When Peter surprised me with a visit at home during the summer after our first year at Carleton College together, he still wasn’t sure whether or not he was going to come back to school for the next semester. And, as I drove him to the entrance to the Pennsylvania Turnpike, from where he hoped to hitch a ride to the midwest, Peter said he’d let me know what he planned to do… as soon as he knew what he planned to do.
After Peter’s happy surprise visit, the summer flashed by quickly and I headed back to Carleton for my sophomore year. On campus, I kept an eye out for Peter, but there was no sign of him. And a letter he sent me explained why. He wanted to stay on in Greenwich Village and become more involved with the folk music he loved. But he wasn’t counting college out completely; he just wasn’t “coming back for a while.”
My second year at Carleton, while Peter was strumming his banjo in the Village, was a lot less exciting and interesting than my freshman year, which I had shared with Peter.
But as I returned to Carleton for my junior year, I was greeted by a friendly, familiar figure—Peter H. Thorkelson! Peter was back! The year off from school seemed to have done him a great deal of good because he looked a lot happier and sounded a lot more mature than he had when I had last seen him.
He was a sophomore and I was a junior, but that didn’t change anything because he looked a lot happier and we both still lived in the same dorm—Benton Hall, the residence for sophs and juniors. And we had two courses together, French and Shakespeare.
Let me tell you about Peter’s room! It was on the third floor of the dorm, which was the top floor. Since he was right under the roof, his ceiling was sharply sloped and his room looked kind of like a wild attic. As ever, it was a cluttered room which contained more banjos than some music stores. The grooviest thing about the room was Peter’s secret compartment, which was tucked above one of the windows. It was in here that Peter kept all his treasures. And it was in this room that we had a lot of our long conversations, which I’ll get into later.
Peter and I studied together, but never in class. Only when we both were in a studying mood. We were only allowed three cuts in our Shakespeare class, and the prof warned us that anyone who took more cuts would have his grade lowered. Well, Peter had ten cuts and I had eight cuts. And we both had our grades lowered!
We doubled-dated a lot and went to lots of parties together. As a matter of fact one of the girls Peter dated for a while was Mitch Miller’s daughter, Margie. Carleton has a beautiful campus, with woods and a river not very far from the classrooms. And we’d often take our dates there, with a picnic and Peter’s banjo. I’d sing along with Pete, and we’d all sing, eat and talk a lot. Peter was very popular, and he was always comfortable and enjoyable company.
Peter joined Players, Carleton’s drama club, which he seemed to enjoy. In “Ulysses in Nighttown,” he played the demanding role of Buck. But, apart from this, Peter didn’t take an active part in the school’s extra-curricular activities.
As the year went on, Peter was maturing more and more. He was developing his private philosophy of education, which he could sum up very simply: You get a lot more from living than from learning. Living is learning. Peter thought the best thing about college was the bull sessions, the long conversations you could have with intelligent people about anything and everything.
During Thanksgiving, Peter’s younger brother Nicky came to school. And they had lots of funny bits between them. One afternoon, an older woman on campus pointed at Peter and Nicky and said aloud, in a nasty kind of tone: “Beatniks!” Peter slowly faced her and sweetly said: “I beg your pardon, madam, but we are violins!”
The school was located in one of the coldest parts of Minnesota, which is a wintery state to begin with. So we always had lots and lots of snow. And Peter knew what to do with it! He built lots and lots of snowmen. He loved to sculpt and build in the snow. The largest snowman I can remember was a huge 12-foot giant he made, the Jolly White Giant!
All the time, what Peter really wanted to be was a wandering troubadour—a singing minstrel roaming the world, playing his banjo, entertaining people and just being happy himself. He just wanted to go his way. These are feelings he’s never lost, and feelings which deeply reach into his role as a Monkee.
But that year in Carleton, Peter was a million light years away from being a Monkee. He was just a classmate of mine, who, like me, hadn’t studied nearly enough and now was going to be in trouble for our final. Together, we went down the index of books we should have read and blindly poked our fingers at four books. Each of us would read two books and tell the other about them. For some lucky reason, these four books were the major part of them exam!!
Again, as the school year was about to end, Peter was very unsure about his plans. His second year at school hadn’t changed his mind about basic things, as a matter of fact, if anything, it convinced him that his ideas were right. You could see him build self-confidence day by day. The summer sprawled ahead of us, and, again, he wouldn’t have to think about school until the fall.
I headed back to Pennsylvania, he headed back to Greenwich Village, we exchanged promises to keep in touch—and we both went off, not knowing if we’d see each other again.
Steve will continue his exclusive story MY COLLEGE DAYS WITH PETER TORK in the next outasite issue of FLIP! Be sure to get your copy on October 10th!