AWOL

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AWOL

Chase the Clouds Away, by Chuck Mangione (1978, released 1979), encountered 1981-82

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When I felt that rush of law school success described in the last piece, about the first thing I did with my hubris was have my first extramarital fling.

Wrecking Ball

I tried to start writing about this with a grave acknowledgment of wrongdoing. But then I deleted the mea culpa; it wasn’t true to what I’d felt then or feel now, sorry as I am for the pain it ended up helping cause others. The closest I can truthfully come is to say that I only behaved this way at one discrete point in my life, have not done it since, and would not do it now. And that’s partly because what I did and where it took me and who it made of me taught me unforgettably the destructive power of such behavior. You want to take a wrecking ball to your marriage, screw around.

The thing was, I was then in a marriage that needed demolition.[2] Again, I say this with no disrespect to my ex-wife; if you’ve read these pieces, you understand it was just a fact about us. And I think, though I consciously denied it, I already recognized that fact, deep down, and that’s partly why I did what I did. Of course, simply being horny and in my early thirties played its role as well.

Call it my late-blooming Rumspringa. I’d largely blown my chance at the freedoms of the Sexual Revolution during my college years, and I was coming late to the adultery game too. I knew this from the enormous literature that existed then glorifying infidelity, or at least making it seem not so bad.[3] I’d read or seen it all, with increasing envy. I’d been good for so long.

Too long.

Releasing the Brake

And so, at the end of 1980, I gave myself permission. I didn’t do anything immediately. The car stayed parked, as it were. Just releasing those brakes was enough for a little while.

But come the new year, my freedom stopped being just theoretical, thanks to a married secretary at the big law firm where I was working my last year of law school. She was the aggressor, giving me a copy of The Delta of Venus and telling me her panties got wet looking at me. And even with all that, I was actually kind of slow in the uptake. So we staged quite a courtship of a strange sort, mainly conducted over lunches in fast food restaurants (which is what law students and secretaries can afford), before we actually got down to business. But after one get-together she wanted no more (I believe owing to issues in her marriage, not the bedroom). I was hurt, I was frustrated, but I was not deterred.

I was not deterred because I had already crashed through the guardrail. None of my training could stop me now. I remember that at the very moment of entering the lady, I felt a sense of stepping off a diving board though unable to see any pool, of terrifying transgressiveness. Having gone ahead and stepped off anyway, and not died (for I didn’t die, just got my pride bruised when she turned me away), it was much easier to come back and do it again, even with someone else.

Shortly thereafter I started a short relationship with someone single I’d picked up at a library but I was too married to be interesting to her for long. And then I lost my sense of discretion, and started quite publicly pursuing numerous women in my immediate environment. I became heedless of what people would think and say. I betrayed no judgment as to how my female friends would react to being hit on by me. I forever lost one of my best friends because of my persistence in the face of her gentle rebuffs, a loss I still hate to think about.[4] Word of my indiscretions preceded me; one law school colleague, at a law school graduation party, shamed me by telling me in so many words – before I had done anything yet – that she knew I was working up to propositioning her (she was right about that), and not to bother.

A Last-Minute Offer

In mid-July of 1981, I had a meeting with a federal district judge whose intended law clerk, due to have started the next month, had just unexpectedly reneged on his commitment. The judge, always direct if not necessarily always complimentary, told me that I was the best “blue chipper” he could get at this short notice to take the job, clearly implying that, good as I might be, I had betters who had proved their betterness by having landed offers already. This evident limited regard was to set the tone of our relationship; I still signed on, because he was a federal district judge, and a very well-respected one at that.

Working for the judge slowed down my AWOL campaign. When, in mid-August, I reported for work at the federal courthouse on West Lombard Street, even I had the wit to understand that frank and open licentiousness would be the wrong style. I guess I was worried that the notoriously upright judge would find his initial assessment of me confirmed if he learned of my loose ways.

