Although Lawrenceburg was my parents’ hometown, I don’t have many memories of the place before my family moved there when I was seven. I know we came for visits, despite the arduous two-day drive. Typically, however, we would stay at the rambling farmhouse of my Goodlett cousins in southern Franklin County. As we neared our destination, I would wake up in the back seat of the old Plymouth Valiant, peer out the window at the white board fence loping along the road, and know that we were almost there.
I do remember one fateful trip, however, when we were planning to stay with my McWilliams cousins in Lawrenceburg. That trip was special: we were taking the train. I remember being picked up from school—another oddity, since my sister and I always walked to and from school—before we headed to the train station. Sometime en route, as the train rumbled west, I developed the mumps. I don’t remember too much more about the visit, but I’m sure it was not the family gathering anyone had anticipated.
So Lawrenceburg was still largely a mystery to me when we moved there. One of my early memories was shopping with Joy Mountjoy and Jean Goodlett at The Louisville Store. I remember wandering the aisles of Ben Franklin, awestruck at all the trinkets. I recall hearing about the filming of “The Flim-Flam Man” in town the summer before, disappointed that I had missed all the excitement.
I tagged along with my mother everywhere she went. The Lawrenceburg Bank. Ballard’s Drug Store. Model Market. Her aunt and uncle’s apartment on Jackson Street. That first summer, that’s how I got to know the town.
Recently, members of the Anderson County Historical Society were treated to a montage of film captured by Roy York in the early 1960s: parades through downtown Lawrenceburg, documentation of all the churches and public buildings, the dedication of Beaver Lake. Those of us of a certain age enjoyed catching glimpses of the people and places we remember from that era. It was a long time ago.
Lawrenceburg is a different place now. The 127-Bypass has become a commercial mecca. New neighborhoods have sprouted in every direction. The population has more than quadrupled.
But you still have to stop for the train on North Main Street. The old cemetery is still a beautiful place for a reflective walk. Downtown is once again bustling with places to eat and shop. The churches along Main Street haven’t moved. The courthouse featured in the old movie still stands sentinel.
I’m heading back to Lawrenceburg tomorrow for the Anderson Public Library Book Fest. I hope to chat with some current residents. Perhaps I’ll see some old friends. As I did the research for The Last Resort, I probably learned more about the area’s people and history than I had in the 10 years I lived there. There’s still much to discover, of course. But I know Pud Goodlett and Bobby Cole are happy that the little logbook of their adventures along Salt River has led me to a better understanding of their hometown.
David Hoefer, of Louisville, is the co-editor of The Last Resort. If you would like to submit a blog post for Clearing the Fog, contact us here.
The Last Resort is about young men in the final stages of youth, an all-too-brief period of camaraderie in the leafy, rural backdrop of Anderson County, Kentucky. But that’s not all John Goodlett’s book is about. Pud’s letters home while training to be an infantryman and later witnessing the closing days of World War II present another important part of his story.
In the spring of 1945, he faced the desperate violence of Germany’s failing opposition, as well as the skeletonized horror of a newly liberated concentration camp. Evidence suggests that Pud was a good soldier if not exactly a natural one. In a letter from France dated 6 Feb 1945, he explains to his mother and sister that his life outdoors has prepared him well for living in muddy trenches and handling a rifle. Without doubt he was a successful soldier: he made it home alive, returning to civilian life.
I’ve been reading another, more extensive war memoir of an altogether different character. The book’s English title is Storm of Steel, and its author is Ernst Jünger, a German veteran of trench combat in World War I. By all accounts, Jünger was a natural soldier—born to it and unashamed of the role he played in battle. At the same time, he was a gifted writer, who left us what many consider one of the best accounts of Western Front warfare, that four-year spectacle of death and obliteration.
Storm of Steel is quite unlike the pacifist tracts and novels that were popular in the years following the war’s end. Rather, it is a sharply observant record of the day-to-day tedium, punctuated by chaotic, deafening menace, that defined the conflict, captured by Jünger without sentimentality or celebration.
