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Off To Amherst

Hi, Everyone! So I’m picking up the story of our 2022 visit to New England. You’ll recall that we had just left Providence, Rhode Island, and were headed off to Amherst, Massachussets.

Why Amherst? Well, now, therein lies a tale. And a nose. And a couple of feet.

Here’s the thing. We’ve got history in Amherst. We met there around 1979. And we got married there in 1982, or (yes!) 40 years ago as I write this in 2022.

How did we get to Amherst? Well, to explain that, I need to explain Amherst. It is a town in Western Mass, about 94.2 miles from Boston--that’s about 151 kilometers for you metric types -- and about two hours drive either way (depending on things like weather and traffic).

Amherst has a long and colorful history. It shows up in the records as early as 1658 when, supposedly, the land it is on was purchased by “John Pynchon of Springfield” from Native American inhabitants of the area--though, of course, God only know what the Native Americans thought they were selling and to whom. Unfortunately, the stories of such transactions gets very complicated, indeed. (1)

Anyway, it is a town by 1759. It got the name “Amherst” after Lord Jeffery Amherst, a British military commander who had helped defend New England during the French-and-Indian Wars, and who was sometimes credited with winning Canada for the British. He was, therefore, popular in the area, even after the Revolution (which he may or may not have covertly supported), and so his name remained on the town limit signs, even as Great Britain exited the scene.(2)

An Amherst Street Scene

Lord Jeff, btw, is considerably less popular today than he was two centuries ago. While he may have sympathized with the White Colonists, he wasn’t nearly so gentle with the Native Americans. He seems to have, for instance, have advocated the use of smallpox as a weapon against even those Indians allied with him. Supposedly he either did distribute or wanted to distribute infected blankets to those indigenous peoples unlucky enough to be in his orbit.

So...hero or arch-villain? Alas, that may depend on where you stand in things. As for me, honestly, I am not Native American, but I grew up among Indians in New Mexico. And let’s just say that if Amherst the town ever wanted to change its name -- say, to”Nonotuck,” or “Pocumtuck,” the names of peoples who once lived nearby -- I’d be okay with that.

But, moving on, today, Amherst is probably most famous because of its schools. There are no less than five major colleges close on hand, three in the town itself and two in the neighborhood--Amherst College, Hampshire College, Mount Holyoke College, Smith College, and the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. (3)

Of these, the most famous is probably Amherst College, with Mt. Holyoke and Smith College coming in close afterwards. All three are effectively if not officially Ivy Leaguers, with Holyoke and Smith being traditionally women’s colleges. (BTW, when I was there in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Smith women and Holyoke women fought tooth and nail. If I’d had any illusions about the pacific nature of women...which I didn’t...I’d have lost ‘em real quick. I don’t know how students from the two rival schools regard each other today.)

The University of Massachusetts at Amherst, meanwhile, is far less famous...and far more middle class or even (parts of it) working class. It is a public university, part of the Massachussets state system, and very large. It has a good reputation, and I’m glad I went there rather than one of the far more expensive private schools near-by. Though...I got to confess...I have profited now and then from the confusion that sometimes attends “UMass-Amherst” on my resume. You’d be surprised how many HR people used to see that combination and somehow disregard the first part of the name and the hyphen that links the sum of its parts.

Anyway, I came to be in Amherst because in 1979, I left New Mexico with a brand new undergraduate degree in English and headed to UMass-Amherst where, to my surprise, I had been admitted to the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program. In retrospect, I suppose, the MFA was a waste of my time and effort. It certainly didn’t do my career any good. But, at least I met some interesting people--among them my favorite professor, Tamas Aczel, a fascinating man who’d fled his native Hungary in 1956 during the revolution. (4)

I’d heard the story, which I don’t know but suspect to be true, was that Tamas had received the Stalin Prize In Literature, signed by Stalin himself. When the revolution broke out, he supported the revolutionaries. But, then, the Russians came in with tanks and guns, and so he hotfooted it to the border. There, he was stopped by the frontier guards. And where, they asked him, did he think he was going. “Ah,” he replied, “I’m on a secret mission for the highest authorities”...and he whipped out the Stalin Prize certificate, with Stalin’s signature on it. The Guards didn’t know Russian, but they knew Stalin’s signature when they saw it. “Right this way, Sir,” they said, and escorted him on his way.

Like I say, it may be completely apocryphal. But it is too good not to share.

So, as I look back on on it, my time at UMass proved to be extraordinarily important, even though the MFA probably profited me very least in the sense of getting a job or getting published. But, the time I spent there, meeting people like Tamas, other professors, and other students...that proved useful, and interesting, and important.

In particular, there was one student ...

But, no...

Well, I’ll make you wait on that.

Besides, I’m sure you’ve already guessed what...and to come.

More to come.

As per norm, unrelated to the tale at hand, but I happen to like the image. It is of Martha while we were having lunch in the little town of Perry, OK. We traveled through it on a recent adventure. Anyway, I love the look of pure mischief on her face.



1. For the history of Amherst, I rely on the town’s Wikipedia entry here:,_Massachusetts


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