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Blossoms on the Vine—Chapter Eight

Mister Muscles and the Music Man—Part I

He was waiting on the corner just beyond the student union, two textbooks nestled beneath his left arm, the ebb and flow of student bodies between classes energetically scurrying around and past, lending him that “forgotten” appearance like a lone leaf adrift on a stream.  The afternoon’s sun rays glistened from his crew cut, illumined his dark-brown eyebrows and cherubic complexion, his pullover polo and blue-denim jeans—and the tall elevator sole on his right foot.  Wendell knew I’d be returning then from a psychology class, passing this way back to my rented room, and he stood there hungry to put questions to me, the answers to which I could only pretend I had.

My first semester at the University of Kansas had just gotten underway, following my return from that second summer in New York and my transfer away from both Kansas State and the engineering major to the liberal-arts allure of Lawrence, Kansas, and the Psychology Department at KU.  And, to put it mildly, I was enthralled by my new field of study.  The Western civilization readings, the drama class, abnormal psychology and German language studies—all these I took to like the proverbial duck to water, luxuriating in fresh intellectual discoveries.  Orwell, Jung, Euripides, Goethe.  A far cry from calculus, chemistry and manufacturing processes.  Now here, I thought, was the real fodder for any aspiring writer.  Perhaps, at last, I’d uncovered that ever elusive path to pursue my dream.

Making new friends for an underclass transfer student proved no easy task, and Wendell had been one of my first, perhaps because he himself seemed to have so few.  He waved to me as I approached and fell in step beside me, limping along our common route away from the campus and down the steep east slope of Mount Oread.  Sometimes we discussed philosophy, my Introduction to Philosophy text earlier on having provided the opening gambit to our acquaintance.  And Wendell knew something about modern philosophy, being conversant on the views of those such as Neurath and Quine, while I was still exploring the basics of Plato and Aristotle.  But today he reverted to that old familiar concern of his—from a psychological viewpoint, how important was a man’s physical build to his social image?  And what did women find most attractive in men?

I entertained his inquiries as seriously as I could, offering responses based more on speculation than empirical data, because I’d quickly developed a great empathy for Wendell.  I’d learned that he’d had polio when a child, leaving him with a deformed right leg.  And in addition to that, or perhaps partly because of it, Wendell exhibited, it seemed to me, a borderline savant syndrome.  Mentally brilliant in areas of logic and math, but shy and socially awkward with human relationships.  Devoted to compensatory body building and health foods and supplements—resulting in bulging shoulder and arm muscles.  But self-conscious and retiring in his demeanor around women.  And painfully lonely.

“To a woman,” he asked me earnestly, “is a man being handsome more important than being smart?”

“Well,” I responded, as thoughtfully as I could manage, “social psych studies have tended to show women more drawn to personality attributes than physical ones.  Self-confidence and humor seemed particularly important.  I know I’ve seen some really ugly guys with some beautiful women.”

We continued this Q&A down the hill until we arrived at the Hof House—a large, multileveled, rambling rooming house—where I had a basement room with a kitchenette.  There we parted company and Wendell, once more reiterating the invitation to join him “pumping iron” sometime, went on his way to his own basement abode.

In point of fact, however, the actual first new friendship I formed upon arriving in Lawrence was with a fellow former-K-Stater named Bob Hill, a friendship that would quite literally endure a lifetime.  Bob, a bespectacled, wiry-yet-athletic chap of medium height—dark-haired and square-jawed—was waiting in line ahead of me to see the same student counselor about a psychology class.  We struck up a conversation and learned very quickly we had a lot in common: both of us were psychology majors, both had attended K-State previously, and we each possessed a fondness for sports.  Right on the spot Bob informed me he had friends at the Don Henry Co-op House and intended to play that fall on their intramural basketball team.  He invited me to participate too.  I accepted.  And that was how I came to meet Neil, the rock-and-roll aspirant.

