If I Knew Then…
The signs were all there, right from the start, but I did not have enough life experience at the time to see them and recognize them for what they were. If I had, my life might have turned out much differently.
It was November of 1972. I had begun my first teaching job in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, at the John F. Kennedy Elementary School, that September. I was teaching a Grade 5 class in a ghetto school and was one of the shortest people in my classroom. I did not have a lot of self-confidence at this point in my life and was not feeling in complete control of my classroom or my life, at that point.
I was very excited about being able to vote in my first presidential election. I was raised in a family with liberal values and I was casting my first vote for Senator George McGovern. We all know how that turned out.
After exercising my right to vote for the first time, I got into my brown Ford Pinto and pulled out into the Boston traffic. As I stopped at the first traffic light, I was rear ended by another vehicle. It was probably a good thing that Ralph Nadir’s study on the Pinto had not yet been released or I would have been more concerned. My car did not explode, but it did end up with a dented back bumper.
A few days later I was talking to a friend of mine from my years at Northeastern University. I told her about the accident and she said her boyfriend knew someone who could probably fix the body damage on my car. Syd said that her boyfriend, Frank, had recently met an engineering student, from Canada, and had invited him to live in the fraternity house while he was going to school. Supposedly, Greg, who they all called “Klondike” because he came from Alberta, Canada, was quite knowledgeable about fixing cars. Frank also thought that Greg and I would make a cute couple. I was not dating anyone and Greg knew almost no one in Boston.
A couple of days later Greg called and asked to see the car. We talked on the phone for a while and he seemed very intelligent and funny. We made plans for me to bring my car around to the fraternity house for him to evaluate the damage. I did that a few days later and he ended up fixing the dent in my car. When I asked how much I owed him, he suggested I cook dinner for him. That seemed like a reasonable price to pay, and since Syd and Frank knew him quite well and thought he was a good guy, I agreed to cook dinner for Greg the following weekend.
Greg looked like he came from the Klondike. You have to remember that it was 1972, and we lived in Boston. There are so many colleges and universities in and around Boston. The Vietnam War was such an important political issue. It was the “Hippy” generation. I was used to the riot squad responding to many demonstrations during my six years at Northeastern. I was also accustomed to seeing many young men sporting beards of all lengths and descriptions. I was not the least bit surprised that Greg had a beard. He very much fit the American Hippy stereotype even though he was a Canadian.
After our first dinner we talked into the wee hours of the morning. He was liberal, like me, but had led a life very different than the one I had lived. I would continue to learn many things about Greg during the coming years, but at the time, I just knew that he was smart and funny and had the same values and beliefs as I did. What I didn’t know at the time was that Frank had told him I was “well endowed”. Greg thought that meant I was financially well off. What Frank had really meant was that I was not “flat chested”. Many times during the evening I caught Greg staring at my chest and as he left, very late that night, he said, “Ah, now I understand!” He didn’t explain what he meant until many days later. We laughed about that for a long time. As a public school teacher in 1972, no one could ever say I was well endowed meaning I made a lot of money.
Looking back on that first night, I don’t recall whether we had anything alcoholic to drink with dinner. I was no stranger to alcohol. I had done my share of drinking more than I should have during my years at Northeastern. I think most of us could say that in those days. It was a time of rampant drug use and I was not part of that scene. It wasn’t easy being the only one at parties who did not do any kind of drugs. Peer pressure was hard to resist. I did try marijuana once, during graduate school, with disastrous results. It made me very paranoid. So I stuck to my drinks. I didn’t drink any more or less than my friends did. The one difference was that I really did not like the feeling of being out of control.
I suspect that Greg and I may have had some wine or beer that first night, but not a lot. We were much more interested in getting to know each other. I learned that first night, that he lived in a small town near Edmonton, Alberta, called Fort Saskatchewan. He had two brothers who were twins, who were three years younger than him. He also had a sister who was eleven years younger. The first time I saw her photograph was at Greg’s fraternity house. It was hanging above his bed in his room and I thought it was someone he was dating. She looked young, but not too young. When I asked who it was he told me it was his sister. He also told me that his dad was a junior high school principal and his mom was a secretary at the same school.
I learned that Greg was going to school on the GI Bill. He had left Canada to join the United States Marine Corps, and after finishing up his time, they were paying for his education. He started at Northeastern after I had already graduated and finished my Master’s degree as well. Greg was just a few months younger than me. We seemed like a great fit. He was very kind and treated me very well. We started dating and saw each other frequently.
As I mentioned before, Greg was living in the Beta Gamma Epsilon Fraternity house on Commonwealth Avenue in Boston. I think he was pledging the fraternity but he may just have been living there. He made many good friends while he was there. It was a fraternity house and it was 1972, a time when fraternities were still very active on American campuses. I always found it hard to believe that at a time when the liberal radicals were so prevalent, the fraternities continued to thrive. They just seemed to me like polar opposites. There were some very liberal, “hippy-ish” fraternity boys back them. But there were also the typical frat parties with everyone getting wasted, both from drinking and from drugs.
I had attended many frat parties in my years at Northeastern. I had made myself sick during my first week as an undergrad from drinking too many sloe gin fizzes at a frat party with my new roommate, Barb. By the time I earned my Bachelor of Science and my Master of Education degrees and started my teaching career, I had slowed down on the drinking to almost zero.
I did start going to some of the parties at Greg’s fraternity house. I really liked some of the young men and their girlfriends. Frank and Syd were there. I also met a young couple, Keith and Alice, who I am lucky enough to stay in contact with today. We became very good friends with others from BGE as well. Larry and Cynthia were our attendants at our wedding. And Phil became our “adopted” son.
As I said, there was a lot of drinking going on at these parties, but for the first few months, Greg never got drunk. Even after the first time he did, it didn’t happen often. Drinking was what people did socially back then, and I guess we still do today, but in a much more responsible way. Back then everyone drove, no matter how much they had to drink.
To put it simply, I did not think that alcohol would have any impact on my life, and certainly not to the extent that it ending up having on my son and myself.
Copyright 2020 Ellen Jill Clark