GEORGE and I shuffled uneasily, adjusted our uniforms, and clumped up the stairs of 1697 Cambridge St. to the evening weekly meeting of the class listed as Government 20-0.Skip to next paragraph
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It was winter 1918. The war was over, and we were in full uniform, minus the second lieutenant's gilt bars. We returned as seniors (or thought we were if we made adjustment with Harvard University for class time lost due to war). All we had to do now was to make the world safe for democracy.
About 20 sat in chairs or on the floor. Our instructor, Harold Laski, had retracted himself into a Morris chair after a friendly apple-cheeked greeting from behind big glasses. His body seemed to have gone all to head. The meteoric young Englishman was throwing off dazzling scholarly papers, and it was hinted (hush!) that he was a Socialist. A funny thing was that he was only 26 years old while we were almost that. When a break came and his wife, Freda, served tea and daughter Diana romped around, he expressed enthusiasm at my idea of somehow traveling to England next summer and said he had a brother in Manchester. (He said nothing of a father.) Later he told me that when George and I clumped up the stairs in our khaki outfits, he thought he was being raided.
It was those uniforms. I might as well dispose of them first. But I had a problem - I was broke.
The army outfits its regular soldiers, but officers must buy their own clothes. Well, if I was going to offer my all for my country, I thought at the time, I might as well do it in style. I bought elegant, whip-cord riding britches, an overcoat so heavy that it stood by itself, and cordovan leather puttees that my wife to this day is still trying to throw away. I looked exactly like Gen. John J. Pershing. I was still paying for the clothes when the war ended. If only they could have kept it going a little longer. . . .
I blushed at that thought. Even then I felt guilty; I always felt guilty. The burden of being 20 was to keep the secret of one's incompetence hidden (and I thought I had fooled most people pretty well, so far). But we were left with our uniforms. George was in the same fix: Surely we could squeeze a little additional use out of the extravagance we had made for our country.
But the Harvard Crimson, the campus newspaper, carried a snippy editorial asking why undergraduates in uniform strutted around the yard. Didn't we know the war was over? Sure we did. George and I looked at our regalia sorrowfully. Maybe we could use it a little longer if we kept to the dark side of streets.
Laski talked, and asked questions about authority in the modern state and who had it in Massachusetts: Boston Mayor Andrew J. Peters, or Police Commissioner Edwin Upton Curtis, or was it Gov. Calvin Coolidge? The police were unhappy over pay. We were drawn into the discussion. At that time Laski was carrying on an affectionate correspondence with US Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in Washington in which the two considered matters of philosophy and exchanged Greek quotations.
The letters with Justice Holmes, like those between Laski and Sir Frederick Pollack, noted British law professor, have been published. Holmes spoke of Laski with delight as the most remarkable of the many young men he had known. Laski amused, stimulated, and astonished him. It was easy to see why as we talked that evening. One student (could he have been Crane Brinton, later Harvard professor?) raised a quotation, and Laski with evident satisfaction directed him to the source: It was the book there on the shelf, and with equally evident satisfaction he cited the exact page number from memory. Laski was like a musician enjoying his own virtuosity.
An observer of the time noted of his platform delivery: ''His sentences were labyrinthine and he seemed to tangle himself up, as Gladstone did, in order to show how an agile and powerful mind can find its way, successfully, out of any maze. The cadences were dictated by the length of the parentheses. You found yourself saying comma, semicolon, bracket, close the bracket, comma . . . now he's lost it . . . no, Gad, I believe he's found a way out . . . comma, another parenthesis, dash . . . here's the verb after all . . . he's going to make it . . . full stop.''