Remembrances: Robert Yaple

John and I arrived at the University of Chicago in the fall of 1959, both of us newly minted Woodrow Wilson Fellows, he from Notre Dame (in English) and I from the University of Kansas (in history). In those days, Chicago was rather like a "port of missing men" for grad students -- particularly, it seemed, for Wilsons. I've not done any research on the subject, or scientific sampling, but I would guess that about a third eventually left with the degree they'd come for (though it often took a dozen years or more). Another third left without it, but still managed to right themselves and have decent lives (though scarcely what anyone would term "conventional"). And the rest simply vanished.

Students in that time and place always developed a University of Chicago cachet, regardless of the degree of normalcy they possessed to begin with. In some ways, it was a pretentious amalgam of post-Ivy Leaguer and pre-Hippie; in other ways, it was a triumph of laissez- faire eccentricity.

(I think it's gone now -- like those things, both cultural and material, destroyed by urban renewal. I went back there for a visit in the spring of 2000 and was bemused to see that all the students looked like Business majors at a land-grant college. The cult of anti-materialism tended to rule much of the campus in our time; nowadays everybody has a cell phone.)

John had an edge on the rest of us, because he was so charmingly eccentric to begin with. Looking (and often sounding) like a young Charles Laughton, puffing on a huge pipe stuffed with Balkan Sobranie, John could cheerfully and with equal abandon join in a discussion on the Defenestration of Prague, the proper employment of a carronade, or the deficiencies of French culture. He was also the only person I've ever met who would take tobacco in virtually any form: pipe, cigar, cigarette, or snuff. And I never saw him lose his Puckish sense of humor.

Much of his life revolved around books. This was true of all of us in those long-gone, pre-Internet days, but John was the champ. He used to say that he wanted inscribed on his tombstone:

John Anthony Bellairs
He read most of the books that were worth reading
and all of those that weren't.

I didn't have a lot of contact with John after we left Chicago; we were rarely in the same part of the country (or even in the same country). The last time I saw him was in December 1973, when I stopped off in Boston, en route to England. We had dinner at Durgen Park and a wonderful few hours' conversation, part reminiscence and part current events and part plans for the future. He was always one of those people with whom you could pick up a conversation at exactly the point you dropped it a decade earlier. It was as if we were once again strolling along E. 59th, under his big umbrella with the genuine whangee handle, and talking about piscatory epodes or the career of Smead Jolly.

I fell onto hard times soon after and scarcely travelled for some years. We did exchange a few letters now and then, and of course I tried to keep up with his writings. I have a number of his books, presentation copies, the fly-leaves adorned with his scrawled autograph (sometimes misspelled) and sketches of his two favorites - Louis XI and a glaring, generic pope. While The Face in the Frost is undoubtedly his best work, I like St. Fidgeta better, because I was there at the creation. And I still take pride in the fact that John pandered to my loathing of Bishop James Pike and my devotion to John Wayne when he concocted the Vestal Verger's prediction that "In 1980 Bishop Pike will be burned at the stake in the Rose Bowl, by order of Governor Wayne." (St. Fidgeta, p. 104.)

I still have some contact with a few of my friends from those days. None of them has really changed much, except physically. It's almost like going through the Way-Back Machine when we get together. And I'm sure it would have been the same with John. I miss him.

But three years ago, as the 20th Century was winding down, I found a copy of The House with a Clock in Its Walls in a second-hand book store. As I bought it, I'm sure I heard the sound of a cosmic circle closing.