Sunday Night Journal — February 28, 2010
I call him the wizard because people who had read The Lord of the Rings
agreed that he reminded them very much of Gandalf. It’s difficult to say exactly why, though I think it would have been clear to anyone who knew both. I had not yet read the book, and would not do so until several years after I had dropped out of the revolution, but when I did read it I understood immediately why people had made the comparison.
He was tall—not extremely so, but taller than average—and although he was only twenty or twenty-one when I met him, there was a quality about him that suggested age. I think this was partly an effect of a chronic disease of the lungs, which may have been congenital; at any rate it had been with him for many years. He had spent a great deal of time in hospitals and was missing part of a lung. I assumed it was the disease which gave his voice a slight whispery or reedy quality—not weak exactly, but soft. It’s difficult to describe, but it was not the voice of a young man, and it was very distinctive. He had a strong brow, thick eyebrows, and deep-set eyes which sometimes gleamed in a wizardly sort of way. His glower was formidable, and yet he could look merry and childlike. He was generally quiet, but a clever and imaginative talker when he got started: I once saw him distract someone out of a bad LSD trip with a wholly improvised fairy tale.
There seemed to me an air of knowledge and wisdom about him, even a kind of authority, and I don’t think that’s only because he was a couple of years older than I (at an age when two years were significant), because other people seemed to sense it, too. As a part of the radical movement on and around campus he became a charismatic central figure because people instinctively turned to him for leadership.
None of this was apparent when I met him in the fall of 1966, my freshman year in college, nor for some months afterward. He was one of the occupants of the room next door to mine, and I don’t recall our initial meeting. My memory is of a shy, quiet, person bearing no sign of any attempt to be cool or fashionable, to look and behave like a college student was supposed to look and behave—I was aware of such things because most of my acquaintances at the time were in the fraternity-sorority crowd where they mattered a great deal. For the first few months of that fall I was trying to fit into that world, and I suspect, though I don’t remember clearly, that I didn’t really get to know the wizard until I had begun to give up on that hopeless effort.
He was an English major, which I was soon to become after beginning in the ridiculous delusion that I wanted to be, and was fit to be, a journalist. It is a source of fascination to me to think of the effect that short-lived notion had on my life. I had applied to Vanderbilt, and might have gone there if I hadn’t decided, sometime late in my senior year of high school, that because Vandy—home of the illustrious tradition of the Fugitives—didn’t offer a degree in journalism, I would go to Alabama instead. But by the end of the first semester, if not sooner, I had discarded the journalism idea.
For my first semester of freshman English I had an excellent teacher, a graduate student, who encouraged me to switch majors, and for my second semester a man whom I came to revere intellectually, Dr. Eugene Williamson. I think this was on the advice of both my first teacher and the wizard. Williamson was one of the two or three most capable and rigorous intellects in the department, an astringent and demanding teacher. It was in that second semester that my interest in literature really blossomed, along with my friendship with the wizard.
I don’t really remember anything very specific that we did
together; we only talked. We had in common a love for literature and learning and a deep sense of alienation from the world around us, and we talked and talked and talked. My roommate of the first semester moved out of the dorm for the second, and his roommate was an engineering student who spent a lot of time in labs or studying with other engineers, so we had a lot of opportunity for conversation. Neither of us had much of a social life (mine having mostly flamed out in the first semester, though I still had the occasional date). Apart from school, we had little else to do but talk. I don’t remember anything much we said, apart from a few fragments, but I do remember that we were very intrigued by what we had read of the radical bohemianism that had flowered in other parts of the country, and had a vague desire to be part of it.
I remember Sunday afternoons especially, long and quiet, but full of conversation. Sundays were a problem because no meals were served in the dorms on Sunday evenings, and we were at the extreme northwestern corner of the campus, and the business district of the town, where the restaurants were, was on the opposite side, a couple of miles away. So our Sunday afternoons were greatly occupied with figuring out how we were going to eat on Sunday night, which generally involved negotiations with someone who had a car (not everyone did then).
Sometime during that year he read The Lord of the Rings
and was completely captivated by it, going so far as to have a map of Middle Earth on his wall. I was intrigued by the map but didn’t think the book sounded like my cup of tea, and didn’t read it until perhaps 1973 or ’74—a great loss. I’m wondering now if he was the first to compare himself to Gandalf, and I can’t say for sure: perhaps he did, or perhaps he only said that he wished to be
Gandalf, or at least some sort of wizard.
He was certainly the closest friend I had ever had at that point in my life, and the first who seemed really to share my alienation. By the end of the school year we had decided to move out of the dorm and get an apartment together the following fall. We did so, and shared that apartment until the spring of 1970—that is, for the three school years of 1967-68, 1968-69, and 1969-70. We drifted apart as the waves of the revolution broke and subsided, but I still remember him as one of the most gifted and interesting people I’ve ever known.
Perhaps I overestimated him; apart from being older, he knew much more about literature than I did; he had some ability as a poet and certainly more aptitude for pure scholarship than I (or at any rate much more discipline). Later on someone would remark of that friendship that “he had so much influence”—meaning too much
—“over you.” I was a little startled by that, because I had never thought of it that way, but I recognized at once that it was true, or rather had been true, because by the time the remark was made it no longer was.
We talked less as time went on. As the frenzy of the revolution ramped up we began to go our separate ways, he very much at home in it, I much less so but trying hard to be, and correspondingly filled with anxieties of all sorts. Our apartment was often crowded with people, and we didn’t always have the same friends. In time the conversations became less frequent and less a meeting of minds. But I see us sitting there on a winter evening, across the room from each other, the blue flame of a gas space heater burning in one corner and me filling the little place with cigarette smoke. The smoke must have made him miserable, given his respiratory problems, but he never complained, and it was only years later that I realized how blindly inconsiderate I had been.
I still don’t know what he wanted from the revolution, what he expected it to accomplish, and I’m not at all sure that he knew, either. If he had a clear political ideology I was not aware of it. He seemed to have the revolutionary spirit without revolutionary doctrine. I don’t think it is unfair of me to suggest that he was interested in making trouble for the sake of making trouble, a project for which I had a great deal of sympathy.