The '72 VW which did not appear in all versions of last week's issue.
On the Road With Readak, Part II
A well-known Chinese proverb states that “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” That’s about how far I was going to have to drive to get to my next assignment in Aurora, Illinois, 40 miles west of Chicago. A really big problem confronted me at the start, however--West Virginia and the Appalachian Mountains were in my way. I could have traveled north out of Virginia to Washington and then worked my way northwest along a series of interstate links until I finally caught I-80 and cruised into the Windy City. Instead, I decided to go south first, and then head north-northwest through the heart of the Mountain State. Bad idea.
When I left Christchurch early in the morning, the rain, which would last all day on the first stage of that thousand-mile journey, had started. Lao Tzu counsels resoluteness with his famous proverb. Take heart and be patient. And that’s surely what I needed as I wound my way along the twisting highway that followed the Kanawha River’s meandering course through part of West Virginia’s coal country.
Although I didn’t count them all, various shades of gray colored that winter day’s drive—the lowering gray of the looming mountains; the pale gray of the small, stark coal towns; the gunmetal gray of the river. Unfortunately, not once that dreary day did John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” pop into my head and lift my spirits. By the time I reached Huntington, at the state’s border with Kentucky, I was mentally and physically depleted. I couldn’t find the energy to begin the paperwork for the Christchurch students’ evaluations. Fortune smiled on me that evening, though: a PBS station broadcast a Great Performance’s production of Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull, starring Blythe Danner (the mother of Gwyneth Paltrow), Kevin McCarthy (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, 1956), and Frank Langella (Frost/Nixon, 2008). Remarkably, the rich, sad drama heartened me.
My idiosyncratic route got me to Indianapolis the following day. The final stretch to Chicago the next day only took a few hours, and I arrived in Aurora by the middle of the afternoon. Welcome to the frigid Midwest. Five inches of snow covered the ground.
On the fringe of Greater Chicago, Aurora is the second largest city in the state. A large part of its growth in the 19th century came from being part of the great network of railroads that fed into and emanated from Chicago. The Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad (CBQ) had extensive rail yards, a roundhouse, and locomotive shops in Aurora. That industrial and manufacturing center drew immigrants from many countries, more industries and businesses sprang up, and the town expanded and flourished for quite a few years. By the 1970s, the town was declining, however. The CBQ had merged with three other railroads in 1970, and most of its industrial complex closed. With that vital base gone, other factories and industries ceased operations or relocated. The northern lights of Aurora began dimming.
The lights were dimming all over America, for that matter. Remember the oil crisis of 1973? Attendant problems such as high inflation and unemployment affected the entire nation. A recession gripped the country.
My new assignment was at Marmion Military Academy, a school managed by monks of the Benedictine Order. Father Peter Rembert received me at Marmion. After we completed the preliminary interview, business protocols, and instructions, he extended the hand of collegiality to me. I was a rolling stone, but he invited me to spend my free time at the school in the teacher’s lounge. That was a first; it hadn’t happened at Riverside or Christchurch. The teachers were a convivial bunch, curious about the nature of the course I taught and the fact that I had come all the way from the Alabama, but didn’t sound like it. One of the English teachers befriended me, and we hit it off. As my stint at Marmion was ending, he invited me to his summer home in Maine.
The Catholic administration and the regimentation of the military structure made for an interesting combination of piety and discipline. Marmion was a big school, and my classes reflected that. Early on, I encountered a behavior problem in one of the afternoon classes because two of the cadets began cutting up after the timed readings. I found out in the teacher’s lounge that the cadets were well-known for having hyperactivity problems. Those were the days before Ritalin and Adderall came into widespread use (and abuse). In any case, the students dropped out of the course after a couple of weeks.
I didn’t have much time to find housing in Aurora, and I hadn’t asked Father Rembert for suggestions, so I ended up checking into the Galena Hotel in downtown Aurora. Bad move. It turned out to be a welfare hotel. It was kept clean by the owners, and there were no alarming incidents while I lived there, but the halls always smelled of cooking odors (most recognizably steamed cabbage), and the bathrooms had to be shared. My window on the second floor looked out onto one of the main drags of the city. It was noisy, gloomy, and lonely up there. Whenever I wasn’t reading, listening to my records, or sleeping, I avoided the place. The nearby Original Pancake House, with its many toothsome items, became a favorite refuge. I lingered, too, reading and eating, at a White Castle that was on my way “home.” Ah, for some Krystals! For another kind of sustenance, several blocks from the hotel, at the Aurora Public Library, I found brighter lights and a stimulating environment.
The cold weather, snow, and drab urban environment did not encourage much sightseeing, but Chicago was very accessible. I spent several Saturdays touring the city’s famous Art Institute and window-shopping at the stores of the Magnificent Mile.
