mossbunker review

essays*letters*history

defenestratio

I was hardly awake the next morning as I floated the three blocks to the southeast corner of campus then labored up the hill to Bradley Hall. I was sipping my first cup of coffee from my Yeti, and had my plaid Thermos, circa 1960, in my rucksack filled with more Peet’s Italian Roast brew. It was Tuesday, so I did not teach but had office hours, after which I was to lunch with Professor Fieler. He had asked to meet because he had fresh thoughts on the murder investigation and said mine was the only coffee he could tolerate. I hoped there would be something more substantial than mere coffee and carbs, but Fieler loved doughnuts almost as much as my coffee. At least the preferred shop across from the campus had Maple Bacon doughnuts with thick slabs of smoked rashers atop taupe frosting made from powdered sugar and Mrs. Butterworth’s. There was more than one way to squeeze in some protein though Fieler made it difficult. He would ridicule my piggy bun as a travesty. He always ate plain and dunked them till a swirl of crumbs appeared as a crust atop the long-cold beverage.

Desiccated Joe was on my mind as I drew near to Bradley Hall and noticed a huge cone of black stuff that looked like coffee grounds, but was probably topsoil piled more than ten feet high right against the east wall of Bradley. Nearby was a group of ten undergraduates who were standing akimbo, silently gaping at the stack. Was Campus Maintenance digging up a sewer line? As I got close, I saw no hole. Is this landscaping? I noticed that the windows in the classroom above the pile of dirt were open, and I could see figures in the classroom darting back and forth. Was there a scuffle? I could then hear raised voices in the heat of some sort of argument, and I thought I recognized the shouts of the loudest combatant. It was Fieler!

I entered Bradley and hurried up the steps to the second floor. My office was in the third, and I was already late, but I wanted to see what was happening. I noticed my breathlessness as I pushed through the door that opened into the hallway and turned to the right. I don’t have to go far. It was Fieler’s classroom, and the volume was amplified in the cold industrial corridor. It sounded like a pack of hungry dogs snarling at one another. I looked over the heads of two women students who were standing just outside Room 203.

Dr. Richard Fieler was conducting a lecture in Early Modern European History. What sounded like a free for all was just Fieler pressing in his most earnest tones for a volunteer to take part in his demonstration. “Every semester you all complain about how boring my lectures are because you are barbarians in the most sincere sense of the term!" he said. I could see the students working out this insult. Barbarians were somehow progressivist heroes in their video game lives.

“So, ‘here is the opportunity,’ as Casey Stengel used to say!" Fieler was winding up even more if that was possible but the barbarians had no idea who Stengel was. “You can avoid a nasty, dry lecture by helping me demonstrate this crucial event in the seventeenth-century that ignited a continental war! Perhaps we should be so lucky! We could start a war here and now and you could say you did one thing of significance in your life! Come now! And I have gone to great lengths to correctly simulate the original events!"

A small, wiry undergraduate male with short brown hair and a tattoo on the side of his neck that looked like a red and black cumulus cloud stood up with a wry grin on his face. “Professor Fieler, I’ll volunteer!" Fieler was pleased. "Why, Mr. Strange, I thought you were asleep. By all means, jump up there!"

Strange jumped up on the windowsill and Fieler, quick as a cat, leaped up beside him and put him in a half-nelson and looked out the window at the ground. I could sense he was estimating distance. The classroom erupted in laughter, and things began to move in slow motion. Someone shouted. Was that me? “RICHARD, NO!" He was shifting Strange’s weight from Fieler's left to his right side—toward the open window. But he stopped and stared at me. The eyes of every student in the full room turned toward me in silence. The bell rang, the period had ended, and the barbarians departed taking Strange with them.

“Good heavens, Bill," Fieler said in his debating voice. “Whatever did you do that for?"

“Richard, there are safer ways to demonstrate the Defenestration of Prague!" I remonstrated.

“Perhaps, but look now! What a shame to waste all this damn beautiful manure. I would have to get Crowley to haul it back to the University Gardens."

“You asked the building custodian to haul several tons of manure a mile so you could throw a student out the window?" I gasped.

“He had nothing else to do. Besides, he could get into the horticulture department to get the key to the gate. Because of his uniform."

“What? They don’t know it’s missing? He stole all their poop?"

He donned his hurt look, staring at the ground. “Not all of it, just what I calculated that was needed."

“Calculated? You teach in the humanities! What do you know about calculations? It was foolish!" I regretted the last comment even as it escaped my lips.

He drew himself up proudly. “It was not foolish! I am AN historian! I researched it, and this pile of poop is the exact size the Bohemian shit pile had to be, and just as the imperial representatives would have survived, so Strange would have come off without a scratch. He would not have smelled much worse than he already does, and it might have stimulated his otherwise sluggish little gray cells!"

I was speechless before this puffed-up little man with wild hair and a ridiculous pocket protector. A small spiral notebook protruded from the pocket with pens and pencils sticking out like porcupine quills. I laughed first. The tension was broken. He laughed and clapped his hands together.

“I am late for my office hours. Are we going to discuss the case?" I asked.

“Did you bring your coffee? It is the only coffee worth drinking around here," he said. “And I’ll treat for doughnuts—as long as they are the plain kind."

