Memoir of an English Major, 1964-66:
University of Illinois, University of Connecticut
by Randall A. Wells, Ph.D., December 2016.
In 2008 Wells retired as Professor of English & Speech after teaching at Coastal Carolina College/University for about a third of a century. PO Box 175, Floyd, VA 24091. email@example.com.
1. University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign, January 1964-May 1965.
Raised in Glen Ellyn, a suburb of Chicago, I retired to Floyd, Virginia in 2008. On a day between those two times, in January 1964, the stubbled black fields of Indiana passed outside as the James Whitcomb Riley rolled from Cincinnati toward Chicago.
The dining car table beckoned with a glittering coffee pot, a linen napkin, and a plentiful breakfast both displayed and covered in enough silver to supply a year Lone Ranger bullets. Quite a change from the overnight trip from Knoxville, where I was the only passenger on the L & N carriage and tried to sleep in fetal variations on the double-seat. Also quite an upgrade from two years earlier, when I was riding trains from Amritsar to Calcutta, the dining car a knapsack.
So I had already fractured my college career by taking off the sophomore year to travel. Now in the middle of the my junior year I was transferring—from Maryville College, affiliated with the Presbyterian Church of the USA, 800 students—to the University of Illinois, 27,000 students.
My first Sunday evening at the U of I, I showed up at the Presbyterian Church in Champaign, where the son of an administrator at Maryville College was a minister. The youth group welcomed me to its supper-and-social, an event so enjoyable, so effective in splicing my old and new lives, that I never had to go back. Other reasons unknown, although it was a long, dark, cold hike from Urbana. Nor did I ever attend worship services again in the twin cities. Apparently my spiritual journey had come to the railhead–like the train to Erzerum, Turkey, but with no sleigh-runners to carry me farther.
My brother found me quarters in a retired doctor’s office at 803 W. Nevada, where a former high school classmate was moving out mid-year. I lived free of charge or refrigerator in exchange for shoveling, mowing, and vacuuming as well as running the Dalmation on the streets of Urbana. Upon first settling in there I was dismayed to learn that the drug store on the SW corner of S. Lincoln sold an open-faced turkey sandwich for $1.07. I ate it slowly while listening to Al Hirt toot “Java.”
The adjoining towns of Champaign and Urbana were full of slush and Dutch stumps. My girl friend was back in Tennessee, although I did have several pals at the U of I. Despite the social vacuum, I immediately enjoyed academic stimulation: Shakespeare had been born 400 years earlier, and I joined the celebration by taking a course in his plays. Now that world marks 400 years since William’s death, and girlfriends are grandmothers, I offer this memoir–as a year and a half of birds turn page by page in the library’s Audubon folio. It is a tribute to my English professors along with some glimpses of one student’s life outside the classroom.
All of my teachers were men, usually young. Most of my earlier professors had been women, including one who taught me for four semesters and remains my favorite teacher. Of course the predominance of males at the U of I seems hard to believe from the perspective of 2016, as does the near-absence of African Americans among the students. But as a sign of my appreciation for these gentlemen, I remember all their names.
My Shakespeare teacher was Mr. John Gabel. He had olive skin, a dark suit, a certain gravitas, and a new plan: “I want you to read these five plays over and over again.” The idea appealed to me for its emphasis on textual scrutiny. Over Memorial Day weekend of 1964 I read Othello for the fifth time in my narrow room—when pentameter and reader blurred to a mystical unity. I also remember staying after class in Lincoln Hall to hand him the outline of a revised conclusion to Measure for Measure, a more consistent one than in Shakespeare’s “problem play.” He read, returned, and seemed to appreciate it. Once I asked him where he had gone to college. “A little school in South Carolina,” he replied with self-deprecation: “Bob Jones University.” At the time the place meant nothing to me but later I felt surprised that what I regarded as a provincial, Christian-fundamentalist school had produced someone who taught at a major, secular university.
That semester I took a nicely alliterative course, Blake and Bronte. Mr. Craig Snyder (or Snider) explored their works from the perspective of Carl Jung. The prof seemed tightly wound, an intensity reflecting a passion that students could well value. He sometimes propped his foot up on a chair as he smoked (if I remember correctly). Once he declared that a certain word in a poem made him imagine running down the street (naked?) and yelling “Screee!” For some reason the notes in my small volume of Blake are written in pink with a fountain pen. I memorized a poem by Emily Bronte while riding the Illinois Central from Chicago to Champaign but now remember only the attempt. Another example of my memory-atrophy:
So much depends/ on the red wheelbarrow/ covered with moss/ and in garments green.
Twice an acute pang of loneliness in the former medical office caused me to slam a book shut, leave my dried-sausage-and-knife on the desk, rush out the door, and wander around campus. One gloomy day I was walking aimlessly around Urbana trying to come up with a rebuttal to Zeno’s Paradox. I recognized a fellow English student who was entering a house and invited me in—to the home of a professor, a Mr. Wilkie, and his wife. The hosts seconded the invitation, and I enjoyed tea poured from a silver service, maybe a glass of wine, all in a genteel brick home with a living room crowded with friendly students.