I bring this up because of a passage early in the book that caught my attention. New to his deployment, Jünger is experiencing shelling from a French position for the first time. His unit is posted by a woods that has yet to be destroyed by the fighting. Of this he writes:
“Towards noon, the artillery fire increased to a kind of savage pounding dance. The flames lit around us incessantly. Black, white, and yellow clouds mingled…And all the time the curious, canary-like twittering of dozens of fuses. With their cut-out shapes, in which the trapped air produced a flute-like trill, they drifted over the long surf of explosions like ticking copper toy clocks or mechanical insects. The odd thing was that the little birds in the forest seemed quite untroubled by the myriad noises; they sat peaceably over the smoke in their battered boughs. In the short intervals of firing, we could hear them singing happily or ardently to one another, if anything even inspired or encouraged by the dreadful noise on all sides” (2004:27-8, trans. by Michael Hofmann).
Nature abides; the birds carry on despite the groundswell of violence, without the ability to penetrate any realm beyond immediate circumstance. Observations like these reimagine war as a kind of stupid, background static.
This passage made me think about Pud, who faced down his own difficulties in war. It recasts the contrast between a delight-filled ramble in the woods and a dangerous, cold night in a foxhole as a single, somewhat enigmatic incident. This compression of tranquility and anxiety, of blessedness and its withdrawal, summarizes the power that we also detect in John Goodlett’s journals and letters.
A little further into Storm of Steel there’s a second passage that illustrates nature’s eternal return:
“Rank weeds climb up and through barbed wire, symptomatic of a new and different type of flora taking on the fallow fields [between the front lines]. Wild flowers, of a sort that generally make only an occasional appearance in grain fields, dominate the scene; here and there even bushes and shrubs have taken hold. The paths too are overgrown, but easily identified by the presence on them of round-leaved plantains. Bird life thrives in such wilderness, partridges for instance, whose curious cries we often hear at night, or larks, whose choir starts up at first light over trenches” (ibid.:41).
Ecological succession unfolds even in the most forbidding circumstances. Nature is that stubbornest of all habits.
Storm of Steel is worth your time (though not without some gruesome moments). Jünger knew the fear of war but never the fear of writing about it. By giving us a polished but truthful account, he goes beyond the moralism that actually detracts from depictions of the Devil’s great gift to humanity.
After my great-aunt Mary McWilliams suffered her final stroke, she was lying in a hospital bed, largely unresponsive. I approached her bedside with some trepidation. I was 17. I had something important to tell her.
“Mamaw,” I said, “I’ve decided to go to Centre College.”
She smiled. She did not respond verbally. She did not open her eyes. But she heard me, and she was pleased that I had finally decided to follow her to her alma mater.
At the time, I wasn’t particularly happy about that decision. I had wanted to go far, far away from Kentucky, far away from Lawrenceburg. I had never quite found my footing in my parents’ hometown after being dislocated from Baltimore shortly after my father died. I was still largely alien to my classmates. But I was set to graduate from Anderson County High School in a couple of months, and I had finally accepted my mother’s arguments for going to a school 30 miles away rather than one hundreds of miles away. Knowing that Mamaw approved made the choice a little more palatable. I was happy that I had shared some news in her final days that made her happy.
It sometimes seems ironic to me now that I am spending so much time digging into my ancestors’ stories and learning about Lawrenceburg’s history. I had hoped I had gotten away for good when I went on to graduate school in North Carolina. But I unexpectedly ended up back in Kentucky, and somehow I have never left.
So now I am looking forward to joining over 30 other authors at the Anderson Public Library’s First Annual Book Fest on Saturday, October 19. It feels a bit like a homecoming. As I’ve traveled to various communities in the last two years sharing the story of Pud and Bobby down on Salt River, I’ve begun to feel pride in my Anderson County roots. Under my cousin Sandy Goodlett’s patient tutelage, I’ve learned how widespread my ties to the county are.
