Notes and Asides

In 1968 I was ten years old and living in Kent, Ohio, a typical liberal college town where all of my friends were "faculty brats" espousing the typical liberal ideology of their parents. My family situation was somewhat different: my father had died in 1965, and my mother was neither a member of the Kent faculty nor particularly political. I'm sure she had political views of some sort, but she was working full time trying to make ends meet and we didn't have deep conversations at the dinner table about world affairs. (Now that I've had kids of my own of roughly that age, I'm beginning to see that there might be other reasons for not having "deep conversations" at the dinner table beyond just being wiped out at the end of the day.) As a consequence of her working a lot and being wiped out a lot, I found ways to amuse myself and stay busy. In those days, of course, there were no video games. We barely even had TV, though we did have one of those and, like a lot of boomer kids, I watched a lot of it in the 1960s. I'm sure it messed me up as much as I think the video games are messing up my son, but one aspect of my TV experience, in my opinion, affected me for the better.

In December of 1968 I saw two things on TV that were extremely formative for me. One was the flight of Apollo 8 to the moon and back. From that time on my interest in science was fixed, and to this day I am fascinated by what Bas van Fraassen has called "The Scientific Image", and by the philosophy of science. The other I saw completely by accident. In those days there were really only three channels to watch on TV in a small town like Kent, the three major network channels. In a college town, however, one sometimes was lucky enough to get a PBS channel, and we did, and that December, just by chance, I happened to have the PBS channel on one afternoon and I heard the trumpet part of the Allegro assai movement of Bach's second Brandenburg Concerto. I was a huge fan of Bach even at age ten, and so I went to see what was on. It was Firing Line with William F. Buckley Jr.

I was completely enthralled by the man and his style, and I began to watch that show every week. By 1970 I had a subscription to The National Review and was calling myself a conservative. At the time I knew nothing about religion but I was willing to forgive his being a Catholic (my family was mostly Presbyterian and mildly anti-Catholic in a typically WASPy way) on the grounds that he seemed to be right about everything else.

By the time I went to college in the summer of 1975 I was something of a political junkie, with William F. Buckley at the center of my political experience. I read all of his books, and was constantly looking for stuff he had written in unusual venues. I once went to Akron looking for a particular music recording for which he had written the liner notes, and on one occasion I found myself inquiring in the Rare Book Room of the Kent State University library after an interview with Buckley that was listed in the catelogue as being in "magazine format". I couldn't tell from the catalogue why a magazine would be stored in the Rare Book Room, where one must fill out a form explaining what one wants to look at and why, but you can imagine my embarrassment when the librarian came back from the stacks with a copy of Playboy magazine. Those were the days--now of course the thing is probably available online.

In the fall of 1975 I decided to switch from Arts and Sciences to the Honors College, and to do that one must be interviewed by the Dean of the Honors College. She asked me if I had any heroes. I said "William Buckley", and you should have seen the look on her face as she sank back into her chair. I can quote her words verbatim to this day. She said, with a combination of disgust, disdain, and disappointment designed to deflate, "Ohhhh, Scott! He's!"

Well, I don't know from inhumane, but to see who has more class, the Dean of the Honors College or William F. Buckley, I'll tell one last story. I wrote to Buckley twice in my life. Once, when I was in high school, I wrote to him a silly little letter just to get his attention. In those days National Review sent out pleas every so often for money to defray publishing costs. I didn't have any money in those days, but I wrote a check for the amount of first class postage and sent it to Buckley to defray the cost of sending me the plea. Of course I never heard back from him. Years later I wrote him again, and I mentioned that first letter and went on to say that I had only written it to get his attention and that I was now much older and more mature and I thanked him for the influence he had had on my life. By that time I had also converted to Catholicism and I mentioned that the dignity and intelligence with which he had represented his faith had also been influential with me. This time, I did hear back from him. He wrote me a very nice little letter and invited me to come and have lunch with him "next time you're in Stamford". I figured that was just a polite thing to say, but of course I was dying to find some reason to go to Stamford. A few years ago, Buckley came to Ohio University to give a lecture and sell some of his more recent books, and I went, starry-eyed, to see the great man himself, sitting on the stage and answering questions from the audience like Socrates. I was ebullient, and afterwards went into the lobby to buy some of his autographed books. Well, just about everyone else in the audience had had the same idea, and there was a huge line, and I was at the end of it. By the time I got to him I could see that he was very, very tired, and looking for any reason to get the hell out of there. As he was signing my books I got it into my head that I just had to let him know, somehow, who I was, as though he would have any idea. But he had been so formative for me, I felt as though I knew him, in a way. So, like an idiot, I mentioned my last letter and how he had invited me to lunch. I was really just looking for a way to spur his memory, not get a free meal, but he said, without even a nanosecond elapsing, "That invitation still stands."

Now, if you're a well-educated, public person, that is precisely what you would say. And yet. He didn't have to say that. He could have said something like "Oh yes, I remember you," or any number of other pleasantries designed to get this complete stranger out of here before I collapse from fatigue. In my view, though, it was not a mere pleasantry: he was just too classy to say anything else, because he said what he meant and he meant what he said.

When I heard that he had died, I was sad, but only a little. True, I won't get to have lunch with him now, but the Catholicism that I share with him affirms that we are already united in a mysterious way that will only be made more complete when the eschaton is immanent. I won't ever get to have lunch with him, but I will participate with him in the Great Banquet, which is even better.


Darwin said…
I would very much enjoy being able to say that I was this intellectual in my 10-year-old political interests, but I'm afraid I never got beyond the discussion shows on my local NPR station at that age.

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