during the summer of 1940, Merton isolated himself from the rest of
us at the cottage lent to us by Lax's brother-in-law, Benjy Marcus,
in the hills above Olean, N. Y. We were all gearing up to become writers;
we all brought L. C. Smith or Royal portable typewriters and sat around
in the main room of the rustic, drafty little house, racing to complete
more pages in a day than the others. Lax wrote about a travelling
nightclub; the book was to be called "The Spangled Palace;" it later
was published in "Jester" under Rice's editorship. Merton had started
the summer before on an autobiographical book called at first, "The
Straits of Dover," and finally, "The Labyrinth." Rice wrote something
called "The Blue Horse," about a race around the world. My text was
untitled, and, as everyone expected, was to be an epic about the South.
The weather was foul, the news oppressive, the food terrible (it was
our own), and the dishes piled up in the kitchen sink and around it.
Freedgood was there, with his wife-to-be,
Helen, who suggested that Freedgood should go off to Europe for a
year or two in order to mature properly. Gerdy was there, along with
Robert Gibney and Ad Reinhardt. There were also wonderfully pretty
girls, Peggy Wells with her long stems; beautiful Nancy Flagg, and
earthy Norma Prince, who painted a portrait of a naked Walt Whitman
that was so large it ran off the canvas and on to the living room
wall. Reinhardt watched us with amusement, and a painter's disdain
The writing lagged, boredom set in,
Merton clearly was in the process of making an enormous decision about
his life. He and I, Gerdy and Rice decided to hitch-hike to Cleveland,
where Gerdy said he had a rich uncle living in Shaker Heights.
We split into pairs to make it easier
to get rides -- Merton and I together, and Rice with Gerdy. I can
still remember how unsure I was; what can I possibly say that will
interest Thomas Merton, cosmopolitan, French-born, English-educated,
deep thinker, poet and pianist, three years older at a stage in one's
life where three years is a big notch on the sophistication scale?
We got along like a dream.
talked at length about his brother, John Paul, who was already planning
to volunteer for naval or military service either in America or in
England -- to act before he was drafted, so that he would have a say
in how and where he was to serve. (John Paul became a pilot, and was
lost in action in 1943 over Germany.) We shared a love for the countryside;
this was a bit exaggerated in me, simply because the lakes, rivers
and farms in the northeast were so much more spectacular than the
muddy waters, pine forests and red-clay soil of the South. "You will
love France," he told me. "Every part of it. You and France will suit
each other, so don't miss the chance to go." I got a chance to go
all right, but under rather forced auspices, and after a delay of
several years. I was accepted into the army in May 1941 at Fort MacPherson
in Atlanta, and spent nearly five years in the armed forces, campaigning
in North Africa, Italy and southern Germany. I think I did my job
willingly, and with application, every step of the way. I remembered
Merton's remark made on our hitch-hiking trip when I first travelled
as a soldier from Germany into France to Strasbourg, and then across
to the Touraine and from there on to Paris; this was right after the
war, in 1945, when France and Paris were worn out and uncared for,
tired beauty on good bones. Another instant love affair.
Merton and I were stranded near Geneva,
Ohio, not far away from the shores of Lake Erie; we agreed that it
was one of our more beautiful spots, so we sat at the edge of the
road for a while and soaked in the view. Merton then admitted to having
a little money so we went to a nearby restaurant -- which turned out
to be one of those fancy small-town country clubs, straight out of
John O'Hara's Pennsylvania scene. We ate among well-dressed businessmen
and their wives and girlfriends, and then went laughing back out into
the night, rollicking over the scene. We slept in the fields. The
next morning Merton handed me a page from his spiral notebook (he
always carried a spiral notebook for comments on books and creative
jottings, and a bound notebook for his private journal; insofar as
I can determine, he kept the journal, surely the private one, all
his life); on the page was the poem, "Aubade: Lake Erie," which he
had written, I assume, once the sun was up.
was minstrel-like, and a memory of France:
sun, light handed,
sows this Indian water with
a crop of cockles
arrange their tender shadows
In the sweet
leafage of an artificial France...."
nostalgic for childhood, and suddenly, gratefully, optimistic about
the future, as though a very important decision had been made.
"Awake, in the
frames of windows, innocent children
Loving the blue, sprayed leaves of childish life,
bearded corn, the bleeding grape,
'Here is the
hay-colored sun, our marvelous cousin,
Walking in the barley,
Turning the harrowed earth to growing bread,
And splicing the sweet, wounded vine.