That summer I took an uncompromising eight-weeks course of non-dramatic English Renaissance Literature. Blue volume, poetry; red volume, prose; paperbacks Courtier and Prince; all still on my shelf. The classroom was a rather small, quiet, cool enclave. Mr. Burton sat in front of the class, facing leftward at a right angle to the rows, put his feet up on a desk or table, loosened his tie, and talked in a blend of rumination and seance to which we were privileged. He seemed to draw inspiration from above while looking at the ceiling. I myself was in a bit of trance at the literature and expertise. Once in the laundromat I read and re-read Elizabethan love sonnets, hypnotized as my clothes tumbled, tumbled in cross-rhyme through the dryer window, pentameter diameter, sugared shirts, socks fourteen.
I think that same commercial building on S. Goodwin was owned by one Bud, who also owned a Plymouth Fury and was said to go to Florida during the winter. In his small restaurant many a hamburger and sundae were served to me by Challis, my main female company in the absence of my highly-missed new girl friend back in Glen Ellyn. During those maple-leafy monastic months, I stayed in a rooming house along W. Oregon and on its sleeping porch frequently cuddled with insomnia.
Although I never attended a basketball game, I once allowed the “Oyster” to close upon me and Nancy Wilson, a famous singer. I did go to one football game when my girl friend’s father drove her and free tickets down from Glen Ellyn. Although I don’t remember the contest, my eyes still widen at a figure that burst onto the field: escaping gravity, he whirled feathers and laces as he continually bent over and back up while swinging a tomahawk, all the time duple-drum-pummeling the turf with his boots. But as for the university’s tribal pull, I settle for a departmental appreciation.
Mr. Howard Cole taught what might be called Shakespeare First Half. Once I accompanied him down to his office and wondered if I’d find my way back, or if I’d run into Julius Caesar, toga-poked on the nearby stage. Mr. Cole was a tall young man with serious glasses and a power-briefcase. He explicated each play with clear organization, thorough knowledge, and forceful delivery. All the more incongruously fun when he imitated the mechanical exposition of Italian plays by taking the role of two maids: “Dust, dust, dust, Fact, fact fact.” I remember his indignation at Jacques, whose jaundiced summary of human life is undercut by the sight of Orlando carrying Adam, the venerable servant, to safety. In 2013 my wife and I saw a production of As You Like It at the reconstructed Globe Theatre, from which I sent Mr. Cole a post card. Around that time he and I also enjoyed a back-porch reunion, for he shares a property line with my son-in-law’s parents in Champaign, where he lives under the name of Howie.
Mr. Millett, who taught Victorian Lit, was a dapper gentleman of utter competence. The sole event I remember, though, was disappointing: he asked if anyone knew the name of the physical sense invoked in a certain poem, I did—having learned it in psychology class: kinesthesis. Too bad I couldn’t extricate the word out of my memory. Tess’s letter also got caught—under the carpet; Dorian’s portrait got stuck on beautiful; and Randall’s vaguely unsatisfying personal life got boost a from his major in English.
Mr. Robert Haig was an ideal teacher of Eighteenth Century Literature. He had a measured delivery punctuated by dry wit. Lucky was the student who heard him recite this mechanical chiasmus with no inflection: “Sophonisba, O! O, Sophonisba!” He presided over the small amphitheater, where my brother sketched him: somewhat ample, suited, and bit owlish. As a welcome surprise, Mr. Haig became my teacher again in a Dryden seminar at UNC-Chapel Hill. A year afterward he expressed pleasure when I hosted a reunion of the seminar members.
Having moved to a boarding house, The Browery, I was reading a collection of 18th C periodical essays when the phone rang. I stood up to talk with a fellow student and was unable to remain upright. Turns out that I had ruptured a lumbar disk by carrying someone’s suitcase—ironically, full of books, some meant to be digested, etc., but that many meant to be wheeled the length of the Illinois Central Station.
Mr. Scouffas escorted students on a tour of the American Novel. His theme was “The Flux of Life”—i..e., the challenges presented by events to human integrity. A side-note about change: he did have a female graduate assistant to help grade papers, but she was the only woman I knew of on the staff. Autres temps, autres moeurs. Most of the fictional protagonists were male, too, except for Sister Carrie, who rolled her wheel over Hurstwood. I remember reading The Ambassadors and slightly confusing the upright and cultured Strether with Mr. Scouffas. I also remember reading that novel in the Student Union as “The Girl from Ipanema” walked along the juke box beach.
Mr. Brian Wilkie (we met again) taught Romantic Poetry. He always took photos of his classes for his records, so on one print I am sitting between two young women. He was a fervent teacher, curly of hair and fortyish. I keenly remember some of his observations. In Rime of the Ancient Mariner, the sermonette about loving “all things great and small” may partly sabotage the fantasy. In “To a Skylark,” the line “Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought“ is concessive. Sentimentality can mean an emotion disproportionate to the cause, or not having to pay for the emotion. I read The Prelude twice (a commitment that adumbrated my reading aloud of Paradise Lost, which I accomplished in my Master’s Degree trailer at the Univ. of Connecticut.) Both times Wordsworth’s travelers passed the summit of Mt. Blanc while still imagining it to be higher. My own vision was disappointed when my paper on The Prelude got a C+. As soon as I walked into Mr. W’s office, he raised it to a B-. My thesis: Wordsworth’s fund of allusions and metaphors were constricted because they ignored prosaic, workaday life. My concern probably reflected a familiarity with unskilled labor. I’m not sure what Mr. Wilkie’s objections were, but I got a B as a student and he (in my opinion) an A as a teacher.
