tagMatureOf Rivers and Religion Ch. 01

Of Rivers and Religion Ch. 01


This is Part One of a two-part story.

I can't say that it was love at first sight. I guess I'm not even sure I know what that means. But I think I do know what lust at first sight is, and I can't say that I felt that when I sat down for the first time in the front of Dave Heard's classroom for the opening session of the advent of my college career -- his Survey of American Literature II course -- Eng. 251.

But it didn't take long before Dr. Heard won me over with his unconventional approach, an individualism and abhorrence of conformity that I came to find really intriguing, coupled with a generosity of spirit with which I fell in love. To say the least, Dave Heard would prove to be different from all my other professors.

For one thing, practically every other professor that I had in college usually blew into the lecture hall a few seconds before, right at, or several minutes after the appointed time for each session, and in a flourish of flying umbrellas, jackets, sweaters or coats, briefcases, textbooks, laptops, and sharpies made us all jumpy as hell before their lectures even began.

Then, when class ended, they made it clear that they were history, sort of the academic equivalents of untouchable elites, as soon as each reversed the process, gathering up all their things for a quick dash out the side door.

Sure, they all posted their office hours -- they had to -- and so each listed the four hours each week that you could try to talk to them, but everyone knew they sure as hell didn't want that to happen, and because they didn't, except in unusual circumstances, neither did any of us. That pretty much summed up how important a lot of students felt they were in a lot of the professors' grand schemes. Every day I pledge myself anew to the task of never becoming one of those professors.

But that wasn't Dr. Dave Heard. He reminded me of some of my better high school teachers. He always arrived at least twenty minutes before the start of every class, and he made it a point to cordially introduce himself to, or later to initiate conversations with, at least some of the students -- the ones that, like him, arrived early for class. I was one of those students.

Maybe he had an ulterior motive -- I mean, the only students that arrived early were studious, overachieving undergraduates that regarded their professors -- especially, in my experiences, the male ones -- as sorts of philosopher/kings, whose every word they hung on as if it was carpe diem poetry, not a lecture that had been delivered dozens of other times. With only one or maybe two exceptions, all of those students were female. I was one of those young women, and my study habits played well into that narrative, as I convinced myself before ever starting college that my job was to soak up every bit of urbane wit and wisdom that saturated my professors' neurons.

I had graduated high school as my class' valedictorian, and I had taken every Advanced Placement course that my school had to offer. Sure, I'd gone to a public high school in a small city in Wisconsin, not some prep school out east, but, in my defense, I did have a perfect score on both the ACT and the SAT. And I had passed each of the AP exams with a score of 5 and had been named a National AP Scholar and a National Merit Scholar too. But as everybody knows, that's all bullshit anyway.

The bottom line is that after some negotiations, when I started at UW, I had already been awarded 30 college credits. With 30 credits in the bank, I was already a sophomore before I had entered my first college classroom. This explains my taking a 200 level English course to begin my higher education.

It was just like me to take Eng. 251 before I took Eng. 250, the first course in the survey of American lit. You know -- the fucking Puritans, and those god-awful American Romantics. I just wanted to get to the good stuff right away, and somehow getting to the good stuff meant going through Dave Heard -- one of a handful of the University's resident experts on Modern American Studies.

In the end, I had no idea how good the good stuff was going to be. Dave Heard taught me that -- and irony of ironies -- the good stuff had nothing to do with American literature!

Not that he wasn't a great professor, he was. He knew his shit, and more than that, he made learning that shit really interesting, not just to me and those other overachievers, but to pretty much everyone. There was no doubt that he was one of the most highly regarded professors on campus.

But he was more than that. He was just a good man, a really sweet guy, who genuinely cared about his students' learning and, maybe even more importantly, their futures. He must have said it about a hundred different times in about a hundred different ways in the three courses I ended up taking from him, but his goal was that each of his students would learn what he had spent a lifetime absorbing and would then surpass him. I remember the time that he made that point most abundantly clear when he suggested that he would know he had done his job and done it well when one of his students took that job away from him.

How could you not love that approach? Instead of being fastidious about safeguarding the "Holy Grail," the secretive body of knowledge that each professor had amassed over a lifetime, using it in the most calculated manner possible to make students feel inferior so as not to feel threatened by them -- a skill mastered by almost every other tenured professor at the university -- Dave Heard wanted his students to threaten him, to challenge him, to try to prove him an idiot.

None of them ever did because he was brilliant, but I think he was really serious about challenging us to do so, and he really wanted the students, not him, to end up the winners. I guess in the end, that's the plot of the story I'm about to tell.

So that first morning, when he came over to me to introduce himself and shake my timid hand, I didn't know what to make of him. It wasn't like he was the most gorgeous man I'd ever seen before -- not that there wasn't something distinctly attractive about him -- but it was his mind, his personality, and his style that eventually won me over, and those thing took a little time to understand and appreciate.

I guess I did notice the external package right away on that first day. He was wearing these retro glasses that looked like spectacles that Arthur Miller might have sported when he was romancing Marilyn Monroe, and his thick head of somewhat long, unruly hair and his closely cropped beard were that wonderfully natural mix of salt and pepper that make older men so sexy looking.

