Frank Nash: the Most Inspirational English Teacher I Ever Did Know! By Vincent Zandri author of The Remains
I never set out to be a writer. Back in 1979, when I entered the Second Form in a 200 year old, all boys, military school called, The Albany Academy, I simply wanted to become a rock n’ roll star. Like Ringo or Keith Moon, I wanted to play drums in a huge rock band, make a ton of money doing it, get lots of girls, and see the world. While most of the uniformed boys sat attentively in math class, taking copious notes, I drew illustrations of huge drums sets and stared out the window.
All that changed when for the first time, I was introduced to Frank Nash in my second term English lit and writing course. First thing that caught my attention was the classroom itself. The Academy was an old building even back then, having been built in the 1920s. Made of stone and strong woods, with real blackboards instead of chalk boards, the place seemed like a kind of time warp. A school caught perpetually in the 19th century instead of one that would see the 21st century in only two more decades.
But Mr. Nash’s room had a special allure to it since it was filled with photos of famous authors, the most notable for me, was Ernest Hemingway. The framed photo was a famous headshot that I would later learn had been taken by the world renown photographer, Karsh, in 1957, the lens having captured the 58 year old Pulitzer and Nobel Prize winning writer dressed in a big, bulky, turtleneck sweater, his Old Man and the Sea style beard and matching white hair giving him the look of a sea captain or world explorer, which of course fit the bill perfectly for since the adventurous Hemingway was all of those things and more.
I recall Mr. Nash entering the classroom on the very first day of school, the weather still warm and bright and summer-like. He was a tall, thin man, who wore cowboy boots and jeans—a casual style which seemed to go against the more conservative wool-suited style of some of the more uptight Academy profs. A decorated war vet, he sat on a bar stool in the front of the class, and he talked with us like we were his bar buddies, not as if we were a bunch of stupid kids. Our first read for the semester was A Farewell to Arms, and when he described the novel to us, he did so in manner that seemed strange. First off, he referred to the author not as Ernest Hemingway, but as “Papa.” Was Frank Nash Hemingway’s kid? He talked about Papa’s writing habits, about his fishing and hunting and travelling, about his eventual suicide by self-inflicted gunshot. He even demonstrated how Papa placed both barrels of the shotgun inside his mouth, pressed them against the soft palate, and how he triggered the hammers with his thumb. I remember looking up at the Karsh photo and trying to imagine the writer’s head blown off, and I recall being thoroughly spooked, but somehow excited.
Then, and only then, did Nash crack the book and begin to read that lovely, lush opening about being at war with the dust from the road clinging to the leaves on the trees and each sentence connected to the other with the conjunction “and.” Nash loved that opening and as tough and worldly as he seemed, I could see now that it was possible for a hard man to also be a sensitive man of letters.
We talked a lot about Hemingway and war and adventure that first month of school and I came to realize that Frank Nash was an expert on Hemingway. I found myself so immersed in reading “Farewell” and listening to Nash’s lectures on writing and Papa, that I never once felt like scribbling a drum set in my notebook or felt the need to fight off boredom by looking out the window. That is, unless Nash was inviting us too.
I listened and I learned and I wrote my first essays on Hemingway. I also wrote my first short story which Nash read aloud in class as an example of promising material. It was a story about spending a grueling Easter Sunday with my family and it was graded with a big fat, red, “A.” Nash pulled me aside and he asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I told him a rock drummer. And he laughed, and said, “Well, maybe you should write some stories along the way.”
When we arrived back at school after the Christmas break, I was excited to see Frank Nash again. It had been a long Christmas break and I was eager to read some more classic novels and to write more stories. But something had changed. Nash was still there, but something had happened to him in the short time that we’d been apart. His hands shook almost uncontrollably, and he seemed out of it. His eyes were glassy and he looked gaunt and pale and sick.
He lasted a few more days that second semester, but then he didn’t show up at all. When the Dean of the upper school sent someone to his downtown Albany apartment to check up on the English teacher, they found a reclusive Nash consumed in whiskey. Empty bottles of Jack Daniels were strewn about the living room and the bathtub was full of ice and cans of beer. The shades had been drawn on the windows and aside from stacks and stacks of books, there was only a desk with an old Royal typewriter sitting on top of it. The pile of manuscript pages beside it contained stories about the old Albany Academy. It turned out Frank was writing a biography of the old military school. He was, at the same time, drinking himself to death.
