“So Impossibly Happy”
John Stringer embodied the spirit of the early 70s at Amherst College. He took the place by storm.
As a small liberal arts college in western Massachusetts, Amherst enjoys its reputation as one of the most exclusive and demanding schools in the country. When I attended from 1960-1964 and when John attended from 1969-1973, it was an all male institution of 1000 students. The highly competitive male culture combining intense academic study with a boys-will-be-boys tradition of drinking, pranks, and genteel hell- raising continued through the mid-70s, when Amherst “went co-ed.” In my day the college featured a rigorous “New Curriculum” consisting of required freshman and sophomore courses as well as distribution requirements that would shape each student into a “whole man.” Specialized training was reserved for graduate school, which most attended. Part of our “whole man” shaping included a post-Titanic requirement to swim 100 yards, plus required attendance at morning chapel – though the subject matter of chapel presentations was overwhelmingly secular.
In John’s day there was a considerable loosening of requirements at Amherst and around the country. The New Curriculum was gone, replaced by an ever-expanding freedom for students who were judged wise enough to know what was best for them. Chapel became optional. The swimming requirement quietly went away.
Amherst was ready for John not only because it had long welcomed jocks who could do the work as well as contribute to college life in other ways but also because its culture, like that at many colleges and universities, increasingly valued freedom and self-expression. What’s more, the existence of the draft and the Vietnam War made college officials reluctant to flunk students out.
In the spring of John’s freshman year the United States invaded Cambodia, and classes at Amherst shut down for the final month of the term. There were no final exams, and students had the option of taking a Pass/Fail grade, taking the grade they had earned to date, or finishing course work at home over the summer. I do not believe many chose “Fail,” as that would have meant a likely trip to the Far East. The message here, part of the obvious one of “No Business as Usual in the Ivory Tower,” was that there are things much more important than academics.
This was a message that John took to heart. In his case those more important things seemed to be frisbee and fun. If he could frame these activities – and for him, drug use was soon dominating the list – in terms such as “antiestablishment” or “counter-culture,” so much the better.
Years later John wrote that he had learned that a former President of Amherst College, Calvin Plimpton (John actually wrote “George Plimpton”), had been a conscientious objector during World War II. John was delighted that, while living in Phoenix, he was also a conscientious objector - but what he was objecting to was work.
Following John’s murder and the publication of my “In Memory” piece about him in the Amherst College alumni magazine, I received a series of emails from his former classmates and teammates. Those who wrote remember John as a radiant, charismatic figure filled with an infectious energy: the embodiment of freedom, joy, and fun.
Chris Johnson, a classmate of John’s, recalls an incident that reveals much about the college culture of the time. On the first day of freshman orientation one of the dorm proctors – a senior assigned to help freshmen with their transition to Amherst – plunged to his death from a fourth floor window. Johnson suggests it was a drug-aided flight and that it played a larger role in the orientation than the victim intended. The example apparently did not help my brother.
John made a big splash when he arrived. Ted Wright, a classmate, writes:
John was one of the first guys I met at Amherst. We lived across the hall on the 3rd floor of James. If I’m not mistaken, his freshman roommate was a quiet baseball player from Maine. John was anything but quiet! He had this wild look in his eye – a cross between a child’s fantasy and a mad genius gleam. Like, what will he come up with next? John was the one who organized and led the midnight attack on Stearns [the freshman dorm next door] in October. (Your family may have gotten a bill for that one.) More water was spilled than on a good day at Niagara. He had SWAT teams go in: taking over bathrooms, plugging drains, turning on showers, filling trash cans with water to lean against doors. Then for good measure he turned on North, then Morrow. And did I mention the water balloons?
Art Boothby was that quiet freshman roommate from Maine. He describes a sociable John whose character had not yet been assaulted by the demons associated with drugs and schizophrenia. Boothby recalls:
John was the first person I met at Amherst, as he had arrived on campus before I did. It was a strange time for me, as I was from a public high school in Maine and really not sure what Amherst was all about. I was recruited by the baseball coach and was very jocky at that time, as I had played three sports all though high school and expected to play at least two in college. Also, coming from Maine, I had never been exposed to gays, blacks, Hispanics or drugs of any kind. I was, to say the least, quite innocent.
