Category — Memoir
At 3 Rue des Saints Pères on the Left Bank, Maman became a renowned art dealer during and after the war. She was heartbroken when she had to sell the gallery in 1946 when we moved to Larchmont, New York.
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PARIS ART GALLERY
At the end of summer 1941, having left us in Brittany under the kind auspices of the Mother Superior and her flock of devoted nuns, my parents continued to live in occupied Paris in du Plessix’s grandiose apartment on the third floor of 6 Rue de Longchamps, facing the quiet sloping street in the front and the busy courtyard in the back.
Maids and cooks would dump their garbage in dark gray bins and take time out to chat, their voices echoing around the walls past the sixth floor up to the clouds. Rubbing their chafed hands on rough cotton aprons, they complained about everything, compared notes about their employers, commiserated about their own families far away in the country, and then went back to their jobs.
Free of children or housekeeping responsibilities since Arthur and Léontine took care of everything, my parents enjoyed a lot less pressure and even some measure of quality of life. While still complicated, provisioning requirements were minimal for just the four of them and so much easier in this quartier. Whatever came on the table satisfied them easily.
Often they rode their bikes over to see Bon Papa at Rue de la Trémoille, where Hortense surpassed herself in turning bland ingredients into delicious concoctions. Balancing leftovers on handlebars, my parents returned home quickly by the small streets before curfew.
Nonetheless, Maman was miserable knowing that to avoid a repeat performance of the terrible winter of 1940, her children had to stay put. Only thirty-seven years old, Maman began to think she should acquire some kind of occupation. Paris was at half-mast yet safe in so many ways that there must be some work she would find fulfilling. She had learned much running the show in Mimizan, surely there was someone, something, where she could apply her savoir faire to some benefit. With many empty days and nights she grew restless, especially as Papa was away on business much of the time. When he was there, she was as impassioned as she had been in the first days of their marriage; the strength of their love was so profound it couldn’t be plumbed or punctured.
On weekends when Paris was somnolent and Papa wasn’t working, they whipped around on bicycles in the deserted city that was practically free of motorized traffic. They loved ferreting through semidark antique shops and art galleries on the Left Bank. Wobbling on their bikes around the small cobbled streets of the old quartiers one Saturday, they stumbled on a sign A Vendre (For Sale) posted discreetly in the bottom corner of the window of a small gallery. They stopped and, hands cupped on the window to shield the glare, they saw misshapen piles of artworks strewn around a somewhat dilapidated shop. Stepping back, looking up through years of dirt, they saw a dark green sign with gold lettering: Galerie André, 3 Rue des Saints Pères. They looked at each other, entered the gloomy space, and unknowingly changed the course of their lives.
The weary proprietor showed signs of frustration as he described his situation. His story was no different than many others’. His mistress had been in charge, but she had died a few months back. He was leery of hiring anyone new. He still went to a boring day job as a bank clerk on weekdays, so could open only on Saturdays.
Maman started to daydream.
This man confided to my parents that he would gladly sell the gallery and retire if he could only find a buyer. He talked about the stock he had accumulated for the past thirty years. More than three thousand drawings, etchings, prints, and lithographs were asleep in cardboard portfolios, with prices that seemed ridiculously low. There were piles of these resting against the walls, on tables, on the desk, in the back room, haphazardly placed in such a way as to make it impossible to even sell one if he wanted to. In other words, the place was a shambles and needed an entire makeover.
Maman’s excitement grew as they began to look through some of the pictures. There was artwork of every kind, from the worst to the best.
“Who would be interested in this kind of business at a time like this?” he complained.
His question hit her like a lightning bolt. It was her eureka moment, and from that day on she could talk about nothing else. She was convinced that this forlorn art gallery was the perfect remedy to pull her out of her loneliness, and she made it clear to Papa that she would use her own money to acquire it.
The following Saturday morning, on their bikes from Rue de Longchamps to Rue des Saints Pères, through the Trocadéro, along the right bank of the Seine, flying over the Pont des Arts, my parents covered the two miles in record time, fueled by resolution. Breathless and flushed, they sat down with the owner to get more details and to inquire about his terms.
The owner was taken by surprise. He never expected to see that eager young couple again. He never even asked why my parents were interested, or what background in art had led them to want his gallery. Making a fast deal was foremost on his mind. He presented an irresistible bargain with very reasonable terms. He was anxious to retire. He needed only a little capital to help cushion his bachelor life-style, unencumbered by family or children. He wanted 100,000 francs for the business, including the lease transfer, and 50,000 for his stock.
Ever the wary executive, Papa had reservations about the value of the stock, which looked like a mess, even though the asking price was ridiculously low. He rummaged through some of it again and agreed to buy the whole lot at 40 percent off the list price. To his surprise, this turned out to be quite a bit more than the original asking price but, without haggling, he paid the required sum.
Maman was ecstatic. Right in the middle of the war she became the proud owner of an art gallery a few steps from the Seine, on the Left Bank of Paris, which cost her all of 400,000 francs ($4,000 at the time), an inconceivable deal.
Maman couldn’t believe her luck. Her mind veered quickly from somber news of the war and worries about the children, which were always tormenting her, and turned her focus to her gallery. She quickly hired a couple of day workers from the neighborhood and, with an innate sense of creativity, gave the place a modern, clean, and stylish look. Having never signed a check in her life, and with not the slightest notion of accounting, she went headlong into the ownership of a business and, somehow, succeeded brilliantly.
Her first working tool was an eraser. She carefully removed prices marked on works of art and increased them appreciably. Without revealing her new calling, she found out what their current values might be by visiting other galleries. She said that often she didn’t even erase a number but would just add a zero at the end, or even two. She had a genius for switching from etchings and lithographs to paintings and aquarelles, discovering young painters and changing her exhibitions often so she could expect a bigger turnover.
At 10 Avenue de Messine, in the prestigious eighth arrondissement, was a renowned dealer, Louis Carré, who had founded a first-class gallery in 1938. Known for representing and exhibiting modern masters — Gris, Klee, Matisse, Calder, Léger, Delaunay, Kupka, and Picasso — Carré also showed the works of Jean Bazaine, Maurice Estève, Charles Lapicque, and Jacques Villon, lesser known artists at the time. He was considered one of the great Parisian art dealers. Papa knew him well from handling difficult requests for deliveries of special papers.
Just a few months earlier, Carré wanted to print a limited edition of lithographs by Raoul Dufy on rare and hard-to-get art paper that Papa had been able to procure. As a way of thanking him, Carré offered to put Maman in touch with promising painters who did not yet deserve their consecration with an exhibit in his own gallery. She launched a few, while making her own discoveries: Dubuffet, who was to become very famous, Jean Dufy, the brother of Raoul, whose following was growing steadily, and several others. These artists became the beacon that brought fame to the Galerie André before long.
In those days, some Parisians had quite a bit of disposable money but had trouble finding safe ways to spend it. In a time of war, spending on luxuries was highly distasteful and suspect. Artworks and jewelry were considered safe private investments. If you had the means to find food first, often on the black market that was thriving behind the back of the Germans, then you could luxuriate in an oil painting or a diamond bracelet and keep them hidden easily. Maman was an expert at keeping secrets and, being a dealer, had every right to strap a painting to her bicycle to drop it off “somewhere,” no questions asked. Her books showed sales to names like Smith, Brown, and Jones.
In the back of the gallery, beyond the ground floor space open to the public, was a little office leading to a toilet and, beyond, a closed door. A tiny stairwell behind this door led six steps up to a small loft and bath, with only one window on the courtyard, therefore very dark. Maman fixed it up very simply with a desk, a chair, an armchair, a swing-arm lamp for both, a single bed, and, to break up the monotony, a colorful Moroccan rug. Except for the rug, it was just like a monastery room. Her intention was to be able to sleep there should she work too late to ride her bike home after curfew and to save time commuting back and forth when Papa was away.
But this room wasn’t to be her cocoon of safety. One day soon after she opened her doors, a tall, stooped, skinny man walked in with some paintings under his arm. He was dejected, tattered, and looked gaunt and desperate.
“Madame,” he said, “help me. Please…”
Moving him away from the front door toward the back of the gallery, she let him line up his paintings against the wall, while he said, “I will give you these…” His voice quavered and his eyes were alarmed and weary like a frightened animal. Maman was at once repelled and touched by his condition while very attracted to his art.
“And your name is?”
“Non, I don’t have a name anymore. I have no family.” He trailed off.
“Are you hungry?” Maman asked maternally. The haggard young man paused for a moment, then quickly nodded, his head down, looking at the floor.
“Please, sit down,” Maman said softly, pointing to the back office. The young man hesitated, his eyes darting back and forth in fear and suspicion.
He finally lifted his head up and looked at Maman.
“It’s OK. You’re safe here. You can trust me,” she said. The young artist finally followed her back to the office. He winced when Maman turned on the light. She turned it off with a sigh.
“Perhaps it’s best to keep the light off. Eyes are everywhere these days,” Maman said and nodded to the desk chair. He slowly sat down, heaving a sigh of relief as if he’d been standing for years.
“I’ll be right back,” she said, walking to the front of the gallery, drawing the nightshades, and locking the doors. She hesitated, it was still early, someone might question her closing at this time, but then she firmly flipped the sign to read FERMÉ on the street side and glided back to her unexpected guest. She quickly sliced some bread and a small wedge of cheese, adding half a tomato. She walked the small plate back to him.
“It’s not much, but…” she began to say when the young man quickly grabbed it and began to devour the food ravenously, licking it from his soot-crusted fingers.
“Merci, ah, merci Madame,” he repeated, muffled by mouthfuls of bread and cheese. The sight of him so helpless strengthened Maman’s resolve to help him.
She learned he was a Polish Jew on the run from the army and from the Gestapo, a target for raids by German soldiers and French police. She asked again but he wouldn’t give her his name, said it was too dangerous, had lost track of his family. She feared the repercussions that could befall our family if she helped him; she could be shot on the spot if discovered. She knew she should just give him some money for the paintings and let him out in the street. She had relatives who were prisoners of war at that very moment and thought of them. He looked so forlorn and lonely, her mind whirling with apprehensions, but eventually her decision was made though it went against the tide of safety.
