A Teacher (2)

A few years ago, another former teacher of mine, Mort Castle — also a longtime friend of G.E. Smith — helped G.E. pull together the hundreds of poems he had written since he was a boy in central Illinois and select some to be self-published in what turned out to be a pretty hefty volume called “Long Trails from Pleasant Hill.”

At various times, G.E. talked about his youthful ambition to be a writer. Most of the time he was dismissive of his own efforts, though occasionally he would talk about the factors that led him in other directions. For instance, that other writers had already said what he wanted to say, except better (published writers are the ones who realize this and keep going anyway). More significantly: His teaching absorbed so much of his time, intellectual energy and creative attention he didn’t really have the resources to follow his writing seriously. That was not an excuse: He poured all of himself into his classes and students, to the point where the demands he placed on himself brought him to and beyond the point of exhaustion. As Mort remembered in his little introduction to “Long Trails”:

“In 1968, I was Smith’s student teacher. I saw him in action, ‘grading papers,’ and it was not a quick-scrawl ‘Nice figure of speech’ here and ‘comma splice’ there. Not infrequently, a student who handed in a two-page paper received four pages of comment, comment not limited to correcting apostrophe goofs and refining expression, but personal commentary, a Smithian response to what was said and how it was said.”

Still, G.E. had the 800 or so poems, maybe in a picturesque heap that he thought of as organization, probably piled in the post-World War II semi-finished concrete-shell basement of his co-op apartment unit at 134 Dogwood in Park Forest. They probably would have stayed that way except for Mort and a change in G.E.’s own thinking about what his writing represented. “After I left college, I had no interest in publishing my poetry,” he wrote in his book’s preface. “It wasn’t until I began to think, as a genealogist, about how anything written by ancient relatives — even in signature — was (or could have been) so extraordinarily precious that I decided to consider publishing. I realized that I, too, someday, would likely be a long-ago ancient relative to someone who was pursuing my family history.”

So he and Mort brought out the book. I’d like to say that when it arrived here in Berkeley a few years back, I dove into it. But I didn’t. G.E. wrote a long inscription that thanked me, for among other things tracking down a copy of an obscure futurist novel that he had read while sailing from Europe to the Pacific as a Navy Seabee during World War II. I flipped through the book and stopped at a few of the poems. I probably found the project of reading more than a little overwhelming; and I’m sure I also had a tinge of envy and regret that I was holding yet another book by someone I knew while I myself had produced — what, exactly? (If I had ever said anything like that to G.E., he would have had something reassuring to say, then maybe started a conversation about why exactly I thought writing a book was important. Mort would have just said to sit down and start writing if I wanted to publish a book.)

G.E.’s funeral is tomorrow, down in the town where he went to and first taught in high school, Lexington. Afterward, I imagine there will be a long, long procession out to the tiny cemetery in his real hometown, Pleasant Hill, about three miles away. It will be by far the biggest event that would-be city, which started withering when the railroads bypassed it in the 1850s, has ever seen. G.E. and his grandfather and probably many others to whom he unearthed family ties have been cemetery caretakers there; we visited the spot together a couple of times a good 30 years ago; I think I was aware even then, when he was younger than I am now, that this was where G.E. hoped to come back to; not a patch of dirt in a swath of farm and prairie, but a place where his people were.

Feeling sad about the prospect of missing G.E.’s funeral, I picked up his book of poems. I thought, there’s got to be something in there where he talks about his own passing. I turned to the back of the book, to the section whimsically titled “Fear, Aging and Death.” And found this, dated 1990:

Grave Notes from the Underground

When I am dead,
who will enter this quiet sanctuary
and, speaking softly,
(Don’t shout!
I’m not deaf, you know.)
tell me the news I want to know?

Did the Cardinals win last night–
and who was the winning pitcher?

Did the bluebirds sing this spring
on the trail along Bluebird Lane?

Has the Big One ever struck
San Andreas or New Madrid faults?
(And am I safe in Pleasant Hill?)

Have politicos on Capitol Hill
yet understood the limits …
… and limitations … of capitalism?

Do my friends I loved so much
… just once in a while, perhaps …
call or visit each other?

From the knoll and the gnarl of Old Flat-top,
does anyone ever watch, as I once did,
the sunsets west of the sanctuary?
Or the April sunrise on the trail
as it enters Canary Clearing?

Does a cool breeze still stir the air
under the sinuous branches of Old Flat-top?

Do Browns and Boggs still gather
for reunions in July?
(Or do they go their separate ways,
ignorant of the roots that nourished them?)

Is warmth still there at one-three-four
on Dogwood Drive?
Is someone nurturing those
in need of nurturing?

Who came to say goodbye
as I lay freshly dead?

I know, I know.
I can’t reply.
Nothing has really changed.
I rarely had a chance,
when lifeblood-flowed and tongue was ripe,
to sneak a word in edge-wise.

Hey, take it easy there.
Your clomp’s so hard it’s apt to wake the dead.

