Frederick Manfred remembered me from that second seemingly invisible visit, perhaps because he thought it was good of me to bring that beret-ed old aficionado up to meet him just months before the oxygen tank was retired. From that visit, Fred remembered me. Besides, he knew I taught literature at Dordt College.
Frederick Manfred stood 6’9”. In the late 20s, the basketball coach at Calvin saw this huge presence show up on campus and almost immediately recruited him to play ball, even though Feik had not played a quarter of high school ball at Western Academy. Back then, competitive athletics were basically aerobics for town boys. Fred wasn’t.
Aldert Venhuizen, a student manager for the basketball team in those years at Calvin, once told me that his job for half a season of practices was nothing more or less than teaching Feik Feikema to rebound, which he attempted to do by shoving him in the lower back whenever a shot would go up during scrimmage, creating a sense of timing Fred had never learned.
Tall and gaunt, his shoulders broad as a double-tree, Manfred’s sheer physical stature filled a room—and that was before he started talking. Because, in the late 70s and 80s, he knew me—and because he knew Dordt—he liked driving down highway 75 from Luverne to meet with my literature classes. With time, the sharp edges of the old scandal had dulled a bit, enough so that it didn’t seem an abomination for Feik Feikema to appear in a Dordt College classroom, at least it wasn’t as unthinkable as it might have been a decade earlier. Still, discretion advised me not to carry the news into local papers.
Mr. Abma’s questions about Fred’s soul, about his salvation, weren’t questions he alone had raised, of course; and there was that matter of sexuality—not to mention violence, loads of it in some of the "Buckskin Man Tales," Scarlet Plume, for example, buckets of blood and gore from the Indian wars. “Was that Christian writing?” people asked, rhetorically. Those books were nothing at all like the Sugar-Creek Gang.
Manfred used to tell me that there was, in the Middle Ages, Geoffrey Chaucer and John Gower, two significant English poets. Chaucer loved the miller and the wife of Bath, sinners and the saints, loved every one of them. Gower could sing praises only to God, not to life.
Fred said he wanted to be a Chaucer, chanting the tales of all the Siouxland pilgrims. He wanted to chronicle the joy of the very earth he loved between his fingers and toes. He wanted to celebrate life, not eschew it for dreamy visions of the hereafter. The good Christians of Siouxland didn’t know quite what to make of that. In a way, to their minds and souls, Manfred loved life a bit more than good Christians should. He used to say that his grandfather, an outspoken atheist, had the best answer of all to impertinent spiritual questions—“God is in me, and I’m smiling.”
I knew his grandfather’s answer would not have been what Mr. Abma was looking for, had he taken the time to ask the question he didn’t.
The first time Fred Manfred visited a class of mine I had no idea how it might go. I had spent some time having my students read passages from some of the novels and a few poems from Winter Count, and I’d promised him that his appearance wouldn’t require a thing—all he needed to do was field questions.
And those questions came. One kid raised his hand and brought up a scene in Green Earth, when, soon after his profession of faith, Free and his buddies hang out. In the novel, a couple of the guys, multi-talented, tune their expressive flatulence into music, if you can believe that—“The Star-Spangled Banner,” or so Manfred would have us believe.
“Mr. Manfred,” one of my students said, “in that passage, are you making fun of profession of faith by having them fart the way they did?”
I don’t remember how Fred Manfred answered the question, but what I’ll never forget is the way he grabbed me, shocked, the minute the hour ended. “That kid said the word fart right in class,” he said. I’d never guessed that Frederick Manfred’s sensibilities could be so easily violated.
It was one of those moments when something happens that blows our expectations into oblivion. I thought I knew Frederick Manfred. After all, I’d read many of his novels. But the man was even bigger than I’d determined, and there was more to him than I’d guessed—which is, I’ve come to believe, true of most of us.