This Christmas, I am doing something different for gifts. Some gifts, anyway. I have a suitcase of letters from my college years and the years immediately after, the mid and late '60s. I am sending them back to the people who wrote them -- when I can.
A few of the letters are from my Dad. He would write on the backside of football betting sheets: "Hey Crum, here's $$. Hope you can use. You are missing out on the comedians in Juneau. Love, Da."
Translation: Hey Michael, here's 20 dollars. I know you are broke. The Alaska Legislature is screwing up again. Love, Fabian.
Actually, he wasn't much of a gambler. Just liked to stop by the cigar store to catch up on the latest gossip. "Crum" was one of his many affectionate nicknames for me.
My friends' letters are typically those of imaginative, irreverent outsiders intoxicated by literature and philosophy. So on the front of their envelopes I see their missives are addressed to "Holden Caulfield c/o M Carey," "Zee Buddha c/o M Carey," "Jack Kerouac c/o M Carey" and "Harry Haller c/o M Carey." Holden Caulfield is the protagonist of "Catcher in the Rye," you remember, and Harry Haller is Herman Hesse's alter ego in "Steppenwolf," which in 1965 we were reading when not listening to Bob Dylan, deciphering T.S. Eliot or watching a Bergman film at the local art theater.
Yes, I led a privileged life as my country was about to lose its mind in Vietnam.
The letters contain endless meditations on women, literature and "the meaning of it all." I had a friend in New York who not only quoted D.H. Lawrence on sex but added a quotation from Lawrence Durrell putting down D.H. Lawrence. (We all read Durrell's "Alexandria Quartet.") Apparently, we thought we were going to Paris to meet Henry Miller, who would introduce us to beautiful women with money who were going to take us to bistros and after a riotous night of drinking and debating Arthur Rimbaud's poetry lead us down the Left Bank to early-morning bliss.
This is what happens when 20-year-old kids without worldly experience beyond a summer job read too much.
Yet you can see the men they would become in the letters. Reading would remain serious business to them, distance from the Establishment was in their DNA and their politics were left of center. Young Republicans don't take Henry Miller as a role model.
Why were these guys writing to me? Because I was just like them. And I did make it to Paris, although Henry Miller was in California and the beautiful girls knew nothing about Rimbaud and were after my money.
I also found a stack of letters from my college girlfriend, which I mailed her after reading a few. They suggest I was greener than the greenest grass. I earned an "A" in 20th Century Philosophy my senior year but I still had a lot of growing up to do.
Didn't we all. Didn't we all.
Enjoy your Christmas presents -- and any holiday reflections you may have about the friends who helped shape your life.
-- Michael Carey