By John Gary Maxwell
Gene, Chris, Max, and Floyd were four friends joined together from the time of our attending Irving Junior High School, then onto East High School and beyond. In what follows, I attempt to put to words some of my memories of Gene from that time of his life. Individual and collective memory creates our history, and I am hoping that my memories of everyday things, though fallible and fragile, will help contribute to a fair and accurate view of the person Gene was before the time of his many literary accomplishments; before he, as a maturing adult, became the embodiment of a sensitive, accepting, spiritual scholar.
Introduction to Human Anatomy at Irving Junior High School
Now converted into an upscale condominium, our junior high was located slightly northwest of the then existing United States or Utah Penitentiary in the Sugarhouse area of Salt Lake City. Most days, the four friends walked together to this school, down the small Parley’s Canyon creek that coursed its path westward through the Allen Park Aviary on Thirteenth east, through the southern edge of the campus of Westminster College, and then into the fringe of the business section of Sugarhouse.
A certain mild-mannered, soft-spoken instructor whose name, to his good fortune, I no longer retain, was best known to us for the baggy trousers that he unfailingly wore, covering—but not obscuring—the large sausage-shaped bulge that seemed to originate from the area of the groin. Years later, I asked myself: Did the others in the class ever take notice, or were we the only adolescents who studied this recurring, puzzling phenomenon? After forty years of medical diagnostic experience, I now recognize it, very likely, as a large, untreated, inguinal hernia descending and filling the scrotal sac with its contents. To young boys with emerging sexuality but no medical knowledge, it was an enigma that focused our interest away from the lesson or lecture for the day to analyze the possibilities of what resided within that one pant leg. With our knowledge of such matters far exceeded by our curiosity, we filed out of each day’s class still uncertain of what those trousers covered and laughed as we talked and speculated about it on the way home along the creek bed.
East High School Class Work
The four friends, individually or collectively, were not found in the “popular” students or among those chosen to be honored at dances and social events. Our athletic pursuits were outside of school, and we were not in the politically savvy groups among our classmates at East High. The most accurate and honest appraisal would be the presently-used descriptive term, “nerds.” Each one of us quietly competed against the other three for grades and achievement in Algebra and Geometry, English, and Chemistry. We enjoyed the class work and anticipated the homework as a challenge to be efficiently conquered. We would go home each day, read the English assignment from Mr. Iverson, rush through the Chemistry assignment, as it was usually not challenging, then work the far more difficult algebra and geometry problems assigned by “Fraser.” We called her “Fraser,” for it seemed to be the right combination of respect and familiarity, and we never addressed or referred to her as “MRS. Fraser,” for it was less endearing, far too formal! If there were a problem or two that stumped us, one friend would call another: “How did you start on proving Theorem # 9?” would be the form of a typical call. Despite the friendly competition that resided just beneath the surface, we worked together and would share solutions with each other. Having 100 percent correct answers was a goal we all shared.
A flat-top haircut with the sides of his head close cut, thick, rimless glasses, tweed sports coat with leather elbows, calm demeanor, and a low-pitched, attention-getting voice are the features that I best recall of the man who first made literature, poetry and short stories meaningful for the four friends who attended his literature classes. From Fraser, we learned our algebra and geometry in large part from the fear of failure, however from Glendon “Glenn” Iverson we learned because he made us love the subject matter. He made this happen by doing for high school students what I thought had stopped years before in the households of most the students of East High: he read aloud to us in class! Most days, we sat spellbound and focused to hear him. In teaching poetry, he first took on freeform, then meter, cadence, and structure, and we were challenged to ask why the author of a poem would so construct his lines. Short stories introduced us to examples and uses of symbolism. The beauty and music of words as sounds, apart from the meaning of each word, was a subtle part of his curriculum.
In his written comments to us, Iverson admitted that he knew little about our subject matter when Gene and I collaborated on a term paper on Mormonism’s construction of the “Deseret Alphabet.” Always kind, he added that we had done a creditable job of research and presentation, and awarded us an “A” for our paper. In four chapters of twenty-six type-written pages, complete with preface, footnotes, bibliography, and a summation of the subject, we lamented that this early Mormon attempt to enthrone a phonetic language for the Saints died even after it had been highly promoted by Brigham Young, the “Lion of the Lord,” and other early Utah leaders. Our perspective at the time was quite different than our present one, in which we would now identify this creation of a unique alphabet as a further effort at preserving the members’ isolation from the rest of the nation and their unity as a persecuted minority.
I never specifically asked Gene if Iverson, as we always respectfully called him, had as important an impact on him as it had on me. I am quite sure the answer would have been, “yes.” Looking through Gene’s high school year book, I found this note, signed by Glenn Iverson: “Dear Eugene, Even more than having the pleasure of observing genius at work, I have enjoyed your wonderful personality, friendly attitude…. See you next year.”
I have felt guilty, from time to time, that I never made the opportunity to tell Mr. Iverson of my appreciation for his efforts to instill in us an enjoyment of the beauties of literature and language. I am sure, knowing Gene, that he did, indeed, find the time and opportunity to have done so.
