Friday, June 13, 2008

My Old Young Friend

He was standing in the back of the Gypsy Bar, sipping a beer by himself. He wore a tweed flat cap and a red goatee. I thought he looked like Vincent Van Gough, but with happier eyes and dimples. I said hello and he told me his name. I recognized it, and asked if he was any relation to the philosopher. His face broke into a broad grin. “He’s my father,” he said. “I was born in New Haven when he taught here.”

We tried to talk above the din in the bar, then walked outside to the entrance off York Street. It was a mild night in September of 1979. Almost too warm for the tweed cap, but that was his ‘look’. I’d made a new friend.

That first year, we played racquetball almost every week at Payne Whitney Gymnasium. He was the far better player; I never beat him. I thought he’d give up on me after awhile and find a more challenging opponent. He didn't.

After our game one morning, he pointed out the gothic fa├žade of the old gym--he loved architecture and knowing where it came from--and he told me a story. He said that a wealthy New York family, the Whitneys, had donated money to build a church at Yale. But New Haven was full of churches--there are three on the Green--and Yale needed a gym. The family matriarch was old and senile, and so the university cut a deal with her grandsons: they would build a gymnasium, but make it look like a church from the outside. The grandmother would never know the difference. They would take her by the front of the building site, so she could see her ‘church’ going up. By the time it was done, she’d be gone to her just reward.

It was a good story and we were a part of it now. Thanks to a generous, devout, demented lady--and the creative piety of her grandsons--we were playing racquetball in a faux cathedral.

We got together for dinner now and then. Sometimes he invited me and another friend to his tiny apartment on Prospect Hill, across from the Divinity School. He liked to cook Thai chicken with peanut sauce.

He invited me to his church, and included me in a Sunday-night discussion group with a small circle of friends from his college in Michigan. It became something I looked forward to.

On occasion, he would ride his bike over to join a group of us who ate together in the oak-paneled and chandeliered dining room at the Hall of Graduate Studies, where I lived. He didn't say much at our table, but he took everything in. You could tell something about his upbringing by his approach to food: He relished it and didn't believe in waste. One night, he noticed that my friend Anne had left a tiny portion of spinach on her plate. He asked her--a bit timidly--if he could eat it. Anne was startled and amused but handed over the spinach and always remembered him for it.

He seemed painfully shy in a big group, but found his voice with a confidante or two. When you got him going, he loved conversation and he could talk about a lot of things. I loved listening to him. One of his favorite topics was Vincent Scully, his graduate advisor who was one of the greatest teachers Yale ever saw. Then there was the time he ran into Jodie Foster and was tongue-tied, but now had the perfect line he wished he could have delivered. (He knew a guy who was Jodie’s TA for Scully’s class, and "it could still happen . . .")

He talked seriously about rock climbing and Reformed theology and computers and Renaissance music and women and “why they were like that.” But always, he spoke of his family--his parents, Nick and Claire, his sister Amy, his brothers Robert and Klaas and Christopher, and the way they all were. I already knew his father’s name, but not the rest--I learned those names from him and never forgot them.

One summer, we took a road trip together, driving from New Haven to Minneapolis by way of Michigan. We shared expenses. He was more frugal than I, and committed to certain ideas about how we could save money. For example, he was opposed to running the car's air conditioner. I was agreeable, until he suggested we also keep the windows rolled up, thereby to improve the car's aerodynamic flow and optimize our gas mileage. He had a whole theory about it. We saved a lot of money. And it was pretty hot.

When we got to Grand Rapids, his home town, he took me around to his old college and his childhood haunts and introduced me to some friends that I’d heard a lot about. After that, it was getting late in the day. We were supposed to spend the night at his brother’s place and I wanted to go there and crash. But he insisted on showing me his parents’ house, the home he grew up in. I knew there was nobody there. His parents were away--his father on a sabbatical in Europe--but he still wanted me to see the place. I went along.

After he’d shown me all the main rooms, I followed him into a small, darkened space with hundreds of scholarly tomes lining the walls. He turned on a lamp. He was quiet for awhile. Then he said, “This is my father’s study.” He motioned toward the shelves. “All these books--these are his.” He sounded almost reverent, but wistful. Then he turned and went out and wandered through the house for a little longer, as if searching for a lost book.

After three years in graduate school, we both went abroad. He got a Fullbright for his dissertation research on the history of architecture in Austria. I went to Ecuador to do a study of missionaries. He wrote to me a few times, and I wrote back. In one of my letters, I told him I’d met the woman of my dreams and we were going to the Galapagos Islands.

He sent me a postcard with a picture of the Alps. He asked about my progress and needled me for getting sidetracked by a camp romance. Then he joked that he wished it had happened to him, too. Finally, he wrote that he was looking forward to a mountain climbing trip. It was going to be wonderful.

Our mutual friend telephoned with the news that week in June of 1983, twenty-five years ago now. It seems he had taken his own route to the summit. He never made it. They found him in the snow at the bottom of a crevasse.

The postcard he’d sent me--the one with the picture of the Alps--arrived in New Haven a few days later. By the time I read it, I already knew he was gone.

The philosopher went into the room with all the tomes and wrote one more book through his tears, called
Lament for a Son[1]. It became perhaps his most celebrated work and touched thousands of parents with lost children.

A period equal to his whole lifetime has past since he died. He would be the same age now that his father was then.

Eric didn’t fall in love. He didn’t start a family of his own. He didn’t write books or become a tenured professor. He was only twenty-five. He always will be.

I still remember my old young friend.

* * *

[1] Wolterstorff, N. (1987). Lament for a Son. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans.

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