Episode 9: THE ICE STORM
Audio & Transcript
Jessica H: In June of 1969, some college friends and I got waitressing jobs at the Townhouse restaurant in Provincetown in Cape Cod. This did not go well. I'm Jessica Harper, and this is episode nine of WINNETKA.
I should have felt right at home since, long ago, the Mayflower had brought a couple of my ancestors to this town. In reference to that historic landing, the restaurant had a pilgrim vibe with the maitre d' dressed like William Bradford, and we waitresses wore severe black skirts, severe white blouses, and hairnets.
But, while the Townhouse attracted tourists with its catchy décor, it repelled them with the food. I remember one day serving a filet mignon to a customer who had paid dearly for it. On a large oval plate was a small, round object that, though it identified as meat, looked more like something that had been carved from Plymouth Rock. The only side dish was a slice of canned apple enhanced by red dye number two. When I sat the plate before the hungry dude, he looked at me as if I had presented him with a turd. Later, I took home $1.10 in tips, making it a day like any other.
The weeks wore on like that at the Townhouse. Neither the food nor the tips improved. Dispirited, my friends and I walked home after work to our tight quarters in an apartment overlooking Commercial Street, which is P-Town's main drag. We'd rip off our butt-ugly work uniforms and then, too broke to go out, we'd fry up some fish and spend the evening looking out the window at the parade of la-di-da summer vacationers going by.
Things perked up a little bit at the restaurant one day in mid-July. I was getting a Tom Collins from the restaurant's lounge when I noticed that all of the regulars were focused on the TV above the bar. I looked up and watched as Neil Armstrong planted his feet on the moon, sending up a little poof of space dust.
Neil Armstrong: That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.
Jessica H: It was cool. But many baby boomers would argue that the greater leap for mankind took place about a month later. When my gal pals and I walked home one afternoon, our tips so meager they barely ca-chinged in our pockets, we saw a herd of young people coming towards us in muddy jeans and cutoffs.
The guys were topless and the women almost so. They were smelly, sunburned, and seriously high. I'd seen them a few days earlier when they came into the restaurant. They had been cleaner then, wearing more clothes, and carrying cameras and backpacks. And they'd said they were heading to upstate New York to something called the Woodstock Music Festival.
Now they were back, and they were behaving like they'd experienced the rapture without the disappearing part. We stood in the middle of the street in our hideous work uniforms as they approached, rock stoned, all sleepy, happy, and dopey. We looked like two rival gangs facing off, and I found something very attractive about the opposing gang.
They chatted happily with anyone who would listen about what had gone down at Woodstock. Hundreds of thousands of baby boomers had shrugged off the constraints of their normal lives and peacefully lived together under the spell of rock 'n' roll for three days. Oh, and there was a lot of sex, and drugs were everywhere, and you had to wait in line three hours to use a toilet.
I was wild with regret. Why hadn't I gone to Woodstock? I was 19, for God's sake. It's what you're supposed to do. How had I missed out? Why was I standing around in a hairnet? Everybody went while I was busy serving turds on a platter to tourists. I was not gonna let it happen again. I was gonna be ready for the next of my generation's seminal moments.
I decided to tune in, pay closer attention so I wouldn't miss future Woodstocks and feel like a loser, turn on, drop acid as soon as possible, and drop out. Leave college because I couldn't get my mind around French literature while I was high. And that is what I did. In short order, I had the opportunity to check that LSD thing off my list. I quit my waitressing job, switched out my uniform for bell-bottoms and a peasant blouse, and started networking.
There were these three guys who were running a photo shop on Commercial Street. Tom, Tim, and Allen looked like Woodstock refugees, although, in fact, they had not been there. They had just stolen the vibe and were using it to pick up chicks with their perfectly distressed jeans and T-shirts, their Marlboros, and their cool attitude. They were the perfect faux uber hippies on the street, just the bullshitters I was looking for.
Soon, I was hanging out with these dudes every day, along with a few other young women in pursuit of hipness. We were stoned much of the time. First it was weed, and then it was mescaline. And then one night after shop hours, we all went down to somebody's crash pad down by the beach. Allen handed me a small piece of paper with a powdery blue dot on it the size of a dime. It was time for the big one. (singing)
The acid sent me into a full-on hallucinatory panic attack that gripped me for 16 hours. You know that feeling when you are hanging by your fingernails from the ledge of a tall building and there's a high wind? It was kinda like that. Allen was kind enough to look after me, to keep me supplied with cigarettes, and to play the Traffic album over and over again, and to commiserate when I said repeatedly that tripping was "so heavy. It's so heavy." (singing)
It was indeed heavy, but not nearly as heavy as the next item on my list turned out to be. Dropping out was gonna be easy. The hard part would be telling my father. He had an agenda for his kids, and we all knew that any deviation from it would ignite his wrath. I had seen what happened when Diana went rogue, left school, and had a baby out of wedlock, how it had crushed him, and how he had crushed her. I put it off as long as I could, but then it was August and college would be starting up again soon. And it was just time to get the thing done.
