I became the man that Brother Martin might have expected me to become. That's what I thought each time I gazed out at my classroom, watching my students file in to take their seats. It was the autumn of 1969, three weeks into my first semester of teaching American literature at the University of Massachusetts as a newly minted Ph.D. The town of Amherst had been home to me since I arrived from St. Luke's for my freshman year. Through four years of college and six years of graduate work I had led a solitary life here. A life of books and golf. And though I wanted, sometimes desperately, to engage the world, to make friends, to fall in love, and to experience the variety of life's chances, I had remained alone, caught in the solitary rituals of an existence that most observers would regard as empty. There were my students in front me each day, so far ahead of me really, though at age twenty-eight, I was already old in their eyes. Truth be told, however, I was a child in comparison to the living they had done, a stranger to love and unacquainted with death, I had spent my entire life in two small towns; I had never seen the ocean or flown in an airplane; I didn't possess a driver's license or a passport; and because I had lived so little, I, like them, was waiting for my real life to begin, believing stubbornly, in the way only a young person can, that life is more about fate than accommodation.
I suspect this was why I had fallen in love with college teaching; I was as idealistic, and as uncertain of my destiny, as my students were. We were fellow travelers on a night journey of expectation and discovery. And while I could not tell them what lay ahead, around the corner, because I had never been there myself, I could bless them with the gift of literature, which is, of course, the knowledge that we are not alone.
As I waited for the room to fall to silence and for the last student to settle in his chair, I felt a calm pass through me as it always did at the start of class. This had surprised me after spending the whole summer scared to death about facing undergraduate students for the first time. I don't know if America had ever experienced a more eventful summer--Senator Ted Kennedy off the bridge, sending men to the moon, the concert at Woodstock. But I was so encased in fear and self-doubt about teaching that those events seemed to be taking place on another planet. Then the moment my first class began and I realized that nothing mattered more than bringing to life for my students the great writers who had lived before us, all my fears vanished.
I closed the door at the front of the room and nodded to a football player in the back row to close the door beside him. "Thank you, Mr. Schmidt," I said as he lumbered back to his seat. In the row of seats along the windows, the tiny red-haired girl from Pennsylvania took off her boots, then lit a cigarette, the first of eight that she would smoke in the next fifty minutes, lighting each new cigarette from the last. I watched the stoop-shouldered boy whose last name was Kapelke pour three packets of sugar into the coffee he had picked up at the spa on the way to class. The Sylvester girl, whose father had died that summer in a fire at the textile mill where he worked, sat with her head bowed as she had through every class.
This was my world. The place where I felt safe and useful. And privileged. "Melville," I said softly, and the room grew even quieter. "We've got two weeks to figure out together what it is in Herman Melville's work that we need to take with us for the rest of our lives." I paused. "First of all, can you imagine ever naming your son Herman?"
Laughter, even from Miss Sylvester with her bowed head. I was off and running.
I was still thinking of her laughter late that afternoon as I rode my bicycle off campus, with Brother Martin's golf club resting across my handlebars. Maybe the only way we can measure the depth of our affection for someone is by the emptiness left when that person departs for an hour, or a morning that lasts forever. I could still recall vividly how in the days after Brother Martin left the orphanage there was an emptiness that I found difficult to fill. Particularly in the late-afternoon hours that led to dusk, that time of day when an orphan always imagines fathers returning home from work and mothers from their errands around town and children from school. Families reconstituting themselves in the last light of day, before the long night settled upon them. Gradually I learned to fill those hours with Brother Martin's passions, going off on my own somewhere to hit balls and retrieve them in the same comforting rhythm of that time I had spent with him in my boyhood.
My first week in Amherst I discovered an open pasture beyond the football field where I could hit balls from the tree line down a wide, sloping field to some railroad tracks. I always brought a book along to read in the fading light of dusk; as a student it had always been a book by one of the authors on Brother Martin's list. Now it was whichever writer I was teaching. I loved this time so much that often I would stay too long, and, unable to find my golf balls in the gathering darkness, I would count out the number I was short and then make myself find every missing ball the next day before I began hitting again. Somewhere along the way, numbers had become the music of my solitude. Twenty-four balls. Twenty-four swings. Counting slowly under my breath in two beats, one-two, on my take back and three! on my downswing. Trying, always trying, to establish a smooth, even motion. Then counting my steps across the meadow to each ball. Taking delight in the higher numbers that marked my longest shots.
By now I was averaging just under two hundred yards on my better shots, and I was able to hit one or two balls relatively straight out of every two dozen. Once, as I was searching for balls with night coming on quickly, I turned and saw a passenger train crossing the pasture, the long rectangular windows of each car lit up like aquariums. This enchanted me and set me counting madly--the lamps on the tables of the dining car, the silhouettes of people at the windows--before the train passed out of sight. After that I learned the train schedule and, like this afternoon, timed my last round of balls so that I could be out in the field near the tracks when the passenger train rumbled by. Today a woman wearing a pink hat waved to me. I was still waving back to her after she disappeared down the tracks, and all the way to my apartment I constructed a silent narrative in which she got off the train at the next stop and made her way back to me.
