Our Fathers' Harvard Degrees

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FOR 50 years in five gardens in four states, the cardinal has come. Memorial Day weekend in the North is the time to plant the frost-sensitive species: basil, eggplants, tomatoes. And at dusk on the appointed evening, plants watered, the tomato stakes in the ground, tools put away, I waited at the side window ... and there, sure enough, a fluttering from the hemlock, alighting on a white stake - the crimson exclamation mark of continuity from my father's garden to mine.

Time is an illusion. There is a contemporaneity of consciousness. Precepts my father practiced were present with me as I reenacted the provider's ritual: Correctly turned-over soil requires no raking. A right rhythm carries from start to finish. Design is often best improvised out of action; waiting too long for the correct plan, one may never start.

In a few days my Harvard classmates will meet in nearby Cambridge for our 35th reunion. Harvard's color, crimson, is the exclamation mark in our family's education.

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There were always tears in Dad's eyes when I would go away to school. He would wipe them away with his thick hands. Mom took it better. The dog would run to the window to look for me, they said, whenever they mentioned my name.

The first days at college, all of us young men were shy - even those who showed bravado - trying one another out. How would we fit into into this academic world? Had we not all been among the best students where we came from?

I had arrived after midnight at Apley Court, near Harvard Square. My roommates, Ed McKirdy and George Skokan, both from New Jersey, were asleep. I hauled my trunk up the five floors to our room. In the morning I had to deliver the car to New York and take the train back to Boston, so our real introduction was delayed.

The friendships I made in the next few weeks remain today. McKirdy, now a lawyer, was the funniest person we'd ever met. In Yiddish, Italian, Spanish, and French for real, and other languages in mimicry, with persona after persona, McKirdy immobilized us with laughter.

Mike Rogin and Bill Palmer, George Klems became my next roommates as a flock of us freshman from Apley went on together to Leverett House, where the circle of lifelong friends expanded. At Leverett we had a one-act play tradition at the drama society: McKirdy won the lead in "The Questioning of Nick," a short play by the undergraduate Dunster House playwright Arthur Kopit.

In the house dining hall, at the all-night Hayes-Bickford diner, the conversation would go on and on. Kierkegaard, Camus, Freud. Avant-garde novelists. Seldom politics. This was the Eisenhower era, after all. And Dick Dubrow, president of the Young Republicans Club, carried on a rather lonely argument.

Most of my class I never met. The house system - dormitories with their own libraries, social rooms, extracurricular groups, senior tutors, and attached academic dignitaries - effectively formed social units. One would meet other undergraduates in the courses and seminars one took; a field of inquiry formed a second social circle, which took in the Radcliffe College women's contingent. So the campus bond was strongest among housemates.

Dad's first visit to Harvard was for my commencement. He was intoxicated with excitement. Five hundred dollars a year he had paid, a tenth of what he earned, a fourth of the yearly bill.

What interest have we sons earned on our fathers' investments?

The largest group of us is in education, our class report says, then medicine and law. We're averaging $170,000 in yearly income - $12,500 for creative artists, $430,000 for those in finance. (Someone might have had the grace not to report he's making $3 million.) Alcoholics Anonymous and jobs-networking sessions are scheduled for our reunion. Nine in 10 classmates would go to Harvard if they had it to do again. Nearly 80 percent go to church: So much for atheism at Harvard. The economy and racial tensio n, we think, are the most serious issues of our time.

With only hours to go before I meet classmate friends and strangers, I feel the shyness of a youth sent by a father to take another of life's examinations.

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