School days, school days! Something just reminded me of good old Perkiomen School in Pennsburg, Pa., where I put in a couple of turbid semesters before transferring to the far superior Horace Mann School in Riverdale, New York City. It had been very nearly a waste of time, because I was put into a form according to my age rather than my aptitudes, which included a better grasp of English grammar than that of my classmates. No boasting here; they were a pretty dim lot.
Why Perkiomen? My father had a business friend, Stephen Kiss, a good name in English, but not so much in Hungarian (which he was), where it means “small.” He had been in this country longer than our recently immigrated family, so my father asked him to recommend a private school for me. With small understanding, he picked Perkiomen for my sixteen-year-old self.
Pennsburg was a burg indeed. Not even a one-horse town—I certainly don’t recall seeing a single horse. As for the school, no one with horse sense would have chosen it. My having an assiduous, book learner’s grasp of English made me stand out somewhat undeservedly, which is how I, a junior, caught the attention of senior English teacher Homer Nearing. A smart young fellow he was, sophisticated, witty, very erudite, and as eccentric as his name. Why he was stuck in that Sargasso Sea of scholarship, Perkiomen, I cannot now comprehend.
The only distinction the school seemed to have was the chapel, where the banners of many nations were displayed, purchased with the pocket money of hapless former students from the respective countries. Clarence Tobias, the headmaster, had sweet-talked them into forking over a hundred bucks per flag. I later learned that Tobias had embezzled from the school, and much of the flag money doubtless ended up in his pocket. He tried very hard to make me pay for a Yugoslav flag, but I didn’t bite--one of my extremely rare sound financial decisions.
But back to Homer Nearing. He and a girlfriend, a grad student in Philadelphia, were collaborating on an epistolary novel. It took place on a desert island, where two young lovers were stranded. Homer and Girlfriend wrote alternating chapters, but sometimes a favorite student was allowed to contribute a chapter as well. I was such a one, but for the life of me I can’t remember what I wrote.
Most likely it was something in the style of Edgar Rice Burroughs, some of whose work, back in my Belgrade days, I devoured. (It made my worthy private English tutor wonder how my bookshelves could incongruously house, side by side, the collected works of Friedrich Schiller, in German yet, and Edgar Burroughs.) I had no use for Burroughs’s Tarzan novels (though I liked the movie versions), but I relished the Martian series. This chiefly on account of Dejah Thoris, a Princess of Mars, for whom the first of the novels was named. She was extremely beautiful, and differed from Earth girls only in that her skin was strikingly pink. Schiaparelli pink, I imagined, a shade I liked.
The good thing about these novels was that they were not sci-fi, which would have bored me. Thus Captain John Carter, the Virginian hero and Dejah Thoris’s lover, did not arrive on Mars by means of some complicated interplanetary contraption, but simply by loving the red (or perhaps pink) planet, often staring at it, and one day finding himself miraculously transported there.
Ah, Dejah Thoris! How lovely a damsel she was, and how much in distress, always needing John Carter to rescue her. In looks and misadventures she was not unlike a much later favorite of mine, Dale Arden, the beloved of the eponymous protagonist of the Flash Gordon comic strip. Equally disaster prone, she was dependent on Flash to keep saving her. Needless to say, I projected myself into the shoes (sandals? boots?) of these gallant rescuers.
I wonder what became of that epistolary novel. Unpublished, it almost certainly never got finished, and was, like Penelope’s web, useful merely as an ongoing project that warded off other lovers. Curiously, though, I have only two clear memories from my friendship with Homer Nearing.
One concerns the pronunciation of the name of the Russian composer Borodin. We had a lengthy and lively altercation about where the accent should fall. Homer insisted it belongs on the BO; I plunked for the RO. When we finally looked him up somewhere in those pre-Wikipedia days, the accent was assigned, reliably or not, to the DIN. To this day I haven’t investigated which is correct, not wishing either Homer or me to be tarred with the stigma of error. The other is Homer's response to someone's suggestion he take up equitation: "Why should I give a horse the useful exercise I need for myself?"
Back, however, to Pennsburg. The prettiest girl around was named Florence, a waitress who went out with some of the Perkiomen seniors, she being, I guess, of their age. Though she liked me, I was too young to be of real interest, which filled me with pangs of jealousy. But my chance came. Florence was operated on for appendicitis, and was recuperating in her Allentown hospital bed. I bought some flowers and made a pilgrimage to her, by my boyish standards, distant bedside. None of her senior boyfriends had paid her the slightest visit, and she was duly touched. But not enough so to go out with me.
Many years later, a man in publishing and common friend of ours, put us in touch, and a correspondence ensued, with--Florence being a divorcee with a grown daughter who favored the idea— her hoping for a possible renewed nexus. As it happens, at that very time a book of mine came out with a reminiscence of Florence. I described her as a charming butterfly getting involved with various students, a bit flighty but appealing. Well, I got a furious letter from her daughter saying how hurt her mother was to be accused of promiscuity, and that was the last I heard from either of them.
However, to return to Homer Nearing. As I got to be somewhat known as a critic, a lady—I forget how she made the connection—wrote to me that my old teacher, now a crabbed recluse, was living in a suburb of Philadelphia, and would probably enjoy hearing from me. In those days, Pat, my wife, and I made fairly frequent trips to Phillie, partly for me to review some play, partly for us to dine at Le Bec Fin, our favorite restaurant anywhere.
So, with such a trip impending, I wrote Homer, and he somewhat reluctantly agreed to a meeting at the hotel. I can’t recall why this didn’t happen, but, alas, I didn’t get a chance to acknowledge how much he had meant to me. Shortly later I was sent a newspaper clipping with his obituary.
Thus, in compensation, I am making a point of thanking my wife for all I owe to her, my real-life Dejah Thoris. And I would strongly advise you that, upon reading this, you too give explicit thanks to someone from whom you have learned an important lesson or two.