I found John to be very gregarious, a jock also, and we got along very well. His hair was very short and he was very into sports at that time. I do remember that he had just been to Woodstock, and that left a huge impression on him. I, of course, didn’t know what Woodstock was.
I brought some 78’s from home that my older sister had, and they were recordings of the Lone Ranger. John loved to point his speakers toward Mead [the nearby art building] and let the William Tell Overture rip! We also decided to paint the two rooms we had in James, and we were both very meticulous about the job – I remember us painting the three parts of the door jambs all different colors! The other guys on the floor liked it, and we had a couple of walls that had different colored squares that made our rooms different from any others.
One of my fondest memories of John is when he organized the water balloon attack on Stearns. I believe he said his older brother had told him this was a must, and he drew up a large map of Stearns with all the exits and organized a meeting of all of us in the basement of James to set up the attack. We were all given wastebaskets full of water balloons with newspapers on the top to hide the balloons, and we were given specific rooms to attack. It was an unbelievable surprise on Stearns, and they were decimated, much to John’s delight!
As we got into the second semester, John seemed to change. I guess he got into the drug scene, but I honestly never saw him do any drugs. He certainly did not use our room for any of that stuff, and I don’t even remember him smoking grass there. I am one of few that actually made it through four years without even trying marijuana, as I had that baseball thing going on and I didn’t want to mess that up. I had a sweetheart who was still in high school, and she and her parents used to come to visit quit frequently. John was always wonderful to Susan and her parents, very affable with a ready smile.
I really don’t know what happened with John... Over the years we would see each other on campus infrequently, as we traveled in different circles. His hair got very long and dirty, and he got that scary look in his eyes, I am sure you know what I mean. He became a guy who played a lot of frisbee, and I remember seeing him on the football field at halftime winging that thing like a true pro.
John in his freshman year is the young John I recall: presentable and courteous to a roommate’s girlfriend’s parents but with unusual resources of energy. Struggling with his incipient schizophrenia, he took on a narrowly prescribed identity: “He became a guy who played a lot of frisbee.” It may be that he fixated on expressions of physical energy as a way to quiet the demon voices. Turn up the William Tell Overture! And on days when the demons were winning, “he got that scary look in his eyes.” By his senior year he was flinging the frisbee during halftime of the Amherst-Williams football game – barefoot in the snow.
I witnessed “that scary look” that Boothby recalls. When I visited John in Phoenix his eyes were deep-set and intense, and when he stared it me it made me uncomfortable. I felt that he was trying to read me for hidden motives and criticisms of his life choices.
John’s energy found a surprising channel in the discipline of crew. Wright continues:
John joined Psi U, but I don’t recall him living in the house too much. He was likely to be seen almost anywhere, any time. His favorite phrase: “Fuck THIS shit!” said playfully. We may have been together in Anthro 11 and possibly the History of
Philosophy. But academics were not his first love. That would have been drugs, or beer, or rowing.
We rowed together all four years: John on port side, me on starboard. I loved his enthusiasm. He made me laugh sometimes, but he also made me grit those last 500 meters. I was usually too tired or absorbed in the practice or race to say much of anything, but John would yell WHILE we were rowing the way some tennis players grunt while serving.
John and I were co-captains in ‘73, a disappointing season after our previous championship. The team never clicked. The coach ignored John and me in favor of a pedigreed senior and junior, neither of whom rowed the previous year. If there was one thing John and I could do, it was motivate. But often we were getting overlooked by theoreticians who emphasized technique.
No story of John and crew would be complete without mentioning the famous bus. When the team picked up a school bus for transport to/from the river, it had to be painted some neutral color other than bright yellow. So naturally we chose purple [Amherst’s color], and you can imagine John with a can or two of paint and freedom to express! The only thing that topped this was a ride one evening to Amherst, when your brother went to the door in the back and mooned the whole town of Hadley.
