ON THE RUN WITH GENE
By Wade Jacoby
IN 1985, I was among forty students who jogged briskly through a six-month study abroad program with Gene. He set a relentless pace. Yes, there was a full complement of lectures and day trips. But there was also a steady drumbeat of extras: optional weekend trips, breathless reviews of plays and concerts that we simply had to see, excursions to still-communist Poland to deliver food and other supplies, trips to Israel and the Soviet Union. And all of it on the run.
Usually, on the run in large packs. There’s that old joke that if you’re not the lead dog “the view never changes.” But panting to keep up with Gene, our view always changed. Sometimes we chugged over the Waterloo Bridge, sliding into seats in the National Theatre just as the lights went down. Sometimes the view was a slightly blurred one of the high street in a medium-sized English town as we hurried to see as many of the top sights as our two-hour whistle stop would allow. But the view always changed. What stayed the same was that brown blazer bouncing up ahead, leading us to some new discovery.
Some of you may wonder, “How can students learn at such a pace?” But this question never occurred to me, at least. Gene had a way of firing you up about things. He was like a very positive version of my high school football coach. His vocabulary was heavy on adjectives I had literally never heard before (“superb”). He also trafficked in superlatives. He would often describe an artist or a work of art as “the finest…” and then find a category of which this person or thing was “the finest” exemplar. So Mother Courage was “the finest play written about the Thirty Years War.” Andrei Tarkovsky was “the finest Russian film director living outside the USSR,” etc. The point is, he was always telling us that he was steering us towards the very best. I come from pretty dour stock, and I had never heard people use the word “wonderful” in ordinary conversation. Gene used it a lot and in such a way that you really felt the “wonder.”
So, yes, he fired us up. But he also delivered. His reputation among the older students was that Gene had a nose for action. He had, after all, been standing next to the Pope when the pontiff was shot by Mehmet Ali Ağca in St. Peter’s Square four years before our program.
I saw Gene’s ability to deliver on promises on our first day in London. It was a haze of agonizing jet lag for me, a parochial kid who essentially had never traveled (and for whom even Provo was pretty far east). The only pleasant part had been the Lindt chocolates Gene had handed out on the flight (“the finest European chocolates”). Gene told us we had play tickets for that evening. Ugh. My previous experience with the theater consisted of watching high school football teammates act in “South Pacific.” I had vague memories of pale, doughy offensive linemen dressed in coconut-shell halter tops. I said, thanks but I would pass on Peter Pan in favor of the sleep I desperately needed. Yes, I said, “even if it’s at the Barbican” (who knew what that meant?). Yes, “even if it stars Mark Rylance” (Mark who?).
But he was relentless. I was about to launch into a Green Eggs-n-Ham analogy (“I do not like plays on a boat; I do not like them with a goat”) when I decided it would be less exhausting to just go to the damn play. It would be dark there. I could sleep. By then, everyone else had left for the theater. I had to run. It was hairy. I was nearly struck by a cab as I dashed across a street — looking for traffic from the left rather than from the right. As the curtain came up, I slumped in my seat, exhausted, soaked, angry. Two hours later, I left literally a different person. One critic wrote that after watching Rylance in that role, she really believed that fairies could fly. I sort of know what she meant. I certainly believed, from that point on, that Gene was a legitimate judge of what was good.
Gene taught us to rouse ourselves to go out and experience things. Not to be satisfied with “being in Europe,” but to insist on really exploring it and enjoying it. I was always broke, but when we went to the Chartres Cathedral, and I tried to skip the tower because it cost a few francs, Gene insisted on paying the entrance fee for me (teaching me a great lesson in the difference between fixed and marginal costs). Spencer W. Kimball was the prophet then and famous for exhorting us to, “Do It!” I came to think of Gene as a member of the First Presidency of the church of “Do It.”
I wish I could say I ran the whole six months. The truth is, by the halfway point, with the dollar strong and our legs weak, many faltered. Art got old. Harrods beckoned. The high rollers bought china and high fashion on their parents’ credit cards. Even the low rollers caught the materialist bug. I bought a Harris Tweed jacket of such surpassing ugliness that Kindra still keeps the pictures handy as blackmail material. But just as he was a great cheerleader and coach, he could be a good scold as well. Gene warned us against a kind of material gluttony — against treating lightly this chance of a lifetime.
It was a delicate line. Gene knew that binging on culture can also be gluttony. His pace worked for him because he had cultivated a focus, a wonder, and a generosity that led him to see connections everywhere. He taught constantly and hoped, sometimes in vain, that we could be nourished at this pace too.
