The Voice from the Tower
In the winter of 1964 it spoke to all of us, loudly.
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Sometime during the late Sixties I read about a war protester named Moyer. A few years later I read about a man named Moyer who helped develop an electronic device used on the rockets that landed on the moon. I am not at all sure they are the same man and in my rational moments I doubt seriously that they are. But if they are, then I am certain of one thing further—that man is also my Moyer, a reclusive and anonymous student who in the winter of 1964 found himself trapped high within a campus tower and besieged by the forces of technology and mass hysteria.
Although we both attended Rice University in Houston, then a school of fewer than 2500 students, I never met Moyer and never knew what he looked like. The only time I’d heard of him before the siege in the tower was during my sophomore year. Two friends and I had stolen some stationery from the student health center and used it to mimeograph a letter to all freshmen and sophomores. It requested that they appear at the health center at one o’clock the next Thursday afternoon with a urine sample “no less than 14 cubic centimeters in volume.” Just before 1 p.m. that day students started lining up outside the center. Most of the men carried their samples in Coke or beer bottles.
A few women did the same, but most of them were more circumspect and concealed their bottles or cups or whatever inside brown paper sacks. Several science majors, evidently wanting to be precise, brought theirs in graduated beakers from a laboratory.
At 1 p.m. the head nurse returned from her lunch to find a long line waiting outside her door. “What is this?” she shouted. “Who are you people?” They started shouting back at her and there was a confusing babble of voices for several minutes until someone produced a copy of our letter. “This is a fake!” the nurse announced. She threw the letter to the ground and stamped on it furiously. Then she spun on her heel, walked into the health center, and locked the door behind her.
Students in the line now began to feel how ridiculous they looked holding their little bottles. One student simply poured his out on the ground. It splashed on the pants cuff of someone near him who threw his sample at the first person’s pants legs. It soaked him but it also soaked another student standing nearby.
This student emptied his at the chest of yet another student who until that time had been only an innocent bystander. No one wanted any more of that. Men and women alike escaped by running in all directions with their samples held at arm’s length.
I had been watching all this with one of my friends from the window of a second-story dorm room. At the end, when everyone was running, he said, “There goes Moyer. Look! He’s holding his nose.”
He pointed and I saw the back of a red shirt disappear around the corner of a building.
“Who’s Moyer?” I asked.
“He’s this guy in my physics lab.” My friend shrugged. “All I know is he breaks the curve on all the tests.” But a look of malicious glee, unusual for him, appeared on my friend’s face as he talked. For the rest of the year he devoted himself to bridge, a passion he had always overindulged, and to practical jokes, a passion born, I’m afraid, with our urine-sample prank. At the end of that year he flunked out.
I didn’t hear the name Moyer again until January of the following school year, when first semester finals were about to begin. Finals Week always produced strange events. Rice was a difficult, demanding, and extremely competitive school where nearly all the undergraduates lived in dormitories on the campus. During finals the claustrophobic, pressurized atmosphere in the dorms became so intense that mass lunacy was the only way to relieve it. There were water fights, midnight football games, mob bellowings in front of the girls’ dorm, fart lightings, and worse. This finals period, during the winter of my junior year, the rage that swept the campus involved Moyer. I discovered, as the phenomenon ran its course, that no one I talked to had met Moyer or could recognize him or knew anything about him except this: Moyer roomed in a campus landmark known as the Will Rice tower.
Will Rice was one of five “residential colleges” on the campus, four for men and one for women. In most ways these were simply dorms with their own rooms, dining hall, and a private house, nearby where the college “master,” a faculty member, lived with his family. But the colleges were something more than dorms. Students identified very strongly with their college and rivalry was intense in activities from intramurals to parties to producing plays. The colleges stopped short of being fraternities, though, since freshmen were arbitrarily assigned to their college and it was, once assigned, virtually impossible to change. Still, over the years, each college had developed its own identity. In the conventional wisdom of the campus, the men of Hanszen, my own college, were supposed to be aloof and traditional; Baker, rowdy and contemporary. Wiess, ruled over by a tyrannical master who believed in keeping the boys in line, was like a black hole in outer space. It swallowed up its members and they were never heard from again. The men of Will Rice were supposed to be wimps. The Will Rice tower, a narrow, vaguely Spanish-looking structure of weathered stucco, was enshrined in campus legend as the monument to wimpiness. The higher up in the tower a student lived, the wimpier he was. Moyer lived on the top floor.
