Saturday, January 24, 2009

In Memoriam

I wanted to share an excerpt from "A Memorial to the Men of the Yale College, Class of 1918 Who Died in the Service of Their Country, 1917-1918" New Haven 1924, compiled for the Class by Cassius Marcellus Clay and Wilmarth Sheldon Lewis.

I found it not only touching but also remarkable as a piece of writing by a young man of perhaps 27—Robert Emerson McClure—about a friend who had died before he'd reached 21. It seemed a compelling example of what can be done with a few words to make a person and an era come to life.

Frank Stuart Patterson: born September 3, 1897, Dayton, Ohio; Died June 19 1918, Dayton, Ohio.

He was very tall—over six feet three, I think—and he had the figure of a young frontiersman: very long and sinewy arms and legs, a slouching walk with head thrust slightly forwards, a small face, finely sensitive. He was, I think, secretly proud of the fact that nearly everything he wore and used was oversized and in most cases made to his order: his furniture, his bed, his shoes, his shirts, that fabulous leather sofa which was probably the largest affair ever coaxed into a Yale dormitory room. And I have always thought of him as oversized in soul as well, as unique in all his spiritual measurements.

I do not mean that his was a case for superlatives only; he was after all but a boy when he left New Haven; a boy on that day some thirteen months later when he plunged to death. He was one of the youngest men in our class, and one of the most boyish and fun-loving; devoted to sports, pathetically afraid of girls and in his quiet way, capable of ardent enthusiasms. These included baseball, trap-shooting, hunting, motoring, firearms, boxing, winter sports, the theatre and among books, Conrad, Kipling, Robert W. Service and stories of Western adventure—particularly tales of "two-fisted, gun-toting bad men," which he read clandestinely and cherished as a secret vice.

I mention these tastes because they always seemed to me characteristic of a type of romantic idealism grounded on a love of outdoor life—an idealism very youthful, very charming, and curiously frequent in those sprung from pioneer stock; also because they reveal an essential quality of Stuart Patterson's shy, quiet, rather inarticulate spirit; and finally because they contrasted, in their youthfulness, with the astonishing maturity of his attitude toward less material things.

I say maturity—his tolerance was mature, and his austere faith in all the elemental virtues: honor and cleanliness, fair play, courage, self-restraint. He was one of the purest men I have ever known, and the farthest from priggishness or cant. His was a fundamental decency, as instinctive as the act of breathing. His ideals of conduct were part and parcel of his heritage, like the strength of his wrists and his will; and they enabled him to see things simply, clearly, sanely. To make up him mind as to the right or wrong of a question without wavering or equivocation.

Others had Calvinistic standards; in Stuart Patterson they went hand in hand with charity of mind. Making no truce with weakness in himself, he was yet quick to allow generously for it in others. I remember his dislike of dogmatism in any form, and his invariable insistence of "hearing the other side." In three years' close association, I never heard Stu Patterson play the bigot or snob; never knew him to miss an opportunity to help another in distress, whether that distress were physical or moral or financial; never saw him betrayed by disappointment into envy or meanness of any kind. His patent to spiritual nobility was unobtrusive, but he carried it with him in his daily life, and it was honored by all who knew him well.

He would have made a notable record in the war. To a superlative degree, he had the qualities that go to make a great aviator—coolness in danger, presence of mind, self-reliance, a sense of tactics, a contempt for death. Long before our entrance into the conflict, he longed to go; and I think it was from a hope of later service, as much as his attraction to flying as a sport, that he took his pilot's license in the summer of 1916. When war came, he was among the first to leave New Haven.

But it is his life, rather than his death, I would recall; a life singularly pure, and generous, and noble; a life not lived, nor even lost, in vain.

— — —

This new year brings loss as well as new goals and possibilities. I was inspired to share the above on hearing from Robert Guntrum that his wife, author Suzanne Simmons Guntrum, had passed away on December 28th, suddenly, of a heart attack.

I worked with Sue when she wrote for Silhouette Desire many years ago and we have remained friends ever since. How I wish there was "audiography"—that is an audio equivalent of a photograph. Something that would allow you to take an audio snapshot of someone, so I could hear Sue again.

One of the most memorable aspects of Sue for me, was not just what she said, but how she said it. Her voice—not quite husky, not really Midwestern, but some remarkable amalgam of some combination of something. She would share her thoughts with a comic's sense of tone and timing, a quick wit, charm and combined a sense of pragmatism with an appreciation of the ridiculous. Unafraid to say what she thought. Always willing to hear your point of view. I will miss her.

I try to remember that the scope of your loss is the gift you were given. I am glad I appreciated it while I had it.

Indeed may we all look forward to the coming year with a renewed sense of appreciation and delight at what we have. Right here. Right now.


CurtissAnn said...

Oh, Isabelle, what force caused me to think about your blog today and come over? I did not know about Sue-- I am not in contact with anyone I used to know in the writing community. Thank you for posting this.

I miss seeing you.

Anne McAllister said...

Isabel, Thank you for your post about Sue. I remember her voice distinctly as well as the wise and wry things she said. It's been a long time since I had contact with her, but I will always remember her with pleasure and I'm grateful to have known her.

Isabel Swift said...

Curtiss Ann: thank you for stopping by, though I am sorry to be the sharer of sad news. On the one hand I want to live with the happy belief that everyone is out there doing well. On the other, I feel we need to not fear death, and incorporate loss more integrally into how we live. It does remind us how lucky we were to have that gift of friendship and challenge us to live our own lives fully, and appreciate those around us. I miss seeing you too--but here we are, connecting. And that makes me happy.

Isabel Swift said...

Anne: Lovely to hear from you. I can't explain how sharing sorrow helps lighten it, but it does. Thank you.