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Forest Refuge from `Preppie Babylon'

WHAT I remember about the pit was the priceless way the pipe came out of the ground by tree roots and the door was concealed by bushels of leaves that fell around the school. Now it was sunken like a grave and the stove pipe was down the hill as if the tree roots had ejected it. The path that we had diversified like animals to mislead pursuing boys or masters, of course, was gone. It took me walking back and forth in the woods to find it. I was sure no other boys had found it for the rotten trap was still intact.

Pal had walked halfway across Hungary at 12 with his mother and sisters. His father had been executed by the communists. Now adopted by the Hotchkiss School in Connecticut, he knew its woods. I didn't understand much about communists then or the Hungarian revolution. But I knew Pal liked to be in the woods and on ponds and he could paint. He did one of a boy holding a dove leaning against barbed wire as if he had to break it. The sky and land were desolate. Its symbolism impressed me as an adolescent.

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We were in the same class and we met one day in the woods and I remembered that he was the boy who'd done that painting.

``Do you want to be roommates next year?'' I asked Pal, after we had taken hikes together.

``Absolutely not,'' he laughed. He laughed a lot, this boy who could paint such eerie pictures. ``Roommates are for fighting with. Let's do a place out here.''


We dug in. All fall we dug by a big pine, between classes, missing sport days; sometimes we snuck out at night and shoveled the rooty Connecticut earth. We would crawl up on our bellies to the dormitories, dinosaurs of lights on the hill, exhilarated with work and breaking rules, sneaking in past proctors who had ``late lights,'' going to bed with dried dirt on our hands.

``This is home,'' I said, when we conceived the underground fireplace and were searching for stones near the pond.

``Home in the preppie Babylon,'' Pal answered.

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``Our escape valve,'' I said. ``We can come here and cook and keep a journal and no one has to know.''

``I think my roommate's on to us. No more nights, for awhile.''

``Can I tell Hannah, the music master's daughter?''

``You've seen her too?''

``Isn't she, though.''

So in the school of 400 competing rude males, we made our own illegal - it must have been illegal if no one did it - pit, neatly concealed under leaves and the priceless camouflaged stove pipe sticking up. We had visitors from the community - pretty red-haired Hannah and later her friend Kim who rode a horse. They stayed friends with us until they, like us, had to go away to school.

``Only on cloudy days or in fog,'' Pal said about fire. ``They'd kick us out for smoke.''

We had merry times, contemplated, and studied out there. Sometimes Pal would climb up in the big pine and study a book standing up in the branches, while I cooked hot dogs. You'd never know what Pal would do. Sometimes he'd mysteriously disappear from school with some special permission to check on his mother and two sisters, who were in New York now, brought over to this country by a grant from the Reader's Digest. I would go to the pit alone. I would wait for the music teacher's daughter or Kim; they'd always talk of him.

``He's like out of a book,'' said one.

``He's funny and I like that,'' said the other.

``He crossed Hungary alone in a war,'' I said.

No one snitched; but we got caught. We went out one night in spring - the girls were away - and we lit candles after messing around in the sunset of the pond, swimming and looking for water lilies that Pal wanted to paint. It was that night in the pit Pal was in a funny mood and told me his father was a major and that's why the communists killed him. He exposed his plan to go back and do something for Hungary.

``That's why I'm putting myself through this. From this school you can go anywhere.''

Crawling up the hill to the dorms that night, we found a tree where it shouldn't have been, and for roots two shined shoes and pant cuffs perfectly tailored over them.

``Good evening boys. I'll see you in my office tomorrow.'' It was the headmaster's familiar authoritative voice.

``It's over,'' I said. ``What will I tell my parents? Start packing.'' Pal said nothing and we went into the appointment. He was pale.

``... For breaking time-honored rules ... Hallett, you have a backbone like a banana ... And you,'' the head said, looking at Pal, ``You've let down your mother and sisters. How do you feel about that?''

``Yes, sir.'' said Pal.

``Sir,'' I said, as he looked at me.

``I don't want to know what you were doing out. I want your word that this will never happen again. And you will continue to uphold the one rule of the school: Be a gentleman. Furthermore, I'm going to bat for you. It need not go further than this office.''

Heads bowed, we walked to classes.

``Backbone like a banana. That hurts,'' I whispered to Pal.

And we walked down the hall and I felt a strong arm go round me, ``By the way, Hal, I've heard good things about you from the community ... the music teacher.''

We watched the headmaster go off in his stately stride, symbol of all we were rebelling against.

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