Russ and I met in college. He was Irish Catholic from Chicago and looked like a priest. Tall, black hair which later turned to salt-and-pepper, we somehow became friends as college students do, and we remained so until a few years before his death, when he inexplicably simply moved away and I lost track of him.
But that’s not the story I want to tell here. I want to tell you of my friend, Russ, and his marvelous intelligence and wit and friendship.
We both entered college at the same time but after two years I left to join the Naval Aviation Cadet program, and when I returned two years later, Russ had graduated and begun his teaching career. We lost track of one another for quite some time. And then one evening, shortly I graduated and moved to Chicago, I was in a bar with friends when someone tapped me on the shoulder. I turned to see Russ, face impassive. “Now, as I was saying…” he began.
Russ also served a stint in the Army. They assigned him to be a truck driver. Russ did not want to be a truck driver. He told his sergeant he could not drive a truck. He told his lieutenant he could not drive a truck. He told everyone within hearing distance that he could not drive a truck. They put him in a truck, and he drove it at full speed into a wall. Getting out of the crumpled vehicle, he merely raised one eyebrow and said: “See?”
We always made one another laugh, and he suffered me with patience and grace. “Roger,” he would say whenever I would do something particularly stupid—which was often—giving me that priest-to-sinner look, “you’re custodial.” When he chose, he could take on an imperious manner, which stood him in good stead when he began his career as a teacher, and he used it brilliantly.
At one time after Russ had been teaching for several years, he helped the drama department put on a play, the name of which I can’t recall now, in which the dialogue included some mild profanity…shocking at the time since high school productions were generally scrubbed shiny clean. But Russ insisted it stay in because it was important to the integrity of the play. I was spending the weekend with him and the day after the play we went out somewhere when Russ was approached by a dowager-type woman who said: “Mr. Hogan, I want you know that the use of profanity in the play last evening was deeply offensive. I am, after all, a lady, and we do not appreciate such crudeness.”
Russ looked at her calmly and listened until she had finished. Then he said: “Madam, my mother was in the audience last night. She was not offended. And she is ten times the lady that you will ever be.” And with that, we walked away.
I loved going to the movies with Russ, though I’m sure my pleasure was not always shared by other members of the audience. Comedy or drama, slapstick or Shakespeare, he would have me laughing hysterically throughout the film. I remember one movie we saw had a very dramatic scene in which one of the male characters, emoting to the rafters, had just reached the end of a particularly heavy speech, yelling at the lead: “What are you going to do about it?” Russ leaned to me and imperiously commanded me: “Shoot that man.”
Another movie episode I will never forget was in the much touted film Cleopatra. A lavish spectacle with a cast of tens of thousands, one of the major—and longest—scenes revolves around Cleopatra (Elizabeth Taylor) arriving in Rome to be received by Julius Caesar. The film makers spared no expense. Every one of the tens of thousands of extras was on hand. There were trumpets and drums and elephants and the parade went on endlessly. Finally, her slaves lower her chair to the ground and Cleo steps off to approach Caesar. At this point, Russ again leaned to me and whispered: “If he says ‘how was the trip?’ I’m leaving.”
Russ was, as I’ve indicated, an absolutely wonderful teacher…English, of course…and his students adored him for every one of the 20 or 30-odd years he taught before retiring. He helped write a textbook on English literature used in the majority of high schools throughout the United States.
Russ, in addition to being the quintessential English teacher, was also the quintessential friend and learning of his death created a vacuum in my heart which can never be filled. I never understood why he cut me off toward the end of his life. Perhaps he knew his health was failing. The last time I heard from him was when he called to tell me he had bought a condo in Florida and was moving. He said he did not have the address, but would mail it to me. He never did and I had no way to get in touch with him, though I tried.
Russ was my friend. Russ is my friend, and I would give anything to go to one more movie with him.
This blog is from Dorien's ebook Short Circuits. It can be purchased at UntreedReads an Amazon. There is also an audio version at Amazon.