Tony Vagneur: Reading between the lines |

Tony Vagneur: Reading between the lines

He came into my life when I was 12 years old; thick glasses, a muffle-tongued, nondescript accent that belied nothing other than a slight indecision about what thought to release next, which was always deftly laid out with carefully chosen words. He was completely out of place on the ranch, but the peacefulness struck a chord with him.

Interesting things come from people we don’t grasp at first, and after dinner one night, he set up the movie projector he’d brought along and showed us a long, detailed documentary he and a friend had filmed in their journey down the Amazon River. It took them the better part of a year and was impossible not to watch.

Before leaving on the trip, they had gained an oral agreement from some film company that their expenses would be paid and the movie put into production and distribution around the country once they returned with the reels intact. Except, while they were out filming, color had suddenly replaced the black-and-white medium they were working in, and the deal was off. At least that’s the story they were told. But he never really got over it, or at least never really got over the expedition and could be heard, once or twice, to say that he couldn’t get the Amazon out of his being, that maybe he should have stayed.

In those years, I had a vague interest in books and had promised myself I would read the entirety of my dad’s collection, which included, among some otherwise interesting tomes, a six-volume history of World War I and the entire, leather-bound law library of 9th Judicial District Judge John T. Shumate, deceased, for whom my paternal grandmother had clerked.

Facing such a self-imposed, Herculean reading task, it was with a large bit of serendipitous, diversionary luck that my uncle-in-law, Jim, the Amazon adventurer, thrust a copy of “The Journal of Albion Moonlight,” by Kenneth Patchen, into my hands, thankfully derailing my misguided reading promise.

The book was a bit much for a 12-year old mind, but it had plenty of sex, dark philosophy, torment, hilarity and surreal wanderings to keep me glued to its pages. It’s possible my friends were eventually bored to death with my repetitions of and exultations about the stories contained therein. As Patchen himself said in one of his poems, “We are plucked out of wombs and never put back anywhere …”

That exercise in reading laid the groundwork for future conversations, and readings, between Jim and me, he a well-read philosopher and me a curious kid. He and his wife came back to the ranch every summer and it was always with enthusiastic anticipation that I welcomed his intellectual take on almost everything.

And then, my grandmother died, high school turned into college, the ranch sold and there was no longer anywhere for him and his wife to come back to, nowhere to quietly sit and discuss the intricacies of brotherhood, peace and revolutionary unrest.

Several years later, I traveled to San Francisco for a weeklong business seminar and they cordially let me stay at their home south of the city, but it wasn’t the same. The anticipated conversations just didn’t get the needed spark; we didn’t parry back and forth with ideas we wanted to try out.

“San Francisco is our destiny,” he said, holding court at a small counter just off the kitchen, the inclusive “our” meaning those of the Beat generation, folks like Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg and himself. But for much more than that, it just wasn’t there. His speech was controlled, but slurred as the evenings wore on, and after brief attempts at reconnecting with our past conversations, he would quickly beg off, retreating to his office to “work on a project.” By trade, he was an architect.

Was it a deepening unhappiness over the state of the world in 1968, losing the handle on a liberal view of changing the world, or was it simply the intensifying, alcohol-fueled depression; maybe it was an overwhelming realization that his best was over, an awareness of the brotherhood as he imagined it passing him by, that finally drove him to take his own life a few months later? Of course, it was more complicated than that, it always is, but who really knows the answers. He was in his early 40s.

The coroner listed the cause of death as chronic alcoholism, or something similar, calmly saying that alcohol killed him as surely as his own hand. No one argued.

For most of the ensuing 50 years, he has wandered in and out of my thoughts, a struggling, idealistic man 20 years my senior who inadvertently ignited a love of literature in me that, on some level, saved my own life.

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at

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