Dental Health, Mental Health
I’m standing in the parking lot outside Justin Hall, my assigned dormitory at St. Mary’s College, and watching the people I love most recede in the distance. My parents and brothers are driving back down Highway 101—364 miles ahead of them. Dad will remain behind the wheel the whole way back down to Oxnard. As they enter the car another freshman student is instructed by his mother in a strident, wailing voice: “Don’t forget to brush your teeth!” I can see the poor sod cringing. The phrase becomes a sotto voce running comedy gag for my dad and mother each year I leave for college at the end of the summer.
Homesickness arises instantly, mixed with liberty—of a sort. The weather is warm, verging on hot. I’m not used to heat like this—not at all like the climate two miles from the sea in Oxnard. It’s Saturday of the Labor Day weekend 1971. It will remain hot for days, until Tuesday when I start attending classes. There are three whole days to fill up in the meantime and I don’t know anyone. I return to my room and my roommate appears with his folks. I dig into my pockets for loose change to call my Southern California friends because I’m lonely. I start a new journal. The weather cools. My college years begin.
I’m in another safe zone, for a while anyway. Love and death eventually intrude into this Catholic utopia. Meanwhile there is study and books, guitars and music, marijuana, beer, wine—and hallucinogens. Also, questions: will I be drafted? Will I find a girlfriend? What will I do with my life four years from now?
I’ve told parts of that story elsewhere. No need to repeat the plot—but here I allude to the ambiences: the weather outside me and the weather inside me, the owls resting and nesting behind the statue of the Blessed Virgin above the entrance to the chapel, the endless classroom conversations and my inability to participate in them for the first two years, the burning passions and ambitious silliness, the foundation of lifelong friendships—all of that active in the confines of a cramped campus populated by less than six hundred students, all developing into men and women simultaneously.
I move from a life as a Pacific shoreline boy with a three-speed bike that takes me to the Oxnard library once a week to an inland weekend hiker who lives for hours each weekday in the campus archive of books and reference materials. From cool air and beaches to hot, dry hills and oak trees—weeks of rain and fog in the winter leading to glorious, blossoming springs. Classes during the day, interspersed with reading and writing, then late-night parties.
It is not the place my father assumed it would be. When St. Mary’s College began admitting coeds in 1970 they went all in with the decision—not much in the way of monitoring. No sign outs and sign ins. The only separation is by dormitory floor, one of men, one of women. I have no idea what’s going on. There’s no nightstand next to my bed let alone a one-night stand in it. Hormones are seething all around me. In high school the girls wore staid uniforms. Here they sun themselves in shorts and bikini tops.
When I’m not thinking about women, sex, and love, my imagination and soul are fed with a steady stream of learning the lesson of how to learn, not only books but the bibliography of daily life—not only becoming acutely aware of my credulousness, but also my anxiety of saying anything in classroom participation. St. Mary’s is a seminar school. No lectures—instead there is reading, writing, talking. Teacher after teacher says to me “you say nothing in class and then you can’t shut up in my office—why not say something to your peers?”
I want to be brilliant, but I’m lazy and easily distracted. I want to write well, but I have no discipline, so I churn out run-of-the-mill papers about poetry and make a damn fool of myself in my creative writing class without even being aware of it. Chester Aaron, the creative writing professor, encourages me, despite my cluelessness and my inept prose. By the time I’m a senior I’m more serious—I write a science fiction novel during an independent study as he mentors me. The truth is, he has much better things to do. He’s about to go on a well-deserved sabbatical on a sheep ranch in Marin County and wants me to hurry up and finish so he can leave a few days early and get his next book started. I don’t know that for years, not until I read Garlic Is Life.
Five decades later a copy of the St. Mary’s alumni magazine arrives in my Oregon mailbox bundled with a sales flyer from Costco, the gas bill, and a book about Mary Magdalene. I flip through the color periodical and read the latest updates: a new library in the planning stages, a science professor’s reception of a grant to unlock the benefits of algae, the announcement of a fellow classmate’s induction as an honored affiliate of the brothers of the Christian Lasallian schools. All good news of note decorated by photos of the campus.