All his answers to her questions were no. No food, no room, no money, no relatives, no one. He was truly a fugitive with nothing. She gave him some money for the paintings, which she deemed were quite good, and in an act of folly and faith, she also offered him the studio as a hidden shelter. He moved in with not much more than what he was wearing on his back and slept for hours that first day. She told me much later how his presence elated and scared her to the same degree, like having an illicit affair. But once embarked on saving him, she could never change her mind.
Little by little, her life took on an unusual rhythm of exhilaration and anxiety. Strict rules were set for his safety. She showed him an emergency exit through the courtyard and instructed him, “You must never go out in the street. If you smoke, blow it out the window but keep the shade down so people around the courtyard can’t see you from their windows. Don’t smoke when there are servants in the courtyard, they would notice right away and set off an alarm thinking it might be a fire. If you need something, you must write a note and slip it out under the door. You must never come out unless I knock on the door.” They established a knock-knock code. He spoke good French and that was helpful. He readily agreed to all her conditions; with her he felt safe for the first time in months.
Maman’s exhilaration at saving a life was tremendous, but her anxiety intensified. She was hiding a Jew from both the Germans and her husband, who she knew would harshly reprove her. She snitched some cigarettes from Papa as they were found only on the black market and sold only to men. She brought food to the artist that he would consume cold and return the plate immaculate, as if he had licked off every last crumb. She scoured the occasional church jumble sale for a sweater, a shirt, underwear, a pair of pants, to make him more comfortable.
Thus she fell into an unusual pattern of running the gallery up front, dealing with her artists, new friends, visitors, making sales, going to openings, becoming a successful Parisian art dealer, and, on the darker side, making sure her fugitive was alive, comfortable, entertained with newspapers and magazines, while patiently waiting for deliverance.
This fragile relationship held steady for almost a year, from the fall of 1941 to July 1942, without any mishaps. This was a miracle considering his close quarters, her multitude of activities, and raids for Jews in every corner of the city. No one ever denounced him because no one ever knew of his existence.
While Papa worked hard at the office, he was relieved that Maman thrived at Galerie André, until the day he found her filching cigarettes and she confessed about the perilous arrangement with the painter. He was infuriated about her dangerous position. How she ever got the nerve to hide a Polish Jewish painter escaping from the claws of the Nazis he’d never know. The thought of how she wavered for months before telling him enraged him. Years later, Papa admitted that part of him always knew that Maman had more courage and heart than he would ever know. But then, faced with a fait accompli, he had to accept the poor man’s presence while his concerns about the situation kept him from ever broaching the subject.
Papa simply refused to talk about him, fearing the echo of his voice might carry to the nearest Nazi, who would arrest them. It was impossible to think of the consequences that would have befallen Maman, the family, their children, should she have been caught by a patrol canvassing the streets. Papa would describe the situation later with disdain draped in so much love and pride for Maman’s bravery. He said she had a beauty of spirit and a certain presence of character that he could not transcend while it always seemed to protect her.
Without warning, this precarious balance was shattered one day in July, when the artist was attracted by an advertisement in one of the old newspapers scattered on his floor. Men’s shoes were on sale at a very advantageous price only a few blocks away. The money from selling his paintings was burning in his pocket and cramps were hurting his feet. These shoes had to be his. Exactly in the way I had been drawn to that mushroom bollard, he couldn’t help himself. He stared and stared at those shoes in print and eventually succumbed to their appeal.
Maman had not arrived yet that morning. He broke the rules. He left through the emergency exit and, quickly crossing the courtyard, turned south down the street toward Boulevard St. Germain. His collar turned up, his hat down on his face, he tried to make himself invisible. But transparency is intangible; just like magic, it disappears.
His tall, lanky body was visible to anyone nearby. His luck turned when a French police patrol, always on the lookout for fugitives, stopped him.
“Are your papers in order?” they asked.
He could not show any papers and was arrested. He had gone out just when raids were more intense than usual that July as there was a quota to fill for arresting Jews. Nazis strictly supervised the French police in various districts of Paris, during which more than four thousand stateless and foreign Jews were arrested that month. Even more devastating was the fact that he was reading an old newspaper. Had he had a more current issue, he would have known about the intensified raids and certainly would have stayed in his hideout.
Somehow Maman got word he was being held in the internment camp of Drancy, in a northeastern suburb of Paris. Built by the government in the late 1930s, this camp of dreadful high-rise residential apartment buildings was poetically called “The Silent City.” The Germans had requisitioned it in 1940, thrown out all the residents, mostly poor blue-collar workers, and set it up as a detention center to hold “undesirables” until their deportation. Without Papa’s knowledge, again, Maman took the grave risk of going on her bicycle to bring the artist some care packages— not just once, but twice. Soon he was deported to Auschwitz and was never heard from again.
Maman was lucky and blessed to avoid any kind of retribution from the police. The artist never denounced her and, bit by bit, with gloom in her heart, she erased all traces of his existence, keeping only one of his paintings for herself. On the order of Papa, unimaginably upset at her for placing the safety of a stranger over the family, she followed the trend of all Paris and closed down the gallery to come to Saint-Servan for the month of August.
By September the whole thing had blown over. Keeping his memory in her heart, Maman carried on as if this interlude had never happened. The Galerie André was for her an excellent occupation, a full-time job, a fascinating learning curve, and the center of her life while we children were under safe care elsewhere. With a very low overhead, she brought in an excellent increase in revenue for the household. A year later, at the end of 1943, she was proud to prove to Papa, statements in hand, that her profits had that year surpassed his income.
They sold the gallery after the war for 3.5 million francs to a Madame Ducret, who knew nothing about art and shortly had to let it go to an expert, who soon restored its reputation under the name of Galerie Framont. That storefront has retained its clean-cut prewar appearance that, with an occasional coat of paint, looks exactly as it did when Maman owned it.
About the author:
Hélène Gaillet de Neergaard is a self-taught photographer and artist born in France and raised in Larchmont and New York City. Her passion for photography developed early when she used her babysitting money to purchase her first camera at the age of 14. After successful careers in advertising and public relations, she was able to go freelance and turned to professional photography in her mid-thirties. In a field where she quickly excelled, it didn’t take her long to leap over boundaries in her ability to explore beyond the limits of cameras and films.
Her photographic archives have been acquired by the HILLWOOD ART MUSEUM on the C. W. POST CAMPUS of LONG ISLAND UNIVERSITY which exhibited a retrospective of her work September to December 2008. She is also painting in watercolors and acrylics, creates conceptual art pieces and writes books on various subjects. She lives in New York City and Naples, Florida.
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August 29, 2014 Comments Off on I Was A War Child/Helene Gaillet
Irish poet and Nobel Prize winner Seamus Heaney at the University College Dublin, February 11, 2009. Wikipedia Commons Photo.
Man of Words and Grace
Seamus Heaney, the Irish Nobelist who epitomized the poet, shook off his mortal coil on August 30, 2013. He was widely eulogized. English poet Andrew Motion stated on BBC that “Seamus was person of exceptional grace,” and playwright Tom Stoppard wrote in The Guardian that “Seamus never had a sour moment, neither in person nor on paper.” After an almost two-decade-long friendship with the great bard, including sharing a traditional Irish supper of bangers and mash at a Temple Bar pub in Dublin only a few years before his death, I can tell you of an instance that might cast some doubt on a life of “grace” without “a sour moment,” if only provisionally. But this isn’t a story of grievance or criticism; it’s a story about character, about being magnanimous and big enough to apologize.
As I said, Seamus was my friend. But it didn’t begin that way; in fact, it began quite the opposite. Professor Heaney almost destroyed my career. To tell the story, I have to back up almost two decades ago, to the fall of 1996. I had only recently been named poetry editor at Rosebud magazine, then a fledging start-up with only a handful of back issues to brag about. To impress the editor-in-chief and publisher with my competence, I wanted to land a poem by a major poet. I had my sights set on Seamus Heaney, who had received the Nobel Prize for Literature the year before. I learned that Professor Heaney divided his year between teaching at Harvard in the fall semester and teaching at Trinity University in Dublin in the spring. Being late fall, I wrote to him at Harvard asking to publish his poetry. I included a couple copies of Rosebud. Professor Heaney received the letter just before leaving Boston to go home for Christmas. He hastily replied, sending me a translation of an old Gaelic poem entitled “I am Raferty” accompanied by a kind letter on Harvard stationery expressing his gratitude and telling me to send his complimentary copies (and honorarium) to his address in Ireland.
Needless to say, the folks at Rosebud were ecstatic.
Months later—I recall it was late February, 1997—after mailing the proofs and payment as promised, Rosebud’s editor-in-chief, Rod Clark, received a phone call from the Nobelist himself. Let’s just say the tone wasn’t appreciative. Instead, The Great Poet was charging that had I stolen his poem. He accused me of somehow infiltrating his office and stealing the poem from a manuscript he was then completing.
I was far from my home in Alaska at the time, in Atlanta at the time, giving a reading of my poetry at some college when Rod called me to relate the news. At first I sat on the edge of my motel bed, dumbfounded, as he fervently related his phone conversation with Professor Heaney. As I listened, anxiety and panic swelled inside me. Eventually, I got up and paced the room, wearing a thin path into the cheap carpet. As a teacher of poetry, I often remind students of the importance of poetry, citing another poet-Nobelist, Octavio Paz, who said that “poetry is an operation capable of changing the world.” In spite of my personal belief in poetry’s value, I found it hard to imagine that Professor Heaney actually believed that I had flown to Harvard, climbed into a campus building window at night clad in black and with a flashlight in hand, jimmied open the door to his office, and, like a practiced cat burglar, rifled through his dark office in search of a poem to steal and later publish for the world to see. If that wasn’t audacious enough, I’d also send copies of the magazine to the unknowing victim with accompanying honorarium.
I just couldn’t believe what I was hearing.
