Reflections on the End – 0.5

Reflections on the End

I was 60 years old before I saw this Prep (freshman) photo from the Phillips Exeter Academy yearbook. (It was today, in fact.) And there it was, there I was, off on the right standing in the snow. The snow. The snow of 1978 in New England was legendary.

john mcelhenney at phillips exeter academy

I never got to sign any yearbooks of my classmates. And it was my own damn fault, of course.

Two weeks before graduation, on a lovely Sunday afternoon, when we should’ve been outside wonderleaping in the amazing woods around campus, I was in my 3rd-floor dorm room smoking dope. Why were we inside? Well, that’s a bit harder to explain. Peter, a junior, and Ben, a senior, were actually watching me act like I was playing guitar to a hard rock album. I’d like to tell you it was Led Zepplin or The Who, but I don’t recall the exact music. Maybe Pink Floyd.

Probably my idea, “let’s have a rock show.” A dumb idea on a beautiful weekend afternoon at the most prestigious prep school in the states. I can tell you now, I did things like this: creating environments for friends to get high and have an experience. So, Ben and Peter and I were having an experience in my dorm room, the window was cracked at the top and the bottom (like you do) and Welcome to the Machine by Pink Floyd (just guessing now) was really hitting stride. I had a turntable and speakers and a crappy SG knockoff I got from New York City with my buddy Dwight. I was kind of playing air guitar, except I had a guitar.


A hard knock interrupted our reverie. It was the wife of the tennis coach, who also happened to be a proctor in our dorm. “You’ve got to turn that…” she began. “Are you guys smoking in here?”

*End Scene*

It happened quickly from there. We were shuttled down into the student lounge in the basement of Merrill Hall to await Mr. Bowen, the head of our dorm.

“Fuck fuck fuck.” Peter was freaking out the most. Ben had collapsed into a silent moan. His acceptance to Stanford now in jeopardy. I was in shock. My mind flickering between the idea of an angry Mr. Bowen and my devastated mom. It was going to be a hard crash landing.

A couple of months before, Mr. Bowen had called all of us into the main lounge on the first floor. He was jovial in his authority and anger. His eyes sort of sparkled with his pseudo-rage. He held up a small bag of pot. “Who’s marijuana is this?” It was about 6:45 pm on some random school night, we were all heading to study time, 7 – 9.

No one responded.

“It was found in a dorm room yesterday, and we’re going to sit here until someone tells me where it came from.”

No one spoke.

The real story, the one the academy would rather I not tell, was this: half of Merrill Hall got kicked out that year for pot. Half! 50%. This particular incident was the beginning of the fall of Mr. Bowen. I hear he was let go at the end of that semester. The real story about the bag of pot, it was found in Bitzer and Klein’s room, my old corner room on the first floor. The room where I met Dwight The room where we made a pact to kick ass at Exeter, to not smoke pot, and to get our work done while listening to Alice Cooper and Mott the Hoople.

Bitz and K were the two biggest dealers in the dorm. Both were lettermen in sports, swimming and football, and Mr. Bowen was not about to expel two star athletes. Of course, the real star athletes were in the athletic dorm. Maybe Bitz and K weren’t even starters. Mr. Bowen was asking the entire dorm to fess up about a bag of pot, very similar to the bags of pot most of the kids in the room had purchased from Bitz and K. Um, yeah.

exeter dorm room
our corner dorm room – exeter academy 1977


This is really a story about me and Dwight and our ridiculous attempt to win at the academy. Our bond continues to this day. Back in those days, however, Bitz and K wanted and got our corner – and more importantly, ground floor – room. The one in the photo. Dwight and I were simply told we’d been reassigned. I was moved to a single on the top floor of the dorm. Dwight was put with some stoner, Joe, in a double on the second floor. Mr. Bowen broke up our team. They isolated the crap out of me. And all so the damn jock pot jockeys could sneak out the window on weekends.

Everyone in that dorm meeting knew that Bitz and K were the owners and distributors of that bag of pot. Probably, Mr. Bowen knew as well.

No one spoke. Mr. Bowen attempted to threaten us with a lockdown over the weekend. He let us go up for study hall about 15 minutes late. The talk as we went back to our rooms was sarcastic and joyful. They had not caught any of us. And, for me, I was failing Spanish AGAIN, I was just worried about how to get my brain to absorb a new foreign language. I didn’t understand depression at that point. No one did. What I knew was my brain was having a hard time holding on to verbs and conjugations. And my spirit wanted to be a rock star and have adoring fans. And Dwight went off to his room with Joe.

Mr. Bowen arrived at the basement lounge, they didn’t want the other students to know what was going on, even more unhappy than he had been in January. He didn’t want to hear our story, he didn’t want to hear anything from us.

“Here’s what’s going to happen gentlemen. You are going to have 10 minutes to go to your room and get some stuff for tonight. We’re going to take you to the infirmary for the night, to keep you safe. Grab your stuff and meet me back here in ten.” It was Sunday. There were still two weeks left of school, finals, crams, and a lot of stress. In some ways I was elated. Like freefalling from an airplane. I didn’t have to suffer anymore. Mr. Bautista was no longer going to spit his Catalonian “th” sounds at me when he told looked at me with those big glassy eyes behind those big thick glasses and giggled that I was failing.

I was so shut down I could not imagine the coming storm. I couldn’t hold space for what was going to happen in the next few days. I was holding my breath. I was about to cry. I was a bit like a robot as I marched four floors back to the third floor and put some clothes and a book or two into a backpack. I wasn’t going to have to worry about Spanish anymore.

I was going home to Texas.

In that photo, seeing it for the first time, I can empathize with that young boy. I was fourteen years old. I still wanted to make my own path in the world, and Exeter was one of the ways I was going to achieve my ambition of fame and glory. I had never seen so much snow in my life, and I stepped into the snowbank, away from my peers. In a matter of months, I vanished completely from the Exeter narrative. No Ivy League schools. No, Harvard grad school. I was a bit out of my element there in the snow, in New England, away from all I understood of the world.

I can still see the courage and tenacity that got me here, writing this story, trying to find meaning in the loss and the wreckage that was just ahead.

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