Writer-in-Residence P.F. Kluge '64 considers the passage of time in Gambier.
I can’t help wondering about my life in Gambier, about what captured and kept me here. Late summer evenings on a succulently empty campus conduce this kind of reflection. I sit on a chair in back of my house, a place that was once a dormitory, ordered up by Philander Chase in 1827, later moved to the site of the Kenyon Inn and then to its current location on Ward Street. This house has outlasted a lot of careers; I’m not its first occupant nor its last. The house, like the College, is a place we pass through. Houses have no memories, nor do institutions. People do, though.
And that returns to the question: Why Gambier? Was the decision to stay about integrity? Compromise? It could go either way. But then, while mulling this over, I can hear cows lowing in nearby fields, and, coming from another direction, the bells pealing in the Church of the Holy Spirit; and I can’t help feeling that I am where I ought to be.
I am about a three-minute walk from Lewis Hall, my freshman dorm. The place has a certain smell — cleaning fluid, floor wax, dirty laundry, sweat, pizza and testosterone. Spray a whiff of it under my nose on the last day of my life, and I would know it. Later, I spent two years as a resident in nearby Norton Hall. That was a time when I stayed up all night, reading until dawn. Someone was always awake, wandering the halls, chatting about nothing in particular in the lounge. “Pulling an all-nighter” — like “going to the library” — didn’t necessarily require studying. It was as though we were shipwrecked: 500 males and 40 faculty members marooned on this Hill. The distances were longer then, the nights were darker. In spite of all that, maybe because of it, the place had an eccentric magic.
Every walk I take here these days is on memory lane. I step into Peirce Hall, though it is not permitted to pass through the doors that once led us into that awesome stain-glassed, portrait-bedecked, dark wood room where I remember Smokey Robinson and The Miracles performing “Tracks of My Tears” in front of the high table. Afterward, I induced Ronnie White, co-founder of the group, to a party at the Psi U Lounge in North Leonard. I can’t forget his puzzlement, glancing around a room that was almost entirely male. “What do you guys do here?” Words failed me at the time. A dateless life. But did it make sense to transfer because you couldn’t get a date here?
On another dateless weekend, a dance weekend, I meandered downhill to where a bridge — since destroyed — spanned the Kokosing River near Laymon Road. This was the setting for an early-morning gathering of the hungover, the dateless and bird-dogged, who assembled to elect “the asshole of the year.” Bridge and party are history now.
People return and press me for my opinions about Kenyon. Sometimes they’re looking for a booster. Sometimes they’re looking for somebody a bit cranky. Has it changed? For the better? Is every decision prudent and wise? I’m asked to reach into my bag of nostalgia, appreciation, reservation and outright dismay. There’s a lot to care about and a lot to worry about.
One thing I’ll give anybody: There are always good reasons to leave Gambier. Love it and leave it. It’s a company town after all, and you need to distance yourself. Funny thing though, I start missing the place almost instantly. In Singapore, Palau, Malacca, Sydney, Vienna, I start musing about Gambier. I like my life here.
My 24 hours in Gambier isn’t like it was when I was a student. Students, as ever, stay up until the wee hours: 1 a.m. is early to bed for them. The dorms are an alternate universe, located in another time zone. Breakfast is a land they never visit.
But for me, Gambier is a morning place: At dawn I have my first coffee at home, checking to see what predators — groundhogs, deer, raccoons, skunks — have turned my garden into a salad bar. Then I sit around Wiggin Street Coffee, where people drop by, a kind of cabal that mulls over sports; master plans; hirings; firings; funerals; trees cut, fallen, planted; ups and downs of administration. After that, if there’s time, I drive downhill, turn right onto 229, continue about 100 yards and turn uphill to the Franklin Miller Observatory, find a bench, and I’m surrounded by woodlots, fences, grazing cows. This is a place that concentrates thought and calms feelings. There’s nothing in view that’s ugly. It can be hard to find a place like this.
By mid-morning, I am in my office, door ajar. I encourage students to visit at any time, but there’s not much morning traffic. The New York Times crossword puzzle requires me to pick up a pen and keep it there. After the puzzle is done: lecture notes, student papers (shift to red ink) and my own scribbling.
In the early afternoon I enter the Kenyon Athletic Center. I worried about its cost and its hangar-like appearance. But I’m hooked. Some afternoons I arrange a trip to Mount Vernon on this or that errand. The journey, not the destination, is what matters. I meander down Lower Gambier Road — a.k.a. River Road. Live here, your interest in the river is proprietary. You watch it go from gentle to raging wild, flooding adjoining corn and soy fields, those same fields that sprout seedlings when our students graduate, then are brown, broken stubble a bit after the first-year kids settle in. Across the river, I glimpse the most likeable change I’ve seen: a running trail — once a railroad track — that runs 13 miles from Mount Vernon to Danville, cutting through ferny, shaded forests, pungent cow pastures and marshland where frogs and turtles plop off logs and lily pads as you pass. I’ve covered every inch of that trail though not, I have to add, all in one run.
And now: teaching, professing, my work. I’ve become nocturnal. I prefer the night shift, evening seminars that go from 7 to 10 p.m.; these sessions, I suspect, may go the way of Sunday doubleheaders. I confront students, putting their creative writing talent — and ego — at stake on a seminar table. I admire them for taking a chance on fiction. I also warn them that the world isn’t necessarily waiting for their sunrise. It’s the kind of seminar that people take personally — ask John Green or Ransom Riggs. I take it personally as well.
After class, I can’t just go to bed at 10 p.m. Whether it went well or less well, I mull it over. I have a drink. I watch something mindless on television; at these times, the shopping channel will do. I have evening office hours as well. Sometimes, I’m left to enjoy my own company. Other times, I’m busier than a union dentist. Either way, it’s strange. Once I was a student whose day was made if Denham Sutcliffe tossed me a line as I passed his office, wondering if he had read my paper. Now, I’m the one in the office, waiting for someone to come by. Maybe a younger version of myself. Then again, even on slow nights, I’m tipping my hat in the direction of a man — dead more than half a century — who meant a lot to me.
In 1991-92, while reporting Alma Mater, a nonfiction account of a year in the life of Kenyon College, I moved back into Lewis Hall. For this alone, I deserved serious Nobel Prize consideration. I kept a distance from the inmates at first. By the end of that year I knew them well. Some are in touch. Others, I have wondered about. And this year, as at previous reunions, some stay at my house, coming home at anywhere between 1 and 4 a.m. Like an anxious parent, I listen for these 42-year-olds’ footsteps.
And it’s all about memory, personal and shared. Students recall things I said in class, dispensed on their papers. One student confided that he’d been guided for years by something I told him, something that had gotten him through some rough spots. I had no idea what I was in for. “You told me,” he said, “that everybody is somebody’s asshole.” That may not quite be what Henry Adams had in mind when he remarked, “A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.” You bet.
That’s it. It’s about keeping in touch with the past, sharing the present, and confronting whatever the future bequeaths. There are many colleges, surely as fine, possibly finer. It doesn’t matter. I will leave her again and again, for good reason. But I will return. And at the end my returns will outnumber, by one, my departures.