MEMORIES THAT BLESS AND BURN

Last Wednesday, I revisited my past, the face of which was a long ago student of mine, Donna Diebel Beehler.

All too rarely, does the frantic pace of my life slow down enough for reflection. And without reflection we lose focus; we risk veering off course, forgetting to re-ask ourselves Life’s Three Eternal Questions: “Who am I?” “Where have I come from?” “Where am I going?”

So it was good to go back to one of the earliest stages of my teaching career, to the campus of Sacramento Adventist Academy. More beautiful even than it had been in the 1960s – except its iconic symbol, its great oak, was no longer there. Other trees vainly attempted to take its place, but it was not the same for limned in a double-exposure image was the tree that was still there – in my heart.

Have you ever noticed how certain moments of your lifetime are frozen in time? When time itself seems to momentarily stop. I looked for the classroom where it happened. It was an early November afternoon, and I was teaching an English class – or trying to, for afternoon classes are, by nature, sluggish. Suddenly, the door of the classroom was yanked open, and a student cried out, “Kennedy’s been shot! Kennedy’s been shot!” With those six words, all classroom control vanished. Television was so new back then, there wasn’t even a set on campus. All we had was radio. We all headed to the gymnasium, as I remember, to listen to ongoing commentary – every last one of us in a state of shock.

* * * * *

Later in the day, Connie and I managed to find our way – no easy task after all these years – to our old home on Pueblo Avenue. It was still there! Just a different color. I embarrassed Connie by stopping, walking up to the front door, and ringing the bell. When a man opened it, looking at me quizzically, I explained: “We used to live in this house.” After inviting me in, and summoning Connie from the car, we revisited that part of our lives: The foyer (once amber bottled glass by the door) where our then little boy, Greg, used to sit in the morning sun, mauling our Siamese cat, Nuteena (fondly called “No Nuts” because he’d been neutered).

Next door, a Majong-obsessed couple used to live – they regularly hosted noisy Majong tournaments. But what we remembered most vividly was that dreadful weekend of Kennedy’s assassination when we crashed our neighbor’s house (they had a TV and we didn’t) and sat with them in their living room, immersed in the gloomy black and white (no color then) images of Washington in mourning beamed into households all across the nation. This couldn’t be happening! But it was. What I remember most clearly: the clip-clopping of horses’ hooves, the firing of guns, the somber bells, choral dirges, muffled voices; standing on the steps of the Capitol, beautiful Jackie dressed in black, holding little John John’s hand, dressed in his now famous blue jacket – and his saluting as the body of his father went past; the long lines of mourners slowly walking by the coffin – and people weeping unashamedly.

And next morning, our neighbor banging on our door, shouting, “Come on over! Oswald has just been shot!” Blood, blood everywhere – the end of innocence for our generation. That did it! We drove down to Sears and bought our first television set.

* * * * *

That evening, en route to an alumni gathering in Rancho Murietta, we drove by one of my alma maters, Sacramento State University. And my mind drifted back to one of the key epiphanies of my lifetime: It was a sizzling summer afternoon and I was sauntering past an open door when I heard a familiar voice, “Joe! Got a minute?” It was Dr. Victor Comerchero, one of the University’s most beloved teachers. I’d taken several English classes from him. After some small talk, he got to the point – bluntly: “Joe, what are you doing here?” Noticing my bemusement, he chuckled and added, “What I really mean is, what are you doing with your life?”

I sputtered, “Well, I’m taking English classes, trying to bring my undergraduate English minor up to a major.”

“The reason, I asked, Joe, is that I’ve been looking over your records . . . . Do you realize you’re half way to a Masters in English? Why are you wasting time with just aimlessly taking classes?”

My mouth gaped open. Huh? Half way to a second Masters? Suddenly, my inner stars came into alignment as I considered the ramifications and resultant possibilities. So many times since, I’ve thought back to that life-changing moment when a busy professor on a hot summer afternoon (with no air-conditioner in his office) cared enough for a student he barely knew, to search his academic records, stop that student as he walked by, and challenge him to build a foundation under his dreams. The result was that I completed my course work, wrote my thesis on utopian and dystopian writers; even before graduation, my proximity to that second Masters catapulted me out of the high school classroom into the collegiate world, clearing the way for my Vanderbilt doctorate and all that has followed.

* * * * *

But my life nevertheless remains imprinted on one seamless bolt of cloth. In God’s eternal scheme of things, Sacramento Adventist Academy was just as significant as Sacramento State University and Vanderbilt University – each would play a central role in my life’s journey; just so, equal weight to the human faces along the way: Donna Diebel Beehler and Debbie Bighaus-West (more on her later), Dr. Victor Comerchero, and Drs Warren Titus and Kenneth Cooper of Vanderbilt University.

For each of them, I am profoundly grateful.

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