by George Manning
Yesterday in my eulogy of Charlie Phelps, I dwelled on his devotion to excellence in the arts. While this is certainly the case with Charlie, I hope I didn’t imply a totalitarian seriousness or drudgery on Charlie’s part in the pursuit of his ideals. Though he was affectionately known as a curmudgeon, he was gifted with a delightful and puckish sense of humor.
Saying that someone has a puckish sense of humor is to say, with Webster’s Dictionary, he had a mischievous, impish wit, with this caveat! Charlie’s wit was not that of the knee-slapping, raucous, obscenity-laden ilk. On the contrary, his humor was more dry, modest; more often it was simply word play, a delightful caper of a mind thoroughly at home with the subject matter at hand.
I well remember sitting next to him at the Campus Theatre in Lewisburg. We were part of a small contingent of UU ”guys” there to watch a movie — “The Wrestler.” Starring a muscle-bound, violent, and sweaty Mickey Rourke, we were not quite sure what we were in for. After several scenes of macho brutality, and just after Mickey Rourke had clobbered a fellow thespian over the head with a metal folding chair, Charlie leaned over and whispered to me: “I think we can safely assume this isn’t a ‘chick flick.’”
On another occasion, I foolishly asked him how my poetry recitations were coming along. He replied, “You’re improving, all appearances to the contrary.” This was followed by a puckish grin.
Earlier I mentioned delight. Charlie Phelp’s wit was seeped in it, and it was a characteristic he appreciated. I thought of him the other day while reading a commentary on the poet philosopher George Santayana. Charlie would have enjoyed that worldy gentleman’s delightful observations, of r example on the the Victorian view of love: “The Victoria era was particularly cruel to Love; all of Love’s amiable impulses were reputed indecent, until a marriage certificate suddenly rendered them godly, though still unmentionable.”
Santayana Also observed that certain philosopher’s claims that one thing is better than another intrinsically without any relation to other things, is like insisting that whiskey is more intoxicating in itself that it is pervaded by an inherent intoxication and stands dead drunk in its bottle.”
And, finally, a sentiment of Santayana’s I’m sure Charlie would find congenial: “That life is worth living is the most necessary of assumptions , and were it not assumed, the most impossible of conclusions.”
Let me conclude with a poem and a surprise. The poem was Charlie’s favorite. The Surprise is — it’s Charlie’s favorite. As you may know it; it’s by Emily Dickinson.
If I can stop one heart from breaking
I shall not live in vain;
If I can ease one life the aching
Or cool one pain,
Or help one fainting robin
Unto his nest again,
I shall not live in vain.
Perhaps my surprise will stifle anyone’s tendency to turn Charlie, or anyone, into a cardboard effigy; for even curmudgeons have hearts and can send Valentines to our troubled and yearning world.