July 1996

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Ed Harris

Thanks for the Memoirs


Bill Kauffman

In 1980, on the occasion of his retirement, Edwin N. Harris won the American Concrete Industry's Sutter Award for "outstanding contributions to the concrete industry." Thereupon he dawdled and puttered a bit, but only for a bit, for he proceeded to write a delightful memoir, which he called Harpending's Corners and which, to their great credit, Bill and Martha Treichler published serially in The Crooked Lake Review.

Ed thus filled, with real distinction, one of the yawning gaps in American writing, as in the babble of American bookchat one voice that is almost never heard is that of the solid middle-class man of business. Ed's vocation was, in a sense, fitting preparation for his avocation, for Harpending's Corners is—well, concrete. It bears no trace of woolgathering; Ed set out to record the events of his life, and he did so with clarity, wit, and a plainspoken and felicitous style.

I had enjoyed reading Ed's tales for some months before I finally met him, over sandwiches and beer at the Avon Inn. I was pleased to find him a tall, grinning, laconic man with a becoming modesty. Ed was wont to call his writing "artless" and himself a "not-so-polished wannabe," but he was wrong—as I suspect he knew. And knows. (I write in an uncertain tense because Ed suffered a stroke a while back, and his recovery has been arduous.)

Edwin N. Harris's Harpending's Corners is a fond but clear-eyed account of one man's life; he finds humor in the everyday, and the sacred in the quotidian. The farm on which Ed grew up near Dundee had been in the family since 1811; he was very much at home and at ease in its vicinage, which is one reason he wrote about it with grace. His recollections are picaresque (scrawling dirty limericks on the wall of the Tyrone District Number 6's privy—and getting caught); entertainingly quaint (his dad curing young Ed's earaches by blowing tobacco smoke into the ear); and, often, poignant. He brought the old Dundee ghosts back to life, animating them via some telling detail, as with Husky Norris, the hired man on the farm, who was abashed by guilt for taking part in a fixed wrestling match staged by itinerant promoters. Husky turned down their offer of a job with the traveling show because, as he explained to the boy who looked up to him, "Ed, I can't rassle that way—it's just not fair."

I laughed aloud at many of the stories Ed told—usually on himself—throughout Harpending's Corners. There was the ill-fated trip he and four of his green Dundee chums took to the Chicago World's Fair in 1934, in the vain hope of watching Sally Rand dance. Or the disastrous attempt he and his boss, Fred Hines, made to dynamite a boulder in Mendon. ("It would be a good experience for you," Hines told Ed, who noted, "'Good experience' generally meant that I wouldn't get paid.") Another favorite of mine was Ed's account of the day in 1972 that a storm stranded him at a hotel in New Hartford, where he fell in with a coffin salesman and a mortician. He stayed up into the wee hours playing (and winning big) at poker, but when he stood to leave the mortician said gravely: "No, it doesn't work that way. If you don't want to sit down and give us a chance maybe Frank has a nice silk-lined mahogany box for you—right, Frank? Ed's about six feet tall, okay Frank?" Ed sat back down and duly—and wisely—lost.

One of Ed's final installments concerned a brawling gang of Barge Canallers, tough men and tougher women, who busted up a Pittsford tavern in 1940. Ed, always alert to the better part of valor, vaulted the bar to watch the melee from a distance; another patron, "a gentleman, more polished and better educated than the rest of us locals, stood up, and with misery in his eyes bravely determined to intervene. I shuddered when he walked up to Grinder to address him.

"'I'm here to tell you that I don't believe in grown men hitting women—why can't you hit someone your own size?'

"'Glad to friend,' and Grinder promptly sent his chivalrous protester into a crumpled heap against the brass rail at the foot of the bar."

Cheek-by-jowl with Ed's always amusing, sometimes bawdy stories were passages that suggest just how deep his waters run. For instance, he was fascinated by Malcolm Cowley's account of an epiphany Walt Whitman experienced in 1853 or 1854 because Ed, too, had once seen God, or a simulacrum thereof:

"Mine happened in July or August of 1939. I was alone in the office of my employer, Fred J. Hines, who was supervising a pipe line job at Ovid, N. Y. I had finished lunch and became extemely sleepy so I laid my head on Fred's desk, sitting on his swivel rocker. I slept soundly, perspiring—for it was a warm day. Just before awaking I seemed to be bathed in a brilliant white light that illuminated the secrets of the universe, or so it seemed, and I recall being very happy. The illumination was brief. Awake, I tried to recall any detail it had shown me and was sad when I could not. I never mentioned the experience to anyone until now, but it is still clear in my memory, well over 50 years later."

Ed had a stern Quaker grandmother, Grandma Dillistin, rather a tough old crone who was always telling him that he'd never amount to anything. Well, Grandma was wrong. Her grandson turned out to be a good family man, a respected businessman, and, in retirement, a fine memoirist whose recollections exceeded 101,000 words, a total he noted with deserved pride.

When a newspaper columnnist urged retired folks with an urge to "express themselves artistically" to sit down and wait for this, too, to pass, Ed's reply was classic:

I too know a very likeable guy who has fallen to the curse. I know him so well he has some privileges around my house. (Sleeps with my wife regularly.) He had management training and was considered a well-organized man by his peers. Stable—not given to fanciful fits.

At first symptoms he followed the stock advice, sat down in a quiet place, and there remained until he slept. Awaking he seized a blank sheet of paper and wrote six subjects of proposed creative endeavor and nailed them to the basement wall with the commitment of a Luther at the Wittemberg doors. Enough items, he hoped, to prevent anyone knowing just what he was up to at any given time:

Collectible and Furniture Refinishing
Memoir Writing
History Study
Writers Workshops
Home Improvement Projects
(The last to limit confrontations with the lady upstairs.)

In three years he refinished 15 pieces of old furniture, organized some 70-odd collectibles, all carefully researched, catalogued, and photographed.

Friends and neighbors quickly lost interest after the second showing. Antique dealers showed some faint interest—offered to help him 'clean out the place' whenever he was ready.

A sally into seven family genealogies was viewed with amusement, but tolerated by his wife until she discovered that each 'vacation' tour invariably led to visits of faraway cemeteries, large city and small town libraries, historical societies, and other obscurities. It was distracting when his research assistant complained, 'When are we going to see something worthwhile, and when am I going to get something to eat? I think you're getting it all mixed up anyway.'

Well, writing is on his list, so he might as well start. Never mind how unprepared. What the hell, he has his Strunk & White Elements of Style that his high school English teacher has assured him was all he needed. But to be safe he picked up some college textbooks at garage sales. Four chapters in he shows it to the 17-year-old grandson and anticipates the delighted response. Critics can be hard to please.

'People must have been crazy to live like that. I've had almost that much happen to me already. Well, have fun, Grandpa—you can leave me a copy to read if you care to.'

Ah well, maybe I could step up my birdwatching a little. Then there's always golf.

To the everlasting gratitude of readers of the Crooked Lake Review and the Dundee Observer, Ed forsook the birdies and bogies for the typewriter. He told us the story of a life worth telling, and worth living, too. Thank you, Ed.

A Tribute to Ed Harris by Bill Treichler

© 1996, Bill Kauffman
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