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UNCLE MEL

A Tribute to Mel Bradford

by Michael Platt

March 2, 1993

 


I met Mel Bradford when I came to the University of Dallas in 1978. I do not believe he favored my coming. In an interview, the strangest I have ever witnessed, let alone experienced, he and a close colleague asked me whether I thought an officer could ever have a friendship with an enlisted man. In answering I compared the errors of Conrad's young captain in the "Secret Sharer" whose instantaneous friendship withLeggatt risks his ship and his command with Shakespeare's Henry V who, because he wants to ready his men for battle, can only cloakedly enjoy the friendship of one of them who, he discovers, is his equal in mind and in heart (Williams). To this day, I do not know what the real subject of Mel's question was. And now it is buried forever.

In our early relations, I saw him most often at the mail. Mel loved mail. He used to go over to the mail room to wait for it, get it, and bring it back. Sometimes hours would go by between his departure and when the mail finally traversed the 200 yards to the department. What did he do with it? Was there a little room he took it to? Were there detectors or sniffing dogs there? Who knows? A little before noon, he would sail in exclaiming some such as "Oh, Michael, you got a good pile today." (Wondering about those two hours, a colleague once considered asking him, "Is it true you can steam open a letter with your breath?")

So I can easily believe the stories about his classes, that arriving late he would spend several minutes opening his mail, reading it, to himself, and some of it to students, and then, during the period when he was being considered for head of NEH, leaving class early in a bustle, with a hearty "High Ho, I'm expecting a call from Washington." I wish the mail he read to the students had been from Homer and the calls he expected from Dante, but I have since come to appreciate how instructive it could be to hear him hold forth on the many fine things he knew so affectionately. Indeed, the other day, one of my best students told me how Mel recognized one excellent freshman, despite her quietness, and treated her accordingly. I am very glad I got to pass on this esteem to Mel before he died, together with my concurrence. (The founder of the University was right when she said about judging the teaching of others, 'Trust the opinion of your own best students more than your own.')

Knowing his love of mail, and noticing ads in the back of Field and Stream, I once thought about signing him up for a service offered there, which guarantees to stuff your mailbox, should you be a trapper in Alaska or a weatherman in Tierra del Fuego. The thought of Mel receiving piles of worm catalogues, fish lure offers, brochures for guns, hooks, rafts, and waders, a pile so high that he would have to sift for his real mail, was delicious. However, one day standing beside him at the mail, I noticed he had a copy of MS Magazine. Obviously someone else had beat me to the joke. Somebody had signed him up for a magazine he could not take pleasure in, unless vexation be a kind of pleasure. But Mel couldn't take pleasure in vexation. And he didn't take pleasure in having his dire insights confirmed. He was not a dyspepticconservative. He was not afraid of the evil he saw. I settled, in imagination, for the idea of presenting him with a little red mail wagon. Too bad, I left the University of Dallas before I could pull that off. Now too bad he has left life, before, at his retirement, I might still have done it.

After leaving, I got to know him better. Some men with evident flaws can be more likeable, and are like to be more loyal, than others with virtues they make very evident. To me Mel waxed avuncular. No man more, I think, played the uncle to all those he met. If Mel had met Methuselah, it wouldn't have been long before Methuselah was playing nephew and nodding "Yes, Uncle," and Mel - Mel would just be playing ... Uncle Mel. Mel always seemed to be approaching 70. Probably he had been approaching it since he was 21.

In any case I benefited from Uncle Mel. It was he who told me that the new regime at the University had come to him asking, "If we get rid of him, who would mind?" Preemptive damage assessment, I guess it was. He answered, "For a starter, the students." Mel himself looked to the future. Knowing I was (then) single and maybe going up to Washington, he said he would see I was introduced to some eligible ladies. Over lunch, he discussed a few, and then cocking a twinkle said, "Yes, Michael, Marie pays me the compliment of still thinking me dangerous. And I love her for it." I dare say he did. He was a loving man. And a lovable one. I remember one time I was waiting for the elevator. The door opened. There was Mel Thumping his long thighs, he said to me, "Michael, I got Indian blood." And the door shut. Gone in a silent flash was the mixed blood man from Oklahoma.

Mel knew he was dramatic, that he had a profile, and that he could be spotted a mile away. One day when I was wearing a cowboy hat, I noticed him noticing it and said, "Yes, ever since I noticed you and Father Cain, I've thought that big hats go with big souls." He liked that. And so did I.

Mel got big, he explained to me one day, through cheese. He loved cheese, he knew he shouldn't have so much of it, but he loved it, and so of it he did eat. One day as he was happily and deftly extricating letters from envelopes and separating their contents into piles, Mel waved a check in the air and trumpeted, "Oh, Michael, its those little royalty checks that are so nice." "Do they go straight into the cheese fund," I quipped. He smiled. I had understood him perfectly, which he liked.

Sometimes he could be a little too big. I remember one conference on Faulkner at which Mel behaved as if everything had to pass his way before it reached anyone else, like a pickup basketball game in which no point counts unless its brought out beyond a line. Thoroughly frustrated with that, after one session, I got in my car to take a drive., but there was Mel beaming at me: Would I be so kind as to take him on a little tour of where he had started teaching? (We were in Annapolis.) Would I be his chauffeur? Yes, of course, I would. As we approached the little apartments where he and Marie had lived, the mystic cords of memory unwound (he would flash at that allusion, I know). "There, there it is. See that little hill. Douglas used to roll down it." He smiled. And then, he purred, "Michael, Marie and I started out here. We were a thousand miles from her parents, and a thousand miles from mine. Michael, that is the right distance to start out a marriage in."

Obviously he loved his wife. I remember one time stopping by his house. I knocked on the door. "Come in" I heard. I came in, and there he was. In a corner of the living room, perched on a stationary unicycle, there was Uncle Mel peddling away. I believe he had his cowboy hat on, but the mystic magnification of memory may have added it. Let it stay. However magnified Mel was in life, he was such as to bring on more later. Anyway, he knew he was a sight. Did he know I was seeing Babar riding a unicycle in a circus? Probably he did! So cocking me one of his whites­of­the­eye glances, he said, "Michael, Marie tells me that she does not wish to be a young widow, and I wish to please her." Today's world is filled with Olympic dreamers, health faddists, to say nothing of nutritional bores, and health police. I believe there are very few of us who exercise for a better reason than Mel Bradford did. Not for himself, for his looks, for his health, or for his life, except as these might be dear to someone dear to him.

That's a good reason to exercise, because it is a good reason to live, and live he did, so that we who knew him are the better for it. The man who can leave such good stories behind, stories to enjoy about him, and stories of his own enjoyment of good things, has done something good. I, for one, am very grateful to him.

Michael Platt, Friends of the Republic

 

 


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