The Smartest Kids in Town

There were four high schools in my hometown but only one was really hard to get into. You had to be somewhere around 90% in math and reading to even get considered. I couldn’t get past the math, although I did take the test. My brother got in on his second try and soon found himself in a very special tribe.

Two of his classmates, David Goldwasser and Sam Levine, were my age; David and I had been in the fifth grade together at Leal. Those two were probably considered the brightest in the class, but those dudes weren’t just about brains. University High had long been the local punching-bag in sports—it’s players known derisively as the “Uni Punys.” But when my brother and his friends started winning track meets, those words rang hollow.

Uni High was really an Ivy League prep school plopped down in the middle of the corn fields. They staged elaborate Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, which provided an opportunity to showcase their voices. Tim Peltason was one of the ringleaders of this tribe, for sure. He’d grease back his hair and do amazing Elvis impersonations. He rounded everybody up one summer night for a long car-trip to see Johnny Cash perform live in some fairground in Southern Illinois. That’s Paul on the left and Tim on the right in a photo I took in 1967 (above).

Everybody knew these guys were the smartest kids to come down the pike in a long time, and many of them were expected to go on to great things. They really dug soul music and would venture into the North End to buy blazing hot barbecue sandwiches, the only white guys in the joint.

On New Year’s Eve 1967, they wanted to throw a grand party. Sam was transferring to Harvard in the Spring. (Sam still holds the record for youngest person ever admitted to that school. He’d already skipped freshman year of high school, and was now skipping senior year.) Of course, the gang wanted alcohol at this party, so, in his wisdom, Paul negotiated a deal with my parents. It ended up, Paul was given a gallon or so of lab-grade alcohol to make punch with on the condition everyone spent the night and especially that nobody drove a car that night.

Today, my Dad would go to jail, but it just shows the immense confidence and respect this tribe had generated with the older generation. They had located a huge six-bedroom, completely-private house for this party, so everyone could crash there, which turned out good because there was a huge snowstorm that night. When I found out about the alcohol, I convinced my brother to let Larry and me dress-up as high-class servants to serve the punch. Paul thought that was a great idea, especially after we showed him the marching-band outfits we’d just stolen out of a closet of a church on Green Street.

Larry and I got quite tipsy and had a wonderful time that night; it was probably our introduction to the positive side of alcohol. (The first time I’d been aware of people getting drunk I was in fourth grade and it scared the shit out of me. I fled that party and hid in my bed and started crying. I just wanted my 16-year-old cousin to stop drinking because I didn’t like the changes I was seeing.) The climax came when one of the hotter girls in the class began weeping hysterically. I guess news had gotten out that young Sam Levine was upstairs in bed with another girl.

“They are forsaking all human dignity up there,” sobbed the girl.

I was thinking,  “She’s upset because it’s not her up there, right? Otherwise this makes no sense.” I drunkenly bolted upstairs and peeked into the room but couldn’t see anything as they were buried under covers. “Shut the door!” yelled Sam. If not for all the interruptions, Sam might have lost his virginity that night.

Larry was way ahead of the rest of us in this regard, having lost his virginity in Baltimore at 14 or 15. He had a remarkable rapport with the opposite sex and wasn’t very choosey. He liked girls of all sorts and flirted continuously. I could see how having him as a sidekick might be an asset.

One last note about Davy. When he left town, he gave my brother his cushy weekend job at the News-Gazette and my brother handed the gig down to me. I didn’t know it at the time, but the publisher was a lover of Johnny Roselli, an enforcer for the Chicago mob who managed the Hollywood-mob connections. At the time I was a junior copy boy filing the AP wire tapes, and I had no idea Roselli was coming into town for liaisons with my ultimate boss at the paper, Marajen Chinigo. Today Sam is a world-class sax player in Nashville, Tim a leading Shakespearean scholar, Paul a biochemist, and Dave is famous because his son co-founded MGMT.

They  just held Unistock, a 50th anniversary celebration near Woodstock. Sam brought his sax and blew the roof off while Davy sang and played keyboards.

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