Mr. Milo Kaufmann taught Practical Criticism, a phrase that in those days meant formal, structural analysis. I leaned toward that approach and enjoyed writing papers on a novel, poems (one anthology was called The Stuffed Owl), essays, even an allegory, Pilgrim’s Progress. From my front-row vantage point I could look up and see this thin prophet as he almost leaned over me with blue eyes under bald scalp. His contempt for soap operas: “When do they even give you one spark of illumination!?” On nature: “When do people ever look at the sky anymore?” I learned that a line of poetry is not transformed–a word he uttered with a spiritual zeal–if a line failed to reach true poetic intensity. For example, if the knight merely rides off the snowy cliff or wherever chanting “Excelsior!” Once Mr. Kaufmann held my paperback above the class like a priest displaying the host as pages were dropping from E.B. White’s Second Tree from the Corner: “This is how a book should look!” He invited our small class to his house for a picnic supper, a welcome gesture, especially because we could visit with actual children.
Perhaps with Bunyon’s inspiration, I ended up writing my Ph.D. thesis on allegorical plays before Shakespeare. About ten years ago I secured Mr Kaufmann’s phone number from the English Department and gave him a thank-you call (which included an “Excelsior!”) I learned that he had a deep faith in the promise of heaven and hoped that I did, too. Strangely enough I ended up writing an overtly secular ebook that draws on Pilgrim’s Progress. In a chapter on proprioception (a near-synonym for kinesthesia), it notes that Bunyon enlists that most earthly of senses to allegorize a spiritual journey. Christian stoops under a heavy burden (of sins) from which he eventually gains release (by Jesus). (Angel in Goggles: Earthly Scriptures—Amazon.com).
A few times after Mr. Kaufmann’s class a few of us adjourned for a few beers at one of the TGIF venues. Happy times for the English tribe. I was lucky to have several buddies and even attend the weddings of two of them in 1965.
In that last spring semester, “Rocky” Fumento taught a Short Story seminar. A couple of students were dauntingly talented. He allowed two or three students to take off for a couple of weeks to help register voters in Mississippi; they returned to tell about dropping to the car floor when a police vehicle appeared. I remembered rising from my seat at a lunch counter in Maryville, TN, in support of a black man who felt it incumbent not to be recumbent. But my social action had limits. I followed a zealous student to the Unitarian Church (foreign to my upbringing) and ended up joining something called SNCC. We had to link arms, rock, and sing “We Shall Overcome.” Wasn’t sure who was We or What we were overcoming but probably got my name on a governmental list. In a local version of Mississippi’s Law and Order, the group next to my doctor’-office apartment, an agricultural fraternity called The Farm House, was infiltrated by the FBI.
In Mr. Fumento’s genial around-the-table class I did receive praise for a character sketch of a pal, a younger student who lived in the same boarding house. In another exercise I described a scene that was supposed to invite a narrative: i.e.,pleasant activity in Chicago’s Burnham Station. (Correct name? Located south of the Loop on Michigan Avenue, it was probably replaced by consolidating tracks to Union Station. And it offered a connection between the Chicago & North Western Railway and the Illinois Central (as well as between a lovely young woman and Kankakee.) As to my scenic exercise, someone asked why I described the children as black. “Well—I guess because they were.” Also because African Americans didn’t yet exist. My grade in the course arrived on the final paper as a double-underlined Solid B. My career in fiction-writing seemed dark and stormy. Unhappy, drifting, I visited a military recruiter for information about Officers Candidate School. For some reason the card of inquiry was returned by the post office, a sign that “Lieutenant” was not an address I should ever hear.
I talked to one professor about getting an advanced degree in Comparative Literature but was warned off: “It seems that the prominent figures in that area have names like [here insert an imaginary, hyphenated, Czecho-Ugarian surname].
Once more to the Oyster. Adlai Stevenson, former Governor and presidential candidate, honored students by speaking at the Honors Convocation. Our graduation speaker was chief of the Atomic Energy Commission. He reported that, according to a study, no one ever remembered the name of the graduation speaker. I vowed to do so: Killian. No other memory of his speech.
My boarding house itself, like some of its occupants, would soon make a racket as it fell into dump-trucks, along with Bud’s Soup of the Day sign and his clothes dryers, to make way for a monumental arts center.
I may have had an unusually profitable nine English courses. Certainly I don’t remember being bored, confused, mistreated, or unchallenged, and I would be excited about the challenge of reading the same material again. Although not particularly happy, a good student but not great, I celebrate the memory of both Taught and Teacher.
2. University of Connecticut, August 1965-August 1966.
This recollection includes excerpts from the author’s journal, a powder-blue notebook with a white UCONN on the cover. About half of what it records the writer does not recall.In late August 1965, a Greyhound rolled along the Pennsylvania Turnpike from Chicago to Hartford.
This was the same highway I had ridden four years earlier as a hitchhiker in a moving van, when my high school pal and I took off our sophomore year in hopes of traveling around the world. An account of this undertaking helps compose my e-book, Angel in Goggles: Earthly Scriptures (Amazon.com). By coincidence, one chapter owes its title and epigraph to May Days, by Samuel F. Pickering, Jr. a former member of UConn’s English department.
