On Saturday, Kate and I forced our daughter Rachel to get up far earlier than she would have preferred, kidnapped her and strapped her in the car, and escorted her to Athens, Ohio to visit Ohio University. We’re in the midst of the Spring College Tour Season, checking out potential alma maters for one member of the class of 2011, and O.U. was the next stop on the tour. It’s a place where I stopped for four years, back in the years that straddled either side of the mid-‘70s, so there’s a bit of a history there. And it was amazing how much of that history came flooding back while strolling those cobblestoned walkways.
I am biased, and I admit it. I can’t imagine going to college in any finer town than Athens, Ohio. You can’t stay there after you graduate. There’s no employment outside of the university and the many retail establishments on Court and Union Streets that cater to the students, but by that point you have a degree, and you don’t want to work at Taco Bell, so you move on. But you do so reluctantly. There are 10,000 people in the town and 20,000 O.U. Bobcats. And for the years between roughly 18 and 22, there is no better place in the universe to discover who you are, hang out amidst the natural beauty of the foothills of the Appalachians, and experience college life in the quintessential college town. My greatest challenge was biting my tongue and letting Rachel discover this for herself.
But there’s baggage that comes with that quintessential college life, and that resurfaced during our little campus tour as well. At some indeterminate point in the past the sixties appear to have ended in Athens, Ohio. Kids with short hair walk around the campus now, their cell phones pressed to their ears. They all look like C.P.A.s., and they look like they could be making business deals in corporate America. It wasn’t always that way. For a long time – maybe even for a couple decades after the fact – the sixties were alive and well in Athens, Ohio. Every day was Woodstock. And I can recall strolling those cobblestoned streets for the first time, being overwhelmed by the sheer amount of hair that I saw, being amazed by the number of people out on their front porches, picking guitars and banjos and sawing on fiddles, and being puzzled by the sweet smell that came wafting out of almost every doorway I passed. Just what was that? I figured it out soon enough. They were all just hanging out at home on those old streets, taking the cobble out of cobblestoned, and that was a road that seemed like it was worth exploring at the time.
So I walked around with Kate and Rachel and thought about all that. I thought about all the mistakes I made on this beautiful, picturesque campus. I thought about some of my classes. But mostly I thought about my friends, most of whom have scattered all over the world now, the ones that are still alive, and who I rarely if ever see. There was a girl. There’s always a girl. I don’t know what happened to her. And so when you visit your old stomping grounds a generation down the line there are bound to be a few ghosts trailing behind you, stirring up trouble and old memories.
We walked past Ellis Hall, the English building, the place where I first learned to love language, to listen for the music in the words, where I first caught the melody and was startled. And I remembered some words I first heard in that building, read aloud by some now deceased English professor, his voice finding all the right notes on an impossibly bright, green spring day just like this one:
There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore;--
Turn wheresoe'er I may,
By night or day,
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.
That’s good old Billy Wordsworth, and damn, I listened to those astonishing words and wanted to weep, and do cartwheels, and run around like a crazy man and yell at people to stop, to look around them, to check out the celestial light and see how good it looked in Athens, Ohio. I think I felt more alive and more love than I’ve ever felt in my life. I just wanted to tell them that life was precious, and time was short, and that there was no better place on earth to be than where we were, that day, that moment. And I remember that as if it was yesterday.
Then there was this:
The Rainbow comes and goes,
And lovely is the Rose,
The Moon doth with delight
Look round her when the heavens are bare,
Waters on a starry night
Are beautiful and fair;
The sunshine is a glorious birth;
But yet I know, where'er I go,
That there hath past away a glory from the earth.
It was all a long time ago. In my twenties, I would grow melancholy listening to Lawrence Welk play Auld Lang Syne on New Year’s Eve. So William Wordsworth at fifty can just about make me suicidal. I walked around that beautiful, 200-year-old campus, hearing ancient voices bouncing off the ivy-covered walls, catching glimpses out of the corner of my eye of friends who were dead, or the victims of too many years and too many miles and too many generic Christmas cards, and I knew very well that there had passed away a glory from the earth.
I didn’t talk about it. What could I say? You see, there are these people you don’t know, and will never know, and they’re walking around behind me, and I hear their voices on the wind. Sure.
So we followed our tour guide, who recited his canned spiel, and showed off some new buildings, and told us above all not to have anything to do with OU’s big rival, Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. I believe he was serious. I stood next to Kate, my Miami girl for twenty-four years now, and listened politely. You do some crazy things for love. Our love child, soon to be a high school senior, took it all in, and looked around, and smiled. I didn’t have to say anything. O.U. and Athens worked their magic. I couldn’t shake the melancholy. But I was glad, very glad, to be with my family on a gorgeous spring day in southeast Ohio. And all the way home up Route 33, out of those hills and back into the flatlands of Columbus, I thought about the glory that has passed away, and the glory that remains.