Saturday, 11 April 2009

Citadel on the Mountain

Reading Richard Wertime's Citadel on the Mountain has been a unique experience for me. For several years he was my colleague, then chairman, at Beaver College, strangely (in a memoir often terrifyingly explicit in describing his dysfunctional family) alluded to as a "small college in suburban Philadelphia", where he landed after not getting tenure in the English Department at Rutgers/New Brunswick.

His father Ted (b. 1919) was a brilliant oddball who began in the OSS in China, and presumably was underground CIA posing as a cultural affairs officer in Iran and Greece. He was also a self-taught pre-industrial archaeologist of great distinction. Parts of the memoir recount Dick's rough apprenticeships in the bush with his formidably brutal father. Parts recount Ted's extended family's fortunes over three generations in south central Pennsylvania, culminating in the eponymic citadel on the hill Ted created, as he became dominated more and more by survivalist fantasies.

To not be too indirect about it, Ted was one very ornery son of a bitch. His hyper-passive, yet slyly aggressive wife Peggy put up with more shit per day from him than most unhappy wives put up with in a lifetime. The last and culminating insult was Ted's installing his anorexic nut case of a mistress, Joan, in the citadel, with last minute efforts, as he lay dying of pancreatic cancer, to deed the citadel to her!

He also tried to bamboozle Dick and second wife Marcia (his stumbling into a first shotgun marriage at age 19 is poignantly recalled) into deeding the Jenkintown home his parents helped them finance back to his dear old Mom and Dad! Never was the old chestnut about happy families being happy in the same way but unhappy ones uniquely diverse better affirmed. Which sums up the memoir whose writing will thrill you even as as its contents strains belief. But after such a memoir, what memories for me.

To begin with, Dick was the only member of the English Department to treat me decently. The English Department heiress apparent Dr. Margaret Hinton blackballed me from the start as a "media freak" who didn't even belong to the MLA. (Dean Margaret LeClair hurriedly urged me to join as she and President Edward Gates counted on me and two other new chairs in psychology and sociology to help them transform the sleepy little Presbyterian finishing school into the excellent institution it is today.

I'm afraid, alas, I was not much help to them. My heart was still in Honolulu--and on the media wherein I advised NBC/EBF and Time Life Films on cultural TV acquisition while writing a quarterly report on American television for the British Film Institute's magazine,"Contrast".

I came there as chairman in 1982 on the rebound from the Institute of American Studies directorship at the University of Hawaii because my then wife wouldn't stay there more than the first year. (To go to Honolulu I had given up an assistant professorship at the new Annenberg School at Penn, with the right of return, which the then vice-dean Charles Lee blipped because I was critical of his mediocre appointments.) I was devastated that my wife made me resign from the best job I would ever have because she preferred our new home in Greenbelt Knoll, Philadelphia. It was the virtual end of our marriage, dissolved in 1970 by a Mexican divorce and annulled in 1999 by a Detroit Catholic tribunal. But that's getting ahead of Dick's story.

It pained me to read retroactively what he was going through in 1982 as I was deciding to quit Beaver. I resolved in 1975 when I had brought up the tricky issue of Beaver's pudendous name at a faculty meeting called for our new ideas. I told the faculty there was a tide of filth drifting inexorably eastward under the rubric Beaver Flix. (It took them 25 years to change its name to Arcadia University! On July 1, 2001.)

The president nervously appointed me a committee of one to supervise name change suggestions. The next morning in my college mail box there was a kidnap type note suggesting: "wHy dOnT YOU call it PUSSY PREP, yOu pERvert, and get the FuCk outta here. Unsigned." My mother died in January, 1982, in a nursing home, thus freeing me to become the freelance journalist I had long hungered to become.

Except here is where our very diverse dysfunctional family unhappinesses sharply diverge. Dick fought until his father died his overpowering fear of the man. And his love, against all reasonable odds, prevails. I envy him. I felt nothing when my mother died. Still don't.

I was in Baton Rouge scrutinizing the marvelous Art Deco State House Huey Long left the Louisinanians, staying overnight in Huey's favorite hotel, and the next morning interviewing a puzzled David Duke. (What's an AmLit professor from Philly doing in "his" State House.) Going back to arrange her funeral was an unrejectable diversion from my real interests.

To understand our non-family's peculiar dysfunction, you must understand that in 1930 when I was 3 and my brother Harry, Jr. (nicknamed Mike) 10, my furniture salesman father Harry ran off with his secretary Ruth to start an underground, bigamous life in Nevada. He and the former LV mayor C.D. Baker formed a very successful real estate agency (which ultimately garnered me almost $300,000 to waste creatively on poetry and media projects!).

My mother went to work at a junior high in Hamtramck, and parked me at age 3 at Holy Rosary Academy, a boarding school in Bay City, MI. In effect Sister Mary Felicia, my K-2 teacher, became my virtual mother. I didn't face my father until 1961 when I was out in LA doing Annenberg flack work at NBC-TV and on the flight home dropped off in Las Vegas to take a look at him.

He never acceded to my repeated entreaties to meet my three children, although he did start a college fund for each of them. When he died in 1971, I was on sabbatical, as it happened romancing a young lady from CT who was studying at UCLA for an M.A. in museum administration. When I got to LV, his widow introduced me to a person darkly described as Harry's "political secretary".

(As a paranoid bigamist--my very Catholic mother would never even consider divorce, as opposed to my much more liberal ex-wife who ran through an annulment almost 50 years after our marriage--to free her to chase the very Catholic man I had beat out of affections in 1950--as a nervous nellie, then, Harry had to be a secret power behind the throne of Senator Pat McCarran.)

His political secretary told me the Clark County Women's Committee was throwing a reception for Hubert Humphrey the next day, and all my father's friends would be there. (Not, I suppose, including me!) I went. When I ran the reception line, the Vice President began by saying, "Oh Hap was a great guy. We're really going to miss him." Senator Bible's blather was similarly upbeat, as was the state's sole Congressman.

When I got to the Mayor of LV, I was tempted to ask, "Well, tell me, what was that no-good, absconding son of bitch really like?" But the Dominican nun's training in good manners prevailed. I bit my tongue, but felt not a tremor of regret at his passing. Ditto with my brother Mike who passed away from delirium tremens in 1980.

So Dick, I not only envy your writing prowess, I envy your passionate connection to your fucked up family. You don’t know how lucky you've been. And above all thank you for being a decent man when you were oblivious of my upbringing.

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