Star Trek and Jesus jokes: Remembering a friend who made us laugh - and think.

click to enlarge "...the brightest blade...": The late Bob Detweiler. - Jeanne Meinke
Jeanne Meinke
"...the brightest blade...": The late Bob Detweiler.

In 1971, we took 18 students to the University of Neuchâtel in Switzerland for a year and lived at Quai Suchard 12, on the banks of Lake Neuchâtel, between the Jura Mountains and the Alps. On the other side of the Alps, in Austria, our best friends, Bob and Gertrud Detweiler, lived near the Salzburg Castle, on a Fulbright Fellowship. Our children and theirs were good friends, too; and we had a magical year visiting back and forth, as well as meeting in the Alps, or near Lake Constance (Der Bodensee) in Germany. They spoke fluent German, and we spoke médiocre French.

Bob Detweiler died of a stroke on August 31. He was a brilliant, funny and wildly popular professor of Religion & Literature, as well as a conscientious objector who fulfilled his military service as a refugee relief worker in West Germany, where he met his wife. We arrived together in 1966 at Florida Presbyterian College (now Eckerd), and became friends almost immediately, talking and joking and debating books and movies and all the old unsolvable questions. He was the only person who could explain phenomenological criticism to me, though I'd forget it the next day — and could never pronounce it. Deeply religious in a complicated way, he was, among other things, a Mennonite minister who wrote a book about Jesus jokes. Though he eventually became director of Emory University's Institute of Liberal Arts, in Atlanta, we met often over the years, and the four of us stayed close.

When Gertrud called to tell us Bob had died, my mind spun with an endless reel of memories, and then, like the bouncing ball on a roulette wheel, settled on a November night in Neuchâtel when they had come to visit. We had shown them the sights and with the children had hiked down the Gorge de l'Areuse for a picnic by the river; with the children tucked in bed, we took the tram to the next village, Auvernier, to go to a favorite restaurant, l'Hôtel de la Truite (Trout Hotel). The restaurant was full, but by now the owner knew us and took us upstairs where we had a room to ourselves, with a full view of the cobblestone streets, the lights of Neuchâtel, and the whitening lake and landscape around us.

The meal was perfect, including freshly caught trout from the lake, candlelight, and several bottles of the local wine (a pale rosé called Oeil de Perdrix, eye of the partridge). Bob, who somehow had read everything in the world with only one good eye, had to hold the menu an inch from his nose to read it. The children were asleep, we had all night to talk, and the world lay before us.

On that winter evening, with the candles flickering and the snow falling over the frozen lake, on the slopes of the Jura and the jagged peaks of the Alps, we were young, we were working hard, our books still inside us: Our lives felt strange and endless. It's possible that the four of us were happier than we'd ever be again.

The Teacher

for Robert Detweiler

If laughter's the brightest blade on the Lord's

lawn He grafted on you His broad green thumb:

when lines furrowed by your eyes we saw jokes

building like spring rain and your delight in

them doubled our fun

What do we want from our friends if not a

lifting once in a while of the world's weight?

I see you hunched at your desk eyes inches

from a book light beams slanted with dust mim-

icking galaxies:

motes of gold with their satellites circling

the sun Beauty's everywhere miracles

daily and something lit the world like a

wick: you were glad to call it God What we

need's not judgment but

love you'd tell us which doesn't mean that Dean

So&so isn't full of shit Around

the country now students at their daily

tasks stop every once in a while and smile

at some memory

of you slouched by the board turning toward them

to ask OK who watched 'Star Trek' last night?

beginning the dialogue: remembering

not only how you were funny but how

you made them realize

Though the big things happen outside of books

books too are vital: our best words & thoughts

pooling on paper oases in a

desert of dying verbs granting our parched

selves this rare chance: Drink

Peter Meinke's first chapbook of poems was Lines from Neuchâtel, illustrated by Jeanne Meinke and published by Konglomerati Press (Gulfport, Florida, 1974).

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