Was this some kind of prank?
But Rod assured me this was no joking matter. Despite our growing friendship, I couldn’t help but wonder if he was asking himself what the hell kind of mess had I got the magazine into?
Despite my skepticism that Seamus believed that I had purloined one of his poems, the laureate was adamant, threatening legal action. Could this crazy quarrel damage Rosebud’s future? Would it destroy my blossoming career as a professor of literature and creative writing? My future literally hung in the uncertain outcome.
I felt like throwing up.
I assured Rod that I had secured the poem properly. That’s when I pulled my ace in the hole, so to speak. I told him that back home in Anchorage, Alaska I had Professor Heaney’s letter on Harvard stationery in a Harvard envelope, postmarked from Harvard’s mail room. But I was thousands of miles away and wouldn’t return home for days. The issue at hand demanded prompt action to avert a lawsuit. Frantically, I called home and left a message for my wife to fax the letter and envelope cover to Rod. Meanwhile, outraged at the false assertion made by Seamus and armed with this knowledge, Rod called Professor Heaney’s assistant at Harvard and related our discussion. It is my understanding that some very tart exchanges took place.
Eventually, the indisputable evidence was faxed to Professor Heaney’s assistant at Harvard, who subsequently faxed it to Ireland. On seeing the letter and his signature, Seamus remembered what had happened. In his haste to pack up his Harvard office to leave for Dublin for Christmas, he had forgotten that he had sent me the poem at all. Needless to say, he apologized profusely, sending Rod a three-page letter of apology. The fax included a personal letter to me, as well. I think Seamus clearly recognized not only his own error, but also the hell he must have put me through—undeservedly to be sure. To make amends, Seamus asked how he could make it up to me. I asked him to write a blurb for a poetry book I was then completing (Songs from an Outcast), but he declined, telling me it had become his policy not to write blurbs for other writers. Instead, he gave me a poem to publish as a limited edition broadside as part of a series I was then publishing under Salmon Run Press, an independent press I owned at the time.
Seamus Heaney letter to John Smelcer.
Over the ensuing years, we wrote to each other periodically, sharing news of our lives and even sharing new poems to look over and giving feedback. We even met in Dublin. Although it took longer than a decade, Seamus did eventually provide a blurb for one of my poetry books (Raven). The last time we communicated was a year or two before his death. As usual, Seamus was hard at work on a new poetry manuscript.
Andrew Motion said that Seamus was a man of exceptional grace, and he was right, for it takes grace to admit when one has wronged another and to make amends. In our long friendship, despite the rough beginning, I learned that Seamus was indeed the kind of man as described in the splendid eulogies about his life and work. Although his pen will be forever stilled, Seamus Heaney has left us a wellspring of moving, affecting poetry which, like that of his worthy Irish Nobel prize-winning predecessors—Shaw, Yeats, and Beckett—will be an enduring gift to the world.
About the author:
John Smelcer, the author of a numerous books of poetry and ethnic American literature, was recently a Clifford D. Clark Fellow at Binghamton University in upstate New York. You can read more about him in “About Us.”
November 2, 2013 Comments Off on Seamus Heaney/A Memoir
A Broken Man on Blue Water:
A Conversation on the Life
and Influence of Michael Dorris
Facilitated by John Smelcer
Michael Dorris (1945-1997) was the award-winning author of numerous books, mostly about the Native American experience, including his popular novel, A Yellow Raft on Blue Water (1987). His influential memoir, The Broken Cord, won the National Book Critic’s Circle Award in 1989. In 1971, he was the first single man in the United States to legally adopt a child (he adopted an American Indian boy named Abel who suffered from Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, and he eventually adopted two other children). In the fall of 1972, Michael was hired as Director of Dartmouth’s new Native American Studies program, where he met his future wife, Louise Erdrich. Years later, as husband-wife collaborators, they co-wrote The Crown of Columbus, a book that marked the 500th year anniversary of the discovery of America. After a great deal of turmoil in his personal life — including the accidental death of Abel in 1991, divorce, and allegations of abuse — Michael committed suicide in a motel in Concord, New Hampshire, on April 10, 1997. The facilitator of this candid discussion is John Smelcer, Michael’s friend and one-time moose hunting partner in Alaska and one of the last people to speak to him before his lonely death, and three of Michael’s students from the early years at Dartmouth: Tom Sorci, Dave Bonga, and Trudell Guerue.
JS: It’s been sixteen years since Michael Dorris left us. His death was a profound loss in my life. My younger brother had committed suicide nine years earlier, a few weeks shy of turning twenty-three. Such losses are never easy to reconcile. We live with uneasy doubts and lingering questions for many years afterward, more so than others in Michael’s case. I wonder if we might start by talking about the early days when we all first met Michael.
TS: I was born to Italian-American parents and was raised in the mid-Hudson valley of New York state, living in both Poughkeepsie and Kingston. When I graduated from high school in June of 1972, I had planned to pursue a career in Environmental Studies. Meeting Michael Dorris and the students in the newly formed Native American Program changed my life. Michael was one of the first people I met at Dartmouth. His car still had Alaskan license plates with MODOC imprinted on them when he invited all of his advisees to his house on Mascoma Lake during freshmen week. I was living in North Topliff Hall on the same floor as many Native American students. Michael’s office, along with the Native American Program, was located in College Hall where he helped me plan the courses I would take during freshman year. Michael steered me in the direction of anthropology and the newly formed Native American Studies Program. Throughout my four years at Dartmouth, he was a mentor, friend, and confidant. He was instrumental in helping me find internships and employment as well as helping me to find my true calling to a lifelong commitment to Native American education.
DB: I wasn’t on campus during the 1972-73 academic year, as I had transferred to the University of Minnesota to take Ojibwe for my Dartmouth language requirement. I met Michael during the summer of 1973 when I was on campus for my Dartmouth Plan summer. I didn’t take any of Michael’s classes, but I did do a Native American Studies project for academic credit during my fall 1973 term on the Standing Rock Reservation under Bea Medicine, who Mike had invited to be a Visiting Professor. I returned to Dartmouth for my senior year. Michael was excellent as the initial Director of the Native American Studies Program. He was able to work closely with Dartmouth academics to advance acceptance of Native American Studies as a viable academic field. Michael was also a friend and supporter of students, who also happened to be a single parent with a special-needs son.
TG: I was in the first cohort of the Native Studies program at Dartmouth; must have been 1971-1972. There were fifteen of us in that first class. There were about six or seven Indians there already, but it wasn’t an organized program then. I took off after the first year and went bumming around Europe with a friend. When I returned in the fall of 1973, the college had hired Mike Dorris. So, some of the other guys might have known him for a year longer than I did. I was as old as or older than Mike. I had served in the Army before college, so I was older than the other students. I really enjoyed Mike’s teaching. He opened my eyes to a lot of Indian literature. I was also in Dr. Medicine’s class.
TS: Mike also introduced me to Beatrice Medicine. I had embarked on a William Jewett Tucker Foundation internship to Ronan, Montana during the summer of 1974 to work as a G.E.D. instructor at the Kicking Horse Civilian Conservation Center for the Confederated Tribes of Salish and Kootenai. It was my introduction to Job Corps and to working directly with students on a reservation. Meeting Beatrice Medicine would have a profound effect upon my education and career choices. After returning from Montana, I immersed myself in the study of anthropology, Native American Belief Systems, and Lakota language. I also visited Professor Medicine’s home in Wakpala on the Standing Rock Reservation in South Dakota. By this time my interest in Native American Studies was extensive and far-reaching.
JS: I wasn’t one of Mike’s students, per se, though for years he guided my independent readings in Native Studies, especially in Indian literature. I met him in the early 1980s when I was an undergraduate studying anthropology, linguistics, and Native Studies at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Mike came to campus to speak, and I was invited to a luncheon in his honor. During lunch, I mentioned that I was going moose hunting, and Mike enthusiastically voiced his desire to go with me. He said he had taught in an Alaskan village (Tyonek) before he was hired at Dartmouth and that he’d gone moose hunting. We left early the following morning. I took him to Lake Louise, about forty miles west of Glennallen. On the way there we stopped at my village to visit my Indian relatives. We took my green johnboat through three connecting lakes back to Tyone Lake, where there was an old, abandoned village from my tribe. I hunted back there with my dad and uncles since I was a little boy. The first time must have been in 1971. Herds of caribou migrate through the region. I’ve seen hundreds of caribou swim across the lake, just their antlered heads sticking out from the water. It was a cold and drizzly fall day. At the end of the lake, where the Tyone River begins, we saw a two-year-old bull moose. I had a harvest tag for a bull moose or caribou. Naturally, Mike didn’t have a license or anything, so I shot it.
John Smelcer with young bull moose (photo by M. Dorris)
We butchered the moose and carried the quarters back to the boat through a kind of boggy area. We each carried a bulging game bag against our chest, full of shoulder, neck, and back-strap meat, as well as the heart and the liver for my great aunt, Morrie Secondchief, who lived nearby. We also cut off the nose to make moose-nose soup, a delicacy among elders. It took two trips to carry out everything. By the time we were done packing out the meat, our feet were soaked, and we couldn’t feel our toes. I kept my rifle with me at all the time. Grizzly country, you know. We had seen bear tracks along the shore back at the boat. The hundred-pound hindquarters we were carrying would be temptation for any hungry bear dreaming of hibernating soon. We were both wearing raincoats over our jackets. I was experienced enough to know enough to unzip both coats so that I wouldn’t overheat and sweat. But Michael didn’t know better. Soon, he was sweating from the hard labor—his wet clothes robbing him of body heat. By the time we finished packing the meat back to the boat, Michael was shaking uncontrollably. We built a large campfire to warm up and to boil water for coffee. We even roasted a chunk of moose meat on sticks. In what other ways did Mike influence your life?
