May 15, 2015
Al Ulmer – A Remembrance
It is just over a year now since Al died and I haven’t contributed to his memorial. It’s not that I didn’t know what to say. It’s that I didn’t know where to begin. How do you describe a rich friendship of over 50 years and do it any justice? What do you say about the life of a man who was the most alive of anyone you have ever known? I guess you just have to start at the beginning. I hope to capture what was special about Al through telling stories about him that I either knew first-hand or heard about. I hope they provide some flavor of this remarkable man.
I first met Al on the first day of 1962 when we were roommates during a Peace Corps orientation for Al’s group (Nigeria III) in Lagos. By this time I had been in-country since September of 1961, training at University College, Ibadan. I can’t say that I got to know him then because by the next morning he was goneoff to the wonderful beaches of Badagri. He was wasting no time learning about Nigeria.
I barely saw him while we were in Lagos, but by sheer coincidence we were stationed at schools just miles apart: me at Government Technical Institute in Enugu, capital of the Eastern Region, and Al at St Patrick’s Secondary School in Emene, a few miles out the Abakaliki Road.
We got to be friends mainly through sports: basketball, tennis and an occasional game of golf when we could sneak onto the Sports Club course and play a few rounds surreptitiously. He was better at basketball and I usually beat him at tennis, and we were both about equally bad at golf. Any further semblance of athletic equality ends there.
Soon a small group of Peace Corps Volunteers stationed in or near Enugu, the capitol of the Eastern Region, began getting together to decompress by playing basketball on Friday afternoons, usually at Emene at Al’s school. The basketball court had been built on the grounds of St Patrick’s Secondary School, under Al’s guidance.
The usual participants included Al, Don Goodyear, Jim Myrick , Phil Wagner and me. Less frequently Julian Martin and Aubrey Brown were able to join in. They lived at some distance from Enugu. Others joined as available.
After the usual game, exhausted by the midday African sun, we retired to Al’s house and partook of a cooling libation of Star beer, cooled to slightly less than room temperature by Al’s very small propane-powered fridge. After about four bottles, the fridge’s capacity, we continued on with warm beer (learning from our British colleagues). Occasionally, we would also have a treat of yams fried in palm oil. Over the years, Al made many disparaging remarks about my capacity for fried yams.
As we cooled down, inevitably the talk turned to current affairs, philosophy, history, and literature (we were all avid readers). Don Goodyear, being older, better schooled, and no doubt wiser, would gently prod us along with Socratic questions and astonished remarks about some of our less-informed opinions. This led to a good deal of genteel and, as the beer consumption proceeded apace, to somewhat heated exchanges.
I have gone on at length about this fellowship because it provided the foundation for our long-time friendship. It was during this time that we discovered how much we had in common. We both were more or less southerners, constantly aware of the role that racism played in our histories and trying to root it out of our own psyches. We both loved sports and we both read widely and eclectically. We had both been very religious and were still trying to make sense of our beliefs. And finally, we both were hoping to find ways to live socially useful lives when we returned to the US after the Peace Corps.
To avoid writing a full-blown biography of our friendship, I’ll just sketch some of our contacts after we left Nigeria. We missed meeting by one day in Naples in the winter of 64, Al on his bike headed for Israel and me hitchhiking from Athens to Paris. Later, In New York City that summer, Al showed up the proud owner of a Morris Minor convertible and we proceeded on a Mr Toad’s Wild Ride from Manhattan to White City, NY to try to find the Goodyears; unfortunately we didn’t have an address; riding around at 11 pm yelling Goodyear didn’t work and the local police force were no help either.
I went off to grad school at UCLA and Al to Atlanta as an intern in a civil rights organization and later the Southern Regional Council. He married Robin Limpus of Nigeria I Peace Corps and they worked together in Atlanta and eventually moved to North Carolina. We wrote, but didn’t see each other until I left UCLA to teach at Texas Southern University in Houston.
The summer of ’66, before I started at Texas Southern and before the Ulmers moved to North Carolina, found me in Atlanta teaching in a Peace Corps training program at Morehouse College. The Goodyears were also there and stayed with the Ulmers. Don was training Peace Corps history teacher
That summer was full of hard work and lots of improvised fun, most of which Al initiated. Al and I snuck into the Atlanta Municipal Golf Course to play nine holes in a driving rain; we figured nobody would be out to dissuade us. We organized a spontaneous field trip to Tennessee to visit our Peace Corps friend Jim Myrick and his new wife. Of course, we didn’t bother to inform the Myricks of our coming. The local community was no doubt surprised to find their local black neighbor suddenly host to a houseful of white folk. It was fun: we ate wonderful southern food, hiked, played basketball, and told lies.
One rainy afternoon toward the end of the summer, we had a paper airplane contest to see who could build the plane that would fly the farthest off the Ulmer porch. As we gained practice our efforts improved and the lead changed hands with every round. Then we declared a final round before dinner. Al flew next to last. He tied a fair sized rock to his plane and threw it as far as it would go. It was longest. We all declared foul but Al argued that there were no rules as to means of propulsion. I flew last. I had been working on a design that resembled the U2 spy planevery sleek and aerodynamic. I wafted it off the porch and it flew almost a block and landed in a church yard. Ulmer couldn’t believe it! He wanted another round. Robin put an end to that by insisting it was dinner time. That may be the last time that I ever beat Al in a competition, except maybe in Botticelli.
