It was 1957, my sophomore year at Southern Illinois University. Buckminster Fuller took up residence at Carbondale on invitation from the design department. We were told not to worry about the hours-long lectures he was known for. He had a kidney problem and would need to use the restroom frequently. It did not work out that way.
He was a stocky little guy with glasses that seemed inches thick, secured by rubber bands around the back side of his head. His belt was hidden underneath A bay window that would melt away in later years. I liked him at once, we all did. Bucky was without pretension, smiling, energetic, eager to begin. He stood before a blackboard with a box of colored chalks and spoke three hours nonstop that first day . . . stream of consciousness. His subjects orbited around us, sometimes three or four at once. To think too deeply into any one of them meant losing track of others.
I got lost a lot; we all did. He kept multiple ideas in the air, a mental juggler, arms and hands creating a ballet of gesture as he spoke. One theory would be sketched in red, another blue, others in green and white, laid out on of top of one another to display their esoteric relationships. After a while the blackboard would begin to vibrate and sometimes spontaneous optical illusions would occur.
Bucky owned a car back then, his last before he gave them up. It was a black, four-door Citroen, one of those air/oil suspension jobs with capability to raise itself six inches higher off the ground by pumping oil into hydraulic lifters.
* * *
One evening, at a restaurant off campus, I saw Fuller and his wife. They had just finished dinner, and I stopped to say ‘hello,’ somewhat embarrassed to assail him in a public place. He seemed to have so little time to call his own. As usual he smiled his eyes as big as billiard balls behind his heavy lenses. Fuller asked me to sit down. His wife, Anne, nodded her consent. I did, and we began to talk about his car.
“Would you like to take a ride in it, old man?” he asked.
“I would.” I would have given anything I had for such a moment.
Bucky paid their check and we walked out into a warm midsummer night. The car sat like a gleaming cockroach in the gravel parking lot.
“Get in,” he gestured to me as his wife climbed in the back. I had a feeling she’d been through this more than once. He pulled out onto the highway. It was straight and flat for ten miles going east from Carbondale toward Crab Orchard Lake and what was generally referred to as the boondocks.
“The acceleration’s really quite remarkable,” said Fuller as he put the pedal to the floor. The ‘G’ force sucked me back into the seat as seconds later we were doing ninety. Bucky felt that speed was inherently safe in the long run. He reasoned fast moving objects occupy any given space less time than a slow one. That was why atomic particles did not run in to one another. But atomic particles do not wear glasses thicker than the bottom of a coke bottle. I glanced back at Mrs. Fuller who sat calm as Whistler’s Mother, gazing out the window as we hurtled down the highway.
As we drove he rambled on about the ‘haves and have nots,’ a continuation of a lecture he had given us that day.
“There’s a showdown coming, don’t you know, old man. Around the year 2000 . . . Simply has to happen. We will either end this thing that is consuming us, or it will destroy itself. It’s really just that simple.” Bucky smiled, quick little grin. The moonlight glittered on his glasses.
“Show me a rough road, old man. Ah! There’s one.”
Bad choice. I was going to let it pass. I was familiar with the back roads, having used them for romantic interludes on more than one occasion. The one he’d found was meant for tractors.
“Hold on,” Bucky warned. He hit the brakes. “They’re power, you know. Quite good, eh?” Fuller beamed. The screaming tires cut a sonic tunnel through the quiet country night as we slid forty yards without the slightest deviation from our course. When we’d come to a full stop he turned into and narrow side road and he flipped a switch. There was a hum as the Citroen raised itself six inches higher from the ground, then Bucky hit the gas again and we were very quickly doing sixty miles an hour. You couldn’t see the bottoms of the holes in front of us. I wondered if he even saw the holes.
“This road is pretty bad,” I ventured.
“That’s alright, old boy. It’s quite all right, don’t worry.”
I was worried and imagined headlines in the next day’s paper, Buckminster Fuller killed with student passenger. Wife survives tragic accident on country road. I turned to look at Anne. She seemed a little bored.
There was no feeling as we hit the holes and rocks, but I could hear the tires as they took massive hits, dull thuds, pum, pum, pum, pum . . . kabum! We seemed to float above the surface, rocking slightly as the undercarriage thumped in agony below. The trees flew past us, random branches scraping windows.
“Really something, isn’t it old man?” said Bucky.
“It sure is,” I replied. “Amazing.”
He continued with his dissertation as we caromed down the road from hell. At last we slowed. He found a wide spot big enough to turn the car around as he said, “Greed is an infection caused by exposure to other consciousnesses who are affected, and who infect others.”
This was little more than theory to me then, I’d just turned twenty, but his words would morph into a hard reality years later . . . unforgotten as this ride. We started back. Ten minutes later we were where we began. He pulled into the parking lot.
“Good show,” he said as I got out. “I didn’t scare you did I?”
“No sir, it was very interesting. It’s quite a car.”
“Yes, isn’t it. Well, see you tomorrow old man.”
I watched as Anne got back in the front. They drove away, but he’s stayed with me all these years. Without a doubt one of the most incredible men I have ever met. A truly great and selfless human being . . . arguably the most unappreciated genius of our time.
Fuller’s place under construction 1957