Talking heads in the lower reading room…
Editor’s note: This is classic Tom Stevens, our class speaker at graduation, whose articles and reviews in The Williams Record kept us amused and on occasion stunned into non-belief. Now alive and well in California, Tom often translated his Hawaiian cultural heritage into action in memorable ways while at Williams, not the least of which was snow-surfing, which we’ll talk about in Feb. 2018 as we commemorate Winter Carnival. He also brought both Light and Enlightenment to the Dark Hole of Calcutta (his private term for Wood House, where he lived), introducing volleyball (see photo here) and he outdid the hippest of hip actors of the San Francisco Mime Troupe by composing on the fly verses to a song that they introduced to a group of largely naive open-mouthed students at an after party; the name of the song was I got <…..> in Vietnam. He made sure that Wood House had a Christmas tree every year and was very kind to Odd Job, Paul Sloan’s dog. It is not true that he had anything to do with the Great San Bernardino Birthday and the scabrous, salacious Linda Getchell; that was all John Fahey’s doing and besides Tom liked Sandy Bull much better. But it is true that he left his mark in New York City in 1966 when he herded several unsuspecting passersby into a movie theater that was showing Zorba the Greek, such was the degree of his enthusiasm for the movie.
We hope you enjoy re-reading Tom’s comic celebration of the plight of some of Williams’ anguished, long-forgotten, frustrated heroes.
From the Williams Record, Volume LXXXI, Number 16, Tuesday April 18 1967. You can find a scan of the original article here
Portraits Fuming At Poor Hanging
Scene: The lower reading room of the Williams College Library
Time: About 3 am. A kind of late-night emptiness, accentuated by the buzzing of fluorescent lights, pervades the room. All the dawn-scribblers and midnight-oilers have left. From across the campus the gym clock sounds its three o’clock dirge, and the dark portraits, silent for generations, finally speak.
First to break the hollow silence are Charles Dewey, 1824-1866, a weak-eyed, rather pale former trustee; and to his right the stern nobly-bewhiskered benefactor Frederick Ferris Thompson, he of the Memorial Chapel and the science buildings.
Dewey: You look feverish tonight, Fred. Is everything all right?
Thompson: Feverish? Hell, do you blame me? I give my life for this school – chapel, science buildings, my love and dedication – and what do they do? Stick me down here in this underground sweatshop with a lot of squint-eye students and musty old men. Look at me! I am not even hung – they just lean me up here off-center like a drunk on a lamppost. My frame is chipped – a damn fine Bennet, too!
From across the room other voices are heard clamoring. The first is that of a slim, bespectacled gentleman frocked in black who sits primly erect to the left of the fireplace. His long hands flow out of his sleeves onto a book, and his refined face wears the somewhat quizzical expression of a surprised lepidopterist.
Lepidopterist: You think you’ve got problems! At least you have names! I’ll be you don’t even know who I am. No one does. Here I sit, some great old friend of the college, perhaps even a former president, and for all they know I might as well be some transvestite moth-catcher or something. Damn my high forehead and soft, full lips! And look at this frame – all bespattered with white droppings – I ask you, is this a library or a pigeon house?
Here a deep voice booms out from the other side of the fireplace. It thunders from the portrait of an obviously great man, also unnamed, whose only identification, perhaps one of his more famous aphorisms, cautions: “Do not resolve books. Return books to desk.”
The Aphorist: You, you? Why you… lily-white, you paste-licker… Look at me! A fine, virile figure of a man, obviously great – and they’ve retouched my jowl-whiskers with green. Green! You’d think I’d been eating lamb curry during the sitting. And I’m sagging right out of my frame! Look at these creases in the canvas – they’re trying to stretch my forehead. Aaaaargh, pain!
Two new voices break in from opposite sides of the room, angrily clamoring against the indignity of their ignominious existence. They belong to Smear-Face, a cadaverous-looking Père Goriot figure with sunken cheeks and large knobby hands, and The Scratcher, an inflamed gentleman who seems completely broken by his Williams experience.