It seems appropriate that this event will be at the beautiful, recently renovated Anderson Public Library. Adjacent to the library’s front door is a portrait of Ann McWilliams, Mary McWilliams’ daughter-in-law, who dedicated a decades-long career to improving the viability of that local institution and making it a proud testament to the community’s curiosity and love of reading. Mary McWilliams’ sister, Nell—my grandmother—worked at the old Carnegie library on Woodford Street, which is now the Anderson County Tourism Office and History Museum.
Growing up, I spent many hours in both buildings. My mother made sure of that. For me, the library was always a welcoming place that offered spellbinding riches: all the books you could read. For free. Now, of course, libraries offer so much more.
I hope you’ll make plans to stop by Saturday, October 19, between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. and say hello. It’s an honor to be there to represent the story of an Anderson County native and chat with my Anderson County family.
Joe Ford of Louisville offered these thoughts after reading the post “Home on the Ridge,” which ponders whether an affinity for the outdoors can be inherited. If you would like to submit a blog post for Clearing the Fog, contact us here.
When we were young, weather permitting, my parents would stuff all eight of us children into the car and head south out of Louisville to Bernheim Forest.
Once there, the doors flung open and we loudly poured out. Save for a couple of ponds where you could feed the (kind of scary, tall as us) Canada Geese with a fistful of corn from a converted gum ball machine, there wasn’t much there except the miles of expansive woods, rocky streams full of crawdads (“Oh sister, I have a surprise for you!”), and a few picnic areas good for frisbee and football. Perfect. And almost deserted. Toward evening, the deer would steal into the meadows and we fell silent and talked in whispers.
At times, though, we drove right past the entrance to Bernheim, continuing west then south down SR 245 to Bardstown, past the Cathedral, south across the bridge at Beech Fork and left at the tiny sign that simply read “Trappist.”
Once inside the stone walls that flanked the parking lot for the Abbey of Gethsemani, we knew to keep our voices hushed and our steps measured. No one told us. It was just the nature of the place.
My Dad would slip inside the gate house and let the brothers know we were there. We’d drive or walk across the fields to the edge of their woods and haul our picnic fixings up to a few tables scattered among the trees. We were popular picnic company, as we came bearing fried chicken and beer—neither a normal item on the monks' menu.
(I know I don’t need to say this to the readers of this blog, but just in case it somehow falls into the wrong hands… You cannot just show up and invite the monks out for a couple of cold brewskies and fried chicken. My father taught them philosophy and maintained ongoing friendships with many of them. You have to bring St. Thomas, too.)
Afterwards, we would walk the woods and then attend vespers or compline before heading back home, a quieting and sacramental end to the day. In later years I’d walk those woods again, a little more cognizant of “the nature of the place.” But what stayed with me was the sense that every wood, every meadow at evening, was imbued with meaning, with beauty, was sacramental. That is, whether considering the joy of Bernheim or the sense of the sacred at Gethsemani, in my young mind they mixed; woods were woods, and woods were sacred.
Why do we have such a sense of awe for nature, such reverence? Think of all the cultures that consider the woods or the mountains either sacred in themselves or as the dwelling place of gods. The Incas in South America. The Sherpas in Nepal. Where in our brain—or should I say soul—is that, and why? Of what evolutionary advantage is that? Or, purely from an aesthetics point of view, why do we think they are beautiful? Why are they pleasing to us?
I’d like to think it is the little bit of divinity in each of us that connects with nature's sublime beauty. We recognize and respond to the Creator's presence there amid the mountains and the trees and the gurgling streams. It’s why we say we feel at home.
"Home on the Ridge" ended with a quote from Henry David Thoreau. I will take that as permission to end this with a rather long quote from a resident of the abbey itself. I’ve loved this passage for years, but only noticed just now how much Merton recognizes the echoes of the divine in nature.
"The Lord plays and diverts Himself in the garden of His creation…,We do not have to go very far to catch echoes of that game, and of that dancing. When we are alone on a starlit night; when by chance we see the migrating birds in autumn descending on a grove of junipers to rest and eat; when we see children in a moment when they are really children; when we know love in our own hearts; or when, like the Japanese poet Bashō we hear an old frog land in a quiet pond with a solitary splash—at such times the awakening, the turning inside out of all values, the “newness,” the emptiness and the purity of vision that make themselves evident, provide a glimpse of the cosmic dance…
"No despair of ours can alter the reality of things; or stain the joy of the cosmic dance which is always there. Indeed, we are in the midst of it, and it is in the midst of us, for it beats in our very blood, whether we want it to or not.
