letterhead detail

Remembering a Year's Worth
of Teachers, Students, Etc.

By Lawrence Biemiller

CAMP WINDSOR HILL, RANGELEY LAKE, MAINE -- Bemis is nothing now, a memory by the side of a nameless dirt road. There is one plain building, locked up tight, with a sign that says BEMIS LANDING CO. Twenty or twenty-five yards behind the building is Mooselookmeguntic Lake. The dirt road was once the Maine Central's branch up to Kennebago Lake, but the line was abandoned in the 1930's, when a bridge washed out farther south.

Bemis used to be where summer passengers heading to the sportsmen's lodges and private camps around Mooselookmeguntic transferred to steamboats for the last leg of their trip. Now, instead of a hissing locomotive waiting at the end of the platform, instead of the cacophony of men unloading trunks and mail and crates of squawking chickens from the baggage car, instead of passengers shouting for the boy from the Upper Dam House and the conductor looking impatiently at his watch -- instead of all that, my bike and I are alone here among the pines and the birches on a cloudless summer afternoon.

A few hundred yards down the road is a small bridge that carried the trains over a stream. The bridge offers views of the lake, of the unspoiled marsh beside it and the pines at the marsh's edge, of Bemis Mountain and Spruce Mountain beyond the pines. Except for the bridge and the road, there's no sign of human habitation. This part of Maine is full of "little places that were something and became nothing," Gwilym Roberts explained last fall, and Bemis is certainly one of them.

Mr. Roberts, an emeritus professor of history at the University of Maine at Farmington, is the kind of person I find myself thinking about again and again, a teacher who gave me a new and better way of understanding some part of the world around me. Enlisted for a tour of the Wire Bridge, an early suspension bridge in New Portland, he instead spent the afternoon showing off Franklin County's graveyards and its former towns and the ruins of its mills. The county's population peaked at 23,000 before the Civil War, he said, and then didn't reach 23,000 again for a hundred years. In part, this was because railroads had tied Franklin County's once-isolated economy to that of the rest of the country; farmers here discovered that they couldn't compete with growers in states that have better soil and warmer climates. Visiting the Wire Bridge alone that evening, I could finally make sense of its location in what's now the middle of the woods.

It is a great privilege, if you are curious by nature, to meet such people, to ask endless questions, to know the stories of their lives. Sitting on the long porch of an old summer house, trying to finish an article that requires looking up Eusabius, St. Augustine, and Henry VIII in the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica in the living room, I end up remembering a year's worth of teachers and students, sculptors and poets, and thinking of all the things I learned and how what each of them taught me has resonated since -- in other interviews and stories, in letters to friends, in the everyday world of fixing dinner or talking to my grandmother on the phone or thinking about a play seen the night before.

At the New England Culinary Institute, students make a honey-wheat bread so good that even butter seems unnecessary; the memory of it -- of almost a whole loaf eaten at one sitting on the porch of my bed-and-breakfast -- became the standard to which all other bread would be held. There, too, I learned how to make vinaigrette (with a whisk), how much butter goes into croissants, how much salt should flavor green beans, how different a restaurant kitchen's barely-controlled chaos is from the calm of its dining room. Every time I've eaten out since, I've thought of that chaos.

At Lebanon Valley College, members of the baseball team talked about the game with such conviction that it gave the sports pages meaning for the first time in years. Now it matters that the Orioles, with a strike looming, are at this writing nine games out of first place in the American League East. Alleghany Meadows, who graduated from Pitzer College this spring, explained with equal conviction that the point of making a coffee cup by hand wasn't to fool people into thinking it had been mass-produced. The cup should have a character of its own, he says. His have such presence, and feel so good in the fingers, that after he graduated I sent him a check and asked him to make four complete place settings for me. They are to arrive next week.

At the University of California at Los Angeles, Nancy Rubins urges her sculpture students not to settle for doing only what they're comfortable with. Comfortable or not, they should be doing whatever best serves the message they're trying to get across, she says -- that's what art is all about. But hearing her say it reminds me that it's what writing is all about, too. For good measure, Susan Montez's book of often-daring poems, Radio Free Queens, appeared in a bookstore in Providence, R.I., when I was looking for something to read on a southbound train: "At 19, you can do anything you want. Why not 32? Why not 46? Who makes these rules?" Ms. Montez teaches at Norwalk Community College, in Connecticut, but agreed to an interview in Queens. We talked and laughed all day.

At the other end of this lake lives a sculptor, Paul Marco, who is an old family friend. The day we go to visit he tells me I should write about why America's corporate princes don't support the arts as well as the Esterhazy princes supported the likes of Haydn. A former singer who was called a "worker in the arts" before he left the Soviet Union, Mr. Marco goes on and on about European princes and how much art they commissioned -- paintings, palaces, busts, operas.

Eventually I object. His ancestors and mine never saw the paintings hanging in the Esterhazy schlosses, the sculptures made for Esterhazy gardens, the operas written for Esterhazy parties. Nor did our ancestors have leisure to rehearse arias, or sculpt, or write -- they were busy harrowing fields and making soap. At least now anyone can go to the local museum on Saturday afternoon, or listen to opera on the radio, or take up verse. Anyhow, I say, American colleges do something much like what those princes did, sheltering composers and painters and poets and playwrights, demanding of them not a new entertainment every week -- Haydn wrote over 100 symphonies -- but that they pass their knowledge on to the next generation. It's hard to argue that the Esterhazys' was the better arrangement.

Especially if you've met Alleghany Meadows and Susan Montez and Gwilym Roberts and all the other people I've interviewed since I sat on this porch last summer. Sometimes I envy those who study and work on campuses, imagining the rich conversations in their corridors and coffee shops; then I think how fortunate I am, meeting students and faculty members one after another, asking how each came to study bones, or make wine, weave cloth, rebuild pianos, care for athletes, write about railroads, stage operas. It's hard to argue that any Esterhazy ever had a more enriching job.

I take friends from New Jersey to see the Wire Bridge, telling them as it sways beneath our steps about Gwilym Roberts and all the places here that used to be something. I send e-mails about Susan Montez's poems to a friend in San Francisco, who writes back that he wants to go buy her book. And I'm still trying to match the New England Culinary Institute's honey-wheat bread in my own kitchen. If I do, I'll serve it on Alleghany's plates, and envy no one.

Copyright (c) 1994, 1995 by The Chronicle of Higher Education, Inc. http://chronicle.com Title: Remembering a Year's Worth of Teachers, Students, Etc. Published: 94/08/10

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