Neil, a sophomore English major, resided at the co-op house, an aging sprawling stone edifice long past its prime but still housing a dozen or more thrift-conscious, gregarious male students.  Of Jewish extraction, Neil was tall and broad shouldered with short, dark, curly hair and a smile as wide as his face.  And the thing that impressed me about him right away was the fact he’d actually written a number of poems and sold them to magazines for money!  Now here, I thought, was a kindred soul of literary pursuits with one foot already in the door.

I soon learned, however, that for Neil writing was actually a secondary priority.  His first great love and burning ambition was to become a rock-and-roll singer.  James Brown and the Fabulous Flames were “hot” at that time and Neil couldn’t get enough of their music.  And there were Ike and Tina Turner, The Animals, Ray Charles—the Stones and The Beatles, of course—to name only a few.  Neil drank in their music like fire water.  He fantasized about forming a band called Neil and the Damnations.  And when he discovered I could plunk around a bit on a guitar, our friendship was sealed!

The basketball competition, meanwhile, revealed one great truth to me the first time I stepped back onto the hardwood after a three-year hiatus following high school—running up and down the court had been a far sight easier as a nonsmoker.  In fact, I commented to Bob after we’d showered and the team was piling into his old black ’38 Ford sedan (referred to by the group as “the bomb”) to ride back to the co-op house, “It feels like the skin is peeling off the inside of my lungs!”

One ensuing Saturday night the co-op house held a keg party on the premises, decorating the dining hall/living-room area with colored lights to complement the record player, a table on the side for crispy snacks and sodas.  I was invited and Neil even fixed me up with a blind date, a cute little redhead freshman girl with freckles on her nose.  Bob waltzed in with a lovely French exchange student on his arm.  Before long one of the fellows hooked up his electric guitar and amplifier and then the evening began to really rock.

At one point he handed the guitar to me, and I fumbled off some cords to a Beatles tune, Neil catching up and supplying the words.  What ability I possessed had been birthed on an acoustical guitar, certainly a horse of a different color, but fooling around with an amplifier proved great fun.  And Neil was in his element belting out lyrics to the girls.

At the close of the evening, after Neil and I had walked our dates back to their sorority and were returning to the co-op house, his music fantasy took full flight.  “Mark,” he said, “we gotta put a band together.  You can play rhythm guitar and I know a guy who has drums.  And I just met a guy with a bass guitar.  If we can find a lead guitar, we’re all set.”

“I don’t know, Neil,” I replied.  “I’ve never played in a band before.  And mostly what I know are folk songs.”

“Look.  There’s a movie showing next week with all the latest bands.  Even got James Brown.  Let’s take it in.  You can see what I’m going for.”

“Okay.  Sounds good.”  So, another piece of Neil’s plan fell in place.  And the next Friday evening would find us both in the front row of the theater on Massachusetts Street.

The movie did, indeed, present for the rock devotee a dizzying overview of music’s trendiest groups blasting out set after set of the latest hits.  No plot or narrative, just one long cinematic concert.  And Neil gushed at times like a junior-high girl, singing along and providing a running commentary.  When James Brown appeared, Neil fairly leaped from his seat.  “Look, Mark!” he shouted.  “There he is, there he is!”

When Brown did his signature rendition of “Please, Please, Please,” and midway through fell to his knees in feigned grief and exhaustion and members of his entourage hurried out with a robe and lifted him up and seemed to assist him toward the wings, Neil cried out, “Oh no!  Look, Mark, he’s hurt!  He’s in pain!  Oh no!  Oh, this is terrible!”  And then Brown suddenly seemed to revive, caught his breath, pushed his helpers aside, tossed off the robe and rushed back center stage wailing “Please, please, please.”  Neil jumped up and called out in exultation, “He’s gonna be okay, Mark.  Look, he’s back!  Oh thank God, he’s back!”  Neil virtually had tears running down his cheeks in relief.  Yes, the bands were great, but for me, that evening, Neil was as entertaining as anything we were viewing up on the screen.

