Cloister Commentary, Day 81: Beaumont Noir

As both of our schools (I will actually be negotiating three) edge toward a decision on how they will open in the fall and Covid-19 cases rapidly increase in our locality, Nicole and I are struggling to appreciate each present moment. Part of that increase is due to a barrage of testing we participated in last week, but nonetheless the phenomenon is not a comfort, and it’s just the truth that we will all only be able to control our own responses to the work environments we re-enter. Maybe it’s best to remind ourselves it’s still a marathon, not nearly a sprint, and to reach the fall in strong mind, body and spirit, fortified by not neglecting the moments between, is the right set of actions. I hope I can be disciplined enough.

As always, in times of stress, we turned to deviled eggs. Amazingly, I did not eat all 16 yesterday: eight sriracha, eight wasabi. But I think we’re down to less than half.

Quivering, shivering deviled eggs trying to hide in the fridge.

I am so encouraged by the change already being brought about by our citizens’ constant protest pressure. It is inspiring. At the same time, though I am pro-union, I worry about the defiance soon to be mounted by police unions led by humans who have no interest in change but do have an interest in maintaining a culture of impunity for demonstrably dangerous police officers. There is only one way that kind of leadership can be changed.

If you’re seeking out detective fiction with strong, complex female characters (and at least one reasonably tolerable male one), may I direct you to the “Beaumont noir” of Lisa Sandlin‘s Delpha Wade and Tom Phelan novels? At present, there are two, though I’ve been apprised that Sandlin has a new one in the chute. Phelan is a war veteran and former oil rig worker who sets up as a P. I. in that strange Texas town; Wade, freshly released from prison at 32 after 14 years on a questionable murder charge–she killed someone, but–is, almost by fate, Phelan’s first hire. She’s his secretary, but she’s the more intuitive and observant detective, and she soon transcends that job and mesmerizes her “boss.” Sandlin’s deftness and wit with dialogue, plot, characterization and local color are truly amazing, and she’s fearless, funny and earthy. Compulsively readable, the first is The Do-Right, the second is The Bird Boys. Thanks to Beaumont’s own Frissell Boys for leading me to them. I think Sandlin is a genius.$

Streaming for Strivers:

This came up in my YouTube feed, and like a virus I must infect you.

George Frissell, Obfuscation Abjured

George

George Frissell in his sartorial prime. (Photo by Wally Pfeffer)

George Frissell was the griot of Columbia, Missouri’s Hickman High School. When he retired in 2013, and especially when he passed away on May 14, 2020, he took a truckful of stories and 100 terabytes of institutional memory with him. Most of us look to distinguish ourselves in some way; George distinguished himself in too many ways to efficiently keep track of, to which his official obituary and a recent op-ed attest (note that the authors forgot one of his most important of many honors bestowed on him by his community, a “Columbia Values Diversity” award). The high school class he created and taught the hell out of even inspired a popular ongoing podcast that will keep his passion alive.

George and I had been fast friends almost from the moment I began working at Hickman. I’d looked up to him from afar for awhile–he was ten years my senior and very confident–but one unusual moment broke the ice for us. A new teacher was being introduced to the faculty at an all-school meeting, and when given a chance to speak, she mentioned that she was a devout Roman Catholic. I was sitting about 10 feet away and said, not fully under my breath, “Welcome to Hell!” Metaphorically, I was referring to the academic competitiveness among teachers, but judging by the seconds of silence that followed my remark, I was understood differently. But the stillness was broken by someone’s helpless laughter rolling in from behind me: George’s. From that moment, in the words of Bruce Springsteen, who’s always valued camaraderie, we “swore / forever friends.”

When our pal and peer Hank Landry called and told me George had passed, I learned the meaning of shock. Once that sunk in, I hugged Nicole and we bawled. Then we went on a long drive and cranked some of George’s favorite music, and in the midst we could see from social media the news was spreading virally–this truly was a man who was loved by many, many thousands. We returned home, and I truly had no choice but to speak on his passing on my Facebook wall:

I’m in a bit of shock tonight because one of the very best friends and colleagues I’ve ever had, George Frissell, passed away unexpectedly today. He was 68 going on 28, one helluva piquant breakfast conversationalist, and hands down the most inspiring teacher across these dismal decades that I’ve ever known. When Nicole and I moved to Columbia in 1990, he immediately made us feel extraordinarily welcome, and he’s been a constant source of joy in our lives ever since (and will continue to be til I die). George drove three and a half hours to attend our wedding, and by choice of an inside pew position is in almost every picture. That’s the kind of guy he was.

