Monday, May 28, 2012

Paul Fussell, Scotch, a Birthday & the Sophomore: A Shaggy Dog Story

Last week, just as I was leaving for Memorial Day weekend in the South, fate decreed it was time for Paul Fussell's obituary to run. I had thought about him not too long ago, wondering where he was, how old age was treating him.

It's an Irish custom to tell stories at the wake, one he appreciated, so I offer this Paul Fussell tale of thrills, chills, and romance.

Here's the punchline: I almost had some liver damage from a dinner party he threw, which in no way is a commentary on his alcohol consumption or alcohol ethos. It's just a statement of fact in a funny story. And along the spine of the story was this:

At Rutgers, I was smitten with a junior art/psychology major whom I'll call the Artist; a French major whom I'll call the Navigator was smitten with me; and Fussell was intrigued by the Navigator for a time, bringing him into our personal spheres outside of his professorial role.

All Because of T.E. Lawrence
I first met Fussell as an incoming Freshmen fresh from my high school entrancement of T. E. Lawrence and the Seven Pillars of Wisdom. I saw in the catalogue that he taught a class in literature of the First World War and assumed Lawrence would be in part of it. I had no idea who Fussell was or what the National Book Award was, so it was easy to go to his office hours to see if I could take the 300 level class as a freshmen, confident as I was in my knowledge of the Turkish campaign. He told me T.E was not in the curriculum, but invited me to sign up. The class was literary catnip, and brought me a treasured lifelong connection to Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Blunden, and Robert Graves's Goodbye to All That.

In the fall of my Sophomore year I registered for Fussell's 18th century class, as did the Navigator, even though he was a French major. It was part of his plan to declare himself to me to start taking classes I was in and joining activities I was involved with. This plan to get me to notice him---even though he knew I was still pining for the Artist—was pretty elaborate, like something in a Happy Endings episode, and as Penny would say, it could seem charming or creepy. Anyway, that's how he came into Fussell's sphere.

Navigator was older than the rest of us, having gone into the Navy for 2 years to help pay for his college. Maybe he was 27, I never asked, but he had a remarkable sense of classical youth about his face. He wasn't extremely handsome, like the Greek Adonis, or pretty beautiful, like Narcissus, but there was an openness and timelessness about him that would be very intriguing to a man in middle age, not a sexual interest, although skimming the edges of the homoerotic simply because the idea of youth is so pleasing.

A Birthday, Halloween, Mononucleosis, and A Dinner Invitation

And so across this little morass of cross interests several things happened in rapid succession: My birthday is October 21, and the Navigator told me he had a special present for me, but it wasn't ready yet. In the meanwhile, I was going through the emotional ringer repeatedly with the Artist, while doing very intense work on the courses I was carrying, and taking part in all the extra-circular activities college has to offer. On Halloween, which was a Friday that year, my dorm threw a major party. Somewhere in the early morning hours I knew I didn't feel well, and went to bed. The next morning I woke up in violent physical spasms: I was extremely ill.

My roommate was away, and it was the dark ages with a phone only in the hall, not that it mattered because my tongue was swelling up. It was one of the scariest mornings of my life. I fell onto the floor, and literally crawled to my neighbor's door and fell against it. Thank God she opened it, and got help. Rutgers had an accredited hospital wing in Hurtado, on College Ave., and I was admitted.

Diagnosis: mononucleosis, a very severe case. I had not "felt tired" leading up to it, which is why the onset was so violent. I had a high fever, my glands were swollen everywhere, and I had welts on my legs below my knees (which Hurtado being connected to a teaching hospital, brought little teams of residents in every day to look at them.)

Friends came to visit, Reagan was elected president, and the Navigator sent along a distinctive monarch size envelope with the 26 Lilac Lane, Princeton return address. It was an invitation for dinner for the two of us with Paul Fusell. The Navigator had gone to Fussell and asked if he might invite "us" over for dinner as a birthday present for me. Beneath the crustiness, PF was a not-yet-cured romantic; he found the Navigator interesting, and knew me, and so he agreed. The planning had been going on for a while, as PF looked to confirm a date, which he had now done for November 16. But there I was, in the hospital, on November 1.

There isn't any specific treatment for mono. Once the fever was over, and all the swelling down and I was re-hydrated, it was the classic "bed rest." I was discharged from the hospital on Sunday, November 9, when my parents had come over to help me get back to my room. It's a little unusual to get discharged on a Sunday, because it is a skeleton staff. So, I don't remember getting any medical instructions (an important point later on) nor a follow-up appointment. After all, it was "just" mono.

Back in my room, I had a week to sleep to be ready for that dinner party.

"What can I get you to drink?"

Sunday the 16th came, and the Navigator and I took the bus from Rutgers to Princeton. I wasn't feeling great, but I was so happy that I was well enough to go that I didn't think much about it. (And that became part of the problem.)