I guess I was probably always susceptible to the charms of an older man, but I didn't know it at the time. I had him pegged for about 45 years old, so I was more than surprised when I got to know him better and discovered that he was fifteen years older than that at the time. I was shocked -- he sure as hell didn't look 60, nor did he act it.

After that, I guess the next thing that really caught my attention were his clothes. He was just so natural -- the pure, unadulterated denunciation of pretentiousness. It didn't matter where he was, he was always clad in casual garb, but not too casual, because that too can come off as contrived and artificial. You could tell that Dave Heard didn't put on airs, either trying to dress up or dress down to suit a particular occasion.

I saw him at fundraising events for the university where every male in the room, except him, was wearing a tuxedo; at student/faculty mixers, where some of the male professors tried to fool everyone into thinking that they were the hippest 50 or 60 year-olds this side of Jeff Bridges; in class, where they all seemed hell-bent on establishing their academic bona fides through their wardrobes; or at State Street clubs or restaurants on the weekends, where most of the older guys tried hard to look like they were still in graduate school.

But that wasn't Dave Heard. He just seemed oblivious to fashion, and in so doing, I thought him the most fashionable man I'd ever seen.

Sometimes he wore jeans or some other type of laid-back pants or trousers that were, once and awhile, torn or ripped, though you could tell they had earned their scars naturally -- Dr. Heard would have recoiled at the idea of paying an extra $10 for every fake tear built into a pair of designer denim.

Then, tucked into, or occasionally dangling around, the waistband of those pants, he usually wore a simple, patterned dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up, so that he looked like he was ready to get to work. And then finally, his feet would be clad in anything from some casual oxfords or Doc Martens to a comfortable pair of Vans or Sanuks or some similar type of footwear.

But it wasn't until I got to know him well -- started spending time with him -- that I really learned what made him tick, and that was when I really fell for him. Despite his age, he was into all sorts of hipster influences, without trying in the least to be a hipster himself.

He had this incredible collection of recorded music -- vinyl records, CDs, and digital downloads, and he listened to practically every musical genre that ever existed: from all different types of classical music to ragtime, big band, bebop, cool, and avant-garde jazz, to rhythm and blues, rock and roll, alternative, folk, country, hip hop, reggae, world music, and practically everything in between.

His taste in film, art, and literature was equally esoteric, eclectic, and eccentric without appearing to be affected, calculated, or manufactured in the least. And he was a collector. If it was art, and it was good, he bought it -- music, to be sure, but also films, paintings, and, of course, books -- everything from non-fiction and criticism to all kinds of other stuff: novels, collections of short stories, poetry, theater -- you name it, he bought it.

But it wasn't just his interests that set him apart. It was his whole lifestyle. For instance, there was his predilection for walking. He always walked, and I mean everywhere. I didn't learn that he actually owned an automobile until I was invited to his house one night several months after I first met him and found one parked in his garage.

In those first few months after I met him, I don't think he ever drove it. It seemed like the most superfluous possession a man like him could own, because he walked everywhere he went -- to the University of Wisconsin each morning and back home again each night, all across the massive UW campus during the day, and to restaurants and bars, anywhere from State Street to downtown and the Capitol square, or to the lakes -- Mendota or Monona.

There were plenty of professors who were into cycling or motorcycles, but I didn't know another one who got around Madison exclusively on the two feet he was born with. It didn't matter the weather -- sun, rain, snow or sleet. If you set up camp, at say, Bascom Hall or Camp Randall or any other landmark on campus on any given day of the year, the odds were you wouldn't have to wait too long before Dave Heard would trod by with his characteristic aggressive strides and penchant for leaning into each step. In short nothing would stay him from the swift completion of his appointed rounds.

And then, there was his story. You couldn't help but be moved by it. He was a bachelor now, but not by choice -- actually, more accurately, a widower. The story quickly became part of his legend and lore.

Apparently, when he was in graduate school, he had met and fallen in love with a woman of uncommon beauty. I found out later that she was a scholar too. They had gotten married, had three children, and done all of the conventional things that couples did -- bought a stately home in Madison's historic district; introduced their children to a million sports, artistic undertakings, and activities of all kinds; guided them to adulthood and their own full, rich lives and academic pursuits; and then, in one stunningly sad and tragic event, they were all lost to him -- killed in a plane crash, when they were about to meet him at a vacation destination in the South Pacific somewhere. The authorities never found their bodies.

He had been attending a conference in the San Francisco Bay area and was scheduled to fly in to meet them when the conference ended, but some kind of mechanical failure had taken down their plane, and he didn't get the news until he landed in Fiji or someplace like it, and then had to suffer the horror of trying to find out what had happened to everyone he loved in a place that was supposed to be paradise, but had just turned into hell on earth.

That was when he was in his late 40s, and he had never remarried, because, the story went, he knew he couldn't ever replace his lost love. I learned all this through the UW grapevine, and now, that same rumor mill had it that he had had affairs with a female professor and a graduate student or two who reminded him of his wife, and, more than a decade after the tragedy, had helped, however ineffectually, to take some of his pain away.

