I am sure there was concern when they saw the canoe paddle float by, maybe even a bit of panic. Something had happened, possibly something bad. They were right. I was holding on to the most important American conservative writer of the twentieth century to keep him from going under water and down the river.
In the fall of 1992, fresh from college, I had a dream opportunity to serve as an assistant for conservative legend Russell Kirk. Each year two or three young men and women would live at Piety Hill, the Kirk campus in Mecosta, Michigan. I had made a pilgrimage to interview Kirk for my undergraduate thesis the year before. The Kirks had asked me to come back as an assistant, an opportunity I hadn’t even known existed. A past Kirk assistant compared living at Piety Hill to entering Narnia. I don’t know of a better comparison.
Kirk assistants were officially designated as Marguerite Eyer Wilbur Fellows, and served as assistant editors of Dr. Kirk’s quarterly publication The University Bookman. Assistants edited submissions and answered correspondence. We had the responsibility of maintaining Dr. Kirk’s massive library, a job I loved. On one late, snowy night I made a quick dash to the library from my house to take care of some job, only to catch a shape in the moonlight out of the corner of my eye. Nearly scared to death, I turned to see a bundled Dr. Kirk returning to his house after working late hours at his desk.
Assistants ate dinner with the Kirks most nights, and not infrequently prepared the meals (I do recall a meal of boiled cow tongue that Annette made). Grocery shopping was also on the list of our duties, and one time upon returning with the groceries I found myself drafted into duty in the Kirks’ flooded basement mopping up water. Our job was whatever was needed at the moment. We loved every moment of it.
One of the more intimidating jobs as an assistant was housesitting when the Kirks were traveling for a speaking engagement. Annette preferred we stay in their house (assistants lived in separate nearby houses), which meant nights all alone in a giant home with all the ghosts of Dr. Kirk’s stories. Thankfully, I never woke up dead, although I was convinced I certainly would.
On the fallish Michigan day when I arrived at Piety Hill, fellow assistant Eileen Balajadia was already there, as were Italians Marco Respinti and his fiancee Paola. Visiting that weekend were the Kirks’ daughter Cecilia, recently returned from St. Andrews, and her fiancee Jeff Nelson. Canoeing was a favorite activity of Dr. Kirk, and it was decided that we all ought to go for a trip down a nearby river.
We rented canoes and were driven to the launch point. Now, I had never been canoeing, so I was somewhat nervous when I was assigned to the canoe with Dr. Kirk. But all seemed well as we floated down the river on the crisp September day. What could possibly go wrong?
I remember the river landscape was beautiful that day as we eased down the center of the water. Dr. Kirk and I fell behind the other canoes as time separated us. At a bend we ended up close to the river’s edge where the water moved quickly and branches hung low. We weren’t able to get away from the branches, and I ducked beneath. When I looked back at Dr. Kirk, he was leaning back, back, back like he was doing the limbo beneath the branch. The septuagenerian wasn’t as nimble as he once was, and there was no way he could avoid the low hanging limbs.
As soon as the branch caught Dr. Kirk, the canoe overturned. I went to the bottom on all fours, but because we were so near the water’s edge I was able quickly to stand with the water about abdomen deep. The water was fast at the bend, and Dr. Kirk started floating by. I reached out, grabbing him under his arms. As I held him, he was stretched out horizontally in the river, like a canoe himself. The current was too strong for him to stand.
Due to the panic of the moment, I honestly don’t remember everything that happened next. I believe Marco came over to help me get Dr. Kirk to shore. Jeff and Cecilia saw our paddle float by and came back to see what happened. Thankfully, we were all fine. I certainly was shaken. Nothing sends panic through a young conservative’s soul like the thought of drowning a conservative icon and hero. I’m sure Dr. Kirk wondered how he had gotten stuck in a canoe with me.
When we arrived back at Piety Hill, Dr. Kirk, soaked from head to toe, presented himself and his mischievous grin, before Annette in the kitchen: “Russell!” It was the reaction I am sure he hoped for.
I don’t think Dr. Kirk ever went canoeing again. But I felt properly baptized into the community of Piety Hill.
Books by Dr. Kirk may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.