DB: During the Spring of 1973, I applied for a position in the Native American office as the liaison with the Native American Council. I didn’t get it, so I went home to Washington State to attend the University of Washington Law School in the fall of 1974. During the summer of ‘74 Duane Bird Bear (‘72) asked me to take his job in Denver with the United Scholarship Service, which I did as I had planned to attend law school in the future. I believe it was in March of 1975 that Michael called me and asked me to return to Dartmouth to work in the Native American Office. I accepted and moved back to Hanover. As the Coordinator of the Native American Office I assisted NAP students with support services to create an atmosphere on campus that allowed students to be academically successful and encouraging students to take advantage of Dartmouth and become engaged in off-campus programs that allowed them to continue their academics, but also to spend time off campus that at times was a hostile environment. Michael strongly supported the off-campus activities and established NAS internship programs. In addition, Mike encouraged the development of cultural support programs for NAP students and strongly supported the actions of the Native American Office. Michael also continued to develop the NAS that was gaining a positive national reputation. However, I was disappointed that Mike was not a frequent visitor to the NAD house or many NAD activities. At the time, I was unaware of his home issues involving the children he had adopted as a single parent. It wasn’t until his book, A Broken Cord, was published that I realized how challenged and occupied Michael was with raising his three children who were FAE and FAS. Once I understood Michael’s predicament and the enormity of the issue in Indian country, I became an advocate of trying to address issues associated with FAE and FAS children and how the actions of their parents were the cause of the children’s problems. It became apparent to me that such parental actions threatened the very existence of viable Native communities and their success in dealing with all other issues. The issue of substance abuse and the destruction of Native Ways has affected the way I look at the development of Tribes that involve all aspects of tribal life. Michael’s struggles and his book encouraged many of us to look outside the box and to think of new ways to address tribal issues. That has directly lead to the Kalispel Tribe’s successful Northern Quest Casino and Resort that was developed to fund the CamasPath program that is a holistic approach to the development of healthy, educated, and successful Kalispel Tribal members.
TS: With Michael’s blessing, I landed an internship at Americans for Indian Opportunity in Washington, D.C. working for LaDonna Harris and Maggie Gover on national issues. I had developed strong friendships with many Native American students, one of whom I had dated for some time. When I graduated in June with a major in Religion and a minor in Native American Studies, Michael wrote me a letter of recommendation and steered me to my first job as a linguistic consultant for the Yakama, Warm Springs, Umatilla, Nez Perce, and Colville Tribes in Washington, Idaho, and Oregon. I lived with a Yakama family in Wapato, Washington and worked for the Johnson O’Malley Consortium for nine months before returning to Dartmouth to work as the Assistant Regional Director for the A Better Chance (ABC) Program. My goal was to increase the number of Native American students in private and public schools throughout the Northeast. In the fall of 1979, I enrolled in graduate school to study linguistics at the University of Colorado in Boulder. I was interested in Native Language revitalization and helped to establish the first Siouan languages conference. Later that year I married Vivian Blackgoat, a Diné woman whom I had met at Dartmouth. Our daughter was born at the Tuba City Indian Hospital in 1980, and our son was born at the Fort Defiance Indian Hospital in 1982. In the meantime, I had taken a job as an instructor at Navajo Community College (its name later changed to Diné College) in Tsaile, Arizona where I taught for four years before accepting a position as teacher, coach, dorm parent, and advisor to Native American students at the Northfield Mount Hermon School in Massachusetts. For the next nine years, I lived and worked extensively with Native American students from all over the country and kept in touch with the Dartmouth Native American community. Both Michael and Dr. Medicine visited our family at the school. By then, he and Louise had achieved fame for their various publications.
JS: For me, Michael wrote one of the recommendations that helped land my job as co-chair of Alaska Native Studies at the University of Alaska Anchorage in 1993. My co-chair was a Tlingit woman named Elaine Abraham who was from Yakutat in southeast Alaska. I think she told me she was a member of the Frog Clan. Mike later provided a recommendation when I applied to be executive director of my tribe’s Heritage Foundation. I got the job and spent the next three years working on oral history projects, archaeological surveys, and a dictionary of our language. Isolated as I was in Alaska, Mike was one of a few Native writers who helped me develop as a fiction writer. James Welch also helped me a great deal. They both encouraged me to join Wordcraft Circle of Native American Writers as one of its earliest members. How did each of you learn of Mike’s death and how did the news affect you?
TS: I was teaching Ancient History at the Kent School in Connecticut when Dr. Bea Medicine telephoned to tell me the sad news. Needless to say, I was shocked by his untimely death. I was upset at myself because I knew that Michael had been receiving treatment for his severe depression, and I wished I could have reached out to him to prevent him from taking his own life. Later that spring, I drove past the motel in New Hampshire to say a prayer and pay my final respects to a professor who had taken a keen interest in helping me in both my collegiate and professional careers. My life has taken many twists and turns since then. After finishing a three year stint as principal of St. Michael’s Indian School on the Navajo Nation, I have moved to Anchorage, Alaska to lead a small school of 87 students in grades 7-12. As I travel the state, I often think of conversations I had with Michael about his fieldwork in Alaska over forty years ago and thank him for pointing me in this direction.
DB: I was driving to work when I heard the news on the radio. When I got to the office I checked the internet to see if it was really true. And there it was. I was really sad to hear how he had died.
TG: One of the guys from our class, I think it was Mike Hanitchak, called to tell me. I had been feeling very, very bad the previous day . . . and I didn’t know why. I just had a bad feeling. I have a number of relatives and friends who killed themselves, and when I see them all I’m going to kick their asses for doing what they did. One thing I know about Mike—about Mike’s suicide—is he had been destroyed. After all the things he had done, the allegations were such that no matter what happened he was destroyed. If ever a person wanted to hurt another person, making that kind of allegation [as were made against Mike] . . . that’s it. There were even allegations that Mike may not have been Indian. I think that Mike Dorris made a huge difference in the lives of not just to those who had the opportunity to be in his classes, but to the Indian world—in the Indian world—he made a difference. He believed very strongly in the tribes, and that’s a hard thing because the Indian world is so divided. You come from this tribe or that tribe, or you come from the reservation or you don’t. Growing up on a reservation, I know how people from the reservation see Indians who have never been there. Indians from the reservation belong to a tribe, while urban Indians see themselves as pan-Indian, often picking and choosing appealing customs and spiritual beliefs from a variety of tribes. I’m not saying I agree with this. I’m just saying that’s the way it is. I’m Lahkota. I don’t use Chippewa customs in my life, nor Navajo, Apache, or Seneca. I thought of Mike Dorris as one of my friends. I deeply regretted that he didn’t call me toward the end because I thought that maybe I could have talked him into doing something else. It still bothers me that I didn’t have a chance to talk with him.
JS: Mike and I had spoken many times during the months before his death, mostly about how his life was falling apart and how he felt so alone. The last time we spoke was the day before he killed himself after moving into that motel in Concord. He called me at my tribal office in Glennallen. I think he used an outside pay phone because I remember he called collect and I could hear traffic in the background. We spoke for a long time, maybe half an hour. He never actually said he was going to harm himself, but there was a tone in his voice that alarmed me. I could tell he had given up. My brother had committed suicide nine years earlier, so you’d think I would have recognized the signs. I didn’t in either case. Mike was gone hours later. I must have been one of the last people he ever spoke to. I remember crying in my office with the door closed after I heard the news. Michael was a good man, a good role model, and a good friend. He deserves to be remembered for the positive influence he had on so many lives, like ours.
About the participants:
Tom Sorci is currently headmaster at Lumen Christi High School in Anchorage, Alaska.
Dave Bonga (Ojibwe) is an attorney for the Kalispell Tribe in Washington.
Trudell Guerue (Lahkota) is a former lawyer who has no desire to be a lawyer again.
John Smelcer (Ahtna) co-edited Native American Classics (2013), an anthology of 19th and early 20th century Native American literature and Durable Breath: Contemporary Native American Poetry (1995). Michael Dorris edited many of the stories in John’s ALASKAN: Stories from the Great Land (2011).
April 27, 2013 Comments Off on On Michael Dorris
By Bill Dixon
I first met D.R. Goff almost 40 years ago, at Larry Flynt’s place of business, in Columbus, Ohio. I was a young banker, looking to set up a business account with Hustler Magazine. He was a Viet Nam vet, a combat photographer still recovering from the horrors of the war. I had on a suit, a cheap one, and he was wearing red and white Ronald McDonald socks and a sort of crazed grin. We shot the breeze while I was waiting for Larry to meet with me. D.R. was bouncing around, full-tilt counter culture, I was trying to look like an establishment guy. The next time we got together was about 15 years later, in a hospital physical rehab gym. I’d had some minor heart surgery, and he’d had a bad motorcycle accident that broke his back. We were both serious about getting healthy again, and we both had just opened new businesses. We worked out at the gym together, side-by-side.
I’d set up a commercial real estate rehab/management company, and my 60-hour work week had caused my heart problems. D.R. was getting established as commercial photographer, trying to learn to walk again, and we were both single guys, working hard and playing hard. We both liked a few beers at the conclusion of the day’s labors. D.R. was also doing some beautiful art photography, exhibiting in local galleries. I was doing the same exhibition venues, but with my oil paintings. It was a natural alliance. We’d get together in various artsy parts of Columbus, at saloons, and exchange world views, growing-up stories, and talked about families and people important to us. We ate together, drank beer together, and propped each other up when we needed it.
After we each moved to different parts of the country, he to New Mexico, I to Maine and Florida, we kept in touch. We stayed connected. I’d talked about visiting New Mexico, on a cross-country trip to visit my old college roomie in San Diego. He was having mobility problems again, and his two canes weren’t doing the job anymore. He told me he was going back to the VA, in mid-January, to find out what was wrong with his legs: He was back in his wheelchair again. Four days later, he sent me an email: he had inoperable pancreatic cancer. Eleven days after that, he died.
He had friends and family with him until the end, and absent friends called him daily. He was more worried about getting his affairs in order, than his impending death. He said, his” bags had been packed for a long time”. The last time I called him he was incoherent, and unable to hold the telephone. The next day, he was gone…
His friend Mike Foldes said “We lost an honest man.” Mike was right. He was also a positive influence in many lives, including mine, a good friend, and a genuinely damned good guy. I already miss him. Rest in peace, D.R. You always gave it your best, buddy.
