He was disappointed, he said, in the way I characterized a theological and philosophical slugfest that went on here in almost 40 years ago, a sometimes uncivil war that brought progressive forces into bloody conflict with the conservatives, just as the rest the world, it seems, went to war too over roughly similar issues. We'd just made it through the late Sixties, the Vietnam War was sort of over, and there needed to be some kind of reckoning for all the blood and brokenness. It was 1973, and things here at this small college came to a boil. Some profs left, some were asked to--and even though some students who were here at the time knew nothing about the conflagration around them, the place has never been the same.
I'd characterized the fighting just that way in an article that appeared in a national publication, an aside in a much longer essay, and one of those who, back then, left and never returned let me know, in a letter, that he was deeply disappointed with the lack of regard I gave his side.
I wasn't surprised. Those moments in 1973 had determined, after a fashion, the course of his life. I'm sure he's had many triumphs since, but that war sent him packing because he was among those who were its victims. The fighting was, by any measure, the most horrible moment in this college's nearly 60-year history.
I wasn't here. I know the outlines well, but I was nowhere near the clouds of dust and smoke. But his note was a stark reminder that some of those in the front lines back then are still bleeding, winners and losers. Almost 40 years later, those who carried the rifles haven't forgotten the battle.
I opened the letter at school, sat there at my desk, stunned, as if someone had sent me a saddle bag full of bloody bandages. I wanted to show someone, anyone, but it hit me in a moment that no one here really cared. That war, so passionately fought, is alive only in those who, sadly enough, can't forget. I could put the letter on a bulletin board in the middle of the busiest hallway in the college and no one would read it. I could publish it verbatim in the college newspaper and eyes would pass over it quickly. Very few would even recognize the name of the ex-prof--maybe one or two silver-haired colleagues, and my guess is they really wouldn't care. All that passion, all that carnage is forgotten. In many ways, it's not even history.
Last night the combined college choirs showcased the work of another ancient prof, one who would remember 1973, but a man who also has been long, long gone. To my ears, the music was magnificent, lovingly rendered by talented students and their own gifted director. Some few of those kids, perhaps, had parents who'd sung under the old master; but of the dozens and dozens on that stage for the performance, none knew the man like I did, or like the hundred or so other gray heads who'd come to honor him, having sung in his choirs.
The musician is just as gone as the old conservative, even though his music, last night, rang through the auditorium in triumph.
There's a difference: his music is speaks with a voice that's almost unending, a kind of sacrament. But both of them are long gone. An entire new generation of professors never heard of either of them. Their lives and times have passed into near oblivion. No buildings carry their names. Both gave their best, and even though both of them are still very much alive, here they're not even ghost-like. They're gone.
Sic transit gloria mundi--ashes to ashes. It's a theme so ancient, so universal, it comes in Latin and it's biblical.
I sat beside an ex-student last night at the concert. She has four kids. Life has changed for her. "You must be close to retirement," she said to me, smilingly.
I raised a finger. "One year."
I'm part of this story too, of course, but everything I've written here is not lament. All of this is being said with a smile because as one of the pieces rendered most beautifully last night, one of the most compelling Christian hymns of all times boldly insists, "It is well with my soul."
And it is. Really. As it is, I believe, for both of those ancient profs, now long gone.
And for all of that, this morning, I'm deeply, deeply thankful.