After high school graduation (June, 1960) I spent eight pretty pointless months in Europe, working at various places for the company that employed my father, Ampex. On my return (February, ’61), I spent a pretty pointless semester at newly opened Foothill (Junior) College, which hadn’t yet moved into its upscale location at Los Altos Hills and was instead housed in dowdy buildings on El Camino in Mountain View, California.
Then, finally, in September, ’61, I enrolled at San Francisco State College and joined three high school friends—Tony Governor, Mike Hanrahan or George Ebey (I can’t remember which, initially), and Gunder Hefta–in a shared apartment on Irving Avenue. This was, at the time, an older, blue-collar-ish, mostly residential area of S.F. known as either “The Sunset” or “The Avenues.” The Irving apartment was a block or two up from 19th Avenue, the main thoroughfare that ran all the way down to the SF State campus, at Holloway.
For me, at least, that apartment and my three semesters at SF State were breakout life experiences. For one thing, my cooking-oriented roommates, Tony and Gunder, often prepared salads with the dinners they made for the group, something I don’t remember my mother preparing when I lived at home. In some crazy, I’ve-finally-made-it way, my thought at the time was that salads were the height of the new sophistication that had entered my life.
We later moved to an apartment on Taraval and the crew of roommates changed—with Hanrahan replacing Ebey, or vice versa, and Tom Tarr joining us at some point. But the “culture” of our group remained substantially the same. Gunder was the only one of us who’d graduated from Palo Alto High School (aka, “Paly”). I’d known him previously—if only vaguely—because he’d dated Phoebe Graubard, a girl at Cubberley. Of our Irving/Taraval group Gunder had the most luminous intellect. He had two intellectual passions, life science and the English language—the latter, that is, as it hosted poetry and literature. Were it not for Gunder I don’t think I’d ever have been introduced to poets Kenneth Patchen, Robert Creeley, or Jack Gilbert. I spent a lot of my free time wearing out the grooves on my Joan Baez (another Paly grad) and Ray Charles LPs. It was a freewheeling kind of shared apartment existence. The four of us would come and go whenever and had our own class schedules and part-time work to attend to. But there was a shared aspect too.
The thing I’ve remembered most richly after all these years was Gunder’s ready and hilarious playfulness with language. He loved making up ridiculous spoonerisms just for the joy of it. We didn’t have a TV, but at the time there was an evening news show on Oakland’s KTVU called “The Tuck and Fortner Report.” Gunder, I remember, called it “The Fuck and Torture Report.” When at some point actress Cloris Leachman’s name became known, Gunder redubbed her “Clorox Bleachman.” Excusing himself to visit the bathroom he’d sometimes casually explain: “Need to bleed my lizard.” I wish I’d kept a glossary of all his off-the-wall inventions.
He played with words in other ways, too. I remember he used to like to mutter—in the worst possible Mexican accent—a kind of guiding oath: “All my life,” he’d say, “I have longed to fight zee bull; but first I must fight zee leetle bull,” he’d continue, “zee one that lives inside me.” It made no sense, and maybe he was quoting something he’d read or heard, but it was an iconic Gunderism all the same. He also liked to express frustration or acute disappointment with a sudden melodic string of sounds that I cannot possibly transcribe but sounded something like this: “Wo-oh-oh-a, wo-oh-oh-a, wo-ho-ho-a,” in tones on a descending scale. It was another of his iconic sound-using trademarks—and one I vividly recall even to this day.
We only had one class in common—Prof. A.K. Bierman’s Philosophy One. Bierman was a brilliant teacher, but his class started at 8:30 a.m.—a time in the morning Gunder was reluctant to oblige. I don’t know why, but Gunder was almost impossible to awaken in the morning. To say he slept like a log would be an understatement—he slept like a granite boulder. I soon gave up trying, and as a result Gunder missed, according to my recollection, almost every session of Bierman’s wonderful class.
It was an unusual class. For almost all of the sessions Bierman sat on a stool at the front of the room reading—lovingly, and with lots of interposed interpretations for our benefit—David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. This might seem like it’d be the most boring of all possible 90 minutes, but Bierman made it intriguing, elevating, and often also very funny. The book, as I recall, was only 94 pages long, but most of the semester was spent this way. Then, near the end, we were supposed to have also read and fully taken in Plato’s Republic—which I dabbled in, but cannot say I fully consumed on my own.
By the time the final exam came rolling around I was seriously worried about Gunder’s prospects. The night before the test, we stayed up until the wee hours, me cramming him on Hume and what little I knew about Plato’s book. And when the exam’s grades came back, Gunder, with his graceful pen, got an “A” and I, exhausted from the night before and never that gifted as a wordsmith, got a “B-.” Like I said, he had the most luminous brain in our bunch.
After I heard that Gunder had died (on 9/12/21), I took a look around on the web to see what traces I could find of him and his life. I was delighted to discover that Gunder had published a bit of wordplay in Boy’s Life magazine all the way back in 1957, when he would still have been a student at Jordan Junior High: “Daffynishion—Dictionary—a large object used for pressing flowers.” It’s ridiculous, I know, but therein lies its fleeting charm!
But there were more telling traces of Gunder I found on the web too. After college, Gunder pursued a career in book editing—one might say it was a perfect confluence for his two passions. Google’s book-searching service—“Google Books”—yielded the comments of a number of authors or coauthors expressing their appreciation and thanks for Gunder’s editorial work on their books. “Gunder Hefta, who was ‘present at the creation,’” wrote Alfred A. Blaker, author of Photography: Art and Technique (1988), “has been influential and infinitely helpful throughout.” Similar sentiments came from Stephen A. Spongberg, author of A Reunion of Trees (1990). “I am particularly indebted to my editor, Gunder Hefta,” wrote Sheila Conner, author of New England Natives (1993, a study of that region’s native flora), “whose editorial abilities are surpassed only by his civilized patience, kindness, and wit.” How many books Gunder midwifed into existence and how many grateful authors he helped or even rescued we will probably never know.
I think I’ll close with something trivial—and yet also telling about the memory of youth and friendship. Gunder, in our little apartment group, had a nice collection of aftershaves. I had none, but he let me use his Bay Rum on one occasion before an important date. I always admired—perhaps even envied a little—Gunder’s collection. Only recently—in the past few months—did it occur to me that I could order some Bay Rum from Amazon. And I did. And seeing it in my medicine cabinet—now, here in Wallace, Idaho, so many decades later–I can’t help but smile and remember my old friend.