Next to me on the bus rested a bottomless paper bag of sandwiches made by my mother, and in the cargo area rode a trunk, suitcase, and guitar. I would be working on a Master’s Degree in English after graduating from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Sitting next to me was a fellow who was returning to duty on a submarine, a claustrophobic prospect that made me uneasy.
Yet I myself was bound for a metal capsule, a shabby old house-trailer. It sat in a field on Hunting Lodge Road, about a half-hour’s walk from campus. A person could almost reach into the kitchen from the living room, could easily pass through the study (a built-in desktop) only by sashaying, and, could sleep only atop the rise between two yellow swales left on the mattress by earlier sleepers. The toilet and shower occupied the same cubits. But the place was blessedly quiet, unlike dormitories or rooming houses.
Somehow I procured some groceries, including a quart of Narragansett Beer, whose geographical reference escaped me but whose aroma would even now transport me to that exciting first day. Although I had visited New England a couple of times, I still expected Pilgrims—but got Italians. My fellow students hailed from all over, including California, Michigan, and Texas. (This memoir will avoid naming students just to be safe.) One fellow who became my buddy was a linguistics student from Poland. In the office for graduate assistants, I spied a desk reserved for R.A. Wells, an exciting surprise. “Must have been for my GRE scores,” I told someone. No, must have been for R.A. Wells—i.e., Reuben Arnold or Ruthie Ann.
I had wanted to go East for graduate school as an adventure, and at a Christmas party in 1964 a former high school acquaintance, Linda Yuccas, recommended the Univ. of Connecticut. (The first female to receive a Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of Connecticut, she died this year.)
So I found myself being driven to Manchester, Connecticut, by fellow English student from Iowa. “Show me your majahrity cards,” demanded the bartender. Not possessing such documents, we returned to the drought of Tolland County. (This fellow was triply unusual among my classmates because he had a teaching job, a spouse, and a house.) When one or two people referred to “Yukon,” I thought, “Huh?” As for the Housatonic Room in the student union—the name of a rocket ship powered by hair oil?
Waiting a few days for school to begin, I picked up Faulkner’s Absolom, Absolom! to earn an indulgence. But I found myself laboring to translate the first page. “Hey,” I thought: “I could go to New Jersey!” So I hitchhiked to Manchester, somehow got to the New Haven train station, then boarded a train to Manhattan. There I had to trace an underground labyrinth of temporary walls to reach the next railroad. I didn’t realize what was happening until this year, when I read Old Penn Station (by William Low) to my grandchildren. A second train took me to Trenton, home of a lovely young woman I had met at my first college, Maryville, in Tennessee. This was the first of numerous jaunts from the Island of Storrs.Mr. Hemphill, my advisor, complimented me on the range of courses I had taken. “Often students come here with a focus on one area.” My three courses that fall semester were equally engrossing and taxing. Mr. J.A.S. McPeek taught Myth and the Bible in English Literature. A gentle and grandfatherly man, he was known for being Scotch with the grade of H (honors). Mr. Carlson, a tall gent who taught American Literature, spoke with New England accent and had an expertise in Poe. Mr. Kenneth Wilson, a dynamic engine that started with a Phi Beta Kappa key, taught a weekly seminar in the history and structure of the English language. He once reported hearing a person speak French and deducing that she came from a region of Indiana. (A few years ago I offered to give the UConn library a book in his honor, but the shelves already held A Practical Grammar, by S.W. Clark, 1869.) As at the University of Illinois, all my teachers were male.
The weather still warm, I moved a chair to the concrete platform beside the green trailer and studied a long workbook on phonemes, points of articulation, …. A chicken would occasionally pay a visit, one of the relics from the former coop next door, now a chain of small apartments.
At that time there was a small reserve room in the library, where the word Prolegomenon in a title seemed to mean “grad school.” A new invention had just become available: a Xerox machine. Students would stand in line and pay a nickel a page for someone to make a copy. The library was a welcome social center, for I was reading, writing, or listening seven days a week when I wasn’t walking or riding my second-hand bike to campus or occasionally partying or traveling. Often I would seek shelter and company in the Campus Café, a large basement where “regulah” coffee meant with cream, and where Bob Dylan would croak-croon on the jukebox.
Social life was always iffy because I had no vehicle and, unlike some classmates, no room in a residence hall. So one Friday night early in the semester I was cheered when a guy from Tennessee agreed to pay a visit. But he phoned to bail and I fought disappointment by picking up a book as well as the guitar, and our paths never again crossed. Another student, by contrast, began taking me to the grocery store in his car every Thursday, a good turn that relieved my Mother Hubbardry.
I was also grateful when a few students in a weekly seminar went out afterward to the Iron Horse Restaurant bar in Willimantic, but that venture became desultory. My journal insists that we would also patronize the Italian Garden but I have no such garlicky memory.Thinking back with the help of blue UCONN, I wonder about the romantic dimension of any graduate school. How sharply it contrasts with the study of language and literature! For do the pleasures of the latter, however engaging,
I love this guy! [Emerson]
ever make the heart race, turn cold, break out in a love-song of unknown language, or ache when the doctor is the medicine? After several months
I can still taste her lipstick.
On the other hand, do erotic relationships, and probably human relationships in general–event-rich but plotless, heavy-on-character, vague-of-theme, often messy, often unrequited and guilt-tinged–not make the fixedness of poetry, plays, essays, and linguistic theory more welcome?
