By Frank J. Dinan
Sixty years ago, I was a young chemistry major looking for a liberal arts elective to finish my graduation requirements. An Introduction to Anthropology course looked good, so I signed up for it. Decades later, I remember that course, long after many others have faded away. Little did I know that I was to meet one of the most memorable characters of my life there, one whose impact on me lingers still.
As our first class began, the professor introduced himself as “a totally immersed in running water Baptist named Ray Lee Birdwhistle.” Professor Birdwhistle soon proved himself a world-class storyteller who guided his students to discuss the meaning and significance of his stories. I have spent much of my last six decades doing just that.
I’ll give you an example. One day the professor showed up late for class, and we waited patiently for his arrival. He came in looking very flustered and said, “Sorry that I’m late, but I couldn’t help it, it was an accident. Sometimes things just happen. Let me give you an example of that.”
This is what he said: “A traveling liquor salesman was lost while driving in rural Tennessee. He stopped at a tavern to ask for directions. A local man was just leaving, and the salesman asked him for help. The man outlined a clear route to the salesman’s destination, and the salesman was so grateful that he gave the man a quart of his best liquor. The salesman went into the tavern, ate lunch, came out and drove away following the man’s directions.
“Meanwhile, the man climbed a steep hill walking to his mountaintop home. Along the way he drank the bottle of liquor, and was thoroughly drunk by the time he got to his backyard where he sat, leaning against a tree and fell asleep. His angry wife spotted him and hollered at him to get up and do his chores. The drunken man scrambled to his feet, and as he did he stumbled on a stone, and that rolled down the mountainside. The stone hit a rock and started that rolling, and the rock hit a bigger rock, and this rolled into a boulder. Soon there was a full-scale landslide sweeping down the mountain.
“In the meantime, the salesman was driving, following the man’s directions, and as he rolled along, the landslide slammed into his car and drove it down the mountainside, carrying the salesman to his death.”
Professor Birdwhistle asked, “Was that an accident?” Then, answering his own question, he slammed his fist on a desktop and shouted, “It was not! That man committed suicide!” And with that he abruptly walked out of the room, leaving a class of thoroughly puzzled undergraduate students to search for the truth and significance of his story. I’m still looking.
Many years later, the professor’s puzzling, yet fascinating stories still stay with me and challenge my imagination and understanding. Animal insights, the religious rites of primitive tribes, the varying cultural roles played by family members, creation myths, puberty rites, etc., were among the topics he explored with his often arcane yet always entertaining, engrossing and challenging stories.
Twenty years ago, I was asked to participate in the chemical restoration of a large, but badly deteriorated totem pole that had been donated to then retired Professor Birdwhistle’s Anthropology Department. It was an enormous job, and took months of work, but I participated gladly to honor his memory, and all I owed him. The restored totem pole, like his influence on my life, still stands today.
Frank J. Dinan of Tonawanda is chemistry/biochemistry professor emeritus at Canisius College.