I often functioned as George’s tout. I always asked my students at Hickman if they’d scheduled or already taken his legendary classical ideas and world religions class; if they said no, I considered failing them. When I transferred to Smithton Middle School, I admit to having brainwashed vulnerable 6th and 7th graders into taking him when they got to Hickman. He changed minds, and lives. Hell, I wanted to take the g-d class and I was an adult.

You may not believe me, but eff off if you don’t: my grief is nothing compared to the storm of thousands of students whom he encouraged to think outside the box, and to learn broadly. To those thousands, I say: you know many, many ways to think about and respond to death, and I ask you to pass this test today and in the coming days. You have the tools.

I am a bit too wrecked by this shock-sadness-anger-acceptance-staring into space-laughter cycle to go on much longer, but Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ this guy was layered: an athlete, a scholar, a gambler, a bawd, a monad, a teacher, a student, a prankster, a devotee. He might have had a reputation in the eyes of some of being a hippie, a “mere” liberal, but he was an extremely tough-minded humanist with the highest expectations of himself and others. We should all be so multifaceted.

I’m pissed he got snatched by The Reaper, but he’d want me to be smiling. I texted him last night; I was missing sports, I was watching “Bullet” Bob Hayes highlights on YouTube, and I remembered a hero of my prepubescence: Warren Wells. I realized that, in this age of tech, I’d never looked up why he suddenly disappeared from the NFL after a few all-star years. When I went to Wells’ Wiki page, I noticed he was born and had died in George’s hometown of Beaumont, Texas. My immediate text message went thusly: “When you hear the name ‘Warren Wells,’ what’s your reaction?” I would have called, but the wuss goes to bed early. When I awakened at 5 this morning, I checked my phone and saw his 10:45 (?) reply: “I knew Warren Wells. They were scared of him in the Pear Orchard. I’ll call you tomorrow.” He was the kind of guy you could talk to about Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha, Lightnin’ Hopkins or…Warren Wells–they don’t make many of them these days, do they, Lee [his brother]? I texted him this morning to tell me a good time and I’d call him, but he stepped on a rainbow before he could do so. I’m a materialist, and don’t go for that spiritual crap, but why did Nicole get a copy of Tricycle right around noon.

Facebook is insufficient to represent George: he really did contain multitudes, and thus I will post the Classical Ideas and World Religion theme songs below. I raise a skull-shaped shot glass of tequila to you this evening–you cannot be replaced, but I will try to extend your strivings through my own doings. I love you, bud.

George’s sudden death had blown a hole in me big enough to float the Dark Star through. Partly just to hold him in this world, partly to let those who didn’t know him see what they’d missed, partly to fight anger and sorrow, I shared an amusing story about him on Facebook the next day. After reading it, a former student, student teacher, and peer of George’s asked me to give her and the rest of the large audience who did know him a story a day. I figured I could do that for a week, and I barely made it. What follows are the seven stories together, in chronological order, beginning with a May 15th entry the day after George’s departure from material form.

I: Free P—y

For over twenty years, George sponsored the Hickman High School chapter of Amnesty International, an organization dedicated to freeing prisoners of conscience worldwide (including the U. S.). On principle, George expected students to choose a case they were interested in (unfortunately, there are always many to support), then at meetings, together, they’d conduct a learn-in and write letters to the powers that be, demanding the prisoners’ release. Yeah–I didn’t stutter! How cool is that for a high school club?

Anyway, one year, the club members chose to support the Russian political activists and sometime-music makers represented by the shirt I’m wearing in the pic below. Of course, George green-lighted it. The problem was, he was uncomfortable saying the group’s name, so he turned to the obvious person to guest-lead the discussion: me. I jumped at the opportunity and we had a great time. I’m pretty sure I wrote a letter myself, and we watched several of the group’s “actions” via video.