I can’t believe the thrill I get from studying grammar books. The order and complexity described are so rich.
I stayed in good shape by riding my second-hand bike or walking, and in fact a couple of years later, a doctor asked me how I’d gotten such strong legs. Again they took me through the Manhattan partitions to New Jersey, where I stayed with my friend and hit the rails to Philadelphia for the wedding of a high school classmate.
On October 22, I invited a charming freshman girl to walk with me from the campus to the trailer. She was one of several UConn students I’d met through my parents’ friends in Westport, Connecticut. As we made our way along Hunting Lodge Road at dusk, a pumpkin flew out of a pickup truck and turned to shards and pulp on us:
Got me [partly] in the crotch, her in the knee [after it ricocheted off me as I turned]. I’m still recovering, physically & emotionally. My hatred for the guys is canceled out by my relief & thankfulness that she wasn’t hurt. We slumped together & held each other up while falling on each other.
An embrace that illustrated irony of expectation for Randall, who, to make things worse, never saw her again. (This event comes bitterly to Randall’s mind during his conversation with Angel Unfaith, Angel in Goggles.)
A painless misadventure occurred on Tuesday, November 9. The bare ceiling-light- bulb of the trailer flickered, turned brown, and went out. I got on my bike and rode a half mile to the house of Mr. Holinko, my landlord. Complaint was met with observation: “Our lights went out, too.” Soon we learned that the campus was dark, then New York City.
After the Great Blackout, electricity returned to power my lamp—and to illuminate the voyages of Arthur Gordon Pym, Odysseus, and William the Conqueror. My nightly company: fair and tender maidens, a horse named Bill, and John Henry as I sang to the guitar. I often stayed up longer than the radio, which was tuned to “The Harley Jazz Show” in Baltimore, its theme song “Waiting for the Robert E. Lee” (steamboat). Tacked up near the radio was a miscellany that included only one item that I remember: a newspaper photo of Peggy Fleming.
My little kitchen stove heated its umpteenth pot of Mrs. Grass’s noodle soup (with “magic button” of liquid). Once I indulged in the luxury of tapioca pudding, but I dumped the whole box in rather than a half-cup or whatever; after trying to save the concoction by frying it, I ended up throwing the wasted starch, milk, and sugar into the pasture. On campus I typically fed body and soul on a hot cheeseburger-with-pickle-and-ketchup served on a toasted bun. In fact I may owe my career to the Housatonic-burger. Once in town I introduced a visiting linguist, Margaret Schlauch, to the “grinder.”
During the year General Maxwell Taylor spoke to a full auditorium; asked (by Professor Rosen of the English Department, I think) what he would say after bombing everyone in the country, he replied, “Crime doesn’t pay.”
My torch-of-truth journal reports that many a night that school year was devoted to partying with friends. I don’t think I ever drank by myself, but I didn’t have to. Once I was invited to dinner by a woman and her roommate—a completely happy, laugh-filled vacation from turning pages and punching keys on the portable. We vowed to get together again but didn’t.
Luckily I had neighbors. Unconnected with the university, sisters next door occasionally invited me over for supper. The fiancée of one, Alan, who worked at the drugstore, became my pal; Karen became more than a sister to me. In the next apartment down, a likable divorcee and I studied together a few times, and her son of about eight years old enjoyed the company of a fun-loving dad, who would take him on walks and roughhouse with him, the grad student grateful for a rare connection with childhood.
Of course I enjoyed the company of students as we chatted in the classroom or library. One high point: in Mr. McPeek’s class, assembled around a seminar table, I told a joke inspired by our subject-at-hand, and as J.A.S. laughed, his eyes sparkled over half-moon glasses. But my most faithful companion was Orion, who watched over me from ever-changing vistas around curves past the bare hardwoods.
Tonight I was depressed by the stars.
During the year I saw a few plays and movies, usually with a date. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf remains one of the most powerful dramas I’ve even seen. Watched maybe two TV shows with neighbors. Saw a soprano jolt Victor Borge off his piano seat. Worshiped at the Episcopal Church only once, a sign of my growing agnosticism.
For Thanksgiving I traveled to my uncle’s place and was perhaps one of the last people to ride a train from Wilmington to Seaford, Delaware. On the way back I imposed on my Trenton friend and relished being in a home and with a family—parents, sister, brother. This may have been the first trip when I carried an empty guitar case when hitchhiking, having learned that a guitar, even imagined, gets rides, even from a housemother at the university.
I continued to walk, cycle, or hitchhike to school, sometimes a headlight-dodging trudge, sometime a cause of exhilaration:
Exciting Linguistics class. Various dictionaries. On way back, sky intensely blue, tower of library gold—only [i.e., except] with texture, not shiny only. As I walked, I watched the spaces [in the tower] move & the sky behind them. It was as if I were looking at the pure idea of sky! And of space! And of volume! Cold winter day plus blue sky—utmost purity and intensity and clarity around the tower.
One day my unasked-for, red-faced robust condition must have led Mr. McPeek, as we chatted through his open door, to declare, “You’re a manly sort of fellow.”
School continued to be as stimulating as it was demanding:
I can hardly believe that in Ovid is the story that Jupiter was sick of mankind’s worthlessness and that he sent water over the earth—“Parnassus alone, of all the mountains overtopped the waves, and there Prometheus found refuge—he a just man and she a faithful worshipper of the gods”! I can’t believe it’s so close to the Biblical story and that I have never heard of it.
