Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Upstate Adventures

The Falls in the Huyck Nature Preserve, Rensselaerville NY

We have just returned from a nearly magical place called Rensselaerville, near Albany, where my wife had been invited to preach at the bicentennial celebration of the local parish church.  As the church is dedicated to the Trinity, and as it was Trinity Sunday, the topic of the sermon naturally had to be that most exalted and mysterious doctrine; and aside from perhaps Saint Augustine and Dorothy Sayers, I doubt that anyone has done a better job.  My part in the event consisted entirely in receiving graciously the lavish hospitality afforded us by various fascinating residents of the place.

Trinity Church, Rensselaerville NY, founded 1811

            Worthy though it be, however, Rensselaerville will serve this blog post only in an ancillary fashion, providing the excuse for a couple of nice photographs, and acting as an antiphrastic counterpoint to my first experience of Upstate New York, which was singularly bizarre.  For Joan has her calling, and I have had mine.       

About forty years ago I participated in an academic conference held at the State University of New York at Binghamton, probably a hundred miles west of Rensselaerville. There is at that institution a Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies.  It is today a kind of living skeleton, but five or six budget-slicing governors ago it was pretty lively.  Its comparative prosperity was fostered by a director, a senior scholar in my field, who practiced unconventional economies.  He asked me if I could help save the budget a little stress by staying not at a hotel but at his daughter’s apartment, which was not far from the campus.  The daughter would return to the parental home for the week-end, and I would be joined at her place by another participating scholar, a friendly acquaintance of mine from the University of Illinois.

            Naturally, I agreed.  Elaborate three-way communications among Binghamton, Princeton, and Champaign-Urbana took care of driving instructions, the location of a secreted key, and one or two other details.  I drove up on a nasty autumn afternoon.  By the time I reached Scranton, with fifty miles still to go, the shades of night were falling fast, and snow, which had been threatening all afternoon, began in earnest.  So I was glad to get to Binghamton safely, to find the apartment after only negligible misstep, to find the key immediately and, what’s more, to find that it opened the door.

            What I did not find was my Illini friend, who never showed.  It later turned out that he had been overtaken by the storm and sought shelter in an Interstate motel.  But this was in the age before cell phones.  So I put the key back in its hiding place, wrote him a note, left the light on in his presumed bedroom, and went to bed in my own.  About three in the morning the telephone wakened me.  I intended simply to wait it out, but it continued with insistence—I mean twenty rings, maybe thirty.

            At last I answered it: “Hullo?”

            After the briefest pause, an instantly angry, feral, male voice, in which I seemed to detect chemical additives, shot back: “Donna!  Where’s Donna?”

            “Uh, Donna’s not here.  She…”

            “Listen, ---- ----, put Donna on the line, and do it now!”  He sounded scary, very scary.  Under these circumstances of nearly maximal disorientation I did not acquit myself well.  I tried, not very plausibly, to give an account of the situation.  My grandfather had an old saw: “When a man argues with a fool, the fool is doing the same thing.”  I found myself saying ridiculous things.  “Look,” I said.  “I’m a speaker.”  This fatuity merely gave him an opening for his redneck repartee.

            “Oh, yeah?  Well, I’m a speaker, too.  And I’m speaking to you right now…And I’m telling you I know exactly where that bitch’s place is.”  He spoke next about his gun and its caliber—thirty-eight—which he intended to take with him on his speaking tour, the first stop of which was apparently the bitch’s place.  The next topic was what he intended to do to me and Donna upon arrival.

            He finally got off the line.   It was then I discovered that I was alone in the house, that Prof. Illinois was a no-show.  That night I slept no further.  I reclaimed the key from the icy front porch—for all I knew he was accustomed to finding it there himself—then sat for three hours in the pre-dawn dark watching the dimly lit street through a crevice of Venetian blind.  Nothing but wind and waving limbs.

            I was not in the greatest form for my speaking role the next morning, but I got through it.  As I sat listening to other papers, very few of which reached the standard of my wife on the Trinity, I wrestled with an inner moral dilemma.   The matter seemed to me delicate.  I didn’t know Donna from Adam—or Eve either, for that matter.  I knew Donna’s father only slightly.  But I myself was a father—of quite young children, to be sure—and I had to imagine that any father would want to know, and need to know, about the maniac on the phone.  So seizing my courage in both hands, I took the distinguished Professor X aside at the afternoon coffee break.

            “Uh, Bernie, look…this is very awkward, but I have to tell you about a disturbing thing that happened last night…”

            “Yeah?  Really?  What’s that?”

            “Well, there was this phone call…it was for Donna, but of course I answered it.  There was a man, maybe drunk, maybe high, but violent-sounding…and…he seemed to have some relationship with Donna, and he…”

            My host, looking very puzzled, cut me off with a query: “Donna?  Who’s Donna?”  His daughter’s name was Susan.  I had apparently been terrorized by a seriously wrong number.