MURDER IN THE HALLS OF ACADEME
Sein oder nicht sein, hier die Frage ist!
Let me introduce myself to you. The first thing you might be wondering as we shake hands, is of course: What is his name? Well, I have more to tell you about that as soon as we get through the formalities, but for now it is enough to inform you, Sir, that my name is Adam X. Stine. Let me give you my card, it has my address and email in case you should ever want to reach me about an academic matter. I am in my office regularly by eight in the morning, although I try to get home by five, which means I have to catch the 4:30 train or I am in for a long wait. You see it is printed in German on the other side, Herr Dr. Prof. A. X. Stine. No I am not German but I teach the language and the card printer suggested doing it in both languages with no extra charge, an experiment in his mind for what he called bilingual "JanusCards". So that is why it is printed up like that.
No doubt you have some thoughts about my name, but I don't think this is the time or place to explain. All that can come out later when we know each other a little better. But you see before you what I am, a short man with a bald head surrounded by some gray locks, heavy eyebrows and you may have noticed already that I walk with a slight limp. I was in the army as a young man and received a wound in the knee which still bother me a little, although the monthly check from the Veteran's Administration soothes the agony effectively. We all have our cross to bear, mine is in the knee, an unspiritual part of the body in theological terminology, but one which is only in intermittent use in the process of genuflection. On my knee before God I think of the Veteran's Administration checks first, but as my eye roves up to the crucifix I think how much worse my condition could have been.
I am Catholic, I am sure you have noticed that the only people who have an initial "X." in their name are those named by their Catholic parents who anticipated that Xavier was a good name and a good access-code to the gates of heaven at some later date. The only other possible "X." in names would be the work of a clerk at Ellis Island who couldn't understand a name from a foreign applicant and wrote down "X" the way an illiterate man signs his will. Such marks can creep into a person's name, but in my case it was otherwise.
On the obverse, that formal "Herr Dr. Prof." has a touch of humor about it, but in fact I am a Dr. Professor myself. I have been teaching German in our small college for some thirty years now, and have seen several hundreds of unlikely students graduated with my approval for their degree, despite their inability to order a coherent breakfast in any German restaurant. Language is of course the basic vehicle for intelligent communication, but for a college graduate all that need be communicated is: "Look, I have a B.A. degree, and will do anything your company wants." For this a new graduate gets more salary than I will have at retirement, so I know I am doing something useful in the real world, after all.
Adam X. Stine! That does leave some unanswered queries, indeed. If you thought from my prenomen Adam that I might be a member of the Hebrew brethren, let me remind you that Adam is a generic name, it indicates in Hebrew that the bearer is a man and I would have been baptized Eve if it were the other way around. Yes, my parents were Catholic and I was baptized in infancy, a precaution against my early decease and going to the wrong place by default. I don't know if my mother was thinking of this, but in our church there is always someone in a black suit and collar in the background who takes care of possible emergencies of this order, and I was given a push in the right direction early.
But STINE is another matter. Perhaps in World War I American antipathies against Germans, unreasonable as they were, made a name like Steinwille or Steinholz seem overly Germanic, and I suspect an ancestor shortened something longer to Stein for safety's sake. But then another problem arose. Steinbergs of Jewish extraction were also circumcising their names for convenience, as they put it, and despite ecumenical considerations, it might be best for a Catholic not to be confused with a Jewish convert. So the spelling was cleaned up by the family, ending with "Stine" with the approved X(avier) in the middle. It was figured that this little babe should have clear sailing through life. As it turned out, nothing could be further from the truth.
But let me give you a bit of the background. In WW II, I was like many others an unwilling draftee, and ended up in Germany with a Field Artillery Battalion carrying from site to site 280 millimeter cannon which took eight hours heavy work to "dig in", after which they were dug out and moved twenty miles forward to be dug in again. Some old Military Heads left over from the First War knew from Napoleon that it is always the howitzers which win a war, so our Field Artillery was abundantly equipped with these obsolete monsters. The armored tanks went fleeting by our encampments, men waving to us energetically, whether in compassion or derision we never understood since they were gone down the road in seconds. But since we often stayed for a while in one place, I did get the chance to learn a little German from an agreeable girl of my age in the quiet town where we were billeted, and when I was discharged I was told about the advantages of an education and what the educational G.I. Bill for returning veterans could do to help me along.