So I think there was only one woman, a fellow-clerk, with whom I allowed myself to be at all indiscreet, and she would have none of me. (I’m old enough now so most of my colleagues only know me from the conventionally virtuous years that followed; she can still remember, and I’m sure it comes to her mind when we meet professionally, my unrequited lurch in the direction of misbehavior in the back halls of the courthouse.) There was also an assistant public defender we’ll call Antonia with whom I had a friendship, but I never tried to make anything more of it.

Conflicts of Interest

Instead, I tried to become a philosopher and theorist of infidelity. I was still at a point where I had a notion I could affirm both a marriage and departures from it, though there was absolutely no denying the tension between these apparently antithetical things. With the benefit of legal and literary sophistication, I could liken that tension to the conflicts of interest built into most legal undertakings, including the fundamental one between the lawyer’s desire to serve his own interests, for instance in maximizing fees, and his commitment to serve the client, or between the lawyer’s commitment to humanitarian goals and the lawyer’s allegiance to the client’s goals, which are seldom humanitarian.

I actually started a novel called Conflicts of Interest to dramatize my thoughts about these intertwined subjects. It was much better written than my high school novel or even my grad school novel[5] had been, and I finished a first draft of it after the time I am writing of here. But I was never able to make a second draft complete. The themes did not work out; I couldn’t work them out in my head — because, of course, I couldn’t work them out in my life.

But Antonia, the assistant public defender, though in real life I never tried to lay a finger on her, inhabited the pages of my book, her character exemplifying a purity of legal purpose, and sexual promise and availability.

Music for Antonia

I placed the climactic sex scene between her and the hero, a married judicial law clerk, in the house of a friend of mine in Baltimore’s Federal Hill. There may have been parts of my book that were inadequately imagined, but not this scene. I knew exactly, from well before I wrote it, what the characters would do, and what they would say — and what music I wanted playing when, later on, someone made a movie of it.

That song would be Chase the Clouds Away,[6] performed by Chuck Mangione and his band along with a seventy-piece orchestra, the third track in a 1979 two-cassette set called simply Chuck Mangione Live at the Hollywood Bowl. Notwithstanding all the uplifting strings, the song is really a dialogue between Mangione, playing crunchy chords on the electric piano, and Chris Vadala, a redoubtable reed man, here playing piccolo, flute, and especially a throaty alto flute, in a melody that presents half-step intervals as near-octaves as it zigzags upwards by unpredictable steps, and takes occasional brief forays from minor into major. It is a shame that this performance was not captured on film as well as on tape, but one can get a decent sense of what the dialogue at the heart of it must have looked like with this video showing Gerry Niewood holding down the Vadala role about 15 years later.[7] What you hear, whether on tape or on video, is a song that is all longing and throb, thrusting upwards to several climaxes: true makeout music, except that somehow it conveys something stronger and more insistent than merely the passion of two people writhing on a couch, great as that is.

In other words, it conveys that longings are important, and their satisfaction powerful and healing. It chases the clouds away.

From a Boombox

And in 1981-82 I frequently played that song in my office on a boom box that the judge hated but mostly held his tongue about, as I typed up proposed opinions for him to issue. And as I did, I thought about the love scene I would write for that music. (Listen to it, and make up your own.)

What became of my own effort to dispel the clouds will be the subject of the next few pieces.

 


[2] Sorry, no details will be provided, collateral damage of the rule I’ve stated often in these pages that I am telling only my own story.

[3] See, for instance: Portnoy’s Complaint (1969), Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice (also 1969), Fear of Flying (1973), The Joy of Sex (1972), Open Marriage (also 1972), The Road Less Traveled (1978), and Thy Neighbor’s Wife (1980).

[4] You can wreck friendships, not just marriages, this way.

[5] I seem not to have discussed it here; call it an hommage to Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim.

[6] Reportedly it first made its appearance as incidental music to the telecast of the 1976 Olympics.

[7] Niewood, I learn, died in the Buffalo plane crash in 2009. There’s also a video of Mangione doing a duet with Marilyn McCoo, of the Fifth Dimension, in which she sings forgettable lyrics and he plays flugelhorn. Their performances are each winning, but for my money what they assemble is not half so lovely as what results when Mangione plays keyboards against a flautist.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn except for album graphic

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