BOYHOOD WITH GURDJIEFF
LATE THAT SUMMER, Tom and I were chosen to be members of the party of five or six who were to accompany Mr. Gurdjieff on his next trip away from the Prieure. We were among the first children to be selected for this honour and I looked forward to the day of our departure with anticipation and enthusiasm.
It was not until we were actually on the road that Gurdjieff informed us that our destination was Vichy, where he planned to stay for several days and write. Within the first hour or two, I learned quickly enough that travelling with Gurdjieff was not an ordinary experience. Although we were not, as far as I knew, in any hurry to reach our destination, he drove his car as if possessed. We would tear along the roads at a high rate of speed for a few hours, then he would stop abruptly to spend two or three hours at a cafe in a small town, where he would write incessantly; or we might stop somewhere in the country, along the side of the road, and unload great hampers of food and drink, blankets and pillows, and have a leisurely picnic after which everyone would take a nap.
Short of any actual mechanical breakdown, we seemed to have an unusual number of unnecessary experiences on the road. Someone -- it might be me, or anyone of the party -- would be delegated to sit next to Gurdjieff with an open map with which to guide him. He would start off, having told the map reader which road he wished to take, and would then rapidly accelerate to top speed. The map reader's job was to watch the road signs and tell him when to turn off and otherwise give him directions. Invariably, he would manage to speed up before reaching any intersection, and almost equally invariably would fail to make a proper turn. Since he refused to go back, it was then necessary to guide him on whatever road we had happened on in the general direction of our destination. Inevitably, there would be long arguments, usually beginning with his cursing of whoever happened to be reading the map at the time, and finally joined in by everyone. There seemed to be a purpose in this, since it happened regularly no matter who was seated next to him as guide, and I could only ascribe it to his desire to keep everyone stirred up and alert.
Although we carried two spare wheels and tyres with us -- one on each running board -- we could have used several more. Even in those days, changing a wheel after a flat tyre was not a very complicated operation. With Gurdjieff, however, it seemed to become an engineering problem. When a tyre did go flat, and this happened often, everyone would descend from the car, different jobs would be assigned to the various members of the group -- one would be in charge of the jack, another in charge of the removal of the spare tyre, another to remove the wheel that had to be changed. All of these jobs were then supervised by Gurdjieff personally, usually in conference with everyone who was not actually doing something. All work would stop from time to time and we would have long conferences about whether the jack would support the car at that particular angle on the road, which was the best way to remove the lugs from the wheel, and so on. Since Gurdjieff would never take time to have a tyre repaired at a gas station, once the two good spares had been used up, it became a question of not merely changing a wheel, but actually removing the tyre, repairing it, and replacing it on the wheel. On this particular trip, we had enough men to do this, but what with the arguments and conferences and a good deal of recrimination about why the tyres had not been repaired, this process took hours, and most of this time the entire group, with the women appropriately dressed in long dresses, would stand around the car in a huddle, advising and instructing. These groups of people gave passing motorists the impression that some great misfortune had overtaken us and they would frequently stop their cars to offer help, so that sometimes we would be joined by another large group which would also contribute advice, consolation, and sometimes even physical help.
In addition to the hazards of tyre repairs and finding ourselves almost constantly on the wrong road, there was no way that Gurdjieff could be induced to stop for gasoline. Whatever the gas gauge might read, he would insist that we could not possibly be out of gas until the inevitable moment when the motor would begin to cough and splutter and, although he would curse it loudly, the car would stop. Since he was rarely on the proper side of the road, it would then be necessary for everyone to get out of the car and push it to one side of the road while some individual would be selected to either walk or hitch-hike to the nearest gas station and bring back a mechanic. Gurdjieff insisted on the mechanic because he was positive that there was something wrong with the car; he could not have done anything so simple as run out of gas. These delays were a great annoyance to everyone except Mr. Gurdjieff who, once someone had gone in search of help, would settle himself comfortably at the side of the road, or perhaps remain in the car, depending upon how he felt at the moment, and write furiously in his notebooks, muttering to himself and licking the point of one of his many pencils.
Gurdjieff also seemed to attract obstacles. If we were not out of gas or on the wrong road, we would manage to run into a herd of cows or a flock of sheep or goats. Gurdjieff would follow such animals along the road, sometimes nudging them with the bumper of the car, and always leaning out of the driver's side hurling imprecations at them. We ran into a herd of cattle during one of my tours of duty as map reader, and this time, to my surprise and great pleasure, as he cursed at and nudged one of the slower cows in the herd, the cow stopped dead in front of the car, stared at him balefully, raised her tail and showered the hood of the car with a stream of liquid manure. Gurdjieff also seemed to think of this as being especially hilarious and we promptly stopped to rest at the side of the road so that he could do some more writing while the rest of us did what we could to clean up the automobile.
