Last week I mentioned that back in 2006 when I had been writing for the Roundup for just 10 months I wrote a column with the title you see above. This is the third part of that column. It has taken me 12 years to uncover the ending of a tale that began happily enough, but ended in what may — or may not! — have been tragedy.
I’ll leave it to you to make that decision.
Richie Shellman, literary editor of our high school yearbook, quipped that Earl Reisel “had his head in the clouds,” a comment with a triple meaning. Earl was 6 feet 4 inches tall, a teenager with a high IQ, and someone who often spoke of an “ideal life” he wanted to pursue.
Earl, you see, had been very much affected by a book he’d read: James Hilton’s gripping 1933 novel “Lost Horizon.” He had even named his sailboat, the Karakal, after the snow covered mountain that sheltered the imaginary village of Shangri-La, a name we still associate with an earthly paradise.
I believe the central theme of Hilton’s book lies in words spoken in answer to questions asked about that happy Himalayan village by an Englishman who had staggered into it after an aircraft crash. Here they are:
“If I were to put it into a very few words, my dear sir, I should say that our prevalent belief is in moderation. We inculcate the virtue of avoiding excess of all kinds — even including, if you will pardon the paradox, excess of virtue itself. In the valley which you have seen, and in which there are several thousand inhabitants living under the control of our order, we have found that the principle makes for a considerable degree of happiness. We rule with moderate strictness, and in return we are satisfied with moderate obedience. And I think I can claim that our people are moderately sober, moderately chaste, and moderately honest.”
Those words affected Earl very strongly. However, when it came time to graduate from high school he chose a college that taught excellence, not moderation — Massachusetts Institute of Technology — a choice seemingly at odds with his focus on moderation.
Well, four years went by. I spent three of them in the Air Force, returned home from Iceland in 1953, and ran across John Sharp, another member of our little high school group. John had gone to UConn and become a computer technician for IBM. While we were talking about old times he mentioned that Earl had dropped out in his third year at MIT and had literally disappeared off the face of the earth.
Two years later I ran across John again. He had more news about Earl. Having discovered that Earl was out in Chicago, he had jumped on a train and had found Earl washing dishes in a restaurant, living in a flophouse, and refusing to talk about why he had dropped out of MIT — or about his dream of a life of moderation.
I have often thought about Earl, but I never heard his name mentioned again until our 1999 50th reunion. I couldn’t attend, and when I asked if anyone had heard anything about Earl I received this sad reply: “His family asks that if you find out anything about what happened to Earl, please let them know.”
Eighteen years later someone at last created a free site, now closed, that let us search the national death records, and I finally found out what had “happened” to Earl — 36 years ago.
From Social Security death records:
Name: Earl L Reisel
Born: August 11, 1931
Died: October 20, 1982
Age at Death: 51
Last residence: Virginia
Those statistics, plus Earl’s stubborn refusal to comment, clearly show that he had angrily rejected “something” when he dropped out of college, but what was it? Was it the kind of life you and I live, where it is by and large true that the more you put in the more you get out? Or was it his dream of a world of happy, carefree moderation?
I just don’t know. What do you think?