Many people talk about the “butterfly effect,” that phenomenon where a butterfly can flap its wings in Tokyo and cause a tornado to occur several weeks later in Tennessee. It was like that for Dexter and me. He flapped his wings and – eventually – I woke up.
As incoming freshmen at Oberlin College in 1968, we’d been randomly assigned to the same dorm room. We were like the Odd Couple. I had a job, and friends who lived off campus, so I didn’t spend much time in the dorm. Dexter needed quiet to perform his math calculations, so he was happy with the arrangement. At least I think he was. He never talked about anything personal.
Everyone on our floor thought Dexter was … well … different. They called him Poindexter behind his back. I had my faults, but being mean wasn’t one of them, so I just called him Dexter. But in my mind, when he was being annoying, I referred to him as Dex-turd.
Dexter didn’t drink, smoke, or swear, he had perfect attendance, and his grade point average was a solid 4.0. His personal hygiene was immaculate – he brushed and flossed three times a day. And he was very neat. Have you ever seen that commercial, the one with the egg and the frying pan that says, “This is your brain … this is drugs … and this is your brain on drugs”? Well, my side of the room looked like his side of the room on drugs.
Before I’d even moved in, he’d placed a strip of duct tape down the center of the floor space between our beds, and he never crossed that line, not even to pick up a stray dust mote. At first I thought it was weird, but eventually I got used to it. It was just one of Dexter’s many obsessions. I even helped him put a new line of tape down when we moved back in together as sophomores. We called it the Oberlin Wall.
On the night before my last day of sophomore year, I went to a party and got back around two a.m. I’d been dreaming about my childhood dog, Shaggy (who, in my dream, was named Jerry, had tie-dyed fur, and was flying around the campus quad) when Dexter woke me up.
“Rise and shine, roomie!” he intoned. “If my calculations are correct, you stand a fifty percent chance of being late for your last final. Or should I say, ‘your final final.’” That was Dexter’s version of a joke.
I opened my eyes a crack and squinted at my alarm clock, which I’d forgotten to set. It was 7:50. I had ten minutes to get to my Music Performance class.
I hadn’t exactly been cracking the books that year, unless using them as props to impress girls counted, so I was already on academic probation. If I didn’t get at least a C on my piano piece that morning, I could kiss my student draft deferment goodbye.
But my head was pounding from the mass quantities of alcohol I’d consumed the night before. I blurted out an expletive, turned over, and pulled my pillow over my head. Even so, I could hear Dexter’s voice slicing through the pillow.
“Roomie!” he trilled. “Do I need to remind you about your grade point average?” He sounded like my mother, if my mother had been a pre-pubescent boy.
“No, Dexter. I’m keenly aware of it.”
“And of the consequences of failing your piano performance?”
“And of our current international situation?”
I tossed the pillow aside and sat up. “You’re too late, Dexter. I’ll never make it there on time. Not if I want to floss my teeth, that is.” (Okay, I could be a tad sarcastic.)
Dexter sat down at his desk and started arranging his pencils in a neat row.
“You didn’t notice, did you,” he said.
“That your bed was made when you got home. Hospital corners.”
“Now that you mention it, it did look pretty scary. Who did it?” My mind ran to two or three of my former girlfriends.
“Yours truly,” Dexter said. “The mess was distracting me.”
I felt bad. I knew how hard it must have been for him to cross over to my side of the room. “Sorry,” I mumbled.
“That’s okay. I pretended that the Oberlin Wall was a booby trap. It’s good training.”
I tried not to snicker when he said “booby.” (Sometimes I could be a real jerk.) “Training for what?” I asked.
Dexter stopped arranging pencils and looked at me. “For land mines,” he said.
“Whoa,” I groaned. “Slow down.”
“My student loans didn’t come through,” he said, “and my mom can’t afford the tuition. I’m leaving school.” This was shocking news. He’d never mentioned his mom before, let alone any financial problems.
“And my birthday is December thirtieth. I assume you know what that means.” It was only May. I had no idea why he was bringing up his birthday already. And then I did.
“Wait … are you talking about your lottery number, for the draft?” I asked.
“Precisely,” he replied.
For some reason, I couldn’t remember his lottery number, even though he’d probably told me more than once. Numbers were his favorite subject. “What is it?” I asked.
“Three,” he said.
“Three?” I asked. “As in zero, zero, three?”
“As in you’re screwed three?”
“At least I wasn’t born on September fourteenth. Then my lottery number would have been zero, zero, one.”
“But I’m not going to be drafted. I’m sure of it.”