Another habit of Gurdjieff's which complicated these voyages was that, having made numerous stops to eat, rest, write, and so forth, during the day, he would never stop driving at night until so late that most of the inns or hotels would be closed by the time he decided that he needed to eat and sleep. This always meant that one of the group -- we all loathed this duty -- would have to get out of the car, and beat on the door of some country inn until we could raise the proprietor, and, frequently, the entire town. Presumably for the sole purpose of creating additional confusion, once the owner of some inn or hotel had been awakened, Gurdjieff would lean out from the parked car, shouting instructions -- usually in Russian -- about the number of rooms and meals that would be necessary and any other instructions that might come to his mind. Then, while his companions unloaded mountains of luggage, he would usually engage in long, complicated excuses to whoever had been awakened, deploring, in execrable French, the necessity of having awakened them and the inefficiency of his travelling companions, and so forth, with the result that the proprietress -- it was nearly always a woman on such occasions -- was completely charmed with him and would look at the rest of us with loathing as she served an excellent meal. The meal, of course, would go on interminably with long toasts to everyone present, especially the owners of the inn, plus additional toasts to the quality of the food, the magnificence of the location, or anything else that struck his fancy.
Although I thought the journey would never come to an end, we did manage to reach Vichy after a few days of this unusual manner of travelling. We did not arrive, of course, until very late at night, and again had to awaken a great many of the personnel at one of the big resort hotels, who, at first, informed us that they had no room. Gurdjieff intervened in these arrangements, however, and convinced the manager that his visit was of extreme importance. One of the reasons he gave was that he was the Headmaster of a very special school for wealthy Americans, and he produced Tom and myself, both very sleepy, as proof. With a perfectly straight face, I was introduced as Mr . Ford, the son of the famous Henry Ford, and Tom was introduced as Mr. Rockefeller, the son of the equally famous John D. Rockefeller. As I looked at the manager, I did not feel that he was swallowing this tale completely, but he managed (he was obviously tired, too) to smile and look at the two of us with deference. The one problem that remained to be settled was that there were not, in spite of Mr. Gurdjieff's possible importance, enough rooms for all of us. Gurdjieff considered this information seriously and finally devised some way in which we could all be accommodated without any improper mingling of the sexes, into the rooms that were available. Mr. Ford, or not, I ended up sleeping in his bathroom, in the bathtub. I had only just climbed into the tub, exhausted, with a blanket, when someone appeared with a cot that was squeezed into a narrow space in the bathroom. I then moved into the cot, whereupon Mr. Gurdjieff, greatly exhilarated by all these complications, proceeded to take a very hot and long-lasting bath.
The stay at Vichy was very peaceful as compared to our trip. We did not see Gurdjieff except at meals, and our only duty during our stay there was that we were under orders to drink certain specific waters which were, according to him, very beneficial. He gave orders about this water-drinking in the dining-room, which was full, much to our embarrassment and to the great enjoyment of the other guests in the hotel. The particular water that I was to drink was from a spring called "Pour les Femmes" and was a water whose properties were considered extremely beneficial for women, especially if they desired to become pregnant. Fortunately for me at the time -- I was in an extremely good humour and enjoying the general spectacle he was making in the hotel -- I thought that it was an extremely funny idea for me to drink waters which might induce pregnancy and enjoyed regaling him at meals with an account of the large number of glasses I had managed to drink since I had last seen him. He was very pleased with this and would pat my stomach reassuringly and then tell me how proud he was of me. He continued to refer to Tom and myself in a loud voice as Messrs. Rockefeller and Ford, and would explain to the maitre-d'hotel, the waiters, or even the guests at nearby tables, about his school, and his remarkable pupils -- indicating his young American millionaires-to-be -- making learned remarks on the "real properties" of the waters of Vichy which were actually known only to himself.
To add to the general uproar of our stay at Vichy, Gurdjieff met a family of three Russians: a husband and wife and their daughter who must have been in her early twenties. He persuaded the hotel staff to rearrange the dining-room in order that this Russian family should be able to take their meals with us, and we became even more the centre of attraction of the hotel, what with the enormous quantities of Armagnac consumed at each meal, usually complete with toasts to all of the guests individually as well as to everyone at our table. It seems to me now that I only had time to eat tremendous, never-ending meals (I was not required to drink toasts, however), leave the table and race to the "Pour les Femmes" spring and consume large quantities of spring water and then rush back to the hotel in time for another meal.
The Russian family were very much taken with, and impressed by, Gurdjieff and after a day or so he had completely revised their water-drinking schedule, insisting that their regimes were completely wrong, so that the daughter ended up drinking, regularly, a water known, naturally, as "Pour les Hommes". She did not, however, find this particularly odd or funny, and listened very seriously to Mr. Gurdjieff's long, scientific analysis of the properties of this particular water and why it was the proper water for her to drink. When I asked him about this one night while he was taking a bath next to my cot in the bathroom, he said that -- as he would prove to me sometime in the near future -- this particular girl was very suitable for experiments in hypnosis.
We did not stay in Vichy for more than a week, and when we reached the Prieure, late at night, after an equally harrowing return trip, we were all exhausted. Mr. Gurdjieff's only comment to me after the trip was that it had been a fine trip for all of us, and that it was an excellent way to "changer les idees".