Writing my dissertation about the poetry of Walt Whitman coincided with the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship games in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. As I played clarinet in the Indiana University Pep Band and had nine years of seniority in the famed Marching Hundred, I was entitled to a trip to the City of Brotherly Love. I planned to visit Whitman’s house in nearby Camden, New Jersey, on the day in between the first and second matches.
On March 30, 1981, my trumpet-playing friend Ken and I took the subway to Camden and found Whitman’s house. There, we met Eleanor Ray, the caretaker and docent. As my dissertation was nearly finished, I had enough knowledge about Whitman to verify that Eleanor knew her stuff! To this day, I think of her as one of the foremost experts on Whitman. She had grown up in Camden, had seen a want ad listing the caretaker job, had applied, and had been chosen. Eleanor told us she felt she was under obligation to learn as much about Whitman as she could. She definitely fulfilled her promise!
My Friend Ken Walking Away from the Walt Whitman House
(Painted Light Gray) in Camden, New Jersey, in 1981
We slowly toured the small shotgun house. Many of Whitman’s belongings were on view; seeing Whitman’s effects made me feel that he was peering over my shoulder. I thought I might glance at his rocking chair and catch him rocking!
The great biographer Justin Kaplan had published his life of Whitman the previous year. Eleanor told us she and Kaplan had lengthy conversations about the poet. As Kaplan was most interested in examining Whitman’s environments to discern the ways in which Whitman constructed a public persona consistent with the high aims of his literary art, Kaplan had come to a significant location when he visited Camden, Whitman’s final home (the only house he ever owned) and his burial place. While we stood in Whitman’s front room, I sensed that I was standing where many famous writers, past and present, had stood.
After our tour, Eleanor, Ken, and I lingered on the sidewalk in front of Whitman’s house. A drizzling mist was falling, and the sky was leaden. I had the notion to step up on the block that Whitman used to step up into his buggy. No sooner was I atop the slab than lines from Whitman’s poem “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” flashed into the forefront of my mind. Whitman had written the poem in honor of slain President Abraham Lincoln. Suddenly, Eleanor asked, “Do you feel that change in the atmosphere? Something bad is happening somewhere.” I admitted I had the disquieting sensation that an evil act was occurring. Feeling vulnerable, I quickly dismounted from the stone. Eleanor explained that, ever since she had worked at the Whitman house, her extrasensory perception had been in harmony with the poet’s psyche. On that occasion, she seemed almost a reincarnation of the author of Leaves of Grass.
Ken and I journeyed back to our hotel in Philly. We had plenty of time to don our pep band uniforms. We were surprised to find our fellow band members glued to the television sets in their rooms. “Haven’t you heard?” they asked. “Someone just tried to assassinate President Reagan.” The TV reporters solemnly repeated the facts about the assassination attempt, which had occurred precisely when Eleanor had said, “Something bad is happening somewhere.” Most fortunately, President Reagan survived and reportedly felt he should be especially mindful of his actions because a Merciful Providence had spared him.
The band boarded the bus for the Spectrum. The NCAA had decided to delay the game. Everyone waited, including then sportscaster Bryant Gumbel, who engaged in friendly conversation with band members. The crowd quietly awaited news of President Ronald Reagan’s condition. Eventually, the voice over the loudspeakers announced that the President was recovering and that he had urged the NCAA to start the games, saying he would rather be in Philadelphia. I had been in the Spectrum when IU won the NCAA championship in 1976, and I was there in 1981 when, late at night, the Hoosiers beat Dean Smith’s North Carolina Tar Heels 63 to 50.