PF was warm and inviting. He had invited a graduate student couple too, to round things out, to whom he introduced the Navigator and I as "two of his favorite undergrads."

I was nervous, of course, and then things took an unfortunate turn when our host naturally asked, "what can I get you to drink?"

I didn't really drink at that time. It wasn't a consciousness decision not to drink, I just wasn't in a clique where the point was drinking. I knew I didn't like beer, and so I had absolutely no answer to that question. So I asked "what do you have?" and Fussell rattled off some stuff, and when he got to scotch and soda, for some ungodly reason, I said yes. Thank God I also said "yes" when he asked if I wanted it on the rocks.

The five of us sat in the living room where PF brought me my very first, classic tumbler of what I'm sure was excellent scotch. Whoa. That was a lot of scotch and a little soda. I don't know what I was expecting but it kicked all the way down, even if it was a velvety smooth kick.

The problem was that the drink became too much of my focus: could I keep sipping this? Was it noticeable? I started praying that maybe the ice would melt faster, which would dilute it and make it easier to drink.

Oh, were people having a conversation? I barely knew. Was I saying anything?

It was then time to move to the table. I took one more gulp and I think finished the gold liquid.

PF was serving barbequed spare ribs, which his housekeeper/cook had prepared, and pairing it, of course, with a perfect California red.

Wine. Yes, I had had wine, but not yet on top of a cocktail. Of course I could have asked for water, or a soda, but I didn't yet have the social skills to request something of a host. And so I had a some wine, even more than one glass because now everything was funny and light and without anxiety! Unsurprisingly I remember almost nothing of the conversation, happy to at least have a pretty clear memory of us all sitting at that dining room table.

Dinner slid into dessert, and he offered after-dinner drinks with the coffee which I had some wits to decline.

It was time for the Navigator and me to go. It had been a good evening and PF seemed to enjoy himself.

I Become Hemingway?
Navigator and I took the bus back to Rutgers. I wish I could say that this grand gesture on his part made me fall in love with him, but unfortunately, I was still besotted with the Artist. So he walked me to my door and went to his floor. I went into my room, and then it all hit.

I was painfully drunk, and in the worst way. It felt like my body was burning up but I was freezing. My roommate was again away (Rutgers is a quasi-commuter school for lots of people), and here I was again, stuck in my room in physical distress.

I went into our section's bathroom and lay on the floor. That felt a little better, but I was thinking death would not be such a bad thing. I had been to a private dinner party with Paul Fussell. Nunc Dimittis. But that was not to be. I kept on breathing, my hearth kept beating, as I let the waves of spinning pass over me. The Hemingyway-in-his-heyday ending to the evening was not lost on me, but it was for a very different reason. It's not that I matched Papa shot for shot, but that I had mono. The virus affects the liver as much as it does all the nodes of the endocrine system. Which is why YOU CAN'T DRINK WHEN YOU HAVE MONO. But no one had told me.

I was seriously very lucky that my liver came through intact, so that this could be a funny story of youthful folly, and not the beginning of needing a liver transplant at such a young age.

Sentimental Education

I once asked PF what novels should I read over the summer. One he suggested was Sentimental Education, which I never did read. And though the themes of the novel are more pessimistic, the title applies to Fussell's actual life as a professor, which contradicts some of the more sensational stuff in print.

It had been extremely gracious of PF to throw a dinner in the service of romance. It shows that the off-quoted ""I find it very hard to learn my students' names," he says. "They're items out of a cookie cutter, you know. I have to labor at it. I have no interest." from the 1983 People magazine article was not the whole story.

For several years he threw a party at the end of The Great War and Modern Memory class for all his students, on a Saturday. The year I took the class the invite read: Massenerstamlungen: To commemorate the 62nd anniversary of the German counterattack of Spring, 1918; Saturday, May 3. Again, not an action of a man who dislikes his students.

One day in the 18th century class he brought in a stand-up cardboard display for Amstel beer, like something you'd see in a bar. His daughter had just gotten that account, and somehow he had gotten the display. He raffled it off. Everyone wrote down a number on the seating chart, and then he pulled a number out of cup. (Oddly enough, I won). It was a silly/funny thing to do with a class of 18th century lit, but he was making a connection.

I remained on the edges of PF's life for the years I was at Rutgers, meeting up occasionally for lunch as his marriage ended and Harriet came into his life, and we corresponded for a good 15 years after. He had promised to one day "sashay" into the then Museum of Television & Radio, although he never did. The "fame" that came with that People magazine and onward, may have had a deleterious affect on him.  I did not read Class, or Bad, content to have known the literary scholar, and the satiric/sardonic social commentator only in passing.

2 comments:

Eddie said...

I really enjoyed this read. Knowing the author makes it all the more interesting, if not humorous. Thanks for sharing!

M.A.Peel said...

Hi Eddie, thanks for stopping by.