That old time excitement and pomp that used to pervade the American College Experience has long since passed us by; anyone older than fifty can tell you that. The exuberant sense of school pride and fervor for tradition of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise disappeared with the expansion of the middle-class, and even the freewheeling adventuresome spirit depicted in Animal House has eroded into the abysmal pseudo-parties of frat houses today. Still, if one is cunning and clever enough, a righteous sentimentality can still be captured on the Corporate Universities’ campuses of today, and the snapshots and memories of the first years of your divorce from childhood can be collected carefully and pinned down and labeled–right there, right then: That’s where I was, that’s where I shined. But after your four or five or even six years, once the balloons have floated too high to see and all the confetti has been swept away, there is little left for you if you should return. Still, like a wandering troubadour or an international armed forces coalition, you hope that during the time you had you made the place you visited a little better, contributed something to the myth, maybe even sustained the chaotic spirit that, more and more often, is being bound with red tape. So when I returned to Kent, Ohio, early in the spring, I had expected that not much would be different, that I would be welcomed back by old professors and pointed out by many admiring underclassmen as “that guy who _______.” And, trust me, there are a lot of things that could fill that blank. Even for a school as big as Kent State University, I managed to know a couple thousand people on a first name basis and have even more than that watch the many stupid and brave things I had done.
After nine hours driving through the southern and midwestern savannahs, I arrived at my old roommate’s apartment to collect him. Ernest is the type of chap that many wish they could be yet find so little time to try and become. An accomplished axeman and athlete, with a keen understanding of higher mathematics and physics, he is often found 10,000 miles beyond you both philosophically and physically once his temperament has become ignited. He drives very recklessly, and has run over many small animals which should have had science and adaptation on their side, including a roadrunner. How he managed to nail that roadrunner, I’ll never know, but by gawd he did it. He has followed me many places we should not have been and gotten me out of several scrapes without so much as straining a muscle. We, of course, had a bond.
My first destination was the Rathskellar, the bar on campus at which I used to quaff and serve up many dark potions both as a customer and bartender. I expected to see several old friends (Kent has a high retention rate both among students and graduates; the elastic of its community never seems to tear), but instead I entered through the door and saw several teenagers. The barman, who had been one of my best customers last year, talked to me a little while and charged me very little. While the beer was cold and good, what he had to say set the tone for most of my visit. He told me the old group never really came out too much anymore, that Food Services was crunching down on the bar even more with regulations and stipulations, and that one old friend, Bil, who was going to take my place as bartender, had come down with leukemia and almost died.
“Jesu, joy of man’s desiring,” I said to Ernest. “You didn’t tell me people were dying around here.”
“I didn’t know, man,” he said.
“Well, let’s get out of here regardless,” I said. “We have to find solace.”
We toured campus for a brief while, but after having to evade too many corrupt acquaintances, we decided to step off of state property and dive into the private sector. I spun my car into the parking lot of the Dairy Mart where we assumed Pyle was still working and hoorah for us, he was. We talked for a while as we used to do, leaning against the refrigerator that held frozen pizzas and ice cream treats and confusing the customers. We asked for some information on some upcoming parties, but he couldn’t put his finger on any. Our conversation was interrupted several times by policemen coming in for free refills on their coffee. Pyle said that that’s how it had been for a while; the cops were spawning.
Ernest grumbled. He despises cops more than I do, and the scene from two years ago was still fresh in his mind. Dateline Kent, Cinco de Mayo, the last fiesta before finals week and/or before going home. My first year we had followed the packs of people over the rolling hills of campus, people crisscrossing paths on their way to different places, each side street filled with traditionally student-owned homes just thick with human shapes and clinking cans. There was a sense of accomplishment wherever you went, that another year was over and we had made it past the academic sirens. Marathons were being run in our blood, and even the dark things that can happen to girls in attic bedrooms and basements did not occur because everyone wanted to be outside breathing that type of Ohio air that falls down from the sky for only a few weeks out of the entire year. Everything was well and good until some asshole decided to set his car on fire.