It’s obvious, looking back, that someone who knew at least a few things about Moyer must have started everything, but at the time it seemed to have begun, like spontaneous combustion, of its own accord. I remember walking back from the library late one night and hearing for the first time two or three isolated voices shouting, “Eat it, Moyer!” as loudly as they could into the cold winter air. I didn’t think anything of it at first, but during the few minutes it took to walk from the library to my room, several more voices had taken up the cry. I stopped on the sidewalk that ran alongside Hanszen, where a few small groups of aloof, traditional Hanszen men, about ten in all, had joined in the shouting. That was when I learned where Moyer lived—but, as always, that was all anyone knew about him. The tower, about 50 yards away across a grassy park, stood quietly in the darkness and seemed to be glumly enduring the shouting.
More and more people were joining in now. Every shouter tried to outdo the others, either by volume or by a rhythm and phrasing that would, they hoped, make their “Eat it,
Moyer!” distinct from all the others. This competition gave the shouting a momentum that tended to gather in new shouters almost in spite of themselves. It had been only ten minutes since I heard the first shout, but 50 or 60 students had already lent their voices to the cause. The campus was resounding with their cries, and this great ball of shouts, now that it was rolling, seemed capable of rolling over anything.
But the ball suddenly burst as if it had been jabbed with a nail. Just when the shouts had become the loudest and the most frequent, Moyer stopped them by suddenly entering the field with the loudest voice of all.
“Shut up, you guys,” he screamed from the top of the tower, “I’m trying to study!”
The campus fell quiet immediately and stayed quiet for the rest of the night. Moyer’s shout had been so overwhelming that it seemed impossible to mount another offensive in the face of it.
The students outside Hanszen and the similar groups that had formed outside the other colleges lingered for a while and then, one by one, went either to bed or back to studying.
The next night, however, it started again, just as it would the next four nights in a row. More and more students joined in and everyone had his own idea of how to shout. One student used a megaphone, some banded together in small groups to let out a series of loud yells, six men from Baker college formed a chorus and sang “Eat it, Moyer” as an a cappella fugue.
Very quickly an unspoken code of manners evolved. First of all no one ever knowingly interrupted another’s yell. The chorus took advantage of this rule unduly since frequently their singing would last five minutes, forcing everyone else to wait anxiously; but everyone did wait, and the end of the singing always signaled a flurry of rapid, frustrated shouts that burst out into the night air like hounds at last let out for a run. Manners also proscribed shouting anything other than “eat,” “it,” and “Moyer.” On the third night one overwrought junior, reeling from preparing for his nuclear physics final, let fly with a vibrating, “Eat it, Moyer, you pussy!” He was met with an immediate chorus of loud boos.
Generally things started about midnight and lasted for half an hour, until, finally, Moyer could ignore the clamor no longer and would let his shout, loud and thick and powerful, erupt over everyone like lava from a volcano. And then, silence. That was the third thing manners demanded; once Moyer had spoken, it was over for that night. This was, as things developed, the most important point of all. It was only fair, for each night Moyer’s voice drowned out all others. No matter what methods were used—chanting in unison, yodels, megaphones, hog calls, choirs—Moyer’s “Shut up, you guys! I’m trying to study!” was always louder, more powerful, met the yells head on and turned them back. He always, in other words, won. But after the third and fourth nights, though Moyer still won on each occasion, he won by smaller margins. The shouters were growing in numbers, their will was growing more resolute, the best shouters were banding together in packs, and Moyer, I thought, was beginning to weaken. Others must have sensed this weakness, too, for the moment the tide began to turn slightly against him I heard of a plot to finish off Moyer once and for all.
There was a junior electrical engineering student in Hanszen named Mike who had transformed his dormitory room into a kind of stereo lab where he designed and built his own equipment. One whole wall was nothing but amplifiers, pre-amps, tape decks, turntables, and various other devices with extremely technical and esoteric functions. Along another wall was his workbench—four long planks supported by two sawhorses and covered with thin plywood. On the wall above the bench, mounted on pegboards, hung Mike’s tools and cases of little plastic drawers which held capacitors, resistors, and other tiny electrical parts. Much of the floor was covered with spools of wire, spools of solder, probes, oscilloscopes, alligator clips, and a variety of mysterious instruments covered with dials. Mike had hung speakers from all four corners of the ceiling. They were aimed at a single point in the center of the room where he had a large overstaffed easy chair, a footstool, and a pipe rack. No one—this was 1964—had ever seen speakers like Mike’s in a personal stereo system. They were originally part of the speaker system in a small dance hall and Mike had made various improvements in them so that they reproduced sound with an accuracy and at a volume unattainable with ordinary equipment. Mike liked to lock the door of his room, load up a pipe, sit in the easy chair, put his feet on the footstool, and listen to Beethoven full blast.
