Dickey Denies Death of Friend

By David Coryell

In 1993 I was in attendance at  Jim's 70th birthday celebration held in and about Columbia, S.C. I remember there was a kind of good-natured roast in a large room on the bottom floor of the new public library downtown and a number of Jim's friends and literary acquaintances had come from around the country to offer tribute. One of these was Monroe Spears, Dickey's first English writing professor in college and a noted Southern scholar. Monroe was older than Dickey by several years though still articulate and gentlemanly. When it came his turn at the podium, Monroe described Dickey as a good student generally with some promise as a writer and concluded politely and resumed his seat. Whereupon he had a massive heart attack.

A kind of delayed-beat panic broke out among the audience as Monroe lay dying. A physician - Dickey's I believe - pushed his way through the crowd and began CPR as I raced upstairs to the main lobby and called 911, then went outside in the dense September heat to wait for the ambulance and direct the paramedics downstairs by a back stairway. When they arrived, I helped carry equipment to where Monroe still lay on the floor, and remained behind after everyone else but Jim, Deborah, and Monroe's wife had been ushered out.

Monroe looked terrible and the paramedics ripped open his dress shirt and attached the Life-Pak electrodes to his frail white chest - the "thump and bump" - and hit him with the juice. Monroe's body convulsed and lifted off the floor as Jim stood over him, gaunt in his suit, saying over and over "Hang on, Monroe! Hang on, Monroe! Don't leave us, Monroe!" Jim's was the voice from above in that prolonged either-or moment, urgent but sonorous, calling his old friend back from the dead.

After a half dozen hits, the paramedics strapped Monroe on the stretcher and took him away. I called Jim that night to see how things had gone and was stunned to hear that Monroe had revived in the hospital and was hanging on, barely, but he was alive. Monroe did in fact survive, remaining hospitalized in Columbia for several months until he was strong enough to return to Sewanee. I have no doubt he lived because Jim refused to allow him to die.

There were other times with Jim too of course. I was invited to several of the "power lunches" at the Faculty Club on the Horseshoe with his dear friends Don Greiner and Ben Franklin and Walter Edgar and Jim Stiver, and I visited him at his home on Lake Katherine as often as his declining health and common sense permitted. The last time I visited him before moving north to Syracuse in 1995 we talked about his screenplay for To The White Sea and he read me a scene he was working on, the cat's cradle scene, reading and holding up his hands, balancing the moon above the lake in the strings between his big fingers. My last recollection is of him sunk in his armchair surrounded by the mountain of books, hard of breath, a hunting bow gathering dust on top of a piano. He mentioned a few people I should look up in Syracuse and tell them hello from him, and he said the latch-string would always be out for me and flashed that trademark, toothy grin. I let myself out.

For what it's worth, I'm writing a screenplay now - Medicine Game - that's a Native American romance-thriller set in the Adirondacks. One of the characters is a timber wolf with the eyes and soul of a man. Another is a hard-drinking world class poet-novelist named Marlon DeSoto who's gone into the woods to save himself and write his best book ever - the wolf and DeSoto have their moment of truth (over a woman) in the middle of frozen wintry lake. If the script ever gets done, that scene will be my tribute to Jim, the best I can do.

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