I filled out paperwork for the GI Bill, with little thought in mind beyond it being free and offering me regular monthly checks for several years. When the moment came for me to decide what I wanted to study, I hesitated until I remembered how nice some of those German girls had been in bed, and wrote down "German Studies". Taking the accelerated course, since otherwise the check would disappear for the summer months, I found myself a Bachelor of Arts in two years, a Master in another, and two years later I was proud possessor of a parchment which informed me that I was entitled to the rights, duties and privileges of the degree of Doctor of Philosophy, as accepted here and everywhere. I didn't go to the doctoral ceremonies, which caused the University some embarrassment since they made several phone calls to my parents' house, fortunately missing me. They finally sent the document via United Parcel Service which I signed for with relief. The large brown envelope is still somewhere in the pile of papers under my desk, I never opened it to see if it was real and my name was spelled right. But it did gave me access as a future teacher to colleges everywhere which were overly impressed by the grand name of my University, and suddenly I was no long an insignificant grad student. I had emerged like the moth from the cocoon and had become a highly respectable "Professor".
Back in those mid-century days you had to sign your name in a large record book in your college at the Dean's office, indicating that you had never been a Communist or had any such thoughts, tendencies or connections whatsoever. As an unpolitical young fellow who had just escaped being killed in Europe by a Mauser rifle and again by a drunk American soldier who had been let out of jail for murder if he would enlist, I figured it would be best to sign rather than turn down the job. When Senator MacCarthy's evil work, which was not unlike the interrogations of the Inquisition some centuries earlier, was finally denigrated, I breathed a sigh of relief knowing that my signature was safe from further scrutiny for the moment. It was like knowing that once you had written a bad check which was never going to be cashed or even seen again.
Having no experience in teaching and no advice from my doctoral advisor about what a classroom experience was suppose to be like, I faced my first class at the little college which was to be my home for life, with some trepidation. But the students were a quiet and homey bunch, equally nervous about first class with the new Prof. as I was with them, and we soon found ourselves at ease. In those days when you taught German, you were hand-teaching the German language to a small group of intense and serious students. Introductory German 101 started as a large class, but by midterm it had been neatly whittled down to some fifteen survivors, while for my upper-class courses a class of ten was large. In those days is was nothing like today's lectures to a crowded hall of students doing a Humanities Requirement on "Goethe and the Romantic Geist", or "Post-war Socialist Novel", let alone "Feminism in the New Germany". German was German, it meant learning German and nothing else. It was nice and comfortable, professional and friendly, and my students came every month to a German dinner at my house. Of course I had no knowledge of German "cuisine" (if it can be called that!), but with a few books, good luck and my students' ignorance, it all looked fairly authentic. Corned beef, wurst and boiled cabbage on a stand with a candle-warmed dish looked fairly real, and was a welcome relief from the traditional college Unrat, a word they quickly learned as correlate with dinner.
At thirty seven years of age and somewhat lonely, I picked up an acquaintance with a girl student who was a German and Russian major. She was nervous, had a bad complexion and wore her hair in a formidably tight braid, but we got into the habit of having dinner together once a week at my apartment. One thing led to another and suddenly we found ourselves married, possibly in response to a formal letter from the Dean inquiring into our situation with a cautious touch of verbal casuistry. Married, we were much as before. She did finally graduate and became an underpaid Assistant in Russian for two years, after which she declared that she really had to "go out and find herself" on her own. She did find herself, as a waitress in an East Village coffee house, got pinched and prodded and laid by a number of the West Village old-hands, until she departed for Thailand to teach English in a rural school. We parted as dispassionately as we had met, no hard feelings or good feelings beyond a Christmas card for a short while. After that I was not only a Bachelor of Arts, I became an inveterate bachelor in spirit and outlook, perhaps something like a less engaging Mr. Chips in his original format before Greer Garson took him in hand.
