At 8:45 yesterday morning, on an auditorium stage in Fairfax County, a 37-year-old lawyer who has given up, at least for now, the squalor of torts for the glory that was Greece began orating Book 16 of Homer's "The Iliad" before several hundred mildly amused, half-attentive high school kids. In itself, since this was still first period at W.T. Woodson High, the performance seemed like its own epic poem of courage and virtue.
"A dark cloud of Trojans has burst furiously upon our fleet!" cried Frank F. Fowle III, itinerant Homeric bard.
Bob Seeger, they knew; King Priam, they were a little less clear on.
The bard had driven in the night before from St. Louis in his unwashed 1981 white Honda Cvcc, which already has 100,000 miles on it. He was up there all alone now, on a bare stage, facing the lions in his blousey black piper's getup, declaiming best hits of Homer. Some tittered.
"Achilles, I shall come to your tent and take your prize!" Frank Fowle cried, striding furiously, beginning to lather.
Imaginary chariots smashed in all directions. Veins stood out on an orator's forehead. A pair of hands clawed air like an eagle's talons.
"The Trojans have flung fire upon the ship!" Frank Fowle cried.
Sweat seemed to rain from every pore. Shield clashed with shield. There was passion here, there was awe, there was eloquent summoning of ancient heroes--Achilles and Hector and the incomparable Helen of Troy. Some blind inner light had taken a man to a far, far place.
"O death cry! O shout of triumph! O slain and slayer!"
"Hey, the bell rang," called up a kid from the audience after it had gone on for a glorious 40 minutes. Teachers turned around and shushed.
In fact, it had gone on a glorious 50 minutes, which apparently was a smidge too long: The bell had interrupted the key scene, which is when noble Patroclus gets it from behind right in the shoulder blades.
In the end, they gave the bard a big hand anyway. He seemed flushed with joy. He raised on his heels and swept through bows. Maybe, for just an instant, kids had sensed another light.
The school paid him $125. In the next period the bard would perform again, for the Latin classes, which were enthusiastic, and this time Fowle would earn $250. Yesterday afternoon Fowle would go out to West Springfield High and make another $250, all in all a pretty good pay day for an exotic calling. He's been doing this for three years. "Usually," he says, "I don't even make expenses."
The temptation is to call it heroic-absurd. He drives madly around the country in a car crammed to the oarlocks with his clothes, the Great Books, tennis shoes, a fly rod, some old law school texts. He has to book himself--can't get an agent. He tried getting agents, but they didn't get it.
In the back of his Honda, along with a worn briefcase that is gold-stamped with an FFF, are "The Campaigns of Alexander" alongside "Trial Techniques" by Irving Goldstein. Who knows: He may go back to the legal world yet. He's having a re'sume' printed up right now.
Usually he plays schools, but he does culture clubs, civic groups, private parties, too--almost anything he can get. But don't think of him as the Rodney Dangerfield of the ancients. He gets a lot of respect, actually. Why, once The Wall Street Journal put him on Page 1, and another time a college dean used words like "passion . . . delivery . . . truly memorable."
He dines at Burger Chef and sleeps on friends' couches or at the local Low-Rent Rendezvous Motel. But what does it matter? He is journeying to another muse.
"I have left the ordinary world and I am traveling in an extraordinary world," he says, waving through a flourish. It is a little set piece of gestures and mimes.
You take the day before yesterday. He was home in St. Louis, making calls to prospective schools in Iowa, Boston, Chicago, getting things squared away for this road trip. At exactly 10:10 a.m. Monday, Central Standard Time, Frank Fowle III pulled out of Missouri bound for Washington in his trusty steed. He drove all day and got in at 8.
"It . . . is . . . great!" he says. "The Greeks, particularly the Athenians, could never have done what they did, create the most extraordinary civilization, had it not been for Homer. The Greeks are still at the rudder of Western civilization, their ideals. It is the ring of the real in the ideal. I mean, you think of Lenny Skutnik, that guy who dove into the Potomac a year ago. Remember? Well, in a sense, the Greeks prepared him for what he did. The Greeks made a concerted effort to raise the heroic standard not just for individuals, but for a city. A whole city. A CITY!"
Frank Fowle's eyes have bulbed.
"The key is that you have to have ideals fixed in your consciousness. That is what I am about. I want others to feel it, too."
So this is a mission, and practically anything he makes goes right back into the work. Supposedly, his income for the last three years was a big fat zero: He could never get his head above advertising, travel expenses, a bank loan back in Missouri. "Direct mail advertising," he says disconsolately. "I get two returns out of 100. I WANT 100 out of 100!"
His first performance was back in law school. He did Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner." He got 15 bucks--and the bug. Soon "The Iliad" became the centerpiece of his repertoire.
He dresses collegiate--penny loafers, shirts with alligators on them. He'll come into a school a half-hour before a show, inspect the stage and lighting, change into his black costume and begin. Yesterday morning, he skinned out of his street clothes and into his Homer suit while a reporter stood by and took notes. It took him maybe 45 seconds and he did it behind a curtain.
He'll tell you exactly how he got to W.T. Woodson. "Miltiades Yiasemides," he says, intoning it, as you would poetry. Turns out that Miltiades Yiasemides is a Woodson English teacher, a Greek. Fowle had sent a flier to the school; Yiasemides replied. The bard was galvanized by that name.
"Didn't you know he is the hero of the Battle of Marathon, when the Greeks defeated the Persians? Yes, yes, yes. It was a 50-50 chance they could win. Miltiades gave this incredibly impassioned Homeric speech. Miltiades thought he had the blood of Achilles in his veins."
We are talking here of ancient Miltiades. But Frank Fowle thought that any school that had a teacher with a name like that practically deserved his show for free. He is glad they decided to pay.
This morning, right this moment, Frank Fowle, the Homeric troubadour who once was an ensign in the Navy, is already out there on the road, hands on the wheel of a dream that's real. He is reveling in the great flat feel of America at his elbows. He is bound for New Orleans: another opening, another show. Then it's on to El Paso. "Hey, do you realize I'll be crossing all the major rivers of this country. I'll see the Mississippi, the Rio Grande, the Pecos. Think of it! Why, I may anoint myself with oils and stand on the banks just shouting Homer to the sky."