Tyche

        To the goddess Tyche I probably did yield early.  I have long since resigned myself beneath her sway, as all creation must.  Science looks for our beginnings in amino acid, RNA,
some kind of stuff, but Time needs Chance alone.  Nor have I found it contradictory to link Tyche with the more distant majesty of an ultimate Creator.  Oh some very fine minds do reject such a flighty diety.  Einstein's scornful verdict has become famous:  "Our Lord God does not shoot craps."  That was his reaction in Copenhagen to quantum mechanics (Unser Herrgott würfelt nicht)--perhaps chafed that the very foundation of modern physics went back to his own theories about random (Brownian) motion.  In any case, our Dustbowl theology vehemently rejected her, finding blasphemous any suggestion that mere trial and error governs all life and growth and choice in the State of Texas.    But I did fear and revere and love God, so who was I to quibble about His workers, or their tedious progress?  As to my own understanding, I just hoped it would not deceive me quite beyond redemption.

        Christmas of 1938--times were still hard in Gainesville--I got a bicycle so large that I took many a distant fall before I mastered it.  But it was a fine bike, quite distinctive for its double-bar construction.  About five years later, riding on a street in Houston, I was startled to see another just like it--the rider of that bike, an unusually beautiful boy named Jan LeCroy, was also startled at the look alike.   Jan was actually pretty far from his home at that moment.  Although he and I never attended the same school, he came often to my house, and we took long bike rides together.  After the war, his family moved to Hot Springs and mine to Texarkana, but we continued to meet, we hitch-hiked together between Hot Springs, Texarkana, and Houston.  Our parents resided in separate worlds.  I heard that Jan had received an appointment to Annapolis, and as it turned out, my mother had a cousin with political connections who was able to obtain for me an appointment not to Annapolis, but to West Point.  Although I had by this time finished two years at the University of Arkansas, I accepted the “free education," and in the summer of 1950 became a freshman at the United States Military Academy.  I resigned from the Academy in time to return to the University of Arkansas for the fall semester.  

        I would very much like to know what that episode tells about me as a boy.  What I am able to remember is acting under compulsion and resolve during the weeks (or months?) it took me to convince my superiors that I did indeed wish to resign.  I remember my dread at the merits and demerits regime, perhaps feeling that I could not cope with it.  The place itself of course seemed desolate, but surely I had become accustomed to loneliness; I think my isolation there was not much different from at the University of Arkansas, where I had spent my freshman and sophomore years.  I have wondered what might have become
of me had I stuck it out in the military.  West Point has proved a powerful launching pad for careers.  Annapolis was that for Jan.  For me the army might not have worked out quite so well.  The Korean war, which began that very summer I entered West Point, was held up before me by my superiors as a powerful argument against my resigning:  they said I would just be drafted and sent to Korea.  Did I understand the gamble I was taking?  Does the risk show my eagerness to get away?

        As I gaze back upon that boy using a razor blade to remove the military stripe from his gray wool pants to finally leave the Military Academy, and scuffing the mirror polish off his shoes as he at last walks down the stairs to the exit, I wonder how to judge him.  Had he at nineteen somehow already acquired an intuitive premonition as to
what the profession ultimately does amount to, or would the more straightforward judgment be correct: that he was just a "quitter"?

        The conscription law in those days allowed college deferment.  In early 1953, in order to demonstrate to the Texarkana draft board that I was making progress, I prettied up a seminar paper from the University of Illinois, submitted it as a Master's thesis to Arkansas, made a special trip back to Fayetteville to take my oral examination, and proudly sent the diploma to Texarkana to show my draft board I was making progress.

        Almost by return mail, I received my reclassification to 1-A--the first category for the draft.  Well, I made a special trip to Texarkana in order to explain that I had not yet completed my studies, but had just wanted to apprise them of my progress.  I was brusquely informed that the entire draft board had resigned in protest against college deferments, to which they strongly objected.  As a consequence, a new board was now sitting, my deferment had been approved
(classification to 2-A, I believe).  --All of which does not really address the rationality of my decision to give up the prestigious West Point degree.

        At age nineteen to twenty, a young man is most subject to the luck of the draw, for better or for worse.  Youth, like a plant raising her head in blossom, longing for surrounding life, develops according to the same inner structures that brought her here.  She is wistfully seeking where seed cast to the wind can take root in strange soil and at last open their potential to the wide world before higher gods.  My notion was to continue for a third year at the University of Arkansas, then go on to law school.  After two more years (that was the way it was in those days) I would receive both my J.D. and B.A. in June of 1955.  "Man proposes, God disposes." 

Study

        Tyche bent the twig in the simplest way imaginable.  One day in the spring sun of 1951, I stood on the steps of Old Main at the University of Arkansas, probably smoking a cigarette.  I was joined there by J. Wesley Thomas, a glorious bass baritone, somewhat husky, with thinning auburn hair.  His general bearing and good-natured stoic acceptance of things may have been reminiscent of my father--and indeed Wesley Thomas became one of those men who, like Frank Haile and Russell Jones, showed a benign interest in me without demanding any response at all, merely offering their existence as a kind of model should a young man need one.  These were mostly men born around the turn of the century, the last of them being Ernst Philippson.  I remember realizing that neither Philippson nor Thomas had really taught me much about our field of study, but that I had learned from them something more important:  the posture of a scholar.  I believe that young males, by nature, are not good learners (although they may make dangerously proficient followers).  They are apt to be led by a "male bond," probably older than humanity.  It certainly goes back farther than humankind's awareness of fatherhood, back to an epoch when all the mature males in the clan, especially of course those closest to the mother, were likely to succor, then recruit their juniors.  I never developed close ties to any of them, even to Professor Thomas, who was nearer my age than the others.