Fast-forward a few months, and George appeared at my door with a gift; he never traveled anywhere without returning with gifts for friends. And leave it to him to buy me a shirt that is difficult for a professional to wear in public! I’ve only done so once…

When George was retiring from Hickman, his current and former students and fellow teachers wanted to celebrate him in the school commons with a surprise gathering. I, too, was retiring (desperadoes waiting on a train), so I wore the shirt in his honor–what were they gonna do, fire me? The local paper showed up to cover the event, and snapped some photos, including one where I was in the frame that, if memory serves, landed on the front page.

I was wearing a dress shirt over the t-shirt; I should have worn it under the t-shirt, in Frissellian fashion, but I wasn’t that bold. In the photo, the only verbiage visible was the first two words of the demand. I never heard anything about it, but George and I wept with laughter over it later.

In hindsight, I suspect he feigned discomfort just to maneuver me into an amusing position.

Free Pussy

Not the easiest shirt to sport if you’re a professional.

 

II: The Trip to Champa’s

My very good friend and a bright educational light, MacKenzie Everett-Kennedy, has requested I share a story a day about our recently deceased friend George Frissell, and I will try to sustain that for a week. Believe me, it’s hard right now–but it is also a joy. If you didn’t see yesterday’s, it involved some piquantly named Russian political activists. If you didn’t know George, you would have wanted to.

One thing for which George was justly famous is his having (annually, for years) brought a Tibetan Buddhist monk, Champa Lhunpo, to speak to his classical ideas and world religions students at Hickman High School. One thing for which George was justly infamous was being a, shall we say, distracted driver. On one fine Sunday in our lives, these two distinctions joined.

Typically always thinking of others, George was going to Kansas City to visit Champa’s temple (the Rime Buddhist Center) and thought we might want to come along. Nicole and I jumped at the opportunity; I had met Champa briefly but had never heard him speak, nor had either of us attended a Buddhist service. A beat or two after excitedly accepting his invite, we realized George would be driving, and the potential for terror loomed. He had a great sense of humor about this–he realized he was like Jordan Baker behind the wheel–but I honestly think it was an extension of his vast, intricate, eccentric, and tightly organized mind. I don’t think he could ever JUST simply drive, if that makes sense. He was too nice to have invited us for us to offer to drive (check that: insist upon driving), so we accepted the risk.

We were pretty deep in discussion and anticipation on the way up to Kansas City, so our attention was (mostly) focused away from the side-to-side drifting and gravel from the shoulder spitting up from under the car’s wheels. We actually picked Champa up at his home to take him to the service, which was wonderfully educational and uplifting, and took him out to eat in downtown KC afterwards. But then, as we started to take Champa home, a torrential rain descended upon us.

You know that labyrinthic highway exchange involving I-70 and I-35 in the center of the city? It’s tricky if you know where you’re going and you’re an accomplished driver. I am talking thick sheets of water–and George did not even seem to give the rain the right of recognition. I swear I saw a flicker of fear in Champa’s eye! We got him home safely, but I was almost resentful of him that we had another 90 minutes of motorized madness ahead of us.

Open up YouTube, and just type the following into its search engine: “Annie Hall Christopher Walken driving scene” (I’ve helpfully provided it below). Click on the first thing that comes up, and, if you subtract the Walken character’s suicidal tendencies and add George’s carefree, blissful ignorance of the dangerous conditions, you have a fairly good approximation of what our return trip was like. At times–often checking on Susie, to whom he was deeply devoted, via cell–he seemed to be actually pointing the car at the ditch, and his lack of concern about “shoulder driving” is well-known among friends he’s transported vehicularly. Beware riding shotgun with a man who has deeply internalized the impermanence of existence!

We returned safely, but I believe we immediately, hands shaking, poured a drink when we walked in the door. The thing is, though, with George one always had much less difficulty being in the moment and feeling alive–he never had much time for filler. I’m just happy I’m here to report that fact. Bottom line: we will never forget “The Trip to Champa’s.” (I wish we had a picture with George in it, but of course he was taking the pictures.)

Trip to Champas

(left to right: Champa Lhunpo, Nicole Overeem, the author)

 

III: East – West

A fellow English teacher and cat lover, MacKenzie Everett-Kennedy, has asked me to share a story each day for a week about our recently departed friend George Frissell. I’ve agreed–the joy is greater than the pain–and this is Day 3.