"Yet the fact remains that we are invited to forget ourselves on purpose, cast our awful solemnity to the winds and join in the general dance."
—Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation
David Hoefer, co-editor of The Last Resort, shares a contemporary view of Kentucky’s Salt River. If you would like to submit a blog post for Clearing the Fog, contact us here.
Recently, while driving south on I-65 from my home in Louisville, I reached the point where Salt River passes underneath the interstate near Shepherdsville. From here the river flows west toward its confluence with the Ohio River at West Point.
What I saw that day was very similar to what appears in the accompanying photo. The river bloomed with colorful innertubes whose passengers were basking in the glow of sunshine and (who knows) maybe an occasional adult beverage or two. I had a good laugh, because I’ve trained myself to think of Salt River as Pud’s private Arcadian getaway. But other people have other ideas about possible uses for this natural resource.
Awesome Lazy River evidently sponsors these Salt River floats most summer weekends, creating a motley human carnival on the river. It’s a far cry from the mid-century black-and-white images of intrepid fishermen in waders standing in the shallow riffles near Camp Last Resort. Indeed, the American entrepreneurial spirit is something to admire.
As I continued traveling south, I pondered the paradox, remembering that even Thoreau’s cabin at Walden Pond was within walking distance of an already substantial civilization. It appears that we humans continue to find respite in nature, especially when the comforts of society are close at hand.
A few months after my father died, after we had moved from Baltimore and settled in our new home in Kentucky, I woke up late one evening in a panic. I thought I was going to die. I was certain of it. I don’t remember if I had a sensation that my heart was failing me, or if I just had a sense of dread.
I was eight years old.
I remember sitting with my mother on her bed as she called the doctor. I don’t recall if I was crying. I expect I was frightened. I know my mother must have felt a sense of panic and helplessness.
Thankfully, our doctor at the time, George Gilbert, was not only a small-town doctor (who later made regular house calls to soothe my troublesome earaches with shots of penicillin), he had also been a classmate of my father’s. He had known both my parents well.
After briefly explaining the situation to him, my mother handed the phone to me. I listened as he tried to reassure me that everything was OK. I don’t think I believed him. But I understood even then that death was inevitable, and if it was my time, it was my time.
This long-repressed scene played out again in my mind as I heard details of the Inspector General’s report relating to the harm done to small children who were separated from their parents upon arriving at our southern border. One child reported, “I can’t feel my heart.” Another said, “every heartbeat hurts.” These were explained as physical manifestations of the emotional pain the separation had caused the children.
One story in particular stuck with me.
“A 7- or 8-year-old boy was separated from his father, without any explanation as to why the separation occurred. The child was under the delusion that his father had been killed and believed that he would also be killed. This child ultimately required emergency psychiatric care to address his mental health distress.”
I suppose it makes sense that young children who identify with their parents might expect that their parent’s fate could be their own. If parents can’t protect themselves from some harm—arrest, separation, death—how can they protect their children from these same terrors?
I am still amazed when I wake up each morning. I have always expected to share my father’s fate. But I’m old now. I’ve outlived him by 16 years. I did not succumb prematurely.
Nonetheless, this is a tiny trauma I have carried throughout my life as a result of losing a parent unexpectedly at a young age—at the same age as the boy separated from his dad. Yet I knew what happened to my father. I had a loving mother who cared for me in a secure home. I cannot imagine the lifelong repercussions and insecurities this young boy might face.
For me, this is a reminder that all this country is doing in the name of “policy” is personal. Our separating families at the border affects all of us. Our denying climate change and rolling back common-sense regulations affects all of us. Our refusal to restrict widespread access to military-style weapons affects all of us. We will feel the pain of the Central American refugees, the residents of low-lying coastal communities, and the families who have had loved ones slaughtered. We all share common humanity. We all respond to loss and fear the same way.
