Years Beneath the Pines: Whom the gods don't love
LUDWIG RANG, ALUMNUS CONTRIBUTOR
As an English major, I was taking advanced courses,
including one in literary criticism taught by Professor Larry Hall. Due
to the relatively small number of students, all of them seniors, who were
enrolled in this course, it was conducted like a seminar at Larry Hall's
home on Orr's Island.
Among the half dozen or so students participating in
it was Ed Podvoll, who shared the top floor at Union Street with me and
Zal Colodny. Ed occupied the large room in front, and now that Bob Morrison,
who graduated in June '56, was no longer around for long chats in his
room at the fraternity house, I struck up a similar friendship with Ed.
Though both Jewish, Ed and Zal couldn't have been more
different either in appearance or character. Short and stocky, Ed, with
curly reddish hair and an extremely pale complexion, wasn't "exactly pretty,"
to use his own words.
Zal, on the other hand, was tall and slim--a darkish
type with smooth skin and manner, who clearly considered himself a bit
of a ladies' man.
Still a bit jealous, I think, that I had beaten him
to the job of chauffeuring Nellie, he used to pull my leg about "making
love to old ladies." With his dark good looks, Zal strongly reminded me
of my Philadelphia friend Simon, by now in the Navy and stationed, lucky
devil, with the Seventh Fleet in the Mediterranean, with his home base
at Villefranche not far from Nice.
Intellectually, however, I felt more drawn to Ed. A
doctor's son and soon to become an MD himself-though at present in a Buddhist
retreat near Paris, Bob Morrison tells me-Ed's main interests at college
seemed to be religion, philosophy, and literature.
I spent hours in Ed's room, with him telling me about
the writings of Karl Barth, Heidegger, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Martin Buber-little
more than names to me. I also listened to him reading or reciting favorite
bits of poetry by T.S. Eliot, and, as with Bob, we also listened to favorite
pieces of music.
Not surprisingly, Ed was one of the stars in the small
group that once or twice a week made their way out to Orr's Island for
Larry Hall's course on Literary Criticism. Usually, we went in "Jancy,"
with me at the wheel of the large and rather top-heavy Wilys jeep that
was lent to me by Bill, a philosophy major who ended up teaching at the
University of Vermont.
Larry Hall was the least professorial-looking of teachers
imaginable. Small and wiry, and as a rule casually dressed in blue jeans
and a lumberjack shirt when teaching us at his home, he might have been
anything but a college professor. In fact, he looked more like the hobby
boat builder that he actually was in his spare time.
A veteran of World War II, Larry had published short
stories in the manner of Stephen Crane's Red Badge of Courage--only
brought up to date. In both manner and appearance, he was the complete
opposite of Professor Louis Coxe, who was the latest addition to the English
department and the author of a dramatization of Billy Budd, which was
produced on Broadway, as well as a poet with a somewhat effete manner.
Of the two, I by far preferred Hall, with a reputation
as a battle-scarred ladies' man in the mould of Ernest Hemingway. Larry,
it was said, had swapped wives with his neighbor on Orr's Island, each
divorcing his own and then marrying the other.
Judging by his new wife's looks and personality, he'd
come out the winner in this unconventional deal. Rather blunt in manner
and on occasion sharp-tongued, Larry took each and every one of us to
task without unduly sparing our feelings.
Having to compete with some of the brightest boys in
the department, I was no longer the "teacher's pet" as I had been two
years earlier in Herbie Brown's course on American literature. Nor was
Larry above correcting my English.
For example, while reading a paper out loud and pronouncing
the word "interdict" as written, he promptly, though with a good-natured
grin on his weather-beaten face, corrected me, saying it was pronounced
"interdite." I was so taken aback and embarrassed that I handed him my
paper to read it out loud for me.
The fact that I haven't forgotten this little incident
shows how deeply it must have affected me. However, looking the word up
in Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary just now, I find that the phonetic
spelling given corresponds to the way I pronounced it all those years
ago after all. Maybe American usage differs.
Despite such little upsets, I enormously enjoyed Larry
Hall's seminar-far better than one I was to take part in at Columbia a
year later under Charles van Doren, the whiz kid of NBC's "21" quiz show,
famously rigged, though not yet found out and disgraced.
Teaching was a great life, the quiz show star used to
tell us, laughing all the way to the bank. Larry Hall, on the other hand,
was a far more convincing teacher and a loveable character in his own
right, just like Herbie Brown.
I liked and shared Larry's irreverent approach to life
and literature. Neither of us, for example, cared much for Dickens, as
we one day laughingly confessed to one another, apart from Tale of
Two Cities, his least typical novel. I am sorry old Larry isn't around
anymore to have a good chuckle over what I've written about him.
One time on the way back from Orr's Island, with four
or five of us in the car, and me at the wheel trying to take evasive action
to avoid smashing into the car in front, having suddenly stopped to turn
off to the left, top-heavy "Jancy" went wildly careening on two wheels
for a few frightening moments, before just in time righting herself again.
Everyone except me laughed, trying to make light of
the danger we'd been in. But looking back, one can imagine the headlines
in local papers: Five Students Killed As Jeep Turns Over.
The near-accident happened on the road between Bath
and Brunswick, close to a drive-in where I'd seen East of Eden
with a brilliant young actor called James Dean, little knowing this bright
new star in the Hollywood firmament was destined to be killed in a road
accident at the height of his youthful fame.
Those whom the gods love die young, they say. Happily,
they don't seem to have loved me or my friends in the car coming back
from Orr's Island that day.
Not that much anyway.