When Ed McClanahan showed up on TNB back in 2010 I was blown away. Showing up, without warning, on my turf? Amazing. Mostly I’ve turned up on his turf. We’ll set aside the question of whose turf TNB is, but you know what I mean.

So here’s a little illustrated essay about how Ed and I converged. “Oh,” you say, “I didn’t know you had a string of books and were a Living Treasure of Kentucky and knew famous people,” and I say, “I don’t. This is about how we look.”

In 1956, Ed looked like this:

 

And I looked like this.

There’s some serious convergence coming. But it’s going to take a few years.

In 1962 I looked like this.

And in 1965 Ed looked like this:

…but the Ed described in this TNB piece probably looked a lot more like the 1963 me.

I don’t think he had a feather headband, but he had more magic substances available than I did.

So in 1963 I signed up for Creative Writing and Ed was the instructor. Probably we all called him “Professor,” because it was the old days and we were polite even to young instructors. On the first day of class a student asked about grading and Ed said, “I’ll read your stories and have a mystical experience and your grade will come to me.” Or something like that.

Little did I know he meant it. It was a life-changing experience for me (the course, not the grading procedure) and although I didn’t set myself on a fiction writing path until many years later, I never forgot Ed or that course.

A friend of mine never did either. He emailed me a couple of months ago after reading something of mine on TNB and said, “Do you remember taking “Creative Writing” from that really weird prof at Stanford?  We made up the most outrageous horrible drivel imaginable, and it was the only course where I got an A+.”

Hey, if Ed’s mystical experience offered up an A+, it couldn’t have been drivel. I think I got an A myself, but I can’t remember. I do remember going over to the famous Perry Lane to hand in a story, and I do remember running into Ken Kesey at San Gregorio beach. I was too shy to say anything.

I don’t think Ed introduced me to a crunchy bowl of Heavenly Blues, but he might have. I don’t know who else it could have been.

In those days it wasn’t common for undergraduates to hang out with their instructors, but that didn’t matter to Ed and me and then, a few months later, to Ed and me and Ruth, whom I’d met in my next (and last) creative writing course. We were seniors so it was OK.

The summer spent with Ruth in the Portola Valley we went over to see Ed and his then-wife Kit often. I had acquired a wolf cub, perhaps the most foolish of all the foolish things I did in those days, and it was famous in the McClanahan household for having nipped Ed’s daughter. It really was a nip, but since we were all fiction writers or would-be fiction writers the nip was escalated to a “bite” and probably over the years into a frightening encounter with a bad-tempered carnivore from which she was lucky to have escaped with her limbs intact. Probably it’s been passed along to grandchildren by now.

Ruth (playing with the wolf) was always going to get a little fiction coaching from Ed, but she never did. I found a letter she wrote me before I dropped out of her life.

I went off East and Ed and Ruth stayed West. I came back in 1965 to find Ed looking as I’ve shown you above. Next stop, 1972. I was launched on my career as an anthropologist. Ed was in Kentucky and I was in Papua New Guinea, and I didn’t know where Ruth was.

 

Here’s a letter that made its way to me in the village. Kit was usually the letter-writer.

“The child whose foot your wolf bit (ah memories!) is now in 4th grade. Ed published an article on the Grateful Dead in Feb ’72 Playboy, which won an award for the best piece of non fiction by a new contributor. A dubious honor, even in the aftermath of women’s lib. But we have been poor. Ky is a very primitive state. Come visit us here. We do want a copy of Gardening for Money. Ed has several books in the making  . . . still writes the novel.”

I didn’t start looking for Ed again until 1995, a few years after I started writing again. But before that, we’d better have a look at what we looked like in 1983.

 

That was before Google, and Ed didn’t have have his own website. I knew that Wendell Berry had dedicated a poem to Ed, and I managed to get his address. I couldn’t be certain that Ed would remember me, so so of course I tossed in the bit about the wolf. He couldn’t have forgotten his daughter’s near-death experience.

 

 

 

Berry’s handwriting might not be legible. “Dear Ed – If you wish to be found, here is a fellow applying for the job.”

And thus to seminal year 2004, when not only did I find Ruth but went to see Ed in Kentucky.