I only went back for one reunion – the 25th, in 1998 – but I often asked classmates via letters or calls, “What do you know of Stringer?” At the 25th I heard he was living beneath a bridge, and I wasn’t sure whether or not to believe. (With John, all things are possible.) We went in vastly different directions after Amherst. I am a Presbyterian pastor. Since I saw no signs of schizophrenia – or at least didn’t recognize at Amherst – I suspect it was drug-induced. John was a wild, free spirit, and what made him so unique also brought him down. Like Samson. Since our Father has special love in His heart for prodigal sons and daughters, I hope to see John in a place where the demons cannot touch. May his childlike passion be reborn.
No mention in this tribute of John’s quitting crew after being demoted to the second boat. John said the demotion came because he was masturbating a lot. And, of course, there were the drugs.
Wright’s parenthetical “With John, all things are possible” is echoed in this story from Barry Reingold:
“Joe” was quiet, retiring, almost mousy; the exact opposite of John. They knew each other, but were not friends. During the spring of our senior year, the college organized an outdoor talent show and for some charitable purpose. A group of us (including John) wandered over. There, standing alone on the stage, was Joe. He was wearing a red-and-white striped jacket, a bow tie, and a white boater hat. Swinging a wooden cane, he was doing a soft shoe routine to recorded music played over a loudspeaker. We were stunned. Then John said out loud – but to himself – “If Joe can do that, I can do anything.” I thought then (and think now) that John was reminding himself that the limitations under which we live are largely those we impose on ourselves. If Joe were free to envision himself as a soft shoe dancer, John’s freedom to dream was limitless.
Not, in retrospect, as limitless as he thought.
Reingold also recalls John’s magnetism: “John was the most memorable student during his time at Amherst. He was energetic, smart and funny. In his own way, charismatic. People liked to be around him. Men and women both.”
John had been shy around girls in high school, getting his friends to phone them to set up dates. Amherst classmate George Starkweather notes: “John never had any lasting male to female relationships that I was aware of. He liked to meet women, mainly hitchhikers, and return to the room for intimacy. No strings attached. The proverbial one night stand. No commitment. ‘If it feels good, do it.’” It is unclear whether this is a symptom of John’s illness or a symptom of the times in which he lived. It also may be a bi-product of an all-male institution where women existed as dates rather than fellow human beings with whom we studied, worked and lived.
I am saddened by the way John died, but not surprised. Any of us can, on an unlucky day, run into the wrong people. That day becomes our last. What saddens me beyond words is the thought that John spent two years living under an expressway. That John’s energy, humor and intelligence should come to that reminds me that, as someone wrote, human life is fragile, puny and temporary.
No, it was not just a matter of John, on “an unlucky day,” running into “the wrong people” – though I appreciate the attempt to comfort me. As a student of Greek tragedy
I learned how a person’s entire life can be shaped toward an inevitable outcome. Character is destiny. My aesthetic sensibility prefers Wright’s version: “What made him most unique also brought him down.” But saying this does not mitigate the sense of waste and loss – and the gnawing injustice.
John joined Psi Upsilon fraternity in spring of his freshman year and moved into Psi U as a sophomore. In 1970 at Amherst, belonging to a fraternity was the rule rather than the exception – about 70% of upperclassmen were fraternity brothers. Fraternities were informal social clubs where, as one Psi U writes, you got “a nice place to drink cheap beer and play.” At one point John’s fraternity had 105 members, one tenth of the student body. John was very much a social being, so joining a fraternity would be natural. His tenure at Psi U, however, took a turn for the strange. John’s fraternity brother, George Starkweather, describes the first of John’s many unconventional housing choices:
For the better part of his sophomore year, he was my roommate. We fit well, comfortable with the casual interaction that came with no expectations. Our other roommates were a bit more compulsive. We lived in Psi U, third floor, until March break, when John’s choices forced a change. He then took to residing behind the basement wall, a place he made comfortable as he had few needs and for which he took no offense.
Starkweather elaborates that John’s choices include having a kilo of marijuana shipped in from Arizona – he thinks from one of John’s high school friends. John decided to dry it out in their common room on the third floor, a choice that led to his “banishment.”
Chris Johnson describes in more detail John’s living quarters in the basement of Psi U: He had taped to one wall of the windowless room a large photograph of a view out a window, on which he had mounted a working pull shade. Another “wall” of his room was a sheet that hung from the ceiling, illuminated from behind by a spotlight. John and his buddies spent hours projecting shadows of one another playing air guitar to Led Zeppelin, the Fugs, and other favorites onto the sheet, to the delight of the spectators.
