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Exeter Remembered : Prep School Gambler Who Finally Makes His Point

January 05, 1986|DAVID LAMB | The Washington Post and The author, former Cairo bureau chief for The Los Angeles Times, is an Alicia Patterson Fellow on leave and is writing a book about the Arab world. and

I have contributed to the alumni fund at Phillips Exeter Academy every year since I left the school, suddenly and involuntarily, in 1958. But for a good part of that time, I used Exeter's annual plea for support merely to round off my checkbook to the nearest dollar. Thus if my account had, say, $725.18 in it, Exeter received a check for 18 cents. And each spring an asterisk appeared by my name in the school's annual list of donors, identifying me as an alumnus who had given every year since graduation.

This came to mind recently as I was browsing through Exeter's 1958 class directory, published for our 25th reunion two years ago. I skimmed through it, trying without much luck to match names and faces. I felt neither nostalgia for the friends-turned-strangers nor affection for the school itself. My own accomplishments there had been dubious--frivolous, really, by Exeter's standards--and my vision of the campus had long been one of a place wrapped in New England snows, of dark brick buildings and drab dormitories, of white-haired Latin teachers, severe and humorless in ill-fitting three-piece suits.

'Stern Yet Tender'

Exeter ("Oh, mother, stern yet tender . . . ") was achievement oriented and, as I recall, generally insensitive to individual emotional needs. Nonconformity, irreverence and undirected fun were not part of the curriculum. On those counts alone I was an outsider, for while my friends were sharpening their intellect, I was honing my skills as a bookie.

In the smoky cellar "butt room" of Peabody Hall, I ran poker and blackjack games, handled bets on major league baseball games, shot craps with a lot of kids who didn't know the difference between snake eyes and a natural. I knew the odds on drawing to an inside straight, understood the folly of splitting face cards and the wisdom of always backing Warren Spahn, except when he pitched against the Dodgers. I seldom lost. My income soared, to around $100 in a good month, which in those days was tantamount to being a prep school millionaire. More important, gambling become my mark of identity. At best I was only an average student and a mediocre athlete. But with a deck of cards in my hands, I had few peers.

Somewhere along the line I picked up the nickname "The Joker" and my roommate, Warren Hoge, a New Yorker who understood the value of good times, became known as "Big Julie," in honor, I believe, of the subway crapshooter in the movie "Guys and Dolls." Our room was covered with posters of Frank Sinatra, of Fremont Street in downtown Las Vegas, of Hollywood starlets whose names escape me now, and we both knew the words to Frankie Laine's hit pop song of the day, "The Moonlight Gambler." I kept my IOUs and my dice and cards in a small locked box on the top shelf of our bedroom closet.

On occasion, faculty members would conduct Elliot Ness-style raids on our room, bursting in unannounced in hopes of breaking up a game, an offense punishable by expulsion. But the janitor, a fine gentleman named Louie Keech, who rolled his own cigarettes and had taken a liking to us, always managed to hear of the pending raids and would warn us. So when the door was flung open, Warren and I would be studying quietly at our desks and, feeling quite smug, would watch the enemy slink away, muttering apologies.

A Charmed Life

"Lamb, you lead a charmed life," one of my pals, Benno Schmidt, used to say. I remember Ben as a stocky little guy who was always laughing. He was too smart to play cards with me, but his manner was mischievous and irreverent and that alone made him a member of the Inner Circle. I told him once that if his grades improved, I'd hire him on one day as a bodyguard so he could amount to something.

The closest I ever came at Exeter to gaining scholastic recognition was in Mr. Broderick's American history class. I had operated there on the premise that one good joke was worth 10 meaningless dates, and one day when I took my seat at the dark oak table around which students and teachers sat at Exeter, there was an egg in front of my place. It was balanced on a Life Saver and bore an inscription: "The Francis L. Broderick Memorial Egg is awarded once a decade to the student in History 3 who, though at a disadvantage mentally, works with unremitting lassitude and in the end gets nowhere." I was the recipient and I was delighted. But I should have been smart enough to realize that most members of the faculty did not share Mr. Broderick's warmth or sense of humor. To them I was a liability, and my

janitorial source said they were determined to outwit me, having decided The Joker and Phillips Exeter Academy were on a collision course.

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