Convergence. Surprise! We both got old. He kept his hair, but I’d say we look a lot more alike than we did in 1956. My friend Ed’s written many more books than I have — and you’re missing out if you don’t read them. I’m going to send him my novel manuscript, and the old guy’s mystical experience had better be a good one. I’m expecting him to deliver an agent and publisher instead of an A.

 

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DON MITCHELL is a writer and ecological anthropologist, born and raised in Hilo, Hawai'i (where he graduated from a public high school -- in Hawai'i, that's important). He has published academic works, poetry, fiction, creative non-fiction, and both published and exhibited photographs. He recently published a story collection, A Red Woman Was Crying, and is working on a novel set on Bougainville Island, Papua New Guinea, where he did fieldwork. He lives happily in Hilo with his college girlfriend, a poet and yoga teacher, whom he lost for forty years but, lucky for him, finally found.

28 responses to “Convergence: Ed and Me”

  1. Zara Potts says:

    I love this. I don’t know whether I love the words or the pictures best. That picture of Ruth is priceless as is the one of you shirtless and feather headbanded. Still, the photo of you I keep dearest to my heart is the balaclavaed shotgun one you took in the TNB Bond Girls calendar. Don Mitchell- you are a gem of a man.

    • Don Mitchell says:

      A zircon, anyway. I glad you liked it.

      Ed’s book is officially published today, and my piece is really meant as a tribute to him.

      I think most people have a long-ago mentor who made a big difference even though the mentoring and time spent together wasn’t really very long. Ed’s not the only one who had a huge and enduring influence on me when I was young, but he’s the one who kept me wanting to write, planning to write, all those years when I wasn’t.

      And of course Ed, Ruth, and that golden summer in the Portola Valley are completed entangled.

  2. D.R. Haney says:

    I’m with Z on this: loved it. I noted your comment on the excerpt from Ed McClanahan’s latest book, and I immediately regretted not having read him, which I mean to correct. Also, like Z, I love the images, including the photo of Ruth — who almost appears to be languidly bullfighting with the wolf pup — as well as the scanned letters and bits from letters. And then there’s the first photo of Ed McClanahan, looking like he played for a bohemian football team, and that first photo of you, which would never lead to to me guess that you were a professor in the making, as does your second photo, though there you like a little like a Mormon missionary as portrayed by a young Matthew Broderick in a movie never produced. No, in that first photo, you seem more like the class cutup.

    Incidentally, the February 1972 issue of Playboy was on sale when Z was born, and a little over a year ago, when she and I sort of interviewed each other here at TNB, she asked me to reveal some embarrassing things about myself, and one of my answers was that I have a perfect recall of Playboy centerfolds. She asked me to name Miss February 1972. “P.J. Lansing,” I replied without a beat. So Ed McClanahan’s piece appeared alongside Ms. Lansing, who looked a little like Mariel Hemingway when she was in her early twenties (I think Mariel would’ve been ten in early 1972), except with bleached blonde hair.

    I was going to respond to your other recent TNB piece the other day, but I got distracted, what with a screenwriting assignment I’ve been struggling to finish while responding to comments on my own recent TNB piece, but as long as I’m here: I used to think of the Blowjob of Death as something of an urban legend, maybe because, when I was a teenager, I read a National Lampoon piece that advised against fellatio on the road, or, as the piece — in memory — had it, “Coming and going don’t mix.” And then there was The World According to Garp. I stand corrected.

    • Don Mitchell says:

      Glad you liked, it Duke. As to what you were doing writing a comment at 3:30 AM Pacific time — I won’t ask.

      When Ruth saw the Ed-56 photo she said the same thing — was he playing football? I did crop it, and it’s clear he wasn’t. There’s a car in the background. But we’ll have to ask him why he took that stance. It’s on the back cover of “Famous People I Have Known,” which I recommend.

      So here’s a Playboy question. Who was the first centerfold model to show pubic hair? And what also distinguished her from all previous centerfold models? I have a memory of seeing that issue in the village on Bougainville, but I worry that it’s a false memory because I can’t imagine who could have been sending Playboys to me. I had a regular supply of Rolling Stone, I.F. Stone’s Weekly, and Stereo Review but I don’t remember wanting, or getting, Playboy.