February 1, 2013 3 Comments
Cover of The Kif Smoker
The One and Only Peter One
By Jonathan Evans
In Ibiza, a Spanish Balearic island, back in the ’60s and ’70s, there was a plethora of Peters on the scene – Pink Peter, Dutch Peter, Intense Peter, even Peter Two – but only one Peter One. He was my next door neighbor and my dope dealer and we ended up pretty close – or at least as close as Peter got to anybody. He was tall, thin, dark and Jewish with hair that even Bob Dylan would have envied. I remember him as incredibly intense, unfailingly uncompromising and generally secretive. The nature of his unique work necessitated the latter. He would come and go mysteriously at different times of the year, probably at times when the cannabis harvest was taking place and when the “product” was moved around. He was a fearless man in his business, completely obsessive about what he did and had utter confidence in the hashish that he made. And we all knew it – his hashish and its psychedelic powers were the very best anywhere in the world. Perhaps things would be different today, were he still around, for the potency of the cannabis plants nowadays is vastly stronger than that prevalent in Moroccoin the ’70s. But when it came to smoke in 1970, Peter produced la crème de la crème.
As I said, we were next door neighbors in the glory days ofIbiza. It was a beautiful island, set apart from the Franco dictatorship of the mainland, where ex-pats had come in droves from all over the world and had bought land and houses and settled in to enjoy what turned out to be Europe’s final fling before the world went askew and the resulting recession and depression set in. Peter and I saw each other most days; he would either wander up the hill with his camera in his hand to watch the work in the outdoor studio, or I would walk down to his finca to watch sunset, often seated on the roof, over a pipe or three. I remember a magical Christmas day, sitting up on Peter’s roof, deep in all-enveloping mist, smoking sebsi after sebsi, oblivious to the world around us. Peter loved Bob Marley and Reggae music and we went to hear the great reggae star performing at theIbizabullring, a full moon creeping magically up over the lip of the stage. I also remember, to my shame and chagrin, borrowing his brand new copies of Marley’s “Exodus” and Peter Tosh’s “Legalize It” and bringing them back at night, climbing down over rocks and letting “Legalize It” slip out of its cover and shatter on the rocks. Yet, Peter took it very well – and I knew that he obsessed about this music – and only said that accidents will happen. He had a wife too, Pat, a very different kettle of fish, a quiet, serious New Englander who later went on to a successful career in academia, and a young son named Aaron, or “Fish,” as he was commonly known.
Peter One, The Kif Smoker
In the fall of 1977, Peter invited me to come toMorocco with him and Fish. We were going to the Rif Mountains for the marijuana harvest and first flew to Tangier to rent a car for the trip. I had spent a lot of time there ten or more years before, but Peter really knew the ancient city. We checked into a hotel, Peter asked for and got a specific room and immediately unscrewed the cap at the top of the bed post and retrieved some smoke he’d left there on the previous trip. Like I said, he was pretty obsessive about his drugs.
Chefchaouen, with its distinctive blue-painted buildings was our first destination and from there we drove higher, through the forests of oak and cork trees to Ahmed’s house, which was to be our home for the next six weeks. We lived in a lovely but primitive farmhouse amidst a constant sea of mud. The whole stay there remains vivid in my mind. It was a world of freshly picked marijuana plants, kilos upon kilos of them; our first step was an extensive and exhaustive sampling and testing of their different potencies and highs. Peter was as meticulous about this as he was high in his standards. He only selected the very best quality plants and we spent the following weeks putting the hemp through different sized sieves, collecting mountains of resin. For the Primo top grade hashish, we merely dusted the flower heads against a fine gauze, accumulating the very best resin. A large hot press turned the dust into dark pungent blocks of hashish. Peter was at all times in charge and was deeply absorbed in the work and the final product. The day we left to drive down to Fez, I remember, Peter drove the car up the hill through the mud, whilst Fish and I, hand in hand, walked up behind him. A mangy, vicious-looking dog from the houses below started to follow us; it came nearer and nearer and was quite threatening. Before it attacked us, as it looked like it would, I threw a large stone at it and broke its leg – the only time in my life that I have hurt an animal. But this wasn’t Ibiza or England; life up here was extreme and sometimes extreme measures were necessary.
We went through a road block on the way down to Fez but Fish’s presence in the car seemed to render us harmless to the Moroccan cops, no doubt sitting and waiting for “product” to be brought down from the Rif at that time of year. In Fez, we checked into a fabulously opulent palace hotel where we met up with Peggy, Peter’s equally fearless partner in crime. It was she who would transport the hashish toNew York, which was the primary market. They spent two or three days packing the suitcases for the trip, wrapping the blocks of hashish in several layers of plastic and then fitting them into the specially constructed suitcases. The last step was to cover the plastic with talcum powder to completely mask the smell. It was a careful, well-thought out routine which Peter and Peggy had perfected over years. That night, we washed all our clothes in the bath in our hotel room and I swear that the water turned bright green. The next day was a day of rest – or rather a day in which we took acid and spent the day roaming the dark subterranean depths of Fez’s ancient markets. They say that there are five or six levels to the huge area, one built upon another going back into the depths of time. We had a guide with us or we would never have been able to emerge.
Peggy had left for New York by a circuitous route, while we flew back from Tangier to Ibiza with a small amount of hashish hidden on us. Peter’s final, compulsive act before we left for the airport, was to fill up the bedpost at our hotel with a stash for his next visit. He was a man who looked to the future, whilst checking sideways in both directions as well as up and down.
In 1978, I left Ibiza in search of wider pastures and ended up in New York. And there, my second chapter of adventures with Peter started. He had a large apartment down off Canal Street while I had a loft at Times Square and we saw a lot of each other for a couple of years. It was a time of an explosion in music with Punk taking off in the city and my loft was across the road from the old Peppermint Lounge where all the new bands played. So we went to every band we could as well as a lot of reggae. We heard Bob Marley play at the Apollo several times and Peter even turned on the Wailers in their dressing room after a gig. One time, he and I posed as journalists from High Times magazine and went to a press conference for Bob. We got to talk to him and took a lot of photographs. Neither Peter nor I went anywhere without our cameras these days and took endless photos of our musical heroes. One day, I drove Peter up to see his parents in Connecticut; I remember his parents, the Adelmans, being really nice, highly educated people who seemed bemused by their son and the way he had turned out. How much they knew about his irregular life, I have no idea but they must have had their suspicions. He continued to come and go, to disappear for weeks on end but always come back toNew York during this period. Probably he seemed tenser to me than he used to be. He was courting disaster all the time with his flights abroad and his wheeling and dealing in the city. He continued to smoke like a chimney, did coke, drank neat vodka, ate a lot of red meat and liked his strong coffee. As I said, he was a full-on sort of guy. And he never ever got busted, unlike Peggy who went to jail. In the end, I think that I personally decided that his sort of life, with its secrecy, paranoias and drama, was not for me.
The final episode in this story took place a couple of years later. I had left New York, burned out on reggae, the pace of life there and the rat race, and was living in the hinterlands of Northern California. I had heard rumors of Peter’s illness but didn’t really know what was going on. And then the word came through that he had serious brain cancer and wasn’t doing very well. I wrote to him and told him how very sorry I was and asked him if I could connect him with my old friend Dr. Patch Adams who often worked with cancer patients at his Gesundheit Institute in West Virginia. He wrote me back an angry letter saying that he wasn’t going to eat fucking lentils for anybody – and that was the last contact that I had with him. I’m told that he died in great pain six months later, refusing to try alternative treatments after going through a ghastly illness.
It was typical of Peter never to compromise his lifestyle even when he faced death. I wouldn’t have expected him to. He was a charismatic man, well aware of his romantic image, I believe, and living his alternative existence, a world of travel, exotic places, high tension and drama, not to mention drugs, to the hilt. I never heard him talk of quitting for it afforded a glamorous lifestyle, nor did I ever hear him talk of doing anything else. He took a lot of good photos along the way, especially focusing on Moroccan kif smokers and women carrying bundles of marijuana and published a very nice little book of Moroccan pictures in 1976, called “The Kif Smoker in Morocco.” I realize that this is beginning to read like an “Unforgettable Character” story but that is exactly what Peter One was. He could pass for an Arab with his dark hair and colouring and he lived like one most of the time. It is tragic that his lifestyle probably contributed to his death and I shall never know what he might have achieved later. Or perhaps Peter achieved enough already in his short, fierce life. As I finished this piece off on the night of the U.S. presidential election, the state of Colorado, where I live, went Democrat and legalized the recreational use of marijuana, the very first state to do so. This is something that I had really given up on seeing happen in my lifetime. Peter was always a strong supporter of NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Lawis legacy, but an occasion to light a bowl and remember…
About the author:
Jonathan Evans is a batik artist living in Colorado with his wife and fellow artist, Beth McCoy Evans. Their previous contributions to Ragazine include an account of a UNICEF art education program in Haiti. See also: http://www.jonathanevans-batikart.com/
December 28, 2012 Comments Off on Legend of a Gone World
The Lion Sleeps Tonight
By John E. Smelcer
Novelist, poet, short story writer, art and literary critic, John Updike (1932-2009) was the author of numerous novels, the most famous of which were his “Rabbit” books. His Rabbit is Rich and Rabbit at Rest both won Pulitzer Prizes for literature, making Updike one of only a few writers to win two Pulitzers (William Faulkner was one). He won the O. Henry Prize for short stories several times in his distinguished career. Millions of American high school and college students have read his “A&P.”
