Soldier of Love, RIP, J. Fred Pfeil
By Ken Krayeske
What do we take with us when we die? I'd like to ask my friend J. Fred Pfeil. He now knows the answer, I don't know if he can communicate it to me. Fred passed from matter to energy Tuesday, Nov. 29, while his friends chanted Buddhist incantations around his hospital bed. One of those chanters told me that Fred was peaceful before his death, prepared to become one with the universe. Since he only died days ago, I'd like to think that he is still around in spirit, watching me type this, maybe he is a ghost in my machine. I think he is because when I was searching for a CD containing a picture of him taken by the late great India Blue, I found a random scrap of paper in my CD notebook with his name and a notation for "Monday 1-5 p.m." It was probably his office hours, and maybe I'll stop by Trinity to see if he is there.
I know Wednesday, Dec. 7 at 5 p.m. at the Trinity chapel, many people will be there celebrating him at a memorial service. But as I write this, I am comforted by this piece of paper, and I hope it means he is around, because he was a far better writer than I, and he can help me express why he was so important to so many people. First, he was an English professor at Trinity College. He was the Creative Writing department. He was an accomplished writer. He published books and won awards like the 1994 Pushcart Prize.
Yet awards don't do Fred justice. They try. Like the Quakers, the American Friends Service Committee, when they recognized Fred's lifetime of peaceful, non-violent activism in 2005. But how do you truly measure or fete a man who walked up and down Capital Avenue for 12 hours on a bitter cold January day in 2004 carrying a sandwich board that quoted Martin Luther King, Jr.? That protest in front of the State Capital was Fred's idea. Considering the rampant corruption in Governor John Rowland's office, Fred suggested that Martin Luther King Day called for meditative silence on what real leadership is. He was the first to arrive at dawn, and the last to leave after sunset. The sight of Fred - 5-8, 145 - shuffling through the snow, his lined pants rolled up at the ankles, showing the flannel underneath, over moccasin type boots, humbled me. I walked a shift of maybe three hours, and was chilled to the bone. Where did Fred summon the inner strength that led him to walk that entire day? The sun was shining, cars honked their horns, but none of the dozen or so people who walked said a word. When the procession reached the corner of Trinity and Capital, Fred rang a bell and the line of penitents turned around, westward on Capital, until we hit the crosswalk on Capital, when Fred rang the bell again, and we turned around, heading back east. A picture of that protest ran on the front page of the metro section in the Hartford Courant the next day. I've often wondered if Governor Rowland saw Fred and our crew that day. What did he think of the picture in the paper? Is that a scene he remembers now as he languishes in a federal penitentiary?
To me, I see Fred teaching Johnny Boy Rowland how to do a day of hard time with dignity. That's what made Fred such a great teacher and gentle mentor. He sacrificed his comfort to lead by example. Sitting in jail months earlier, in March 2003, after the war started, Fred and I and some 20 other men passed time in a holding cell on Washington Street. After a round of baloney sandwiches and jello and milk (none of which Fred or I ate), the entire crew of civil disobedients discussed our favorite movies. We went round in a circle, with everyone getting a turn. I'll be damned if I can remember anyone else's but Fred's. He described a Japanese film called "Wand¬furu raifu," or "Afterlife," which is about the week after you die. The characters in the movie spend this week with a counselor trying to pick the one memory that they take with them to the afterlife. We used Fred's movie as a theme of discussion for the 20 or so of us, and we talked about what would be the memory we took with us to the afterlife.
By the time this is published, Fred's week with his afterlife counselor will have passed. I wonder which moment he chose. I doubt he chose one of suffering - he did enough of that on Earth. Nor do I think he took one of his protest moments with him, although there were plenty of those, too. No, I think he took with him a moment of bliss from his marriage with Elli Findly, and I am certain that is what he said in jail. Fred took love with him, and he left plenty of it behind. Thanks for being my friend, Fred. I'll miss you.