Life was comfortable and fairly convenient, I spruced up the old faculty's unrecognizable M.A.'s with my prestigious degree and nobody bothered my academic tranquillity back in those days. To a certain extent I did enjoy making a small point in a Faculty Meeting. Everybody listened attentively and nothing further was done with my recommendations, which was after all a relief since I hadn't the foggiest idea about implementation.. Once a colleague tried to make a recommendation about the dates of the athletic event schedule, he was not being very firm about his calendar and was badly off when I got up to try to help him out with some simple logic. The situation was still foundering, when I heard somebody in the back row whisper audibly that when a nebbish drops something, it is the schlemiel who picks it up. Nonplussed by this remark, which seemed to refer to Chamisso's story of Peter Schlemiehl's Shadow and the Devil, which I had included in second year German reading, I checked the works of Chamisso out of the library the next day with no enlightenment. Ed Levine in the next office explained the meaning of these odd locutions, and all of a sudden I realized that I was going to be taken everywhere for a Jew. If "Stine" had worked as neutral in Post WW I New Jersey, it was considerably less convincing than the ubiquitous Greens who exited from Greenstein or the Golds who were once Goldmans. The law was fairly permissive about changing your name unless for fraud, but there was nowhere to go: Sting, Stink, even Swine. Steinway would have been a possibility but I was totally tone-deaf and here would be another rebuff.
A few years later the local Hillel chapter invited me to dinner and a talk about the situation in the newly-created state of Israel. They assumed I was a Jew and were probably surprised at my rather formal talk about the Christian religious communities which centered around Jerusalem, the antiquity of the various churches and the Christian tradition in neighboring Lebanon. At the end of my talk when I rashly asked if there were any questions, someone asked: Well, Sir, what about Israel? I couldn't think of anything to say, so I noted that there were lots of problems, which would have to be worked out in the coming years. A little weak applause, and I found my way to the door.
I thought again somewhere in those years of changing my name and considered something like Steen, which would look very distinguished and European, and was ready to have my cards redone when a friend reminded my that this would be a Dutch name, and my status as a Catholic would not match my pseudo-Dutch surname. The Dutch have a long memory, back to the Spanish plans to Catholicize the Low Lands some centuries ago, and this is one of the few countries where a visit from the Pope receives protests in the street. So forget Steen! I even though of going at it frontally and changing to Steinberg, an alteration favored by black actors like Whoopie Goldberg whose careers seems to have prospered under this new titling. But then I would have trouble at Confession since that change of name would be on the good Father's mind and might invalidate the cleansing process of Confessional somehow.
I had always been interested in wood, did some carving when I was a boy in Ivory soap for an Ivory sponsored competition , but desisted when my mother used up my little sculptures at the kitchen sink. I found wood more satisfactory so long as I kept my pieces away from my father's kindling box, and over the years I always did a bit of whittling and incising on scraps of hardwood when I wanted to do something utterly relaxing. But it was when I discovered burls growing on the trunks of old oaks and maples, that I became a serious wood carver, pestering the bearded chainsaw gang to slice off burls for me for five dollars a piece. Soon I had a barrel of burls drying, finding grimacing faces on them staring at me at unsuspecting moments, and continued with carving details of faces as they dried. At the end of a few years I had an exhibition of "Druidic Visages" at a New York gallery in Soho. Here was a new art-form, although one critic reminded the public that Norwegian carvers had been doing something like this for centuries. But mine were strange, there was a sort of wistfulness in the twisted eyes and mouth lines, probably a reflection of some of the secret ways I felt about myself, about my life and my fate.
It was this surprising success with the galleries which prompted the Dean to call me in one day, and after congratulating me weakly for my success in what he called "The Art World", he raised the question of whether I would not be happier employed in that world than in this one. Unsuspecting, I told him I was prepared for the next world as well as anyone, but that since I was in good health, for the time being proceeding to the other world could only be effected by suicide, which was against my religious principles. The Dean tried to laugh at what he took as a poor joke, but resumed the discussion on an academic and Departmental basis, thinking saving one salary and oncoming retirement benefits. Of course I corrected him right off, told him I was quite happy teaching my handfuls of excellent German students, sending them off the graduate school better prepared than those who came from the State U., and he should not worry about me, since I enjoyed life as it was.
