Those of you that read this regular series know that I am from Hackett, Arkansas, just a mile or so from the Oklahoma border, and just about 10 miles south of the Arkansas River. It was a rural sort of place that did not particularly appreciate education, and just zoom onto my previous posts to understand a bit about it.
This recollection is from a bit later in life rather than in childhood. I was in graduate school at The University of Arkansas in Fayetteville and I am guessing that this happened around 1983, give or take a year of so. The former Mrs. Translator had not yet had our first child, so the time sounds about right.
At the time The University of Arkansas was pretty much a run of the mill public university with a couple of notable exceptions: the Chemistry Department and the English Department. Those were recognized at outstanding at a national level and I am honored to have been part of the Chemistry Department. Both of these departments were part of the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences.
Dr. Whitehead was the chair of the English Department at the time and he pulled a lot of weight. He was able to get major people of letters to come and give readings, and for students as well as members of the general community there was no charge to attend. Another notable author that I saw give a reading was Ken Kesey of One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest fame, although I thought Sometimes a Great Notion was a superior work.
In any event, Allen Ginsberg was scheduled to give a reading and the former Mrs. Translator and I were eager to attend since we were both fans of his works (although I think that I was the bigger fan). We arrived at the Science and Engineering Auditorium, the largest lecture hall on campus, a bit early and that was a good thing because it was packed. According to a friend of mine who is a planner for the campus, it held 350 seated and I estimate that there were another 100 or more standing in the aisles and in the vestibule.
It turns out that the English Department was giving ten points added to the bottom line of students taking Freshman English for attending! Personally, I think that such rewards are a bad practice, but nevertheless that is what happened. In addition, there was quite a bit of publicity about a famous poet coming to lecture, so there were lots of old folks there as well. We were able to find two seats so we could sit together.
There were sign in sheets for the Freshman English students, but they were not made available until intermission so they stayed until then, after which many of them left. But what happened at the beginning of the reading was the funny part.
After Dr. Whitehead introduced him (and his partner, the poet Peter Orlovsky, so we got even more than we had bargained for), he began to read. His first words were at a scream, "Oh, f--- me in the a--!".
You should have seen the audience! Any of you who have hunted quail know that when a covey of quail become alarmed and take wing it is a flurry of activity that occurs in a very short time. Most of the older people in the audience, thinking that they were going to see some sort of distinguished Robert Frost type of character displayed expressions of horror and rushed for the exits!
Actually, it was sort of nice. Enough space opened up near the stage for us to get much better seats, like the second or third row near the aisle. Both of us were laughing our lungs out at the spectacle, but having our CB receptors fully populated might have had something to do with that. So we watched the rest of the reading from an excellent vantage point.
Ginsberg read parts of "Howl" and lots of other pieces, and he and Orolovsky sang some songs accompanied by a squeezebox. I remember one had something to do with a group of friends having breakfast with them one morning and that there was, "...LSD in the jam, in the jam.".
At intermission most of the freshmen left and I took my opportunity to get in the queue to meet him. Since we were sitting so close I was near the front (actually the second or third person out of only five or six) and got to see him right away. I took my copy of the Second Edition of my The Norton Introduction to Literature with me, because "Howl" was reproduced in it beginning on page 608. I asked him to sign it and he joked, "Who is plagiarizing me now?", but was happy to oblige and autographed it without hesitation.
We chatted for a while about his life experiences, and he was interested in my field of study, organic chemistry. He said things to the effect that some of his favorite people were organic chemists, like Dr. Hofmann and Owsley Stanley. I knew the connexion that he was making. Dr. Albert Hofmann was the first to synthesize LSD in 1938 (although he did not discover its unique properties until 1943). By the way, Hofmann lived to be 102 years old and claimed to have taken the material at least 100 times. Stanley is famous for mass producing the material in the 1960s in California. He died at 76 years, the victim of an automobile crash.
We chatted for a while and I noticed some sort of shadow under his tuxedo shirt. I asked him what was on his shirt, meaning his undershirt, and he said, "Did I spill something on it?". I told him that I meant his undershirt, and he unbuttoned his tux shirt and opened it, pointing to a group picture. "That's Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder Review. Here I am!" I looked online to see if I could find an image of it, but to no avail.
I ran out of things to say to him, and there were a couple of people behind me so I thanked him for his time and autograph, shook his hand, and left. He was very gracious and seemed to be genuine. I wish that I had taken my camera at the time, but did not. In those days 35 mm ruled, and we had a pretty good Pentax but I did not think to bring it.
In lieu of pictures that I personally took, here is one of him (and the squeezebox) taken just a couple of years after I saw him.
And the autograph? Here it is, because I still have that book!
You can compare it with the one on Wikipedia.
Outside of academic circles this is the most famous person that I ever met personally, unless you count the magician Mark Wilson that I got to meet when I was five. I still remember that, too. When Kesey came to read the queue was huge and I did not bother to try and fight the crowd. I remember this episode fondly, though, because it is not often that one can meet a person of letters of his stature.
I would like to thank TheMomCat from The Stars Hollow Gazette and Docudharma for the idea to write about this. It turns out that Ginsberg first read "Howl" on 19551007 and she pointed that out in her excellent On This Day in History series Sunday.
Ginsberg died on 19970405 of complications from liver cancer caused by hepatitis, likely either Type B or Type C. His lifestyle was conducive to contracting either of those because of his lifestyle. He was only 70 years old.
That does it for tonight. Once again, please feel add your recollections of earlier times in your life in the comments. I enjoy reading them, and I know that others do as well.
Doc, aka Dr. David W. Smith