“How can you be so sure?”
“I’ve enlisted … in the Marines.”
“The Marines? Are you kidding me?” I hoped it was another one of his “jokes.”
“It was better than being drafted by a rigged system,” he said. “The drawing we were part of in December, 1969 wasn’t random. They just wrote three hundred sixty-six dates on pieces of paper, put them in capsules, and tossed them into a drum, one month at a time. By the time they got to December, those capsules landed on top. Then they didn't bother to mix the drum properly. The chances of the lottery being truly random are one in one hundred thousand. I’ve studied the statistics.”
“My birthday’s in December, too,” I said.
“I thought so,” he replied, “which is why you should get to class. What date?”
“The twenty-first,” I said. “I already know my lottery number.” Dexter consulted a chart on his bulletin board anyway.
“Let’s see,” he said, “your lottery number is … seventy … so the chances of your being drafted are …” – he paused while mentally crunching the numbers – “one hundred percent.” A chill ran down my spine.
Dexter looked at the alarm clock. “It’s now 7:55,” he said. “You have five minutes to save your student deferment.”
Vietnam. That was a class I hadn’t signed up for. I threw on some clothes, splashed water on my face, brushed my teeth, and ran out the door. But before I got to the stairwell at the end of the hall, Dexter called out to me.
“Aren’t you forgetting something?” he asked. He was holding my piano music in his hand and waving it. He must have crossed over the Oberlin Wall again in order to retrieve it from my desk.
* * * * *
I ran across campus. I knew being late for the final was an automatic fail. But luckily, my professor was late, too. We walked into class together, and even though my head throbbed with every note, I knew I’d aced the performance, or at least gotten a B. It was the best I’d played all year. Maybe I should play hung over more often, I thought. Or maybe the reason I’d performed so well was the pressure of knowing that if I didn’t, my future might soon unfold in grainy black and white footage on the evening news.
I had every intention of going straight back to the dorm and thanking Dexter when I ran into my friend Angelo in the student union. He was giving his sister, Connie, a tour of the campus, since she’d be attending Oberlin in the fall. The second my eyes met Connie’s, my headache vanished. She invited me to join them on their tour, and I didn’t have to think twice about it.
When I finally got back to the dorm, I was surprised to see Dexter’s mother there. He was already moving out, and she was helping him pack. No wonder he’d wanted to make my bed. His mom seemed nice, and she asked me to write to Dexter at boot camp.
“I’m so glad Dexter’s made a friend,” she said. “I hope you didn’t mind the tape,” she added, looking sadly at the floor.
* * * * *
Dexter and I exchanged a few letters that summer. His first letter went something like this: “There’s no duct tape in the commissary, but there’s a good supply of dental floss. The food is horrible, worse than at school. I’m not surprised that it’s served in a ‘mess hall.’ I’m learning a lot of new vocabulary like that. I can understand why a pen is an ‘ink stick’ and shoes are ‘go fasters’. But why is a wall called a ‘bulkhead’? It isn’t logical.”
His next letter was a little worrisome. “I may have miscalculated when I enlisted. Boot camp is loud and there’s no time to organize my things. But I’m excelling on the rifle range. I hit the bull’s-eye most of the time. It’s basically just geometry.” I swear I could hear his voice in my head when I read that.
A few weeks later, he wrote again. “It turns out I’m so good at geometry that they want to send me to sniper school in two weeks. I never considered that part of the equation. I haven’t been feeling very good about it, and I told my commanding officer. I also asked him for some duct tape. He said he’ll see what he can do.”
After that, Dexter and I lost touch. My last letter to him went unanswered, so I looked up his home address in the phone book and sent one there. It was returned in the mail, though, stamped with the words “moved, left no address.”
I thought about Dexter on and off the rest of that summer, wondering if he’d made it through sniper school and if he was already in Nam. I hoped that wasn’t the case. Dexter wasn’t cut out for combat. His weapon of choice was the slide rule. I kind of envied him – admired him, even. He knew what he liked, and he stuck with it, sometimes to a fault. I’d once asked him about the calculations he was always working on, and by the time he’d stopped talking, he’d mentioned the Fibonacci sequence at least five times.
I didn’t have anywhere near that kind of passion for my major. I loved music, but I hated the rigor of practicing every day. It was finally Connie, Angelo’s sister, who helped me discover my true calling. That day, as the three of us wandered around campus together after my piano exam, I got excited answering her questions about Mozart, McCartney, and Miles. I think that’s when I fell in love with her, and with the idea of becoming a music teacher.
