The "Accident"

  1. Monday, October 7, 1963 (8:02 pm)

When Donald first met Teddy Haswell as freshmen cadets at the New Jersey Military Academy, he decided immediately they would be best friends. Teddy was tall, strong jawed and athletic. There were rumors as soon as he stepped on campus he would compete to be the starting quarterback for the varsity football team. It was obvious he would be a popular boy at the Academy, and Donald believed popular boys made good best friends.

Technically at that time, Donald was not in the market for a best friend since he already had one. Jerry Stahl, his best friend since elementary school, had joined him at the Academy. But Jerry was shorter than average, pimply and could barely throw a spiral with a football. Although Jerry was funny and from a wealthy family (his father was one of the most successful dentists in central Queens), with his looks and athletic limitations, he would never be a popular boy at a military school. Donald determined as soon as he saw Teddy Haswell that he needed to make a best friend upgrade. Jerry was out, and Teddy was in.

The next Sunday, when the cadets were allowed to call home, Donald mentioned how Teddy would make a great roommate to his father, who was a successful real estate developer in Queens and one of the biggest contributors to the school. A week later, Donald’s roommate Bill Evans was transferred to another room in the barracks, and Teddy took his place in Donald’s room.

For the next three years, Donald and Teddy had been together almost non-stop. They both played on the Academy’s football and baseball teams, went into the city together whenever they got weekend leave, and every summer Teddy spent a few weeks at Donald’s family’s beach house in Boca Raton. The first time Donald had touched a girl’s breast, it was with a blonde Dairy Queen waitress in Boca who originally showed interest in Teddy. In short, Teddy was exactly the best friend Donald had expected him to become when they first met freshmen year.

Given how close he was with Teddy, looking down now at Teddy’s lifeless body sprawled face down on the granite tiles of Jessup Quadrangle, Donald knew he should be in shock. After all, there was a pool of blood rapidly forming around his best friend’s head. But mainly Donald just felt surprised. The window ledge he was standing on was at least two feet wide, and Donald was not having any trouble keeping his balance. Teddy must not be that athletic after all, Donald thought.

Donald looked up from the bloody scene below and in through the window. Lieutenant Drake, the Academy’s mathematics teacher, was sitting at his desk with his back to Donald. It had been the Lieutenant’s sudden appearance at his office that had led to Donald and Teddy opening a window and going out on the ledge in the first place.

Donald and Teddy had snuck into the Lieutenant’s fifth floor office in Jessup Hall to find his grade sheets and change Donald’s 67 on last week’s trigonometry mid-term exam to a higher score. Donald’s father paid him $100 for every B+ or better grade he earned, and a 67 on the mid-term was going to put a B+ for the semester out of reach. Since it was faculty poker night in the mess hall, the Lieutenant should not have been in Jessup Hall at all. Donald and Teddy had assumed they would have at least an hour to get in and get out before 9:00 pm, when all cadets had to be in barracks.

The Academy’s library was on the ground floor of Jessup Hall. After class hours, cadets could go there, but were not allowed on any of the floors above without permission. Teddy and Donald had gone to the library that evening and pretended for a while to study. Ten minutes apart, so as not to arouse suspicion, each of the boys (first Teddy and then Donald) had asked the librarian, Mrs. Duncannon, if they could use the bathroom, which was located next to the stairwell.

They met in the bathroom and then sprinted up the stairs when they were sure no one was looking. If they encountered any faculty in the stairwell, Donald was confident he could talk their way out of trouble. In any case, with the big game against Westport Academy coming up on Friday, there was no chance two football players would receive any serious punishment just for being upstairs in Jessup Hall.

As it turned out, the boys reached the fifth floor without running into anyone. They found Lieutenant Drake’s office dark and empty. They closed the door, switched on the lights and started their search.

Teddy was the one who had found Lieutenant Drake’s black grade book in a desk drawer. He put it on top of the desk and had just started to open it when they heard footsteps coming toward them down the corridor and the Lieutenant’s deep and distinctive smoker’s cough.

Donald ran back to the door and quietly locked it. Since the boys had found the office unlocked, Donald was hoping Lieutenant Drake might not have his keys with him. By the time Donald turned around, Teddy was already opening the window behind the Lieutenant’s desk.

Teddy went out on to the ledge first. As Donald reached the window, he heard Lieutenant Drake try the door knob and then curse loudly when he discovered it was locked. If the Lieutenant had his keys with him, Donald knew it would only be a few more seconds before he would be coming through the door.

Donald quickly went out through the window and on to the ledge. Although the ledge ran the full length of the office, Teddy had not moved down it at all. He was still standing on the spot where he had first come out, leaving Donald without enough space to lean over comfortably and close the window. He could not risk saying something Lieutenant Drake might hear, so instead he tried gesturing for Teddy to move farther down the ledge. But his friend was staring into the office and did not notice Donald waving his hand.

Donald saw the office door start to open and he knew he could not wait any longer. He leaned over to close the window, pushing Teddy slightly with his hip in the process. It was no more than a tiny nudge, Donald thought and, seeing as Teddy was the Academy’s quarterback and could keep his balance even while being pushed and shoved by defensive linemen, it certainly should not have caused him any trouble.

