"I wasn't trying to become a folk-hero, all I was trying to do was piss off the Colby goalie." So began a letter to the editor, published in the March 7, 1986 issue of the Bowdoin Orient, the student newspaper that touts itself as the oldest continuously published student weekly in the country.
The Orient was founded in 1871 but the March 7, 1986 issue was the first one I read. Right around the time the March 7 issue arrived at the offices of Maine Times, just across the Androscoggin River from Bowdoin College, I began work as a staff writer at the storied (but, alas, now defunct) alternative newsweekly.
Maine Times had subscriptions to essentially every newspaper in the state, so I don't know why I happened to take a look at the Orient that week among all of the other publications kicking around the office. Perhaps it was because, for me, Bowdoin represented the road not taken; a few years earlier, I had reluctantly spurned Bowdoin's offer of admission in favor of Middlebury. Both schools were very impressive but Bowdoin had just gone co-ed whereas Middlebury had started accepting women in 1883. I preferred a college that was not still laboring over how to integrate women into its academic and social fabric.
Thirty-five years after reading that newspaper reference to annoying the Colby College netkeeper, I am today the dad of a Bowdoin College sophomore who is also serving as one of the Orient's news editors. So I have lately been reminded of something I knew back then in my Maine Times days: Bowdoin (in Brunswick) and Colby (in Waterville) share an intense rivalry. It is literally true that my daughter had not been admitted to Bowdoin for more than two days before she started making disparaging comments about Colby. It must be in the air or something.
In any event, recently I dispatched the news editor in question to rifle through back-issues of her newspaper to see if she could come up with the above-referenced letter to the editor. I remembered only that it had been published at some time during my four years at Maine Times. She quickly hit paydirt.
Why had I remembered this letter for 35 years? You'll see. Here is the rest of it, in its entirety:
"You see it all started off when I got this bright idea to purchase a big, smelly 10 lb. dead fish at the Brunswick Fish Market to throw onto the ice. Now the only problem left was how to get the thing in? Let me just say now that I was very determined, so when they evicted me from the rink the first time trying to sneak in the back door I didn't let that stop me.
"So I went to the front door and had a girl-friend smuggle the fish in for me, a no lose solution since females couldn't be frisked. Ahhh, at last I had the fish inside and was positioned to commit the filthy deed.
"I waited anxiously and my pulse rose higher and higher as Bowdoin began their first power play possession. I grabbed the fish by the gills just as the puck was passed in front of the net, and then rifled in by a Bowdoin player. The crowd erupted, tennis balls and oranges filled the air, my moment had finally arrived. I cocked my arm back and let the beast fly, gliding gracefully in the air, and then finally sliding to a stop in front of the Colby goalie.
"I was ecstatic with happiness, but suddenly emotions changed to fear as I noticed a Brunswick police officer below me. The next thing I knew I was outside the rink and my ID card had been confiscated by a Bowdoin five-o-man.
"Now I realize that this whole story might sound like a big joke, but I would just like to assure you all that it is not. Throwing dead animals onto the ice at hockey games is not a very mature thing to do. I now realize this and also that I used poor judgment in committing the act.
"I am now living proof that Bowdoin will no longer stand for this kind of behavior by students at hockey games as I have been suspended from all remaining games. I just hope that those young kids I heard talking about me don't get any bright ideas of their own."
The letter is signed "Andrew A. Godfrey '88."
I do not know Andrew A. Godfrey of the Bowdoin College Class of 1988. I have no knowledge of the circumstances that led him to write this missive. I just know it is the best letter the editor I have ever read -- and I consider myself both a connoisseur of this literary form and a pretty decent practitioner of the art myself.
In fact, having just read A Swim in a Pond in the Rain by George Saunders -- coincidentally, assigned reading in a course my daughter is currently taking at Bowdoin -- I'd say Mr. Godfrey's letter meets the standard Saunders lays out for excellence in the short story form as well. That is a big deal just because Saunders is among the most accomplished short story writers practicing the craft these days. It is also because A Swim in a Pond in the Rain represents Saunders' roadmap to accomplishment in short fiction, using seven stories by Chekov, Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Gogol -- each quoted in its entirety -- as case studies.
"The fundamental unit of storytelling is a two-part move," Saunders reports. "First, the writer creates an expectation. . . . Second, the wriger responds to (or 'uses' or 'exploits' or 'honors' that set of expectations. But not too tightly (using those expectations in a way that feels too linear or phoned in) and not too loosely (taking the story off in some random direction that bears no relation to the expectations it has created."