October 22. I have marked that as the day my life turned. There was a cold wind blowing across the pasture bending the oxeyed daisies low to the ground and reminding me that winter was not far off. I had finished grading some Melville papers while leaning against an oak tree and was taking my stance over my first ball when a freight train appeared on the tracks. I fixed my grip then began my take back with my shoulders turning slowly. One-two, back. Three down. This time my swing was effortless and the club struck the ball so sweetly that I barely felt anything as it took flight straight and true, a low shot that was still rising when it cracked against one of the boxcars as the train roared past. I had never hit a ball so straight and far, and it was such a gorgeous thing to see that I gave out a triumphant Tarzan screech, and in the next moment the train crashed off the rails in a horrible squeal of grinding metal and a riot of sparks. I watched in disbelief and shock as the cars tore loose and ripped apart the pasture, some of them cartwheeling end over end, others bursting into flames.
In the hours that followed while ambulances and fire trucks arrived, I watched from a distance until I was able to move without being noticed into the crowd of townspeople that had gathered. Gradually I moved closer as word spread that three engineers were trapped beneath the locomotive. They were men from surrounding towns, and as it began to rain, their families assembled under a makeshift tent while rescue workers attempted to cut through the twisted iron. Floodlights and flares made the pasture luminous, and I remained long after most people had dispersed.
Though I knew of course that I could not possibly have caused the accident, I was left sick to my stomach and trembling with fear. The sheer coincidence haunted me as I stared at the wives and children of the trapped men.
Sometime that night a reporter from the local newspaper moved from one family to the next with his notebook and pen as he questioned them about the men, their fathers and husbands.
I moved closer to try to hear what he was asking. I was standing just a few feet from a woman who held two babies wrapped in quilts when suddenly her legs buckled beneath her and she dropped to her knees. The reporter took hold of her shoulders and steadied her. And I moved closer. Close enough to be looking into the eyes of one of her babies when the woman spoke through her tears. "He is everything to me. Have you ever loved anyone that way?"
The reporter wrote this down, then thanked her, slipping his notebook into his coat pocket as he walked away. I watched the woman as she began to rock slowly, back and forth, rocking in her pain, with her face turned to the ground. Her words--He is everything to me--seemed to hang above her, a declaration trapped in the mist.
Maybe the other thing that literature teaches us is to see the common ground we all occupy, to be alert enough to catch an unexpected glimpse of ourselves in another person. I was so struck by the woman's grief that night that I was not conscious of walking toward her until I was kneeling beside her, holding her hand as she looked into my eyes.
In the years since then, during times when I have been receptive to the idea that God moves our lives, I have allowed myself to believe that the train wreck took place before my eyes so that I could bear witness to an emotion I had never seen growing up in an orphanage: in that mother's grief I caught my first glimpse of a woman's love for a man, something that struck me even then as holy and fine and worth desiring above everything else a person might ever want.
My office in Lawrence Hall looked down onto the quad where students came and went on their way to class and the student center. I was standing at the window watching a few boys throw a football when the department secretary, Donna Bridges, knocked on my opened door.
"Penny for your thoughts, Professor Lansdale," she said brightly.
I turned and smiled at her. She was always so cheerful and down to earth. Because professors make their living asking questions that they already know the answers to, they are often full of themselves, waterlogged by their own egos, expecting to be treated like royalty. Donna cut through that; she had a few hundred ways of reminding all of us that we were no more special than the person who delivers mail for a living.
"My thoughts, Donna?" I said. "I can't stop thinking about the train wreck."
"It was on the radio just a little while ago," she said, "you didn't hear? Everyone was rescued. All three men are safe."
I couldn't begin to describe my relief. "I'm so glad," I said to her.
"Someone was looking for you this morning," she said. "Elizabeth Taylor."
"No, she didn't leave her name. But she looked just like the actress."
"Probably one of my students."
"Probably," she said. "How are you getting on in the faculty apartments?"
"You're sure? You don't need anything?"
"No, I'm fine. All I have is my books."
She just looked at me for a moment, startled, I supposed, by the cheerful way I'd said that. I sensed that had I been her son, she would have cautioned me about growing comfortable in an empty apartment. The whole world knows that you are not grown up until you own things too heavy to move by yourself. Appliances, automobiles, beds, and couches, the kind of possessions that anchor us to the world.
"As long as you're content," Donna said, "I won't bother you." She smiled. "Well, I'm on my way to tell Professor Peters that the department will not be able to reimburse him for the case of whiskey he bought when he took the honors students to Ireland last semester. He'll be heartbroken."
As she walked away she called back to me, "It's going to snow early this year. You'll be doing your golfing indoors before you know it, Professor."
Donna was the only person I had told about the barn where I hit golf balls during the winter. Coming from St. Luke's as a scholarship student, I'd worked in the university dining halls while holding down as many part-time jobs off campus as I could find. One of them had been weekend chores at a chicken farm two miles outside of town. On the property there was also an enormous barn that had been empty since the farmer gave up raising cattle. Here is where I spent my best hours reading and hitting golf balls up into the haylofts. By the time I finished my junior year I had read all the novels of Thomas Wolfe and Theodore Dreiser there. I loved the clattering noise the golf balls made when they ricocheted off the walls and rafters. It was a satisfying sound that turned every shot into a triumph.
The barn was also where I discovered that if I read slowly I could memorize whole passages from books after just one pass. To quiz myself I brought along chalk from the school and often wrote out passages on the wooden planks of the barn walls. This was where I had first rehearsed the role of college professor, pretending to be standing in front of a classroom of students.
Excerpted from Winter Dreams by Don J. Snyder. Copyright © 2004 by Don J. Snyder. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.