I remember that Mr. McPeek took on the problem of Christian themes that are parallel to classical ones: “One way is to see the older ones as prefiguring the later” (approximate words). I also remember that he complimented me on the poem I wrote about the pumpkin fiasco, which I handed to him because of its mythical reference. Another time he complimented my apparent robustness.Winter stomped snowy boots onto the platform. When I got a second kerosene bill for $66, I phoned to see if it was a mistaken duplicate for the previous load. No. (At this time a bus trip from Chicago cost $49.35, according to a ticket taped in the journal.) The window-frame in the living room had sprung, so a few times during the coldest weather I had to drag my mattress to the floor by the couch and lie with my head toward the heating stove; then after a while reverse position to warm my feet; back & forth.
A dark night, biting wind, road and fields without people and overhanging black trees, make me seem a helpless prey to the uncaring unmoving power of nature. I think of Lear in the thunderstorm.
Chronology is vague here, but I skipped going home for Christmas in order to study for final exams and finish a paper on Icarus for Myth and the Bible.
R. Wells by trailer with bike and marble machine (?). Christmas vacation 1965. Photo by Joy.
Instead I was able to spend a week with my parents’ friends in Westport. A blessed family ambiance as well as a reviving stupor-string of movies on TV, plus more reading about language.
Making my way to Washington, D.C., I found the Library of Congress closed on New Year’s Day. So I phoned the parents of a Maryville College professor and wangled an invitation to dinner at their home, where we all seemed to welcome the occasion. Back at the Library the next day I found material galore on Icarus for a paper that, had it been as good as it was long (I suppose) would have received an H.
The final exam for English Language was a take-home. Determined, I continued writing long after the Robert E. Lee had docked, and to rest my back I occasionally lay on the floor of the study and bent my legs over the seat of the chair.
Finished my Linguistics final. Typed all night. Slept today. Did a good job. As I wrote [my brother] I was delighted to see how precisely I can think—after all! Worked 8 days straight. 29 pp. 11 questions. It was the most finished product I’ve ever done—a pleasant departure, since I’m deficient in finishing products….
My friends and I joked about the resemblance of my trailer to a streetcar. We founded the Streetcar Society, to whose members I sent a letter recommending that we buy the unit:
- It is equipped with both a front and rear door, facilitating entrance and exit, and both on the curbside, of course.
- It is wood-paneled from floor to ceiling.
- It is restroom-equipped.
- It is telephone- and radio-equipped.
- It is divided into three parts, ready-made for first, second, and economy class divisions.
- It contains an excellent heating system—simple, yet adequate. We would probably have to screen from passengers’ eyes the Campbell’s Soup can which collects excess kerosene.
Winter continued its ministrations on Hunting Lodge Road.
January nineteenth. Last night I went to bed at 11:15. No kerosene yet—and then the gas [?] stove ran out. Br-r-r. Between the cold & the worry about my back—I guess it couldn’t recover from the all-night typing, ‘cause I slept on my sides all scrunched up ‘cause of the cold—and other things that worried me, I stayed in bed for 12 hrs w/out a decent sleep. Perked up after a fun time in the library—so nice to go there & wave at people & sit with others—and then after a big dinner in the Commons with 2 men in my Linguistics class—we had a fun professional talk. Then [a female student] met me at the library and we studied for several hours. Oh—I was trying to sleep and the gas flame got bigger & bigger–& crack! I was looking at the inside of the UConn library—I had been dreaming for ½ hr and my folded arm fell off the desk & my watch hit & made the noise.
I invited The Girl to study at the trailer, drove her in a borrowed car, and fed her steak purchased with borrowed money.
Mr. Wilson called my Linguistics paper “Very handsome [….]. And if you go on for your Ph.D–which I hope you do—“ Mr. Carlson gave me an unimaginably high grade on my Thoreau-Emerson paper—H-. Called it “an outstanding paper.”At semester break I flew back to Chicago on Mom & Dad Airlines, then flew back in time for a course entitled English Grammar:
During the previous month had come an announcement: anyone interested could take a weekly night-course in Hartford from the author of our linguistic textbook, H.A. Gleason, Jr. Oh, Randall! Wheel-less in winter! Things started off OK when a friendly stranger offered to take me to Manchester on his motorcycle, but after a couple of times he explained that he wouldn’t be going there anymore. For a couple of times a fellow Gleason-grammarian drove me from Hartford up the interstate to the UConn turnoff (on his way back to Annhurst College in S. Woodstock), but he quit the course. So my ritual became (1) get to Hartford, (2) treat myself to a meal at a restaurant (waitress Lucille), (3) hike to the Hartford Seminary Foundation, (4) Somehow get back to my mattress escarpment.
Went to Hartford for class. Fascinating bus ride from Manchester to Hartford—bus driver talking with people. Exciting, colorful walk to class, over 2 miles. Afterward, ‘cause my ride wasn’t there, I lucked out & got a ride to an exit on Wilbur Cross then the rest of the way with the man who picked me up last week.
While hitchhiking, I would hold out a black notebook with a white UCONN decal. Once a man in a Dodge Dart picked me up at the junction of the interstate and the highway toward Hunting Lodge Road. Was I mistaken but did he not stare at me under his brimmed hat? And was his expression not predatory? At least he took me all the way back to the trailer. Another time I couldn’t get a ride from the city and had to phone my dear classmate and her boyfriend to ask for a ride.
