I’ve never actually been on a Norwegian freighter, but I came close once. Well, that’s not true. I thought about it, talked about it, and made plans to get my Merchant Marine license, but that never happened. I planned it with a friend whose family was Norwegian and who invited me to summer barbecues at the Sons of Norway Lodge, which, I thought, practically made me a Viking.
I remember telling the dean of Ursinus College, Richard Bozorth, that working on a Norwegian freighter was how I would finance my travels around the world in search of adventure. But I had a more ambitious goal in mind–I wanted to be a writer–and I thought this was a good way to get the experience I would need. I had Eugene O’Neill in mind, the famous Irish-American playwright who worked on freighters. Not a bad model to emulate, I thought. Of course, O’Neill also suffered from depression and alcoholism, so I could go only so far down that path.
Admittedly, the idea must have sounded harebrained, even for a twenty something. I remember Dean Bozorth rubbing his chin and staring at the carpet in his office as I laid out the finer points of the plan, which didn’t take long since there weren’t any. It was an idea that, like so many bright ideas, ended two stations from where it started. If you’re not used to riding the NYC subway, that means it didn’t have enough time to warm the seat up.
The Norwegian freighter idea was like the Alaskan pipeline suggestion that Mr. Brown, another English teacher from high school made (see Frost on the “Punkin”). One day Mr. Brown, looking out the window of our classroom as if staring across the tundra of our future, announced that if he were in our shoes he’d quit school and hitchhike up to Alaska to work on the pipeline. This not only stunned me but made me feel like a slouch for not grabbing my things and walking right out the door. Then a kid named Roger turned around and said what many of us had been thinking. “Sure,” he said.
Speaking of shoes, Mr. Brown wore oxblood loafers and button-down shirts with a blazer. He had a Brahmin, blue-blood air about him without being snobby. I liked him for bringing a taste of the academic world into the classroom and because he laughed so hard at my joke one day that he snorted. It wasn’t a joke so much as a one liner that had to do with Shakespeare’s Richard III. After Richard, the last Plantagenet king, gets crowned and starts to go off the rails, I said it looked like “the crown went to his head.” I won a plastic tote bag with an image of Shakespeare as a reward.
I’ve been blessed with brilliant and devoted English teachers throughout my life. In my sophomore year of high school, Mr. Hughes took us to plays on Broadway and expanded my thinking by teaching me to read critically. We even attended Equus with Anthony Perkins. The theatre arranged for us students to sit on bleachers at the back of the stage, so we had an up-close view of everything, including Perkins nude. Of course, we were all too sophisticated even to mention it afterward.
In addition to Messrs. Hughes, Andrade, and Brown, my English professors in college had a huge impact on me, including Dean Bozorth, who regaled us with stories of World War Two, Joyce Henry, our theatre director, and Peter Perreten with whom I actually did the world tour, although not in a freighter but his Ford Pinto. Contrary to what Henrik Ibsen said about the devil being compromise, life is full of them. I think we were both irrevocably changed as a result of that experience.
So, a lot of my bright ideas have come from one source: the liberal arts and English teachers who treated me with respect and what I now understand as love. Thankfully, they weren’t too concerned about pedagogy, learning theory, or outcomes. They were concerned about me personally and, I happen to know, many other students over the years. That’s the best kind of teaching you can find.
Image credits: feature by Bit Cloud; autumn leaves by Tim Alex; bookcase by Ali Bergen. Like fiction? Check out the Mercury “trilogy” (The Gringo, Laura Fedora) here. Also, go to Robert Brancatelli. This post is dedicated with gratitude to Professor Peter Perreten.