George created and brilliantly taught a classical ideas and world religions course at Hickman, so brilliantly (and so fairly) that his students always wanted to know HIS belief system. He pledged that if they came back and had coffee with him after graduation, he’d tell them, and, to my knowledge, he stuck to that to the end. However, he was not above using the mystery to mess with folks’ minds. Case in point…

One day in the late ’90s, George and I were having lunch in Brady Commons over at Mizzou, waiting for a multicultural studies class we were both taking to start. We both had bought a bag of chips and opened them. I was explaining something to him (probably about Elvis Presley) when, keeping his beady snake eyes focused on me, he reached over, grabbed some of my chips, and calmly ate them right in front of me. He hadn’t even eaten his own–nor had I even had one (OF MY OWN). If the scene had played out in a movie, I would have pinned his hand to the table with a dagger; in this case, I didn’t even address the infraction, and possibly only registered a millisecond of incomprehension (which I’m sure he detected). Why?

I never once asked George what his belief system was. I am not religious myself, and I figured if he wanted to share, he would. But I, like anyone with a brain who knew him, suspected he leaned to the East. And unlike a lot of people who claim a religion, he seemed to live devotedly by such tenets. Which is why, as I watched him grinding MY chips into dust, I asked myself: “Is he putting my Western inclination toward attachment and acquisitiveness to the test to make a point?” Yes, I actually thought that. And kept thinking it when, on a morning he bumped into my parents and us at Ron’s Country Breakfast Bunker, he baldly took a piece of bacon off my plate and crunched it while I was bragging on him to them. And kept thinking it when, as we dined on his famous Thai chicken once over at his house, he reached across the table, pressed his fingers against a little island of rice on the corner of my plate, and air-lifted it into his mouth. Strangely, not only was I silent in these cases (though by this point in time stewing), but no one else said anything, either!

I kept it to myself until one day I entertained a group of peers in the Hickman teachers lounge by re-enacting those scenarios. After the spewing of drinks, my friends were equally incredulous. Why did this gentle, unselfish, polite, highly evolved soul insist on being a grub-pilferer? Was he indeed trying to reveal me as a possession-driven culinary skinflint and demonstrate the superiority of the middle path?

Finally, George got his comeuppance. I was asked to speak at his 60th birthday party, which was attended mostly by close friends, family, and long-time colleagues. After landing a few easy jokes about his intense dedication to cargo pants and his loose relationship with his most important keys, I moved in for the kill:

“Who among you has watched your own extra crispy bacon eaten in front of you, sans permission, by the guest of honor?”

I was not surprised when multiple hands shot up.

“Who among those suspects that the guest of honor has been using our respect for his Eastern leanings to feed his face?”

I don’t remember any hands raised. What I remember is a sea of initially puzzled faces that ever so gradually morphed into nodding heads.

The last time George hoisted a fork of my eggs to his hungry lips, he asked to try them first.

(See George’s and my “Breakfast Meditation” series, which begins right here. The damn Reaper just stomped it.)

Cafe Berlin

George and I at Cafe Berlin in Columbia.

 

IV. A Rock and Roller

This is Day 4 (of 7) in a sharing of stories from my friendship with George Frissell, as requested by his former student teacher and current master educator and feline facilitator MacKenzie Everett-Kennedy. George recently stepped on a 🌈, and it’s painful but ultimately helpful and joyful to recall how many fascinating things he was.

He was a rock and roller. He was raised in Beaumont, Texas, just outside The Pine Curtain, in the stomping grounds of George Jones and the Winter brothers (their mom was an English instructor at his school, Edgar was his Sunday school teacher, and his brother Lee ran with Johnny), and in the fertile heart of zydeco and blues country. I’m not given much to envy, but George actually laid eyes on Lightnin’ Hopkins.

Rock and roll first linked us. When I first started working at Hickman, I was a smidge intimidated, but I quickly met a (then-) longhair with a slight forward lean to his walk who insisted on always shaking my hand in the hall. I intuited that he had the great shakin’ fever in his veins, sounded him out, and discovered he was a bit of an Anglophile–he actually owned a copy of the legendary “Butcher’s Block” version of The Beatles’ Yesterday and Today. Lee reported to me recently as we were discussing George’s obituary that George had immediately called him to say that a rock and roll fanatic had joined the faculty, but was “insufficiently knowledgeable and excited about The British Invasion.” He always set a high bar. Nonetheless, as was his wont with folks, he dubbed me Hickman’s “PhD in rock and roll by fiat.”

bad_peel

The infamous “Butcher’s Block” cover. George’s copy had been papered over with the new (and current) but much less cool cover shot, which also flowed into the “Paul is dead” urban myth. See more in the link in the paragraph above.

