enjoyable; I wasn’t constantly having instructions pertaining to ‘reality’ thrust in my face, and could just play with the elements of the various fantastic worlds I inhabited. When I see how my daughter occupies herself when she is ‘left alone,’ I sense some of these diversions–or activities like them–occupy considerable time and space for her as well.  If that’s the case, she’ll be perfectly fine while I step away; in fact, she might even welcome it. (As interestingly enough, she has reassured me on occasion when I check in her to find out if it’s OK for me to ‘do my thing.’)

There are many ways in which our childhood is a burden for our parenting; there are others by which it can relieve some of its cares.