I said goodbye to my pals in Provincetown and went to my parents' house in Connecticut, and I requested an audience with my father. I suggested it take place at cocktail hour, figuring that if he'd had a couple of cocktails, he'd be loose, more accepting. He might go with the flow. We kids had often used this strategy, waiting for the alcohol to kick in before broaching a sticky subject. Sometimes that plan worked, but not always.
We assembled in the living room. Mom and Dad sat on the sofa, and my visiting Aunt Lindsay, Dad's sister, sat in a comfy armchair. I faced them on an unforgiving straight-back chair. My heart was pounding. But it's like swimming in Lake Michigan in November. You just have to jump right in. A slow wade only prolongs the icy torture. So jump in I did, laying out my vague plans for the fall, which did not include Sarah Lawrence College.
"Oh, sure," Dad said. "Go ahead. Leave college." He spoke calmly with an air of understanding. I felt immensely relieved. Then, in a pleasant tone, he described the future he foresaw for me as a college dropout. Yes, it would all be fine. I could get married, live in the suburbs, have a bunch of kids, be a housewife. I'm not sure exactly when I realized that he was playing me. Maybe it was when my Aunt Lindsay, who knew his ways, said, "Paul, stop. Don't talk to her like that." My mother said nothing.
"It'll be terrific," he continued. Just be a housewife for the rest of your life." His voice was now dripping with contempt. So not only was he messing with me, he was denigrating the life choices of both his wife and sister, who sat beside him. I shut down. I felt numb, as I often did when Dad was being scary. As he continued his caustic monologue, I focused on the lush lawn and trees outside the window behind my parents, a world so green it was like Oz.
The rest of us were silent as Dad wound it down, and then I left the room. I mean, he was right, of course. I was a foolish 19-year-old making a dumb decision, turning down the gift of higher education because ... Because why? Because I could? Because it was his gift? Because rebellion was trending? You were supposed to reject whatever the establishment valued, even though your plan B was, at best, vague.
I'm not sure if Dad could have talked me down if he had taken a less sarcastic approach, but I felt like Billy or Charlie might have when they were crying babies and Dad hit the boys to silence them, his actions, of course, having the opposite of the desired effect. After my chat with my father, there was no way that I was gonna change my mind.
I wasn't the only one with a hankering to achieve dropout status. Here's my twin brother, Billy.
Billy H: Our high school was kind of a hotbed of progressive thinking. And we had deep exposure to the social movements of the time, the Civil Rights Movement, feminism, the anti-war movement, through our teachers, who were deeply engaged in social justice issues and in issues of art making. Many of them were writers. They were painters. They were musicians.
So this was the atmosphere I came from. So imagine my dismay when I arrived at the deeply conservative University of Rochester in upstate New York, which was a world of, uh, panty raids and pep rallies and fraternities and sororities and freshmen wearing beanies. I had no idea what planet I'd landed on.
Jessica H: So, to understate it, the University of Rochester was not a good fit for my brother. But dropping out was, at least for a while, not an option.
Billy H: The draft system was still in place. That is, you could be drafted into the army and be required to serve the United States in their war-making machine, as we called it. Well, we did not want to do that, so we stayed enrolled in school even if we didn't want to be in school. And I did not want to be in school.
Jessica H: Meanwhile, there I was, a college dropout with a giant "Now what?" in the thought bubble over my head. I was kinda stumped. After Provincetown, I had removed waitressing from my list of career options, and I had explored other possibilities back in the summer of '68. As I told you in the last episode, I had a fantasy about becoming a model after Mademoiselle magazine photographed me for the cover of their college issue.
After that photo shoot in May, I had a full summer to wait for the magazine to appear on the newsstands. So during those months of anticipating fame, I did some job hunting just in case the modeling thing didn't work out and I needed a backup. My friend Janie and I had a sublet in New York City and signed up with an agency to get some temp office work. I thought I was a decent typist. I could bang out a term paper as long as I had some white-out handy.