Since ancient times, Christians have practiced rituals that celebrate dedicating those who are set apart to service for Christ. The university-as-we-know-it, an institution that is present throughout the world, grew out of medieval cathedral schools in the late 11th century: First at Bologna in Italy, closely followed by Paris and Oxford, universities grew out of the necessity to train leadership for the church. From this flourishing time of the late Middle Ages, the Encaenia [pronounced EN-SEEN-YA], or ritual of dedication to God's service, has remained an integral part of the academic life of universities.

The Encaenia is still celebrated today at Oxford University, established by masters more than 900 years ago. At Oxford, the academics parade to the Sheldonian Theatre to read poetry and essays (much of it in Latin), and to recognize the achievements of those on whom they confer honorary awards. The Oxford Encaenia is a lovely combination of tradition, decorum, and just plain fun. This same mix is present in the grand joke that Oxford has played upon the academic world by inventing and employing the funny mortarboard hats some of us wear in academic ceremonies--an exaggerated outgrowth of the biretta headgear worn by medieval priests.

The Encaenia is a wholly academic ritual but is also entirely Christian in its symbols and traditions. Both the gown and hood remind us of the ecclesiastical origins of university teaching, and yet, at the same time, it makes no distinction between the sacred and the secular.

The great Oxford and Cambridge don, C. S. Lewis no doubt had the Encaenia in mind when he penned the following words in his 1941 A Preface to Paradise Lost, (ch. 3) lectures he delivered at a Welsh University at the height of World War II:

In a ceremonial parade...all these wear unusual clothes and move with calculated dignity. This does not mean that they are vain, but that they are obedient...The modern habit of doing ceremonial things unceremoniously is no proof of humility; rather it proves the offender's inability to forget himself in the rite, and his readiness to spoil for everyone else the proper pleasure of ritual.

E. B. "Andy" White (1899-1985), acclaimed writer for The New Yorker magazine and author of such classics as Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little, and The Elements of Style (with his former professor, William Strunk) had graduated at the top of his class at Cornell but could not land a job in New York in his field of journalism or anything else. So he bided his time typing out poems, short stories, and letters on his Corona typewriter hoping that he could launch a career in writing.

He finally found a job doing publicity work for the American Legion News Service in 1921 but hated the job. Never one to keep set hours, White felt that the job did not give him time to develop as a writer with his own voice. The final blow to his position came when he discovered that the more experienced writers he wanted to emulate despised public relations workers. Publicity was considered to be a newly invented and overpaid occupation that caused its practitioners to compromise their souls when the company forced them to spout the party line.

Early in 1922, White drew $400 out of savings and bought a Ford Model T roadster. He conspired with his friend, and Cornell dropout, Howard Cushman, to quit their dreary jobs in the city and make a road trip west--across the United States. They did not have nearly enough money to make the trip so they planned to take their Corona typewriters and write stories and travelogues for their daily bread and, failing that, do any odd jobs that were available for the next sack of groceries and tank of gas.

In the early 1920s, the vast network of highways that we associate with modern American culture did not yet exist. In one great stretch of the trip--the 1400 miles from Minneapolis to Spokane that eventually landed them in Seattle--there were no paved roads. They drove across North Dakota prairie land mostly in wheel ruts, somehow called a highway, surrounded by tall grasses that obscured their side view. Even the more “developed” states had concrete roads that were more like one-lane sidewalks. When two automobiles came directly toward one another, one had to yield and pull over to the dirt track that ran parallel to the paved road.

One day White and Cushman drove into Lexington, Kentucky and decided to experience something that undoubtedly had been on their bucket list: to bet on a horse race. They each had $2 to bet. Cushman was more thoughtful than White and studied the steeds carefully and decided to bet on the favorite. White was more intuitive and chose his horse based on his fondness for its name: Auntie Mae. A 12-1 underdog, the laconic and bedraggled Auntie Mae looked completely out of place among the other spirited contestants but miraculously prevailed while Cushman’s horse did not even place. White won the enormous sum of $24.

White learned about the dangers of overweening beginner’s luck the hard way. He and Cushman decided to drive to Louisville and take in the 1922 Kentucky Derby. This time each invested six dollars using White’s fail-safe system. At the end of the day, White had sixty cents left and Cushman lost the entire wad. What to do? White pulled out his Corona typewriter and composed a sonnet memorializing the winning horse, called Morvich, that had broken their hearts. He drove to the office of the Louisville Herald and sold the sonnet to the editor for five dollars. The next morning White and Cushman saw the poem that helped them recoup their losses displayed prominently on the front page.

White wrote to his girlfriend, Alice: “I now claim the distinction of being the only person that ever wrote a sonnet to a race horse and got away with it.”

Photo by Thomas Shellberg, splash.com
Photo by Jeremy Bishop splash.com
Photo by Hope Black hopeblack.photography

Do you remember when we were young and free from concerns of time and place, and when we would encounter eternal moments by chance? We would drive east along prairie highways that rolled and snaked through broad meadows of tall bleached corn stalks, fenced by wooded domes and moated by crumbling gullies.

It was during the literal hour our folks taught us to call evening. Behind us, the retiring sun reddened every shiny facet of flora that had invisibly reflected the sunlight at noon. Now it gave creation a Sleepy Hollow cast, and we sped through together, alone, without fear, intent on capturing the treasured moment forever. But we envied Katrina Van Tassel her realm and longed to sample apple dumplings in their dappled syrup that ran down our chins. If we stopped, we would don sweaters and hold one another close as the spin of the earth stole our golden moment, though it remained in our memories.

Today I uncovered those memories by chance and glimpsed again those gilded fields when I felt the first crisp air of autumn rush by my face, and felt the longing to drive east again with you.