With two weeks to go at Marmion, I was notified that my next assignment would be the Chamberlain-Hunt Academy in Port Gibson, Mississippi. Terra Incognita. Maybe I should be ashamed to admit it, but in all the years that I had lived in Alabama, the closest I had come to Mississippi was Florence.
As I headed almost due south this time, I left a vast metropolis still touched by winter and arrived perfectly in time with the blossoming spring of the small town near the Mississippi River that General Ulysses Grant spared from destruction because he deemed it “too beautiful to burn.” Spring seemed lusher in Port Gibson than any I had remembered. Nature poured forth her bounty, and I certainly appreciated it, especially at the nearby Natchez Parkway. Out there, with the full colors of the season on display, it seemed like the Garden of Eden. It’s only recently that I realized that I was probably reliving my early days in Darwin Downs, playing in the creeks and woods as a kid.
Port Gibson, first chartered as a U.S. town in 1803, had a population of about 1,500 people in 1975, most of them African American. It lay midway between its more famous neighbors, Vicksburg and Natchez. The town had been in the national spotlight in 1974. That’s when Robert Altman’s Thieves Like Us, a movie set in depression-era Mississippi, was released. He filmed much of the movie in Port Gibson and the surrounding countryside. It didn’t make much of a splash, and the town didn’t seem to gain much lasting financial benefit or celebrity from it. Main Street, the town commercial center, was close to being a ghost town.
I had a choice between two boarding houses on Church Street, the White House or the Davenport. The Davenport won; I can’t remember why. No meals were served there, and I rarely saw any of the other boarders. I think most of them worked for the Bechtel Corporation, which was building Grand Gulf Nuclear Station a few miles from the city. My room at the back of the house on the second floor would have been suitable for an interior shot in Thieves Like Us. It was a mite decrepit and had stains on the ceiling, but way homier than my room at the Galena Hotel. The Davenport’s backyard was pleasant, with lawn chairs for relaxing and enjoying spring evenings. One twilight I witnessed a glorious sight: an enormous flock of barn swallows spiraled down to their nests inside the defunct chimney of a nearby church. Out front, Church Street beckoned, and I spent hours walking and exploring Port Gibson.
Chamberlain-Hunt Academy, which could trace it history back to 1879, was a school in transition, trying to shed its identity as a military school and become more appealing as a boarding and day school. It was smaller than Riverside and Marmion, and did not have the elite credentials of Christchurch. For the first time, I was asked to give a brief address at the beginning of the spring session to try to drum up more students for the Readak course. I didn’t recruit any to my cause, but there were enough for two full classes. The school library became my classroom. The students were well-behaved and eager to learn. Their concentration (and my own) was sometimes strained by the history teacher in the next classroom; he often got excited and dramatic during his presentations.
I had not been shunned or treated coldly at the other schools, but at Chamberlain-Hunt some of the teachers and administrators invited me to their homes for dinner or parties and made me feel welcome—even though I did have a strange name. Good ol’ Southern hospitality!
The end of the school year approached, and prom time was upon us. Although I was on the periphery of such affairs there, they brought back memories of my own participation in those rites. Also, like the students, I looked forward to a summer of freedom and transition.
After nine months of lighting out for the territories, I had almost reached the culmination of the long journey. The primal forces of change and renewal working in me during my encounters with new environments and people had coursed through me. It was one of the most transformative periods of my life, only surpassed by my year as a soldier in Germany (1970), when I came to know my homeland better. This time I had come to know America better.
Epilogue: New Orleans was only about 200 hundred miles from Port Gibson, so it was easy for me to drop off my Readak supplies. After that it was finally time for some R&R. Laissez les bon temps roulez! Plenty of beignets, muffaletas, crab po’boys, and Jax beers were consumed. After I paid a short visit to my folks, I drove to Auburn. I still had some GI benefits left, I needed a place to hang out for the summer, and I thought I might jumpstart my thesis. It couldn’t be re-animated, but I did continue my scholarly pursuits. While visiting a friend at the Writing Lab, I met a comely young graduate assistant (from Decatur; I thought that gave me a chance with her). We carried on a summer-long flirtation, but nothing came of it. I heard later that she was the mistress of one of the English professors. I worked off my frustrations by learning to play racquetball and taking a yoga class.
Memphis, TN - For what it is worth, after over a year of having issues with uploading photos and other items to this web site, I think I have finally found a work-around solution to the problem. It's technical and a secret so if I tell you I'll have to kill you.
Speaking of killing. After a visit to my daughter's last fall and being asked to be a technical consultation on a post-apocalyptic zombie invasion book , I started watching "The Walking Dead". Yeah, I know...really weird. Anyway, thanks to Netflix, I have now gone back and started catching up on the episodes I missed prior to my current viewing.