The reverse memory telescope materializes again, and the tension of memory tugs the years together, squeezing out the unimportant flotsam and jetsam of half a century as I turn the pages of the periodical and recall the essential juice of my four years as an undergraduate. I lived there, I say to myself. That was my youth.
I can’t resist the final page of obituaries—I’m at that age where I peruse the list of in memoriam announcements—some folks younger, some older than me, listed in tiny typeface. This time no one from my class, no one I know, until I spy a listing for “Chester Aaron former faculty” and the memory comes back—
—that warm spring afternoon when he speaks of his time in the 70th Armored Infantry Battalion and the liberation of Dachau—his unit is one of the first to arrive. The silence in the classroom weaves itself around his spoken words as he tells the tale. We barely breathe as he describes the shocking and inhuman sights—his personal newsreel images—piles of corpses, his description of the stench—
“The flatcars and the boxcars were filled with bodies—pieces of bodies, chunks of bodies…they were wearing pajamas and so forth. Hundreds and hundreds lying dead or dying on the floor of the barracks…a little girl…came out of the barracks looked at me and said essen, essen…I had a can of C-Rations in my backpack. And I opened it up, and I picked her up, and I sat down, and I fed her with my fingers…She took about three or four swallows and died in my arms…”
The classroom windows are open—there are birds singing. I hear the call of voices in the tennis courts, smell the lush scents of spring grass and blossoming lilac gliding in the breeze as Chester’s tenor- baritone voice emerges from his round, bald head, the border of white unruly hair around his pate like a wild tonsure, the steady gleam in his eyes hot with anger.
All that instantly. A flashback. Unexpected. Intense. Humbling. Then and now.
A few years after my wife dies I suddenly recall Chester. Something I read on the Internet about garlic brings him to mind. He has retired to a farm in Occidental, California where he grows exotic varietals of garlic: Yugoslavian Red, Brown Tempest, Spanish Roja—stinking cloves with civilized names—Creole Red, Romanian Red, Incelium Red. I think of looking him up before I migrate to Oregon but can’t find the time. I discover a YouTube video filmed at his house. I remember his voice and his countenance. I really should thank him, I say to myself. It’s only about eighty miles up 101. Go!
But I don’t. I miss my chance.
At St. Mary’s while in his fifties, Chester looks exactly like a guy named Chester—the same way my Uncle Max was a ringer for a man named Max. But Chester is not soft and fat, waving a cigar around held loosely in his stubby fingers like Uncle Max. Chester doesn’t smoke. He is substantial. He is genuine. Maybe it’s his nose that makes him larger than life—after all it’s the first thing everyone notices about him. The cowboy boots and denim work shirts add to the masculine impression. More so it’s his smile, the firm voice, and the manner in which every spoken word is like a phrase from a story he is constantly writing aloud that makes him authentic.
The words of encouragement and the laughter and his endless patience with me—even after I make a clown of myself by writing an ill-conceived satire about him as a final assignment that first year—those elements fashioned a generous teacher and storyteller. He is an outsider—the only Jew on the faculty of a Catholic liberal arts college. Chester projects the auras of a boxer, a carpenter, or a farmer. In fact, he is all of those at various times in his ninety-six-year life.
After I read the notice in the alumni magazine I look for an obituary on the web. “Chester deeply touched the lives of many through his writing, teaching and mentoring, love of garlic and animals and his friendships. He will be greatly missed.” Modest words. Simple truth.
I realize I’ve not read much of what he wrote and published after I left St. Mary’s. I spend time catching up and read his first book, About Us, long out of print and now self-published. The story of a Jewish family in Pennsylvania between the two world wars—his family. Also: Symptoms of Terminal Passion, Black and Blue Jew, and his books about garlic that mix memoir and recipes, Garlic Kisses and Tasty Hugs and Garlic is Life. None of these published by what one would consider a major publisher.