Lift up your
And no more
fear the fever,
and sleepers in the fields,
Here is the
And when their
shining voices, clean as summer,
Play, like churchbells
over the field,
A hundred dusty Luthers rise from the dead, unheeding,
Search the horizon for the gap-toothed grin of factories,
And grope, in the green wheat,
Toward the wood winds of the western freight."
I looked at a very serene Tom Merton;
he usually had a devilish, mischievous grin on his face, but now it
was calm and serious. "You have decided what to do with your life,
haven't you?" I said. Yes, he had. In a way, the poem was mine, too;
I felt I was a part of it. I still feel a part of it.
got our hitch-hiking heads out of the fields and all the way to Cleveland
and to Shaker Heights, but Gerdy's uncle wasn't rich and didn't want
us around for more than a night. Gerdy and Merton took the train back
to Olean, but Rice and I hitch-hiked together, sometimes separating,
for lack of space in the car. On one occasion, I rode late into the
night with a French-Canadian who drove with wild abandon and a growing
anger; he had his radio on a French-language station somewhere, probably
Montreal, which was only a hundred miles or so away. The more appalling
the news, the more reckless he became; I thought he was ready to kill
us both -- the Germans, the broadcast said, have just marched into
Merton later sold "Aubade: Lake Erie" to "The New Yorker";
they paid him $20 for it -- an encouragement to all of us to keep
Merton, I'm told, visited the cottage
on the hill over Olean the following year, alone. He was teaching
at St. Bonaventure College in Olean, and had moved most of his belongings
there. By himself in the cottage, he was lonely; he wrote and wrote,
but couldn't get it right; he walked into the woods in bad weather
and became acutely aware that something had finished in his life and
in ours, that the old group was dispersed and would never be together
again as before. He composed imaginary letters in his journal, as
though he were a small boy at camp writing home:
"Dear Uncle Harry,
"It is a typical day at the cottage.
Tommy Merton has made a cross out of two sticks and stuck it into
the ground in the woods in a place where he thinks he is going to
like to sit, but where there are too many lousy mosquitoes..."
enclosed pictures of "Jimmy Knight, Bobby Lax, Norma Prince, Eddie
Rice" and other campers.
"It is a typical day at the camp, mother dear. Next year at this time,
Bobby Gibney will have left for the army three days ago, and Jimmy
Knight will already have been some time at Camp Polk, La., and the
The group was no longer a group; its
members had scattered. And the scattering was to last a number of
years, especially for me, because rather than return to America when
the war was over, I got my discharge from the Army Air Force in Marburg,
Germany, and went straight to work as a newspaperman in Paris.
But before that, I did manage to visit
Gerdy at the end of the war in Bad Kissingen, where he was winding
up an excrutiatingly painful military career by writing a history
of his Air Force unit. I doubt there was ever anyone less suited for
the military experience than Bob Gerdy, unless it was the saxophonist
Lester Young, who flunked the test for different reasons; Young could
never have survived anywhere outside the jazz spots of Kansas City
and New York.
Gerdy wasn't made for army life either.
But he did his job, and he did it well. How he must have hated the
discipline, the artificial sense of rank and position, and the ordering
of other people around. Merton described him in "The Seven Storey
Mountain:" "Bob Gerdy was a very smart sophomore (in 1937) with the
face of a child and a lot of curly hair on top of it, who took life
seriously, and had discovered courses on scholastic philosophy in
the graduate school..." In fact, Gerdy's wanderings as an undergraduate
at Columbia into the graduate school led him to Daniel Walsh's course
on St. Thomas of Aquinas; Merton was to be profoundly influenced by
both St. Thomas and Dan Walsh as he moved toward conversion, and the
monastic life. It could be said that Merton's life as a monk got its
start with Gerdy.
After the German surrender, I led a company of black American soldiers
in a truck company up through the Alps into southern Germany; the
company once had had black officers, who had been for whatever reason
forced from their commands at the Naples airport in Capodocino and
replaced by me and another white officer.
The word had not got through from the
Mediterranean Theater to the European Theater about the change in
command of the 1948th Truck Company -- so I and my fellow officer
found ourselves the only white persons in an entire transportation
regiment composed of black American officers and black American soldiers.
