Field Research With Professor W
Living Life 101
(Certain combinations of events and behaviors described below are potentially lethal and I neither advise nor endorse them for anyone reading. Professor W died recently. What follows is a true story. It occurred in 1990, months after Tiananmen Square and months before the Berlin Wall fell. I contended then that Professor W should have taught at Stanford, Harvard, or Oxford and not at a state university in western Indiana. It is my enduring good fortune that he did, however.This memory is shared somewhat reluctantly.)
“Do they immerse these strippers in panther piss?” I was sitting next to my favorite professor, who I’ll call Professor W. The question made me laugh. The room apparently reeked of obnoxiously cheap perfume. I was oblivious. Strippers are fun. And drinking is dangerous.
Deepest January. Another soul-numbing day amidst the decay of a post-industrial town. On this particularly grim and gray Friday afternoon during my junior year as an undergraduate, I found myself in a decidedly low-grade strip club, a smoky and pungent neon dungeon, with my professor, a tall man prone to mysterious pronouncements. My classmates and I were certain Professor W had worked for the CIA. Nearly everyone on campus echoed this belief, including many members of the faculty. The good professor remained difficult to pin down on the issue, however. He would smoke-even during class-and gaze off distantly saying only, “Does the past really matter?” That question seemed to haunt him even as he posed it. At six foot five, balding with a comb-over, sporting a thin moustache and wire-rim glasses, Professor W cast a lasting impression. Well dressed and witty, he often unleashed his sharp intellect through an acerbic veil of sarcasm. His command of the English language was poised, precise and searing.
Professor W drank deeply from many aspects of life. He taught Latin American Studies and knew his subject intimately. He had lived in Brazil, Paraguay, Argentina and elsewhere. He was fluent in Spanish and passable in Portuguese. He had been married and divorced more than once in South America. Rumor had it he’d survived three plane crashes but he would only speak about two of them when asked in class, and then only reluctantly, obliquely. It’s hard enough living through plane crashes apparently. Reliving them is too much to ask. That unspoken third crash must have been a real bastard. We’d heard vague rumors of a nose dive into a remote jungle outpatch in Ecuador. This man had been through some serious ordeals. Perhaps because he sensed he was on borrowed time, he didn’t suffer fools gladly and thus scared most of his students witless. I saw several leave class in tears over the years. (I took four classes with Professor W and even set in on one other I didn’t take. It was a Vietnam War survey course, which attracted the lazy, the stoned, the apathetic, and the curious alike. The membership of those sub-groups frequently overlapped.) After one such class a dejected Professor W lamented, “This place has gone downhill. The clientele was much better ten years ago.” He then asked me to have a drink with him. I gulped and wondered if I’d be coming back to my dorm. Ever.
“Absolutely,” I answered. Weighing the opportunity cost against opportunity potential, I had to go. You don’t say no to the CIA.
Twenty minutes later, Professor W swilled his scotch down to the ice. Softly, he said, as if talking to himself, “Alcohol is a cruel mistress.” I believed him. He had the haunted aura of a man who had danced with more than a few demons over the decades. He held his empty glass in his right hand, contently staring at the glistening ice cubes. This professor had long ago spent a Sunday with exiled Nazis in Paraguay, he’d punched out a hysterically shrieking woman as their airplane went down near the outskirts of Brasilia – she survived but 21 others toward the front of the aircraft did not. “Always fly toward the rear,” he’d told me. I listened. Was it hard to punch a woman? “I had to silence her. She was upsetting others,” he answered matter-of-factly. But I did press him about drinking with Nazis in a palatial hide-away in Asuncion. Wasn’t that morally repugnant? He looked at me stunned, wide-eyed through his glasses. “I’m disappointed in you,” he said. “History was there. A rare opportunity. I couldn’t change the past by not associating with these people.” He paused, dragging deeply on a cigarette. “By drinking with them I could possibly understand them better. I thought you were intellectually curious.” He shook his head and walked away toward the restroom. His words left me uncomfortably defensive, but I knew he held the upper hand. In a comparative battle of wits, I was armed with a slingshot while Professor W was toting an AK47.