This was in Townhomes, an apartment complex east of campus that had a student residency rate of almost 100 percent, and it was here were a lot of the heaviest partying was done since it was close enough to campus to walk to yet secluded enough so that not many adults came snooping around. While everyone else danced and did kegstands, a young man snuck out to his piece of shit ride and set it on fire. He had decided that his car was sufficiently lacking in chrome, leather, and decibels, so he devised a plan to blame an unknown partygoer for incinerating his car and collect enough insurance money to buy a new one, perhaps something with better gas mileage or tinted windows… The car got burned completely, and so did his little plan. Five witnesses saw him do it, and up shit creek he went, along with the rest of us.
During the next year, the Kent State Police Department tried to make a quiet arms deal. They wanted M-16 rifles; you know, the ones we used in Nam to kill Charlie. Other police departments have M-16s, they argued. The higher-ups quickly put an end to that, failing to see a correlation between quelling race riots in L.A. and stopping drunk college kids from pulling off harebrained schemes. Unfortunately, a lot of other purchases were approved under the radar, including tear gas launchers, riot gear, and rubber bullets. So my sophomore year, when Ernest and I went down to investigate Townhomes, we found it completely cordoned off by armor-clad police who were gassing the parking lot to keep kids from drinking on the lawn and shooting anyone who tried to come near (after the appropriate amount of warnings, of course) with non-lethal projectiles. One kid we met had a huge red-black bruise on the back of his thigh. He was a resident who was trying to leave the carnage since the gas had wafted into his flat, coating the curtains.
Nobody but students found this sort of police behavior odd, and the next year things were taken up a notch on the pre-emptive end. An ordinance was passed in the city that allowed the cops to approach a home due to any noise complaint from a neighbor, and, as a result, instantly enter the house and start cuffing people if they sensed any probable cause when the person who had his stereo too loud opened the front door. At the Dairy Mart, Pyle told us that this ordinance had been further revised so that an outside complaint wasn’t even necessary. Any cop who thought that too much noise was being made in a house could just walk up and, at the very least, hand out a ticket.
One Sunday in March of last year, my senior year at Kent, the cops pretty much put the last nail in the coffin of repression during a student-led march protesting the Iraq war in its infancy. The group numbered less than seven hundred people, the majority of them being kids who just wanted to play their congas outside and who were sort of lost since they were marching through the science and technology part of campus, where most of them had never been before. The cops, forewarned of the march, were ready and waiting. I woke up that morning and was driving out to get some breakfast when I noticed there was a State Trooper parked down every single side street off of the main thoroughfares. I quickly decided to go back to my room and wait out the day sans doughnuts; I knew there would be bad consequences for the poor martyrs who decided to step outside their dorms.
The pictures were in the paper next day of students being wrestled to the ground and cuffed. The dangerous hippies had failed to disperse. Some were arrested; many were bruised and bloody. It brought back bad memories of the event that had tarnished our school for at least 30 years, and no one thought to bring up the idea before hand that a uniformed cadre bearing down on some protestors might cause the bile of that day to rise up again in the city’s stomach. But, once again, no one other than the students batted an eye, and so the Boys in Blue continue to corral the students sporting blue and gold…
The beating of uninformed student hippies like a band of coal mine scabs pretty much convinced everyone that stepping out of line was just asking for some kind of punishment, and the party scene has atrophied, though the bars are still carefree. Ernest and I headed for one of those safe havens, the Zephyr, and sat for a while talking about songs in the jukebox and the musicians who had made them. The doorman was a friend of mine who looked surprised to see me. One of the bartenders-slash-decorators remembered my name. Both described bad juju and talked about their plans for escape. A man stood up and hushed everyone. Holding up his cell phone, he yelled, “I just found out I’m going to be a grandfather!” Jostled by the yell, we turned and saw a man no older than forty-five sporting hipster clothes and a spiky haircut. It was depressing and enjoyable at the same time, and so we bought him a Maker’s Mark.
“The Spring I seek is in a new face only,” I told Ernest after several jiggers of Beam.
“Let’s go play music,” he said. “We might as well get the band back together while you’re here.”
And so we crowded into our singer’s bedroom and launched chords out of our amps so that they reverberated around us and enclosed us until we were safe again, three boys isolated in their noise and youth.
Ryan Sparks is an author and musician living in New Orleans.