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An evening to remember

It was a snowy evening in the early 1950s. Joe and I were aspiring actors - alert to every new sound and sight and Experience. Everything was grist for the mill of our craft. And so we had eagerly accepted the invitation to the basement kitchen of a brownstone on the Upper West Side of New York City.

Numbed with cold, and exhilarated by the vigorous exercise of half-walking, half-running, alternately laughing and gulping great breaths of windy winter air all the way from the theater on 48th Street, we burst into the dark kitchen. The effect of our boisterous entrance on those gathered there was like talking out loud in church. Everything stopped for a moment and then began again more slowly , more quietly, as we awkwardly and apologetically unwound scarfs, our hands still swathed in clumsy mittens.

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In a rocking chair beside the fire sat the white haired man we'd come to see. On his head he wore a yamalka, a gift from an admirer; around his shoulders was draped a wool shawl. Perhaps the man who had devoted so many words to Abraham Lincoln affected the garb of the war-weary President, but more likely someone had placed it on him as a protection against the drafty New York house.

He acknowledged the introduction to the two noisy newcomers solemnly, but with an understanding twinkle in his dark eyes. As our hostess urged huge mugs of steaming soup upon us, he continued speaking in a low voice, speaking like a man offering a slow revelation. I don't remember now whether it was about his brother-in-law's photography (Edward Steichen was hardly a household word to me!), or politics or his poetry. The conversation that evening was quickened and enlightened and shining, as full of substance as the hearty broth we drank.

Once, picking up his guitar, he played and sang a little. Someone asked him if he always took his guitar when he lectured. He smiled, told about the time at Cornell College, Iowa, when at the end of a lecture, he dug out a guitar from behind the lectern. ''I told them,'' he said,'' 'I will now sing a few folk songs that somehow tie into the folk quality I have tried to get into my verse. If you don't care for them and want to leave the hall it will be all right with me. I'll only be doing what I'd be doing if I were at home, anyway.' But they stayed! Since that day, it's been part of every program.''

He played another chord, and then, whether unwilling to continue as the center of attention, or merely weary, he insisted Joe try his guitar. Unasked for treasure! Another facet of the jewel of Experience we were always seeking.

It was a special evening. We had entered as children, ready to worship at the feet of this great man, but as Joe strummed softly on his guitar, I felt a warm, motherly affection as I looked over at the white haired old gentleman. Carl Sandburg was nodding, his head lower and lower as he dozed by the fire.

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