My friendship with John Updike began in 1994 when he and I served as judges for the National Poetry Book Award. I remember very well the manuscript we selected that year. My wife and I were driving to our cabin in Tazlina, a Native village about 180 miles east of Anchorage, where we lived at the time. I had brought along a stack of submissions, and, to help, my wife began reading aloud a few poems from one of the collections. I abruptly stopped and asked her to drive so that I could read the manuscript myself. The remarkable poems were based on Eskimo myths from the circumpolar north. As a mythologist, I was immediately intrigued. I knew within a dozen pages that I was holding the winning manuscript. After our weekend at the cabin — where I carefully read the entire collection — I sent a photocopy of the manuscript to John, who called to tell me he agreed. And so Denise Duhamel’s The Woman with Two Vaginas won the $1,000 prize and was published the next year. The book gained national notoriety as a banned book when the contracted printing firm refused to print it, which, of course, only made it more popular. When I sent John his honorarium he refused it, telling me to donate the money instead toward promoting the winning book. John and I didn’t communicate much after that, although for a few years his family was on my Christmas card mailing list.
Five years later, in 1999, I was invited to read at a number of literary venues in and around Boston. On hearing news of my itinerary (my first visit to the East Coast since a lecture trip to Moscow) John asked me to arrange a free day so that he and I could visit. I called his house from the airport to tell him I had rented a car and was on my way to Beverly, the lovely seaside hamlet about thirty miles north of Boston where Updike lived. It was early morning, and I recall that Martha answered in a sleepy voice. When John came on the line, he said he had a surprise for me. On the short drive up from Boston, I wondered what it was he had in store. When we met in Beverly, we had breakfast at a café in town. Over pancakes and coffee, John shared his amazing surprise. He told me that he had called his old friend, J. D. Salinger, and had arranged a luncheon in Salinger’s home village of Cornish, New Hampshire, just a couple hours drive northwest of Beverly.
Needless to say, I was elated at the prospect of meeting J. D. Salinger.
Half an hour into the trip, as we were making our way over to Highway 93 North, we pulled into a town and began looking for a gas station with a restroom (ah, the wondrous effects of coffee). As we drove along the main street, I saw a store that sold used books and CDs. On our way back to the highway I managed to persuade John to let me have a few minutes inside the store, despite our schedule. I bought a couple of hardback copies of Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye and Nine Stories so that the venerable author could sign them for me and for my twelve-year-old daughter, who would undoubtedly read Catcher in school within a few years. I also bought a cheap CD of hits that were popular in the early 1960s, when I was born. I have a habit of singing aloud in the car. Some people say I have a good voice. My uncle Herbert would have disagreed. He always hated that I’d sing whenever we’d go anywhere together, moose or caribou hunting or salmon fishing at the headwaters of the Klutina River.
But then an unexpected miracle happened.
John started singing with me.
For the most part, we knew the words to every song. For the next hour we sang our hearts out to songs like Mark Dinning’s sappy “Teen Angel,” Bobby Vinton’s “Blue Velvet,” The Tokens’ contagious rendition of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” and Gene Chandler’s “Duke of Earl.” (I’ve been reminded recently that some of these songs were first popular in the ’50s but gained chart-topping success as remakes in the early ’60s). Imagine my glee: John Updike — thirty-one years my senior — and me, driving along in a rental car singing and laughing and cheering each other on, hollering lyrics neither of us had heard in years. It was a side of him that few people might imagine, especially given his age: playful, humorous, and genuine. Road trips often bring out the silly in folks. While writing this essay, I looked hard for that CD in my collection, but I couldn’t find it.
We arrived at the appointed restaurant in Cornish twenty or thirty minutes early. I don’t recall the name of the place, but it was downstairs in an historic inn. Come to think of it, it may have been the only restaurant in town. That someone as famous as Salinger lived in such a small and isolated hamlet amazed me. But, then, he was somewhat the recluse. While waiting for our guest, I was editing a spiral-bound, photocopied manuscript of my short stories I had been working on. I put it away when Salinger arrived. Updike, all smiles, introduced me, and Salinger told me to call him Jerry (the “J” standing for Jerome). John told Jerry about our singing in the car on the way up. To prove it, John and I sang a few lines of “Teen Angel.” People sitting nearby turned around to listen to our duet, and some even applauded. We were embarrassed. But Jerry laughed and told us how that song had been banned from radio play in the US and England, but climbed to the top of the charts in both countries nonetheless.
I used to wonder why J. D. Salinger would know that bit of trivia. Not long after, it hit me: Of course he knew that bit of trivia. Salinger was the creator of that quintessentially brash teenage underachiever, Holden Caulfield.
For the most part I was a third wheel at the table, listening to the two great novelists, John Updike and J. D. Salinger, catching up. But at some point during lunch, Jerry asked what it was I had been working on when he arrived. I reluctantly showed him the manuscript, and Updike complimented the stories enough so that Salinger asked to see them. After reading the first story at the table — while I fidgeted nervously and chewed off my fingernails — Salinger asked if he could keep the bound manuscript, promising to make comments and to return it to me in a week or two. In my blithering attempt to seem grateful, I insisted he accept five bucks for mailing costs and wrote my address on the cover. True to his word, the manuscript arrived some weeks later with his very useful suggestions, including his recommendation to trash a few stories or to start them over from scratch from a different angle or point of view. I often wonder what he thought about my boneheaded offer of five bucks. I think he volunteered to read my stories because I didn’t ask him in the first place and because he was legitimately interested, not so much in me but in Alaska.
Maybe he loved Jack London’s stories as a boy.
I didn’t see John Updike again until the early fall of 2006 when I moved to Binghamton, New York, to work on a Ph.D. in creative writing. John invited me to have lunch with him in Beverly. And although it was a long way to drive for a lunch, I went anyhow, and I’m glad I did. I remember we ate in a café on a village square where we could see docks and boats and seagulls just a few hundred feet down the hill.
In the months before his death, John volunteered to look through my poetry manuscript tentatively titled The Binghamton Poems, offering editorial suggestions and a jacket blurb, even though I’m certain he was very busy working on his own writing projects, including Endpoint, his last collection of poems, which was published posthumously.
From my own experience, at least, John Updike was more than a man of letters and a literary lion — he was also a man of great generosity. No matter how many years pass, I’ll never forget the two of us bobbing our heads and singing in that car.
About the author:
John Smelcer was recently the Clifford D. Clark Fellow of literature and creative writing at Binghamton University, State University of New York. The author of over forty books, he is one of the last speakers of two endangered Alaska Native languages and the editor-compiler of dictionaries of each (Noam Chomsky and Steven Pinker wrote forewords to one; His Holiness The Dalai Lama provided a foreword to the other). His bilingual poetry book, Beautiful Words: The Complete Ahtna Poems (Truman State UP, 2011) was hailed a “literary landmark.” He served as judge of the National Poetry Book Award for over a decade. He is associate publisher and poetry editor at Rosebud magazine and a contributing editor to Ragazine.
December 28, 2012 Comments Off on Smelcer & Updike
By Bill Dixon
It’s 5:30 EST, but it’s 6:30 here, and my stomach reminds me that our last meal was smoked fish spread on crackers and local draft beer, eleven hours earlier. We set off for Cafe’ du Monde. Beignets and cafe au lait are our goal. The restaurant is always open. It’s ten blocks away, more or less, on the far side of Decatur, across from Jackson Square.
New Orleans is filthy most of the day, and at its worst early in the morning. Within two blocks of my hotel, I count five open bars, all with customers on stools. I stop counting. The light is fairly dim, but I dodge vomit and garbage on the sidewalks, and walk in the nearly vacant streets where the walks are blocked with trash or construction debris. I see occasional garbage trucks and street cleaners crawl past all at a distance, removing last night’s party tracks, groaning through their tasks. Lights from the bars reflect in broken neon patterns on the wet pavement and puddles. At one point, midway, there are wind chimes tinkling, from a balcony. I stop and look up to find them, but there is only the darkness and the sound.
When I reach my destination, the guard at the entry to the restaurant regards me warily and gives no response to my, “Good morning.” There is a disheveled man asleep in a chair, protectively clutching an assortment of battered tablets and notebooks to his chest. He had sat beside me the evening before at Maspero’s, nursing a draft beer. He had had the same papers, stacked on the bar in front of him, last night. From my vantage point next to him at the bar, the parts of the notebooks I could see were covered with illegible scribbles, erased and rewritten, the leaves creased and grubby. There were two battered pencils in the breast pocket of his ragged tweed jacket and he eyed me with deep suspicion when he saw me looking at his papers. Moments later, he swept them up, gave me an angry look and darted out onto the busy sidewalks. Debby, my barmaid, shrugged as he scurried away.
I’d met her a couple of years earlier, at a bookstore she and her partner owned a few blocks from Maspero’s and she had remembered me. We’d talked about the commercialization of Christmas, the silliness of beliefs based on religion, customs or politics, and what we’d both been up to over the last couple of years. Her shift was ending then and she began counting out her drawer. I paid my tab and walked back to my hotel. I’d decided to skip an evening meal and read in my room.
Cafe’ du Monde was across Decatur from Maspero’s, which was dark at six AM and a little traffic was starting to go past. As I left my breakfast dishes and went out to the street, a young woman crossed the street diagonally, right ahead of me. She was nicely dressed, with a short leather jacket, a crisp white blouse, black slacks, and wearing a dark beret. She was barefoot, crossing the filthy street with her shoes in her left hand. She was in no particular rush to get to where she was going but on a purposeful path. There was something in that moment…a short story, a painting, a song?
I watched her walk steadily away, and as I turned toward my hotel, a bum sitting in a dark doorway asked me if I had a cigarette.
About the author:
Bill Dixon is author of Disorderly Conduct, about the group he hung with in the 1960s at Ohio State, described as “A most curious assemblage of characters, indeed…a humorous account of misbehavior in ‘interesting times,'” and Guitar Collecting, a niche book about building a collection with minimal investment. He spends summers in Maine, where he has an art studio, and winters in mid-coastal Florida.
December 28, 2012 Comments Off on New Orleans in the A.M.
“Really, It Was a Miracle”
Autistic & Artistic
By Jeff Katz
To walk into the Leonard Tourne Gallery around 2:30 on Thursday, June 7, was both real and fantasy, an in-between world where my wife Karen constantly said “pinch me.” On the walls were the work of Nate Katz, artist. It was impossible to process. Most artists go a lifetime without a New York opening.
