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Of Floods, Irvine Hall, and the Electric Clays
By Alan Safier

Journeying south in my little yellow Maverick for the beginning of spring quarter that cold day in March of 1968 was like taking a magical trip from winter to paradise. Well, maybe not paradise. But while The Alberta Clipper still whipped its arctic blasts around downtown Cleveland, making the corner of Ninth and Euclid seem like an experimental frozen wind tunnel at the nearby NASA Research Center, buds popped from tree limbs in Athens, Ohio, rock music once again blared from raised dormitory windows, and the ground was soft.

It was my third quarter at Ohio University, and I had finally settled on an English major with a degree in Education. Not that I was going to be a dedicated teacher or anything. But I knew that if they were still shipping 22-year-olds off to Vietnam by the time I graduated, I could get out of it by shoving Milton and Thoreau and Dickinson down suburban teenagers' throats at some drab junior high school.

I lived on the West Green, a grouping of eight or so fairly new Georgian dormitories plopped down on nicely manicured lawns amongst a scattering of wimpy, five-year-old trees. My dorm was called Irvine Hall. I lived in Irvine Hall because a guy in my high school class named Doug, to whom I spoke maybe six words in three years, told me he was going to Ohio U. too, and that he heard Irvine was a good dorm.

Irvine was a good dorm, as dorms go. It had a cafeteria -- just roll out of bed, throw on a pair of jeans and a sweatshirt, and walk down a few flights of stairs to breakfast. It had a library -- perfect for late night studies. It had a snack bar -- serving great greasy hamburgers 'til midnight. And it had three or four classrooms, right on the first floor. Some smart English major who despised wading through slush after breakfast, and who lived right there in the dorm, might even sign up for that 10 a.m. Form and Theory of Fiction class in Irvine 102 during winter quarter.

Freshman year, I shared a room on the fourth floor of Irvine Hall with a guy we all called "The Electric Clays." His name was Mike Claypool, a tall, thin electrical engineering major from New York with tightly curled light brown hair and a look not unlike Art Garfunkel's. The Electric Clays was very bright and very eccentric. When I met Clays, his first words to me were, "Hi. I have a rash on my hog." I was about as dumbfounded as you are right now.

Clays wired up the Christmas tree in the dormitory lounge so that the different frequencies of sound activated its red, green, blue and yellow lights. When Clays played my Rotary Connection album on the lounge stereo, the yellow lights would blink on and off whenever the highest notes were played, the green ones would respond to the bass, and so on. With the Irvine lounge dark except for Claypool's dancing lights, it was mesmerizing. God knows how many freshmen flunked Interpersonal Communications 101 that year because of Clays' magical Christmas tree.

But Claypool's electric personality had other, more practical benefits.

When the West Green was built, probably sometime in the early 1960s, the architects and builders forgot one little item: the Hocking River, just a calculus textbook's throw away from my dorm window, flooded every single spring. Without fail. And I'm not talking grab-your-galoshes flooding. I'm talking gather-the-animals-two-by-two flooding.

How this tiny fact escaped the minds of the planning geniuses is beyond all comprehension. Clearly, the beautiful blue Hocking didn't just decide to overflow its banks every spring after Irvine Hall and its West Green siblings were built. It wasn't doing this out of some sort of pique. The river had been quietly flooding on an annual basis for quite some time.

To give the architects credit, only the basement parking garages stood even with the river bank; the actual Green and the first floors of the dorms were built above river level. But some years, even that wasn't enough.

As the last days of spring quarter, 1968, approached and final exams loomed ahead, the snows of an unusually oppressive winter melted in the Appalachians and the mighty Hocking steadily gained speed and volume. Silently, we watched from the back windows of Irvine Hall as the river came closer and closer. Athens was slowly becoming Venice. I seriously pondered investing in some striped T-shirts and stepping up my rowing lessons.

One equatorial-like June afternoon, as I came back to my dorm for a luncheon date with several 19th-century American poets, I noticed how quiet the entire West Green seemed. Not peaceful-spring-day quiet, but Invasion of the Body Snatchers quiet. An outside dormitory door that led directly into one of the stairwells was in its fully open and unlocked position. Hmmm. Peculiar, I thought. Three flights of stairs led up to the floor where I lived, and one flight descended to the parking garage. But the stairs down to the parking garage had disappeared. Instead, there was the Hocking River, come to call. I was just a quick toe-dip away from a lovely case of tetanus.

As I ascended to the Safier-Claypool aerie, I could only guess as to what evil heights that mad river could possibly rise. The scent of decaying plant and animal matter peppered my nostrils. I thought about the Ten Plagues of Egypt in Cecil B. DeMille's seminal Technicolor epic The Ten Commandments, and pondered what was in store for us next: Vermin? Boils? Pestilence? I thanked God I wasn't the first born, and hoped against hope that our university president was right this minute trying to cut an eleventh-hour deal with Charlton Heston.

My cinemascopic reverie was cut short, however, for as I climbed higher and higher in the enclosed stairwell, I found it more and more difficult to see. My keen mind put two and two together. The lights were out! Aha! That's why the downstairs door was open. Wait a minute! That's also why it was so quiet on the Green. There was no power in any of those four or five dorms which had temporarily joined the Hocking River family of tributaries.

But if that were true, why could I hear my well-worn version of "Rubber Soul" popping and crackling louder and louder as I got closer to the fourth floor? Hmmmm. This was getting spooky.

I arrived at the top floor of Irvine Hall. The Beatles' "Run for Your Life" blasted. A strange glow filled the end of the long corridor, like an inviting campfire at the end of the forest. What was going on here? I followed the pulsating beat down to my room. I arrived to find about 20 guys from the dorm in my bed, on the floor, on my desk, hanging out the window. The Electric Clays' yellow and blue and green and red dancing lights were behaving like it was Disco Night in Dubuque.

Room 403, formerly the private residence of Mike Claypool of Massapequa Park, New York, and Alan Safier of Shaker Heights, Ohio, was now the Irvine Hall power plant. Clays had hooked up the stereo, the dancing lights, the clock radio, the lamps -- even my hair dryer -- to our own personal generator. We were the only power in Irvine Hall, baby, and the freshman were flocking to us like department chairmen to an open bar. We were where it was at. Well, we were the only place where you could see where it was at, anyway.

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