When I first learned of John’s withdrawal to the fraternity basement, it seemed to be a sign of the withdrawal associated with schizophrenia. The world is overwhelming because of the mind’s inability to sort and process the “voices” and delusions, so the natural response is a retreat into isolation. But this image does not square with what people who knew John said about him. His basement “cave” became a social center, and John continued in his role as charismatic entertainer.
John’s many high school and college friends loved him, as these letters show. Another classmate, Chris Torem, writes:
There was a wedding during college, a Jewish wedding. We all went and somehow John, in his gray winter overcoat and his shaggy hair and beard, found himself in the receiving line as a greeter. I remember the yarmulke perched on a mass of hair well above his head. I watched as John enthusiastically greeted dozens of honored guests as if he had done this all his life. John was always up for a party, particularly if there was food.
This is not the social isolate described by schizophrenia literature. John was actively seeking interactions – the more, the better.
John’s famous VW beetle, the Phantom Phart, was another center of social activity. Chris Torem recalls:
John was always going on runs, for pizza, or over to Smith or Mount Holyoke, or just to the dining hall. There was always room in the ‘Phart’ for anyone who wanted to go somewhere or just to keep him company. Sometimes, it would seem that the overloaded car would not make it over the hills of Massachusetts and we would all have to get out and push. Yet John always allowed for four, five, maybe even six riders in a car built for four at best.
Chris Johnson describes being a passenger in the Phantom Phart when the odometer reached the 200,000 mile mark. John had everyone get out of the car and push it the last 1/10 of a mile. He would drive anyone anywhere in that car, cramming in six or seven bodies for trips to Smith or Holyoke, or just around campus.
John’s car was my car – my college graduation present. The fact that my car had been reincarnated as John’s in the spirit of freedom and mock-defiance gives me pleasure to this day. I was the responsible brother, the good citizen teaching in the public schools and paying taxes. John led the life I did not live, driving the Phantom Phart.
Torem underscores John’s capacity for friendship:
There were many things unspoken in the friendship, a sense of trust and acceptance. John rarely criticized anyone or tried to make someone feel low. He preferred to look for the good side, to find the sunny day. Once the spring hit, John was the first to be outside playing frisbee or rowing, often in bare feet. It was John who would crank up the rock music, open the windows to our common living room and drag us out of our separate study rooms into the fresh air. ‘C’mon,’ he would say, ‘just five minutes!’ Then we would be out over hills overlooking the dormitories with the frisbee soaring and the exams and term papers forgotten.”
Here again is the energy, with John always up for a good time. His circle expanded beyond fellow athletes and fraternity brothers, and Stephen Goff describes John’s openness, his “sociability,” in the deepest sense of the word:
He was one of about a dozen people – max – that I would count as my real friends at Amherst, and I will always be grateful to him for his friendship when I was there. I have probably thought fondly about him at least a few times every month over the last thirty years – sometimes more often – and that I had long wanted to contact him. But it’s always too late.
For me, Stringer was an incredible person. I don’t remember meeting him in our freshman year, but I somehow bumped into him sophomore year and made a connection. He had a life definitely far outside mine – he was a jock, after all, with all that that implied, and I was a complete nerd – as anti-jock as possible.
He did crew, I think, and track, and was incredibly strong and athletic. There was a whole universe that I am sure knew John and appreciated his abilities. None of this meant much to me but I was willing to let these talents pass, at least, and since I had no interest in this world at all, my friendship with a jock like John was singular – it had to come from elsewhere else. But John was not your typical jock. Our connection was through a group of wildly radical friends – the common interests were Vietnam drinking, philosophy, and maybe drugs. We certainly shared a lot of beer and dope during that year. My more legitimate friends and I just found him unbelievably energetic and fun to be with and were pleased to invite him into our circle.
After his sophomore year John moved out of Psi U, though he remained a member. Goff continues:
I spent the summer of ‘71 in Washington DC and then came back to Amherst to start junior year, moving into a “social” dorm of bedrooms connected into a common living room. John was either an official suitemate or close to it, and he certainly lived with us much of the year, no matter what his formal status was. Our other suitemates loved him too.