He was short, stocky, bad-tempered and had made it clear from the day he entered school that he wanted to be left alone. He had a few friends with whom he discussed music and he indulged a few sycophantic admirers who were attracted to him since he made good grades and in some cases seemed to know as much about electronics as the professors. Otherwise he was a complete recluse. He regarded anything but study and music with contempt and usually remained aloof from any organized activity or pre-finals craze. But he turned out to be one of the earliest and most energetic shouters at Moyer. It was as if Moyer were to blame for everything Mike resented in the world and here at last was a chance to get back at Moyer for it. Mike became frantic about shouting, screeching away in his high-pitched, squeaky voice, muscles taut, neck red with exertion. And he was, of course, the one who initiated The Plot.
Mike had hoped to keep The Plot a secret. He enlisted the aid of two engineering students to help with whatever electrical work needed to be done, but he made them agree not to tell anyone what they were up to. I discovered the plot, not through one of the engineers, but through Harvey, a pear-shaped, baby-faced chemist, a year older than I, who roomed with Mike. Harvey and Mike weren’t so much friendly with each other as they were tolerant. They shared an interest in music and had personal habits that didn’t conflict and they roomed together for those two reasons. But they were essentially different people. Whereas music made Mike sink farther and farther into his easy chair, listening to music made Harvey want to go walk outside in the moonlight or pine away in loneliness beneath a tree. Mike was a misanthrope and Harvey, needless to say, was a romantic. He even fenced. He was surprisingly good, given his portly figure, and was dedicated enough to the sport to start a fencing club, get a coach, and hold meets. He liked to go to class carrying his foils under his arm. “I won’t have time to go back to my room after class,” Harvey would explain if anyone asked him about the swords. “I’ve got an important duel.”
Just then I ranked very high in Harvey’s estimation because one afternoon he had joined me at a large table of people eating lunch in the student center and I had happened to introduce him to a girl named Linda. Harvey came by my room that night, a fencing mask and two foils under his arm, to thank me for making the introduction. Without very much probing on my part, he revealed that Linda had long been the dream focus of Harvey’s moonlight walks. I didn’t say so, but I doubted that Linda spent much time in the moonlight thinking about Harvey. She was pretty enough to be a popular girl, which was a strike against Harvey since he was not so popular. Also, in spite of her clear skin and hazel eyes, Linda already had something matronly about her. She had slightly plump hips, a straight mouth, and a taste for plain dresses and bulky jewelry. I thought she was a girl who wanted to find, not romance, but a husband. And that was another strike against Harvey. Although he was all too much the husband type, nevertheless he wanted Love.
Harvey plagued Linda with phone calls until she finally agreed to let him take her to the symphony. The night agreed upon, a Friday, was the fifth night since the “Eat it, Moyer” craze had begun. Harvey had never understood what people got out of shouting at Moyer. The noise disturbed his listening to music, his studying, and his lonely midnight walks. “Who is Moyer anyway?” he asked me. “What’s he ever done to anyone?”
I said I didn’t know.
“I feel sorry for him,” Harvey said.
On Friday night, not long after dinner, I got a call in my room from Harvey. He was frantic. Something had gone wrong with his car and he asked if he could borrow mine. “I’ll bring the keys right over,” I said.
“Perfect. Thanks. If I’m not here when you come, I’ll be right back.”
When I got to the room, I could hear people inside, but the door was locked. I knocked loudly.
“Who’s there?” It was Mike’s voice.
“It’s Greg. I’ve got my car keys for Harvey.”
Nothing happened for a moment and I was about to pound on the door again, when Mike opened it just wide enough for me to squeeze by. Inside, the room was so heavy with ozone that my shirt immediately began crinkling with static electricity and my hair felt like it was standing straight up. Mike’s speakers, instead of hanging at the four corners of the ceiling, were now lined up on his workbench, which had been placed in front of a row of windows. The speakers were attached by thick wires to a group of malevolent-looking instruments with knobs the size of fists and huge tubes glowing vibrant red and yellow. Thick wires wrapped in electrician’s tape ran from these instruments to a portable generator near the opposite wall. Two engineers, one with an oscilloscope and the other with a soldering gun, stood waiting for instructions. “We’re gonna blast Moyer tonight,” Mike said. “Let’s get moving,” he snapped, and the two engineers jumped as if he’d been a drill sergeant.