I came to believe that I was the first undergraduate with whom he ever took up a relationship, but rather than Dave Heard using his position of power to cast me under his spell -- which is what everyone would have assumed had that ever gotten out -- he used our relationship instead to help me. I would never be where I am today without him.

But I'm pretty certain that I helped Dr. Heard too, and so this is a story of two people whose mutual love, respect, and caring for each other was both reciprocal and unconditional. And even though we eventually both married other people, we became the best of friends, inseparable confidantes, which I think is pretty incredible for former lovers. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

I guess back then he saw something in me, too, something appealing, though when I met him that first day in the Fall of 2006, I was, in my own opinion, a gangly, awkward teenager, a few months shy of her nineteenth birthday, who hadn't come into her own yet.

But I had inherited something from my mother, the prettiest older woman I think I've ever seen, her body, to be sure -- tastefully large breasts, a lean, slender frame, naturally lush, reddish blonde hair that fell softly about my shoulders, and delicate facial features that highlighted my deep, blue eyes -- so that maybe, even if I couldn't see it myself, he found me physically attractive.

I guess I considered myself pretty -- plenty of boys had told me that -- but I certainly didn't think that I was beautiful, and after hearing the story of Dr. Heard's wife, I knew that I couldn't compete physically with the specter of the dead woman who he had loved for more than 25 years before her untimely passing, and for another 12 since that tragic day in Polynesia.

But I think Dave Heard found beauty superficial, and that is not why I think he liked me, or for that matter, why he adored his beloved wife. I was, what a lot of my professors called "intellectually curious," and when he discovered that curiosity, he found, just as I had, that it led naturally to a curiosity of the flesh and the spirit, as well as the intellect.

So it was that a few weeks after that first meeting in White Hall, I went to visit Dr. Heard at his office about the first essay that he had assigned. We had a choice to select one of the vanguards of the Realist movement and to research the literary criticism of one of the thematic choices each had made in perhaps their most famous novels -- Kate Chopin's The Awakening; Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage; William Dean Howells' The Rise of Silas Lapham; Henry James' The Portrait of a Lady; or Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

I had decided on Huck Finn, even though I knew that at the very least probably half of the rest of the students in the section were going to choose that novel themselves, because, of course, everyone had read it in high school.

But I thought that even if I had chosen the book that everyone else was going to choose, I would at least focus my research on a different theme than the rest. I wanted to explore Huck's quest to find spirituality in the natural world, while I figured most students would delve into the pursuit of freedom, man's cruelty to his fellow man, intellectual vs. moral education, the hypocrisy of "civilized" society, or the travails of organized religion, or one or another of several sub-themes.

Even though I had already finished my essay and was actually quite proud of what I had produced, I went to see Dr. Heard because I wanted to find out from him whether or not choosing to write my first college essay on perhaps the most widely read book in the entire canon of American literature was going to hurt my chances at, first and foremost, producing a quality paper and, secondarily, getting a good grade.

Not that the grade was all that important to me, but I did want to write something meaningful, in part, I think, because I wanted to please him. Besides, I really loved Twain, saw him as a man so far ahead of his time and such a good and decent soul that I really considered his work, especially Huck Finn, the bedrock of all American literature that followed. I agreed, I guess, with Hemingway, who said, quite memorably "All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn." Besides, I really thought Twain was funny!

I had read all of the other books that I could have chosen for the assignment well before the course started, and then I had read them all over again, and had started to read the literary criticism about each, so I thought that if I talked to him, proved to him that I knew those books up and down, I could convince him that I wasn't trying to dodge real scholarly inquiry by writing about such a famous book.

That never happened, because I guess I should have known that he wasn't going to tell me what to do, but rather, expected me to decide for myself, and I don't think that I am exaggerating when I say that it was that first private meeting with him that led me to the place I occupy today.

I had made an appointment to come to see him. I thought that was what was expected of me, but when I arrived in his office, I quickly learned that he didn't give a damn about such formalities. It was the last time I ever made an appointment.

When I walked into the room, he was leaning back in a big, comfy, office chair, with his feet propped up on the desk in front of him, reading the first draft of some graduate student's master's thesis.

When he saw me, he peered over the top of his glasses to smile at me, "So, Ms. Williams, how may I help you today?" he asked, pulling his legs down from the desk. I didn't even know until that day that he knew my name.

"Thank you for seeing me, Dr. Heard. I wanted to talk about my topic for the first essay for your American lit course. I wanted to research the spirituality of the natural world as seen in Huck Finn, but I wondered if it was a good idea to write about a work that has been so thoroughly digested by critics for so long."

"Why wouldn't it be a good idea?" he asked provocatively.

"I don't know, I guess, because I'm afraid that I might have nothing new to say about that theme."

"I take it you've read T.S. Eliot's criticism of the book?"

"Yes, and Lionel Trilling's, Henry Nash Smith's, and Bernard De Voto's, as well."

"Did each of them have a completely new take on the novel?"

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