Pomona College Magazine
Volume 45, No. 2
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Flesh Pile in the Sky
Our sponsor group helped us grow up. Now it is helping us face death...

Story by Steve Gettinger '70 / Illustration by Stephanie Dalton Cowan

When Carl Sautter’s goldfish died in the autumn of 1966, it marked the last of our innocence, back before dope and banana peels and even beer (at least for some of us). Our freshman sponsor group in Middle Smiley Hall gathered to put Burbles to rest. All 22 of us put on suits and marched behind Carl and his fish’s matchbox coffin to the Wash. After a faux solemn burial, we proceeded back to Frary and sat together for dinner, looking like dorks and beaming with our solidarity. Because of our attire, we skipped the traditional fleshpile.

Now, four decades later, that mock funeral has become all too real. Carl Sautter, Scott Aleshire and Ian Joeck have all died. And then, last year, Doug Johnston—the blue-eyed listener who was always at the center of the pack—learned that his brain cancer had come back after two years of remission. We college pals got back in touch, trying to coax some last elliptical jokes out of him and taking notes for our own futures. Watching Doug’s last adventure brought home to me what a vital force the sponsor group remains—a Pomona tradition that is often underappreciated.

We had an unusually close sponsor group, and about half of us joined a fraternity together, keeping the tie alive. The fleshpile was our central ritual, a lot like the celebratory rushing of the mound after the last out of the World Series—except that for us, events as minor as getting a date or failing an exam could trigger guys to swarm each other to the ground.

By the time I graduated, I knew I had learned more from my friends than from my classes. (Although I can certainly hear Professor Learnihan muttering that I might feel differently if I had attended more of those classes.) We helped each other deal with romance, rejection, different lifestyles and religions, ambition and more rejection—and we talked about it all the time. It was, as Doug’s closest friend Aric Ludwig recalled, a “very primitive men’s group.”

In the years since, the Middle Smiley/Phi Delta axis has kept in touch to share the romances and rejections of adult life. Now we are learning from each other how to die. Or is it how to live?

Either way, we couldn’t do it better than Doug. He was a doctor in family practice in Northern California, married with three kids, who now are on their own adventures. As soon as he was diagnosed with cancer, he immediately quit practicing medicine because the surgery and chemotherapy might interfere.

For the next two years, between treatments, he devoted himself to getting in shape and doing things he had always wanted to do—hiking in Alaska, traveling to Brazil, bicycling through Tuscany with his son, skiing in Alta. He delved into volunteer work, joined a real men’s group and, more curiously to us, found a spiritual adviser, opening himself to a new dimension outside the bounds of organized religion.

In September 2007, after the tumor returned, Doug was still feeling good enough to join four of his sponsor group/frat brothers for a long-anticipated week of sailing through the San Juan Islands. His son Robbie came along and in the evenings the two Johnston guys would sit on the foredeck, backs to the mast, watching the sunset and talking about Doug’s sailing trips with his own father. One afternoon, Doug grabbed the helm from us, muttering “This may be my last shot at this,” and drove the boat to full wind, chortling as the boat keeled at an angle and the rest of us chanted up the numbers until the speed gauge passed 7 knots—wimpy, but a record for our trip. Later we docked at an island marina and plunged into a warm swimming pool. We dog-paddled together, chatting and bumping into each other like the puppies we had been 40 years earlier, and trying to stay immersed as long as we could in the turquoise liquid magic.

Two weeks later, the tumor started pressing on his brain. Over the month that followed, we all kept in touch with him through phone calls and e-mail, and guys came from across the country for one more B.S. session. An unanswered call met with the chipper greeting: “This is Doug—leave a message, but don’t expect me to return it quickly because I may be in a coma.” He died on Nov. 4, wearing a fraternity T-shirt—probably just the top one in the drawer after his bath, but as Doug’s wife Patty said, there may be fewer coincidences than we think in this world.

During his last two years, Doug was quite open in talking about his poor odds and his spiritual challenges, and he achieved a peace with it all that banished our lugubrious fretting. At gatherings throughout our younger years, discussion of what happens outside of this material world had always gotten buried under our beer bottles, silly rituals and maudlin reminiscences. Now, in walks and chats and e-mails, Doug cracked that vault open for all of us.

Steve Hickok, who at Pomona had been the voice of pure science, wrote to him: When I had heart surgery in 2005, I walked up to the edge of the abyss, looked in, and thought about this, and I’m providing you herewith my counsel: Call us up from the other side. This little sojourn on the surface of the planet is just a dot in eternity. So stay in touch.

Another Sagehen e-mail found on his computer: Doug, once again you are out in front, a little more experienced, leading the way. All of us guys are very, very aware that our own diagnosis awaits just around the bend. Maybe we won’t even get much warning. But we’ve learned from you that however much time we get, we need to be active about doing the wonderful things that we always wanted to do, and to include family and friends in our journey. You are leaving no claw marks behind you.

Even the most unchurched of us all, Bob Hall, confessed to Doug:

Knowing that you will be there to light beacons, open doors, and welcome us will be a comfort for the rest of us when we face the adventure you are undertaking. Of course for my part—I hope that if there are two doors, you will open the right one for me, and not send me off with the other reprobates where I probably belong. When in doubt, I will yell out: “Where’s Captain Doug? He can vouch for me!”

P.S.—I am writing to all the guys to tell them it is time for us to get our spiritual act together. Maybe a few less lies and jokes at the next reunion and a little more serious talk and meditation. Not that we shouldn’t still laugh a lot.

In fact, those Pomona reunions had already become more sacred to us. Every five years, we go to the official class function in Claremont and enjoy it, but then we retreat together to a cabin in the Mojave Desert for a few days to catch up, listen to the old albums on a portable stereo, and play the fool. In 2010, we’ll all be in our 60s, rather than back in the 60s. Maybe it’s time to look ahead, not back.

After Doug died, Bob wrote to the rest of us: That last morning when I was visiting Doug at home a few weeks ago, he played the piano for me—with his one good hand, ignoring the pages that flapped back and forth before him. When I asked him what he was playing, he pointed at the top of the page: “The Crystal Ship” by the Doors. He turned to me and gave me his incredible big smile—it was a smile to remember—and said: “I took up the piano to learn this song.”

“The days are bright and filled with pain
Enclose me in your gentle rain
The time you ran was too insane
We’ll meet again, we’ll meet again.”


 

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