The line was incredibly long. We stood in the dark, many of us smoking because none of us knew about secondhand smoke, or even common courtesy, apparently, back then.
Me? I tried my best to shoot the streams of exhaled death into the air above our heads. With some success. Others didn’t bother. I hereby apologize to all the non-smokers who suffered through that. All of us smokers were assholes for doing that to you.
We early comers who were, in my case, not early enough, shivered in the slow drizzle of the rain. In Hawai‘i this is the kind of rain considered to be a blessing. I cursed myself for not having set my alarm for 4:00 a.m. instead of 5:00.
Artists, and artists-to-be. We stood there, cattle waiting to walk our way to what?
It seemed like I was a mile from the door in George Hall, the Art Building. This was preregistration for all Art majors. I’d come in as a freshman already declared for Art. No messing around for me. I felt like an artist. Two years under the instruction of Mr. Abarenbo at University High had transformed me into a visionary sculptor. I was ready, in my mind, for my first exhibition. Yeah right.
Dawn broke, and we were still an hour away from the 8:00 opening. The rain had stopped. Blessing over. We stood there, stangers, no one around me talking to anyone else. Actually, it was the perfect kind of silence for creating something. We were wasting creation time. Some folks madly sketched ideas on paper. I’d not ever thought of that. Okay, some of us were wasting creation time. Come on, already
The door opened. The line moved. Slowly. As I approached the desk where lone man stood dispensing those IBM punch cards that would let us into various he assigned, I could hear he was a yeller.
Everyone in front of me seemed to irritate the Art Department Undergraduate Advisor to a higher and more agitated degree. He did not spare volume of speech nor his derision of suggested class choices. You would take what he said you would take. Period.
I was next. The poor person in front of me got royally chewed out for trying to say he was qualified to take a ceramics class that, “You have no damn business taking.”
“Here,” the angry advisor yelled. “The only ceramics class you can take is intermediate hand-building. And you have to take this art history class. You put it off too long.”
He thrust the cards at the cowering student.
I was shaking badly. My heart beat so fast that, as Rosanne Roseanne Roseannadanna might say a few years later, “I thought I was gonna die.”
“I don’t know you,” he said. “Who’re you and what year?”
“Ah, Lanning Lee, I’m a first semester freshman.”
“Huh,” he said. “So you already know you want to be an art major?” Wow. It sounded like he thought being declared in art was the lowest thing you could do.
“Yes, yes. My art teacher, Matsu Abarenbo, he really inspired me want to declare my major to be art.”
His whole demeanor and tone changed. “You had Matsu as a teacher, over there at University High?”
“Yes, I did. He’s a great teacher. He really helped me see what I wanted to do.”
“Yes,” the Art Advisor agreed, now smiling. “Matsu is the best. We’re very good friends, you know.”
I suddenly felt, as Tony the Tiger would say, grrrrreat.
“You know,” he said, “you actually should be taking an introductory drawing course first, but the sections are all filled already. Here.” He slid me a card. “You can take the second course on color, and then make sure to remind me that you have to take the introductory drawing course next semester.”
Whoa. This was pretty amazing.
“Did you take any kind of art history course over at University High?”
“Why yes, I did. I had a semester course from Mrs. Ringer.”
“Wow,” the Art Advisor said, “that must have been a good class. She really knows her stuff.”
“Yes, she does. It was very comprehensive. We studied art from all around the world.”
“Yes, I know here well,” he said. “Normally, you should be taking an introductory freshman-level survey of art history course, but if you tell Professor Rocker that you had Ella Ringer as a teacher for art history, I think he’ll probably let you skip the course. So here,” he slid me another card. “I’ll let you sign up for a more advanced art history course, Western Art History.”
“Oh, ah, thanks, that’s great.”
“No problem,” he said. “I hope your first semester here is a good one. When you see Ella and Matsu, please tell um I said hello.”
I thanked him, promised I would deliver his message and headed off. “What a nice guy,” I thought, looking at the faces of folks who seemed to know what the Art Advisor was like from prior experience. They stared at me, dumbfounded, not believing the possibility that you could get through your advising session without incurring the rath of The Advisor.
I went in search of Dr. Rocker’s office. As luck would have it, and boy was I feeling blessed with loads of luck today, he was in.
Explaining my situation, I saw Dr. Rocker’s face light up into a bright, sunshiny smile.
When I was done, he congratulated me on having such fine teachers at University High. He too knew both Mr. Abarenbo and Mrs. Ringer, and he was more than happy to waive me out of his course so I could pursue Western Art History.
My career in art was off to a great start.
I especially loved my color class. I wowed Mr. Stoner with my final project.
Early in the morning I hunted up some African snails and a dozen or so tree roaches. This meant I had both slow and fast moving critters.
What I’d done was have a black plexiglass box built at Hawai‘i Plastics. On the top panel, which was hinged, I made a small peephole, and inside I’d constructed several narrow clear plexi ramps headed in various directions. At the very top of the box, on the inside, I’d built a little shelf to hide a black light tube, enclosed the light so that just a very little light glowed in the box.