Our Chemistry class was taught by man who, in my memory at least, seemed very old and perpetually short of temper, with little humor. Perhaps this may have come from pain, as he walked, despite the special shoe he wore, with an asymmetrical gait caused by one leg being shorter than the other. His dress for class was always the same: wrinkled dark trousers that were rarely dry cleaned, a wrinkled white shirt, and neckties that seemed to have survived many years of use as a napkin. Roll call was compulsively taken, and took up the first five minutes of class, but we used it for passing back and forth small notes, each speculating on what had been this teacher’s breakfast or lunch that day as deduced from the obvious food stains on the greasy necktie and on his once white shirt.
In this class, as in several others, Gene was the favorite of the teacher, which we learned through a particular incident. One day, I signed the role for my three friends who were all absent on an out-of-school function. Since their names appeared on the role, their absence was not noted. Altering my handwriting to resemble that of the absent friends, I completed my homework assignment and theirs as well, and turned all of them in at the end of class. The next morning, Gene was the one who laughed the most when the assignments were graded and returned, showing Gene’s paper as the only one of the four found by our curmudgeon teacher as deserving an “A.”
Whenever the homework load would allow, the time after school was devoted to touch football, either on the asphalt in the street in front of Chris’s house or on the spacious lawn of Westminster College, not far from the England family home. With only two or three on each team, passing for a long touchdown attempt was the call for almost every play, and any “touch” to end the play had to be below the belt. Weekends sometimes saw us on the tennis court, with Chris having the power stroke and Gene countering with his evil, hard-to-handle backspin return that he always hit to a spot on the court that was hard to reach. Evenings might involve basketball in the ward house gym, with Gene being the fast moving guard.
Seminary and Sunday Study Groups
Directly across Eighth South, the LDS Church Seminary building pulled almost all LDS students to meet in the morning before classes. Bible and Book of Mormon classes were also offered during almost any open hours in the school schedule. Sister Arlene Flanders was at that time married with young children, but she had the knack of being able to connect with high school students with her openness, humor, and candor. The four friends found the informal discussions with her before and between regular seminary classes more valuable than the class time. Social life for all of us was channeled through the organizational structure of the seminary program. Dances, fundraisers, and devotional meetings were all arranged through the seminary, and seminary officers were regularly called upon as visiting speakers in local Mormon sacrament meetings. Most, if not all, of the young women that Gene dated during high school were among those he met during or through seminary classes. I think it was here, in seminary classes and the outside-of-class discussions, that the seed of teaching was planted in Gene’s future.
Sunday nights were often devoted to study groups that were an extension that grew out of the East High School LDS Seminary and University of Utah LDS Institute classes. With our dates, we would meet in our parents’ homes. We would invite intellectually stimulating and challenging guests, whose view of religion, theology, Mormon scripture, and current issues we would eagerly debate and dissect. Adam Mickey Duncan, a young lawyer, soon to be a Utah legislator, already a “twenty years before its time” civil rights activist for African-Americans in Utah, was a guest we invited frequently, and with him we explored the ethical and theological issue of the Mormon Church’s stance on people of color being ineligible for membership in the full breadth of the LDS Church organization. Deeply troubled by the Mormon stand, we brought our triple combination scriptures, dog-earned and red-highlighted and quoted references to each other, exhibiting and flexing our fledgling intellectual muscles, and developing verbal skills within the framework of searching for meaning and certainty. I think it was in these meetings that a nidus was formed in Gene that one could be an authentic academic and pursue honest inquiry while maintaining intellectual respectability within the organized structure of Mormonism. Our study group was also an acceptable reason for our having four attractive young women present by our side for the evening as well. “The study group ran late,” was the almost-true excuse we often gave for getting our date home a bit later than her parents would have liked.
Chase Teams and Post-Graduation Foolishness
Based solely on IQ, Gary C., usually known as “Chris,” was the brightest intellectual star of our foursome. Among his many diverse interests outside of school was the aerodynamic design of aircraft wings, altering the degree of convexity or concavity of one surface or the other to attain optimum lift. Chris would calculate the mathematical measurements and then transform his conceptual drafting into blueprints and then into functioning, delicate, balsa-wood gliders or tiny gas-powered propeller planes. Near sunrise on Saturday and Sunday mornings, we four and our vehicles would often be in the field serving as chase teams for Chris who measured the time of sustained flight and took careful notes on his improvements. Our favorite spot for launching was from the upper banks of the east side of City Creek Canyon where a slight breeze might allow the frail wood and silk and lacquered paper-skin experimental planes to reach sufficient heights to catch a rising thermal column that might gently loft it to elevations that led to timed flights of many minutes or even an hour or more.
Engaging in risky behavior was a right of passage then, just as it remains so today. Never admitting until long afterward the foolishness of our actions, we four friends decided in early June after graduation from high school that we would climb the face of Mount Olympus. Jutting upward and slightly off vertical, this well-known granite peak rises from land covered with the upper-middle-class homes and yards of Holladay, on the east bench of Salt Lake City, south of Millcreek and Neff’s Canyons. Not only were we to climb it, we would do so with no equipment whatsoever: no ropes, poles, pitons, and no plan except to use bare fingers and toes aided by basketball shoes. We didn’t consider any exit strategy nor think about how an emergency would be handled. No thought ever surfaced that we were mortal.
