Monday, September 5, 2005

Remembering Roommate Ronald Cardwell

University of Notre Dame
Fifty years ago this fall John Bellairs began life as a college undergraduate at the University of Notre Dame. While there are the usual number of firsts anyone undergoes transitioning from high school to college, one first of Bellairs's was this semester he had a roommate in Zahm Hall. Actually, in four years of college at Notre Dame, Ronald Cardwell would be Bellairs's only room mate.

Whatever happened to Cardwell is uncertain but another Zahm resident - Bellairs's life-long friend Alfred Myers - was nice enough to recall their brief encounter:
Ron hailed from Columbus, Ohio, was a couple of years older than us, and far more street-wise. He was paying his own way through school, but the really interesting thing about him was that he was a dedicated and serious poet.

He let us read a few of his efforts. They were way above my callow and loutish ability to comprehend them at the time, but even I could appreciate their power and strong imagery. I regarded him as a potential genius and still do, to this day.

Ron liked the both of us, and called us Little Johnny and Little Alfa -- you know John's size, and I was 6 foot 1½ inches and a pudgy 200 pounds. He gave me a bunch of books that he'd read which were major influences in forming my own literary tastes. They included the Viking Portable Faulkner, Crime and Punishment (Bellairs reported that Ron would occasionally pound his chest and proclaim, "I am Rodian Romanovich Raskolnikov!"), and an anthology of short stories which included Lionel Trilling's "Of This Time, Of That Place" about an insane student in one of his classes. I once amazed one of John's University of Chicago friends that I, a mere M.B.A. candidate, would actually have encountered and read that story. Bellairs told me that several times Ron said, "what did I give Little Alfie all those books for!" but I'm grateful that he did.

I remember once when Ron read one of Bellairs's English papers. I had read it too; it was just a bit of routine freshman boilerplate of the type that is ground out by the gross ton each year in colleges across the land. Ron made a number of specific criticisms of a technical or stylistic nature: excessive use of passive tense, inconsistent point of view, too many adverbs, etc. They seemed quite reasonable improvements to me, but the interesting thing is they made John furious that anyone would have the impertinence to criticize one of his sacred texts. John was generally one of the most good-natured individuals that I've ever met, but this was one of the few times I ever saw him blow his stack and get shouting mad.

There's another Cardwell story worth relating. Zahm Hall had bunk beds, and one afternoon Ron was dozing in the top bunk with one hand dangling down the side. John and I decided to test the proposition known to all children and immature teenagers that if you soak a sleeping person's hand in warm water it will make him wet in his pants. We surreptitiously searched for the proper container, tiptoed to another room to fill it from the sink, and returned like a couple of priests of an occult religion bearing a holy vessel. Unfortunately, our intended target opened his eyes at the last second and said, "you two ain't gonna do nothing with that water," thus preventing a possibly significant advance in scientific knowledge. It's amazing the insignificant things one remembers and cherishes across the decades!

Towards the end of the year I asked John whether Frank O'Malley had seen any of Cardwell's verse. John said that O'Malley had and that he had flipped over it. Unfortunately, O'Malley's enthusiasm was not able to keep Ron in school. He had mediocre (but passing) grades in all subjects but English, and at the end of the year he dropped out of Notre Dame and out of our lives. For the next 25 years of so, whenever I was in a bookstore, I would be sure to check the new releases of the Grove Press or New Directions variety to see if he ever did break into print, but I found nothing. This is probably too much space to spend on Ron, but I've always regretted that his talent wasn't nurtured.

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