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A lifetime of letters, and what they capture

  • Author: Michael Carey
    | Opinion
  • Updated: July 6, 2018
  • Published July 6, 2018

The handwritten letter was on stiff gray paper with the name of the sender's affiliation printed across the top of the page: The International Association of Printing House Craftsmen. The association's logo, two orange and black shields joined by ribbons, ruled the upper left-hand corner. The letter writer, B. Franklin Waite Jr., was the Second Deputy Governor of the craftsmen.

Second Deputy Waite was writing to me from Owego, New York. The letter was dated April 9, 1965.

The second deputy was brief: "Dear Michael, You left your check book in my car last week. I thought you might want it."

Yes, the sophomore at Ithaca College in upstate New York wanted his checkbook, if for no other reason than so he could continue cashing checks in Traveler's, Morrie's, and other Ithaca bars on Friday nights. Reading Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales" and hundreds of pages of medieval history in the library provoked a compelling thirst.

How I met Mr. Waite is lost to me. Probably hitchhiking near the college.

But I have a definitive explanation of why I kept Mr. Waite's letter through 13 presidential elections.

As a student, I saved letters and just about everything that came into my mailbox except magazines and advertisements. I also saved notebooks from English and history classes, philosophy tests, invitations to student events, semester grades announced by the dean of students, occasional bad checks, and Democrats' mailers requesting my vote.

The letters from friends and my dad, Fabian, number in the hundreds. So much for my sad-sack youthful conviction that nobody cared about me.

It won't surprise those who have read my columns over the years that Fabian was my role model. He filled the garage with what he called generically "paper," and I followed his example. My accumulation of "paper" continued after I left Ithaca for Boston, and eventually moved on to New York, Fairbanks and Anchorage. Boxes and suitcases full of "paper" followed me. I even saved bills, including one from a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital in November 1967. Those who think Carey should have his head examined, please note: He already has.

I dug into the boxes and suitcases recently after visiting a college friend in New Mexico. We had not been together in 40 years, although we had been in touch. It was a joy to see him, his wife and his younger brother, whom I also knew from yesteryear. I recognized the brothers immediately — time had not changed their smiles.

I thought "I'll bet I have one of his letters," and it was so, from the summer of 1970, meticulously typed, filling a single page from top to bottom. Only a young man could have written it. This young man was about to become a father, wondering where the road of life would take him. His landlady and her daughter had planted marijuana in the yard. He was thinking about starting a commune somewhere in New Mexico. Not a "sex, drugs and rock and roll" hippie outfit, but a place where like-minded people could escape the heartless world and live in peace. The letter writer and his brother wanted me to join them because they knew I was a "worker."

I don't remember any of this. But I am well aware that memory failure is an occupational hazard for those my age who study the hippie-ocene era.

A couple of years ago, I started to read a bundle of letters from my girlfriend of the mid-1960s. I did not read long. I was too embarrassed — by my failing commitment, my restless uncertainty, my lack of self-confidence. I was a young man adrift in the nation's sexual, social and political upheaval.

I wrote to the girl, now a grandmother — found her on the internet — and asked her if she wanted the letters. She wrote back "Not really — I am not the same person I was then." I mailed the letters anyway: I didn't want them but could not throw them out.

"I am not the same person I was then." This is true of all of us, isn't it? The Greeks taught, "know thyself," yet thyself keeps changing. The old man on Garden Street is not the young man who received a girl's letters as President Lyndon Johnson announced he saw the light at the end of the tunnel in Vietnam.

Yet something of this young man survives, something of his character and view of the world. Something as unchanging as the color of his eyes.

His addiction to writers and their big ideas: Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, Henry Miller, Norman Mailer, Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac were part of his life then, are part of his life now. Also his distrust of whatever the Establishment is peddling as truth, virtue and the American way. And his struggle with spiritual questions, which never disappear unless you are asleep.

Many of my friends then were searchers; many today are too.

As a college kid, I got letters from Fairbanks kids full of "revelations" about being, time, eternity, death. One letter came addressed to Z. Buddha c/o Michael Carey, Ithaca College. The return address was J. Hendrix, 666 Spanish Castle Magic Road, Swabia. (The Hendrix reference should still be obvious; popular novelist Herman Hesse was from Swabia in Germany.)

The boys (and sometimes girls) in these letters were not going to Wall Street or Washington.

My favorite letter bears the return address "In Transit." It is from my future brother-in-law, who was returning to school from the West Coast by Greyhound after spending the Christmas vacation in California. It was January 1967. I was living in Valentine Dorm, the friend later in New Mexico was too. "Letter" fails to do justice to the missive. It is a business card from Ernst's Tie Shop in North Beach, San Francisco. Ernst's name and address are in bold above a calendar (wallet size) on one side, and on the other side is Carol Doda, the famed topless dancer, twisting away wearing one of Ernst's ties. My future bro-in-law had drawn a bubble from Carol's lips and filled it with what the voluptuous dancer is thinking: "Henry James is really groovy." On one of Carol's imposing thighs, bro had written "Om."

There it is, isn't it? The worldview of fast '60s friends, their irreverence, their joy in merging high and low culture, their mockery of petty capitalism, their sense that life is an absurd spectacle, their pop art sensibility that can transform anything, including Carol's remarkable body and novelist Henry James' place in the pantheon, into a gag.

For sure, these college boys are not going to Wall Street or Washington. College boys who ride the Greyhound to California in the beatniks' footsteps and their buddies back in the dorm who crank up the Rolling Stones' "Paint It, Black" before opening Charles Baudelaire's "Flowers of Evil" never do.

Henry James, Carol Doda, beatnik all-stars are in those letters. Fabian too. But these letters are fundamentally early expressions of friendships that will continue til death do us part. I did not know that in 1967 as I was finishing my senior year at Ithaca College.

I do now.

Michael Carey is an Anchorage Daily News columnist. He can be reached at mcarey@adn.com.

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary@adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@adn.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

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