Lee Bluestein Timeline
For my second composition class at Venango Campus, I had a new faculty member who had only recently earned his M.A. at George Washington University. On the first day of Comp II he walked into the room, wrote on the board, "Explain the universe and give five examples," and left. We sat confused and paralyzed. After a half hour he returned and delivered his lesson: that you cannot write an essay of any value without narrowing and focusing your topic. As the semester progressed, Lee Bluestein became much more than just my English teacher. This young, portly, penguin-like, Jewish man taught me to play table tennis (he could beat almost everyone with the exception of Lenny Abate, the mad Sicilian history teacher), play chess (he claimed to have earned the rank of chess master and could in fact beat almost everyone with two hands tied behind his back), act (I played Bobby Ken O'Dunc in a controversial Venango Campus production he directed of Barbara Garson's MacBird, a play that not only suggested that Lyndon Johnson had engineered the assassination of John Kennedy but included the use of the "F" word).
Since I had no way home after play rehearsal, Bluestein would drive me each night, sometimes in some very inclement weather, in his usually-barely-running red MG convertible. We became quite close, or so I thought. Did he not show enough confidence in me to allow me to become his unofficial paper grader? Did he not allow me to construct my peers' exam on Walter Miller's A Canticle for Liebowitz, required reading for my class? Did he not go out of his way to teach me to pun? With the same twinkle in his eye that was visible when he was playing chess, did he not put me through my paces, testing me, demanding that I match his previous pun with a better one of my own? I learned not to disappoint him.
I know now that Lee Bluestein was probably a very lazy teacher, and I am not certain how much he actually taught me about writing or literature, but he did inculcate into me almost everything I now know about logical fallacies and propaganda devices. Day after day, we spent most of many class periods critiquing examples, both in print and on tape, of political, religious, racist, anti-Semitic tracts, which Bluestein would provide for our dissection, and he was never satisfied until our "crap detectors" were finely tuned enough to detect the way we were being manipulated by the specimens in question. And it was in his class one day that I may have had my first true moment of self-consciousness, my first discovery that, like the German romantic Jean-Paul Richter, "I am a me."
We were finishing our discussion of John Knowles' A Separate Peace, and as the period came to an end, Bluestein read and commented upon the book's closing lines:
All of them, all except Phinneas, constructed at infinite costs to themselves, these Maginot Lines against this enemy they thought they saw across the frontier, this enemy who never attacked that way, if he ever attacked at all, if indeed he was the enemy.
I cannot today recreate with any precision the emotion I then felt. I remember remaining in my seat, immobile, long after the rest of the class had departed, terribly conscious for the first time of the "infinite cost" I myself had paid, vigilant now to my own paranoia, to the "Maginot lines" John Reinhardt would still detect firmly in place four years later.
The summer after my freshman year I got a job with the United States Post Office, serving as a substitute mail carrier. One day on my route I found myself at the home of the Venango Campus librarian. Had I heard the news? she asked. Lee Bluestein was dead, killed in a head-on car crash in New York state, killed in the very same MG in which I had so often been a passenger myself. Rumor had it that he had been in New York to help arrange, in those pre-Roe v. Wade days, an abortion for a Venango Campus student, a woman who had played Lady MacBird with me earlier in the semester. Obviously there was much about Lee Bluestein I did not know. That moment was my loss of innocence. Death meant something specific to me now: it was something which could take Lee Bluestein from me, from all of us.
But there was so much back then I did not know. That Lee Bluestein had graduated from the University of Chicago with a degree in nuclear physics when only a teenager. That he joined the CIA out of college and became involved in a top secret project (his brother reports that the family thinks he may have helped develop the U2 spy plane). That he left the CIA determined to put his past behind him and earned an M.A. in English at George Washington University. That he had written a play. That he had, at the time of his death, been accepted into the MFA program at the University of Iowa. That he was a master at not only chess and table tennis but bridge. That he was a pilot and sky diver. That he . . .
So much yet to learn about Lee Bluestein.