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The 42nd Floor

I WAS ONCE IN LOVE with my managing editor, but all she desired of me was that I turn in copy on time. On one occasion, as you shall see, I sneakily did not. My life was never the same again.

This is a tale of the later '60s and the follies of youth, a tale known in select circles as The Vietmanese Embassy Pepper Gas Fiasco. The memories haunt me to this day, and I've never eaten pepper since.

The year was 1969 and I was enconsced at an all-male college in Indiana. A would-be wit, I concocted verbal cotton candy for the daily campus paper, delivering finely honed froth twice a week to the managing editor Rosemary Richie, my unrequited love.

Rosemary Richie was enrolled at women's college a mile down the road. She was luminous, magnetic, both humble and hip, the star of our newsroom, and in the argot of the day --far out, out-of-sight. I was out of sight with her as well; she barely acknowledged my existence.

In that time of hyperbolic ebullience and change-the-world ardor, all of us on the newspaper were against the war. But Rosemary Richie was against it with a passion that glowed, not with crude slogans or changes, but with lucid moral intelligence.

A massive protest march, a moratorium against the war, was set for Washington, DC, that October, and Rosemary Richie, I knew, had been promised a ride-- with the usual campus pooh-bahs-- on Thursday night at seven.

But she missed that ride because a certain writer of marshmallow mirth just happened to be late with his story, knowing the newsroom ethics of Rosemary Richie would not allow her to abandon her post until all copy had been edited and approved for paste-up.

Wisps of smoke curled upwards from her ears when I nonchalantly popped in at 10:00. But I immediately assuaged her ire by then driving her myself overnight to Washington, as I had planned all along. Buy the time we reached Breezewood, Pennsylvania, she even uttered a word in my general direction.

The next day Rosemary Richie and I marched against the war. We marched to the Pentagon. We marched to the Tidal Basin at twilight in a radiant candle-held procession. The moratorium was then at a peaceful end, but my follies were just to begin.

Rumors rippled through the crowd of a spontaneous protest at the South Vietnamese embassy, and Rosemary Richie insisted we join in. And so it was we were soon standing, illegally, at the gates of the embassy, confronted by a rigid line of US soldiers armed with bayoneted rifles.

Now this was not my idea of a good time. My idea of a good time would have been attending the marathon Three Stooges festival in Georgetown that night. But Rosemary Richie calmly stood her ground, made her stand against the war. She reached over to me and held my hand. How could I leave?

Somewhere in the darkness a bullhorn pierced the air: "You have five minutes to disperse from this area!" There was a movement in the crowd. It diminished by half. Rosemary Richie, who had no intention of dispersing, squeezed my hand with determination.

Five minutes later it was eerily silent. More soldiers arrived, bearing ominous canisters. Protesters around us whispered knowingly, "pepper gas," and then bolted down the street: long-haired, love-beated Wile E. Coyotes.

And then it was I had my brainstorm. "Lie down," I directed Rosemary Richie, pointing to a frail willow tree outside the embassy gates. "Cover your head with your jacket." She looked at me oddly, the trusted my judgement. Peppr gas, after all, is a gas, I had reasoned adroitly. It will float up. By lying on the ground, we'll be able to breathe in a pocket of untainted air. it seemed, as they say, a good idea at the time.

Rosemary Richie and I lay prone clinging to the little willow as canisters of gas arched in menacing parabolas across the gates of the embassy.

Now, of course, the clouds of pepper gas did not float to the sky like helium-filled balloons, but held fast to the earth. And it began to dawn on me that my logic was not totally airtight, that my grasp of chemistry's laws was in need of work.

This occurred when I discovered, to my intense dismay, that my eyes were searing with pain, that I could no longer breathe, and that in a frantic attempt to do so I only inhaled more burning peper gas into my lungs.

I wish I could say that I rose to a moment of heroism, summoning reserves of mixie and pluck, rescuing Rosemary Richie from harm's way. But mostly I just wheezed in agony until a band of gas-masked protesters led us safely to the denouement of The Vietnamese Embassy Pepper Gas Fiasco.

Rosemary Richie and I returned to campus in seperate cars. I was never late with my deadlines again. But the nature of my writing changed, the touches of whimsy turning a darker, more satiric tone.

Tonday, 25 years later, I still think of Rosemary Richie and our one-and-only date. And from time to time I open a desk drawer in my home and gaze upon a memento of my youth, a twig from a fragile willow tree.


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