On contemplating the death of a high school teacher

Mostly I remember the thermos and the pipe.

He kept both in the storage room behind the massive black slate counter that sat at the front of the chemistry classroom. A big man with reddish-brown hair that hinted a Scotch-Irish ancestry, he towered behind that counter when he taught, frequently using the overhead projector to illustrate chemical formulae — compositions of molecules and thermodynamic equations. During breaks or between classes, he would step into the storage room for a cup of warm coffee from the thermos or a draw on his briar pipe.

His father had been a chemist before him and worked for one of the industrial giants. He hinted that at one time his dad had made a number of discoveries in the company laboratories, discoveries which remained with the firm and for which he received little recognition — monetary or otherwise. This was a source of great consternation for him.

He had done a stint in the army early in life, as was the case with many young men of that era, and served in Korea. After discharge, he remained in the reserve, serving with a unit at Fort Indiantown Gap. The additional income came in handy for a family of six, and at some point in one of our conversations he confided in me that staying on in the military helped to keep him young.

He and his young wife bought a big old home near the center of Linglestown, which I visited on occasion when I was home on leave from the service. As I recall, the big white house had an expansive back yard with a small orchard of sorts. We spent an evening in conversation over a bottle of Chivas Regal which I had brought as a gift. The bottle didn’t last the night. I ended up sleeping over on the couch, none the worse for a time of extended discussion.

One evening while I was still in high school we attended some sort of educational dinner sponsored by industry. He drove us to the function in his old car, which he used to joke could run on kerosene. I don’t remember much of the evening, only the pleasure of the company of older and I assumed wiser men.

When I told him I wanted to study biology, he retorted that I should press on for a career in medicine. “Why would you want to know about a bug crawling around on the ground, when you can study the complexities of the human body?” he argued. Now here I am in my 35th year of medical practice, contemplating retirement.

Later he would write a letter of recommendation for me to attend a small undergraduate school known for its forte in the sciences. “I had to tone it down a bit,” he said. “The first draft made you look too much like a saint.”

During one of our after-school conversations, he pointed out several good-looking girls in my class. He counseled me that a young man should not be too quick to commit to any one young lady in particular. Playing the field was a wiser approach. Indeed, that is how one amassed what in those days was known as a little black book.

We spoke about literary subjects. He told me about Hemingway’s success as a young man. “‘The Sun Also Rises’ was a good first novel, but it was ‘A Farewell to Arms’ that cemented Hemingway’s place in the American literary canon,” he said.

Secretly, he wished to become a writer. He shared several ideas for books of his own. Some were science-fiction based — one about a cleaning woman who fell into a nocturnal time warp and was whisked away to another world to become a primordial Eve. Another drew upon his boyhood experiences, events that occurred in a wooded lot in the neighborhood where he grew up.

“I never had a whole lot of direction in life,” he told me. “In the end I had to figure things out on my own.”

Perhaps that is the way it was for most of us.

2014©Brian T. Maurer

2014©Brian T. Maurer

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