But I was soon to be disabused of that notion. The agency sent me to a secretarial job on a very high floor of an office building. The word "secretary" had not been replaced by "assistant" yet. In 1968, we were still living in an episode of Mad Men. I arrived and looked up at the radically tall, sleek skyscraper. And I started to sweat. Other employees charged through the glass doors all crisp in their navy pencil skirts and Brooks Brothers blouses. There I was in a dubious brown dress with a polo collar I wore almost daily. With a paisley head wrap and multiple strands of beads, my style was a confusion of preppy and Janis Joplin, if such a thing is even conceivable.
Even before I boarded the elevator, I felt like Billy did at college. I wasn't sure I was on the right planet. I was greeted at reception by a no-nonsense 50-ish redhead, who showed me to a desk, watched me type for 15 minutes, and fired me. The boss at my next gig was more forgiving. He put up with me for the full week specified by the contract. But I was getting to know my limits, and this line of work was beyond them.
Then, one day, a young man approached me on the street and asked me if I would like to be on television. I said I would. He was scouting for non-actors to appear in a popular game show at the time called “To Tell the Truth.” He gave me the casting director's business card, and I called that afternoon. The show had four regular celebrity panelists and a lively host called Bud Collyer. Each show also had three guests, including one who was almost famous and two imposters pretending to be the famous one.
The panelists would ask the guests questions in order to figure out which one was the real deal and who was the phonies. I was hired to pretend that I was the wife of Bill Cowsill, one of the members of a family singing group at the time called The Cowsills. I saw a recording of that show recently. The real Karen Cowsill and the other fake were blonde, perky queen bee types. I was all dark haired, shy, nervous, and answering the panelists' questions with a brief negative. So, for example, "Do you have any plans to join the singing group?" "No." Or, "Do you know who BJ Bjorkman is?" "No." And so on.
I would never have voted for me, but 25% of the audience did, and so did one panelist, Dorothy Kilgallen. So I won $100. I had made more money in 30 minutes pretending to be Karen Cowsill than I did in a month pretending to be a skilled secretary. As I got up to leave, one of the panelists, Bert Convy, came over to me and said, "You know, you should be an actress." My inner self-denigration apparatus went into high gear, but still, I felt a little zing. Really? So I was gonna be a supermodel and a movie star.
However, just as I was practicing my Oscar speech, I learned my first lesson about great expectations. I started cruising the newsstands daily in late August. My heart raced each time and then slowed down again when I saw that Mademoiselle's August issue was still hanging on, getting more limp with each passing heat wave. Then, one day, it was gone. And there in its place, at last, was the spanking-new September college issue, and gracing its cover was some blonde bitch from Mount Holyoke.
I literally couldn't believe it. They had said I would be on the cover. They'd made a commitment, not to mention cut my hair. But these people, journalists at the top of their professions, had not followed through. What the hell? Was this how things worked? "No, wait a minute," I thought. "Maybe, maybe they just placed my picture elsewhere deeper in the issue. That wouldn't be the worst possible thing," I said to myself as I clawed through the magazine's pages. And, sure enough, I was right. Buried in the back of the issue, I found a picture of my gloved hands.
What was I gonna tell all those thousands of people I'd been bragging to all summer? "My hands are in a magazine"? So I went back to college that fall of 1968, bought some pecan sandies and some weed, and resumed my old life. And now it was 1969, and I knew I wasn't a gifted waitress or a secretary or a model or a game show guest. And I didn't know what I was. So I signed up to take some courses at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. School, my default life. I chose Wesleyan because it offered a large number of attractive young men and also of stoner-friendly courses. For example, I signed right up for Balinese shadow puppetry.
A few weeks into my studies at Wesleyan, I was struggling to imagine the career trajectory of a Balinese puppeteer when my mother sent me a piece from the New York Times announcing open casting calls for Hair. The smash-hit love/rock musical was revolutionary at the time, bringing rock music, hippies, and anti-war message and, by the way, nudity to Broadway. In other words, it was cool. Now the show was starting its second year, and they were freshening up the cast.
And Mom was giving me a little push in that direction, a direction that would not have been my father's first choice, but while Mom avoided confronting Dad, she wasn't above a little sly subterfuge on behalf of her kids. Maybe she thought I could, and maybe I could, pick up where she left off back in the '40s when she'd been in love with the theater but left it because she loved Paul Harper more. And so it was that when I turned 20 in October of '69, I did so on a Broadway stage.