George was a dedicated gift giver, and wherever he went he was on the lookout for anything rock and roll-themed he could bring me (see the pic). Past the point where I actually was, he considered me the ultimate Elvis fan and authority, and we actually sat and twice watched together the entire uncut eight-hour bootleg rough draft of This is Spinal Tap that our shared student Josh Slates (now a film director and auuteur himself). had scored for us. The ultimate extracurricular sponsor, he encouraged me to create a Spinal Tap club with two students we shared, Aaron Seibert and Regan Schoengarth. The three of us met and wrote a test that interested students would have to pass to become members, one that was never taken but that we shed tears of laughter writing in the old Gold Room.

Students of George’s classical ideas course had no choice but to memorize Van Morrison’s “Brown-Eyed Girl” (the opening guitar figure would have been his lead-in had he been invited on Letterman), The Byrds’ Ecclesiastical “Turn, Turn, Turn,”and The Melodians’ multilayered reggae classic, “The Rivers of Babylon.” The last thing I ever bought George was Lloyd Bradley’s Bass Culture, a book I felt he needed because he was worried–at 68!!!–that he wasn’t sharp enough on Rastafarianism and reggae.)

George was Hickman’s longtime Quiz Bowl master, and once prevailed upon me to collaborate with him on a rock and roll version that he hoped would serve as an annual fundraiser. The first and only one was a classic, wasn’t it, Sadie and Bill? My questions may have priced us out of the business.

George lived in a way that he had few regrets, but one of them I remember well. Mini-KISS was playing in Boonville, I think, and he called me breathing heavily and wanting to go. We are both very dedicated to having fun with our spouses whenever possible, and we ended up talking ourselves out of it. Many times, out of the brief silences that occasionally visited our times together, he’d look at me and say, “Why didn’t we go to Mini-KISS?” Later, when we had an opportunity to see Texas country master Ray Price at The Isle of Lucy, I mean Capri, in Boonville, I got us tickets without discussion and we had a great double-date.

When my student Dave Kemper, his friend Dylan Raithel, and I founded The Academy of Rock at Hickman (for me, partly under the sway of George’s influence), George instantly employed us to provide live rock and roll for his Amnesty International club’s fundraisers, which he’d been doing already for over a decade ago. Just a month ago, he was still raving about local legend Witch’s Hat’s performance at one, and he gave many Hickman student bands the opportunity to woodshed and entertain their peers. Raise your hand if you played an Amnesty show!

I was talking to his daughter Melody a few days ago, and she fondly recalled the night, she, her friend Ryan Matticker, George, his wife Susie, Nicole and I “broke in” to Hickman to eat treats and watch a documentary about Texas rock and roll giant Roky Erickson in my classroom (this was when it was cool to project movies on smart boards, if it ever was). We didn’t exactly break in, as George and I both had the keys to damn near everything back then, but Melody told me she felt excitingly like a criminal being one of the only ones in the school that night, and as such had a blast. We all did. If you don’t know Roky, well, it’s a tribute to how deep a fan George was. And by the way? Good luck finding that documentary today.

Before school had opened a few years George and I retired from Hickman but were both teaching there part time, I came in early on a work day to get a head start in organizing my room and writing my first unit. A bit groggy, I unlocked the door, slouched behind my desk for a bit, started thinking about a good quote to write on the board–then peered over to the space where I’d be writing the quote at a surprise. This poster was taped up in that space, with the accompanying message scrawled to its right:

Crue

 

 

 

Satan's Anus

 

 

I knew the scrawl well (I cannot replicate it, as it resembled a disturbed soul’s), and came from around my desk to fold my arms, chuckle, admire it, when from behind me someone boomed, “Mr. Overeem, am I catching you at a bad time?” I wheeled to find the new principal also standing with arms folded, contemplating the display himself.

“Um, yes, must have been a prankster did that,” I reasoned nervously. Yes, a prankster in cargo pants.

Months later, due to budget cuts and enrollment numbers, this same principal contacted us both, telling us he would have to decide which of the two of us would stay the following year, since both of couldn’t. I volunteered to go, not wanting visions of pentagrams to be further associated with me in his mind.

