Boarding School – Mashed Up
My first year at boarding school had not gone well. I struggled with subjects like Latin and German and French and as for math… well let’s just say that things weren’t adding up. The rules were oppressive, I had been subject to some minor bullying, and basically it had been like living in a prison camp for rich kids. So when I arrived back at “Stalag” Shawnigan for the beginning of grade ten it was with a certain amount of trepidation.
One thing I was looking forward to was moving into one of the smaller four person rooms instead of having to put up with the chaos of the junior dorm, which had housed something like 10 of us rather unsatisfactorily. I was a little surprised to find myself sharing a dorm with Ross E., since we had come to blows a few times the year before. The fat lips and black eyes had led to a grudging co-respect however, and we had closed out Grade nine in a kind of Entente Cordiale, an alliance against boys from the other houses. And since Ross’s family had a summer cottage a few miles up the lake, there was the added advantage of having a nearby safe haven for nefarious activities.
So it was with more than a little interest that Ross and I made the acquaintance of our roommates. First we were met with a new student, (all new boys were called “grommits” for some reason, and went through the usual hazing rituals) a year younger than us who had been assigned to our dorm since the junior dorm was even more crowded than usual. Paul A. was nice enough in a quietly subdued kind of way and perhaps of most interest to Ross and I, he had a sister who was a stunningly beautiful girl, not that we’d be seeing much of her after the families had left. Still, nothing like a little teen spirit to dream on.
The fourth roommate was late to arrive and before he did, the Housemaster, Mr. Grey, paid us a special visit to say a few words about him. It turned out that “young Michael” was from California and not just that, but was a real Hollywood brat, a bona fide member of pop culture royalty, and the school’s administration wanted to ensure that things went smoothly. I don’t remember the exact words of Mr. Grey but I’m sure the underlying message to Ross and I was something along the lines of “don’t beat the crap out of him” and of course “stay out of trouble” meaning avoiding activities that could lead to getting caned (just about anything fun).
At any rate, Mike eventually showed up, carrying his guitar case along with the more standard kind of luggage. At first he seemed pretty quiet but as he unpacked we noticed that he sprinkled his conversation with all sorts of strange words and phrases, which was basically a mishmash of Southern Californian surfer lingo, mixed with what would later be known as Valleygirl slang. And while it was true enough that he was from L.A., Mike told us that he had spent the last few months in Houston, where his dad had been filming a movie set in the Astrodome involving birds and angels and was apparently a very skewed comedy called Brewster McCloud. But of more importance was the fact that his dad was the director of the hottest movie of the year, MASH. Just to put it in context, MASH was irreverent and groundbreaking and used the thin cover of the Korean War to critique the ongoing and divisive Vietnamese conflict. Not only that, but the ad-libbed nature of the dialogue, with multiple conversations taking place at the same time, swearing and on-screen pot-smoking signaled this as a counter-culture call to arms. It also paved the way for Altman senior to develop a series of brilliant works over the next few decades, since studios like nothing better than someone who has developed a blockbuster hit.
For us though, Mike seemed pretty normal and he did his best to fit in and learn the ins and outs of boarding school life. Of course, he was pretty good on the guitar and as I recall spent the first week or two learning Donovan’s “Catch the Wind”. Finally the weekend came and we had some spare time. Mike suggested that we should head over to Ross’s cottage, which seemed like a good idea. Something like a few hundred yards beyond the school gates, Mike pulled us aside, and said, “Hey, do you guys smoke?” Nervously, since even suspicion of smoking was a caning offence, I dug around and pulled out my carefully guarded pack of Number Sevens , and offered him one. “Well that’s something”, he said, “I figured you guys were cool”. After our smoke break, we carried on and trudged along towards Ross’s cottage. Eventually, through the trees and long leafy lanes we came to the summer cottage. Of course, as is the custom of the wealthy, the word cottage was quite an understatement as this was basically a very comfortable three bedroom suburban style house, plunked on the shore of the lake with extensive wraparound decks and a dock and boathouse. Although I had been there previously, I still shook my head and sighed at the luxury of the place. Mike wasn’t all that impressed however, but did seem anxious to get inside which I figured was due to his being tired out from carrying his guitar all this way. Well, we made ourselves comfortable in the living room and Mike popped open the guitar case, but not to get the guitar out. Instead he rummaged around and from a little hiding hole somewhere quickly produced a plastic baggie. “Far out dudes”, he drawled, “wanna get high?” Well, of course we did, since virtually every kid in those days was a wannabe hippy. The only problem we had was to be nonchalant about it, displaying the right kind of “cool”. Drugs were still a precious commodity in those days, extremely hard to get at our young age, but we had to act as if this was all quite normal, much like the way young men have always verbalized their sexual bravado regardless of any real experience! Mike, on the other hand, had lived the kind of life that was documented in Life Magazine, surfing and smoking at Malibu and hanging out with rich, the famous, not to mention the notorious.
