A comrade remembers John F. Pfeil- author, Trinity College professor, warrior of compassion. He died Tuesday, age 56. Trinity College Mosaic photo.
I met Fred Pfeil some time in the spring or early summer of 1990. He was one of several pretty good intellects who had formed a sort of lefty discussion group in Hartford, the purpose being to jump-start the revolution.We ate potluck vegetarian meals and discussed politics and race and class, and we drank beer.About that time another friend of mine told me that Fred’s class on American studies had a reputation for greatness. My friend wanted desperately to take it, but he never got in because it was always oversubscribed. I never took his class either, but I read Fred’s distopian novel, Goodman 2020, which is better than any novel I’ll ever write. Fred was a white guy intensely interested in machismo. In one of his dense, academic essays I spotted a line I always thought was a typo, a proofreading error. The two writers were getting drunk and trading boasts, both in the grip of what Fred called Hemingway’s disease. One roared to the other something like, “You shit too! I write sentences better than any man” etc.I read it twice before I realized the line should have been, probably was (before being mistyped or even deliberately changed by some ignorant Manhattan editor), “You shit-tooth,” a sobriquet my own father used to hurl against his fellows at the body shop. Calling someone a “shit-tooth” was and remains the sole provence of the blue collar worker, but even as a feminist and Buddhist and devout antiwar activist, even as a tenured professor at a private college with ivy pretensions, John F. Pfeil remained at base a blue collar guy.Fred taught me about courage. He acted his ideals, sometimes at great risk, and yet he never seemed in panic. He did not let fear hold him in check, or keep him from doing a workmanlike job.Others will remember Fred’s 1980s sojourns to Central America, and the sometimes creative ways he helped get the good guys through the check points. I knew Fred best as a founding member of a shadowy group called Hartford Artists For Truth in Advertising. HAFTA, as it calls itself, repaints billboards so that they better reflect the reality of things. Fred was part of a crew that, circa 1994, added a forelock and a very small mustache to Rush Limbaugh’s visage overlooking I-84 downtown. The billboard itself was an affront to America, the malevolent shit-tooth rendered into Mt. Rushmore. The addition of Hitlerian detail sharpened the outrage and brought it into focus.Fred’s HAFTA uniform was a blue jumpsuit with red letters that read, on the back, “Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus.” He swore he found it at the Salvation Army thrift store, even though his name was stitched onto the breast pocket.HAFTA’s was hard and dangerous work. But it was exhilarating, and sometimes funny.One Air Force billboard Fred altered featured a squad of fighter jets flying in formation and the slogan, “Bumper to Bumper Traffic.” The billboard was 70 feet above New Park Avenue; Fred—although he was afraid of heights—climbed up and used black paint to write “Murder Express.“But in his haste, Fred misspelled “Express,” leaving out the p. Fred’s fellow conspirators were in a hurry to debark, as the spot is well-lit and well-traveled, at the edge of a 24-hour car wash. Surveying the job from the ground, Fred determined to climb back up and correct it, lest people “think we’re fucking idiots.” Amidst the whispered protests of his HAFTA crew, Fred erased some paint and squeezed in the missing letter.Fred had an artisan’s pride of workmanship, but he also harbored an avant-guardist streak. He wrote the libretto for an opera that seemed to be about dogs—or the word “dog” appeared in the title. I attended a performance of that opera but, like everyone else I consulted, I had no idea what the thing was actually about.And his slogans sometimes reached beyond what other HAFTA members considered appropriate.One evening in the early 1990s, Fred announced excitedly that he had discovered a “perfect” billboard to repurpose. It was at ground level—all could be accomplished with a short step ladder or maybe even a folding chair. The advertisement was a stern photo of a U.S. Marine at attention, taken from the chin to just above the knees, in dress blues, white gloved hand clutching a sword. Fred prattled on about the subliminal eroticism of the photo, the equation of power and sex, the sword sticking straight up like a steel erection, and he proposed the slogan: “This Perfect Cock Cums Blood!“Nobody liked the slogan.Someone suggested plastering something like “Murder For Hire” on the Marine. Fred would have none of it.The billboard was, if I remember right, on Broad Street, in a mixed neighborhood of Blacks and Hispanics. Perfect recruiting territory for the Marines, less so for Trinity college, two blocks or so away. Fred’s HAFTA compadres were convinced that the target audience would not understand Fred’s slogan. Fred could not be dissuaded.“This Perfect Cock Cums Blood” married Fred’s loathing of war and patriarchy to his love of economical language. It was poetry, it was art, and it was meant to provoke. He did the billboard alone and, like all the billboards HAFTA hit, it was gone within a day or two.If other friends remember Fred the lecturer, and others still remember Fred the poker player, some remember Fred the poet and some others remember the seeker after Truth, I will always remember Fred the painter, perched on a catwalk high over traffic in a blue jumpsuit with red stitching, correcting the errors of our advertising age. He may not have changed the world, but he bravely and joyfully refused to let the world change him.