More on G.E. Smith
Happy 80.5, G.E.
A Teacher
In Which We Gather by the River

Technorati Tags: ,

Happy 80.5, G.E.

Back on the 2nd of the month, friend and former high school English teacher at Crete-Monee High School, G.E. Smith, was the honoree at a big bash celebrating his 80th birthday (which was actually January 2; but out of respect for the majority of humanity that doesn't want to travel to northern Illinois in the dead of winter, he waited until the unbearably hot, muggy days of early July to stage a fete). I didn't make it — new job, just returned from a trip to the Midwest, et cetera.

He had asked me to speak at the event — to be one of a panel of people who would "roast" him. Even though I couldn't go to the party, I made a last-minute stab at writing something for someone else to read. This is it:


From a distance of about four or five months, I loved the idea of roasting G.E. What a natural target! The first guy I knew who used a pocket protector! And who *always* carried nine or ten different pens in his shirt pocket — black ink … and blue, red, green, brown, orange, purple, yellow and … invisible.

And yeah, there was his fridge. Stocked with the full array of Ocean Spray products and maybe a pickle jar with just the pickle water still in it and some leftovers that were evolving into new life forms. He had handwritten tags on some jars — an opportunity to exercise his sense of humor. Here's a label — "gorilla beds." "Gorilla beds?" you'd ask more or less innocently. He'd look at you and say, "Ape-ricots."

Get it? And that illustrates another key facet of the G.E. persona: Unashamedly bad punster.

Of course, G.E.'s friends at the E.P.A. eventually declared the fridge a Superfund site — at least that's what the newspaper said. But not before G.E. had demonstrated to his many visitors what he suggested was a genetic capacity to eat old, over-the-hill, and past-the-expiration-date delicacies that he had aged to perfection in the ice box. Maybe he was right. He's still among us to sing the praises of moldy peaches.

So, OK, yes — there's lots of stuff you could pick out from G.E.'s curious existence and roast him for it. His shocking fashion sense, maybe. That's "fashion," in quotes. His taste for homemade recreations like yard golf. His ultralogical grading system, so massively straightforward that he'd have to pull a week of all-nighters to finish his semester grading on time. Maybe his biggest flaw is that he likes to hang out with people like us.

But the more I've thought about it and the closer the day has come, the more I feel G.E. is kind of roastproof. I mean, he's been getting roasted for years and years on a daily basis, and it has never seemed to faze him. Always the teacher, he even sent out a sheet to his "roasters" to suggest sample subjects on which he might be skewered. He helpfully listed 19 topics that might make good joke material, including quote "my philosophical, theological and moral-ethical codes" unquote.

Oh yeah! "Did you hear the one about G.E. and Ahura Mazda! It's a real side-splitter!" There — I was determined to get Ahura Mazda into the mix. G.E.'s a sucker for Zoroastrianism.

Anyway, G.E.'s roast crib sheet was his way of letting us know that anything and everything in his life is fair game so people wouldn't hold back on all the wild stuff they know about him. (He also warned about saying anything risque or using obscenities — but he forgot that we're talking about him. The most risque thing I think I've ever heard about G.E. is that he once failed to change his wiper blades on time. Mort Castle could probably turn that into a tale of terror for us.)

Now, there *is* something wild that comes through about G.E. after knowing him for a few decades — his declining, post-Eisenhower years. But it's not about any of the outward idiosyncrasies that he helpfully proposed as theme topics for his roast. By the way, G.E., you misspelled "idiosyncrasies" on that crib sheet. That's a big F-20 for you.

No, I'd say the wild thing about G.E. is that all that stuff we've been seeing — whether you got to know him as a kid running around Pleasant Hill or in the Navy Seabees or at Illinois Wesleyan or teaching back at Lexington High or holding forth at Crete-Monee or Homewood-Flossmoor or in his codger genealogist years — what we've been seeing all those years is a real, honest-to-goodness person who hasn't been afraid to be himself and to be honest with himself about who he is.

Like I said — always the teacher. And the lesson there is to live up to the injunction, whoever came up with it, to "know thyself." But that's not the wildest thing in his life, or the biggest lesson G.E. has tried to teach us.

No the biggest thing we've gotten from G.E., and the reason I think we're all here with him today, is his unfailing willingness to give to the people around him, whatever they needed, whatever was in his reach to do. Through all the years, that's the constant. He didn't list that as something to roast him about, but there it is.

All I have left to say is: Thanks, G.E.

<p>More on G.E. Smith<br />

<a href="http://infospigot.typepad.com/infospigot_the_chronicles/2006/04/a_teacher_.html " target="_blank">A Teacher</a><br /><a href="http://infospigot.typepad.com/infospigot_the_chronicles/2006/04/a_teacher_2.html" target="_blank">A Teacher (2)</a><br /><a href="http://infospigot.typepad.com/infospigot_the_chronicles/2006/06/test.html" target="_blank">In Which We Gather by the River</a><br />