What we all must learn, I suppose, or else lose ourselves completely, is that very little in the world is really about us. My experience fifty years ago at Mark Hopkins College in Brattleboro Vermont was peripheral to that time and place—not secondary or marginal or incidental—but a tangent. It changed my life and the lives of others who went there, but each in our own way.
A week ago, as I drove home in the September twilight from the first and only class reunion, I was alone at a feast of memories. It was a rich two hour meal. But very little of that could have been shared, even if the other two fellows who had gathered with me that day had been in the car as well. Yes, only the three of us.
It was a small school, ‘experimental’ and ‘independent.’ In its ten years of existence there were only a few hundred graduates. ‘Exclusive,’ you might say as well if you didn’t know that the school happily took anyone who applied. But still, exclusive for a particular mind-set of belief in our own individual integrity. And experimental in that each student was expected to create their own course of study—Was this even possible? How are such choices to be made at that age and from the small library of our own experience? What integrity does an eighteen year-old have who has never risked more than their parents could afford or failed at a worthy attempt to scale the Helicon? Not ironically, Mark Hopkins College failed, as we each agreed, because the multifaceted Walter Hendricks, the visionary who founded the school (as he had previously with Marlboro and Windham colleges), was a poor manager. The good management of other human beings is also a learned skill. And certainly what happened there is not an unusual circumstance given all the utopian experiments I have read about.
We met at ‘Gibson Hall,’ the original main building where most classes were held. This is a grand hillside Victorian of large rooms with sweeping porches, that was once a Vermont Governor’s mansion. Today it is much subdivided by newer demands and seemed smaller than memory. The towering hundred year-old pines that once offered whispering accompaniment to our gatherings are gone, replaced by lowly maples and oaks that tend toward rude chatter. But we were able to sit for a time there in the downstairs hall, which is mostly the same, and recall our past.
However, the question remains, how were we to have made sound judgements concerning what we should learn. Isn’t that what the experience and prior education and judgement of our teachers was for? Carpentry, or surgery or teaching are learned skills. And note, much of this idea was just a small example of a general questioning of authority in our time. The zeitgeist of the moment. But sadly, this revolt produced limited positive results because there were so few adults in the room. The rebellion of raw adolescence was often praised as worthy for its own sake—as if adolescence is a permanent human stage and not transitory. But rebellion against what? For what? Wasn’t that also being determined by others, just like our own eminent participation in the tragedy of Vietnam? This revolt also failed, naturally. There is an old saying that where there are no children, there are no grownups. Well, the inverse is also true. The generation that shouted that no one over thirty should be trusted could itself not be trusted. Many ended up back in the suburbs of their parents, preaching revolution from the safety of their zoned communities.
Nevertheless, I do not remember the person I was then. I am now very little of the fellow I was fifty years ago. Yet, astoundingly, I recognized myself immediately upon arrival. How was that?
And Richard and Leon, the other two fellows I met on that fine day, were suddenly much the same to me as the characters I had known. Certainly they were ‘characters’ for the fact that I had reimagined them many times through the years since, all on scant evidence. But of course I knew that they must have changed the minute we first recognize each other, else what was the value of all the living we had done afterward. You reflexively look for that. But aside from wrinkles and weight and a lot of graying, I knew them again in an instant, much in the same way as I once did when we were each at the very start of our individual journeys. Which is to actually say, not at all but for that brief tangential moment long ago. A toothy grin blasts the dust away. A tone of voice comes to ear again as clear as all the vinyl we ever played in the quarters we shared. A laugh puts it all in time and place. In the car, later, I had time to think about all that too.
Inevitably, most of what I remember is only what I did or did not do myself. I must judge from this late vantage now. Much of what Leon and Richard heard or saw or accomplished at Mark Hopkins College had little to do with me. Too often I was not even there at the time. I was off in my own reveries or at the jobs I took to pay the bills. There was no time to tell the tales of the old Latches Hotel, where I was night clerk for a couple of years, or hear more than passing reference to their first jobs when school was done.
How I might have influenced them is problematical, but that they influenced me is not. Richard loved—still loves—jazz and blues music. Listening to that, along with his enthusiasms cast into the air made me listen. I still listen to old Jazz and Blues because of that. Leon’s appreciation for Classical music set me off on my own journey through hundreds of composers and that music is still a key to my life. Everything I write is produced to the sound of a particular composer. My sense of Mahler determined the way I wrote I Imagine My Salvation. Rachmaninov is the background for several novels, including The Dark Heart of Night. But I don’t think any of my own enthusiasms altered their trajectories. It is easy to imagine why.
Of the three of us, I was the rawest of youths. I was more the sponge. I wanted to write novels but I still had no firm idea of what it was I wanted to write about. Reading was a commonality between Richard and I. However, Richard’s appreciation of literature as I recall went to the modern of Beckett and Joyce and Nabokov, while I was already infatuated with the Nineteenth Century of Melville and Twain and Kipling. Leon was already a good clarinetist and aspiring to be better. Morning wake-up calls were often his practice exercises. His single-mindedness was inspiring to me.
Richard is taken with an idea of intersectionality and how his life was altered by recurring themes beginning there in Brattleboro. He tells us about his theory. But this must then be true for each of us, and understanding the depth of that might require another fifty years, at least. I play with such ideas in my novels because I can conjure up the circumstance to make it so. To limn the actual occurrence of intersectionality in a life lived with all the influences of others as well as of time and place is daunting. Perhaps it is enough to look across the abyss with two friends.
My two friends have had wonderful careers and done marvelous things and they both attribute much to the college for what they were to accomplish. As I do. In common with most college students, everywhere, my trajectory in life was forever altered. But for better or worse? I can’t know. I can, however, consider those things I did afterward and look for the genetic material of old Mark Hopkins. He was profligate, even in his own age.
And too, I cannot see all of that in the same way now as I saw myself there and then. Not along with them. Not at such a distance. I was at the edge of a life I could not then really yet imagine, even while trying to create it as best I could, just like another course of study; even as I first listened to the tones of Alan Hovhaness’s The Mysterious Mountain and the Mississippi blues of Robert Johnson. That was my truest course of study at Mark Hopkins, after all. But I still can’t read music .
I am fairly certain that I would have written my terrible first novels one way or the other. And so, at our reunion I listened to their stories, in amazement for all they had done with their lives, and they fit perfectly again with those characters I had known. Amazing! Had I been brighter, could I have predicted anything else for them so long ago? No. I could only sit and listen. And later, sit and wonder.
We each differ in our politics, but we well avoided any of that false territory and concentrated on the realities of our lives, and the things we had done, and the memories that now bind—bind us each like a book—to that school and that nearly lost age. Nearly lost. For we were there as witness to something that happened in that place. And it is written.