It was a wonderful year. There were many, many all-night sessions – this is likely the time and the life I remember most, or most fondly, about college – and John was a major figure in these sessions. John was so funny – so enthusiastic and energetic and intense and just so happy. He was modest, and unassuming, and kind – nobody was more sweet and humble. I have this image of his grin and his laugh and his pure pleasure – I loved it. We would sometimes all be sitting around the room and John would be telling stories and be so happy – just so impossibly happy – and passionate about some issue. I don’t think I’ve ever been fortunate enough to be as happy myself, ever, before or since then. What I remember most about John was his huge grin – I see it now in my mind – and his laugh. I owe Stringer more than I can ever repay for those nights. I agree that he may have indeed been a shaman.
I think John was genuinely happy, even ecstatically happy. Was this happiness a sign of mental illness? If the answer to that is yes, what does that say about the human condition?
Even in the early 1970s, Amherst included academics with the frisbee, drugs, and all night bull sessions. John found his own way. Barry Reingold remembers John’s academic pursuits:
During his senior year, he was overdue submitting a term paper. It became an emergency group project. I remember the scene in his room: Several friends were sitting on the floor, going through books, finding source materials and citations for him. John was sitting on his bed with a portable typewriter in his lap. He was doing the actual writing. At one point he read a paragraph out loud. I was surprised. He was using standard, dry academic language appropriate for a college term paper. The language did not reflect John’s energy or eccentricities. I was reminded that, under the beard and long hair, John was very much a well-educated son of the professional class of Darien. I suspect that this creative process, now praised as “collaborative,” was not unusual at Amherst.
Chris Johnson describes John’s final exam in Professor Mishkin’s Introduction to Music course, taught by the Department Chair for non-music majors. Johnson helped John construct his final project, a multi-media effort having something to do with the Fourth Movement of Brahms’ Fourth Symphony. John brought to Professor Mishkin’s office two milk crates filled with carefully chosen stuff, and he proceeded to blindfold his professor and then guide his hands through a series of tactile experiences. Johnson recalls thumbtacks and warm applesauce. It’s in keeping with John’s character that he took things a notch too far, parodying the non-academics of his age. John did not mention the assistance of his music major friend, and he received a grade of B for the course.
And Stephen Goff recalls:
John was not an academic star, as you probably know. We all were cheerleaders for each other in academia, and we hoped he would find his niche. He wandered about over the years in various courses and fields looking for something that would interest him. I don’t think the anthropology was a calling – it was a significant pursuit, but not a life, for him.
Somewhere in there John realized that he had an interest and talent at art – especially sculpture. I remember he spent a huge amount of time that year molding a life-size human hand out of wax – I guess in principle to make a bronze casting, maybe. It was spectacularly perfect and realistic, down to skin fingerprints and creases. It was amazing.
He also made a small skull, I think it was, in wax, and attached it to the horizontal bar of my floor lamp. I carried it with me to graduate school at Stanford and, I think, even back to Boston, for about ten years. I finally, reluctantly, scraped it off the lamp in the 80’s, I think. Anyway, after our junior year we seem to have drifted apart and didn’t do so much together senior year or thereafter.”
Goff’s saying that John was “not an academic star” is accurate. His grades were in the B/C range, with his lone A- in a sophomore year course in “Eastern Philosophy Centering on the Hindu Tradition.” His senior year featured a course at the nearby University of Massachusetts: “Food Science 101: the Struggle for Food.” The course featured a true/false final examination, a welcome relief from the essay writing in most Amherst courses. John elected this class after a summer of landscaping work for our brother Bob in Colorado. He did not want to return to college, but the family persuaded him to finish.
Behind all this good fellowship, creative freedom, athleticism, and charisma, some of his friends could detect ominous signs – though none of them saw the incipient schizophrenia, except in hindsight. The drug culture hid a lot.
Starkweather puts John’s accelerating drug use in context:
At the time, God, acid was available and had significant personality altering effects. One of my classmates and frat brothers did the drug five days straight. No sleep, no eats...just drugs. When I came back from the NCAA’s in swimming, he was on the front porch staring at the sun. He never finished college. He was institutionalized for a while. He killed himself a few years later. No one intervened when he went off the cliff, they just stepped over the corpse a few years too early. John and he were friends, and I suspect they shared some experiences.”
