George Hagen

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An Excerpt from TOM BEDLAM



The Book of Virgins


 As the weather grew sultry, the dark-paneled corridors of King Henry's stank with the odor of ripening adolescents. The masters were used to it, but the younger boys often hurried down the hall holding their noses. As scores of them worked out their frustration on the football field, others fed the burning fuse of this wild age with smutty verses scrawled in the bathroom stalls, angry tirades about God and country, and jokes played upon boys whose voices were slow to change, or who hadn't grown pubic hair. Some were ridiculed by their mother's names; Wally Hill suffered the indignity of being known as "Fiona" for most of his senior year. Ernest Wiggers kept a little red book in which he awarded red stars to local girls depending on their willingness to kiss, grope, or indulge in other racy activities. The masters periodically confiscated it - though mainly to satisfy their own curiosity. Wiggers named his tome The Book of Virgins, which wasn't entirely accurate since he awarded four stars (the highest rating) to two girls whose acts, by definition, disqualified their inclusion on the list. When Mr. Poole's daughter earned a four star rating, Wiggers' parents were summoned, the boy was suspended, and the book vanished. The legend lived on, however; an enterprising Greek teacher spread a rumor that the book's pages were scattered among the classics in the library, which inspired a desperate run on Aeschylus, Herodotus and the dustiest Homeric texts.


 Though a few King Henry's boys might have been seen riding the Gantrytown trams arm in arm with two-star virgins on a Saturday night, the majority (Arthur included) were terrified by sexual attraction, and turned their interests to that other vessel of passion - the War.


 It was in the newspapers every day; it was good versus evil and us versus them; it made men of boys, and heroes of clay. It shattered families, created orphans, robbed parents and widowed spouses. It was a seduction, a distraction, an entertainment and an addiction. At King Henry's, the boys marveled at the technological advances that separated this war from all other wars: mustard gas, phosgene, u-boats, depth charges, hydrophones, machine guns, tanks, biplanes, zeppelins. It was the war of the future.


 Andrew Boyle, the debonair Latin master, considered it a war as old as time. He drew upon the writings of Julius Caesar and Marcus Aurelius to put the novelty of battle in perspective. Eventually, he came under scrutiny by some parents when he sent his pupils home with a remark by Cicero: "An unjust peace is better than a just war."


 A letter was published in the King Henry's Gazette that said, "The master who chooses to undermine our brave fighters would do well to reconsider his influence on young minds."


Boyle's orderly classes were interrupted by students wishing to take issue with his pacifism. They left cards with the words coward and traitor in his books and jacket pockets and heckled him during lessons.


 "When are you going to war, sir?"


 "Would you rather fight for the Allies or the Germans, sir?"


 "What did Cicero say about the Huns, sir?"


 In 1917, a single man in his twenties could not live in Gantrytown without being asked about his contribution to the war effort. Andrew Boyle faced twice that pressure because of the rumors that erupted from the Gazette letter, and the hostility engendered by his remarks. One day, to the surprise of many, he announced his enlistment in the Officer's Corps.


 Almost immediately, twenty boys committed themselves to follow him onto the battlefield after they had left school.


 Tom, who considered Boyle the institution's last bastion of common sense, asked him if he'd lost his mind.


 "My mind, not yet," he replied. "But I feel the ground slipping beneath my feet. Who am I to preach about war? I've seen nothing of it with my own eyes."


 "Well, what is to become of any generation if it refuses to learn from history?" Tom replied.


 "Didn't you serve in the South African war?" Boyle asked him.


"I did, but I regretted it."


"Well, I must confess, Doctor, that I too, value hindsight over ignorance," Boyle replied.


At the end of term Wally Hill made a present of all of his maps and newspaper articles to Arthur. "I don't need these anymore," he said.


"Oh," said Arthur. "Have you found a girl, then?"


"No," laughed Wally. "I've enlisted."


He hardly seemed the type; he was so thin and skittish. Although he was an expert on troop movements, the thought of him thrusting a bayonet at anyone was laughable.


Wally had been inspired by Andrew Boyle's announcement of his enlistment; it had instantly reclassified the 'soldier type' as urbane, scholarly and dashingly handsome. Quite a few lads who might have lived long, sedate and scholarly lives would die on Flanders fields for following Boyle's example.


"I've enlisted," said Wally. "I want to go to the Western Front, earn a few medals, and come back here to teach, just like Boyle."


"But you're not old enough," said Arthur who knew that the enlistment age was eighteen and a half. Wally had just turned eighteen.


"I got into a conversation with the recruiting officer about the Battle of the Somme," Wally explained. "I knew tons more about it than he did! He let me through without even looking at my papers! If you're eighteen, you can probably pass, as long as you don't have flat feet or bad eyes."


Arthur's subsequent conversations with Wally rarely veered from his enlistment plans. Wally's family was having a big party for him before he left.


It was another big adventure, and Arthur could barely keep envy at bay. He played the piano with the school orchestra at the farewell assembly, which Doctor Chapel attended with Margaret and John Bonney.


On the stage, the debonair Andrew Boyle appeared in uniform and was given an enthusiastic send-off. All the boys who had enlisted were asked to walk up for a round of applause. Their jubilation was in sharp contrast to the ambivalence of their parents. Never had Tom seen a group of more anxious faces. The Masters were grim - five of their peers had been killed in the war; now another two were missing in action. As prayers were said for the fallen, the older folk stifled tears while the young applauded the handsome boys before them. Suddenly Tom noticed that his son was enthralled by those gallant figures. A grin split Arthur's face as he played the first notes of "Onward Christian Soldiers." The Doctor felt impelled to seal the boy's eyes and ears from this madness and carry him home, but it was too late.


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