I had promised that I would not revisit my “father loss” theme again so soon, but circumstances keep pushing me back to that well. If that early experience is what connects me to the world at large, then its value—and its pain—is a privilege that I need to share.
When I was in second grade, I vividly remember coming home and declaring to my mother that I intended to marry my classmate David Oldham. He was handsome, smart, and debonair (or at least that’s how I recall him more than 50 years later).
My mother frowned. Always the pragmatist, never the romantic, she said, “But you can’t marry David, Sallie. He’s colored.”
I was outraged. I was defiant. I thought my mother was just trying to deny me the wedded bliss that I imagined. But it was Baltimore in 1966. Loving v. Virginia wouldn’t be decided until 1967. Mother knew best.
The following spring I watched as the city bused black children from their inner-city homes to P.S. 212, my school in northeast Baltimore. Even at seven years old I could feel their terror. They couldn’t sit comfortably in their seats. Their wide eyes darted around the room. They didn’t speak.
I was gone shortly after that—before the end of the school year and before the Baltimore riots—whisked away to my own foreign world in Kentucky. I did not go easily. I hid in my bedroom closet, hoping my mother would leave me behind so I could stay near my friends.
These memories have come back recently as the nation has flirted with another conversation about busing. We’re talking again about reparations. And this month we’re acknowledging the 400th anniversary of the first African slaves being brought to our shores.
As I’ve dug into my family history over the past few years, I’ve discovered evidence that the ancestors of at least three of my four grandparents owned slaves. They all lived in Kentucky or Virginia or Tennessee. Most of the families had come to this land from Great Britain well before we had gained our independence. I don’t know that any of my ancestors were sizable landowners, but they evidently elected to use slave labor to keep the household or small farm running.
At first, I was shocked. Then I felt resigned. Those of us whose families have been here longest may have the most to explain. While everyone in this country benefited from slave labor, we are the ones who claimed ownership of other human beings. We are the ones who were here to grumble and complain as each new ethnic group came to this country fleeing famine or religious persecution or genocide. Or arrived here simply seeking a better life.
Today we malign the immigrants who knock on our door looking for refuge, for work, for a future. We blame the ills of this country on the “huddled masses” who come here seeking hope, while we quietly benefit from the work only they are willing to do.
But perhaps it’s not recent immigrants, but those of us whose ancestors arrived here earliest who carry the biggest burden. We’re the ones who now need to demonstrate what we can offer this country. How we can make it whole. How we can repay the gifts we’ve received. That’s our public charge.
I'm thinking it’s time to close the chapter on reminiscences about my dad. Compiling The Last Resort provided a tiny window into his thoughts as he hung out with Bobby and the others at their Salt River camp. By poring over the journal that he kept while working at Harvard Forest, I learned that he struggled with the same sorts of issues we all do as we launch a career. I discovered his sense of humor and his wry take on the world. The project allowed me to presumptuously call strangers and initiate conversations about their own memories of Pud. Amazingly, it prompted others to reach out to me and share their stories. What a journey it has been.
I’m not saying I won’t write about him again, but I worry that this little habit of mine has become outrageously self-indulgent. I recall the first time a reader of The Last Resort approached me and said, “I loved your book. But you know it’s really about a little girl searching for her father.” I was so embarrassed. That was not at all what I had intended. But that was, of course, exactly what I had delivered.
Occasionally, however, a chance comment from a family member or a former colleague of my father’s reveals another truth. Pud’s premature death at age 44 shattered lives.
Of course, we can start with my mother’s. I only knew her as a somewhat withdrawn, perhaps depressed, but deeply intelligent woman who evidently struggled to find her equilibrium after my father’s death. Others, however, tell stories of her being the life of the party. Photos of her as a young adult reveal a gaiety I rarely saw. Like many widows and widowers, she never fully recovered.