Gorging on art is not, I later learned, everybody’s thing. A year later I was in Berlin, working a menial job, trying to learn German and failing miserably. I knew no one and could barely speak. When a fellow factory worker asked me if I wanted to see a new exhibit at the National Gallery, I was thrilled, and I slipped right back into the cultural all-you-can-eat mode. I found the gallery on a map and began planning out – as I had learned in London– other sights that were close. When my friend arrived at 10 am on Saturday, I told him proudly that I had the whole day mapped out with three other things after the museum. He was evasive – suggesting (shockingly) that the museum was enough. “What,” I pleaded, “not even the trip to the famous Nazi execution site literally right next door?!” I thought he was mocking me when he said, “Why don’t we just go get a coffee afterwards?” “But Gene never wanted to go for coffee afterwards,” I said quietly to myself. Still, this guy’s orientation to art was a quieter and less charismatic one that I came to know I needed to balance what I had learned from Gene.
I DIDN’T SEE much of Gene over the next decade. Apart from a few brief visits in London and a handful of emails, our next contact was in 1999. I had come to BYU to give a lecture, and Gene invited me to go fishing with him and our good buddy, Stirling Adams. They took me to Gooseberry Creek. I was, by some distance, the weakest fly caster of our bunch, and Gene was, as always, a relentless pedagogue. The wind had blown grasshoppers into the water, which made the fishing easy. Any pattern that looked vaguely grasshopper-like would have worked on those hungry fall trout. I could have caught fish on a Cheeto with artificial legs, but Gene insisted on correcting everything I did wrong. It was hard to be annoyed, and it brought back a flood of memories. “Do it, yes,” he was saying to me, “but do it right, doggone it!” It was a beautiful day, and I left already half convinced to come to BYU. Gene revealed so much in his deep love of place, his respect for creation (evident in all the fish he let go), and even his grating tendency to correct my every mistake. We took our time, for once, walking slowly and savoring the time together. It was the finest little creek I can remember.
It’s almost ten years since Gene took me fishing at Gooseberry. Though Gene died soon after I moved to Provo, I’ve had many chances to enjoy these mountains. My favorite thing is bow hunting for elk each fall. Gene did not like that. He made clear his feelings about hunting by again quoting Spencer W. Kimball to me. Perhaps it softened the blow that elk hunting is usually pretty fruitless.
This past fall, I passed up several shots at bulls. Some were too small, and some were too far away for me to risk a shot. The hardest one to pass up came as the sun rose near the top of a steep hill where no other hunters had ventured. The elk felt safe and were not jumpy. A very large bull kept a small piece of brush between us as he looked at me and tried to figure out what I was. “Do it,” I thought, as my heart drummed against my chest. But the brush raised the danger of a deflected shot and a wounded animal. “Do it right.” Wait. He will move. Savor the moment. Then, in mid-savor, the elk vanished. A small cloud of pixie dust rose near his hooves, and he was gone. 1000 lbs of wild animal vaporized.
Next came the agony and the second guessing. “Damn it! I should have shot when I had the chance!” I was enraged at myself. You hear in our church that if you do the wrong thing, you will hate yourself later. What I’ve discovered is that if you do the right thing, sometimes the outcome isn’t that much different. And if you regret your good deeds, does it undo them? Does it make the good deed vanish? If so, then it’s the worst of all possible worlds. You don’t get your elk, and you sin in your heart. If it was the “right thing to do,” then why did I feel so miserable?
In my self-pity, I slipped back into gluttony. Back at camp, I was despondent. I grabbed my fishing pole, caught some late fall grasshoppers, and walked to a small creek in back of my camp. I needed to take my mind off elk. From the cold rushing water, I caught a tiny trout, one I would normally throw back. I quickly killed it and then another. And then I stopped myself. “Calm down.” I wrapped the fish in an Arby’s napkin I found in my car and laid them in the shade. I went to sleep, woke up to find the sun had shifted and the napkin had dried hard into the fish’s skin, so that as I peeled it away, the red Arby’s logo remained attached to the skin. I fried them over my campfire, the logo peeking through the cornmeal coating and making my camp a little halfway house between pointless gluttony and the distant promise of harmony and understanding.
So here’s to you, Gene. Thanks for teaching me to jog, you Steve Prefontaine of English professors. For teaching me (and so many more) to just “Do It,” you Spencer Kimball of Palace Court. And to keep trying to do it right. You were the finest teacher a student could have.