That summer we exhausted the limits of the word/knowledge game Botticelli. Al had an agile mind and was well enough read to stump us ofteneven Goodyear. However, Goodyear, being an historian, usually won. Our last game involved the word solon, posed by Goodyear. We all denied it was even a word, never mind Merriam-Webster. We all exclaimed we had never heard it, read it, seen it in print, seen reference to it. Sure enough, as Robin has reported in writing about Goodyear, the very next morning Solon appeared in a headline above the fold on the front page of the Atlanta Journal.
My first summer vacation from Houston I drove all night to surprise Al and Robin on a mountain top near Boone, where they were building a log cabin and raising cabbage. They were certainly surprised to return to their tent to discover me asleep in it. Al would essentially begin his stonemasonry craft with that cabin.
I helped with the cabin and they had a constant stream of visitors all summer. Admission to the premises required bringing up a bucket of fresh water from a spring down in the nearby hollow. It was a hard uphill walk both directions. That summer, we worked hard and then went fishing and swimming at every opportunity. We also made home-brew, some of which actually made it into bottles before we could drink it out of the stone fermentation vat. This log cabin was probably the only one in the state with a copy of The Whole Earth Catalog in the outhouse.
An anecdote from the cabin building. I was helping Al put up a log rafter. We had one end up on the wall sill and were lifting the other to attach to the central beam. We were working with at least 150-200 pounds. Just when we thought we had it in place it slipped and fell on Al’s toe. Without pause, Al launched into a riff from Monty Python: Oi think I dropped it on me toe. Oh yes, Oi did drop it on me toe in a perfect Cockney accent. This while tears were streaming down his face and with a toe that needed serious medical attention.
I repeated the visit the next summer and then went back to grad school at UCLA, after briefly flirting with the idea of joining Al and Robin on the property and becoming a strawberry farmer. Al and Robin lost their first child, Laurel, to an illness and eventually moved to West Virginia. We sort of lost touch over this time period, although we still stayed in communication through letters, especially Xmas letters and Robin’s beautiful annual cards. When I married Judy Olmsted, Al and Robin offered a tote sack full of new potatoes as a wedding present, although we had to come pick them up. Never did.
Al and Robin and new daughter Spring moved from West Virginia to Williston, VT and then several years later to Essex, NY, within sight of Lake Champlain. Each place required a new stone house and you can see the evolution of Al’s stonemasonry skill in the houses.
It so happened that I had taken a position with a UCLA project in Egypt and was able to see Al and Robin at least once a year as I travelled back and forth. My first wife, Judy Olmsted, had family in Hanover, NH and Norfolk, VT, so we when we visited her family we were within easy driving distance of the Ulmers. On one visit Al and I walked out to meet the school bus that was to take Spring to her first day of school. As we returned to the house, I could see Al wiping a tear from his eye.
My visits to the Ulmers were always adventures and learning experiences. Robin was sure to have stories of local events, tours of the garden in season, and an arm’s-length of suggested readings. Al had a way of making every activity exciting, whether it was a tennis game, a trip to a hardware store to check out a new tool, a visit to a library or ice cream parlor, or a game of Scrabble. His eyes would light up in delight as he thought of things to do. And of course Robin just egged him on. One of my fondest memories was from a visit in 2012. We came across a barn sale near their house. Al couldn’t be contained: There be bargains there! There wasn’t much of interest except Robin scouted out a stuffed tiger, about 4 feet nose to tail. She had to have it to take to Ophie (Ophelia), Spring’s large dog. Cost 50 cents, I think. When we got home, Robin put it down near Ophie, who eyed the interloper with great trepidation and started barking. With some coaxing they soon became friends. Check the photos on the site for Ophie and Tige. So, sure nuff: there were bargains there.
In the fall of 2006, Alice and I visited the Ulmers only to discover a great fire roaring. As we drove our rental car up to their place, we saw smoke, which we soon realized emanated from the Ulmer’s woodshed. I ran to move their car away from the blazing woodshed while Alice banged on the door and windows of the house to alert Robin to the fire. Unfortunately, the car was on a steeper incline than I had anticipated and soon the car was backing downhill toward Lake Champlain at an alarming rate; I managed to get it turned but only after it had sideswiped our rental car and then backed on down their driveway on its way north to Montreal with me scurrying alongside. I was able to stop it only by turning it into a tree. On returning from work, Al took one look and commented: Well, like the Vietnam village, I guess you had to destroy it to save it
Late in Al’s disease, as it became physically impossible to deal with heavy lifting that might cause bone damage, Al created an ingenious boom crane on the back of his ATV so he could go out in the woods behind the house and collect logs for firewood. He demonstrated the device with great delight. He wasn’t about to let any illness keep him from doing his chores. Along the same lines, he created (with no little help from Robin) a small green house in the garden with running water in a stone basin just outside for washing vegetables. The green house had a clever vent in the roof that opened and closed as needed. Al had rigged the mechanism from an old car jack.
Al was a complex man with many personas:, pacifist, peace advocate, civil rights worker, farmer, stonemason, shade tree mechanic, quarry operator, inventor, back hoe driver, raconteur, artist, sportsman, writer, outdoorsman, scholar, sailor, teacher, friend. He was the most competitive person I ever met. I would never have understood Michael Jordan or Derek Jeter if I hadn’t known Al.
From the beginnings of their relationship, Al and Robin strived to live in balance; they continually simplified their lives and minimized their material needs. Together they tried to figure out how to live as naturally and ethically as they could. For me, they have served as a moral compass, causing me to periodically re-examine my own beliefs and actions.
Al is gone now but lives in the minds and stories of those left behind whom he loved, aggravated, prodded, entertained, embraced and inspired. We’ll not see his like again.
San Jose, California