Then, in December of 1969, the Selective Service conducted its first lottery by birthday since 1942. In a large glass bowl, there were 366 capsules, each containing a slip of paper with one of the year's dates printed on it. The capsules were opened in random order. If your birthday was among the first selected, you needed to go home and pack because you were going to Vietnam in January. If you had a high number, like Billy's 244, you could get on with your life. If you were somewhere in the middle, you could suffer sleepless nights for up to seven years.
In retrospect, the lottery seems like a pretty crude way of doing things, more suitable for raffling off a Chevy than for determining the fates of some 850,000 men. My buddies at Wesleyan University told me about gathering around the TV the night of the drawing, the tension so thick you could sit on it. Representative Alexander Pirnie opened the first capsule, which would reveal who would be the first to be drafted. It was September 14th, the birthday of one of the guys present. He took off his shoe and threw it at the television.
My brother, Billy, was luckier.
Billy H: I did not want to be in school, but it wasn't till the middle of my junior year when the lottery system was applied to the draft and I got a good lottery number and was able, then, to leave the University of Rochester.
Jessica H: He couldn't leave school fast enough. While the big three, Diana, Billy, and I, were busy setting fire to the life plans our father had carefully laid for us, the little three, Sam and Charlie and Lindsay, were back in Greenwich, Connecticut, watching Dad implode. This played out at my parents' long-practiced nightly ritual, the cocktail hour.
Charlie: First crisis was Diana-
Jessica H: Yeah.
Charlie: ... abandoning her college tour to go run away with a IRA poet (laughs) and have a baby. That was the topic of conversation of every cocktail hour. Then you and Billy came back from college looking like you'd just stepped off the Hippie Express, one announcing that she's joining the cast of Hair, the other announcing that he's dropping out of school to become a rock musician in the East Village (laughs).
And then that became the crisis. So I remember, at that point, I became extremely compliant 'cause I saw the, the fallout and Dad's reaction to rebellion was annihilation. And, you know, Mom, of course, was in a panic and very protective on one hand. On the other hand, uh, you know, she wasn't gonna risk her marriage.
Jessica H: As if the antics of his older children were not enough to send him over the edge, Dad's business was not going well. In fact, he thought that the agency merger he had moved east to implement, leaving Winnetka to live in a rental in what he angrily called a high-ass community ... After all that, he thought the merger was gonna fail.
Sam H: And Lindsay was having a terrible time in her school. I remember on the bus one day, the kids were taunting her. And then you toss in Diana's situation and the fact that Dad thought his business was going under, that the merger was failing. There was this night when Mom and I went down to pick up Dad at the train station. It was mid-winter. He'd had a long, shitty day. And when we were coming back in our giant station wagon, we couldn't get up this hill 'cause the road was covered with ice.
Tires were spinning. The car was going sideways. Dad was furious. He said, "Get out of the car." I was like, "What?" "Get out of the car." So Mom and I got out of the car, stood by the side of the road, and watched him just gun it, slam the accelerator down, tires spinning, smoke coming out, burning through the ice, wheels going 100 miles an hour, and he's going like an inch at a time up the hill.
And that was sort of the metaphor for our whole time in Greenwich. We just couldn't get any traction. It was a horrible year.
Jessica H: Then things got more horrible. That spring, Sam and Charlie were notified that, at year's end, they would no longer be welcome at the Brunswick School. They had, since day one, been pegged as nonconformists, not in a good way.
Charlie: The first day of class, the head of the middle school called Sam and I into his office, and he, leaning over his desk, warned us with his shaking finger that he would not stand for our nonconformist behavior.
Jessica H: But the boys had grown up with a more liberal approach to self-expression in small ways.
Sam H: We wore peace medallions, and we wore flower ties.
Jessica H: But they also had made their voices heard on larger issues.
Sam H: During, uh, spring break, we sent a letter to the headmasters asking why we had homework over spring break when spring break was supposed to be a break from school. We didn't see the logic in that. We were bitching and moaning about it when we were on vacation, and I think Mom or Dad said, "So write the headmaster a letter." So, you know ...
Jessica H: Really?
Sam H: Yeah. Take action. And when we got back from school (laughs) ... We got back from school. There was an all-school assembly, and I was 1 through 12. And he read the letter to the entire school and then did a whole lecture on why we have to do homework.
Jessica H: Did, did he say who-
Sam H: No, he didn't say who it was. But that came out later. We were considered troublemakers, so we were asked to leave. And I think it was partly also 'cause Mom complained about the treatment that the teachers were ...
