The Thomas Merton We Knew

Part 4

Increasingly, during the summer of 1940, Merton isolated himself from the rest of us at the cottage lent to us by Lax's brother-in-law, Benjy Marcus, in the hills above Olean, N. Y. We were all gearing up to become writers; we all brought L. C. Smith or Royal portable typewriters and sat around in the main room of the rustic, drafty little house, racing to complete more pages in a day than the others. Lax wrote about a travelling nightclub; the book was to be called "The Spangled Palace;" it later was published in "Jester" under Rice's editorship. Merton had started the summer before on an autobiographical book called at first, "The Straits of Dover," and finally, "The Labyrinth." Rice wrote something called "The Blue Horse," about a race around the world. My text was untitled, and, as everyone expected, was to be an epic about the South. The weather was foul, the news oppressive, the food terrible (it was our own), and the dishes piled up in the kitchen sink and around it. Freedgood was there, with his wife-to-be, Helen, who suggested that Freedgood should go off to Europe for a year or two in order to mature properly. Gerdy was there, along with Robert Gibney and Ad Reinhardt. There were also wonderfully pretty girls, Peggy Wells with her long stems; beautiful Nancy Flagg, and earthy Norma Prince, who painted a portrait of a naked Walt Whitman that was so large it ran off the canvas and on to the living room wall. Reinhardt watched us with amusement, and a painter's disdain for writers.
     The writing lagged, boredom set in, Merton clearly was in the process of making an enormous decision about his life. He and I, Gerdy and Rice decided to hitch-hike to Cleveland, where Gerdy said he had a rich uncle living in Shaker Heights.
     We split into pairs to make it easier to get rides -- Merton and I together, and Rice with Gerdy. I can still remember how unsure I was; what can I possibly say that will interest Thomas Merton, cosmopolitan, French-born, English-educated, deep thinker, poet and pianist, three years older at a stage in one's life where three years is a big notch on the sophistication scale? We got along like a dream.
     He talked at length about his brother, John Paul, who was already planning to volunteer for naval or military service either in America or in England -- to act before he was drafted, so that he would have a say in how and where he was to serve. (John Paul became a pilot, and was lost in action in 1943 over Germany.) We shared a love for the countryside; this was a bit exaggerated in me, simply because the lakes, rivers and farms in the northeast were so much more spectacular than the muddy waters, pine forests and red-clay soil of the South. "You will love France," he told me. "Every part of it. You and France will suit each other, so don't miss the chance to go." I got a chance to go all right, but under rather forced auspices, and after a delay of several years. I was accepted into the army in May 1941 at Fort MacPherson in Atlanta, and spent nearly five years in the armed forces, campaigning in North Africa, Italy and southern Germany. I think I did my job willingly, and with application, every step of the way. I remembered Merton's remark made on our hitch-hiking trip when I first travelled as a soldier from Germany into France to Strasbourg, and then across to the Touraine and from there on to Paris; this was right after the war, in 1945, when France and Paris were worn out and uncared for, tired beauty on good bones. Another instant love affair.
     Merton and I were stranded near Geneva, Ohio, not far away from the shores of Lake Erie; we agreed that it was one of our more beautiful spots, so we sat at the edge of the road for a while and soaked in the view. Merton then admitted to having a little money so we went to a nearby restaurant -- which turned out to be one of those fancy small-town country clubs, straight out of John O'Hara's Pennsylvania scene. We ate among well-dressed businessmen and their wives and girlfriends, and then went laughing back out into the night, rollicking over the scene. We slept in the fields. The next morning Merton handed me a page from his spiral notebook (he always carried a spiral notebook for comments on books and creative jottings, and a bound notebook for his private journal; insofar as I can determine, he kept the journal, surely the private one, all his life); on the page was the poem, "Aubade: Lake Erie," which he had written, I assume, once the sun was up.
     It was minstrel-like, and a memory of France:


"When sun, light handed,
sows this Indian water
with a crop of cockles
the vines arrange their tender shadows
In the sweet leafage of an artificial France...."


It was nostalgic for childhood, and suddenly, gratefully, optimistic about the future, as though a very important decision had been made.