It’s impossible to express in less than book form the journey we’ve taken. Nate is our oldest child, nearing 22 years old. When he was three-and-a-half years old he was diagnosed with hyperlexia, a form of autism marked by precocious reading skills but limited comprehension. Nate’s diagnosis put a name on our worries and gave Karen and me something to work with, peeling away the mystery of this son of ours who was consumed by useless language, a non-stop stream of movie dialogue, snippets from his favorite books, and random sounds. Until that moment, we hadn’t known how to connect with this boy, who lived in his own private place, like Alice’s caterpillar surrounded by words, words made not of smoke, quick to evaporate, but a solid wall of words blocking our way. What would become of our Natey?
Flash forward to 2012. Nate is both a college graduate, having gained his Associate’s Degree from SUNY-Cobleskill in May after majoring in Graphic Design. He is talkative, though not skilled in conversation, but most certainly involved in our world. And he’s got real talent that comes out in the most interesting ways. One of his obsessions is drawing Illinois strip malls, the shopping malls he loves and has missed ever since we relocated from the Chicago suburbs to Cooperstown in June of 2003, to begin a different life, a life where I could give up my 20-year career in options trading and find greater fulfillment by devoting much of my time to Nate, helping him, despite his frequent opposition, to succeed in school and advocate for him wherever, and whenever, I could.
Nate’s strip malls drawings, done in colored pencil and faux-laminated with Scotch tape, caught the eye of one of my pals, Doug Miller. Doug is a partner in a fossil digging enterprise, Green River Stone Company, and has an artistic eye. He marveled at Nate’s work and was an immediate fan and collector. Doug thought the gallery he’s associated with through his fossils, the aforementioned Leonard Tourne Gallery, might be interested in Nate’s work. With much hesitation, Nate allowed Doug to take a few pieces down to New York. Before we knew it, the wheels were in motion, an opening date was selected and Doug and Karen were experimenting with custom cut Plexiglass frames. Nate’s pieces, like Nate himself, are hard to fit into prepackaged sizes and store bought frames were not an option. His work ranges from shopping center signboards drawn on magazine subscription cards, to 11 foot long monster pieces that, like a panoramic photo of a high school senior trip that takes so long to shoot that some people end up in the picture twice, start and end at the same place. That’s how we found ourselves on Broome St., smack dab in SoHo, on a sweltering June afternoon.
Nate walked into the room, checking out his work with great pride and attention. We stood amazed, jaws dropping as we met Javier, the gallery owner, and his staff. Their reaction gave it the imprimatur we need: this is really art, not a favor to a friend or charity case. They see the value in Nate’s art and, as a result, so do we. It would remain to be seen whether others would.
The opening started at 5, and after cruising around the galleries and music stores in the area, we were back at the gallery, waiting for the hoped for crowd. Although we had told Nate that, as the artist, he needed to answer questions and not growl (as he does with us), he retreated up the narrow staircase, apart from the main room. He did come down once things got rolling.
Among the first to show were my cousins, who found it all unbelievable. They know Nate, and have seen his work, but in that setting, with those prices, it was all hard to process. My cousin Alan trekked upstairs to see Nate, who had yet to come down. He said how proud he was of Nate, Nate said thanks, and it was all very normal, very familiar, until Alan gave Nate a peck on the cheek.
“Whoa,” said Nate. Even though he knows Alan, Nate never “really” knows most people and, at the moment of impact, probably wondered, “Who is this person giving me a kiss?”
Gale Gand, a dear friend for many years, and a celebrity chef, flew in from Chicago for the opening and brought a couple of friends with her. Her friends made history: they were the first buyers of an original Nate drawing of a Hilton Garden Inn Plaza.
When we saw that Javier was processing the sale, and putting a red dot on the label, there was a buzz that could be felt throughout the room. These folks didn’t know Nate, but something in the work struck home. The female of the couple often stayed at these Hiltons when she travelled. The picture meant something to her.
And that’s what is valid in Nate’s art. He sees these strip malls that we all scorn and dismiss as beautiful things, deserving of respect, without a hint of irony. There’s beauty there. Most of the rich and famous people in the country didn’t start out that way, and have fond memories of a family trip to a Hilton, or the first time they visited a Barnes & Noble Superstore, or a high school dinner at Ruby Tuesday’s. These places have value in our memories and Nate taps into that, unknowingly.
I think it’s unknowing. It’s hard to truly grasp what’s going on in his mind, but his art lends itself to criticism. Why does he see such joy in these places? Why is he obsessed? His details are fascinating. In some pictures he’s got little men, ant-like black silhouettes, who are doing work on ladders, putting up signs. He has notes to himself, or the viewer (though I’m not sure these works are made with a viewer in mind) that the five yellow-facaded stores are the former outline of a now defunct K-Mart location.
He also has timelines reminiscent of Donovan’s “There is a Mountain.” In these, Nate lays out the evolution of a site, from car dealership to vacant lot to new Wal-Mart. The things we see as permanent he knows are transient, and when laid out step by step, are somewhat sad and touching. All the hopes of a business dashed, then forgotten.
The room began filling up. More friends came in from Chicago and New York, some strangers, some gallery invitees. Erin Cox, my agent, was there, as were many college pals.
Nate was now amongst the crowd, checking in with me as the night went on, wondering if he had money. Nate finally bought into the whole “selling his art” theme once I told him he could use the money he made to fix his bathroom. Bathrooms are another obsession of his. I told him yes, not to worry, and pictures began to sell. Rick, a dear Chicago friend, bought a huge drawing, one of my favorites from Vernon Hills that was featured on the postcard mailing. Gale bought one, and so did a few others.
It’s one thing for friends to show up. It’s another for them to buy. Doug, who curated the show, explained to me that it’s a leap for people to buy art, even when they know you. Watching Javier walk the room, running credit cards through his handheld, was beyond belief, but not more so than Nate’s behavior.
Margrethe Lauber, Nate’s professor/adviser/guru, had told us that Nate should wear his “C boy” shirt. We are working on a business called “Alpha Folks,” which will produce and sell t-shirts and other products based on Nate’s original designs. These designs create character faces out of a single letter. Though still in its inception, the gallery opening was a great chance to market and show off the idea. I’d told Nate to have a picture of all his work on his iPad, ready to show. He dutifully saved aMission of Complexblog post with all the faces and he presented them throughout the night. People would come up to me commenting on how great they were and which ones they wanted to buy.
So there was Nate Katz, former uncommunicative autistic boy, showing his work to friends and family, some he knew, some he didn’t, and some he did know but couldn’t place. That led to one of my favorite moments.
Paul, another college friend, came in and I brought him to Nate.
“Nate, do you remember my friend Paul? We went out to eat once.”
“That was the Old Town Bar.”
“No Nate, that was with Paul Lukas,” I said. Paul L., UniWatch founder and ESPN.com columnist, was in attendance. “It was a Mexican restaurant.”
“No Nate, that was with Jason and Bethany,” my cousins, who were also there. “It was in Albany.”
That was it. I loved that Nate categorized everyone based on where we shared a meal.
Nate has a hard time socializing, but Karen and I witnessed something that was, if possible, more shocking than the gallery show itself. At one point, Nate began taking people by the arm and leading them to works of art, schmoozing and trying to sell. I wondered if his input made it easier or harder to lock down a deal. I think easier. At one point I’m sure I heard him say, “Oh, here’s a picture you might like.” At least that’s what I want to believe he said.
By the end of the night, I had a conversation with one of the gallery patrons, who told me that, as a mother of two, her eyes grew watery seeing Nate’s work. She wants to carry his “Alpha Folks” shirts when they are ready, as the gallery is looking at products to sell. How about that? Not only a show, but a potential SoHo outlet for his design work. That’s where are sights are set, getting “Alpha Folks” off the ground. Since the show ended, Nate has created a total of 104 individual works and we seem to be on our way. Just another in a series of unbelievable events.
There was a transformation that took place night, a change sometimes obvious and sometimes subtle. Look at this face:
That is not an expression we’re used to seeing, pleasure mixed with joy and pride. It’s the best picture of Nate I’ve ever seen, natural, real, beautiful. He’s on his way to success. We all feel it deeply. It’s happening already.
About the author:
Jeff Katz is the music editor of Ragazine.CC, mayor of Cooperstown, N.Y., and blogs at http://missionofcomplex.wordpress.com/. You can read more about him in “About Us.”
August 25, 2012 Comments Off on Jeff Katz / Memoir
Letter to the Editor
on the Morning After The Execution
I’m very sorry I won’t be meeting my deadline. I’ve been battling technology and all its little hiccups and disasters for a week now, attempting to make another deadline for a group show. And a podcast. And the new class I’m teaching. And the artwork for an album. And all of the little pieces I put out to the world hoping for some sort of human feedback wave to continuously wash over me and tell me I am still doing, still doing, still doing and not lost and not too sick or too tired or too brain-fogged.
It was in the background noise all this week, dropping in and out of the periphery… enough for me to shake my head at the country I left, that I find myself defending in spite of and despite of… because I miss it. That strange, warm, friendly and dangerous… failing, falling giant.
This morning, a break from battling yet another technology battle… I remembered it was set to happen last night. I started reading the news with all of the geographical and cultural and economical and situational distance between us. The sort of distance good reporting can provide. It all crashed when I read about his last meal.
He had refused the option of a last supper. He refused to accept that this thing looming closer could possibly happen. Whose nature could accept that? What nature could accept that? He had a cheeseburger and baked beans and grape soda. There was more, but that’s what I remember. The grape soda. There is something so vulnerable about a person eating. He had grape soda.
I have a tendency to position myself closer to animal rights than human rights issues. There is something personal in this I struggle to articulate, though I always manage to come up with something when I’m asked to defend this position… which happens more and more. It’s seen as a luxury that can’t be afforded. I believe in the interconnectivity of things… I believe these issues are connected. Today I find myself wondering, however, how we could possibly manage to take care of the flora and fauna of this world, when we could poison the life out of a human being and call it law.