In the Fall of the next year, the Albany Academy was still there, but Frank Nash did not go to it anymore. Eventually he sought out help for his alcoholism and returned to his native Vermont where he lived with fellow veterans, and wrote some of his own stories and poems. When my first big novel As Catch Can was published in 1999, my publisher sent him an autographed copy. But I never heard back from him. I wondered if he remembered me at all. I wondered if he read the book and if he had, if he liked it. But then, it wasn’t important if he did or didn’t. What was important was the fact that for three months, I was lucky enough to be taught by a man who felt as though he was so close to the words of Ernest Hemingway he could refer to him as Papa in every bit of the fatherly sense of the word. To this day, I think of Nash as Papa in the same inspirational manner. Nash altered the course of my young life and because of him I became a writer. I’m lucky to have known him and even more lucky to remember him the way he was when he was teaching and writing and was very happy.
You can find Vincent at www.vincentzandri.com
ABOUT THE REMAINS:
Thirty years ago, teenager Rebecca Underhill and her twin sister Molly were abducted by a man who lived in a house in the woods behind their upstate New York farm. They were held inside that house for three horrifying hours, until making their daring escape.
Vowing to keep their terrifying experience a secret in order to protect their mother and father, the girls tried to put the past behind them. And when their attacker was hunted down by police and sent to prison, they believed he was as good as dead.
Now, it’s 30 years later, and with Molly having passed away from cancer, Rebecca, a painter and art teacher, is left alone to bear the burden of a secret that has only gotten heavier and more painful with each passing year.
But when Rebecca begins receiving some strange anonymous text messages, she begins to realize that the monster who attacked her all those years ago is not dead after all. He’s back, and this time, he wants to do more than just haunt her. He wants her dead.
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Read the Excerpt!
October 2, 2008
Albany, New York
In the deep night, a woman sits down at her writing table. Fingering a newly sharpened pencil, she focuses her eyes upon the blank paper, brings the black pencil tip to it.
She begins to write.
I’ve been dreaming about you again. I don’t think a night has gone by in the past few weeks when I haven’t seen your face. Our face, I should say. The face is always in my head; implanted in my memories. The dream is nothing new. It’s thirty years ago again. It’s October. I’m walking close behind you through the tall grass towards the woods. Your hair is loose and long. You’re wearing cut-offs, white Keds with the laces untied and a red T-shirt that says ‘Paul McCartney and Wings’ on the front. You’re walking ahead of me while I try to keep up; but afraid to keep up. Soon we come to the tree line, and while my heart beats in my throat, we walk into the trees. But then comes a noise—a snapping of twigs and branches. The gaunt face of a man appears. A man who lives in a house in the woods.
Then, just like that, the dream shifts and I see you kneeling beside me inside the dark empty basement. I hear the sound of your sniffles, smell the wormy raw earth, feel the cold touch of a man’s hand. You turn and you look at me with your solid steel eyes. And then I wake up.
We survived the house in the woods together, Mol, and we never told a soul. We just couldn’t risk it. Whelan would have come back for us. He would have found us. He would have found mom and dad. Even today, I know he surely would have. He would have killed them, Mol. He would have killed us. In just five days, thirty years will have passed. Three entire decades and I’m still convinced we did the right thing by keeping that afternoon in the woods our secret.
When I see you in my dreams it’s like looking in a mirror. The blue eyes, the thick lips, the dirty blond hair forever just touching the shoulders. My hair is finally showing signs of grey, Mol.
I wonder, do you get gray hair in heaven? I wonder if Whelan’s hair burned off in hell? I wonder if he suffers?
All my love,
Your twin sister,
Rebecca Rose Underhill
Exhaling, the woman folds the letter neatly into thirds, slips it into a blank stationary envelope, her initials RRU embossed on the label. Running the bitter sticky glue interior over her tongue, she seals the envelope, sets it back down onto the writing table. Once more she picks up the pencil, brings the now dulled tip to the envelope’s face. Addressing it she writes only a name:
Molly Rose Underhill
The job done, the woman smiles sadly. Opening the table drawer, she sets the letter inside, on top of a stack of nine identical letters-never-sent. One for every year her sister has been gone.
Closing the drawer she hears her cell phone begin to vibrate, then softly chime. Picking it up off the desktop, she opens the phone, sees that a new text has been forwarded to her electronic mailbox. Fingering the in-box, she retrieves the message.
Rebecca is all it says.
Punching the command that reveals the name and number of the sender she finds “Caller Unknown.” The sender’s number has been blocked. Closing the phone back up, she sets it down on the desk. That’s when the wind picks up, blows and whistles through the open window.
“Mol,” she says, staring out into the darkness. “Mol, is that you?”