So Mike rolled up a joint, giving us a short clinic on separating out the stems and seeds along the way. Now this wasn’t really the first time I’d smoked up but it was the first time I’d smoked anything decent so of course we got really stoned and ate whatever food we could find while laughing uproariously at practically everything.
Some weeks later, on a similar excursion, Mike got around to telling us about how he had written Suicide is Painless, the theme song for MASH. “Really? You wrote that?” one of us said with perhaps a note of skepticism creeping in. “Well, the words not the music”, he allowed, “but still…” Fumbling around in his ubiquitous guitar case, he pulled out a tattered piece of paper, with words smudged and scrawled and crossed out. “Look at this – I was 14 when I wrote it. “ And there, as proof, was the first draft of Suicide is Painless. He further explained that during the production his dad was looking for original music for the film and was having a difficult time matching the right kind of music to the action. Mike had read the book of course and like many a 14 year old was not afraid of scribbling a few lines of poetry. At any rate, he had hammered out the lyrics and then had gone to talk to Johnny Mandel to see if he’d be interested in putting it to music. Johnny came up with the melody and made a rough arrangement, which he’d played for Bob, to an enthusiastic reception. Only after the director agreed to include the song in the movie did Johnny disclose his own son had written it!
Now, during this period, it was customary for parents and family to come and visit on the weekends, either to attend a rowing regatta or to watch a rugby match or to take us out for a meal somewhere. For Ross and his brother Paul, this often amounted to his grandparents arriving in their chauffeur driven Cadillac limo, and going somewhere for lunch, which Ross rather perversely didn’t seem to enjoy all that much. For me, it might be a family visit to the Glass Castle, and a meal at the Village Green in the town of Duncan, something less than the height of sophistication, but appreciated nonetheless.
One weekend, Mike got permission to leave for the weekend and off he went on a fishing trip. When he returned on Sunday evening, we asked him how it had gone and if he’d caught any fish. “It was okay”, he allowed, “but I didn’t catch any fish”. Slowly, and with a lot of prodding we discovered that it really wasn’t a fishing trip at all. Instead he’d been out partying on a massive yacht, not just with his dad, but also with Julie Christie and Warren Beatty who were shooting McCabe and Mrs. Miller in Vancouver with Bob at the time. Not only that, but Art Garfunkel and Jack Nicholson were also aboard to get some relief from filming Carnal Knowledge over at the Taylor’s old place in Vancouver, Shannon Estate. Well, according to Mike it was a memorable trip, even without any fishing. We thought so, too.
Christmas came and went and in the New Year Mike sought out the Housemaster with a request to be absent for a few days in February. “What’s the purpose of the trip?” asked Mr. Grey. “Well sir,” said Mike, “I need to go to the Academy Awards, my song’s been nominated.” Mr. Grey looked a little startled and then said, “hmm. I suppose that’s sufficient grounds, but be sure you keep up with any homework assignments, won’t you!”
The song didn’t win but the movie managed a statue or two. Dozens of boys had crowded into Mr. Grey’s study to watch the telecast, hoping for a glimpse of Mike. The camera did pause briefly on the Altman clan so we were able to verify his presence at any rate.
By Easter, the checks started rolling in. The song didn’t get much airplay in North America but Europe was another story entirely. Over there it was climbing the charts and over the course of just a couple of months Mike was raking in more dough than most of our parents would make in a year. Finally the temptation grew to be too much for Mike and he decided to drop out. He came back to visit us just before the end of the school year, driving some big old commercial truck that had been converted into a hippy version of a motor home. In addition, his co-pilot was a dreamy looking beauty, which made us all turn an even darker shade of green. After a brief visit, off he went, painlessly to be sure, into the proverbial sunset.