After departing from our initial stop, we crossed the state line in search of God knew what. Professor W was driving his absurdly long white Cadillac into the soupy mist at dusk. I was just along for the ride. The bar/ strip club we found-I think Professor W had frequented it prior to this sojourn- was called Sheila’s Torrential Storm. You can’t make that up. Dank is the word that best describes the interior motif. Other words that come to mind include moldy, damp and stench-ridden. Strippers in eastern Illinois are generally of the shopworn variety judging by Sheila’s. These weren’t Vegas showgirls. The professor neither enjoyed the quantity nor quality of their perfume as indicated by his comment comparing its smell to the urine of feral mountain cats. But the evening was young and held much promise. He nodded toward one diminutive semi-clad brunette and said, “She reminds me of my third wife.” He said it flatly, without rancor or warmth.
We talked about all manner of topics ranging from Brazilian cooking and alimony payments to Ukrainian arms dealers and South African vineyards. He talked, I simply asked questions. Professor W had lived, I hadn’t comparatively at all. He explained how he had illegally entered Cuba twice, violating the Castro-inspired US embargo. We re-crossed the state line and played three rounds of snooker, a form of billiards in which Professor W frequently indulged. He wanted to play for money, for keeps. I declined. So we left and drank at a local bar called Czonka’s. There, he spoke about the first plane crash he’d survived, in a small Cessna aircraft. “You never forget your first time,” he said poignantly. In muted tones, he clarified the mistakes of his life. His failed marriages, his adult children, so hard to fathom. He was there to impart, I was there to absorb. He smoked enough to cloud the bar. (That vision now recalls “cancer man” from The X Files.) The haze, the booze, the depth of emotion: All of it was intoxicating. Alcohol as a mistress indeed; playing us, leading us on. My professor left the tip: sixteen quarters thrown on a mahogany bar. He then invited me to come to his house to shoot at his refrigerator. I wasn’t about to get off this ride now. I had no idea what he meant until we got to his property, which was suburban/ rural and rather isolated. Dogs howled in the distance. He had an old refrigerator some 70 yards beyond the back of his house, illuminated under what looked to be a city street light transplanted to his back yard. The fridge was a Phillips model with a turn handle on the front. Antiquated, but not resting in peace. This “ice box” was our target. He handed me a pistol of unknown caliber and said, “Shoot it. It relieves tension.” My professor had transformed into Hunter S. Thompson at some point long earlier during the afternoon. I looked at him and then turned away and shot his fridge. Shot at it, anyway, hitting one of three shots. My professor squinted, lost in thought. He asked me the hardest question I’d ever been asked. Something far more challenging than any college final I would ever take. Even more difficult than Professor W’s tests or papers. “Have you ever considered any real truths?” The question hung there. I didn’t answer because I didn’t know.
“I fly out tomorrow,” he said. He lived in South Carolina and flew back to western Indiana each week to teach. South Carolina on Saturdays, Indiana on Tuesdays. Frequent flying. During hurricane season he stayed in Indiana all week long. “Let’s go get Chinese.” Fine with me, as it placed us back near campus and I was famished from our escapades. My professor, 65 years old, pushed my endurance to the limit. It was like spending an evening with Keith Richards or Charles Bukowski – colorful but life threatening. Strippers, snooker, fire arms, bar hopping, plane crash survival techniques, Argentine divorces, Nazis in exile. In one twelve-hour span, I’d gotten a crash course on living life from Professor W. Following the hot and sour soup and crabmeat Rangoon, we shook hands, I paid my bill and excused myself to walk home. Campus was two miles away but I needed the time and space to decompress. Gunfire still rang in my ears. As I meandered dormward I could see my breath in the early morning chill. My exhaustion was temporarily interrupted by blue and red lights swirling from behind. It was the cops. Campus police.
“What have you been doing tonight?” the officer asked.
“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you,” I said, truthfully.