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Saturday, Apr. 30, 2016

Treasures of the Bottom Drawer

Saturday, July 7, 2007

You know how some people use the expression "top drawer" to denote quality or real distinction? Examples: "His new Brooks Brothers jacket is sure top drawer," or "Check out that tall blond crossing the street. Is she top drawer or what?" No, you probably wouldn't hear either one near Cottey, but where I grew up, pre-feminist era, you heard the expression all the time. And I plan to challenge its legitimacy. There's nothing special about "top drawer."

I'm a print person, and I've never seen any reason for tossing aside anything printed or written. Books, scholarly journals, magazines, I keep them all, confident that some time each of them will come in handy. Wife Ginny and daughter Jessica , on the other hand, each has an automatic overload detector (Hemingway had another word for it.), which bleeps and flashes a bright yellow light when printed material gets to a point where it is blocking the sunlight from coming through the front windows. I wasn't born with such a device; I need someone to tell me. That's where wife Ginny comes in.

Recently, while professional painters were painting the exterior of our Spring Street dwelling, Ginny wanted to have some new windows installed and some interior walls painted. "You'll have to sort through all the stuff in your desk drawers, so we can move the desk" (trans: "Dump the letters. You know you're never going to read any of them again. And that'll be all the more space we can use for more up-to-date things.") I knew that unsaid were the words, "And please hurry it up, without reading each old postcard."

And so, this past weekend, I pulled the bottom right-side drawer out of my old cherrywood desk and, having laid it down beside my chair, I began the arduous--but immensely pleasurable--chore of reading through every letter and postcard sent to me since 1973, when I first began teaching at Cottey College. True, the first letters I read, the e-mails I'd saved from the oblivion of flame because the sender was especially dear to me, I could almost recall now by heart because they were so recent. There were, of course, some happy surprises: my aunt Elda had sent me a birthday card, when I was nine, that had a stout metal spring inside; when the addressee opened the card the metal spring snapped down briskly on his/her finger. How unlike that kind lady, I remembered thinking at the time, to have sent a card that might have inflicted bodily harm on a child!

April 4, 1976: I remembered driving two Cottey members of the honorary society Phi Theta Kappa to Collins, Missouri, to catch a bus that would take them to Biloxi, Mississippi, where the national convention was to be held. Three days later, when they came home, and I was driving them back to Nevada, they reported on the scholarly doings they'd heard and taken part in. "And, Mr. Nash," said Karen Krause, one of the participants, as I remember it, after all these years, "one of the sponsors of the convention, a Mr. Willie Morris, told me to make sure you got a note he wrote when we were just about to leave Biloxi." She hurriedly took a somewhat crumpled note from her pocket, smoothed it out on her knee, and passed it from the back seat to me in the front.. "Here it is!"

Willie Morris? The Willie Morris? Willie Morris was, or was about to become, one of the country's most influential editors. He would become editor-in-chief of Harper's Magazine, the country's most forward-looking monthly, which was shortly about to devote an entire issue to Norman Mailer's blazing "The Prisoner of Sex." Willie, as an editor, lived close to the edge, dangerously daring in his selection of writers he brought aboard (he hired, and gave his first chance, for example, to the late and great David Halberstam.) Like any good editor, he had complete faith in his writers, gave them their heads, and stood firmly behind them all. This, in spite of the loud objections of the rich and conservative Minneapolis family that owned the magazine, and eventually showed Mr. Morris the door, to spend his few remaining years writing the best-seller "My Dog Skip" and drinking himself into a painful oblivion. I admired the hell out of him.

When I got home, I smoothed out Willie's note again and read it: "Dear Chuck Nash, I've been talking to your students, and you sound like a truly great teacher. We wish you were down here in Biloxi, because we've been talking about literature, and the values you and others have about it. Cordially, Willie Morris."

In this same desk drawer I find my 9th grade report card, from Albert Leonard Junior High School, in New Rochelle, New York: all A's and B's, except for the C in Physical Education. And here is Cottey student Linda Kennedy's bright-minded extra-curricular parody of Frost's familiar poem; its first stanza reads: "Whose big mac this is I think I know, / His home is in Nevada, Mo. / He will not see me eating here / To snarf his french fries and root beer." And the voluminous letter from one of my first students, the Broadway-bound Lynne Harry Patalano, from Redlands, California, who played a major role in the Los Angeles production of "The Transfiguration of Benno Blimpie," who, according to "The Hollywood Reporter," of February 7, 1978, "displays an interesting quality as this precocious street urchin, especially in her monologues about her food-related sexual fantasies . . . " The little blurb on her program mentions that she "worked doing Mime on The Queen Mary." She later married a high school science teacher and had four handsome kids.

Deeper down in my letters drawer I discover a letter from Mr. Billy Valgardson, a colleague in the Cottey English Department for four years, from 1973 to 1977. After publication of "Bloodflowers," he stepped up his appearances in print, and the envelope holding this letter, from box 1051, Gimli, Manitoba, Canada, is emblazoned with the words "GOD IS NOT A FISH INSPECTOR." Deeper still in the drawer is the brief notice from my University of Minnesota dissertation director, dated May 21, 1975. My first two years at Cottey, I'd gleefully immersed myself in Cottey activities (sponsoring Phi Theta Kappa and the student newspaper, etc.), totally forgetting that I still had a doctoral dissertation to write and defend. "Yes, you can finish the dissertation this summer," wrote Roth, "and by all means do." He closed by saying, "So don't plan on having a pleasant summer, but on getting the damned degree finished." Which I did, that very summer.

Another big drawer contains a few summer postcards from freshman Cottey students who will join me the following fall in the first part of "American Literature." A bed-sheet-size hand-made Get Well card wishes me well after a brief stay in the Nevada hospital. There are 21 little inscriptions. One of them says, "Comp just was not the same with out ya." There is a card I wrote and sent to Ginny before we were married, and she was living with her father in Jackson Heights. It purports to be from our mutual friend, Mr. George T.Grabon, of 102-30 Remington Street, Jamaica 35, New York, and lyricizes, "Oh, foul, foul, foul passion! But we can cram love into a philosophical system. disarming passion as worse than vile rubbish. As Marlowe said, when last I saw him, 'Come live with me and be my wife'--yea, but to read Herodotus and glean the puffed wheat of Josephus. So, please jettison that baggage twosome Nash and Fitzgerald. I use real butter, Babe!" Oh, to be able to recapture that zaniness! At that age, I had no thought of diabetes or tenure.

Finally, as fairly typical of students' end-of-year notes, at the very bottom of one drawer, I located a small silver card, from a graduating senior who identified herself only as LuAnn. "I never got the chance," she writes, " to sit down and thank you so much for everything you have done for me the last two years. I was told once that I shouldn't try college. That it was just going to be to much for me. But with a little push from my parents I decided to give it a try. In the last 2 year you have helped me develop confidence in myself as a student and person. This confidence I'm sure will carry me through life. I don't think I told you how much I enjoyed that evening in your home. You have a very nice wife and a beautiful home. I had great news yesterday. I got the job you wrote the recommendation for. . . "

No, "top drawer" is not where I look for what matters most to me. As a correspondent, I find the good stuff tends eventually to find its way to the bottom.