Monday, August 07, 2006

Another Time of Fair Hope

August 7

There was some interest from one of my readers in more information about “Prof,” one of the unique characters of the Fairhope in which I grew up. This is an excerpt from the chapter about him in Meet Me at the Butterfly Tree:

When Oliver Mark Taylor had first come to Fairhope from Baltimore in the mid-1930’s, he had been a serious young man, a first-rate scholar probably lured to town through contacts in the Northeast…Possibly he had heard Marietta Johnson lecturing about her educational theory and come to Fairhope to learn from her.

His special interests were English and the theatre, which he would teach along with history, journalism, psychology, and other courses at the Organic School…He was tall and gangly, intellectual looking with his dark-rimmed spectacles and outsized Adam’s apple. Poor as a church mouse and bohemian without trying. The absent-minded professor with a difference, he was quite unlike anyone our young eyes had ever seen.

The town viewed him as an odd bird. Prof had a strange way of walking. He had a strange way of talking. To outsiders, he simply seemed strange, but his students looked right past that and listened to what he said. We were aware that as an economy he rolled his own cigarettes, or perhaps he did this to limit his smokes per day. If that was so, however, it didn’t work. His fingers were yellow with nicotine stains right up to the second knuckle.

A neurological disorder caused his awkwardness, according to the grownups. But it looked comic to us. He had long legs, and he loped. He lurched. He certainly never thought about how he looked, leaning forward as if into a strong wind and taking great strides without looking where he was going. His balance was uncertain, and his movements could be wildly uncoordinated.

His clear, radio-announcer accent sometimes sounded vaguely English. He punctuated his sentences with phrases like “M’deah.” Sometimes he would mutter. Sometimes he would bark. He liked to talk out of one side of his mouth, like a gangster in a B-movie. He had a staccato laugh that was frequent – almost a chortle, but it was a smile-less laugh; it would just erupt from him.

In Meet Me at the Butterfly Tree I relate a couple of personal stories about learning from Prof as a teenager, and carrying the very direct lessons with me the rest of my life. He is one of the indelible characters I think of often and carry with me always. When I lent a copy of my book to the respected Mobile writer Roy Hoffman, he said something to the effect that he had heard that my book celebrated eccentrics and he didn’t see why eccentrics would distinguish a town. I don’t know where he got that – maybe from Sonny Brewer, my first publisher and a champion of my book. It is not that eccentrics were celebrated, or courted, in early Fairhope. I would guess some of the people who now come over as eccentric never regarded themselves as such in their lifetimes.

However, in the Fairhope in which I grew up, unusual people were part of the landscape. They had moved to the town because they found it congenial. It was a place where they could exercise their intellects, and maybe, through working at the Marietta Johnson School of Organic Education, have some influence on succeeding generations.

It is a source of great dismay to some of us in those succeeding generations to realize that the role models and advisors of our young lives would not have chosen to live in Fairhope as it is today. And, worse, that they would probably be less than welcome.


Nancy said...

And yet, it is the eccentricities that allow us to remember them. The rest of the folks blend together and disappear. I always wonder what others think my strange actions are.

Ollie Oaf said...

I can still see his image now, gangly as he moved about campus; we were always expecting him to trip over something, thinking it would be himself. Seeing him was to conjure up visions of Don Quixote, knight of the woeful countenance.

Book(s) and black framed eye glass seemed to be perennial accouterments. Cooler weather meant wearing a worn tweed sports jacket.

I don't recall much of what he had to say. Maybe with my wandering mind, I was somewhere else or maybe because his messages shot well over my bow.

There needs to be an Interesting Characters Hall of Fame; he certainly would have gained entry along with so many others that helped keep the grass worn down on the winding paths of the old Organic School.

Maybe I should have paid more attention in class. Maybe he was Don Quixote reincarnated. Life is full of "maybes" isn't it?