Although it has nothing to do with zombies, my thanks go out to Rainer for his submissions about his post-Lee life and the trials and tribulations he faced during that time period. Many have expressed how much they have enjoyed this series. Should any of you want to submit similar articles, please do so.
Another highlight of my week was the email from Max Kull, LHS '67, which you will read about below.
An Excerpt from 'When Our Hearts Were Young"
(Editor's Note: We celebrated Spring Break this week back in 1964. Not having the money to go to Florida, two of my buddies and I went to my parent's houseboat on Lake Pickwick instead. Below is an account of that day back then.)
(The 1964 original journal entry.)
Monday, March 16, 1964
76th Day - 290 days to follow
Got up around 9:00 A.M. Troy and I cooked breakfast then cleaned up. We fished a while then went boat riding. We chased sea gulls in the boat. Went back to the boat and played records till lunch.
After lunch we did some more fishing. Paul and I both caught one crappie each. Troy didn't catch anything. We ate supper then got in the car and went riding. We went to Savannah, Tennessee and rode around there then went to Little Andy's - a store. Came back to the boat then.
We played Rook till 10:00 P.M. then fished. Troy fell overboard. He changed clothes then and fished a while longer then we went to bed. Earlier Troy tried to drink a little bourbon we found on board and it made him sick. He can't hold his liquor.
(The 50 year reflection on that entry.)
The temptation of finding a bottle of bourbon to a teenager on Spring break without adult supervision is usually overwhelming, especially if the goal of the trip is to have a good time. Troy found that it was not such a good idea and paid a minor consequence. Unfortunately for others such a temptation comes at a much higher price. For me, there was no temptation. I grew up in a drinking family and was constantly exposed to opportunities around my house, but I did not take advantage of it. I also grew up in a house where I saw the real consequences of drinking has upon individuals and families.
I don’t like drunks of any sort. I have been around all types, and I don’t care if they are sad and crying, fighting or sleeping, or laughing and making a fool of themselves, I don’t like to be around them. My mother and father both were more than social drinkers many times when I was growing up. It is odd but I have found that people who grow up in a drinking household take one of two paths, they either drink because that is what everyone does, or they do not drink because they know what comes from it. I saw the tears and the fights when I was very young, and I suppose that is why I never wanted to become a drinker myself. My brother was not the same, so I guess there is no rational reason behind it, except for the will of the individual involved. To me it was just like smoking. I have difficulties being in a smoking environment and had many miserable days with what was probably an allergy to cigarette smoke. Most of my life living in the same house as a smoker was filled with runny eyes and sinus problems, sometimes severe and almost incapacitating, but as a child I had no options. The same goes for the drinking. I had no control over whether or not my parents and their friends drank, but I have the freedom of choice for myself and I choose not to smoke or drink. Perhaps I’m just playing my part as an Eagle Scout.
When I wrote “A Million Tomorrows” in 1988 I still did not drink. I am now 67 years old, and I can say I have never been drunk in my life. I have a rare occasional sip of wine, like during a wine tasting at a winery or on a cruise, but I do not enjoy hard liquor and never developed a taste for beer. I always thought it was odd for people to have to develop a taste or disguise the taste of alcohol with fruits and juices and other items to cover the taste of the alcohol. I love the taste of a combination of pineapple and coconut juices; so today, if I want that taste in a pina colada I just ask for a virgin one and enjoy the taste without worrying about the effects or potential dangers of alcohol.
But it was Spring break and we were alone, so Troy thought he would try it. It was his choice and not mine.
Raiders of the Lost Photo Chest
(Traveller Sports Editor)
I have a box of photos that were "liberated" from the journalism storage room in May 1967. A lot of those were from prior years. There are more that I haven't scanned yet.
Here is one of them. Can you identify the people and the setting?
From Our Mailbox
Subject: Speed Reading Course
Rainer’s enjoyable reminiscence about teaching a speed reading course reminds me that some external agency offered a speed reading course at Lee (during our senior year, I think?). I probably wouldn’t have signed up except for the fact that they offered a free case of Cokes to anyone who achieved a reading speed of 1000 words per minute. As I recall, the articles were 2000 words long; if you read them in 2 minutes and answered all 10 multiple-choice questions correctly, you got a reading speed of 1000 wpm. But if you read the article in 1 minute and got half the questions right, you still got 1000 wpm. That was the key. As Rainer says, the articles were general information, Reader’s Digest-type articles; if you already had the slight knowledge of the subject, you could usually skip the article entirely and still get half the questions right. So David Bess and I quickly collected our case of Cokes (I think some others did, too), but that was all I got out of the course.