“I met an old buddy of yours,” I told my Uncle Dan.
He received the news as I expected he would, since he lies 6 feet beneath the granite marker that bears the name Daniel W. Drake. There was a smile in the air over this corner of Looney Creek Cemetery, where Dan came to rest a few years ago.
“Ran into Bill Trogdon,” I told him. The skies brightened.
Bill and Dan were damn near inseparable back in the ’50s at Mizzou. Dan worked the graveyard shift at KFRU, back when Columbia had only two radio stations. But Bill and Dan found time to have fun.
After graduation Bill and Dan — two enormously gifted writers — took two very different roads to success. One became the anonymous author of a thousand Hallmark cards. The other took the nom de plumeWilliam Least Heat Moon.
It was only through a strange twist of fate that I met the latter.
One year ago, Mizzou journalism professor Sara Shipley Hiles launched a road-trip reporting course for a dozen magazine students. The project was inspired by William Least Heat Moon’s Blue Highways. The students fanned out to travel Missouri and write about the people and places they saw. Hiles enlisted me to help coach these young journalists about road trip writing. I was honored to return a favor to my alma mater. And it was a chance to work on a project inspired by a Columbia icon whose Blue Highways has become a classic, in a league with Steinbeck and Kerouac.
As we were leaving our first meeting, exiting Kaldi’s Coffee, I confessed to professor Hiles that I’d never met William Least Heat Moon.
“There he is now,” Sara said, pointing to a couple crossing Ninth Street and heading toward us.
I hesitated for an instant, uncomfortable in the role of a groupie or an autograph chaser, not wanting to invade the Trogdons’ privacy. Yet I knew my shyness would guarantee I’d never arrange a meeting with William Least Heat Moon. This was my chance. Now or never. This man crossing toward me sits at the pinnacle of his profession. I toil in the tall weeds. Well-meaning friends assume that because I live in the same community as William Least Heat Moon, and we both tell road-trip stories, we must know each other. “Never met him,” I’d tell my friends.
Until this day.
I stepped forward and thrust out my hand. “Hello,” I summoned my most forward voice, “I’m John Robinson and I’m a big fan of your writing.”
“Don’t I know you?”
“We’ve never met. I wrote about driving every mile of every Missouri highway.”
“Oh, yes. I have your books.”
His admission floored me. Never mind that he said nothing about whether he liked the books, or readthem. Never mind that he collects road-trip books. It was enough for me that my stories are in his collection.
We chatted about Hiles’ Blue Highways course, and agreed that for this assignment we should encourage young reporters to shuck their electronic devices and employ their five senses.
“That’s not why I introduced myself,” I confessed. He probably was relieved that our conversation detoured from road trips and J-school students. “You and my uncle Dan Drake were friends in college.”
A smile filled the October air along this stretch of Ninth Street. Yes, he said, he and Dan and their buddy Dean spent a lot of time together as undergrads. He told an anecdote, then said, “I heard Dan passed.”
“Yes,” I said. “A couple of years ago.”
We shared a recollection or two, each from our own perspective.
My sense of decency informed me that I had detained the Trogdons and the professor for long enough on this sidewalk. We exchanged the customary parting phrases, including my suggestion that we sit down over coffee or beers and share stories about the road and friends and life.
I wish we could do that with my Uncle Dan.