Advising his acolytes on how to write short stories -- Saunders teaches fiction at Syracuse University -- he urges concision as a primary virtue. Two exercises at the end of the book are intended to help aspiring writers delete excess verbiage. In that regard, I am sure Saunders would appreciate the very lean and concise short story that Andrew A. Godfrey '88 managed to sneak past the editors of the Orient back during the Reagan Administration.
Re-reading Godfrey's letter 35 years after its publication made me think of Tolstoy and, in particular, something Saunders observed about this Russian master of fiction. After taking his readers through Tolstoy's short story "Master and Man," which recounts the last day in the life of a cruel man who finds redemption (and death) in a snowstorm, Saunders explains that "Tolstoy is proposing something radical: moral transformation."
And, Saunders continues, "what a relief this model of transformation is. What else do we have but what we were born with and have always, thus far, been served (and imprisoned) by? . . . We don't have to become an entirely new person to do better: our view just has to be readjusted, our natural energy turned in the right direction. We don't have to swear off our powers or repent of who we are or what we like to do or at good at doing. Those are our horses," Saunders writes and, alluding to the horse-drawn conveyance that delivers the main character of "Master and Man" to his death and redemption, "we just have to hit them to the right, uh, sled."
Is this not precisely the sort of transformation Andrew A. Godfrey '88 is describing, on a first-person basis, in the March 7, 1986 issue of the Bowdoin Orient? Does he not metamorphose, from his prior life as a fish-hurling miscreant to his new consciousness as a morally aware man who is concerned about "young kids" and their "bright ideas"?
"A story is a frank, intimate conversation between equals," according to Saunders. "We keep reading because we continue to feel respected by the writer."
Saunders makes that point by way of suggesting that a great short story does not say too much. For example, did Andrew A. Godfrey '88 tell his Orient readers that some officious dean had ordered him to draft and issue a public letter of apology for his self-described moment of ecstasy?
No he did not, because omitting that detail was an expression of respect for his readers -- mid-1980s undergraduates who knew a thing or two about collegiate bureaucrats with disciplinary responsibilities. No one on the Bowdoin College campus in 1986 could possibly have been unfamiliar with the 1978 film "Animal House" and the infamous Dean Wormer -- the Faber College administrator who, among other things, gave this order to the denizens of the Delta Tau Chi frat house: "No more fun of any kind!"
There is no more unapologetic an apology in American literature than the one provided by Andrew A. Godfrey '88 to his fellow Bowdoin Polar Bears after the Colby game in 1986. Do we know beyond any doubt that he wrote under duress? We do not. Is it the only plausible explanation for this missive and its narrative ark? Yes it is. Does it faithfully, if only instinctively, follow the graph at page 138 of A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, tracing the path of a short story from exposition to rising action, climax, falling action, and ultimately to resolution? Hell yes.
Would Tolstoy see moral transformation here? I think he would. After all, as Saunders noted, it's not a matter of becoming an "entirely new person;" it is a question of readjusting one's view and turning one's energy "in the right direction." This, I submit, is what Andrew A. Godfrey '88 has done and done well.
There is a twist, I hasten to add. But it is more a matter of Google than Gogol.
Hoping to find an e-mail address for Mr. Godfrey, I punched his name and his alma mater into the ol' search engine. No e-mail coordinates popped up, but his essay in the March 7, 2012 issue of the Aspen Times in Colorado did.
The subject of this essay -- brace yourself for a turn of events worthy of any of the Russian masters in Saunders' book -- is the March 3, 1974 plane crash that Mr. Godfrey, then just eight years old, survived, along with an older brother. Their parents, and two of their other siblings, died. Worse, in part because the pilot of the small plane had not filed a flight plan covering their planned journey from Houston to Aspen, Andrew and Mark Godfrey (who lost both legs in the accident) had to survive for three days in the snow at the crash site on a hillside near Glendale, Colorado until rescuers found them and helicoptered them to safety. (More recently, the story became a documentary by director John Breen, entitled 3 Days 2 Nights.)
On the continuum of life experiences, the plane crash occupies an end of the spectrum precisely opposite to that of a graceful arc as formed by a ten-pound fish hurled onto the ice at a Bowdoin hockey game. There is little more to be said. Except: Early March seems to be a consequential time of year for Andrew A. Godfrey '88 ... the plane crash, his non-apologetic letter of repentance to the Orient, his publication of an account of the crash.
Also: A horrific and life-shattering experience like that might, in a lesser individual, have engendered a chronic case of Humor Deficit Disorder. But, as Andrew A. Godfrey '88 demonstrated on March 6, 1986, his laughter and sense of mischief endured. I hope it endures to this day. I hope he doesn't mind the resurrection and global circulation of his fabulous letter.