      As for urban legends, I know you know the difference between something that can and does happen, and the practice of claiming it’s caused all sorts of accidents. When I told a Nagovisi friend of mine (born a little while after the kid I’m holding in the 1972 picture) about the Carpinteria incident, he told me that it was commonly said to happen in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea’s capitol. He’s an anthropologist, so we had a good laugh about pan-cultural urban legends.

      • D.R. Haney says:

        I’m nocturnal, Don. The sun will rise momentarily, at which point I’ll have to return to my tomb — if, that is, I’m able to sleep there, or anywhere. I suffer chronically from insomnia.

        There’s a bit of a debate as to which Playboy centerfold was the first to show pubic hair. Some claim to see wisps of it in the July 1968 centerfold, as well as in the centerfold of Miss December 1969, but Playboy, as I understand it, officially recognizes the January 1971 centerfold, Liv Lindeland, as the first to display that hair that’s now widely seen as disgusting and so removed. I don’t know what might distinguish Ms. Lindeland from all other centerfolds other than that. She was — and presumably still is — Norwegian, was appointed Playmate of the Year, did a few bit parts in movies, married the son of Cyde Charisse, and moved with him to Hawaii. She also briefly dated Jay Sebring, who was engaged to Sharon Tate at one point and died alongside her — literally. That’s as far as my my memory takes me. It’s generally not a bad memory in matters pertaining to pop culture and the biography of anyone who, for whatever reason, interests me. I’ll likely retain what I learned in this piece, for instance — and on a somewhat related note, thanks for the recommendation.

        Of course I never really believed that there had never been an accident caused by a blowjob. What I really meant to say — and should’ve said — was that people tend to favor the most prurient explanations for pretty much everything, so that I find myself playing the skeptic to a fault.

        • Don Mitchell says:

          No, I knew what you meant, and the favoring of prurient explanations is all over the place.

          I’m going to take your word for the hair, and toss out what then probably was a conflation or misinterpretation. My memory is that Ms First Pubic Hair was an African-American dancer. Probably I confused first non-white with first hair.

          I have other useless memories, as we all do. I’ll keep them to myself.

          • D.R. Haney says:

            The dancer you mean is Paula Kelly. Yes, she was the officially the first woman to show pubic hair in the magazine– in the August 1969 issue — but she wasn’t the first centerfold to do so. I took you literally on the question, but Playboy has always cited Paula Kelly — who, I believe, was in the original Broadway production of Hair — as the first to break a taboo that even Penthouse didn’t break until a few months later.

            • Don Mitchell says:

              Hah. OK, it all falls into place. I was in the village in August 1969 (as well as Jan 71) though I still can’t think why I had a Playboy there. Actually if it was August, then I probably saw it in October. Sea mail half way around the world, and all that.

              Maybe I’m sounding more like the Mormon missionary you saw in my picture than I mean to be. It wasn’t a matter of prudery. My source for magazines was my then-wife’s younger sister who, though a cool and trendy twenty-something in Cambridge, wasn’t likely to have copies of Playboy around and wouldn’t have sent one unsolicited. My then-wife was with me also, but that wouldn’t have made a difference. And the Australian colonial administrators were notably prudish and — I think — didn’t like the idea that their native subjects might be seeing naked white women. So I very much doubt that Playboy was on sale in the towns, although maybe in the capital city (which was a long way away by air) it was.

              Amusingly, our very own Simon Smithson’s father was one of those Bougainville colonial civil servants. Anyway, we might as well drop this as a dead end. I do have a box of carbons (hey kids, do you know what carbon copies are?) of letters from the field and the answer might be in there. But I’m not going to go through them now.

  3. –this is very fine, don–i’m honored and delighted–

    –but i must remind that now-septuagenarian twerp who characterized me as a “weird prof” that if he had pursued his muse (whose presence i alone detected, awash in all that drivel), he might’ve amounted to something!–

    • Don Mitchell says:

      Well, Ed, you earned it. I mean the weird prof tag. No?

      But I’ll tell him the next time I see him. Of course maybe it was somebody else. You weren’t the only one teaching, were you? Maybe there was a genuinely weird guy. I figured it was you, had to be you, because I wanted that quote for my piece.

  4. Joe Daly says:

    Don-

    This was a massively fun read. I love that you’ve chronicled it so well with the pictures- gives a very cinematic feel to the piece. But your writing is what carries it, and I laughed out loud at the writerly exaggerations heaped on the unfortunate incident with your wolf.

