The E.B. White I met, and the one I knew

He was a neighbor of ours. Well, not quite. E.B. White lived in the next town. It, like ours, boasted a small grocery store, a primary school, a post office, and a library.

His house was five minutes away. I used to drive by it fairly often, on the off chance of seeing him. I didn't follow the mailman as he made his deliveries, wait for the famous man to emerge, and then casually introduce myself. Nothing crass like that. More like the way a young man drives by the home of a girl he has a crush on but hasn't actually met. Slowly. Eyes on that side of the road: windows, porch chair, swing, garden.

If I saw him, I'd stop. Ask directions, maybe.

Why shouldn't we become friends? After all, we had a lot in common: "early retirement" to Maine - he from Manhattan, I from nearby Long Island. We were both avid sailors of small boats and enthusiastic paddlers of canoes. Outdoorsmen. Thoreau was our personal as well as literary guide.

My wife and I had no Charlottes in our webs or Stuart Littles rolled up in our window shades - only a dog and two cats. But he had cut down on his livestock, too, we had heard.

Mr. White was 29 years my senior, and so had a good start on me as a writer (an excellent start, as a matter of fact, which would keep him well ahead of any pack). But at least we were interested in the same things.

He was rumored to be a recluse, however. Ever since his wife had died some years before, he had limited his social contact to family and a few close friends. And for the past few months, he'd seldom left the house except to go to the barn or the shore, or to walk the back field, I'd been told. He'd refused to be interviewed; he probably didn't even answer his mail.

And yet, I thought, why not? Why not at least hold out the possibility of our becoming acquainted? Perhaps it would happen by chance. His son, Joel, for instance, operated a boat yard in the area. Perhaps the next time I went there, I would bump into his father.

We took our cars to the same garage. The owner's wife was Mr. White's part- time companion/driver/housekeeper, I learned. Her husband would actually regale me with the latest quip or idiosyncrasy or dinner-menu preference, as if his intimacy with such material were the most natural thing in the world. We even shared the same typist. Perhaps our manuscripts would cross in the mail.

Then one day, a friend happened to mention that there were three things E.B. White particularly enjoyed. One of them was listening to 78s on his windup gramophone.

As it happened, we had just acquired such a machine - and with it some 300 records. There was a Caruso. There was opera and musical comedy. There was "Jeepers Creepers," and Glenn Miller's "In The Mood" (on a Bluebird label). There was a fat album of Sousa marches, and a lot more. I called up Mr. White and offered the loan. "Why, I'd love to borrow some," he said, in a boyish, excited voice. "How about the Sousa?"

And so it was arranged. I took them over to his house that very night.

I was nervous as I entered his kitchen. Approaching me was a small, equally nervous-looking man with a twitching mustache and a shy, timid smile. ''I've brought the records," I said and handed him the Sousa album.

"Thank you very much," he responded briskly. "I'll do my best to take good care of them." He put them down on a table.

"Well, goodbye then," he added.

That was it. I let myself out into the cool night air. I'd finally met E.B. White. For years, I'd been smiling and chuckling and grieving with him as I read his essays: agreeing, disagreeing, noting, appreciating. I had perused his letters, which sparkled so with incident and annoyance, wit and wisdom. I practically knew "Stuart Little" and "Charlotte's Web" by heart.

So why was I disappointed? Because meeting him had added nothing. I already knew him, better than I knew most people. That should have been enough.

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