Monday, July 22, 2013

A Great Loess

My father's best friend passed away, this morning.

The phone call came at supper time. It was, in truth, a call we had been waiting for, expecting for these past few years, since it became evident that Alzheimer's had claimed what had been the greatest part of a fine man, and left behind a lost and frightened child in a wizened body. His ultimate departure from this mortal coil is something of a relief to those who loved him, even as it brings us all sorrow.

I can't tell you the life history of the man, other than what can best be described as hearsay. I have heard he had taught at East Tennessee State University, and later at Philips, in Enid, Oklahoma, and finally at Interlochen, Michigan. I knew him in his years at Monmouth College, in Monmouth, Illinois, where he and my father became friends.

My father is not a terribly approachable man. He's polite, and, under the right circumstances, can be viewed as genial, but it took a special talent to get Pop to drop his guard. It took a nerd with a love of really bad jokes and puns. It took the only other man on campus who, without trying, sounded like Bullwinkle J. Moose. It took Lyman O. Williams.

You wouldn't expect Pop to cotton to Lyman. After all, Pop seemed to be in pain at the sound of bagpipes carrying on the wind, and Lyman was not only a fine player, but a gifted instructor on the pipes. Pop has spent years overcoming his shyness, and Lyman was generally outgoing and enthusiastic. But they were both boy scouts, both scientists, and both, on frequent occasions, unafraid of a little silliness, even in the classroom.

Pop's humor has always been more crisp, more efficient than most, often with puns which waited until several minutes had passed before they hit you. By comparison, Dennis Miller has years of practice to go, before he catches up with my father. Lyman, on the other hand, told stories – some of them long, rambling shaggy dog stories which he would adjust to fit the time and place he told them, which didn't always work. In his telling "a rabbi, a priest, and a lawyer" would be changed to "a Monmouth student, a Knox student, and a professor." Often, he was the only one laughing at the end of his story, and his laughter was filled with such delight, it became contagious, regardless of how little anybody comprehended his tales. We always ended up laughing with him.

And, having more or less lived on the Monmouth College's campus during my formative years, I can tell you that their sense of humor often went unremarked by all but the brightest students. I can still hear some of my friends coming back from class, saying in shocked tones, "Do you know what HE did/said, today?"

But I took a class or two from Lyman, and, thirty years and change later, along with my memories of him in family settings, I can still see him in the front of the lecture hall, I can still visualize the things he described of the earth, and, best of all, I still see him standing beside a road, showing us students the exposed layers of soil that define our region. He was glorious in his element, joking about rocks and dirt, and the great loess other regions suffered so we could have rich savings and loam. The laughs, there, were tools to keep us remembering, and they worked.

I will remember him, and I will be grateful for what he taught me in class. I will be thankful he was my father's best friend, too, because that made him a friend to me. And, that, indeed, has been a gift.

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