"Awake, in the frames of windows, innocent children
Loving the blue, sprayed leaves of childish life,
Applaud the bearded corn, the bleeding grape,
And cry:
'Here is the hay-colored sun, our marvelous cousin,
Walking in the barley,

Turning the harrowed earth to growing bread,

And splicing the sweet, wounded vine.
Lift up your hitch-hiking heads
And no more fear the fever,
You fugitives, and sleepers in the fields,
Here is the hay-colored sun!'
And when their shining voices, clean as summer,
Play, like churchbells over the field,
A hundred dusty Luthers rise from the dead, unheeding,

Search the horizon for the gap-toothed grin of factories,

And grope, in the green wheat,

Toward the wood winds of the western freight."

     I looked at a very serene Tom Merton; he usually had a devilish, mischievous grin on his face, but now it was calm and serious. "You have decided what to do with your life, haven't you?" I said. Yes, he had. In a way, the poem was mine, too; I felt I was a part of it. I still feel a part of it.
     We got our hitch-hiking heads out of the fields and all the way to Cleveland and to Shaker Heights, but Gerdy's uncle wasn't rich and didn't want us around for more than a night. Gerdy and Merton took the train back to Olean, but Rice and I hitch-hiked together, sometimes separating, for lack of space in the car. On one occasion, I rode late into the night with a French-Canadian who drove with wild abandon and a growing anger; he had his radio on a French-language station somewhere, probably Montreal, which was only a hundred miles or so away. The more appalling the news, the more reckless he became; I thought he was ready to kill us both -- the Germans, the broadcast said, have just marched into Paris.
Merton later sold "Aubade: Lake Erie" to "The New Yorker"; they paid him $20 for it -- an encouragement to all of us to keep on writing.
     Merton, I'm told, visited the cottage on the hill over Olean the following year, alone. He was teaching at St. Bonaventure College in Olean, and had moved most of his belongings there. By himself in the cottage, he was lonely; he wrote and wrote, but couldn't get it right; he walked into the woods in bad weather and became acutely aware that something had finished in his life and in ours, that the old group was dispersed and would never be together again as before. He composed imaginary letters in his journal, as though he were a small boy at camp writing home:
"Dear Uncle Harry,
     "It is a typical day at the cottage. Tommy Merton has made a cross out of two sticks and stuck it into the ground in the woods in a place where he thinks he is going to like to sit, but where there are too many lousy mosquitoes..."
     He enclosed pictures of "Jimmy Knight, Bobby Lax, Norma Prince, Eddie Rice" and other campers.
"It is a typical day at the camp, mother dear. Next year at this time, Bobby Gibney will have left for the army three days ago, and Jimmy Knight will already have been some time at Camp Polk, La., and the others?..."
     The group was no longer a group; its members had scattered. And the scattering was to last a number of years, especially for me, because rather than return to America when the war was over, I got my discharge from the Army Air Force in Marburg, Germany, and went straight to work as a newspaperman in Paris.
     But before that, I did manage to visit Gerdy at the end of the war in Bad Kissingen, where he was winding up an excrutiatingly painful military career by writing a history of his Air Force unit. I doubt there was ever anyone less suited for the military experience than Bob Gerdy, unless it was the saxophonist Lester Young, who flunked the test for different reasons; Young could never have survived anywhere outside the jazz spots of Kansas City and New York.
     Gerdy wasn't made for army life either. But he did his job, and he did it well. How he must have hated the discipline, the artificial sense of rank and position, and the ordering of other people around. Merton described him in "The Seven Storey Mountain:" "Bob Gerdy was a very smart sophomore (in 1937) with the face of a child and a lot of curly hair on top of it, who took life seriously, and had discovered courses on scholastic philosophy in the graduate school..." In fact, Gerdy's wanderings as an undergraduate at Columbia into the graduate school led him to Daniel Walsh's course on St. Thomas of Aquinas; Merton was to be profoundly influenced by both St. Thomas and Dan Walsh as he moved toward conversion, and the monastic life. It could be said that Merton's life as a monk got its start with Gerdy.
After the German surrender, I led a company of black American soldiers in a truck company up through the Alps into southern Germany; the company once had had black officers, who had been for whatever reason forced from their commands at the Naples airport in Capodocino and replaced by me and another white officer.
     The word had not got through from the Mediterranean Theater to the European Theater about the change in command of the 1948th Truck Company -- so I and my fellow officer found ourselves the only white persons in an entire transportation regiment composed of black American officers and black American soldiers. Major Thomas Taylor, a music conductor in civilian life, and a gentleman, examined me with some surprise when I reported for duty. So did his Operations Officer, Captain Joseph Randolph, a Chicago lawyer -- and another gentleman. The "mistake" was reported to headquarters, and I was actually visited the following day by an envoy with the exalted rank of major-general, who promised to get me out of there as soon as possible. Frankly, I liked the situation, and said so. Since Major Taylor and Captain Randolph seemed to like it, too, it was decided to leave matters as they were.
I'm sure Merton would have applauded my staying with Major Taylor, Captain Randolph, and the rest of the black American regiment. It was a broadening experience to be on this side of things in our segregated armed forces. I had already quickly become aware with my black American truck company that we had two enemies -- the Germans, and the American military police, many of whom spent the war hounding black troops. Taylor and Randolph were close to being obsessed by the subject; MP misbehavior had followed them from England and across France into Germany. I learned quickly, too, that very positive results could be had with my own men simply by standing up in support of them, when they were in the right, in their collisions with the MPs. Taylor, Randolph and I ended our war in a little blaze of equal rights.
     Now, I think of Merton's own humanity where the continuing American stigma about race is concerned. From Gethsemani, in 1964, he wrote to Chris McNair, the father of a little black girl, Carole Denise McNair, killed by the bomb that exploded on September 15, 1963, in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. The letter was accompanied by the poem he had written, "Picture of a Black Child with a White Doll":
     "This is not exactly an easy letter to write. There is so much to say, and there are no words in which to say it. I will say it as simply as I can, in the hope that you will understand this message from a total stranger. I saw the pictures you took of Carole Denise in "Look" several months ago. One of them meant so much to me that I cut it out, and kept it. It seemed to say so much, principally about goodness, and about the way in which the goodness of the human heart is invincible, and overcomes the evil and wickedness that may sometimes be present in other men.
"Being a writer, and a writer of poems, I eventually was moved to write a poem, and now that it has been published I want to send you at least this copy of it. It is a somewhat angry poem, because I think that a little anger is still called for. I hope that love and compassion also come through, for anger is not enough and never will be.
     "At any rate, I wanted to say what you already know and believe: that the mercy and goodness of the Lord chose Carole Denise to be with Him forever in His love and His light. Nor is she forgotten on the earth. She remains as a witness to innocence and to love, and an inspiration to all of us who remain to face the labor, the difficulty and the heartbreak of the struggle for human rights and dignity."