Of course you cannot stop a Dean's line of thought with something as trivial as your personal enjoyment of life. He suggested that perhaps I was not as useful to the college as I could be, especially since I had stopped going to Faculty Meetings and never showed up at the Committee Meetings to which he had assigned me. The Faculty Meetings he could forgive, he admitted he disliked them too (I thought to myself because he was always the target for angry assaults on College Dictatorial Policies from the opposite party), but the Committees were another thing. That was (he said) where the real work of the college got done, and if I were to remain a tenured Faculty Member I would have to take my committee-work more seriously. I reminded him of a horse designed by a committee turning out looking more like a camel, at which he laughed as if he hadn't heard old joke that before. But he said he wanted to use the Committee stuff as way of "getting your salary up a bit", or in fact getting me all the way out of teaching.
That is when I began to think of suicide. I think it was right in the middle of a class when we were speaking of how well some German translations handled an English original. I had mentioned Voss' translation of Hamlet, and cited: "Sein oder nicht sein / Hier die Frage ist" as an exceptionally well translated line. I had become thoroughly tired of the slings and arrows of the outrageous Dean, who began in my mind to take on some of the twisted and grimacing features of my little burl carvings. Once the Dean's features began to make a regular appearance in the burls, the gallery couldn't get enough of them, and I was forced to carve more and more, beg the foresters for more leads to burly trees, and I finally even bought a small chainsaw so I could go out and slice them off to my heart's desire. One day I saw a burl on a tree which, untouched as it was, reminded me exactly of the Dean's contorted features , and I was surprised to find myself biting the chainsaw firmly into his face and leaving it on the tree as a permanent marker to his memory.
Suicide continued to permeate my thinking, but of course as a practicing Catholic it couldn't be taken seriously, and the idea was cleansed out monthly in the little dark closet talking with the priest who I believe didn't take me very seriously. (These academic types will do anything to get a rise out of the clergy!) No, I was not going to commit suicide and take a chance on the Church being right about eternal punishment, but I knew that the Church didn't have direct data over that place down there, so there might be room for a questionable point in theological doctrine after all. Yet suicide was never my thought, at least for myself. It was the Dean I was planning to commit suicide on.
In those days there was one nationally known medical doctor who had been going up and down upon the land doing suicide on grateful terminal patients who were in great pain. I immediately saw that he had the right idea, that you can think all about suicide and examine all the theology, from the toxic chemistry to the morality - - - and then work this obsession out on someone else. You get the satisfaction of a job very well done, but you can stay on to enjoy that satisfaction rather than count on being satisfied over on the other side. So I read all the accounts of this clever M.D. and his 'ethical' work, clipped the newspaper articles for my scrap book, and thought how I might do something like this just once, simply for my own personal satisfaction, and also rid the college and the world of a Dean in the last diagnosed stages of incapacitating Mental Ossification. I felt it was important to make a proper medical sounding diagnosis before doing this operation, since if I did get caught at it, it should look right and medical when reported in the papers. Much better to see in the morning paper RESPECTED DEAN TAKES LIFE rather than MAD PROFESSOR POISONS DEAN, so every possibly caution (I felt) should be taken to make it all come out right.
The Dean worked all hours, not taking off early or failing to be at his desk over the weekends, and even holidays were a good time for him to work at his mountains of unnecessary paperwork without fear of distraction. I knew by intuition as well as observation that on this upcoming Fourth of July he would be at his desk in the third floor office of Administrative Hall, working on into the evening and even into the dark when the fireworks were announced to be set off on campus. That was my chance, I knew, my golden chance to do it, do it firmly, do it decisively, and do it with a clear conscience. Nobody would hear the shot from the Walther pistol which an uncle had brought back as a war-trophy, a fortunate gun without a history and absolutely untraceable. I would come by his office just by chance, drop in to remark how we all admired his diligence and commitment to Academe, and offer to show him some new work I had been writing. "I have it here, in by briefcase, I'll leave it here and just take a look at it when you have a minute." Now I was producing the pistol and pointing it at his unbelieving chest, as he looked at me with the surprise a man would have when a hearing a worm talk to him and tell him what it was going to do. I would wait a few seconds to orchestrate the shot with the fireworks, wipe the gun clean with a handkerchief from my back pocket, put the firearm in his hand pressing firmly it against his fingers, and exit the office wiping the knobs as I went out. It was all laid out in precise detail, the way I told my students you have to translate a poem of Rilke, every nuance accounted for, every shading represented. Then and only then would you have a masterpiece.
