Hang-ups, hanging out, and hanging on
I visited Dr. Mering’s office often to receive assistance with my writing, to ask for suggestions for outside reading, or simply to satisfy his curiosity about how “this girl from a little mining town in the West” had become such an exemplary student. After quizzing me about my upbringing, my religion, and my schooling, he seemed delighted that neither of my parents graduated from high school but that my mother had read and sung to me and that she had been willing to quiz me with endless lists of words as I prepared for the spelling bees that culminated in the Arizona state championship in 1967. We met occasionally in the Student Union cafeteria. I drank coffee, and he ate dry Rice Krispies, after which he drank skimmed milk from the carton I had opened for him (after watching him mangle a couple of cartons in succession).
Although I have no idea where we went that day, I do remember distinctly one conversation we had in his car. He said he was delighted that I had entrusted myself to his tutelage, but he wanted to make sure that I didn’t think I could confide in him about my personal life. Clearly, and despite a well cultivated social charm that immediately endeared him to my visiting friends and family members, this man whom I revered could be personally distant and even cold. One one occasion, the class was discussing Stephen Oates’s book about John Brown’s raid, at the end of which the author suggests that what happened at Harper’s Ferry had led the nation “inexorably toward civil war.” Dr.Mering asked loudly, with his usual flourish, arms spread wide, “What was so inexorable about it?” The intended moment of sudden clarity was interrupted by a buzzing fly; a student named Montfort asked for the definition of inexorable, which our professor graciously supplied. However, at the end of class, the word came up again in a different context, and Dr. Mering said in a treacly voice, “As Mr. Montfort will remember, inexorable means . . .” On another afternoon, a graduate student from our class visited his office while I was there. She said that she was unable to complete the take-home final exam because her dog–a beautiful Afghan hound who accompanied her proudly on campus–was sick. “Good Lord, Miss McCabe–your dog?” he exclaimed, while still granting her the requested extension. A few days later, I was again in his office when she returned with her exam. “How is the dog?” he asked, elongating the last word for emphasis. She cried out, “He died!” and scurried down the hall in tears, leaving him to ask me if he had been insensitive.
The most complex and revealing of our personal conversations occurred during summer school, 1974. He wore seersucker and sandals. I was taking his class on the Age of Jackson, and he had also encouraged me to sit in on his survey course–so I could learn to teach all periods of American history. During our customary morning coffee-klatsch at the Student Union, he began to talk about the young girl named Banni Leonard who was taking his survey class in the summer just after graduating from high school. He noted how pretty she was and how good she looked in her midriff-baring summer blouse. His point was not her beauty (nor anything salacious as we might suspect in 2016), but her unexpected mélange of physical attractiveness, easy charm, and quick intelligence; he wondered aloud if such a combination were possible. “She doesn’t seem to have any hang-ups,” he suggested.
On that note, I argued that remarkable people always had hang-ups; they were always making up for some important deficiency in their being. I told him about Lancelot in T. H. White’s Once and Future King. Not the ravishingly handsome and morally upright knight of legend, he is the eponymous “Ill-Made Knight” of the third book in White’s Arthurian chronicle. Ugly and ape-like, cruel and even sadistic by nature, this Lancelot du Lac forces himself to live by a strict moral code to make up for his true nature; only thereby does be become the best knight of the Round Table–and a morally pure worker of miracles. We couldn’t come to an agreement about Miss Leonard, but it was clear (although unstated on both our parts) that Dr. Mering and I had become so good at what we did because we feared or loathed something about ourselves.
In the Jackson class that day, we were studying Jacksonian America: Society, Personality, and Politics by Edward Pessen. Discussing the thesis of that important work, I used the words “opulent lifestyle” in a sentence the rest of whose words are now long forgotten. Ignoring the point I was making, Dr. Mering asked, “Miss Bozzola, isn’t that OH-pulent?” I stammered that I wasn’t sure, that I had always said OP-pulent, but I could certainly be wrong. He suggested that we look it up.
We met again that afternoon for a cold drink at the cafeteria. He had been in his office with access to a dictionary, but I had been reading my homework on a campus bench. I asked him if he had looked up the word. He bridled and said that I was supposed to do so. I simply said that I had not been near a dictionary. He looked at me and said with eyes downturned,”You were right.” I did not gloat. I was almost sorry. I simply tried to minimize the whole thing by indicating that I really hadn’t been sure. We continued our usual afternoon conversation about–who knows? John Hosmer? Richard Nixon? Women who smoked while walking? The fact that Susan Foldvary’s toenail polish didn’t match her fingernail polish?
We walked together for a while after leaving the Student Union. It was a hot, hot summer in the desert. He said to me, “You know, Miss Bozzola, it would have been much better for you if you had been wrong today.” I stared at him in stunned silence before protesting that I had simply used the offending word in a sentence. “That’s the sad part of the whole thing,” he admitted. “You are innocent. But it would have better if you had been wrong.”
We came to the fork where he would turn left towards the Liberal Arts building, and I would turn right to go to my dormitory. When we had separated almost out of earshot, he turned, waved, and hollered in my direction, “I have hang-ups too, you know!”