The crowning touch was painting neon colored dots on the snails and the roaches. Once the light was turned on, the dark interior glowed black lit barely enough to illuminate the spots as the critters roamed around the box. I’d created a miniature animated art work.
“Whoa!” exclaimed Mr. Stoner, looking though the peephole. “This is far out, man. Like wow! Look at those guys go. The snails, man the snails. Wow?”
In short, I’d blown his mind. He was so stoked that he kept talking about my project for several minutes beyond the allotted 15 for presentation time.
When I left class, I washed the paint off the little guys and released them into the wild to live out their celebrated lives. I wish to add that the paint was non-toxic, and water-based.
At our final one-on-one evaluation session, Mr. Stoner could not stop talking about how he’d never seen anything like my psychedelic little show.
Many, many years later, long after he’d retired, I ran into Mr. Stoner eating lunch by a pond on the lower campus. After introducing myself, I described that final project. He did not remember it, but said that it sounded like it must have been far out.
“I guess,” I said, kind of sad that it had faded from his memory. “I’m so glad you thought it was far out back then too.”
Ah well, he was quite elderly now, and I’m starting to realize exactly how that forgetting goes. I don’t think I’ve done anyway near the quantity and variety of drugs that Mr. Stoner has over his career, but it looks like we’re going to end up with the same inevitable loss of little gray cells.
It’s not funny, unless you’re in the appropriate frame of mind.
For instance, many years ago, the man who wrote Shoeless Joe came to do a reading at UH Mānoa. That book, you may recall, was the basis for the Kevin Costner movie, Field of Dreams. While I did enjoy the novel, it was Kinsella’s short stories that moved me most. There were so many brilliant little stories that were sometimes the epitome of his own magical realism variety.
At the reading in the Art Auditorium, I sat in the back, my copy of Shoeless Joe in hand in order to get it signed after the reading. Kinsella, after being introduced, admitted to the audience that he’d forgotten to bring a copy of the book from which to read. He asked if anyone in the house might have a copy he could borrow.
My hand shot up in the air and I raced down the aisle. Wow. W.P. Kinsella reading from MY copy of the novel. This was a dream come true. Getting him, to sign it would seal the deal on one of the greatest moments of my life. No really, that’s the way I felt at that instant.
And then . . .
After he finished, Kinsella asked for questions from the audience. My hand shot up.
I should preface what comes next. At that time, I was teaching English back at my old high school, University High/Lab School across the street. Part of my job, as our ongoing experiment – remember that we were an experimental institution – at the school involved writing textbooks. I was in the middle of writing one for 11th-Grade students called Literature of the Americas. I’d been hunting up prose and poetry from the southern tip of South America all the way up through Canada. One of the Canadian writers whose work I’d selected was W.P. Kinsella. There were three stories I’d been hoping to include. One about the Inuit community he’d wheeled a collection of short stories around, one about a jockey and a tiny horse, and one about a motorcycle.
When Kinsella called on me, my first question was about the Inuit story. I asked him if he based the main character on someone whom he knew. He asked for the name of the story. I gave it to him.
“Let me consult with my wife,” he said. She was sitting in the front row. “As my chief editor, she would remember more about that.” They exchanged whispers.
“Ah, well,” he said, talking to me again, “We’re a little shaky on that particular story, but yes, I’ll say I did know people like him.”
Hmmm . . . Okay, answer accepted, but I wanted more.
“How about the story of the jockey and the little horse. Did you base that on something you’d experienced or maybe heard about?”
He took a long considering pause. “Hold on,” he said. He returned to whispered exchanges with his wife. “Sorry,” he said, “we don’t remember that one either.”
I wanted something more. I asked him my last question, this one about the motorcycle story. What had inspired that?
He and his wife could not recall that one either.
I was sad, to say the least, as I gave up and let him go on to the next questioner. I mentioned to other friends that I was disappointed about not being able to gain more insight into Kinsella’s creative process.
At one point I even said, if you can believe it, “Can you believe it? The guy can’t remember his own stories.”
Well nowadays? Hey, I take that back. Seriously. I owe Kinsella an huge apology for even thinking that.
Ask me about a story I wrote thirty year ago. You know what kind of answer you’re probably going to get from me? Yes, that’s right. And sadly I don’t’ even have a wife for backup consultation.
Try twenty years ago. Same thing.
Ten years ago? Yikes.
I’ve written so many stories over the past thirty years that my brain has trouble accommodating me knowledge space, at this point in my life, that does not have something to do with basic survival. Day to day hanging on and stumbling forward.
That diminishing band of little cells might remember stories that stand out, especially recent ones, of course, but everything? Every story, every poem? Don’t even get me started on remembering every poem I’ve ever written.
Really. Forget about it. No pun intended.
Anywaysies, what I was trying to say is this. My first semester as an art major went very well. Slamming my head through the windshield did not seem to affect my performance.
My second semester, the following spring of 1973, did not go well at all.
I think I can’t wait to tell you about it, no matter how badly it turned out.
* * * * *
Aloha #WriterSunday. I hope you’re having a good weekend. Today’s #WritingPrompt is
Use it to inspire a piece of writing, and then post that piece on your site and link to me, or simply leave it as a comment below. I would love to read it : )