    Have you written a separate piece on the wolf yet? If not, I’m very interested.

    Well done to both of you gents.

    • Don Mitchell says:

      The wolf made an appearance in the first piece of fiction I wrote in (my) modern era — about 1993. So did Ruth and so did an infertility lab with many freezers loaded with frozen urine, an artificial uterus, and a tech whose sideline in the hospital was one-handed heart punctures. It’s true! I washed glassware.

      Anyway, I’m glad you liked it.

      Actually now that I’m thinking about that lab and looking at the pictures, I remember I told the lab techs I was going East to school and they asked what I’d be majoring in . . . I said it was grad school . . . they’d been thinking I was a high school student and didn’t believe me at first.

  5. ps: i wouldn’t know anything about the pubic hair question, though–i only read Playboy for the articles–

  6. Oh, this was a treat! I enjoyed the mix of words and images. How wonderful you all found each other again.

    Like Joe, I want to know more about this wolf. Seriously. Please write a TNB piece. Include photos. (There’s a wolf in my second novel, but she’s no ordinary wolf.)

    • Don Mitchell says:

      A treat on the day after Halloween. Good omen.

      I did write something about the wolf, as I said to Joe. But the truth is, Ronlyn, that I’m deeply ashamed of my (then) wild-animal habit. I indulged in it with the guy who called Ed a weird prof. Sure, it was a different time. But that’s no excuse. The wolf died (the vet said it most likely been sick before I got it) after a month or six weeks with me. Why I thought going to grad school with a wolf pup was a good idea, I don’t know. It wouldn’t have been.

      I look forward to meeting your non-ordinary wolf.

  7. –a footnote to my West Side Story experience in “The Day the Lampshades Breathed”:

    –nowadays it’s virtually obligatory for the participants on Antiques Roadshow to say “oh wow!” when the appraisal value of their musty old relic goes through the ceiling–but for a while there in the 1960s, the expression was almost exclusively the property of the hippies, who especially loved to employ it in joyous reference to the wonders they beheld when whatever drug they had dropped came on really strong–

    –so today, reading that steve jobs’ last words were “OH WOW! OH WOW! OH WOW!” i knew immediately that he was seeing, “like a beacon in the Dark Night of the Soul,” the words “The End” shimmering before him on the screen …

  8. What a fantastic story. Creative writing teachers have become so much more boring. Mystical experiences…ah I wish!

  9. Oh, man, Don, this was great. For both the tribute to Mr. Mcclanhan and as a window into the Mitchell memoir; you kept a wolf cub? And it savagely ripped a family to pieces? Man. I’m surprised, and not surprised, at exactly the same time.

    • Don Mitchell says:

      I’ll tell you, Simon, you should have seen Ed with his Bowie knife going after that entire pack of rabid wolves who were trying to get his kid. It was a sight to see. And then to see him performing delicate surgical reattachment of the limbs — spectacular. Not to mention single-handedly developing a customized rabies treatment quickly enough to use it.

      Yeah. That’s what the little wolf brought about — the emergence of the superhero Kentucky Man.

      Glad you read it.

  10. –yep, us kentuckians is a hardy lot–i suppose y’all have heard about the famous Turtle Man, the reality TV guy (a kentuckian, of course) who pulls giant snapping turtles out from their underwater hidey-holes with his bare hands?–well, i taught him all he knows!–before i came along, they called him the Pussycat Man–

  11. Gloria says:

    I commented on this this morning. I said pithy and original things. Then there was an “internal server error” when I hit post and it went away. Let it be known: I read. 🙂 Also, that picture of Ruth is fantastic. Whatever happened to that old hound?

    • Don Mitchell says:

      Hi Gloria — yeah, that picture is something else. The only print was lost and the negative went into hiding for many years. I only had the memory of the print to go on. But in 2006 (yes, 42 years later) I found the negative and scanned it. I’ll be surprised if the scan survives 42 years.

      Lykos the wolf died maybe 6 weeks after the picture.

      Don’t you always say pithy and original things?

      There’s a Firefox add-on called Lazarus that stores away everything you type into Firefox (encrypted, of course). If you’d been running Lazarus (completely transparent) you could have said, “recover my pithy and original things,” and you’d have gotten them back. It’s free, and really, really handy.

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