My intention was to write a brief post about a bench, the picture of which I had posted on Facebook. But I didn’t get any other writing done on the day I composed this. My intention is to work on writing projects first thing each day. But I let the world intrude that day. I’m disappointed in my occasional lack of commitment to writing. So I dove in deep and decided to let this serve as my writing project for the day. I hope my readers will indulge me in a bit longer-than-normal post and enjoy this short story instead.
Brad Sargeant and I have been friends since we met in college four decades ago. Our birthdays are one day apart and we celebrate them together each year on the Oregon Coast (it was a bit windy and cold this year, as you can see). Brad and I have particularly enjoyed music together over the years, buying turntables and reel-to-reel tape players at the same time, attending lots of concerts together, including Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, James Taylor, Paul McCartney, The Eagles, Ringo Starr, Carlos Santana and Rod Stewart. Neil Young was scheduled to perform at the Matthew Knight Arena at the University of Oregon on October 8. Brad and I made plans to go.
Lisa Schuller and I have been friends not quite as long; about three decades. Visiting the Schuller family farm in Corvallis has been a special treat for Lindi and me, our children, and now our grandchildren for many years. We’ve benefited from the bountiful harvest of their fruit trees, our grandchildren have swung high on the rope swing tied to a giant tree, rode horses, and gathered fresh eggs from the chickens. Several friends I hold dear today I met or partied with at the farm decades ago. Some of the parties there were, ahem, shall we say… memorable.
Lisa and I have watched each other’s families grow up. I’ve watched her youngest daughter Laura grow from a precocious little girl into a warm, smart young woman who is so brilliant she chose to attend my alma mater, the U of O. She is a freshman in the Honors College and began classes this fall. Her last class concluded around noon on the day of the concert so we made plans to spend the afternoon together. She had moved in just two weeks earlier.
We met at her dorm and began walking through campus. We talked about how much had changed since I studied here in the 1970’s. She showed me buildings where she’s taking classes, I showed her where I spent my time back in the day. We stopped outside Villard Hall, where the Department of Speech was then located. I told her about Dr. Dominic A. LaRusso, the professor who changed my life. As I shared with Laura…
He taught The Theory of Rhetoric. It was a year-long course. What I learned that year changed how I think about everything. He inspired me to explore concepts and ideas for how they fit into my life rather than to pass a test. On the first day of class in the fall, former students would fill the back two rows of the large classroom out of respect for LaRusso. That’s where I first saw Dan Fouts in person. He was famous on campus, of course, as the former quarterback for the Ducks. When I met him he was with the San Diego Chargers and later made it into the Hall of Fame. Dan and I later became friends because of our love of LaRusso. It was Dan who called to tell me when Dominic passed away.
“He sounds amazing,” said Laura.
“He was,” I said, “one of the most important mentors in my life. We are lucky if we have one teacher in our life who has that kind of impact on us. LaRusso walked into class one day tossing an eraser into the air and catching it over and over and over. He didn’t stop until someone asked him why he was doing it. He said, ‘Because one of these times it won’t come back down.’ That sounds silly but it made me wonder. He made me wonder.”
We walked up the stairs inside Villard to what used to be his office. I spent a lot of time in that little room. I worked as his office assistant one year. Though early mornings were his private time, he permitted me to come early one day a week to just talk; as long as I brought the fresh squeezed orange juice.
“The first class I took from LaRusso was called The Rhetoric of Humor. It was a summer class and we considered humor from every angle imaginable. The root of the word humor is the same as that of humid. Water, you know? That’s when I understood without doubt that humor is as important to life as water.
“I remember the first day of class he told us we could sit wherever we wanted for the rest of the term, as long as we stayed on the same side of the room. People on the left side made up one team. People on the right were the other team. At the end of class each day there was a contest. A person from one team told a joke but stopped just before the punchline. The other team then tried to guess the punchline. If they got it, they received a point, If they were stumped the other team got a point. At the end of the term LaRusso added up the points and the losers were required to provide fresh squeezed orange juice for the winning team.”
“Sounds like a fun class,” said Laura.
“It was. One of my favorite moments in my entire college career was the day I told a joke for our team and the other side couldn’t guess the punchline. When I told it, LaRusso laughed out loud so hard I thought he would bust a gut. I never saw him laugh so hard ever.”
“What’s the joke?”
“It’s too long,” I said. “Wanna get out of here?”
We walked off campus and had lunch at a Thai restaurant across from the University Bookstore. We sat outside and made up stories about the people who walked by. One guy wore a t-shirt that read “I don’t get drunk. I get awesome.”
“I don’t believe that,” I said.
“Me either,” said Laura. “He gets drunk and gets arrested.”
“Wearing that t-shirt,” I said. We laughed.
After lunch we walked a block to Northwest Christian College, where I also graduated. We walked down 11th Avenue toward downtown, past where the Mayflower Theater once stood, where I had my first job in college working the midnight flicks. Across the street used to be the frat house featured in Animal House. I was surprised at how short John Belushi was when I saw him there. We spent the next two hours walking through downtown. I continued to point out landmarks from the 1970’s and how much has changed. We stopped into 5th Street Public Market for tea.
