Return with us now to those halcyon days of yesteryear, to the autumn of 1960, when men and women now turning 50 appeared on college campuses all across America to begin their freshman year. Picture the University of California at Berkeley — ”the Little Red Schoolhouse,” according to critics, and a favorite target of failed presidential candidate Richard Nixon, but better known at the time for the prowess of its athletic teams (two Rose Bowls out of the previous three in football, consecutive NCAA championship games in basketball, and one of the best baseball teams on the West Coast). Zoom in tight on Pi Kappa Alpha, the jock house among Cal fraternities in those days, and check out five of the new pledges — a linebacker, a tight end, a wide receiver/defensive back, a shortstop, and a misplaced engineering major nicknamed ”Piss ‘n’ Moan” by the brothers during Hell Week. They were middle-class Californians, handsome, talented, and intelligent every one. Golden boys, you might say. Wonder what ever became of them?
Such are the ingredients of Larry Colton’s engaging, compulsively readable Goat Brothers. Inspired by Loose Change, Sara Davidson’s highly successful 1977 book about the life and times of three Berkeley sorority sisters in the decades after graduation, Colton’s account is part autobiography, part memoir, part elegy, and part befuddled inquiry into what went wrong between the men and women of his generation.
Actually, of course, things were never quite so wonderful during the Ozzie and Harriet years as everybody pretended. Loren Hawley, the defensive back, had an abusive, alcoholic father and a domineering mother he was determined to escape. Linebacker Steve ”Wrong Way” Radich — so named after an early adventure driving eastbound in the westbound lane of a freeway drinking a bottle of champagne — had a teenage wife and child he kept hidden from everybody, especially the sorority girls he relentlessly pursued. Tight end Ron Vaughn had taken his own infant son from its mother and dropped the baby at a hospital, claiming to have found it on the street. But the big secret Vaughn had left home in Los Angeles was that he was a light-skinned black who was ”passing” by joining a fraternity with a racist charter.
Indeed, for all the evocative detail with which Colton remembers the period, there’s little nostalgia in his view of the time. He recalls the casual racism, the frat-house ”gang bangs,” and the back-alley abortions too. Then came the ’60s — the Cuban Missile Crisis, the assassination of JFK, Vietnam, and, at Berkeley in particular, the Free Speech Movement and California gubernatorial candidate Ronald Reagan’s describing the campus as a symbol of ”drugs, sex, and treason.” Two of the brothers served in Vietnam — one as a Marine, one (future astronaut Jim van Hoften, a.k.a. Piss ‘n’ Moan) as a Navy pilot.
But outwardly, at least, the changing times had little impact on jock houses like Pi KA and their recent alumni. Author Colton, who switched from shortstop to pitcher in college, considered throwing raw eggs at Vietnam protest marchers as a means of keeping his arm limber. A spell in the minor leagues and a wife with ties to the counterculture, however, changed his attitude. ”If the Pi KA’s were anti-intellectual,” he notes in his witty, offhand style, ”the Macon Peaches were anti-brain wave.”
Although two of these fraternity brothers went to Vietnam, all five of them fought and mostly lost the marital wars of the ’70s and ’80s. No wonder, since they appear to suffer from a surfeit of testosterone. Even Colton himself, relatively sedate amid his compulsively womanizing chums, can hardly describe a woman except as a ”perky blonde” or ”voluptuous stewardess,” or as looking like ”the end product of a San Diego eugenics program.” Not that the women in question can lay claim to any moral superiority. Even as they settle reluctantly into middle age, the aging hunks of the Class of ’65 don’t seem to have to work very hard to keep their love lives in constant turmoil. Goat Brothers can’t help reminding readers, jocks or not, what a long, strange trip it’s been — as the Grateful Dead used to sing back when it was only getting started. B+