The family of my father’s sister, twelve years his senior and his legal guardian for a time after his own father’s death when he was 10, tell me how she grieved his death almost like she had lost her own child. My father’s older brother, with whom he was very close, rallied to my family’s aid immediately after my father’s death. Then my uncle went into a dark spiral, taking his large family on a heart-wrenching journey before his own death six short years later.
Not having any sons of his own, my dad was particularly fond of his nephews. We have evidence of that. Pud writes letters to Davy after being drafted into the Army. He takes numerous photos of Davy and Sandy as toddlers. He takes Mac and Charley under his wing. He beams with pride as Bob’s music career takes off. He invites any who will join him to Camp Last Resort.
Just recently, at Harvard Forest, we were shown a handsome “Memorial Album” of photos that his Harvard Forest colleagues compiled after his unexpected death in 1967. He was respected as a scientist and cherished as a friend.
Before stopping by Harvard Forest, I attended the memorial service for Ann Denny, the wife of one of my father’s good friends and regular collaborators, Charlie Denny. The Dennys’ three daughters were particularly fond of both my parents, having spent a summer with them in Coudersport, Penn., as the botanist and the geologist conducted their first collaborative research. Their stories of my father’s role in their lives and in their parents’ lives are precious to me.
In 2006, I visited Reds Wolman, the man who had finally snagged my father from Harvard Forest and lured him to Johns Hopkins, where Reds would become a legendary professor. Nearly 40 years after my father’s death, Reds’ face was stricken when he declared that my father’s untimely demise had robbed him of his best friend.
I am, of course, leaving out dozens of others whose lives were affected by my father’s death. His graduate students, who were depending on him to guide them to a doctorate. His childhood friends like George McWilliams, Lin Morgan Mountjoy, and Bobby Cole. His extensive clan of cousins. Our neighbors in Baltimore.
If you’re like I am, you don’t expect to leave much of a ripple behind. You don’t think you’ve done anything extraordinary. But take just a moment to consider the repercussions of this one life that began in a small town in rural Kentucky. Although it was a life cut short, take heed of the ripples emanating from that weighted hook cast endlessly into the slow-moving river.
In loving memory of Dr. William S. Bryant (November 9, 1943 - August 5, 2019).
The Last Resort never would have been published without Bill Bryant.
Shortly after his article about John C. Goodlett appeared in the Kentucky Journal of the Academy of Science in 2006, Billy—as I had always heard him called—got word to me that he would be talking about the paper at a meeting of the Anderson County Historical Society. Since I was working in Lexington at the time, I contacted Bobby Cole, my dad’s good friend and fellow architect of Camp Last Resort, and offered to take him to the meeting.
When we arrived, I saw that at least one more of my dad’s Lawrenceburg High School classmates was there: W. J. Smith. It was a remarkable evening of two generations sharing stories and reminiscences. I was astonished that, more than 40 years after his death, my dad’s contributions to the scientific community had prompted both Bill’s article and this hometown gathering.
They’re all gone now—Bobby, W. J., George Jr., Lin Morgan, Rinky, John Allen, Jody—and now Bill Bryant is gone, too.
Before the article was published, I had had no idea that Bill was working on it, no idea that he had been talking to my dad’s old colleagues (Reds Wolman, Alan Strahler, and Sherry Olson, for example). I now understand that Bill had discovered the very correspondence between my father and his Harvard Forest mentor, Hugh Raup, that I reviewed in detail just last month.
In short, I had no idea that there was still any interest in my father or his work. But what I learned was that Bill knew more about my father than I did.
Twice he led me out to my dad’s old camp on Salt River. I had never been there before. It had evidently never occurred to anyone else in those 40 years that I might like to see the place that was so special—almost sacred—to my father.
A few years later, as I worked on the book, Bill patiently reviewed various sections for accuracy. He encouraged me. He believed what I was doing had value.
He also nudged me to include more about my mother in the book. I remember Bill visiting our home in the 1970s, talking with my mother, going over materials related to my dad’s work. I didn’t fully understand then what his interest was. But he was obviously taken with my mother’s intelligence, her courage, and her struggles to raise two daughters alone.