Jessica H: Oh.
Sam H: That could've been part of it, too. She actively said, "Hey, these teachers are abusing the kids."
Jessica H: You may recall that this is the school Sam and Charlie described as Dickensian.
Sam H: There were teachers who were violent, and there were no restrictions on what they would do to the kids to discipline them.
Jessica H: Mom had tried to intervene.
Sam H: And she went to other parents, and those parents said, "Yeah, they probably deserve it." That was probably part of it.
Jessica H: Oh, sure.
Sam H: Yeah.
Jessica H: Trouble. She's trouble.
Sam H: She is trouble, too.
Jessica H: So the Brunswick School decided to part ways with all those troublesome Harpers. So that left only one of the six of us, Lindsay, enrolled in school. And we'd reached the nadir of family life. In fact, Dad was hospitalized with a heart condition that year. As he watched the dreams he had for himself and for his family go up in smoke, his heart was literally breaking. But Dad, the indefatigable marine, arose from the ashes, put his heart back together, and took action.
He yanked his family out of Greenwich and moved them to an apartment in New York City, gradually depositing the little three in boarding schools and reviving his sagging business, leaving only one casualty in his wake.
Lindsay H: Boodleheimer, Boodleheimer, clap clap clap...
Jessica H: (singing) Boodleheimer, Boodleheimer, clap clap clap.
Lindsay H: When we moved from Chicago to Greenwich, we brought Boodles with us, and he adjusted very well, unlike the rest of us. And a year later, we were moving from Greenwich to New York City, and we couldn't bring Boodles with us. So we found a lovely family about 100 miles away in the country where we thought Boodles would be very happy. And they came and picked him up, and about a week later, Boodles appeared at our house again. And we were, of course, delighted to see him, but it was also tragic.
You know, I think Sam would be so much better at telling this story 'cause I don't really remember the details that well. I remember him going off in a blue car.
Sam H: This was one of the top five worst days of my life. He was my dog. I took care of him, I fed him, and I loved that dog so much. He was a source of comfort, a source of conversation. He was the center of my love universe. But my parents were not pet people. In fact, Dad thought that Boodles was kind of a nuisance.
So when they decided to move into New York City, they also decided that we would not be having a dog in New York City. Dad came to me. He said, "We're moving to New York City. There will be no dog. I'm sorry." And that was the end of the conversation. I think I started crying right then and did not stop crying till a month later when we actually got rid of him.
We drove to the vet's office. I was sobbing. Mom comforted me with the notion that he was going to a nice, big farm in the country. We all know that story. But the thing that really sticks with me is his face, his little beagle face. When I left him in that office, he looked at me and was just, "What? No. You're not, you're not leaving me here ... What? Stop it." But we left him there, and a very big portion of my heart stayed with him.
Jessica H: That move to the city marked the true end of childhood for the six of us. We went into that limbo zone, life still unsettled but with only occasional parents. Visiting them became less compelling not only because they no longer lived in our dear hometown of Winnetka, but also because relations with my father went into a wicked new spin when, for a grim couple of decades, he became an alcoholic, as his father had been. And bad things happened.
But as adults, we could opt to keep our distance, scattering to California or Alaska, Arizona, Evanston. We'd visit our parents at their behest, sleeping in guest rooms where, if we looked, we might find the third-place medal from the Winnetka 4th of July races, or an old North Shore Country Day School yearbook, or somebody's crude crayon drawing of a robin, reminders of what anybody would tell us, which was that we had been very lucky kids. And they'd be right. They'd be dead right. Oh, yes, we were, we'd say. Among the luckiest, though we might hold the thought that, in any childhood, the devil is in the details.
After Dad's death in 2013, we learned that the devil also resides in full ugly splendor in our family history. In the last episode, I told you about a file that my brother Sam found in Dad's office after the funeral.
Sam H: A few years before he died, my father took me into his office and showed me the little pewter cup where he kept a key that opened a file cabinet in his office that he always kept locked. And he said to me, "Everything you need to know is in that file cabinet."
A few days after he died, I returned to his office. I went to the shelf, and I pulled that pewter cup down and I pulled the key out. And it was odd. It really felt like the office was holding its breath until I opened that file cabinet. It sent a real chill down my spine.
So then I opened the drawer, and there was a marine folder that said Family History. And in that thin file was something that was completely startling, something totally unexpected, uh, information about our family that I just had no idea even existed.
Jessica H: And I will tell you everything in the next episode.