Biographies & Memoirs



I WENT TO Urbana High School between 1956 and 1960, walking the four blocks to school. We were the first generation after Elvis, and one of the last generations of innocence. We were inventing the myth of the American teenager. Our decade would imprint an iconography on American society. We knew nothing of violence and drugs. We looked forward to the future. We were taught well. We had no idea how lucky we were.

I realize now what good teachers I had. At the time I took them for granted. Because the university had a nepotism rule, some of them were spouses fully qualified to teach at the college level. I suspect high school teaching was bearable, even enjoyable, for them because the school was run smoothly under firm discipline and as far as I’m aware didn’t have a single incompetent faculty member. Teachers controlled their classrooms. Hallways weren’t fight zones. Boys wore slacks, girls wore dresses. It was like a cliché from the movies. We even had the Elbow Room, a malt shop on the corner, to hang out in, with a jukebox.

When I think of those days, they often come down to a Friday night in autumn, and a football game. I successfully auditioned for the job of game announcer, and watched the games from a third-floor window of the school building, where I first met Dick Stephens, who covered the Tigers for the News-Gazette. I grandly announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, please rise to join in the singing of our national anthem.” I read announcements about homecoming dances and charity car washes and chanted “Touchdown, Urbana!” with enthusiasm, or “Touchdown, Champaign” with dejection.

After the game, I went to the Tigers’ Den. This was a brick storefront a block from Main Street in Urbana. Customized cars cruised slowly past, thought to contain sexual predators from alien high schools on the hunt for our Urbana girls. Inside, there was only one chaperone, Oscar Adams, possibly the best-known and most popular man in town. Oscar’s chaperoning duties consisted largely of sitting in the lounge watching Gunsmoke on TV.

There was a small dance hall with a stage at one end and a soft drinks bar at the other, chairs around the walls, and the sexes eyeing each other uneasily, for nothing is easier for a teenager to imagine than rejection. The boys dressed in chinos or corduroys, and plaid shirts from Penney’s. Our hair was fixed in place by Brylcreem. The girls wore skirts that swirled when they danced.

If you knew what to look for, you’d catch guys cupping their hands in front of their mouths and sniffing to test themselves for halitosis. The cautious among us worked through packs of spearmint, or if we were really insecure, Dentyne. Halitosis was far worse than dandruff. The only thing more to be feared was an untimely erection on the dance floor, especially if you’d been slow dancing; at the end of the dance your buddies were watching you like hawks, ready to point and go, Yuk! Yuk!

One of the girls I had yearnings for might be there when I arrived at the Tigers’ Den, studiously not noticing me. You could spend half an hour deliberately not making eye contact. It was a form of predance foreplay. The evening began with rock and roll, the girls dancing with one another, and then a guy would sidle up to the deejay and ask for a “slow song.” And now it was crunch time. With all of your courage you approached the girl of your dreams.

It might be that you were too slow, and another guy would get there first. Was that the faintest shadow of a hint of a sidelong teasing look of regret that Marty-Judi-Sally-Carol-Jeanne sent your way? Or had she forgotten you even existed? Halfway across the floor toward her, you saw her taken into the arms of a rival and made a studious course correction as if you’d only been walking across the room to get to the other side.

The legendary teacher of our time was Mrs. Marian Seward, whose senior rhetoric class we heard about as freshmen. She was exacting and unforgiving, and cultivated a studied eccentricity. Once she stood looking dreamily out the window, her arms crossed, and said, “Oh, students, this morning I walked into my farmyard and listened to the worms making love.” She issued lists of Rhet Words—words we had to try to find in our reading. They counted heavily toward our grades. She had an eagle eye for cheating. Thomas Wolfe was a gold mine of Rhet Words. When I found a word, I’d copy it in pencil on the flyleaf. From my copy of Look Homeward, Angel: Scrofulous. Immanent. She was hard, but she was good. She intimidated us with her standards. When I walked into her class, I thought I knew it all. I was a professional newspaper reporter. She returned my first paper marked with a D, and I appealed to her. “Mr. Ebert,” she said, “when, oh, when, will you learn that the paragraph is a matter of style, and not of punctuation?” Mrs. Carolyn Leseur, another English teacher, confided at our fiftieth reunion that when the faculty was voting on the members of a senior honor society, I was blackballed by one teacher for being a “smartass.” And who was that teacher? “Mrs. Seward.” True to her standards. This long-delayed information filled me with great happiness. We may have feared Mrs. Seward, but she demanded our best and I think we respected that.

Stanley Hynes was another English teacher, and for him I held great affection. He took us into Shakespeare so well that I never got out again. From other teachers, we heard bits of his story. While still too young to serve, he volunteered for the First World War, was gassed at the front, and his facial skin was darkened and pockmarked as a result. For World War II he might have been too old, but he volunteered again.