Our last real rock and roll escapade happened when Johnny Winter came to The Blue Note shortly before Johnny passed. George called me, begging me to go with him to a meet-and-greet being held at Slackers. He was 10 years my senior, but I felt like I was taking my little nephew to the fair. Standing in line, he snatched up multiple Winter CDs, and as we inched closer to the blues great, I worried that George was going to throw the folks ahead of us aside to quicken the process, but when he finally came face to face with Johnny, he asked him if he remembered his senior English teacher back in the Beaumont days–to George’s everlasting glee, he said, “Yes, Mrs. Frissell.” George’s mom had taught both Johnny and his brother Edgar when they were 12th graders. Winter wasn’t in great shape for the show, but George couldn’t quit reminding me that Trevor Judkins, the guitarist for the opening band and a Hickman grad, had played an Amnesty benefit.

George and Johnny

George and Johnny Winter at Slacker’s in Columbia, Missouri.

 

Nicole and I drove around sadly and aimlessly the afternoon just after George died, blasting his faves and tearfully singing along. My only real regret as an educator was that I never was able to create a rock and roll class to run parallel to Classical Ideas and World Religions–but that’s the difference, really, between George and the rest of us.

To everything, turn, turn, turn…

God of Rock

Just a few of the gifts that George snagged for me (his brother Lee got me the tie).

V. A Lesson After Dying

“New Generation” teacher MacKenzie Everett-Kennedy has charged me with remembering our dear friend George Frissell, who’s gone to meet Elvis, with a story a day for seven days. This is Day 5. I hope they’re helping you with the pain, because they’re helping me.

This story is about a book.

George is famous for having taught Classical Ideas and World Religions at Hickman, but he was also (despite his unsteady spelling, proficiency at which is the bragging right of the conformist, anyway) a terrific language arts teacher. He taught senior English for several years of his career, and during the rowdy but wonderful early ’90s in Kewpieville practiced it through the ancient art of the adepts, CWC.

During the last quarter-mile of our careers, George and I found ourselves in a professional development group of 12th grade teachers. He had happily moved beyond being asked to lead; I had only recently accepted that mantle, and in this case had been asked to facilitate, in a harbinger of questionable things to come, the alignment of our practice. In this group were two teachers who absolutely despised each other and could be less than charming in the best of situations, and one who had a talent for micromanaging a collaborative conversation into a Sisyphean endeavor. Every time we met as a group, I watched through narrowed eyes as George’s eyes twinkled to see me struggling in vain to establish harmony and make progress. He’d earned that privilege.

We were trying to agree on materials to use, and I’d suggested a novel by Ernest Gaines titled A Lesson Before Dying. I’d used it with sophomores, but argued it would be even more effective with seniors. I pleaded eloquently, I thought, but to no avail, and the meeting ended as usual, with me feeling a total failure. George sidled up to me in the hall and said, “I’ll try that book! Fuck ’em!”

I should have known George would buy in. I didn’t really realize it then, but it struck many Frissellian chords: set in his birth state (Louisiana, in Cajun country near Baton Rouge), it examines capital punishment (which he stringently opposed), exposes the virulence of racism and unjust incarceration, follows the classical bildungsroman pattern (such an ugly word for a beautiful thing), and reserves an important place for music at its core. Also, as a young teacher in Baeumont, George had taught, coached, and sponsored (a chess club) in a traditionally African American school, Hebert. We had to wait until the next year to launch the unit, but George attacked it with characteristic passion, verve, and innovation.

George at Hebert

George with his students at Hebert High School in Beaumont, Texas.

I remember him bursting into my room to say, “Hey, did you know there’s an audiobook for this?” I’d barely assented, it seems, before he’d purchased a copy for us to share, and not with department money. Readers of the book know that the first-person narrative shifts for only one chapter from a teacher in a segregated 1948 school to his former student, who is days away from being electrocuted by the state. The student’s chapter is in epistolary form (a page from a journal the teacher has labored to convince him to keep), and it is too linguistically difficult and heart-rending for most teachers to read aloud–which it must be if a classroom is going to fully enjoy it and appreciate its sheer power. George instinctively understood this, and we played the recording of that chapter religiously every year we taught it, to great effect. He also dug in and found an HBO adaptation of the book, and brainstormed an analytical writing assignment for us, asking students to detect and support shifts in meaning between the two accounts. You might also notice that both of these innovations adapted the content for a range of learning styles.

