I’ll tell you what, Johnny. Never take a young man of 14 who loves reading, but whose knowledge of the world is limited to the way it transpires within the pages of a book, and put him in an isolated, live-in workplace filled with college girls. Those gals may be slaving to put away enough for next year’s tuition, but they are also desperate for a little male companionship.
At age 14, it would have taken an effort to squeeze me into the category of “a little male companionship,” but those gals did their best. I was little all right — 5-8 and 140 pounds. I was male, and I had a birth certificate to prove it. I had even begun to shave. And I had attained that point in a male’s life where he is capable of anything, but has yet to discover it.
Fourteen through 18 can be a period of male bliss. Left alone to make his own choices a young man can wander through four delightful years of discovery, but if suddenly rushed, as I was, he can become one of the most confused kids on the planet.
Earl Leiser, an older friend, helped me procure a summer job at the once plush Hotel Griswold across the river over in Groton. It paid 50 cents an hour for a 60-hour workweek, a total of $30, big money in 1946 for someone my age. They took room and board out of it, but that still left $18.50 a week in hand, not a fortune, but enough to sound great when added to the lure of being completely without adult supervision. So off I went.
Fifty years earlier at the turn of the century, the Hotel Griswold, located along the lush banks of the Thames River in southern Connecticut, was the playground of the rich and ultra-rich. Ocean-going yachts, vying with one another for elegance of polished teak decks, tall spar-varnished masts, and billowing white sails, docked by the Griswold in the light swell rolling in off Long Island Sound. In the evenings, the owners of those yachts waltzed across the floor of the main dining room, cooled by a salt laden onshore wind blowing in through tall windows.
Lucky was the debutante who, placed on display by hopeful parents, and discovered by the scion of one of America’s “finest” families, went off at the end of a summer with an engagement ring. It wasn’t long before “a week at the Griswold” became the game plan of many well-to-do New England maidens who aspired to something better than a respectable but unexciting life as the wife of a bank vice president or haberdashery store owner.
World War II greatly interfered with the stock-in-trade summers at the Griswold. To begin with, the Navy stretched a large submarine net across the mouth of the Thames River to keep out German U-boats. And the U-boats, lurking beneath the waters of Long Island Sound and along the eastern seaboard in hopes of finding something worth a torpedo, did much to discourage yacht owners from showing a sail anywhere in an area where the German Navy had a field day for the first two years of the war.
On top of that, gasoline rationing made non-essential trips to watering holes not directly on rail lines less than desirable, and even rail travel was severely restricted. By the end of the war the reputation of the Griswold as a meeting place for the rich and ultra rich was history. By the time I took a job there, it had become the province of wannabe-rich stalking each other, on the theory that someone in the joint had to be disgustingly wealthy.
Of all this I knew nothing. All I knew was that I had been hired on as a busboy to clear a section of tables waited on by a college-girl waitress, sharing her daily tips, which in a place filled with phonies who never missed a chance to look wealthy came to a sizable pile.
Disgustingly, it never happened. For some reason they made me the official “Bun Boy.” Now, that may sound salacious, but don’t let it fool you. Two meals a day in the steaming hot dining room of the aging, pre air-conditioning Griswold, I went from table to table, warmly bundled up in chef’s hat, white coat, white gloves, and tongs. Around my neck hung a leather strap supporting a stainless steel box whose top rolled open like a roll-top desk. When opened, it revealed a batch of puny looking rolls about half the size of an egg. And to finish the picture, down in the belly of the beast slung around my neck was a charcoal fire.
Thumb flips top open. “Would you care for a bun, madam?”
I hated it! It was hot, embarrassing, and phony!
And the dancing? The lousy live band? The cha-cha? The samba? The rhumba? Skirts flying? Butts waggling? Faces sweating? Dresses cut so low front and back they gave décolleté a new dual meaning?
I hated that even worse! What a pack of phonies!
I’d been there just two days before the gals discovered me. There I stood, innocently pressing my mandatory white shirt in the employees laundry room when I heard an altogether too happy, “Why hello there. We haven’t met. My name is Honey. What’s yours?”
I turned. There stood a very cute, very adult, female, all curves, perfume, and auburn hair. I don’t have a clue what I said, but I know that we spent a few minutes admiring my ironing skills, which I thought was very nice, thereby totally missing the point.
She winked. “Let’s get to know each other tonight, OK? By the poplars?” I knew I was outclassed, but I was one happy kid.
That evening after work Earl Leiser and I settled down in a secluded corner of the wide back lawn amidst the Italian poplars, where we sprawled out, Earl to await his girlfriend, and I to await the arrival of I knew not what.
A cool night breeze smelling of salt wafted up from the sea, bringing with it the sound of a lousy band playing an equally lousy cha-cha-cha. I stretched out on the grass, let the breeze tousle my long blond hair, and began tracing out the shapes of the constellations one by one. After a few minutes of cool sea breeze and deep blue sky, the sound of the band faded ...
As I woke up I heard something. I turned my head and there was Earl and some highly mature female making out like crazy. As I watched, they rose and went around the corner of the poplars. Sure they wouldn’t need any help, I got up and left — rather fast.
The next day was a day off. Purely by chance I got a job elsewhere. For a long while afterward I asked myself if I had made a really big mistake. The answer came as I matured into manhood. All bees love honey. For all bees there comes that first glorious first flight from the nest, the day your wings are at last dry.
I knew it when that day came.
Trust me; it was several years later.