In the end, though, I couldn’t figure out how to incorporate more of her story into The Last Resort. I promised Bill I had another project dedicated to her. It pains me that he’ll never get to read the novel I wrote about her father. Bill loved reading fiction and he loved history. I think he would have been interested in my telling of this Kentucky tale.
I feel, in a way, that I’ve lost another family member—yet one more of the few remaining connections to my father. Just as I wrote recently that I wish I could have walked the woods with Pud and gleaned a thing or two from all that he knew about its inhabitants, so I wish I could have walked the woods one more time with Bill.
Tim Cooper, of Oakdale, Minn., reminds us of the human truths we can uncover from personal letters. If you would like to submit a blog post for Clearing the Fog, contact us here.
A couple of years into my pursuit of an undergraduate degree at the University of Minnesota, I was threatened with summary expulsion. No, it wasn’t my grades; I had finagled my way into the honors program and maintained high marks. And no, it wasn’t my youthful predilection to juvenile delinquency—I was too busy studying to sustain that lifestyle. Rather, as the registrar’s office curtly informed me, I had failed to declare a major prior to the onset of my junior year.
Two days before the deadline, I met with a professor who would become a mentor and friend until the end of his life. Professor Paul L. Murphy—constitutional historian; social-justice advocate; Pulitzer Prize finalist; and gentleman—took an early interest in me. Professor Murphy and his wife would often invite me to dinner at their home where I was accepted as a “sibling” to his two daughters. What he saw in me, I don’t know. But his guidance in any number of issues always gave me clarity.
What did he say?
“Timothy,” he intoned, “what academic major other than history will allow you to read, analyze, and discuss other people’s letters and diaries?” It wasn’t advice, it was an observation. And I was sold. The next afternoon, 30 minutes before being asked to pack my bags, I entered “history” as my major.
I haven’t looked back.
Nor did I think much about this incident until the passing of my grandmother some years later. When my father and I cleaned out her home after her death, we found stacks of notebooks comprising my grandmother’s diary, which she had maintained from the age of 8. Her entries were initially written in Gaelic, the tongue of her native Ireland, and then suddenly transformed into proper English after she settled in the U.S. as a young immigrant. Finally, barely 10 days before cancer’s ultimate victory, she just as suddenly returned to her native language. Indeed, this recapitulation to Gaelic happened mid-sentence. Her final entries were all in Gaelic.
When I read those diaries, I recalled Professor Murphy’s observation.
Recently, I again remembered my mentor’s words when Sallie Showalter forwarded to me a file of her father’s correspondence from the Harvard Forest’s archival collections. I cannot describe the excitement I had scanning through Pud’s letters. Let me try to explain.
In them we see the arc of his relationships with family and friends, as well as his professional interactions and scientific observations. But more importantly we see the development of a “voice,” of an academic rueful and wry one minute, proper and scholarly the next. I read them and felt as if this absent and unknown man, a man I have known of since I was 15 years old but never met, was speaking to me. And I like him, enormously. I understand his world-vision, his striving, and his occasional self-doubt. But it is his humor—and his horrible handwriting—that sing to me.
Letters and diaries do that to you.
So let me end in a plea. In the next few days, I ask you to recover paper and pencil or pen, envelope, and stamp. Think of a loved one, a family member, a friend, or an acquaintance. Write that person a heart-felt letter in your own hand and post it by “snail-mail.” The subject doesn’t matter. It can be humorous or serious, gossipy or informative, apologetic or explanatory.
An unexpected letter may mean more to the recipient than you can anticipate. And you never know what historian will relish your words in some unimagined future.
Ed.--On June 23, 1955, Pud and his colleague John T. Hack were chased off a mountain near Bridgewater, Va., while doing work for the U.S. Geological Survey. They encountered eight other bears while conducting their research, but only one—a mother with two cubs—"attacked." The incident was enshrined in a local newspaper, in family lore, and--as in the following examples--in Pud's own self-deprecating humor.
In the following excerpt from a letter dated June 20, 1956, Pud tries to reassure Dr. Hugh Raup, the director of Harvard Forest who was out of the country for the summer, that all is well at the Forest during his absence.