“If you were to make a movie of your life,” Laura asked, “Would you write it according to themes or time periods or some other format?”
“What a fascinating question,” I said.
“You’ve done so many different things in your life. Some of them I can’t even see you doing.”
“Well, I guess if you live long enough…”
“But most people follow a path for the most part. Not you.”
“I’m guessing you won’t either, Laura. You’re eighteen and you’ve traveled to more places than I have in my sixty-one years.”
“I hope this won’t offend you, but I’m impressed by how far you’ve walked with me today.”
“At my age?” I smiled.
“Well, yeah.” She smiled as well.
“From here it looks like he’s peeing a gusher,” I said.
“His entire body weight every second,” said Laura.
We stare together at the fountain for another minute or so in silence. Laura looks up.
“Do you hear the birds?” she asked
“No. I’ve just been listening to the water.”
She looked back down at the fountain. After a few moments, she said, “I like how you can listen with your eyes sometimes. You can watch the individual splashes.”
Who is this girl? I’ve known her since she was four. The things that come out of her mouth reflect a rare sense of observation and curiosity.
We could talk for days, but I’m meeting Brad around 6:30 and Laura is meeting friends for dinner. So we begin the long walk back to campus. We take a different route until we arrive back at Deady Hall, next to Villard. We veer right toward the middle of campus. One hundred feet in front of us is a bench on the side of the walkway surrounded by grass and a flowering bush with the branches of a tall pine tree shading it from above.
“That’s my favorite bench on campus,” she said.
“Let’s check out the name on the plaque and sit there and make up a story about whoever it is, okay?”
“Sounds good,” she said.
When we got close enough to read the inscription I stopped cold. My chest constricted. I stared at the name in awe.
“Dr. D.A. LaRusso. Ad Astra Per Aspera. 1986.”
“That’s amazing,” said Laura. “You’ve been talking about him all afternoon.”
“And here he is. How perfect. They say there are no coincidences.”
I smiled. “I don’t know. And I don’t know what the Latin phrase means, but I’m sure it’s perfect.”
“Something like a hard path leads to the stars.”
How does she know that? “Sounds like LaRusso,” I said. We sat down on Dominic’s bench.
“Why 1986,” she asked.
“It must be when he retired. He didn’t pass away until long after that.”
Laura quickly found an article on her phone about him. “He died in 2001.”
“That sounds right. I saw him not long before he passed away. He came to Sisters [near Bend, in Central Oregon] to attend a benefit concert Dan’s wife promoted to raise funds for the schools. Dan, Dominic and I had lunch together. It felt like I was right back here on campus; me and Dan in class. Dr. LaRusso pointing us to the stars.”
“What was the joke?” Laura asked.
“It’s really long.”
Laura glanced at her phone and pushed a display button. “We have time.”
“Okay, here goes,” I said. “There were these four scientists who wanted to study the internal workings of elephants. So they went to Asia. In order to test the capacity and strength of an elephant’s intestines they found an elephant and inserted a big cork into its butt to see what would happen. They returned the next day and nothing had happened. The elephant was eating and carrying on normally. A week went by with no noticeable change. After two weeks of no change the scientists needed to leave. An intern would call them to return when something happened.
“A full year passed before the phone call came. The elephant had grown to a tremendous size and it didn’t look very happy. So the scientists hurried back to the elephant. By the time they arrived it was lying on its side, groaning in obvious distress. It had more than doubled in size.
“Why didn’t you call us before this?” the scientists asked the intern.
“Because it was walking around normal until last week,” said the intern.
“But it is so huge! You should have called sooner.”
“Sorry about that.”
“We’ve got to remove that cork, said one. Go for it, said another. I’m not doing it, said the third. The intern said, You could get a trained monkey to pull it out. The scientists agreed that was the perfect solution. A monkey was quickly brought to the ailing elephant to pull out the cork.
“The next thing any of the scientists knew was waking up in the hospital two days later. Reporters stood all around waiting to interview them. The first scientist was asked, What’s the last thing you remember before you were buried in poop and knocked unconscious? He said, Mountains and mountains of poop! They asked the second scientist, What’s the last thing you remember? He said, It was like a mighty, rushing river of poop! The third scientist was asked the same question and he said, It was like an ocean tsunami of poop! The reporters turned to the fourth scientist hoping for more information than they had received so far. So what’s the last thing you remember?
“And that’s where I stopped. And here’s where you get your chance to earn a glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice. Or else you’ll owe me.”
Laura smiled and wrinkled her face a bit. “Okay, so far there are mountains of poop and a river and a tsunami…”
“Not even close to the right track,” I said.
She thought about it for a little longer and then, “Okay, I give up.”
“They asked the fourth scientist, What’s the last thing you remember before you were buried in poop?
“That poor little monkey trying to shove the cork back in.”
Laura, thank you for being a genuine friend to this old guy. And Dominic, thanks for pointing the way to the stars.
(Note: I later learned in this blog post: “When he retired, his present and former students gave him the gift of a bench, which they placed outside the window where he taught his yearlong sequence in rhetoric. His students placed a plaque on the bench bearing one of LaRusso’s favorite adages: Ad astra per aspera “A rough road leads to the stars.”