Some days later I ran into Wendell again walking back from campus.  He happily conveyed the news to me that he’d found a part-time job washing dishes in a restaurant downtown that would help defray college expenses.  I informed him I had a test coming up in my philosophy class and one topic to be covered was free will versus determinism.  I’d never before been exposed to the particulars of that classic conundrum, and I sought Wendell’s input on the matter.  He eagerly clarified some details for me not covered in our text, giving balance to both sides of the debate.

So, having read several essays on the subject and factoring in Wendell’s elaborations, I ruminated on it all awhile.  Before I went to bed that night, I’d become convinced that individual man’s fate incontrovertibly stood at the mercy of forces beyond his control.  Even beyond his reckoning.  His life’s path, as it were, cut in stone by chains of cause and effect, inexorable and pitiless.  A mere pool ball dominated by the stroke of a cue.  Determinism ruled.

The next afternoon while I was at my desk studying, Neil came by in a state of exhilaration.  He had just located a lead guitarist and next Sunday evening he wanted everyone to convene at the bass guitarist’s fraternity for a first “Damnations” practice session.  He’d made arrangements for me to borrow the electric guitar from the co-op house.  Would I be free to join in?  Well, with such enthusiasm on Neil’s part, how could I say no?

Then Neil noticed the philosophy text on my desk and asked about what we studied in that class, thinking he might enroll in it next semester.  I explained the general outline of the material and specifically alluded to the topic of free will and determinism.  “Exactly what is ‘determinism’?” Neil inquired.  And that launched a self-styled lecture on my part as to how “freedom” was an illusion and how humankind was actually totally directed by cause-and-effect forces both inside and out.  Why, even his decision to stop by to see me had been predetermined, I declared.

Neil listened patiently and with great interest.  Finally, as my discourse drew to a close, Neil expressed his gratitude for my explanation.  Then he stated, “I can sure see you’re really well informed and passionate about all this.  But, with all due respect, I think from what I’m hearing that mankind does make choices.  I think in fact humans do possess free will.”  Well, so much, I lamented to myself, for reason, logic and philosophic persuasion.  Now where had I gone wrong—in the telling or in the concluding?

to be continued

 

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Mark Scheel
Mark Scheel grew up in east-Kansas farm country. He attended both Kansas State University and The University of Kansas, majoring in psychology and English. Prior to writing full time he served overseas with the American Red Cross in Vietnam, Thailand, West Germany and England, taught at Emporia State University and was an information specialist with the Johnson County Library in Shawnee Mission, Kansas. His stories, articles and poems have appeared in numerous magazines including The Little Balkans Review, Kansas Quarterly, The Cincinnati Poetry Review, The Kansas City Star, Heritage of Kansas, Samisdat, and Poet as well as many sites online such as Common Ground News. His literary activities have also involved membership in The Kansas Authors Club, a seat on the board of directors for Potpourri Publications Company and an editorial position with Kansas City Voices magazine. He co-authored the book Of Youth and the River: the Mississippi Adventure of Raymond Kurtz, Sr., and his collection of stories and poems, A Backward View, was awarded the 1998 J. Donald Coffin Memorial Book Award. His most recent book is titled The Pebble: Life, Love, Politics and Geezer Wisdom.

4 comments to Blossoms on the Vine—Chapter Eight

  • Not an easy post to discourse on in less than 25 words, Mark, so I’ll just comment “very ruminative” and leave it at that. 🙂

  • markscheel1

    Muse,

    And best to wait for part II and the conclusion. It was a long chapter in manuscript, so had to break it into two parts. Will be curious to see what you think then.

    Thanks,

    Mark

  • Mark,

    Can we say bleep happens? And, you haven’t even gotten into the unconscious as yet. There’s no real answer to these type questions that’s why they are asked. I’m waiting for part II.

    Don

  • markscheel1

    Don,

    Good point, and a wise decision. But I’m giving you a spoiler alert, and to Muse, and Ricardo if he’s lurking out there–you’re all likely to have tears in your eyes when you finish part II. Life has a way often of cutting out our hearts! Just be prepared.

    Mark

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