I find a short story, The Female of the Species, in which a much-loved wife dies unexpectedly from a heart attack. A pair of mated hawks also die in the story, and I think of my own wife and her love for hawks—how she collected feathers from the side of the trail when she went horseback riding. I think, Chester, how the hell did you know? How did you know?
I want to kick myself for not seeing him before I left California. That’s a phrase he used often, “you need to kick yourself in your ass and get the work done.”
In Garlic Is Life I find this passage about his St. Mary’s experience: “My colleagues, residents of the academic world since they were teenagers, considered me an interesting but somewhat eccentric mutant.”
I read elsewhere that he considered most of his students lazy, sloppy, and unimaginative—and I think that he is writing about me—one of those students who hopefully concludes I think I have a book in me—someone who assumes that urging words out of the imagination is an easy line of work—effortless validation leading to notable adulation. Wrong. Chester makes that clear. It’s all “process and craft” and “damned hard work.” Just like farming and building furniture. Or knocking the daylights out of someone with a determined left hook.
What do I know about work when I am a student? Not much. I haven’t experienced anything profound. It’s been five decades since then. After loss and a move from California, a new life, plenty of time, a hundred or so books read every year, piles of poems written and stored safely where no one will ever see them, an intermittent journal, one single self-published memoir about rock and roll—and two daughters, a 35-year marriage and subsequent widower-hood—I remember his lessons, his laughter, and now it’s too late to say thank you and know that he can hear me say it.
I find this statement in an interview with him conducted when Female of the Species is published in Symptoms of Terminal Passion:
“More and more, as I grow older and older, I have somehow gained the strength and courage to tell the literary establishment (meaning publishers, editors, agents, established and therefore powerful writers) in San Francisco and New York to kiss my ass.”
As we used to say in the Seventies: “Right on, man.” He’s in his eighties when he tells the late-stage capitalist publishing industry to worship his gluteus maximus. By that time, he’s written and published—one way or another—twenty-five or so books. With no agent.
He never told me to “write about what you know” specifically. But that’s what he did, spinning his personal experience into fiction— sincere fiction that reads like memoir. That’s the lesson. Learn how to learn and then write about it. Turn life into literature. If the established minions of the publishing industry don’t want it, tell them to kiss your ass.
I almost fail that freshman year. Not so much grade-wise—I manage B’s and C’s, though I get a D in Epic Poetry because I forget to set my alarm and sleep though the final exam, then run around the campus looking for the professor so I can set a time to retake it. That doesn’t happen because he has already left for the summer. My failure is all about my lack of confidence, my anxiety, and my existential confusion.
When I get home for the summer and my grades arrive, Dad expresses his disappointment by telling me that if I don’t get a haircut he’ll stop paying my tuition. I acquiesce unwillingly. It’s unfair. After all, I did manage to brush my teeth.
Notes on the text:
- My reference to “I’ve told parts of that story elsewhere” is to my recently published memoir Winterland Nights. More information is available here.
- On January 10, 2013 Chester was interviewed by Celeste Brasuell for inclusion in the Veterans History Project of the U.S. Library of Congress. The entire interview is printed as the Afterword in his short story collection Wars and Peaces. The text in this post of his memories of Dachau is taken from that interview. I think Chester would have appreciated the use of poetic license. I also wanted to be sure I quoted him accurately.
- An article on the St. Mary’s website entitled Professor Emeritus Chester Aaron Remembers Horrors of Holocaust states: “It was only six years ago that Saint Mary’s College Professor Emeritus Chester Aaron allowed himself to remember the day he witnessed the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp.” However, my memory of Chester speaking of his experience on that day in 1971 or 1972 is quite clear, and I have verified it with another former student who was there.
- A link to Chester’s obituary on legacy.com