Besides my linguistic course, I now took Milton (a combination graduate and undergraduate class) and Modern British Novel. The latter was taught by the genial Mr. Moynihan. One night he entered the classroom pleasantly disconcerted because he had just been named chair of the department.
A few of us started going out after the Novel seminar. Unfortunately I had a class the next morning at 9, so a couple of time I was absent because of the famous prevalence of malt over Milton. One night I wandered from my trailer into the woods, where the misty tangle of trunks led me to run back, round up my guests, and take them to this mystical vision. It had disappeared and they put me to bed.
A thoughtful acquaintance gave me another kind of help. “Men usually don’t care about cooking spices,” she explained, and helped me buy and store an array of them. Strangely enough, for a couple of weeks Milton was my most dependable company, for I read aloud the entire Paradise Lost as recreation—the orotund, labyrinthine-Latinate blank verse echoing from the cheap orange panels. About this time I began to realize that I would and should become an English teacher.
February 25, about midnight. Well, I’ve read over 3,500 pp on language since September.
One Sunday morning Jimmy came over for a visit and we ended up laughing wildly as we roughhoused on the mattress I had parked in the living-room. A knock brought silence. Still on my knees, I reached up to open the door—and behold Mr. Spooky Hat, who looked in, drew a conclusion known only to himself, and bade us good day.
I got a Milton paper back from Mr. Wilkenfeld with the underlined comment “Horrible pun!” Shocked, I re-read a sentence declaring that to regard L’Allegro and Il Penseroso as a matching pair of rings does not wring the most from them. Blush. Ever afterward I have tried to be alert to the sounds of prose. Coincidentally, Mr. Gleason recommended that we collect examples of any linguistic phenomena that interest us. My scrapbook collects examples of communicative noise provoked by a word’s unintentional echoes; corpus and analysis to grace my website. Possible title: “Plastic surgeon uses cutting-edge techniques.”
I missed an entire evening seminar of British Novel because with a car borrowed from Linda I had served dinner to a young woman (one of the Westport students) and could not give her up. The small sofa barely held the three of us—i.e., figuratively including her boyfriend, who was somewhere in the military. So she and I enjoyed a gourd-free, talkative, affectionate time that was never to be repeated.
I certainly did not miss a class trip to the home of Rex Warner, author of one of our novels, The Aerodrome. (I would miss only one class during my later two graduate schools–ironically because the only time I drove to campus instead of walking, I couldn’t find a parking place.)
[Married pal:] “I can take a big town, maybe, but I can’t take no town at all.”
In March I got a letter from a friend-back-to-grade school, Merry, who was serving in the Peace Corps. From Costa Rica she reported an example of the era’s shaky relationship between student and soldier. Most of the P.C. males, she wrote, will have to finish their terms, “say hello to Mom, & run out the door to begin the fall term at school.”
During spring vacation I made my way to NYC. Somewhere on a busy major highway I was hitchhiking from Hartford but nobody stopped for 75 minutes, so when a mushroom-delivery truck pulled over, I ran with too much panicked speed and fell onto the top of my head. Same yellow sun-like flash that I had suffered in Iran when, after climbing a knoll to view the sunset, sick and unable to sleep, I fell on the way back to the disabled bus. The injury scared me (and my head ached for a week), but I was also concerned about my safety in the hands of an exhausted driver, who kept reaching his arms through the steering wheel and leaning his chin on it. (A vivid memory, but my journal reports the forgotten time when police took my thumb to a bus so I could get off the highway and to a train station.)
In Brooklyn I shared a Passover dinner with my amiable classmate and her mother. That weekend I was standing on a corner in Manhattan when who should wave at me but a classmate, who took me to his family’s flat, and then drove me all the way back to campus.
Jimmy & I rode bikes up the road, then played around a new construction spot, jumping off dirt hills, etc. I threw him 10 times into a hay hill & he loved it.As summer neared, I ran out of money despite a loan I had taken out from a bank in Illinois. Also despite an amazing tuition subsidy sponsored by the U.S. government. This time I walked to campus in search of a job, and found one as a dishwasher. My fellows were the full-timer and amiable Curly, who could whip silverware into the right slots before I could even grab a spoon. And the boss, Mary, who scolded me for taking out a book at a slow moment and, when I retorted that I had nothing to do, discovered pots that needed scrubbing. For several months I would cycle to campus twice a day, receive trays through the portal, dump the leftovers on a rubber collar, etc. I sort of enjoyed the change from written to sensory: images, steam-food-clunking smell-sounds, weight of trays and silverware…. Plato’s cave-like antithesis to the Reserve Room. The only contretemps occurred when I leaned against the wall with a book during a slack time. “Don’t ever read on the job!” I bristled at Mary, the supervisor, who seemed to have an animus against the intellectual life as well as malingering. “I wouldn’t if I had something to do!” I made an immediate acquaintance with dirty pots as I scrubbed them in the kitchen.