Still hidden by a modest amount of snow, we found a chimney-like crack in the rock that ascends through the mid-part of the face, and by maintaining at least one handhold and one foothold at all times, we started the climb up. At about the midpoint, with about 1,000 feet of free fall below us, one of the four—not Gene—became stuck with no functional handholds and only one secure foothold. Unable to reach a foothold or handhold beneath him, and with fatigue almost leading to panic, the climber was finally able to collect himself, return to a mindset to calmly analyze his options, and solve the problem of reaching an acceptable handhold. At climb’s end, all four friends made the peak, still oblivious to our mortality, and walked down the trail on the southwest side where thousands of more sensible adventurers have worn a well recognized pathway on the mountain.
Not long after our climbing venture, we piled sleeping bags, Coleman stoves, flashlights, and assorted gear into the sedan that Father England allowed Gene for a “boys only” road trip to the northwest and along Highway 1 of the California, Oregon, and Washington coastlines. We made it a point to go by way of Downey, Idaho, to see the location of Gene’s summer miseries of driving trucks filled with dry-farm wheat from the fields to the grain elevators. It was Downey’s stifling summer heat, boredom, nose bleeds, wheat-chaff seeping into clothing while doing summer work for his father that became in later years short-story fodder for Gene’s creative writing. On one of the long, straight Idaho roads not far from Downey, Gene, seeing a gentle hill with the highway arrow-straight for at least ten miles with no oncoming traffic visible, had the sudden urge to, “Let’s see if this baby will do a hundred!” It was a time before seat belts, before highway patrol cars plied the back highways of the west, and thankfully, the car met the challenge. Each of the four young men breathed a deep sigh of relief as Gene slowed to 60 on the long uphill sweep of the highway.
We slept on the sand of the beaches of northern California, Oregon, and Washington. We built evening campfires and watched sunsets fall into the Pacific. We laid our sleeping bags, preferably without tents, in the sand, in fields of young alfalfa, and in the pine tree stands, on the front-yard grass of a Mormon meeting house, and an occasional campground. We tore open loaves of freshly baked, still warm French bread and put on it a variety of white or golden cheeses, and we stole ripe, dark grapes from vineyard fields. Never had food been more delicious. We did not exceed the speed limit on our way home. Although I do not remember anyone putting it to words, we were now adults with an expanded appreciation of life’s precious experiences.
College Fraternity Initiation
I recall very clearly my own reasons for my pledging a fraternity on the campus of the University of Utah, but I have forgotten over the years whatever reasons were behind Gene’s interest in joining. I vividly recall the initiation rites we experienced together. The members removed all the furniture from the basement, added detergent to about a half inch of water on the floor, and required us to slip and slide naked across the asphalt tiles on our stomachs and on backs while signing a tune or reciting some secret oath. Next we were blindfolded and were told that we were positioned so that we faced a fellow pledge, and we were then instructed to urinate on our fraternity brother who we could not see. The goal was to test whether we would belittle a fraternity brother. What we were not told was that a third brother then directed a stream of warm water with a straw onto our naked legs, simulating that it came from the other person. Gene was among those who did not dishonor a fellow pledge. This was followed by the demand that each blindfolded pledge place his hand in the toilet bowl and mash into small pieces whatever was touched in the bowl. Only later did our brothers explain that the item in the bowl was nothing more than an over-ripe banana from which the skin had been removed. Our membership helped elevate the fraternity’s collective grade point average, and we enjoyed the camaraderie of the lunches at the house and playing pool with our brothers, but we were less than highly enthusiastic members and shortly dropped out of the Greek scene.
Different Spiritual Temperaments
The other three friends differed significantly with Gene in several areas of belief and perception. For instance, Gene saw Brigham Young, as he wrote of him in his book, Brother Brigham, as a spiritual, sensitive, charitable man. Others of us held a diametrically different view, that Brother Brigham was a Machiavellian master in achieving ends that would not be denied him. Another debate with Gene, during one of our Sunday evening study groups, arose from the hypothetical question of what to do when an early winter morning emergency required the use of the family automobile but the motor would not start. Max said he would proceed to lift the hood and attempt to diagnose and repair the problem. Gene’s answer was to place his hands on the hood and give the car a blessing. Gene’s attempts to teach unqualified faith were successful to only half of the four of us. Max spent his professional life looking into the human body to find what could be fixed; Chris became an artisan of words in the business world; Floyd leaned toward Gene’s views. Gene believed unswervingly that the LDS church was true, yet he accepted it was administered by human beings who err. His choice was to work from inside, as a devoted member, to bring about change and conformity to the highest principles of Christian living. Who among these early friends who thought of ourselves as normal adolescents and young adults could have foreseen that Gene’s life would be far above normal, that he would become a person of immense contribution to the intellect and spirituality of thousands of Mormon and non-Mormon students, colleagues, and friends? We were doubly privileged to have known him both in our youth and in our more mature years.