Scythe-bearing chariots notwithstanding


THE first quarter of my freshman year in college, I enrolled in a class in ancient Greek. I was interested in language, in Greek philosophy and literature, and in the Biblical Greek of the New Testament. But, like most 18-year-olds beginning college, I was interested in almost everything. The real reason, then, that I chose to study Greek did not have so much to do with specific interests as it had to do with my ideas about knowledge, education, and college.

These ideas had come from an odd combination of sources which included F. Scott Fitzgerald's short stories, ``The Catcher in the Rye,'' ``The Strawberry Statement,'' a couple of English novels with Oxford-educated characters, the books of Hermann Hesse, and reruns of ``Dobie Gillis'' on TV.

Somehow out of all this I had developed an adulation of tradition and a taste for the austerity and excess of things classical. This led me, for example, to prefer the university's 1930s neo-Gothic library with its stone floors, dark wood, vaulted ceilings, and white marble busts to the newly built, pressed-concrete library with its computers, fluorescent lights, and fuchsia sofas.

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I wanted to be erudite, and to attain this goal I imagined that it would be useful, and perhaps necessary, to read at least one dead language.

My other classes, required for all freshmen, had 150 or 200 students and met in auditoriums. Greek class met in a small classroom in a building next to the chapel. The room had salmon-colored walls, a blackboard, three long tables arranged in a ``U,'' and chairs. There were seven of us in the class.

Our instructor, Professor Small, had a small mouth, and enunciated his words so cleanly that I imagined only the essence of the word escaped, the excess shaved off as it passed his thin, sharp lips, which curved habitually upward like a tiny scimitar.

He always wore the same costume to class. This was a brown tweed jacket with leather elbow patches, a dark-colored turtleneck, khaki or corduroy pants, and hiking boots. His glasses had plastic, tortoise-shell frames, and the left earpiece was held on by a straight pin, bent, against its destiny, through the hinge.

After a few classes, we thought it no coincidence that our text had been written by a man named Paine, but Professor Small did not teach Greek as if it were a punishment. He seemed sincerely to believe that understanding Greek should be as easy and instinctive as understanding a good joke, and that the results in each case should be similarly pleasurable.

At times, I wished he would simply throw up his hands in anger and tell me that I was lazy and stupid and could never learn the glorious mysteries of the ancients. Instead, if I showed a total inability to understand a point of grammar, or was unable to decipher a reading passage, he would react with a genuine kind of puzzlement which suggested that perhaps I wasn't feeling well, mere stupidity being insufficient to explain such confusion.

I felt that I was the slowest learner in the class, but everyone took turns providing comfort to the others by demonstrating some hilarious misunderstanding or another.

When I returned home that Christmas, I could sing the Mickey Mouse Club theme song (``M-I-C-K-E-Y . . .'') using the Greek alphabet, and could also juggle three oranges, demonstrable evidence of the value my parents were receiving for their tuition dollars.

In the winter quarter, we read from Xenophon's ``Anabasis,'' a detailed and dramatic account of the attempt of Cyrus the Younger and 13,000 Greek mercenaries to take the throne of Persia from Cyrus' older brother, Artaxerxes.

At one point, Xenophon describes one of the horrific weapons wielded by the Persians against the Greeks. These were the ``terrible, scythe-bearing chariots'' which were equipped with long, curved blades in front and similar blades extending from the axles on each side, so that the chariot would act in the manner of a pasta-maker on any unfortunate pedestrian in its path.

Xenophon's description of these chariots is chilling, and Professor Small's elaboration and lovingly executed chalkboard sketch made it more so.

``But of course,'' he explained, ``the problem with the terrible, scythe-bearing chariot was that it was so heavy it couldn't move very fast and so when one came at you, you simply stepped aside at the last moment, and then got a clear shot at the driver as the thing lumbered by.''

For some reason, this became for me a metaphor of hope. As I continued, for the rest of the year, to face the weekly perils of vocabulary exams, oral translation, and Professor Small's patient and puzzled expressions, I got better at what I came to think of as this more essential skill -- the ability to jump aside, even at the last moment, and so avert catastrophe.

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