I was running over this schedule a few days before the fateful event was to take place, thoroughly enjoying in anticipation the stages of the procedure with an almost religious fervor, when I suddenly felt the room swaying a little, followed by a sharp pain in my chest. I knew right away it was not indigestion, sat down for a while to review the situation, and some time later found myself waking in a very white and antiseptic hospital room. The doctor was friendly and told me this was nothing to worry about, multiple bypass surgery was so common and successful these days that most people felt it was more like a checkup than an operation, and he smiled unctuously. He said four weeks and I would be up and about, feeling like a new man and able to get on with my work and my life. But what about my well thought out plans, would I be up about for the Fourth of July celebrations? I waited a moment before speaking to the doctor, and on further consideration I thought better about discussing my quandary.
So here I was a few months later, well recovered from the bypass surgery of last year and feeling much more energetic than I had felt for a long while. The world seemed more open, more amicable somehow, it was springtime and for some reason the air had the kind of bright fragrance which I hadn't noticed since my undergrad days at Leverett House, a smell which seemed especially pungent after a short springtime shower. They told me I should get regular exercise, so I learned to follow medical instructions at last. I bought a ten speed bicycle from one of my graduating majors, and am enjoying cruising around the campus observing life and the living. I still carve burls, there seems to be no end of a long list of buyers waiting two years for one of my grotesqueries. They have been reviewed in a number of Art Journals as something unique if slightly disturbing.
I had been reading a fascinating book by an anthropologist on voodoo in Haiti, and was especially interested in the ubiquitous use of social cups of coffee used to transport unsuspecting souls from this world to that one by aids of a variety of poisonous extracts, some of which leave no trace in the body upon autopsy. Things had got to a point that even when visiting a distinguished expert on voodoo theology, it was recommended never to touch a cup of coffee if you had left the table to look out the window or to go to the bathroom. And always watch the host drink first, that was basic common sense down there in Haiti, it seemed. At that point I saw an end of my problem with the Dean. I could invite him to an evening party with a group of my graduating senior Major students, we would all have a drink first, then a hearty dinner followed by a few minutes of speechmaking about the College and its purpose, and then to cap the evening off, what would be more suitable than a little cup of expresso? The semester was nearing the end, graduation was the next week, so this seemed like a perfect time for my little experiment in academic extermination.
So it was in a confident mood late one Friday afternoon, when all the wearied and belabored Committee professors were filing out of the Administrative Hall, heading in their doldrums for home with a little happy hour relief, that I parked my bicycle by the old stone wall, and energetically headed up the two flights of well worn wooden steps to the office in which I knew I would find behind a mountain of papers, the very Dean whom I sought. He looked older and slightly shrunken, perhaps a little more like one of my carved burls, and was apparently mellowing with the years, since he held out a hand of welcome and invited me to sit down and have a chat.
He mentioned that after all those years of doing academic paperwork for the college, he felt he needed to reconnect with his doctoral studies in Anthropology, and was going to take his leave the following year and pick up some of the work he had done on concepts of life and death in Haiti. That would also be a nice vacation, lovely warm climate down there and a chance to talk with people who knew far more than he knew when he wrote his Doctoral Thesis on social structure in the island. There were things we really didn't understand, calling it magic and voodoo didn't explain the underlying practices, and there would be much for him to learn.
Every office in Academe has a coffee machine, he poured a cup for me and one for himself, but first I took a deep breath and went over to the window to look over the campus where we both and spent such a great part of our lives. Down there on the well kept green lawn which was manicured into a virtual turf, students in bright splashes of color were meandering, books under arms and some hand in hand, some on a bench idly dreaming about an evening party with fun and beer and gaiety. I stood a while until the Dean said something which brought me back to the coffee table and the coffee. He had a little cup of espresso in his hand, raised it to me as if in the gesture of a toast, a virtual prosit, and pointed genially to my cup on the other side of the coffee table, Coffee!
For some unthinkable reason, I stared at the black fluid for a few seconds, suddenly stood up and started for the door reminding myself that I had a student waiting at my office. So sorry, I have to go, must be getting forgetful, I used to be much more careful about such things. But I will drop by again sometime and we can continue our little chat. But you know, coffee actually doesn't really agree with me these days......