Worked 9 hrs today in the dishwashing room & other parts of the cafeteria. I ache all over. But refreshing to be a producer rather than just a consumer—and to do such practical work! …. I saw [name] in line tonight at the cafeteria. I whispered to Gerty (through the square opening between the kitchen and cafeteria) not to serve her. G winked. I could see the girl but kept out of her view. Gerty turned and winked at me again as the she approached. Finally I got the signal & stuck my smiling face out—there she was, non-plussed, having been told, “You know I can’t give you any food.” When she saw me, she burst out laughing.
Once Alan and I drank and sang to the guitar on my patio-platform. Then the same classmates came over who had rescued me at a gas station in Hartford. It started drizzling so we made a roof out of shower curtains hung over the clothesline and sat on chairs under blankets while we continued to sing & sip. Joined by my neighbor, Karen, we got cold and built a fire on bricks laid on the grass. Finally we took a walk on the cement company’s arc of a road behind my place. The middle of night saw us adjourn.
In May the news came that a member of my high school class, a handsome football player, later a center for the University of Illinois team, was “cut down by bullets” in Viet Nam. Those of us who regarded it as both a tragedy and an omen spoke of his death with abashed disbelief.
Just walked in the balmy scent-laden air with my old man friend. He’s 69 today. He doesn’t speak English too well, but I gather he’s bored. “Get nervous,” he said […]. I think our walk was fun for him. He gave me an apple.
I am sorry not to remember this person. Am I now someone’s old man friend?
At the end of the spring semester my pal–who had driven me to the grocery store and rescued me while stranded in Hartford–took me all the way to Michigan with a stop at his grandmother’s house in Pennsylvania. He gave a hostile honk at every Catholic school and a whimsical one at every road-kill. From Ann Arbor the loveliest of friends drove over from my previous memoir and took me all the way home.
There I finished a paper on Ford Madox Ford, having received an extension from Mr. Moynahan. The typewriter threatened to catch fire and the front porch to collapse under the weight of my derivative analysis. Decades later I would borrow more creatively in Angel in Goggles; two of its chapters begin in a comparison-contrast way, like the first two volumes of Parade’s End.
Once again I was busing down the Pennsylvania Turnpike as if in the movie Groundhog Day. Soon my native-neighbors drove me from Storrs to the (overcrowded) beach in Rhode Island. They became such good friends that I found myself asked to serve as the best man.
Summer brought Shakespeare (McPeek) and Lit Crit (Mr. Jack Davis). To vary an anti-drug ad: “This is your brain on books.” One day J.A.S. referred solemnly to the recent event in Texas. We students gave each other blank looks but soon learned that a man had shot a number of people from a tower at the University of Texas. Other than that event, the “conflict” in Viet Nam was what intruded more and more upon the world of academe.
I’ve just finished (4:20 a.m.) my best product as a Master’s Degree candidate. A twenty-five page paper (“Responsibility in Henry V”) which took me two weeks straight to do. I’ve done very little but work on it—including very little other coursework.
I remember that Mr. McPeek’s explained “special pleading” to us; another time reported that the celebrated critic George Lyman Kittredge looked like King Lear. Once I was in the drug store when he walked in to claim his New York Times. “He’s all right,” said Alan in a complimentary tone. I waved to J.A.S. a few minutes later on my bicycle as his car stopped at a light.
I’m reaching the saturation point. Don’t believe I’ve ever worked so hard as the last two or three weeks, or as this summer […]. Trying to rest my eyes, still sore when I woke up this morning after reading so much yesterday: 3 acts of Othello, all of King Lear and A Winter’s Tale.
The trailer was hot and smelly.
I’ve got sunglasses on and a cap shields the tops of my eyeballs from the bare bulb, and I’m about to read “Great Creative Nature in The Winter’s Tale.”
I did get away one more time when a generous classmate drove me up to the home of another in New Hampshire. Happy visit, Trailways back as I craned to glimpse Mt. Monadnock, seen only in a geography book at the Univ. of Illinois.
I hosted one last bash to which Dionysius himself was invited. But the next day I had a bad headache and, moreover, on the spur of the moment I found myself offering hospitality to people visiting my absent neighbor:
I enlisted the aid of Maria (my landlord’s daughter) to pick up the beer bottles I had rolled down the length of the trailer in a fit of abandon. I hid the depravity-laden ashtrays & turned on the fan to get rid of any beer smells.
One afternoon in the Campus Café I gave myself a little push to be courteous to a student whom I barely knew. “Ask him about his job search,” I told myself. He reported an opening that he planned to refuse. With his permission I applied for it, and with good fortune got it.
My paper from J.A.S. came back marked HP or HP+—but with a carefully erased spot above it that you and I know had borne a single capital letter.
Then I failed my oral examination. The two frustrated professors vowed to eschew this exercise forever and as a compromise gave me a softball question about Shakespeare to answer with pen and paper a few days later. Walking back humiliated, I asked…. Had I run out of kerosene? Had my memory of American Literature been screened by the leaves of long-ago autumn? Had the Hartford course been adequately tapped? Why could I not explain the virtue of transformational-generative grammar? (Years later I carefully over-prepared for the Ph.D. oral exam.)
At the end of August, Alan drove me to Bradley International Airport with a gigantic cardboard box full belongings sticking out of his car’s trunk. The airline employee did concede that the company’s advertisement allowed one cargo-piece of any size. Now the jet tilts dramatically upward as it hauls my clock, radio, clothing, typewriter, in-case guitar, handsome briefcase given to me by Karen, and books that included Absalom, Absalom!, still un-deciphered.