Recently, I heard that an old English professor of mine had died. He was 91 years old, so the news was neither unexpected nor tragic–“everybody get old”–but it nonetheless gave me a pang.
Wayne Carver taught American literature at Carleton College, in Minnesota, where I went to school from 1966 to 1968. He edited a respected literary magazine published by Carleton, The Miscellany, which at the time ranked up there with High Plains Review and Prairie Fire and other publications you’ve probably never heard of. My biggest dream as a dewy eyed freshman was to get a story published in one of those magazines. Once, at a panel discussion featuring Carver and a number of other literary types, someone in the audience asked Carver how an aspiring writer might break into The Miscellaney. Carver frowned. “The question is not how to break into The Miscellany. It’s how to break out once you’re in.” We all laughed, but it occurred to me that Carver might be talking about himself in some way.
I never took a course from Carver, so it’s a bit odd to call him an old English professor of mine. But I knew him well from a creative writing workshop he ran at his home on Sunday afternoons. About a dozen of us would gather there to pass out mimeographed copies of our fiction and give each other feedback, under Carver’s gruff but kindly direction. After the sessions, Carver often had a few of us stay for snacks and soft drinks. He had a Mr. Magoo look to him, but he was learned and gentle, this dear, civilized man. One time, he wandered through the gym when my buddies and I were playing a ball game, and we roped him into joining us. It flustered the crusty old professor that we should ask, but he yielded to our entreaties and for the next hours or so he ran, dodged, and hopped with us, and we thought him wonderful: what we felt was the same elation children feel when their parents drop their grown-up loads and play dolls or cars with them for an afternoon. It thrilled us to be able to give this ancient fellow (he was probably in his late forties tops) a momentary taste of how delightful it was to be young and immortal like us.
If those had been my only interactions with Dr. Carver, he would probably have faded by now into a minor figure in the landscape of my past. I had a number of Carleton professors I appreciated greatly in those years–Jacobson the art teacher comes to mind; and Porter who taught classical mythology; and there were others. Carver would be one of those.
But Dr. Carver and I crossed paths one more time and that interaction is what burned him into my life story. It had to do with something Carver wrote. I received this piece of writing two-plus years after I left Carleton for Reed, where I transferred because I didn’t think I could become what I wanted to be at Carleton: jaded. (Carleton is in Northfield, Minnesota, and an arch over the road into town bears the message: “Welcome to Northfield, home of cows, colleges, and contentment.” How jaded and cynical can a guy get in a place like that?)
But two years of Reed did the job. By 1970, I was good and cynical. At that time, America was still up to its armpits in the criminal insanity known as the Vietnam War. The draft was in effect. I had just graduated from Reed. Single men my age who were not in college were part of the chum the government sent to a country on the other side of the planet to kill people none of us knew and sometimes be killed and for no apparent reason. Just a few months earlier, President Nixon had jacked up the number of American troops in Vietnam to 500,000. A peace march on Washington had drawn over a million people, but the Administration had immediately declared that it would ignore this expression of public sentiment. The war-making project would go on, full speed ahead.
I had decided to declare myself a conscientious objector, in the hopes of at least being allowed to participate in the war only as a medic. My C.O. application required that I submit several letters supporting my contention that I was spiritually opposed to violence. One of the people from whom I solicited a letter was Wayne Carver. On that memorable night in mid-July, four of the five letters I had solicited had already come and unfortunately they all looked like duds. These would never convince my draft board to accept that I was a conscientious objector. Carver was the only one left. He was my last hope. I was counting on him.
Carver’s letter arrived by special delivery one evening around 7 p.m. I was alone in the flat, my roommates all having gone to a concert. The envelope contained two pieces of paper. One was the letter to my draft board. In this, Carver hardly mentioned me except to note that if I had asked him for advice, he would not have recommended the course I was now pursuing, even though he was supporting that course. He was glad I had not asked his advice, however, because these, he wrote, were lonely times in which no person could advise another about anything. He went on to deliver a brilliant, anguished discourse on the struggle we all faced to locate our own true convictions amid the madness. And he ended his letter with this: “Given my age, my experiences, my conviction that the human spirit lives in a fitful and essentially lonely communion with itself, I would probably, if required to, go back into the army, fight in a self-destructive and imbecilic war, and hope I could cast out remorse when it was all over and live my life, not untainted, but as a member of that ever-growing community of the shafted. Eventually, one way or another, that is the community to which we all belong.”
Another strip of paper then fell out of the envelope, a wrinkled bit of onionskin, on which he had typed: “I hope this helps. For me, it’s all too much. I’m going to Utah to raise red onions.”
I sent all my letters in, including Carver’s. I don’t know if they worked. My draft board never granted me conscientious objector status. They never denied it to me either. In fact, I never heard from them again–not one word. Years later, someone told me that an army recruiting office in Maryland had burned down around that time. Maybe my draft board was in that building. Maybe all records of my very existence went up in flames. I don’t know.
I do know that Carver’s letter hit me like a baseball bat, and the dent it left it is still there. Whatever the draft board may have thought of it, the letter convinced me that my application was true: I really was a pacifist, constitutionally, spiritually, and mentally opposed to deadly, institutionalized violence.
As for Carver, I don’t know what crisis he was going through that summer, but he didn’t go to Utah to raise red onions. He stayed at Carleton, toughed it out whatever it was, and went on teaching literature. He also went on mentoring aspiring writers with wit, warmth, and intelligence. After he died, condolences pouring in from his former students served as testimonials to the depth and breadth of affection he had earned.
Years later, just after my book West of Kabul, East of New York came out, some of the faculty at Carleton invited me to come give a talk to the freshmen. The ones in charge of my visit took me to Carver’s house for dinner one night. Carver was retired by then. He greeted me graciously, he remembered me, but I don’t know what he remembered. The letter he had written for me never came up. Amusingly enough he did, during the dinner, lean over at one point and ask the professor who had brought me over, “Is his book any good?” I didn’t catch what she told him and I couldn’t tell what he thought of her answer. That moment like so many moments passed into the darkness. People cross paths with us and go on. We know what they meant to us but never what we meant to them, whether that intersection even registered in their trajectory. We just don’t know.