Sunday, June 2, 2013

Will ClenDening -- Artist and Engineer

The last time that I saw Will ClenDening was the morning of June 3, 2006 at about 9:30 AM. He, Mark, and an acquaintance of theirs from safety school had come to my McGill apartment on the Vanderbilt campus at about 6:00AM that Saturday. I had blueberry coffee waiting for them and Will walked in, breathed the aroma deep, and said “I don’t care what anyone says, I love this blueberry coffee.” In truth, virtually everyone does. We drank coffee, talked about motorcycles I’m sure, because the three of them were relatively new to riding, and headed to Green Hills to meet up with friends, who would follow us by car down Hillsboro Pike, cutting over on old TN-46 to Leipers Fork, where we planned on breakfast at Puckett’s. It was foggy and cool. I saw in my rear-view mirror our little caravan spread out during the 15 mile drive, disappearing in the curves, and reappearing after a time in the straight-aways – never out of sight for too long.

At Puckett’s we sat in the front and we looked out on “main street”. The fog had lifted and it was a bright day. We clowned around, jabbing each other with old jokes, and then caravanned again down Natchez Trace, heading towards Highway 100, where we planned to turn towards town. We pulled to the side, and said goodbye to our autoing companions. Mark, Will, and their friend wanted to continue on – it was a beautiful day, but I decided to head back to see friends, as originally planned. I left them there, Will to finish a smoke, and rounded the turn onto Hwy 100, but pulled into a gas station at the junction, south of the Loveless Hotel, and waited for my friends to leave from behind the ridge, take the same curve I had, but turn west. I waited, got off and paced, but never saw them take that turn, and left for Nashville after about 15 minutes.

At about Noon, Will’s friend Chris walked into lunch, pulled me aside, and told me that Will had died in a motorcycle wreck about an hour before. I was stunned, disbelieving for hours, until I talked to Mark, who had seen Will’s body pulled from under the van that hit him, through no fault of the van’s driver. I went to see Mark that evening, who was devastated – we talked about my feelings, his feelings, and projected how the driver felt. He explained what had happened, as best he could, for he had been riding ahead of Will. Days later, I met Will’s father at Fido’s coffee house, and he gave me a copy of the accident report. Will’s bike had laid down on a curve; Will, with bike, had slid across the centerline and been hit by an oncoming van; Will had died instantly.

Geoff, Mark, Chris, and I were pallbearers at Will’s funeral at modest St Mark’s, and I doubt that church had ever seen so many people. Will had an ocean of friends and other well-wishers, and they packed the sanctuary and auxiliary rooms to beyond capacity. Will was revered in several communities.

Two weeks after Will died, Mark and I rode to the accident site, coming from the opposite direction. I was surprised that it was a modest, harmless looking curve. I snapped pictures while Mark looked on absently. Before we left I rode down a mile, and then back the way that Will had come. The curve wasn’t banked, somewhat obscured by brush, following a prolonged straightaway. Riding it, I understood how easy it would be to slip in a way that I had not appreciated by looking.

Between White Bluff and Cumberland Furnace, TN. Looking West.

Will was an artist, but he was an engineer too – he was some wonderful melding of both artist and engineer ( When I asked my mother for her old defibrillator and pacemaker (, after her originals had been replaced, it was Will that I had in mind – excitedly we bantered about them as the basis of an artistic work. He asked me about computers too -- what was possible with them. He expressed an interest in adding computer programming and graphics to his artistic tool chest. Will wanted to somehow visualize the way that a computer processed text. He asked me how text was represented in a computer. I told him about ASCII binary codes, where each character (e.g., letter, digit, punctuation) is represented as 8 bits (1's and 0's) or 1 byte. He thought of using a light source to flash on and off, representing 1's and 0's, the ASCII representations of the sequence of characters that made up a text -- I think that we talked about doing this for the dictionary and some novel. We talked about this sequencing of flashing light being analogous to Morse code. I showed him a byte of memory (i.e., enough memory to store just a single CHARACTER of text) from an old, circa-1960 IBM 700-series computer. This REALLY excited him. This one byte was as big as small laptops of today that can store billions of bytes (or characters). It had 8 vacuum-tubes along the top, one for each bit. He imagined installing banks of 8-lights each (each light about the size of a Christmas light) in a dark room, and the banks of lights going off in rapid succession, perhaps with some parallelism, each bank representing a character of text. Perhaps visitors could type in text that would be translated to ASCII, byte representation and displayed. The basic idea of translating between representations or between modalities of perception was behind some of his other projects, like one in which bar codes were translated to audio.

Will and I shared art and engineering, and we were close friends … among that handful of “best” friends for which further ordinal distinctions make no sense. When he died I think I finally grokked that I was mortal.