Mornings like this I wonder if I should go on medication. I take a bath to attempt to thaw and lighten. I notice I forget to take a breath, so I inhale enough for three. The movement of my diaphragm pushing against the water causes a wave. The wave travels and returns just as I inhale again. For a little while, I am breathing with the water. I am thinking only of breath and feeling only the water.
Then I think of grape soda, and quickly switch to thinking of the class I have to teach tomorrow… and how will I get such a large file to England for a show… and did I finish everything for the podcast launch…and what will I write to Mike about not making the deadline…
All My Best,
About the contributor:
Maile Colbert is an intermedia artist with a concentration on sound and video, relocated from Los Angeles and living and working between New York and Lisbon, Portugal. She spent the last two years collaborating with Binaural/Nodar and is currently director of Cross the Pond, an organization based on arts and cultural exchange between the U.S. and Portugal.
She holds a BFA in The Studio for Interrelated Media from Massachusetts College of Art, and a MFA in Integrated Media/Film and Video from the California Institute of the Arts.
October 27, 2011 Comments Off on Maile Colbert/Letter to the Editor
and the Hughes-Plath
By John E. Smelcer
My friendship with Ted Hughes began unexpectedly in the fall of 1997. I had been invited to read my poetry at the Guildford Literary Festival in England. As a life-long Alaskan, many of the poems were about Raven. Afterward, an iron-gray-haired gentleman asked me to join him for pints at a pub just down the street from the Electric Theatre.
I have to admit that at the time I didn’t know he was the Poet Laureate of England and Sylvia Plath’s ex-husband. Needless to say, because free beer was involved, I accepted the invitation. Neither Ted nor I could have known the enduring consequences of that encounter and how I would become intricately bound to his legacy and history.
With similar interests in anthropology, mythology, and poetry, we had an enjoyable and lively conversation, which lasted right up until, as Eliot once wrote, the barkeep’s last Hurry up, please! It’s time. At some point, we began to co-write a poem about how Raven-Crow created Grendel in Beowulf, taking turns writing alternating lines, drunkenly hoisting Guinness to our poetic genius in between. I offer the poem for the first time.
Raven wanted a pet
so he slogged into a fen
fashioned a fanglorious beast
from filth and slime and muck
named it Grendel
stropped its wicked claws and teeth
stroked its mudruckled fur
then pointed at Hrothgar’s unwary keep
& the gorged and grisly creature
with a heap of bones
Within a week, Ted created a limited edition broadside of the poem, to which we both lent our signatures. Over the next couple of months, we corresponded about Raven Speaks, a slender booklet of my poetry Hughes was to publish from his home in Devon. Ted encouraged me to keep writing Raven poems for a future full-length volume akin to his Crow. Shortly after producing the chapbook, Ted was diagnosed with cancer. He passed away less than a year later from complications. Raven Speaks was among his last literary projects.
Six years later, in 2004, I was again in England, this time studying Shakespeare at Cambridge. I lived in Caius College, one of the oldest of the ancient colleges. Almost daily I walked past the house where Ted and Sylvia had once lived. One sunny afternoon I bought a used copy of Hughes’s Crow at an open-air market just across from King’s College, where dozens of stalls were set up around the cobblestone square – vendors selling everything from T-shirts to jewelry, from bread and pastries to fresh vegetables, local artwork to used books. I think I paid two pounds for it. Re-reading the book for the first time since Ted’s death, my interest was rekindled in a way that I can only call consuming. I immediately set out to write the full-length Native American cousin to Crow. The poems came out of me as fast as I could write them. I’ve never experienced such intense poetry writing like it since. I swear, at times I could barely breathe. In one memorable day alone, I wrote five of the poems! On the long trans-Atlantic flight home I wrote another three or four. Raven is finally complete and ready to take its rightful place alongside its older brother.
In 2006, I learned that Ted’s son, Nick, lived in Fairbanks, Alaska, where I grew up and attended elementary school, junior and senior high school, and university. At the time, I was living outside Anchorage. I introduced myself to Nick as a friend and disciple of his father. Nick and I were about the same age. Like me, Nick loved to fish. In the following two summers, we fished together for grayling on the upper Chena and Chatanika Rivers near Fairbanks. I even took him fishing near my cabin at Tazlina Village. I remember one day while fishing on the Chatanika, I caught a foot-long grayling. Just as I was about to lift it into the boat, the biggest pike we ever saw in our lives violently snatched the grayling off my line. It must have been four feet long and as thick around as a man’s thigh. We spent the rest of the day trying to catch that monster, but we never saw it again. On another fishing trip, Nick caught a salmon while standing on a steep bank. The fish literally yanked him off the slippery bank into the icy river. True fisherman as he was, when Nick re-emerged, he still had the salmon hooked. We grilled it for dinner that evening, complemented by a good bottle of wine.
For our last fishing expedition in the summer of 2008, I took Nick on a canoe trip down the Gulkana River. We used Nick’s orange, fifteen foot, plastic Coleman canoe, “putting in” at the headwaters at the south end of Paxon Lake. On the second day we hit a bad stretch of rapids. Our canoe got wedged sideways against a boulder and the raging water pressure crushed it. We swam safely to shore, but we lost everything. We followed the river for a while until I decided the best thing for us to do was to cut up the step valley and hike east until we hit the Richardson Highway, which parallels the river for maybe forty miles. Lucky for us, a passing tourist in a motorhome gave us a ride back to our vehicle. Coincidentally, the husband was a retired high school English teacher who flipped when he learned that Nick was Sylvia Plath’s son. I don’t recall the conversation entirely, but it went something like this:
“So, what ya’ fellas doin’ this far from any town?” asked the driver in an unmistakable Maine accent. “I haven’t even passed a gas station in about a hundred miles.”
“See that river in the valley down there?” I said, pointing out the left side window. “Yesterday, our canoe hit a boulder and went under with everything in it.”
“I’ve been admiring that river for some time,” replied the astonished driver. “You’re lucky to be alive in this country!”
We thanked him for picking us up and asked his name. He said it was Henderson or Hendrickson, said he was a retired high school English teacher from northern Maine.
Then he asked us our names. When Nick announced his the driver looked at him through the rearview mirror.
“Your accent sounds British.”
“Yep,” said Nick.
I could almost see the retired teacher’s brain thinking.
“Hughes . . . Hughes. You say you’re from England?”
“How old are you?”
“Forty-six,” replied Nick, who was a year older than I was.
The driver glanced at Nick again through the rearview mirror.
“Ever heard of Ted Hughes? He was Poet Laureate of England about a decade ago. Maybe longer. Used to be married to Sylvia Plath. Had a kid about your age.”
I remember Nick smiled at me.
“That was my mother and father,” he replied.
The astonished driver looked up again, driving into the oncoming lane.
“Holy smokes!” he exclaimed, slapping his knee with his right hand while gripping the steering wheel with the other. “I’ve used your mother’s The Bell Jar in my senior honors class for twenty-some-odd-years. What a coincidence, picking you up on the side of the road in the middle of Nowhere, Alaska and you being Sylvia Plath’s son!”
For the next twenty miles, Henderson-Hendrickson talked about how his students loved the novel, particularly the teenage girls.
“It’s still as poignant today as it was the day she wrote it,” he boasted, as if he had written it himself.
I think Nick liked hearing praise about the mother he never knew.
During my many visits to his home on the outskirts of Fairbanks, Nick would read my Raven poems and give his earnest feedback. Although a marine and fisheries biologist by training, I think Nick was happy to be connected to his father’s literary life through the book that Ted and I had begun together. We never really talked about his parents’ relationship. To be sure, I don’t think Nick had many memories of his mother. He was an infant when she died in 1963. But he did say on numerous occasions that deep down inside he believed he understood his mother’s sadness and despair. Many times, he said that he was worried that his mother’s depression was hereditary and that he’d end up like her. Two of his most common morose sayings were, “Nothing matters anymore” and, “I just don’t care about anything.” Naturally, I was alarmed, but Nick never made any specific references to self-harm. Besides, he promised to get counseling. The few times he ever talked about his parents, Nick complained about all the people who, over the years, had asked him for interviews about his mother or his father. I think Nick moved to Fairbanks – to the far most northern edge of the world – in an attempt to escape the limelight.
Unfortunately, like his mother, Nick was chronically depressed. From about December 2006 until August 2008, I drove up to Fairbanks every couple of months to spend a few days with Nick to cheer him up. He needed someone to talk to. At the time, in the middle of my equally devastating depression from a heart-wrenching divorce, I think I needed him, too. Our occasional visits heartened us both, temporarily. Every time I visited, we’d sit and watch Under the Tuscan Sun. We both loved its hopeful message that a new and happy life awaited on the other side of despair.
I left Alaska a week or so later to move to upstate New York to complete a Ph.D. in English and creative writing at Binghamton University. Nick and I communicated a few times after that. Six months later, on March 16, 2009, Nick hanged himself. I still feel that he might have lived had I stayed in Alaska. Maybe not. I’ll never know. I felt dreadfully guilty for so long that it was months before I wrote to his sister, Frieda, telling her how sorry I was and also that I, too, had lost a brother, just as she had, to suicide. I’m always saddened when I think about how intimately connected my life has been to the loss of the Hughes-Plath family tree.
About the Author:
John Smelcer is the author of over 40 books, including Beautiful Words: The Complete Ahtna Poems (foreword by Noam Chomsky) and his short story collection, ALASKAN, edited in part by J. D. Salinger, John Updike, and Norman Mailer. Educated at Oxford and Cambridge, two of his novels have been selected for England’s National Literary Trust’s Young Reader’s Recommended Booklist, and last year, The Independent named his novel Edge of Nowhere as one of the “Best Teen Books of 2010” while The Guardian listed it as “Recommended Summer Reading for Young Adults.” John’s poetry, short stories, and essays have appeared in over 400 magazines worldwide, including previous issues of Ragazine. He is poetry editor at Rosebud magazine. Learn more about him at www.johnsmelcer.com.
August 31, 2011 1 Comment