George Dennison was a handsome man. It's curious how few photographs there are of this fine author and activist on the Internet. The new home of our faces.
George was gone to lung cancer at age 62 in 1987, which was just about the time I met him. He had come down from Maine to attend a birthday party at our place in Vermont for Hayden Carruth. Many came, it was a wonderful party that spread out from a large lawn tent. That August night, when only the hardcore were left and staying over, George rolled out a sleeping bag and slept out on our lawn. Stars in his eyes. The only one who even gave it a thought to do such a thing.
Born in Pittsburgh and raised in a lifetime freedom-fighting, George was the author of a novel, short stories, plays, children stories and in his work as a teacher and therapist the author of the classic The Lives of Children, one of the bibles out of the sixties free school movement. As he set it in stone: relationships, not instruction, promoted real learning.
He wrote well of his friends — Paul Goodman, Hayden Carruth, The Bread & Puppet Theater — as well as neighbors and workers and jack-of-all-traders from his part of Maine.
I'm more than happy to showcase a few pages from Temple, from a Writer's Notebook (Steerforth Press), which maybe shares best of all George Dennison's place on earth.
I went over to Dick's place to talk about some bookcases. Beautiful views on three sides, autumn hills and fields. In the shed/garage (attached) two large bird wings. "Oh, that's a goose, a Canadian goose. George shot it. Yes, as we lost it. Isn't that awful! It went bad. I had it soaking in baking soda, and I put ice cubes in, but it just wasn't cold enough down cellar...."
Dick had a cold. "I shouldn't have gone out yesterday, but I've been trying to get some of the snowmobilers to swamp out some trails with me, and yesterday was when they could do it, so I thought I better show up."
He was drawing diagrams: packing crates for a complicated display booth he has built for a local businessman. Got out some vodka. Supper on stove. House terribly overheated, but everybody here is used to that. As always, talk of sports.
"Where've you been? Haven't seen you for a while. We called you a couple of times for poker. Did you get to the see the fight (Ali-Spinks)? I was disappointed. He's about used up, I think. But the pre-lims were good, weren't they? Yes, I thought they were real good."
And soon: "The best ball game I ever saw in my life was the Braves and the Dodgers down in Boston. Warren Spahn was pitching. Oh, he was something else. And that great big colored man, what was his name, well darn it I almost had it! Catcher — right! Campanella, Roy Campanella. But I don't know, I think the players today are faster at everything, and they get paid so much. Oh, I think they are. Look at track. Don't you remember how long it took them to break the four minute mile. Glen Cunningham — he was the big runner when I was in school. I got my growth later. But I was a good runner. I ran everything from the hundred to cross-country. Yeh. One of our local boys here, from Phillips, was the national champion in cross-country. Marty Toothaker. Yeah. I figured I was doing good if I could see him finish. When you see him today you'd never guess he was a runner. He can hardly get out of his own way (laughing) . . . a great big belly on him . . . But hockey was my game. I was a good skater and fast on the ice. I used to skate with the high school team when I was a freshman. I wasn't on the team. I just worked out with them . . . and then the next year they took hockey out completely, said it was too dangerous, or something. Oh, wasn't I disappointed!"
(I've heard about the local skating: because they used to cut ice from the ponds and the new ice was good for skating until the next snow. Now the snow piles up and no one skates.)
He let me have the bill for the last job. He'd held it for six months — a peculiarity of his.
I took him the three dollars for gluing and sanding the little stool. Gave him a five. We were standing just inside the door of his little shop. (Every time Eddie glues a chair the legs are uneven — it's because the floor of his workshop is uneven). He had already said, "Nice day, isn't it?" — sunny and brisk after three days of bitter cold and hard wind. (These are not banal remarks, but little prayers and attestations of an underlying joy.) The wide door to the little shed/shop was open, plenty of light. He was peering into his wallet. I could see that there were two ones there, together with a couple of fives and a twenty. Suddenly an outburst, angry, out of patience — "I can't see a goddamn thing!" He game me the singles. I questioned him, since I knew it would have to be serious, even extremely serious, before Eddie would mention it. "Do you need new glasses?"
"They can't fit me for glasses anymore. They can't give me a tamn t'ing. I've got cataracts."
"Can't they take them off?"
"They're not ripe yet. It may take six months, it may take a year."
It was clear that the sudden dependency and inability to work was frightening, painful, and humiliating, since he's fiercely independent. "I've been putting the drops right to 'em. Damn them!"
"Can you drive all right? Do you feel safe driving?"
"No, I don't feel safe — I can't see that well any more! Especially on days like this. All that light from the snow. On a cloudy day I can see a little. It's all blurred. It's getting hard to see in here." (Hard to make the axe handles and the fiddles he's been making.)
"Nellie doesn't drive, does she?"
"No, she don't."
I asked what he'd do about shopping. "Well, there are people who say they'll take us in whenever we need it — but I hate that, it's god damn monotonous. Nellie has to go to the hospital maybe three times a month — she's got the sugar diabetes. I have to go twice a month."
I said we'd help. The idea of shopping like this disturbed him terribly, the idea of being dependent and beholden.
"We usually keep a good stock on hand . . . except there are things we need now and then. Damn Nellie always buys the smallest amount she can of anything, and she won't get more till she uses that last drop of it, then all of a sudden she has to have it. That's bullshit. If I buy a large amount I catch hell. . ."
Bitter mouth, bitter eyes, silence. One can see how important good sense has become to him — it carried his competence and independence through several heart attacks. He needs it to cope with illness, age, poverty, and now this hastening blindness — and it's being defeated by the silliness, giddiness, irresponsibility, lack of foresight of this fat little woman-child, who is spirited and seems to have a loving disposition, though perhaps not for him.
"All you're payin' for is the gottam jar . . . and with the cost o' gas. . ." (When he speaks excitedly, his French-Canadian accent is stronger.)
I remember: Nellie's father, mean, killed himself, never had a friend, couldn't even stand himself.
A crisis is beginning now in Eddie's life.