I began to feel pressure to keep up with the dang guy! I’d taught it for many years but he was the one performing as if he had the experience. I was able to add one feature to our unit: the condemned character gradually reaches a key moment of understanding through the teacher’s gift of a radio, which the jailers only grudgingly allow the kid. At night in his cell, he listens to WLAC out of Nashville (now a crappy talk radio outlet), and the legendary DJs John R and Randy Wood, who introduced thousands of listeners to the glory of rhythm and blues. It’s a relatively small detail in the book unless you know the mass of the iceberg under the surface, so I ripped CDs for us to play that approximated what a WLAC show would sound like. Muddy Waters, Louis Jordan, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Champion Jack Dupree, The Pilgrim Travelers, Hank Williams, too–where else were our students going to get that exposure? We used the playlist as background for their class time reading of the chapter, gave them each a menu of the artists and songs, and asked them to respond in writing to their favorites. It took George’s enthusiasm and influence to move me in that direction, and of course I frequently muttered to myself–a well-worn teacher mutter–“Why didn’t I think of that earlier?!!”

This song, by the intense Julius Cheeks-led gospel group, played a key role in our teaching of the book. It deals with Christ’s hauling the cross through throngs of degraders, a moment the teacher in the novel tries to get the condemned kid to connect with his own dilemma.

George and I shared many books over the years, but A Lesson Before Dying occupies a special place in our friendship. I can’t count the number of times we referred to it in our casual conversations about other subjects. It’s about time for me to re-read it, and I suggest you sample it if you haven’t.

 

Lesson

One HELL of a good book. Read it if you haven’t.

VI. Never Trust a Man Who Doesn’t Love Animals

My friend MacKenzie Everett-Kennedy asked me to spin a historical tale about the departed George Frissell every day for seven days. This is Day 6; soon I hope to edit them together so those who may have missed some can catch up.

A cultural icon I admire, Humphrey Bogart, once said (or I’d like to think he said), “Never trust a man who doesn’t drink.” Considering George, who I only occasionally saw quaff a single libation at a sitting (except that time he fell in love with Nicole’s sangria), he was eminently trustworthy. For him, though, the quote should be changed thusly:

“Never trust a man who doesn’t love animals.”

George did. He loved the smaller things at least as much as he loved us big things, and that would be very much. The roll call through the years of pets that occupied my lap when we visited him is evocative: Pixie, Leaf, Beyoncé, the immortal Baby Boy, Parker, Mia, and Jack are some who come to mind. To the end, though Jack was a danger to any squirrel who dared passage through George and Susie’s back yard, he was making sure those pesky but cute rodents were sheltered and well-fed–he had many bags of nuts in storage for that purpose.

Two great pet-related memories of George involve our rescue dog Louis. A border collie who experienced extreme trauma straight out of the womb right up to adoption, his behaviors can be unpredictable. One summer, when Louis was a pup, George dropped by to plan the 1st (and only) Annual Rock and Roll Quiz Bowl at our kitchen table. George was sporting flip-flops, and Louis immediately began licking his toes and ankles. Horrified, Nicole and I sprung into action, but George waved as back into our seats–it wasn’t bothering him! We both can vividly remember that periodically, during our brainstorming, George would suddenly sit bolt upright and burst into a surprised, almost gleeful, “Woah!” The last time we would ever walk Stephens Lake Park together, George impulsively reached down several times to pet Louis (never a recommended approach), but Louis trotted on, tongue lolling out happily. To that dog, he was blessed among humans.

I cannot tell you how many cities we have vacationed in (New Orleans and Seattle are notable ones) where my phone has pinged and I have been greeted with a selfie of George sitting on our couch caressing our complicatedly sweet ‘n’ sour tabby Cleocatra, who loved loved loved her some George. He watched our cats so many times when we traveled that I began to express feelings of guilt, to which he always replied simply, “I love cats.” He never did get to meet Spirit and Junior, who are a little scared of strangers. Their loss!

