These days as the war goes on, I recall Grinkus and Pepper, a short man and a tall man, or vice versa, one in a tweed jacket and the other in a tan topcoat. The taller of the two, Grinkus or Pepper, is wittier and more forthright in public: he speaks out when he speaks up. The other, Pepper or Grinkus, is subdued in front of a crowd, but he radiates determination, even sturdiness.
These are impressions of Grinkus and Pepper formed during the hour that I saw them together, and failed to get their names right, in the spring of 1964, a few months after the assassination of John F. Kennedy. I was a high school student in a group of high school students undergoing a day of orientation at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. We had been shown the gymnasium, the swimming pool, the bookstore, and of course the library, a stolid edifice of heavy stone, dark wood and dim recesses. We had trudged behind our smiling guides to International House in a distant corner of the campus, where we were displayed to students from Asia, Africa and Europe, or perhaps they were displayed to us. We were ushered into the lobby of a student residence with the reversible name of Fort Camp or Camp Fort, where a notice on the wall listed curfew times for coeds, and we learned that the term coed applied only to girls in universities, and that boys in universities could stay out as late as they liked.
We criss-crossed the campus several times until eventually we were assembled in an echoing room with a high ceiling and addressed by an ancient personage in cap and gown, a dean of something, who spoke with the deeply condescending inflections of the British Empire and who seemed to be saying that real life would begin for us when we achieved “well-roundedness.” He was followed by handsome fraternity boys and cheerful sorority girls, who spoke enthusiastically of the glamour of university life and the important connections to be made while living it as they were doing. It was an altogether dull day, the tenor of which resembled the hearty and tedious documentaries of the National Film Board; and furthermore, the pretty classmate whose attention I craved, and whose presence in the group was the reason that I had signed up for the orientation, had spoken only a few words to me all day. More young men and women appeared in the echoing room to discourse on majors and minors, dormitory life, cafeteria food, the zany pranks of the engineers and an event called a chariot race that involved barrels filled with liquid manure. I can see the face of my pretty classmate and hear the delicate lisp in her speech, but her name, which hovers on the verge of memory whenever I think of Grinkus and Pepper, is hidden by the only clear memory I retain of that day, which is the appearance of Grinkus and Pepper at this moment in the echoing room, introduced—by another smiling coed, who knew more about the world than I gave her credit for—as the oldest students on campus, the taller man in the tan topcoat and the shorter man in the tweed jacket, who rose from chairs at the side and stepped into the light. They were “oldest” students only by virtue of having been enrolled at the university for longer than anyone else in recent memory: I doubt that they were ten years older than me.
They spoke to us, Grinkus and Pepper, one of them and then the other, of continuous learning, of studying literature in several languages, studying physics, chemistry, history, biology, the newfangled discipline of political science; Anglo-Saxon, Greek, Latin; law and economics; they described intellectual life as completely promiscuous, confined not to “disciplines” and not to the system of majors and minors, which they switched into and out of at their own whim and with no compunction, and not to the system of degrees granted or faculties joined: one must study everything, they said. They were above the law, beyond the reach of food policies, dormitories, curfew, examinations: they were free to study, to entertain themselves with learning. They were not useful, they were not hearty: theirs was the peripatetic life of the mind, a clear contradiction of the Presbyterianism of the world of learning, of the work ethic and the fraternities and sororities and football games and heartiness that constituted its alibi.
I was seized by Grinkus and Pepper, and when I entered the university in the fall and began to sink under the heavy dullness of the institution, the weary and bitter teachers, the punitive curricula and the mass of dull regulation, I knew, without knowing who was Pepper, who was Grinkus, that there would be ways to stymie the system, to find a light for learning by, to achieve an intellectual life. It was not easy, but for a while it was possible.
Over the years I saw Grinkus and Pepper several times at a distance, singly; whenever I saw one of them I looked for the other, but I never saw them together after that day at the orientation session. I last observed the tall one, Grinkus or Pepper, walking rapidly across the lawn in front of the library in 1965 or early ’66; in memory he still wears the tan topcoat; the other, the shorter of them, either Pepper or Grinkus, I continued to see after that last sighting of the taller one; and later, when I left university for a year and came back in ’67, he was still there, the shorter one, Grinkus or Pepper, strolling across the campus or sipping coffee in the cafeteria, pursuing his endless studies. Sometime in 1968, the year that Robert Kennedy was assassinated, my friend Jon and I were discussing the Songs of Innocence and Experience by William Blake in front of the library, when Grinkus or Pepper, the shorter one, walked right up to us and said hello to my friend Jon, who said to me, have you met Grinkus yet?—Grinkus is a student of the war in Vietnam, and I understood then that the other, Pepper, had been the taller of Grinkus and Pepper. I looked around for Pepper, who was not to be seen. Grinkus had a briefcase in one hand and a sheaf of papers under his arm. He and Jon, who seemed to have known him for some time, talked about his work on the war, and then Grinkus said to me: and so, what are you doing about the war? Well, for one thing, I said, I’m reading the poetry of William Blake. Yes, reading Blake is very good, Grinkus said, but will it do? The weight of foreign wars, of history, seemed to emanate from his eyes, and from the thick files he carried under his arm.
Lately I have been thinking of Grinkus and Pepper: I wonder what they make of the present war, the present wars, the present government, the hordes of homeless people freezing in our cities. These days one wishes to consult Grinkus and Pepper: to cite them in footnotes, to be astonished by the acumen of Grinkus and Pepper, to be led out of the murk and cloud of unknowing. But that was never the destiny of Grinkus and Pepper, whose appearance in my life constituted one of those butterfly-wing moments that can alter the course of things by the degree or two required to bring one to this present moment, remembering Grinkus and Pepper, or vice versa, the taller one and the shorter one, who in a brief hour in 1964 can be said to have changed everything.