Just as Donald finished closing the window, he heard Teddy gasp loudly. Donald turned around and realized he was alone on the ledge.

From the look of the scene below him, Donald guessed Teddy was dead. Falling five stories face down on to the hard granite of Jessup Quadrangle did not seem like the kind of accident even a strapping, young football player like Teddy could survive.

But there was nothing Donald could do to help Teddy now. Besides, Donald was more worried about himself. He could not possibly go back in through the window and explain to Lieutenant Drake what he was doing out on the ledge. Even Donald’s father’s many large donations to the Academy would not be able to keep him from being expelled.

At the same time, Donald knew he could not stay out on the ledge for too much longer. Someone was bound to come soon through Jessup Quadrangle and see Teddy’s body. And when they did, they would surely look up. He would be expelled and, even though Donald was completely innocent, it might even look like he had something to do with Teddy’s fall.

Donald moved slightly to one side of the window so as not to be seen so easily if Lieutenant Drake happened to turn around. He tried to see what the Lieutenant was doing at his desk, hoping to get a clue whether he was planning to stay in his office for long. Just then, Donald saw the office door open and in walk Stanley Wong.

Stanley was the only Asian cadet at the Academy. Donald, who was proud of his knack for nicknames, called him “Fu Manchu” when they first met freshmen year. He also had considered “Charlie Chan,” but he preferred the way “Fu Manchu” rolled off his tongue. The nickname had stuck, and Stanley became known universally around the school as Fu Manchu. Even some of the teachers called him that.

Stanley sat down across the desk from the Lieutenant and started to speak. Donald wondered if it were possible Stanley had seen what happened and was reporting it to the Lieutenant. He needed to know what was being said, but while he could make out some sounds, they were unintelligible. He kept leaning in closer to the window trying to hear until his forehead slightly tapped the glass. Although Lieutenant Drake did not seem to hear anything, the sound was loud enough to make Stanley look up toward the window and his eyes locked with Donald’s.

“Fuck!” Donald whispered to himself. Everyone knew Stanley was Lieutenant Drake’s favorite student, and he was sure the teacher’s pet would rat him out. He stared straight into Stanley eyes with as tough a look as he could muster, hoping to scare him into staying quiet.

Stanley looked away. Then he started glancing around the room, slowly at first but at an increasing pace so that soon he was frantically scanning the room from one side to the other. Donald wondered if his tough guy stare had been too effective. He had just wanted to keep Stanley quiet, not cause him to lose his mind.

Soon Stanley stopped scanning the room and started to convulse in his chair. It looked to Donald like he was having a seizure. Although Donald still could not make out what was being said through the glass, Lieutenant Drake clearly was shouting something. The Lieutenant got up and ran around his desk. He helped Stanley to stand, draped one of Stanley’s arms around his shoulders and headed for the door, like a soldier helping a wounded comrade off the battlefield.

Just as they were going out into the corridor, Stanley turned around toward the window, locked eyes again with Donald and smiled. He slightly raised the arm that was slung across the Lieutenant’s shoulders and for a brief second gave Donald the thumbs up signal. Then he seemed to lose all strength again as the Lieutenant helped him down the corridor and out of Donald’s line of sight.

Donald was shocked. Other than nicknaming him Fu Manchu, Donald had barely had any contact with Stanley Wong during their three years together at the Academy. Donald was a jock and Stanley was a brain, and those two groups did not mix much. But Stanley might have just saved him from being expelled.

Donald waited thirty seconds or so before opening the window and going back into the office. He closed the window behind him, ran to the door and carefully peered down the corridor in both directions. The corridor was empty. Donald guessed Lieutenant Drake was taking Stanley downstairs in the faculty elevator.

Donald wanted to make a run for the stairwell, but he first looked back into the office to see if he had left any evidence behind. On top of Lieutenant Drake’s desk, just where Teddy had left it after taking it out from a drawer, was the Lieutenant’s grade book. Donald ran back to the desk and opened the grade book. It was a grid paper notebook, with each page corresponding to a different class. Donald flipped through the pages until he found the one labeled “12th Grade Trigonometry.” He ran his finger down the column of names to “Donald T.” and then across to his most recent mark, the 67 on the mid-term exam.

Frustratingly for Donald, the Lieutenant had written everything in his grade book in black pen, so there would be no way to erase that grade. Instead, Donald pulled a black ball point from the pen-holder on the Lieutenant’s desk and slowly and carefully transformed the offending figure from a 67 to a 87. He considered for a second how easy it would be to change it to a 89, but he decided the risk of detection was not worth the additional two points.

Donald closed the grade book and put it back in the drawer where Teddy had found it. He then ran out of Lieutenant Drake’s office, hurried down the stairwell to the first floor and out the back door of Jessup Hall (so he would not have to pass through Jessup Quadrangle). Donald did not stop running until he was back in his room in the barracks.

Next Chapter: The Conversation