John Jensvold is a 2009 Literary Awards Program Finalist. His entry, What About This One?, will appear in three parts this week.
Most would say that I was plenty fortunate to attend venerable Christiansen College in southeastern Minnesota. It was a well-respected school – expensive, but still accessible to the middle class. There was one absolute about the school, though, and it was a thing I would have ordinarily avoided like the plague. If you went to Christiansen you were required to take Freshman Literature. It was an absolute and unavoidable condition at this academic enclave, still operated by the heart and soul of Minnesota’s Scandinavian elite. I suspect the requirement endured as a vestigial tactic originally intended for immigrant survival in the new frontier. Freshman Literature. It connoted a mastery of the English language and served to trowel a layer of American credibility onto its graduates – in earlier times – when students were named Lars or Haldor or Torkjel – less so today.
Since the 1960s, taking Freshman Literature at venerable Christiansen College brought along with it a special bonus. Since then, students would encounter, without exception, the only individual who taught the course during this period of time, a long-tenured and prickly fellow named Dr. Ambrose M. Thatch. Regrettably, I was among Thatch’s last students.
Thatch, himself, had graduated from Christiansen, subsequently earning a Doctoral Degree from Rutgers, as we were frequently reminded by the old man. It goes without saying that he himself would have been compelled to take Freshman Literature way back, taught by a long-dead, starched collared Norwegian scholar. He never said one way or the other, but as I said, it was not an elective. I suppose the old man would have been young by academic standards when he returned to his alma mater to take on Freshman Literature. Already by the 1960s, though, academic prestige had shifted away from literature toward mathematics, physics and chemistry, even at tradition-laden schools like Christiansen. So it was an open role waiting for a young romantic like Thatch, since his more seasoned colleagues in the English Department likely would have suffered botulism before teaching any mandatory freshman course. Imagine exploring Hemingway’s Key West or Faulkner’s south with a quarterback or a second baseman whose transcripts were so marginal that fatiguing sessions of the admissions committee were needed to break a hung jury. Even more painful, he had to suffer the utter apathy of the next Einstein or Oppenheimer. A thankless task indeed. Thatch was once asked in class to comment on the discovery of the double helix. He responded that it was a hoax and had no merit among thinking men.
As semesters grew into school years and school years stretched across decades, Thatch persevered, teaching only Freshman Literature, much to the delight (and derision) of his fellow professors.
To me, at the end of his long career he showed neither remorse nor disappointment about his assignment. On the contrary he carried himself with a sort of regal posture, seeming to project wise consul borne of personal sacrifice and quiet tenacity. He would enter the classroom with arched back, hands clasped behind him, shoulders square, nose in the air, mumbling to himself. Of course I have no evidence that his capacity for wise consul was authentic – but I simply couldn’t help speculating on his nature. I’m certain that his colleagues continuously celebrated that he had taken the thankless burden from them, since in the corridors of Old Main it was common to hear them openly mock Thatch’s affected manner of speech. (Sort of a bizarre melding of Cary Grant and Captain Kangaroo.)
There were also remarks about Thatch’s questionable hygiene and his deplorable wardrobe. Thatch must have overheard at least some of this, but seemed oblivious to insults. It was a fact that he looked and smelled homeless. There was a trailing vapor of stale air in his wake, like an over-stuffed closet or a damp hamper.
“It is my calling, my duty, my sacrifice,” Thatch used to whisper to our class, pausing dramatically between each word. Then, he would declare in full voice, “it pays the bills!” The incongruous coda was indicative of his style of humor, however lame, and was his attempt, I think, to build rapport with his students. For the record, his bills must have been minimal as suggested by his outdated clothing, (could his jackets have belonged to his father?) dog-eared shoes, and a presumed absence of wife or family. Picturing him as a life-long bachelor was without much difficult. He could have been a widower, I suppose, but he never elaborated on this subject beyond an occasional mumbled aside to some woman named Irene. That was the other thing, he talked to himself incessantly. Thatch’s dilapidated house was paid off (he mentioned) and close enough to campus to walk to work, even in a typhoon. He had no car.
What he clearly considered himself, more than a teacher of untalented or uninterested Freshmen, was one of America’s foremost writers, though yet undiscovered commercially. The undiscovered part seemed true enough, as I never saw his name in print. No copies of literary journals were piled up in his classroom, snapped opened and clipped to his byline. No campus newsletter or faculty announcement ever glorified his latest work of fiction, biography, essay, critique or anything else composed by Thatch. That was unusual at Christiansen, since faculty members were expected to be published – often.
He shared fragments of stories with us though – never in written form, but rather as verbal outlines, or settings, or characters to populate future works.
One day, he abruptly turned to us mid-sentence and declared, “it was a night made picture perfect for a Warner Brother’s gangster movie…” He paused, inspecting faces, almost pleading for reaction. I saw nothing but the ordinary classroom confusion. At that point he would retreat to his desk and grow sullen. “Reading time,” he wheezed exhaustedly, and he skulked out the classroom door.
Over the weeks and months we grew more familiar with Thatch, leading to audible groans and chuckles. It sure made for awkward moments, but Thatch was undeterred. To me, he was a passionate and anxious man, willing to tolerate inexcusably rude behavior, and strong of constitution, wanting only to order words into an incantation so mystical that it would instantly accelerate the chemistry of the reader. That was the rite of passage for a writer. That was, he claimed, the litmus test of timeless writing.
Unfortunately for old Thatch, such high-minded talk could not overcome his own dubious worldview, including his often stated belief that girls were invented for the heavenly recreation of boys and that boys needed to protect them at all cost, for one reason. He was, again, a romantic.
After an interminable discussion of clues and traps set by Arthur Conan Doyle, or a Twain tale about an athletic frog, or the unlikely comparison of Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim to Adolph Hitler, here was Thatch, stroking his ruddy face with a swollen, diabetic hand.
“What about this one?”
It was an abrupt and common segue. It was the signal that any prospects for learning would be forced off the field to make room for a new pitch.