When I returned to Oberlin that fall, I switched my major to Music Education. Then I got in touch with Connie, and we picked up right where we’d left off. With the weight of performance off my shoulders, I actually started enjoying my classes. The draft was winding down, and by the time I graduated in ‘72, they never got around to calling my number. I got hired to teach music at Oberlin High, and Connie and I moved in together while she finished up her degree. Three years later we got married, and three years after that we had our twins, Grace and Janis. Connie was a history buff, so for the girls’ tenth birthdays we took them to Washington, D.C. We visited all the usual tourist sites, but the one I was most interested in seeing was the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
The fifty-eight thousand names on the black granite slabs of the Memorial are listed according to date of casualty, and then in alphabetical order within that, so I had to consult a reference book at the site to find the name I was looking for. And there, among the Ds, I found it: Dexter D. Delacourt.
I’d never known Dexter’s middle name. Was it David? Dwight? Darryl? Realizing how little I’d really known about him brought tears to my eyes as I walked past the endless rows of names. When I came to the one I was seeking, I knelt down and placed my hand over it. But something was nagging at me. Was it possible that there was another Dexter Delacourt? How could I find out? Right then and there, I decided to persevere until I’d found the answer. As soon as we returned home, I got started on my search.
Google wouldn’t be invented for another ten years, so I had my work cut out for me. I started with the college registrar, thinking they might have a forwarding address, but they weren’t authorized to release one even if they’d had it, so they didn’t bother to check. I then tried the local post office, but that was a dead end, too. There was no forwarding address on file. Even the Oberlin police department couldn’t tell me much, except that he didn’t have a criminal record. I could have told them that.
Dexter might have moved anywhere, so I decided to broaden my search. His last address had been Cleveland, so over the next several days I called telephone operators in Cleveland and in every major city within a two hundred mile radius of there. I tried Columbus, Detroit, Buffalo, and even Toronto, always asking the same question: “Do you have a listing for a Dexter Delacourt?” Nothing turned up. But when I got to Pittsburgh, I struck pay dirt.
“I’m sorry sir,” the operator said, “there’s no listing for a Dexter Delacourt. But I do have a listing for a Gloria Delacourt.”
“Gloria?” I asked. My neck started to tingle.
“Yes, shall I connect you?”
I dug deep for a memory, and there it was: his mother, standing next to a packing box, with “G. Delacourt” neatly printed on the box in black magic marker.
“Yes, please,” I said.
The phone rang four times. I expected I’d have to leave a message, but then someone picked up.
“Delacourt residence,” a male voice said. There was no mistaking it.
“Who is this?”
“Who do you think it is?” I asked.
“The one and only. Man, you don’t know how happy I am to hear your voice.” My own voice started to crack.
“That makes two of us,” Dexter said. Always with the numbers.
“I’ve been calling all over, trying to find you. Can we get together?”
“Are you here in Pittsburgh?” he asked.
“No, but I’d love to come and see you. By the way, the operator said this was the number for Gloria Delacourt. Is that your mom?”
“Yes. I’m living with her for now, while I’m in school.”
“Wow. I want to hear all about that. And Dexter? I’ve got a question for you.”
“I may have the answer.”
“What’s your middle name?”
“That’s easy. It’s Euclid.”
“Yes. The father of geometry. My dad always liked math. He wanted me to be a mathematician. But I’ve decided to pursue a more practical career.”
“I’m studying to be a dental hygienist.”
The following weekend, I flew to Pittsburgh and visited Dexter. It turns out he was never sent to sniper school, or to Vietnam. After his commanding officer got to know him better, he referred Dexter to the psychiatrist there at the base. When Dexter explained some of his obsessions, including his absolute aversion to killing people, he was advised to apply for conscientious objector status. His application was one of the few that was approved, and he was reassigned to a noncombatant role for the duration of the war.
Dexter’s mom was as nice as I’d remembered her. She brought out the family tree and pointed out Dexter’s third cousin, Dexter D. Delacourt, the one whose name was engraved on the Memorial. He’d died a hero, she said. She also showed me Dexter’s grandfather, Charles E. Delacourt. “The E,” she said, “is for Euclid.” Then, looking at Dexter, she added, “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”
From my window seat on the plane back to Oberlin, I gazed out at the plane’s wing and thought about the butterfly effect, and how everything good that had happened to me could be traced back to Dexter. I returned home that evening feeling like a new man, content in the knowledge that I’d stuck to some things after all, and that in the lottery of life, I’d actually come out okay.
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