In a few moments Harvey unlocked the door and came in. He was dressed in a dark suit, blue rep tie, wing tip oxfords and was carrying an umbrella. “Thanks,” he said when I handed him my keys. “I had to . . .” He was breathing heavily and stopped for a moment to catch his breath. “I had to get this,” holding up the umbrella, “from my car.” His forehead was covered with small beads, of sweat and his glasses were slightly fogged. He picked up the telephone and quickly dialed a number. “Linda,” he said, his breath still not under his complete control. “Listen. I’m sorry. I hope you’ll excuse me. I’m very sorry. But I’m going to be about five minutes late.”
Harvey’s wool suit crackled with static electricity when he hung up the phone. Thanking me profusely and explaining that since I had heard his conversation with Linda I would understand why he had to go immediately, Harvey put his umbrella under his arm as if he were carrying a sword and left the room.
“Is your mission accomplished?” Mike asked me as soon as the door closed behind Harvey.
“Yes,” I said after a slight pause. “I guess it is.” I hadn’t understood him at first. Mission?
Mike turned back to his tape deck. He and his two helpers worked on without paying any attention to me. I thought about staying there just to be annoying, but it was, after all, Finals Week, even if it was Friday night, and I had to study for my Saturday final. I got up and went back to my room.
As it turned out, Harvey did need his umbrella that night. By the time he was letting Linda out of my car in front of the girls’ dorm, a light mist was falling. They were both walking under the umbrella toward the dorm lobby—the closest he’d had the nerve to get to her, Harvey told me later—when the big blast came. It was so loud that even there, half a mile across the campus from Mike’s room, Harvey and Linda stopped in their tracks in amazement.
I had, for once, become more interested in studying that night than in shouting at Moyer. When the shouts began, I tried to ignore them and keep on studying, but that resolve passed eventually and I walked outside. In spite of the mist, large groups of students had gathered. Perhaps the weather had affected the general mood, for the shouting had a grim, determined tone. No a cappella choirs tonight. The shouts proceeded toward Moyer as relentlessly as an advancing army.
Every now and then I looked up at Mike’s windows. The four large speakers blocked my view into the room but I could see a thin strip of yellow light between the top of the speakers and the top of the windows. I told a few friends to be ready for something from Mike. The word spread quickly and now, between shouts, people looked anxiously up at Mike’s windows, over to the silent tower, then back to Mike’s windows.
The light in those windows flickered once. Simultaneously, the whole campus started to vibrate and “Eat it, Moyer!” in Mike’s voice—amplified to the decibel level of the apocalypse—rumbled forth from those four speakers. Glass shattered in several windows, things on shelves crashed to the floor, and those of us standing outside felt the ground shake beneath our feet.
Then silence. Everyone looked up at Mike’s windows in awe. The lights flickered again and a second time Mike’s huge “Eat it, Moyer!” rumbled out. We held our hands over our ears. It was so loud it caused pain, as if megatons of huge screaming bombs were dropping all around us.
Silence again. And this silence lasted. No one shouted at Moyer. We knew how ridiculous and puny our voices would have sounded compared to what had just come from Mike’s speakers. At first we looked away from Mike’s windows toward the top of the Will Rice tower, expectantly waiting to see what Moyer would do. But then, as the silence wore on, we began to wander back to our rooms. It was over. There was no point in our shouting anymore and there was nothing that could come from Moyer either. Moyer had lost and we had won, but the moment it was over we wanted it back again, the way it had been before.
And then, from high in the Will Rice tower, above the dark branches of the leafless trees, through the cool, misty January night, came a long, powerful shout. Moyer, during the silence, had evidently been gathering all his energy and will for one final, do or die effort. The result was not as rumbling and heavy as what had come from Mike’s speakers, but that last defiant “Shut up, you guys! I’m trying to study!” was clearly audible all over the campus, and took all of us standing outside by surprise. Moyer’s voice didn’t break windows or shake the ground, but it had more scope and daring and seemed to lift us with it. Mike’s big noise had had the rumbling of a bomber squadron, but Moyer’s voice was a rocket that arched over us and zoomed into space.
Harvey was still standing with Linda beneath his umbrella when he heard Moyer’s shout. It gave him new strength. “I leaned down to kiss her,” he told me when he brought back my keys, “and suddenly she was willing.”
He walked over to my window and looked past the supremely silent Will Rice tower to the skies beyond.