14 January 2013


It used to happen every semester. I was teaching a physical geology course, always fun, and would reach the volcanoes-and-other-explodey things point. And I would realize that I had forgotten a few key points from the best story of all. So I would call Steven Utley, and, when he answered, beg him:

“Tell me about Mont Pelee again, Steve. Tell me about the cloud.”

And, chin in hands (hard to hold the phone this way, but never mind), with big Chuck Jones eyes, I would listen as Steve re-told The Story, as only he could, of that horrific event, the explosion of Mont Pelee in Martinique in 1902, which he had researched in crystalline detail for his story The Glowing Cloud. For me, it was the recounting of the first contemporary description of that most terrible and wonderful of explosions, the nuée ardente, with which I would regale my classes. For Steve, it was the tragedy, the horror, the insanity of a government that condemned its citizens to an unimaginable death rather than risk having a low voter turn-out.

I forgot key points every semester just to hear Steve tell the story again. He never seemed to lose patience with me. I am sure that my students never forgot what a nuée ardente was, even if they never remembered another word from the lectures. Steve’s story took over my lecture, every time.

We lost Steve last Saturday to a vicious and swift-moving cancer. It’s still impossible to grasp a world without his commentary, his observations, his take on things. He was one of the few people I could point to as a true Renaissance dude. Witness his blog entry from October:

20 October 2012 @ 12:37 pm
Not that I needed more books in my house, not that I didn't already have sufficient reading matter in hand to last me through the winter, but I went to a Friends of the Library book sale in Murfreesboro this morning and came away with the following hardcovers:

Resistance, Rebellion, and Death -- Albert Camus
Adam Bede -- George Eliot
A Brief History of Time From the Big Bang to Black Holes -- Stephen W. Hawking
Tanglewood Tales -- Nathaniel Hawthorne
Joseph Stalin: Man & Legend -- Ronald Hingley
Gideon at Work: Three Complete Mystery Novels -- J. J. Marric (a John Creasey pen name)
Grave Mistake and Two Other Great Mysteries -- Ngaio Marsh
Photo Finish and Two Other Great Mysteries -- Ngaio Marsh
Ashenden or: The British Agent -- W. Somerset Maugham
Triple Zeck: A Nero Wolfe Omnibus -- Rex Stout

I do almost all my reading stretched out in bed, and there's nearly always a stack of books at my bedside. Currently: The Holy Terror, by H. G. Wells; House of Ghosts (a Shadow novel reprinted from the old pulp magazine), by Walter Gibson; 100 Sneaky Little Sleuth Stories, edited by Robert Weinberg, Stefan Dzienmianowicz, and Martin H. Greenberg; and The Classic Book of Science Fiction (originally published in 1950 as The Big Book of Science Fiction), edited by Groff Conklin.

Current Music: Mozart, Don Giovanni (Overture), Salzburg Festival Orch.

They don’t make guys like that any more.

I hardly know where to start with Utley stories. Steve was the master of the unexpected grace note, the bombshell comment. Years ago I was packed off from Austin for a summer in the UK. It felt much like being packed off for summer camp. I was the only American, never mind the only Texan, in the crew, and was feeling a bit lost in the mix…until I got a huge box from Austin. Don’t ask me how it cleared Customs. It probably shouldn’t have. Inside was a Technicolor selection of every kind of Tex-Mex comestible ever canned by Clemente Jacques. It was the fixings for a Southwest dinner for 8. Tortillas. Frijoles. Salsas of several kinds. And weapons-grade jalapenos. It was literally a piece of home. 20 years later, it still ranks as one of the best gifts ever. That the jalapenos were too hot for the alleged curry-immune Brits was a bonus. Texas won that one, thanks to Steve.

I saved tales from the fossil front for Steve, who appreciated them more than anyone else I ever knew. He wanted to know what made paleontologists tick. Many people would like to know that, especially before the statute of limitations runs out. Steve wanted to know what it was REALLY like—including the tedium, the precision, the search for an elusive truth, the hunt for clues to a past that we can’t really imagine. His choice of the Silurian for his stories was inspired. As he said, it was a time when, standing on land, it looked as if nothing ever happened. No screaming dinosaurs here. Just people, out of their time, ceaselessly monitoring a world like no other, and on our own planet. No gimmicks leaping out of the trees. No trees at all. What was the unbelievably distant past really like? Steve went there, and made it real.

And then there was the plesiosaur in Austin. A sharp-eyed citizen spotted fossil bits in the bed of then-dry Shoal Creek, threading its way through a residential area. Once we started to retrieve it, we could not leave it unattended without risking theft or vandalism or just well-intentioned tampering. That meant staying at the site in shifts around the clock. Sleeping bags. Tents. Staying awake in the extremely small hours.

That was fine, until the rain started. And lightning. And cold wind. And more rain. Let’s hear it for the glamour and adventure of paleontology. Better yet, let’s find shelter somewhere out of what is no longer a dry stream bed.

So there we were, huddled under the bridge, soaked and muddy, hating the site and plesiosaurs and all fossils, and the whole planet and each other, in no particular order, when Steve Utley showed up, nicely dressed, with a bottle of good brandy, and joined us. We were oddly short on fine crystal, and wound up passing the bottle around. Kids, this is what a good graduate school education can do for you, too—sharing a bottle of booze under a bridge, listening to the thunder and the cars, and laughing for hours. It took Steve to drag us out of a fine slough of self-pity that night, and he did it with great class.

I never knew where the stories would go. An encounter I had with a fervent creationist somehow wound up as the center of an Utley story, The Dinosaur Season. I was stunned and flattered. The near-eponymous professor in the story, who didn’t even find out about it for a few years, was not so much amused. In fact, just not at all. He demanded to know who wrote this. “A friend of mine,” I said. He walked off without a word. Clearly he thought my friend and I deserved each other. Clearly he was right.

Tonight the soundtrack is a stack of tapes Steve sent over the years, mostly blues. The memories are crowding back. In her tribute to her late mother, Steve’s correspondent Molly Ivins said “…if someone truly wanted to memorialize my mother, that person would eat a piece of fudge today, hug someone he or she loves and be blindingly pleasant to a total stranger.” To me, if someone wanted to memorialize Steve, that person would take time to save a stray cat no matter what, pull up a stack of seriously good books, and take time to write a note—WRITE a note—to someone too long unseen.

And then go stand on the shore of a wild ocean and wonder what is going on in there that no one can see.

Thank you, Steve. 

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