Stepping over the corpse seems too extreme a metaphor to describe people’s treatment of John. He was vibrant, energetic, and happy – the opposite of a corpse. And yet the tenor of the times was to look the other way.
The college had a no ask, no tell approach, perhaps reflecting a bias that the drug culture could be contained to mj and not progressive to other substance abuse.
I remember [football] Coach Ostendarp wishing that his players would go back to alcohol. (I was getting a whirlpool treatment at the time.)
Drug use was viewed as a legitimate aid in breaking down barriers of self-delusion and in exploring who you were and what you could become. Zen Buddhism and Alan Watts were in vogue, along with the religious ceremonies of Native Americans – John was an anthropology major – and the use of peyote.
Drugs were also seen as a way to enhance creativity. The most popular past time reading was Alice in Wonderland. Amazing how we could intellectualize and ignore the horrific side.”
Stephen Goff begins his letter to me by saying, “I was deeply saddened to learn of his end (even if I cannot say I’m completely surprised).” He concludes:
I think all of us in our group suspected Stringer was likely to have a hard time after college, because it was not obvious what he would do for a living, and if he could settle down to a normal job. This was not something we worried about at all, of course – none of us knew what any of us were likely to be doing either. Many of us did drugs of various sorts, in various levels of moderation, and I think I knew he was often doing drugs more than some of us did. I remember having some wonderful times with Stringer when he was on acid – he was incredibly funny and exciting. I imagined all this was manageable, and that he would stop when or if needed. I had no idea at all about his schizophrenia, which I don’t guess was obviously happening at the time. I have since lost another good friend to this disease – making me wonder if I have some affinity for the type – and learned that it is basically untreatable even today. I can only guess about the circumstances of his murder, but I hope it was a closure if there was anguish. I wish I had made contact to hear his rowdy laugh one more time before this ending. I will remember Stringer ‘til the day I die – nothing will change that.
I hope very much you have access to the 1973 yearbook, because it has a phenomenal photo of John. It was absolutely characteristic of his life. He was in the stands at the football field – it was pouring rain and John was working on a 2-quart bottle of beer – and he was unaffected by the rain and completely happy. The wave he’s giving to the camera is exactly how I remember him – I can see that wave now in my mind. I think it perfectly captures his attitude about life.
George Starkweather concurs, reflecting as much on the tenor of the times as on John’s character:
I guess John never grew up. Consequences of choice were never a consideration as long as the moment was pleasurable. I don’t say that in a judgmental way. Again, we were much alike. ... He wasn’t too far from the mainstream of the time.
Chris Torem strikes a similar note:
Although I sensed that he felt unable or unwilling to follow a path to success which had been put before him by family or heritage, it was easy to assume that John would simply find a different road. This was the late sixties and early seventies and there were many alternative lifestyles. Now I know John was struggling and unable to reach out for help.
But also, according to Peter Fox:
You have to remember that in a time when many people suspected that you had to do your own thing, a time which is very much past, not many people had the guts or imagination to even try. John was brilliantly imaginative.
I didn’t know my brother then. I was in Michigan starting my family and launching my career as a high school teacher. I could not have prevented John’s drug abuse, schizophrenia and death. But I did miss out on the magic of his life. And magic it was. Peter Fox spoke for many who knew John before Phoenix:
John was beloved, he was a legend... I must tell you, and I mean this, John was one of the most extraordinary people I’ve ever known.
These people who did know him loved him – that much is clear – and they could see him moving away. The most touching sentence in all the Amherst reminiscences is this
from Mark Beckwith: “We could see him slip away, even in college, and wondered how to invite him back.” Love is not enough.
The culture of Amherst values being smart, analytical, skeptical, reflective, and insightful. And – more difficult to achieve – Amherst values being engaged. While the counterculture of the 70s urged political engagement, at least in the form of anti-war activities, it also encouraged disengagement – through the use of drugs. The danger signs of this disengagement were apparent, at least in retrospect. Drug use was common and drug abuse, sometimes a mask for schizophrenia, unnoticed. These were innocent and dangerous times, especially given the way young people believe in their immortality.