Remembering the Dead, from Selma

My father ran the series himself. He did so as if he were back in the Army Air Force: systematically with checklists, and with minute attention to every detail of the visit.  On a Thursday night, he would drive to the Fresno airport, pick up the speaker in his 1959 ladybug Volvo clunker (we had to buy all Swedish: Electrolux,  hardtack crackers, etc.) -- full of lecture posters, microphone wires, and box speakers -- and drive them down to Selma, where my mother had dinner and one of our bedrooms ready for the celebrity guest.

At 6 a.m. the next morning, my father rushed over to Reedley, where he had students waiting to help him set up the gym with chairs, arrange the PA system, and put last-minute posters around town. Dad was a one-man production company and used 100% of his budget for the speakers’ honoraria -- meals, transportation, and lodging all provided by himself, without charge to the district.

My mom (who was a Stanford law graduate and working as an attorney at the new 5th District Appellate Court) drew up the contracts, legal papers, etc., for my dad, again with no charge to the college. At about noon, she drove down in her 1955 Dodge station wagon from Fresno, picked up the guest at the house (my siblings and I usually got to stay home from school that morning to talk to him/her in the 4-hour interval), and chauffeured the guest over for the early-evening event. We joined my dad up in the bleachers after school. After all that work, Bill was never allowed to introduce the speaker: the college president always broke his promise and, at the last moment, hijacked the occasion to gave a five-minute harangue about his supposedly brilliant effort to “bring culture to Reedley.”

Remember, this was right before the era of the blockbuster advance or lucrative film deal. For a bit longer, American and British public figures would often tour the country, in yeomen fashion, doing 30 back-to-back talks per month. I remember that my father always preferred to host only 3-4 talks per season, rather than the suggested 6-7, in order to pay a top-dollar $1,000 fee, an astronomical sum in those days. He figured that with such financial clout he could lure a big name to detour to the out-of-the-way Reedley, between his scheduled lectures in San Francisco and Los Angeles. And he was often right.

Among those guests in 1964 was Gore Vidal, who was not yet 40. I was about eleven and remember him as a stylishly dressed non-stop hair-toucher. He was also vain and condescending -- and a big hit at his lecture with the conservative rural crowd. In those days he acted what was known as "witty." I recall asking my dad whether he was “English,” given that his nose was angled upward and his accent did not sound American (and that he did not seem to like the U.S.). My dad, in the Swedish fashion of honoring work for work’s sake, answered that I should respect any man who could crisscross the country, giving 30 lectures in 30 days.

Vidal certainly had an instinct for saying outrageous things with such erudite authority that we yokels found him fascinating rather than repulsive. As I remember (it has been 48 years since that evening), Vidal spoke for about 30 minutes, but then he wowed the crowd to a standing ovation in the question-and-answer period (his forte), as he advocated the legalization of drugs and prostitution and went on rants about “small town” values.

The night before the lecture (in an unusual fashion for this lecture) we had driven with Vidal three miles into Selma to my aunt’s house (she taught English at Reedley College) for dinner. After the desert, he “shocked” us by declaring that masturbation was the sex act of choice, and then referred nonchalantly to his male friends. I noted one other thing about the evening. Vidal kept trying to namedrop literary tidbits; but my aunt, the JC English teacher, was of the old school (English literature BA, MA Stanford, where she had mastered the canon of Anglo-American classics) and had memorized verbatim many of Shakespeare’s plays and much of Chaucer and could quote by memory  pages of Milton.