He lives out his anguish to the immediate left of the reading room entrance. Smear-Face resides on the far wall between William Richards, class of 1819 and former Hawaiian ambassador to the United States, and Dr. P.V.N. Norris, a rather bewildered-looking fellow with a curly scalp. They clamor again and hurl erudite execrations.
Thompson: And who are you, sir, that you should clamor so? And you, itchy-looking fellow on the far wall?
Smear-Face: How should I know who I am? I have forgotten in my senility and the ingrates will not remind me. Ah, the ingratitude? Look at these hands – shaped for clutching bombs…. this face – that of an anarchist!
The Scratcher (with bitter scorn): That of a janitor! Those should be holding a squeegee.
Richards: Kukai!* Kukai nui lea ka ko and oa o owa into the bargain. Who your? Hah? Hah? All time I look ova, spock** you, make itchy all ova! You look like you sitting on ant-hill or else you ready to erupt like one lava-flow! Make some nervous, me! Maybe you like go bathroom. Is the trouble?
Dr. P.V.N. Norris: My God, give the poor man a chance, will you? Fighting, always fighting! We’re all in this together, you know.
The Reverend Zophaniah Swift Moore (hung next to the lepidopterist): Oh, you can talk! You’re got a gilded name-plate handing below your phlegmy portrait, Norris. Look at me… second president of the college and they’ve got me painted up like a Saturday Evening Post cartoon postcard-like, and with a Napoleonic haircut! Hell, I was bald as a scrubwoman’s knee when I was president here.
All laugh and mock him. Suddenly, angry shouts are heard from within the reserve-book cage, crying for silence, commiseration, Jack Daniels and other things. The voices belong to those, prisoners of time, locked forever in the cage.
The first of the is by far the most interesting face in the gallery, wild, watery-eyed Emery Washburn, 1817, the true embodiment of the Williams-Byronic spirit. His disheveled gray hair, strong mouth and ruddy cheek. label him a Dionysiac with parallel; and something in the eyes, one looking forward, the other scanning the reserve desk area for older women, suggests the memorable past of a reveler.
To his right is an anonymous man whose full face, with furry beard and large brown eyes, give him the appearance of an alarmed bumblebee-figure. His alarm derives from the buckled condition of his canvas, whose geological stresses and rifts threaten the wide expanse of his forehead.
Two military men and an administrator complete the cage-gallery. The first of these is Ronald Slidell McKenzie, ‘1859, whom Ulysses S. Grant called “the most promising young officer in the army. Oblivious to the raucous encampment behind him and to all the comings and goings of munitions trains, the young Civil War officer stands sharply erect, both eyes focused keenly on the bridge of his nose.
A person who appears the least promising officer in the army, Edward Payson Hopkins, moans quietly from the opposite wall. He seems exhausted by long nights on the march, and his eyes have a faraway look, as though he wished to return to long nights in beloved lower-reading room.
These warriors flank a spitting image of Thomas E. Dewey — former Williams and Hamilton College president Frederick Perry, whose benign smile and cheerfully-uplifting brow shed light and hope throughout the cage.
In all, it is a tragic assemblage, those in the cage clamoring for release, those without bewailing the conditions of their frames, their forgotten identities and their slipshod hangings.
Great forgotten benefactors and philanthropists, they are doomed to live out their last days at Williams in ignominious surroundings, quietly crying in the lower reading room.
*A scatological reference to (bird) droppings in Hawaiian, and for a while the name of a ramen restaurant in Seattle, now sanely renamed Kizuki Ramen.
**Spock is not a reference to Star Trek. That show did not exist yet. In Hawaiian pidgin it should mean “check out, look at.”
The rest of the stuff only Tom can tell us about although we remain mindful of Moki’s Law: When in doubt talk pidgin, when in trouble talk Hawaiian.