I couldn’t bring myself to play Goebbels for Nixon, so I never told Sergeant Rock at the Post Office about my film training –– but I told Peace Corps. I air-mailed off an application the day after I passed the pre-induction physical.
In the summer of 1966, still toying with the priesthood, I studied film at New York University. We took turns playing cameraman with a 16-mm Arriflex, then rotated through audio, directing, lighting, and editing. I concentrated on scriptwriting. I roomed in Chinatown and rode the subway up to the Washington Square campus every day where the hippie movement was in full bloom. I grew a beard, read the Village Voice and spent my evenings in cafes discussing philosophy and dissecting Andy Warhol films at St. Mark’s Place. It was a deadly summer of temptations for someone already as restless and unhappy with seminary life as I was.
Martin Scorsese became my hero. He was an Italian Catholic kid from Queens who studied for the priesthood too before he fell in love with making movies. The summer I arrived, Scorsese was leaving NYU with an MFA in film, a wunderkind already destined for greatness. Teachers talked about him in our classes. Hey, that could be me, I thought.
The next summer, I enrolled in the British Film Institute summer program at St. Andrews in Scotland. But first I hitchhiked through Europe with my guitar, then spent a month in France living in a 30-room chateau, working as a chauffer-gardener for an elderly, aristocratic, Lyonnais widow of the ancien regime. We dined formally each evening, served by the stout, red-cheeked daughter of one of Madame Alcock’s many tenant farmers. Madame sat enthroned at one end of the polished mahogany table; I sat fifteen feet away at the other end. Each meal was a soup-to-nuts, two-hour production. My French improved dramatically, but the dinners were terminally boring. I told her so one evening. She sniffed. Food for Americans? “C’est petrol.” Maybe so, but I wasn’t interested in wasting my life sampling Camemberts in a mausoleum. I wanted to be in the street where things were happening.
When I finally got to St. Andrews, I flipped on the radio and heard them singing the song about the love-in in San Francisco – you know, ‘be sure to wear some flowers in your hair’ – and it pushed me over the edge. I needed to get out, to start living.
I knew the consequences. My divinity student status would be history, along with a 4-D draft deferment that put us just ahead of the blind, the crippled and the insane in order of call-up. I would be prime draft bait.
But I knew I wasn’t soldier material.
The only gun I fired in my life was my father's .22 caliber rifle, target practice on rats at the town dump. I boxed a few rounds in college, but learned that getting smashed in the nose – or smashing someone else in the nose – didn’t deliver any psychic rewards. I disliked authority. My favorite subject in school was history, and history was replete with stories of stupid politicians and gung-ho generals devouring the young with their vainglorious wars. Vietnam was turning into the poster child for ours.
Hell no, we won’t go.
(More to come)