Major Thomas Taylor, a music conductor in civilian life, and a gentleman,
examined me with some surprise when I reported for duty. So did his
Operations Officer, Captain Joseph Randolph, a Chicago lawyer -- and
another gentleman. The "mistake" was reported to headquarters, and
I was actually visited the following day by an envoy with the exalted
rank of major-general, who promised to get me out of there as soon
as possible. Frankly, I liked the situation, and said so. Since Major
Taylor and Captain Randolph seemed to like it, too, it was decided
to leave matters as they were.
I'm sure Merton would have applauded my staying with Major Taylor,
Captain Randolph, and the rest of the black American regiment. It
was a broadening experience to be on this side of things in our segregated
armed forces. I had already quickly become aware with my black American
truck company that we had two enemies -- the Germans, and the American
military police, many of whom spent the war hounding black troops.
Taylor and Randolph were close to being obsessed by the subject; MP
misbehavior had followed them from England and across France into
Germany. I learned quickly, too, that very positive results could
be had with my own men simply by standing up in support of them, when
they were in the right, in their collisions with the MPs. Taylor,
Randolph and I ended our war in a little blaze of equal rights.
Now, I think of Merton's own humanity
where the continuing American stigma about race is concerned. From
Gethsemani, in 1964, he wrote to Chris McNair, the father of a little
black girl, Carole Denise McNair, killed by the bomb that exploded
on September 15, 1963, in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham,
Alabama. The letter was accompanied by the poem he had written, "Picture
of a Black Child with a White Doll":
"This is not exactly an easy letter
to write. There is so much to say, and there are no words in which
to say it. I will say it as simply as I can, in the hope that you
will understand this message from a total stranger. I saw the pictures
you took of Carole Denise in "Look" several months ago. One of them
meant so much to me that I cut it out, and kept it. It seemed to say
so much, principally about goodness, and about the way in which the
goodness of the human heart is invincible, and overcomes the evil
and wickedness that may sometimes be present in other men.
"Being a writer, and a writer of poems, I eventually was moved to
write a poem, and now that it has been published I want to send you
at least this copy of it. It is a somewhat angry poem, because I think
that a little anger is still called for. I hope that love and compassion
also come through, for anger is not enough and never will be.
"At any rate, I wanted to say what you
already know and believe: that the mercy and goodness of the Lord
chose Carole Denise to be with Him forever in His love and His light.
Nor is she forgotten on the earth. She remains as a witness to innocence
and to love, and an inspiration to all of us who remain to face the
labor, the difficulty and the heartbreak of the struggle for human
rights and dignity."
died, one of her friends said, "God needs her." Rice's immediate response
was: "God doesn't need her, I need her."
He had discovered about two years earlier that he had Parkinson's. "No
one is really aware of it in the beginning," he says. He is becoming
an expert on Parkinson's, reading whatever he can find. "It seems you
can see it in a certain flatness of the face, a lack of expression,
a kind of facial immobility. A psychologist discovered it in me, just
by looking at my face."
He is convinced that lack of control makes
it worse. "When Susanna died, I really lost control, and Parkinson's
quickly took charge. The more I grieved, the worse Parkinson's became."
He keeps lists of well-known people who suffer from the disease, feeling
that the more well-known victims we know of, the better the chances
for increased money going into the problem.
"There is no cure," he says, "but the doctors are still trying. All
they have so far is a brain operation for certain kinds of cases, a
real minority among those who suffer, and the use of a prescription
drug, Sinemet, which does not cure, but alleviates the condition."
"Humphrey Bogart had it," Rice says, "and
Billy Graham has it. Harry Truman had it, and I think the Pope is afflicted;
you can tell by the way he moves and gropes along and stumbles. Janet
Reno has it."
He also believes that the subject of his last book, Richard Burton,
had Parkinson's. "There were certain things that people were noting
about his appearance, I noticed when I was getting near the end of my
book," he says. "Burton probably had the disease."
It occurs mostly in mentally active people, Rice is convinced.
"My Golden Rule is, do things one
at a time," he says. "I learned quickly, you can't brush your
teeth and listen to a traffic report. One thing at a time, or I get
"To get up from the bed, I have to sit there and order my right foot
to turn straight ahead, and then wait for it to comply. All my movements
are like that."
can no longer write -- either by hand or by typewriter. This is a very
special burden for him. He often told me, "if I don't write, I get restless."
Writing gets him from one day to the next and keeps him happy.
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