Out of the Woods: Football, friendship and fulfillment
Updated 5:29 pm, Saturday, February 6, 2016
With the Super Bowl upon us Sunday, it is both timely and appropriate, I believe, to use this annual national football milestone as an opportunity to reflect on how this great American pastime has helped shaped some of our lives, especially in forming lifelong friendships.
I am reminded of a movie my close friend, Robert Pack, and I saw together — “The Corsican Brothers,” a 1941 swashbuckler film starring Douglas Fairbanks Jr. in a dual role as the title Siamese twins, separated at birth. The most significant aspect of the film is that both brothers felt the pain and agony when one was pierced in a fencing duel, or joy on occasions of happiness. This is where my story of a 75-year friendship I have had with Bob Pack, begins. We like to imagine ourselves as Corsican Brothers.
We met in fifth grade. Our friendship at the outset consisted of organizing a group of boys (and one girl) called "The Black Diamond Gang." We wore silver badges with black diamonds in the center, donated by some parents at our progressive private school, Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York. We jumped on the kids in the class below us daily after school, wrestling them to the ground. Somehow, Bob and I muddled through Fieldston, jabbing each another in the ribs during our German classes, swatting one another with our leather briefcases in the hallways. Despite the horseplay, we graduated from Fieldston as high school classmates in 1947.
During our high school years, we both excelled as athletes. He was a slugging third baseman and a halfback on the school’s championship football team, I was a 100-yard dash sprinter on the track team and the fullback on our championship team. (We scored 186 points to our opponents' collective 13 points in the 1945 season.) Bob weighed 155 pounds. Today, he weighs 165. I weighed 150 pounds in high school; the same today. Considering our ages, we have few infirmities and are in relatively good shape.
After Fieldston, we roomed together in a fraternity at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H. (I first launched my "Out of the Woods" column in The Daily Dartmouth in 1947.) We have remained in close touch ever since, though we chose separate paths. Ironically, both involve writing — he as a poet, myself as a journalist. He got married in 1960 to a red-haired Barnard College co-ed; in 1962, like a true Corsican brother, I, too, married a Barnard College redhead. In 1952, I had received an M.S. in journalism from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. In 1953, Pack earned an M.A. in English literature from Columbia.
While attending graduate school at Columbia, Pack taught for two years at the New School for Social Research, an experience that solidified his desire to be a teacher himself. He spent a year abroad in Italy, in 1957, on a Fulbright Fellowship, during which time he traveled extensively attending opera performances. Later, he published translations of the Mozart librettos.
After returning to America the following year, Pack was hired at Barnard College where he taught for the next seven years. In 1964, he moved on to Middlebury College in Vermont, where he was awarded the Abernethy chair of American literature, and later a special college chair that allowed him to teach anywhere in the curriculum, including the sciences: the big bang theory, Darwinian evolution and Freudian psychoanalysis.
Pack taught English at Middlebury for 34 years, specializing in poetry workshops, modern British and American poetry, English Romantic poetry and Shakespeare. Pack also taught at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, where he was appointed director in 1973.
In 1996, Pack retired from Middlebury, and he and his wife moved to Montana where he began teaching at the University of Montana Honors College as Distinguished Senior Professor. In 2006, the University of Montana awarded Pack its presidential medal for outstanding teaching: “For distinguished accomplishment that lends luster to the University of Montana.” His visit to Rocky Mountain College in Billings, led to the college awarding Pack an honorary doctorate in 2001 as a “weaver of words … for your preeminence in the field of American letters and your continued dedication to students.”
The author of 22 books of poetry and five books of essays, he lives outside of Missoula, Mont., on Mt. Mission Mountain, part of the Rocky Mountains, four-and-a-half thousand feet above sea level. He has a panoramic view from his desk where he writes poems and essays.
I recently asked Bob for his views of our friendship. "I think our friendship like other close relationships is partly instinctive. There is a chemistry to it, a chemistry of attraction and attachment. I think what is also true of you and me is to maintain our commitment."
"Football played a role in shaping my philosophy of life. The beliefs in accepting challenges and cultivating discipline. Football was the first real challenge of courage stamina and determination. It also involved teamwork and cooperation, which were binding experiences."
Pack first became interested in poetry at Dartmouth where he immersed himself in the poetry of Robert Frost. When Frost visited the college to give talks, he and Pack would take long walks, discussing the craft of poetry. In 1991, Dartmouth awarded Pack a gold medal for “Outstanding Leadership and Achievement.”
Pack succinctly puts the fundamental importance of friendship in context in life by quoting Aristotle: "Life without friendship is not worth living." Bob, who once held a poetry reading in Westport, and I want to share our experience with Westporters. Bob is now 87. I am 86. Our friendship is enough to keep us going, we hope, for a long time to come.
Woody Klein is a Westport writer. His column, "Out of the Woods," appears in the Westport News every other Friday. He can be reached at email@example.com.