Anyone who’s known George for long knows he was always available to you in times of stress and sorrow. In 2013, Nicole and I were living with her mother-in-law Lynda, helping her in her battle with brain cancer. George and Susie checked on us and raised our spirits several times, and when we realized that, upon Linda’s passing and because of Louis’ volatility, we could not keep her faithful dog Jack, they unhesitatingly stepped in to give him a loving home. Only Jack has appeared in more selfies with George than Cleo–I will miss their picture-of-the-week. I talked to George and Susie’s daughter Melody yesterday, and in her playfully ironic, understated way, she told me one question that’s currently circulating the house is, “Who’s going to love Jack now?”

I know that many of you are honestly wondering what you’re going to do without George. I know I am. But let’s take a moment to reach out to the current and future furry folks who will also be missing out on his kindness. They were trusting he’d be here today.

I don’t know this monkey’s story.

Monkey

Sexyman George and friend in Costa Rica

VII. Beginnings and an Ending

 

I’m grateful to my fellow teacher MacKenzie Everett-Kennedy for charging me with sharing a story a day for a week about George Frissell, who passed away a week–a week?–ago today. It has helped me grieve healthily. In turn, I present a challenge: I would like each former student of his who reads this to do something for us–share a classroom story, tag me, MacKenzie, Susie, and George in it, and (at your will) make it public. So many (including me) never sat in on a Frissellian lesson in Room 230, and you can give us a taste.

I will close this series with a reflection on beginnings and endings.

Yesterday, on a walk, Nicole and I talked about the first and last things we experienced in person with George. He was one of the first new friends we made when we arrived in Columbia 30 years ago, and he wasted no time introducing us to its glories. One night he invited us to eat at Bangkok Gardens, then across from The Blue Note on 9th Street, only a few blocks from our very, very humble digs on Hubbell, and still one of our favorite restaurants. Neither of us had eaten Thai food before; I remember he implored me to try the coconut curry chicken, which we both ordered and wolfed down. Nicole wore a dress to dinner, which he nicely complimented. I am sure he educated us entertainingly about Thailand’s monarchy, and if memory serves, he introduced us to both the proprietor and the main chef. We’d walked, so after dinner George asked us if we wanted to go for a brief saunter at a neat spot. He drove us over to Capen Park, where we hiked up to a quietly majestic bluff and looked out over woods and river in contemplation–we will be returning there soon. Many of you will attest this is a familiar kind of night with George, but we had no way of knowing it then.

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The blogger at that spot in Capen Park.

On March 11 of this year, Nicole and I met him for our final time at Love Coffee, an enterprise with Hickman ties that George could not wait to try and all three of us were thrilled to support. When we walked in, George had already found us a table, and as we approached with hands extended (of course), he met us with a fist, our first bump of the pandemic. We shot the bull about national and local politics, tried every kind of pastry the shop was offering, I think I’d brought him my copy of the Missourian (he rightly cherished the political cartoons of John Darkow, and often clipped them for people), and we promised to make the spot a regular early morning stop.

In the weeks between then and last Thursday, we frequently talked on the phone (the last time about Little Richard’s demise), and (maybe on that same day) he borrowed my old Ranger for one more hauling job. Because of The Crap, I just left the keys in it, so he could grab it, go, and return it without us having to endanger each other. Missed opportunities. I did put a greatest hits collection by Beaumont’s George Jones in the CD player, but I’ll never know if he cranked it up.

Yesterday, as I was struggling to figure out how to end this series, someone suggested I write about what kind of human George really was. I feel I’ve been doing that, but there is this: George inspired you to be like him, but if you actually set about trying to do so, you’d better pack a lunch, as they say. If you wanted to help save lives, were you prepared to be the Wayne Gretzky of platelet donors? If you wanted to help the homeless and houseless, were you prepared to spend a night–more than one, every winter–with them at Room At The Inn? If you wanted to be more devoted to your family, were you prepared to move your ailing mother next door to care for her to her last days? If you wanted to succeed at betting the over-under, were you prepared to devote yourself to deep dives into mathematics and sports statistics? If you wanted to support your school, were you prepared to enthusiastically attend football, basketball, baseball, volleyball and softball games? If you wanted to get up early enough in the morning to fool George, were you prepared to set your alarm for 4:30 am?

It’s a facile, mashed-together quotes-grab from a work he prized, but it fits: “He was a man, take him for all in all…I shall not look upon his like again.” Good night, sweet prince, from a guy who only strove to be your cut-rate Horatio.

Love Coffee

Hello–and goodbye–from Love Coffee.