Notes: History


MY wIFE, DAUGHTER, and I recently moved from an icky modern apartment building on Second Avenue in New York City to a nice old house on dirt road in the country. The house was built in 1740 or so and added on to in the 1800s. For a while it was a club, where, among other things, ladies played cards. In 1945 it became a boys’ boarding school. (The founder of the school was an educational innovator, who, in the late 1800s, had disciplined unruly boys by making them sit for extended periods on each other’s laps.) In 1970 it was sold for a dollar to a history teacher, who sawed it in two and had the parts moved down a hill, on the back of a big truck. Power lines along the route had to be taken down so that the truck could pass.

For the past couple of months my wife and I have spent most of our spare time scraping off wallpaper that the history teacher apparently spent most of his spare time pasting up. Wallpaper was the history teacher’s answer to every aesthetic question. He pasted it in closets; he spread it out in cabinets; he even stretched it over the bare studs alongside the stairway to the basement.

Stripping wallpaper is a very tedious business. There is nothing intellectual about it, so you are free to use virtually all of your brain for other purposes, such as freewheeling speculation about the significance of this and that. History (it occurs to me as I move thoughtfully from room to room with my sponge and scraper) is like a crumbling old plaster wall covered with layer upon layer of faded wallpaper; just when you think you’ve gotten to the bottom of it, you find another layer more horrid than the one above. So far we have peeled down to 1969.

In 1969 our house was occupied by adolescent boys named Addicks, Allen, Bowen, Brown, Bucciarelli, Buckley, Farley, Forster, Labas, Newhouse, and St. Clair. I know their names because someone inscribed them in black ink on the walls of what is now my daughter’s bedroom. If one were allowed to choose one’s ghosts, in all likelihood one would not choose adolescent boys from 1969, and certainly not in the bedroom of one’s daughter. But one is not allowed to choose.

The names of the boys are spaced out around the room in eleven numbered areas marked off on the walls. My wife and I initially hypothesized that these areas had something to do with the arrangement of beds, but the room is too small to have housed eleven teenagers. Could it have been a study hall? No, Addicks’s and St. Clair’s areas meet at a corner; their desks would have had to sit one on top of the other. The same fact rules out the room’s having been used for storage.

Our current theory is that the walls were parceled out simply so that the boys could cover them with graffiti. The house, before the history teacher put up his dollar, was going to be torn down to make way for a new dorm; why not divvy it up and make a mess before the wreckers arrived? Because most of the decoration is in Forster’s area, I assume that this was his idea.

Forster in 1969 was a young man with a great deal on his mind. “Why was I not made of stone like you?” he wrote beneath a window—perhaps looking meaningfully over his shoulder at Bucciarelli, whose assigned area is undefilcd. Up near the ceiling Forster painted a pink and red television set and filled its screen with pictures clipped from newspapers and magazines. On the wall above and beside it he wrote, “You love to watch it: the show.” Since the clippings came off with the wallpaper, we can only guess what Forster’s housemates saw when they looked at the screen. Soldiers in Vietnam, a peace sign, and a naked girl at Woodstock? Richard Nixon, a mushroom cloud, and a policeman frisking a hippie? (In the adjoining area Labas wrote, “I’ve got you in the sights of my gun” and “Love and death—are they man made and fake too?”)

Below the television set and headed “Something to Live For” is a long, unpunctuated outburst. “Strike for the eight demands,” Forster wrote angrily in dripping black and red paint,

strike be
cause you hate cops
strike because your
roommate was clubbed
strike to stop expansion
strike to seize control
of your life strike to
become more human
strike to return Paine Hall
scholarships strike be
cause there’s no poetry
in your lectures
strike because classes
are a bore strike for
power strike to smash the
corporation strike to make
yourself free strike to
abolish ROTC strike because
they are trying to squeeze
the life out of you

Forster’s proclamation is clearly not indigenous; it was borrowed, my wife and 1 believe, from another civilization—probably Harvard. There is only one full-time cop in this town, and no one, so far as we know, hates him. The thought of him trudging up the hill from his desk in the basement of the town hall to clobber a ninth grader is intriguing but improbable. Nor is there an entity nearby that could in seriousness be called a corporation, much less “the” corporation. The local economy, as near as we can tell, is based exclusively on groceries and hardware.

But Forster doubtless did not intend for his demands to be interpreted literally or dissected coldly by historians.

Thumbing through the newspaper one morning, perhaps, he stumbled upon a statement that seemed to echo his very own thoughts, but ne’er so well express’d, and wrote it on the wall. “To become more human,” he repeated, thinking, let’s say, of his history teacher. Nor is his statement less authentic for having been pinched. Very likely he did feel that his classes were boring and that his lectures lacked poetry and that the life was being squeezed out of him. A lot of people Forster’s age feel that way.

My wife and I were roughly Forster’s age in 1969, and we looked at the world in just about the same way that he did. Neither of us ever wrote a list of demands on a bedroom wall, but either of us might have. I’m just as glad I never did. One of history’s crudest tricks is to take words that sounded good at the time and make them sound pretty stupid. This also happens to the contents of student literary magazines.

My wife and I are now getting ready to paint our daughter’s room. After some deliberation we have decided to preserve Forster’s area, which, conveniently, lies behind the door. There it will serve as a reminder that although time changes almost everything, including the meaning of words painted on a wall, there are a few things, including being fifteen, that stay the same. I hope that someday, in the year 2000 or so, when our daughter is roughly the same age that we were then, Forster’s painting will remind us to insert a bit more poetry into our lectures. I also hope that it will prove to her that she isn’t the first person who ever felt the way she does, and perhaps even inspire her to empathize wdth the old bores who have seized control of her life and in whose faces she has just slammed her door.

—David Owen