Bill Turley taught me calculus in High School. 14 years later he died watching the cooking channel. I was on the roof of a theater in San Francisco. I'd called a classmate to get my mind off the play and after a few minutes he realized I'd called just to shoot the breeze. "You know Turls died?" He hadn't shown up for his 9 am class, the boys shrugged it off, but after the 10am went by folks went looking. Found Bill on his couch, the tv still blaring. His pure bred bulldog so frantic she'd clawed a hole in his face. I used to think that was gruesome or unseemly to speak of but having stood and watched a few people die since then, if I had fewer brain cells or a fiercer instinct I could imagine tearing at my beloved's face to get them to wake up, to say something, to feed me.
In Bill's last years which shouldn't have been his last years -he was 50, and his parents lived into their 90s- he started taking trains across country. To nowhere in particular. He just liked moving through the landscape. He liked sitting with complete strangers, sharing a meal, he liked the rhythm and the pace and what they had to say. Now mind you, this was not someone you'd call a people person. At first glance, well at any glance to call him formal would have fallen short of the mark. Robert E Lee not receiving a single demerit at West Point gives good example of Bill's aspect. For instance, though the previous sentence works on a casual level -let's call it a bloggish one- Turl's would have nailed me for the mixed metaphor. "Ah David, calls and glances are not arrows and though they too may fall let us say on some Mark and not short of one."
I woke up on a train from Pittsburgh to DC last week. A tiny sleeper room. All sliding doors on one side and a window on the other, the width of closet. A box of light bisected by a bed I could fold away. I woke up in the middle of the Appalachians, the Cumberland forest below the Mason Dixon, country both Bill and I could call home. Mist rose like steam out of the trees which at this elevation wore their full Fall colors. I'd left Pittsburgh in the dark. Rust, mass, hunkered hills and dark green. And now I was in some glowing summit dale. Even the mud looked bright and clean, a brown you'd be happy to wear you boots through.
Bill and I wrote letters back and forth for about the last five years of his life. Letters with envelopes, on actual paper. Bill was a computer whiz and had no time for Luddites, he would have loved the internet I'm sure, but things had their place for him, their way. You could dress like a bum in his dorm, but when you walked in to his class you were at attention, he loved a good joke but if you laughed at someone's mistake you felt his wrath. Manners were not the code of a class to him, they were decencies, they were gestures of respect and the grace notes of civilization. "I don't wear this tie to impress you, David, I wear it because I take what we're doing here seriously."
What we were doing at that moment was having lunch. Being friends. Listening to each other.
In his letters he said he was going back to church. Sometimes. And then more regularly. He loved the hymns, English evensong and the matins, the vocal tradition of the Anglicans. I smiled because Bill had been raised a Southern Presbyterian, and his father a Baptist. I was the Anglican. He was saying he thought of me, that he remembered something about me which at the time I didn't even know I valued when he drove the 30 miles to the nearest Episcopal church.
I don't know why it breaks my heart and at once make me smile when I think of Bill listening in a pew in some Gothic revival chapel with the regular ladies of that corner of Western PA glancing at him or in a diner car somewhere outside of Sheridan Wyoming hearing out the story of a miner headed West or a couple from Chicago whose love for trains happily hid the limits of their love for each other. I was elated that he was out in the world, putting his arms out to it and saying out loud, I like this.
"Ah David surely two 'outs' is enough? Let us when we write follow Shakespeare and not.....the Yankees."
Brief candle no doubt.
And he mentioned a few times that he had met someone. Or that he was going to a particular church because of a particular person. And I thought this is what it means to feel the earth move, when one of your idols confesses to need. How divine.
I suppose you can extrapolate that Bill was unique, that he was extraordinary, as sensitive as one of those machines that measure tremors in the earth ( Fitzgerald fans forgive me) brilliant in a way that hurt the eyes, that still does. I'm 3 years younger than Bill was when he died and I still shake my head as his references land, his gifts, his intentions. Seeded in me as boy, bearing fruit in a bookstore, or a concert, or an argument 30 years later. He was one of those teachers scores of men would swear their lives by, that could in gesture, in a phrase pull you out of the basement of your adolescence and make you want to dream. I could list the instances all day, Wildean epigrams; never ending, always good, he had the right words ready like Cyrano, they flew from him like birds.
One example. I blew a test. A mid-sized quiz really. But I was strung on a wire in high school. My scores were my armor, my fuel, they got me from dorm to class, held me up from weekend to weekend. Without them rising I wept. So I'm a grown up now and an actor and I can still see as clearly as I can see Fonda in Grapes of Wrath, or Deniro in The Deer Hunter, I can see Bill Turley laying that quiz on my desk, the turn of his body, the light tension in his right hand, the timbre of his voice "Now don't despair David", everything he did to spare my feelings, or play them against themselves. It was masterful. A dance, a performance. The tiny breath of privacy as he spoke, the informal placement of the paper, the knowledge that something so small could be so colossal, both comical and profound and to transmit as much as he passed my desk one afternoon in the Fall of 1983....Genius. Every day. 30 years. Hundreds of kids. He loved us and we loved him back.
And I suppose you can garner that Bill was what we would now call "gay". That he was "closeted". That he had to "repress" something for most of his life. But I wonder is the spectrum of human happiness so manichean? Are our desires so simply plumbed they can be slaked like thirst?
( Oh Bill now I'm slaking some plumbing....so sorry...)
We define ourselves by such weak machines, such indelicate meters. People spend their lives plumbing the depths (that's better) of a novel, one book, but rarely does anyone let their self, their soul have an equal measure. Whitman, Thoreau....what would they say.....I knew a man once who had what I think Leaves of Grass is praising, who felt in the world what Walden Pond says is in there.....had he lived among the Romantics they would have said he vibrated with song.....had he been a Jacobean he would have cast lightning on the day.....I guess he did, anyhow, in Saltsburg PA in the age of calculators and video tape, when phones still had booths and Berlin had a wall.
I wake up on a train in damp forest rolling by, softly visiting the yards of the rich and poor as we fall toward Virginia and I think of my math teacher.....every trip is like this I suppose, even the crap ones... there'll be a place you want to posit someone, to see them set against the landscape and listen to them speak, what they would see and what they would tell you. Funny how we go all that way to find them.