A Good Education

“How would you like to watch a movie by Walt Disney?”

I was really tired of reading and reading about Renaissance literature. Somehow Abraham Fraunce had become my man to report on in class. (And yes, I spelled it right; you, along with most of the world, never heard of him.) Walt Disney might be just what I needed.

“We are members of the Church of Latter-Day Saints and would like to come to your home and show you a Walt Disney film and make a presentation.”

Hmmmmm, I thought, and an idea came to me as good as Abraham Fraunce’s in latching on to Sir Phillip Sidney.

“Absolutely,” I said.

“Will you give us your name and address?”

“You bet.”

I opened my address book and quickly looked up my friend, Lawrence (don’t call me Larry) Jackson.

“I’m Lawrence — you can call me Larry — Jackson. I live at 221 High Street. Through the red door to the right of the drug store, up the steps. I’m on the left, just above the drug store.”

“What time would you like us to come?”

I thought of Lawrence’s Teaching Assistant schedule. Easy since it was the opposite of our translating Old English and drinking schedule.

“How about Wednesday, about 4:30?”

“Perfect,” the Walt voice said warmly.

“I’ll say,” I added enthusiastically. Lawrence just hated religion, and I was just loving the possibilities. Next to Abraham Fraunce, this could be Disney World.

Lawrence was a real Appalachian character. The genuine article for West Virginia. Born and bred there, knew or experienced the history all the way from Stonewall Jackson (knew of and was a distant relative) to how to make red eye gravy (experienced — I’m trying to make this as clear and fair as possible; Lawrence said I was too unclear and one-sided in explaining how Fraunce and the rest of the Ramist rhetoricians destroyed rhetoric by placing too much emphasis on style). Lawrence also had one of those great classical educations (I think, actually, from a one-room school house) like Senator Robert Byrd: great reader, pretty good bluegrass and blues guitarist, who also thought of me, up to now, as his best friend.

We were fellow graduate students in the Masters in Literature program at Morgantown, about the same time the legendary Jerry West was tearing up the WVU and Eastern conference university basketball courts.

I could barely contain myself on Tuesday when we did our Beowulf translation, drinking our prosaic version of Viking Mead: Old Milwaukee Beer, and having a laughing fit over “wring prowed gigi”. Almost put me in a good enough mood to tell him.  I came closest to cracking again when our bartender, Sleepy, served a free one that was one too many, but I kept Walt and the boys in the vault. One thing: I’m patient — I’m still waiting for my proposed Ramist/Fraunce rhetoric monograph to get accepted.

Wednesday came around, and about 4:00 I was getting a little antsy. And starting to think that, fun as it would be to hear about, I would miss too much, sort of like reading about the football game rather than being there. (Incidentally, I was there in one of the highest scoring games in the history of college football between Pitt and WVU — scoring was so high, the Pittsburgh Press thought their stringer in Morgantown was drunk — which I know he was, but that’s another story for another time — and his reported score was accurate.) Anyway, I didn’t want to be totally dependent on Lawrence, who might not be in the mood to tell the story very well — certainly in any detail.

So about 4:05 I cracked and called him. Lawrence didn’t laugh like I hoped he would. Just gave me that deep Appalachian polite, but ominous, voice.

“You better get over here with some beer. A lot of beer, cold, right away.”

I got moving, and 15 minutes later I was at his door with two six-packs of 16-ouncers. The Mormons were a little late, so we had time to do a little prep work — about three each.

“Maybe we shouldn’t drink,” I said. I was starting to feel a little like a responsible host.

“Why not?” Lawrence shot back.

“Might be sort of sacrilegious.”

“What the hell do you know about their sacraments? Jesus drank, didn’t he?”

“Our old-time Jesus, but maybe not the latter-day Jesus.”

“Do you know any of this stuff or are you just making it up, Ed?” (That’s me, Ed, just to be clear.)

“Well, I haven’t read much.”

“Just like you, Ed — no point in sullying the resources by consulting them, like your rhetoric paper.”

That stung.  He was a little pissed.

I was saved by the door knock.          

The movie was actually pretty good. A little heavy on how wonderful Mormons are, but what could you expect? The boys were very polite in their semi-IBM outfits (black pants and tie — no jacket). They heavily emphasized the community aspects of the religion and famous Mormons — like Deacon Vernon Law, who pitched pretty miraculously for the Pittsburgh Pirates back then. (That’s my home town, Pittsburgh,  just to be clear.)

Then these two nice boys went into what I think salesmen call “the turn”. That’s “the pitch” to the rest of us.

Anyway, they are going on and on in a sort of modified Socratic fashion (they ask the question and they answer the question — and answer it just right for them) about how Mormonism would be good for anybody.

Finally, my pal Lawrence says the unforgettable:  “You have to understand, our keenly honed minds just can’t accept this glib analysis of spiritual beings.”

No kidding, “keenly honed minds”.

And then these nice boys did something I’ve never seen the likes of before or since.

They were both tall, good looking; they could have lots of dates or played basketball for a university. One kind of looked like Jerry West, long arms and all — done all of those fun young things instead of touring the country for their Mormon religion. (The kind of fun things I used to do before I somehow got lost in Renaissance literature and beer.) I've got to say again: tall —to give you a sense of the drama, to say nothing of athleticism, as they both simultaneously dropped to their knees and swore to God that this is what they honestly and deeply believed to be true. I got some goosebumps.

After graduation, Lawrence and I got jobs at the same small but pretty good college and stayed in touch, but not as much as in those great WVU days. We still drank a lot, and I certainly never let him forget about his “keenly honed mind,” which could still embarrass him.  I didn’t forget that.

But strangely enough, what I remember most was my envy at those young men dropping to their knees and swearing how much they believed in God and the Mormon precepts. Later, alone and with others, I silently wished I could believe in anything as much as they believed in all that nonsense.

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