While life as a bias cutter was unappealing, I may not have been as ready for college as I thought. It is possible I was just too young (I was only 16 when I started), that Brooklyn College was academically too tough for me, or that at the time I didn’t have the slightest interest in pursuing my academic career. What I did have was an overwhelming passion for chess.
It is difficult for someone who has not been bitten by that particular bug to understand the seductive nature of the royal game. Life becomes chess, and its literature is sufficiently large to provide intellectual nourishment when not actually playing. Playing chess was definitely necessary to happiness. Instead of going to classes I spent most of my time in the “Classical Lounge,” playing chess against other lost souls in a comfortable setting to the accompaniment of recorded classical music. It felt a bit like Donkey Island in Pinocchio, but we were trapped, or at least it seemed that way.
There are some who are sufficiently bright, self-disciplined and emotionally balanced enough to handle both chess and an academic career. I wasn’t one of those, and it led to academic letdown, although not to expulsion. I just didn’t do very well, and knew that if I continued in this way, I’d flunk out. In a way, chess came to the rescue.
One of the unwritten rules of chess is that you don’t waste time, and after about a year, I did decided that college was a waste of time for me, and began looking around for some other option. The Korean War was winding down at the time, with endless armistice talks at Panmunjom, but it was definitely still on, and the government was offering inducements for joining the regular army, or joining as an early draftee. Like all young men at the time, I understood that I would be drafted if not in college, but since that was the universal fate anyway, it held no terror because not everyone went to Korea, and there was the promise of the G.I. Bill. Shortly after my 18th birthday, I presented myself to my local draft board, on Whitehall Street, where I was tested for all sorts of things, and was pronounced fit enough to join the army.
It was while at Whitehall Street that I got a hint that life in the army was going to be different. For the first time I met a couple of young men, brothers, who had grown up in Little Italy, not far from where I lived, who were totally illiterate. I didn’t understand how that was possible, but it was. As for me, I soon found myself on a bus to Fort Dix, the home of the 69th Infantry Division (the Fighting Irish), a vast army training facility in New Jersey. There would be no chess for me for two and a half years. Although I had opposed Universal Military Training on generally anti-militarist grounds, joining the military at that time was one of the best decisions I’ve made.