A Cape Cod tourist brochure referring to the Nickerson Room in a Chatham library asks rhetorically, “Who was W. B. Nickerson?” The answer gives the obituary particulars, born in 1942 and so on, and recommends the archives to visitors interested in local lore. William Brewster Nickerson, for whom the room was named, was named in turn for a direct antecedent who founded Chatham in Massachusetts in 1664 after buying the land from Mattaquason, the sachem of the Monomoyick tribe, in exchange for a small boat.
William was never anything but “Bruce,” already the Big Man on Campus, to all of us freshmen when we arrived at Dartmouth in 1961. He had prepared for college at Deerfield Academy and, exercising the privilege of an upperclassman, class of 1963, he roared into town in a 1955 MG TF-1500 roadster convertible, painted Dartmouth Green, a color called British Racing Green beyond the pale of the college. Even then it was something of a vintage item. Bruce had been born on St. Patrick’s Day, without the slightest claim to Celtic culture. He was not loathe to think of himself as a White Anglo- Saxon Protestant and, when the term was just coming into the vernacular, the green New Hampshire license plate on his MG read in white letters: “WASP.” (A decade later I would come to know Digby Baltzell, the University of Pennsylvania sociologist who routinely denied that he had invented the term universally ascribed to him, his objection being that “White Anglo-Saxon” is slovenly tautological.)
At some solemn moment one day, like the orderly and uncontested accession of a prince from coronet to crown, Bruce appeared without comment in the white shoes, trousers, cardigan, and cap of the president of the most revered secret society, Paleopitus, which carried with it the right to advise the president of the college on matters about which the president, in terms vaguely expressed, wanted to be advised. The only advice I remember Bruce giving was through a megaphone at football games, calling on us to insult Yale. He plowed into philosophy even though it was not his natural gift, finally confiding to me that the faculty told him that his written examination for graduation had given them a good laugh. Risibility has long been a subject of interest to sophists.
I had seen no serious side to Bruce, although in his elderly early 20s he was avuncular to one who was the youngest in the college and saved me from more than one faux pas. We tolerated President John Sloan Dickey’s warning that our world was changing in strange ways. Each Monday night we were required to attend, in jacket and tie, “Great Issues” speeches by visitors unknown to us, like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. At Evensong in chapel, Bruce would indicate his preference for certain hymns by singing them loudly, so when he told me he wanted to be a priest I consigned it to the attic of his passing enthusiasms.
First he’d do his navy duty, as the ROTC had been one of his catalogue of campus activities. The bright green MG was sold, as it would be of no use in Vietnam. He summoned me before graduation and gave me the license plate emblazoned “WASP.” I shook his hand and wished him a thrilling time, and made no mention of the fact that he was weeping as he said that he truly believed in God. He was assigned to Attack Squadron 85 onboard the U.S.S. Kitty Hawk, and on April 22, 1966, age 24, he flew as bombardier/navigator on a combat reconnaissance mission near the city of Vinh in Ha Tinh Province. His aircraft crashed about five miles offshore, and no remains were recovered. I have his license plate next to my books of the philosophers we once had read.