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reed magazine logoAutumn 2009


Laughter, and the exuberance of our youth were magic shields. Hamlet’s slings and arrows did not touch us. We knew, you see, that we would go on to real lives in the real world. And so we did not wonder what would become of Tom Kelly.

An amateur tennis champion before the war, Tom would take me to the courts on late Saturday afternoons. Rallying gloriously with him on and on into the deepening dusk, endorphins blazing, I could do no wrong, because he never tired and never failed to return my ball with that easy stroke of his. I found this a very good way to be with Tom.

We students were all in love with each other in those unencumbered days. And I found time for many. Various serious students during classroom hours. An intense poet in the coffee shop in the afternoons. My handsome beer-drinking chum in the evenings, the swing shift, as I thought of it. And my sturdy roommate for the graveyard shift. But Sunday evenings were for Tom.

He would come to collect me at the dorm, dress shoes gleaming, and off we would go, by bus, for the steak dinner. I felt somewhat guilty, in view of my feelings about his bare ankles. But I ignored all that, because the college dining room did not serve meals Sunday evenings and because I loved steak and because I could never afford it on my own. I wondered, though, if he could. I wondered what he gave up, to spend money that way.

He didn’t seem to want anything from me, beyond my company and my appreciation of the meal. This undermined my notions of boy-girl relationships. Were it not for the guilt, it would have been actually liberating.

He talked to me about what it was like to be him. About the dreadful loneliness of being forgotten for months in the white snow and the cold. Of his youthful, prewar desire just to play tennis. Nowadays, to be in his head was to be able to sit on the ground for uncharted periods, engrossed in the movement of an ant across the pavement, and to know that this experience of time was as valid, as real as any other. He shook up my idea of what “consciousness” is all about.

Tom’s was hardly academia’s definition of the life of the mind. Like justice, the established order is blind to individuation. I began dimly to see in Tom the rarity of the person who is to such an extent original—uncontaminated, unstructured by abstractions telling us how to think, how to behave, what is important, what is to be valued. He didn’t give a damn about degrees. Or standards. Or careers. Thoughts of these things didn’t even enter his mind.

One night, an incident occurred. Tom was arrested in front of the Great Lawn. He was out there in the middle of the quiet tree-lined street reading a poem by Shelley in the light of the full moon. The cruising cops, ever vigilant, trundled him down to the station, where he was queried for some hours. They released him later that night when they decided he was harmless.

The next night, beyond the massive shade trees that fringed the campus, one hundred students gathered to stand in the moonlight reading the poetry of Percy Bysshe Shelley. Of course, someone tipped off the press and they had a field day. Headlines. KELLY READS SHELLEY BY MOONLIGHT: Reed Students Out in Numbers to Protest Arrest. Photos of a large knot of motley students, open books in hand. Photos of Tom, solo. Editorials, generally sharing a laugh at the expense of the philistine police force. Unaccustomed to such favorable treatment, we applauded Tom as a hero.

A few nights later, my beer-drinking buddy and I were trudging home from the neighborhood pub. Instead of illegally cutting across the golf course as usual, on an impulse we illegally thumbed down a passing car, hoping for a lift to campus. Uh-oh. Dismayed, we watched a squad car pull up beside us. One of the two cops leaned over, opened the back seat door and motioned us inside. Our feelings are easy to imagine. Anticipation of profound embarrassment was perhaps the dominant one, combined with the customary undergraduate fear and loathing of such authorities. Imagine, then, our equally profound relief, when rather than being carted “downtown,” we found ourselves deposited at the entrance to the campus. In the moonlight. “This is for Tom Kelly,” said the cops as they drove off chuckling. It was a shock to find that cops had soul. That they, too, could be startled into a new view.

Some time after all this, Tom Kelly disappeared from Reed. It is only now that I wonder, with a jolt, why? And where did he go? How did the world, this world of ours more virtual than real, encompass such a man? Where are you, Tom?

We all have our little rebellions. And we all have our mind-joggling insights. Books, or paintings, or music, or movies, or perhaps drugs can do this for us—shift our perspective in hard and novel ways. And we love them for it. Perhaps we all have our Tom Kellys. Perhaps we have even learned to treasure that rare person whose whole being, like Tom’s, embodies his singularity. But who among us can say we have had the courage even once to free our minds of all conventional thought and be who we really are?

Editor’s Note: Tom Kelly died in December; see In Memoriam for details. Patsy Garlan is a writer of stories, college texts, essays, and poetry. She is at work on her first novel and seeking a literary agent. Any takers? Email: For the record, Margaret Scott ’19 was also a Reedie!

reed magazine logoAutumn 2009