        As we stood there before Old Main, Thomas was probably not yet forty.  Right after finishing his Ph.D. degree in 1942, he had gone into the Army language school for Russian and then become an officer in the Navy. After the war he had got a job at the University of Michigan, then come to Arkansas in hopes of building a graduate program, perhaps with a comparative slant together with his friends from English, Claude Faulkner and Duncan Eaves.  Thomas wanted to know whether I might be interested in teaching beginning German the following fall.  In those days that was called a graduate assistantship:  a small stipend paid to graduate students who took on an undergraduate teaching assignment.  Since I was only in my junior year, graduate standing seemed well beyond my reach in that spring of 1951.  But the Goddess had already been long at work, indeed for centuries.

        As is well known, the Protestant Reformation did truly have its inception as an attempt at reform.  The Church in the 16th century was a monolithic, comprehensive bureaucracy with extensive enforcement powers.  The reformers translated the Bible out of Greek, Hebrew, and Latin and popularized it as a sacred guide.  This tactic for reform had edifying consequences even for the Roman Church itself as well as for the protesters who had been driven out of it.  In subsequent centuries appeal to the ancient text spawned endless back-to-the-Bible movements.  Most far reaching was the sectarian personification of God in accordance with the tales in the Old Testament.  Brooding Calvinists determined that since God already knew all things, then the lot of each individual soul clearly had to be pre-ordained.  One Calvinistic group recognized that if John the Baptist had totally immersed Lord Jesus, then no mere sprinkling could suffice for lesser mortals.  One  group of these "Baptists" i
n England noticed that the Old Testament Sabbath fell on the seventh day of the week, hence not on a Sunday at all.  These Seventh-Day Baptists established some of the first schools along our own western frontiers.  My mother attended one such.   After leaving her one-room school in Roberts, Arkansas where she finished McGuffy's Sixth Reader, with its texts beyond most college graduates today (and some professors), my mother was ready for higher things.  At Fouke's new Seventh-Day School a very handsome young missionary arrived straight from China, Henry Gideon Fitz Randolph.  He taught the children a foreign language, German.    When, nearly forty years later, my mother's son confronted the foreign language requirement at the University of Arkansas, what else could come to his mind than that same language?

        My teacher turned out to be a Mrs. Garcia, her main language, Spanish.  I found the learning materials, standard fables and simple literary texts (Evans and Rösseler), mildly interesting.  The close attention required by a new language revealed more about the poet's work than I had been accustomed to heed.

        I remember coming to a theory at about that time, that one cannot really appreciate the power of one's native language at all until one has wrestled with another.  Having formed this conviction, I was delighted to come upon Goethe's aphorism, "He who knows no other language does not know his own, either."  I do not recall feeling any special attraction to German, but the mental changes effected by learning it did constitute a new experience in my life.  This in contrast to the mortifying dullness of English literature, as well as of history, political science, even mathematics.  I remember finding some classes, psychology for example, to be parodies on themselves.

        One college course from which I can remember the content was Goethe's Faust in English translation, taught by a palsied old German named Dr. Alfred Lussky.  He was a member of that generation who had come to America about the turn of the century with a sincere mission.  Such men understood teaching German as nothing less than introducing untutored young barbarians to Western Civilization.  Of course, precisely such hybris had doomed the German people and devastated their homeland.  It had happened
during my own lifetime, but I did not make the connection.  I went ahead to take a course from Wesley Thomas where we actually read and discussed in German.  I believe there may have been only three of us in the class:  Kenneth Ober (of whom more later), some pretty little girl whose name I forget, and I.  I do not remember Thomas as an inspiring teacher, but the poems and Novellen from German Romanticism constituted my first acquaintance with the charms of literature.   At this juncture Tyche arranged that conversation on the steps of Old Main.  It gave rise to the idea of graduate study.

        It turned out that I could indeed obtain status as graduate student if I could advance, before 
the fall semester, to within fifteen hours of graduation.  I enrolled in summer school for enough credits to bring me to the crucial number, thus in the fall I had room for one graduate course.  Being a graduate student meant that I could also be given a class to teach.  Among my students that fall were veterans who had recently been stationed in Germany, no doubt some had even brought home their girlfriends.  Such veterans were much amused at a teacher who came to class on Tuesdays and Thursdays in military uniform (as a freshman I had weaseled out of required ROTC, and could not now get my B.A. without making up the deficit).  My own knowledge of German scarcely went beyond the current lesson, I was a nervous chain smoker who once dropped a flaming matchbook on the lectern, used in the next hour by Professor Thomas.

       But I did for the first time in my life set out to learn.  In retrospect, my "choice" of German language and literature just at this moment in history, and way out yonder in the Ozark Mountains might seem a little sad--might not, indeed, seem to have been my choice at all.  It did at least constitute a juncture.  At this point I began to pursue a purpose.  It had consequences, whether informed or even intended.  I was at least trying to learn.


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