In the 8th grade at Sanford Prep, our teacher Mrs. Russell wanted the class to put on a performance of The Knave of Hearts by Louise Saunders.
I knew I was destined to play the lead; I just didn’t realize which one.
Cute, giggly Pamela was to be Lady Violetta, the future queen who made the tarts. Actually I was assigned to be King Pompdebile The Eighth, not a lead role after all, because I could sound like someone really old with a cracked voice. Young people always think people’s voices change when they age. Only when we get to be that old do we realize that’s one of the few things that often doesn’t change.
When we started reading the script out loud it became clear that Pamela just didn’t have it to be Lady Violetta. She sounded like she was struggling even to read the words.
“Does anyone here think they can help Pamela?” Mrs. Russell finally asked. Good teacher, huh?
“OK, Gordon,” Mrs. Russell said. “Let’s go back to her first lines. Pamela, read them, please.”
Pamela made a face. I don’t think she wanted help. Especially not from me.
“Am I late?” she began reading. “I just remembered and came as fast as I could. I bumped into a sentry and he fell down. I didn’t. That’s strange, isn’t it? I suppose it’s because he stands in one position so long…”
By now we had all heard those lines often enough that we didn’t laugh. But Pamela read it all in a sing-song voice and missed all the chances to be funny.
“All right, Gordon. What do you think?”
I didn’t want to say that she really stunk; I had a crush on Pamela, not that she was interested. So I said, as friendly as possible, “Uh, Pamela, you should probably not make every sentence sound the same. Like when you say ‘as I could’ you should say ‘could’ like it’s the most important word. And the same with ‘sentry’ and ‘down.’
“Do you understand, Pamela?” Mrs. Russell asked.
“No,” Pamela said, pouting.
“Could I read it for her, Mrs. Russell?” I asked.
“Certainly. Go ahead.”
So I pitched my already deepening voice higher and read the speech. I was really good.
Everyone laughed. Including Pamela.
“That’s wonderful, Gordon,” Mrs. Russell said. “I’ll tell you what, why don’t you read the part for now and let’s see how the rest of it sounds.”
I did get a lead role. One I didn’t expect. Lady Violetta. Mrs. Russell thought it would be strange for me to dress up as a girl—real boys didn’t do that sort of thing—so we’d perform The Knave of Hearts as a radio play. My medium, at last. I also provided sound effects and vocally doubled as one of the heralds. We set up microphones in the basement under the school auditorium and broadcast the show to everybody upstairs in the auditorium. No one in the class was allowed to tell anyone else that it was me playing Lady Violetta until after the performance.
I was a hit. But it didn’t make Pamela like me any better.
For the next five years I’d be on stage in class plays, plays for the French Club. In French. Plus plays for the Spanish Club; one was Ollantay about one of the great Inca warriors. I played him in a cast that included Ecuadoran Frank Tosi and Venezuelan Leonore Garcia, native Spanish speakers.
I had always gravitated to foreign languages; it was such fun sounding like someone from another country and pretending to be someone more special than who I found myself to be. I specialized in portraying fathers and other elderlies, not romantic leads.
I played the father in J.M. Barrie’s Mary Rose and an elderly priest, Father Hart, in William Butler Yeats’s The Land of Heart’s Desire. One part of a speech from that stays with me still:
“Put it away, my colleen;
God spreads the heavens above us like great wings.
And gives a little round of deeds and days,
And then come the wrecked angels and set snares,
And bait them with light hopes and heavy dreams.”
Why does it stay with me? No idea. And the play was such a mystical and odd choice for such a non-denominational school.
The school motto “No Talent Lies Latent” had another application. I became a different type of performer: a member of the football team. Until I got to Sanford, I’d never play any sport except tennis and only against my father. He always complained, when I hit to his backhand, that I was taking advantage of his need to preserve his right arm for bowing his viola.
In my first year at Sanford, starting there in the 8th grade, I was still 12 years old when arriving in September 1946. We boys were all expected to play football. One reason was certainly to get good exercise. Another was probably to build character. And a third was so that Sanford could actually field enough players to make genuine teams. There were not a lot of us.
Given my age, I was qualified to join the Midget team. Midget teams were, as the name implies, little kids, grade school kids. To be a part of such a team we had to be younger than 13 at the start of the season. That’s how I made it, being born in October after the season started. I weighed about 145 pounds and was around 5’ 10.” I qualified, becoming a tackle. Terrifying the little kids at some of the schools where we played. But against The Church Farm School I faced some tough-looking guys around my own age.
With this start in the sport and thus advantaged, I came to love the idea of knocking down other boys with minimum danger to myself. Those were days, incidentally, when there was no such thing as an offensive or defensive team. We played the entire games. And by the 10th grade, starting at age 15, turning 16 in October, of course, I’d made it to the Junior Varsity and the next year as a regular sub on the Varsity team, a tough guard who’d knock ’em down whenever possible.
Part of this performance was what our coach, Phil Sawin, Dean of Men (!) taught us: to mock the opponents across the scrimmage line from us. With such menacing and disorienting phrases as “Look out! The play is coming right over you.”
To build up credibility in our own power, the head of the school and its founder, Ellen Q. Sawin—mostly thereafter called “Mother” by many of us, given that we all lived there from September to June—hand-wrote encouraging notes to us. They were on small pieces of paper which could be folded up and put into our helmets (no pockets). They’d say such things as “Dear Gordon. I know Phil and the boys are counting on you to do your best. And you will. Love, Mother.” On the other side of the paper was a short prayer of which everybody had a copy. Then, before the game started, we’d gather in a huddle and read it all together aloud, but softly.
In my last game against Germantown Friends, in a Philadelphia neighborhood where I’d briefly lived (5th grade at Fulton Elementary), I was looking forward to heroic tackling and fierce blocking. But I never stepped onto the field. I’d left my cleats in the dorm and couldn’t play with street shoes.
Fight song: “A Sanford warrior is a big bold man and his weapon is a pigskin ball. When on the field he takes a big firm stand; he’s the hero of large and small.” So much for my heroics.