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Saint Leo professor takes show on the road

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© St. Petersburg Times, published March 5, 2001

It is fashionable in some literary circles today to speak about a writer's "voice," using the noun as an abstract term representing point-of-view, color and what a rapper would call 'tude.

With Mark "Tiger" Edmonds it is all of that, and, if you listen to his tape Gather 'Round Me Riders it is also the real thing -- the kind of voice that people in broadcasting would kill for.

I met Tiger about 12 years ago at a party where the only other interesting person was my shrink, who had already terrified me by pointing out that the venison dish she was eating wasn't Bambi, technically, but was Bambi's mother.

Permanently scarred, I began chatting with a biker who was the only guy in the room with hair longer than mine and who turned out to be equally versed in motorcycles and the arguments of deconstructionism vs. post-modernism.

A brief detour here, before I am descended upon by a pack of rabid editors beating me with copies of their Literary Criticism 101 textbooks.

I'm no expert, but as nearly as I can tell deconstructionism is the opposite of post-modernism and the difference is something like this:

A deconstructionist will tell you that Moby Dick is about the struggle between good and evil left deliberately ambiguous as to whether it is Ahab or the whale who represents true evil.

A post-modernist will tell you it is about a guy and a big fish.

A deconstructionist will tell you that Cool Hand Luke is a retelling of the story of Jesus with an enigmatic, mystical protagonist alternately reviled and loved by his fellow outcasts, at constant odds with authority and finally betrayed by an associate.

A post-modernist will tell you its about a guy in jail who could eat a lot of eggs.

But, back to Tiger, who is the real deal when it comes to being the living contradiction I have only worked at being for the past 57 years.

Dr. Mark Edmonds is an English professor at Saint Leo University known (still, even at 55) for his ability to communicate with students in their own language and to instill in at least some of them his love for the written word.

He has even gone so far as to invite me into his classroom a couple of times, never quite sure what I might say, but willing to take the risk.

Now he's going into somebody else's classroom to lecture on a subject on which he has demonstrated his expertise -- a three-day visit to the State University of New York to lecture on "Literature of the Road."

"The first motorcycle I ever got on was back in 1950 or '51," Edmonds writes in the first chapter of Longrider, a collection of stories based on his motorcycle travels of more than a million miles. "A woman my mom worked with rode a huge Monsterglide Harley, all tricked out with fringe and chrome and lights. . . . She threw me up behind her and took off for about a hundred miles one night."

Edmonds was hooked. After getting his bachelor's degree from the University of Michigan and stints in the Army and as a truck driver and social worker, he returned to graduate school and got his doctorate. He moved to Saint Leo College in 1981.

And he kept riding.

And he kept on writing.

The result has been something akin to On The Road meets the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, or, as I like to think of it, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance without pretense.

And I'm not the only one to put Longrider: A Tale of Just Passin' Through and the audio version, "Gather 'Round Me Riders," in that class, along with Travels With Charlie and even (according to BMW Owners News) the works of Homer.

Two professors at SUNY, one an old Army buddy of Edmonds', taught a class this summer on those and other examples of road literature.

"That's pretty flattering company to be in," said Edmonds, "and I think I have some things to say. If you go back and read Electric Kool Aid Acid Test and Kerouac, they don't hold up in a lot of ways, so literature of the road is still evolving."

Whether Edmonds own work will hold up 30 years from now in a different cultural context remains to be seen, but Whitehorse Press has thought enough of the book to take it into a second printing, and has Edmonds' second book, Longrider II ready for release.

Edmonds won't be firing up the BMW bike he has ridden for more than 35 years to go to New York, where he is scheduled next week for a National Public Radio interview, a panel on Literature of the American Road and a performance and reading at the Student Union.

"Just because I'm funny looking," he said, laughing, "doesn't mean I'm crazy. It's going from freezing down to zero up there. I'm taking a rental car.

"And let it be known," he said, "that I intend to be stealing as much information as I can while I'm there so I can teach the same course at Saint Leo."

Edmonds and I, in a lot of ways, are from a different time.

But we have enough in common that I know how important it is for students to at least be exposed to people who spend a large portion of their lives looking at the world from a slightly different angle.

As he rode away from our breakfast meeting at his favorite restaurant, Waffle House, the other day, I wondered how much longer he would be in the business of beating his very different drum.

I was heartened to see he was wearing a helmet.

Good. There is much of value inside that skull to be shared.

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