Hynes was a bachelor. It is conceivable he was gay. He treated his students as adults, and we responded. Our discussions of poetry in his classroom became serious and introspective, and students had a way of thinking deeper to impress him. He was the sponsor for the student paper, a volunteer for all school projects, yet existing above the daily flow with a gravity and intelligence that set him apart.

Some years after graduating, I came across him one night in the basement cafeteria of the Illini Union on campus, which functioned as a coffee shop and gathering place for those outside the mainstream—foreign students, nerds, geeks, writers, musicians, chess players, programmers with their shoe boxes of punch cards, students of the New York Times crossword puzzle. He was by himself, smoking a cigarette, drinking coffee, his finger keeping his place in his book. I had the impression he’d seen me before I’d seen him. “Good evening, Mr. Ebert.” Just as always. I was happy to see him but caught a little off guard. I could have had a post–high school conversation with him, and I don’t remember why I didn’t. That might have been my opportunity to know him better. When I meet my classmates from those years, they remember him with warmth and we share our curiosity: What was his life like? What did he go through in two wars? Was he lonely? Was he always like… Mr. Hynes? If there were answers, we didn’t have them, except perhaps in his passion for the literature he taught.

In those years I read endlessly, often in class, always late at night. There was no pattern; one book led randomly to another. The great influence was Thomas Wolfe, who burned with the need to be a great novelist, and I burned in sympathy. I felt that if I could write like him, I would have nothing more to learn. I began to ride my bike over to campus and steal quietly into the bookstores, drawn to the sections of books by New Directions and the Grove Press. I bought poems by Thomas Merton, Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller, and in The New American Poets I found the Beats, whose values and references seemed alien and yet attractive to me.

Starting in grade school I consumed a great deal of science fiction, including four or five monthly magazines, but that tapered off in college as I began to choose “real” literature. Some of the sci-fi authors were better than I realized at the time. But even as I drifted from the genre itself, I found myself involved in Fandom, an underground culture of the fans of science fiction, fantasy, the weird in general, and the satire and irony of the time: Bob and Ray, Harvey Kurtzman, MAD magazine, Stan Freberg.

Fanzines were mimeographed magazines circulated by mail among science fiction fans in the days before the Internet. I first learned about them in a 1950s issue of Amazing Stories and eagerly sent away ten or twenty cents to Buck and Juanita Coulson in Indiana, whose Yandro was one of the best and longest running of them all. Overnight, I was a fan, although not yet a BNF (big name fan). It was a thrill for me to have a LOC (letter of comment) published on such issues as the demise of BEMs (bug-eyed monsters), and soon I was publishing my own fanzine, named Stymie.

I have always been convinced that the culture of fanzines contributed crucially to the formative culture of the early Web and generated models for websites and blogs. The very tone of the discourse is similar, and like fanzines, the Web took new word coinages, turned them into acronyms, and ran with them. Science fiction fans in the decades before the Internet were already interested in computers—first in the supercomputers of science fiction myth, and then in the earliest home-built models. Fans tended to be youngish, male, geeky, obsessed with popular culture, and compelled to circulate their ideas. In the reviews and criticism they ran, they slanted heavily toward expertise in narrow pop fields. The Star Trek phenomenon was predicted by their fascination years earlier with analysis of Captain Video, Superman, X Minus One, and Sheena, Queen of the Jungle, and there were detailed discussions about how Tarzan taught himself to read.

The Urbana High School Science Fiction Club went as a group to hear our hero, Arthur C. Clarke, speak on campus. Years later, tingles ran down my spine when I heard the voice of HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey announce that it had been born in the computer lab at the University of Illinois in Urbana. (Was there a connection? I interviewed Clarke on a cybercast from Sri Lanka, and he said he didn’t recall having been to Urbana.)

I was demented in my zeal for school activities. I joined the swimming team, appeared in plays, founded the Science Fiction Club, co-edited the newspaper, co-hosted the school’s Saturday morning radio broadcast, won the state speech contest (radio speaking division), and was elected senior class president, all the time covering high school sports for the News-Gazette. It was not in my nature to attend classes and go home. Two nights most weeks I worked for the paper until well past midnight.

It was the duty of the class president to produce the senior talent show every spring, and I threw myself into this project. Larry McGehe and John Kratz, two of my friends, constructed a plywood time machine pierced by dozens of lightbulbs and stood behind it, furiously rotating a copper strip past contact points so the lights spun in a pinwheel effect. We synched a tape recorder to broadcast a satire of the school’s morning loudspeaker announcements. We built the set, held rehearsals, worked with the UHS Jazz Band, stayed up all night.

I was the emcee. The show was a success. Afterward we had coffee and cake backstage and then I walked out and sat in my car and collapsed in sobs. I had spent four years in a frenzy of overachievement, and I was wrung out. I had come to the end of something. I had no good reason for sadness, but I’ve never forgotten that night. I drove for a while through the moonlit streets, torch songs playing on the radio, seeing myself, and the town, through eyes instructed by Thomas Wolfe.

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