When Susanna died, one of her friends said, "God needs her." Rice's immediate response was: "God doesn't need her, I need her."
He had discovered about two years earlier that he had Parkinson's. "No one is really aware of it in the beginning," he says. He is becoming an expert on Parkinson's, reading whatever he can find. "It seems you can see it in a certain flatness of the face, a lack of expression, a kind of facial immobility. A psychologist discovered it in me, just by looking at my face."
     He is convinced that lack of control makes it worse. "When Susanna died, I really lost control, and Parkinson's quickly took charge. The more I grieved, the worse Parkinson's became."
He keeps lists of well-known people who suffer from the disease, feeling that the more well-known victims we know of, the better the chances for increased money going into the problem.
"There is no cure," he says, "but the doctors are still trying. All they have so far is a brain operation for certain kinds of cases, a real minority among those who suffer, and the use of a prescription drug, Sinemet, which does not cure, but alleviates the condition."
     "Humphrey Bogart had it," Rice says, "and Billy Graham has it. Harry Truman had it, and I think the Pope is afflicted; you can tell by the way he moves and gropes along and stumbles. Janet Reno has it."
He also believes that the subject of his last book, Richard Burton, had Parkinson's. "There were certain things that people were noting about his appearance, I noticed when I was getting near the end of my book," he says. "Burton probably had the disease."
It occurs mostly in mentally active people, Rice is convinced.
     "My Golden Rule is, do things one at a time," he says. "I learned quickly, you can't brush your teeth and listen to a traffic report. One thing at a time, or I get totally confused.
"To get up from the bed, I have to sit there and order my right foot to turn straight ahead, and then wait for it to comply. All my movements are like that."
     Rice can no longer write -- either by hand or by typewriter. This is a very special burden for him. He often told me, "if I don't write, I get restless." Writing gets him from one day to the next and keeps him happy.




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