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 Viet Nam 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
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.
I had more pressing things to do than be part of Claypool's 1960s Psychedelic
Revue. The next day was to bring my last final exam in my least favorite subject:
geography. If I didn't pass that test, I wouldn't complete my non-major requirements,
and the following fall I would have to take some sleep-depriving eight a.m. class
in Western Civ or something. That was not going to happen, no matter how high
the Hocking insisted on overflowing its banks. So off I went, seeking a place
to study that had both electricity and peace. I found a cozy window alcove in
the university library and settled in for the long siege.
At two a.m.,
even though I still didn't know the difference between a fjord and a Buick, I
figured enough was enough. And besides, I didn't need to finish in the 99th percentile
or anything; all I had to do was pass the damn course and then, hopefully, never
cast my eyes upon a relief map of Addis Ababa again.
By the time I arrived
back at Irvine Hall, the power for the West Green was back on. I got to my room
and quietly turned the key in the lock. Clays was curled up in the lower bunk,
happily snoring through another of his high-watt, low-amp dreams. I set my alarm
for 8:00 and was asleep by 2:30.
That gorgeous early-June morning in 1968 was one that I'll remember forever, one
of those days when the air is a little heavier, the green in the leaves a little
deeper, and you suddenly look up to find that spring has segued into summer without
your even realizing it.
But this day was to be memorable for many reasons.
Most of the time, I wasn't much for eating first thing in the morning. I was usually
too nauseous. Besides, the cafeteria didn't still serve breakfast at quarter to
eleven. But today, with a big exam only an hour away and me up early, I knew that
a hearty morning meal would improve my chances of being able to kiss off the earth
sciences forever. So downstairs I went, to Irvine Hall cafeteria and my platter
of limp bacon and suspect eggs.
But when I got to the main floor, a handwritten
sign on the door informed me that, due to the Hocking River splashing away some
three inches below the cafeteria floor, the board of health had determined that
we were to be dining in neighboring Grosvenor Hall for the rest of finals week.
I had never even stepped foot in this dorm, but off I went for my breakfast at
Grosvenor, a strange meal in a strange land.
As I sat there gagging on
toast and marmalade and straining to grasp every golden fact that I had known
cold just the night before, my roommate appeared at my table.
whatcha got there today, Safe?" The Electric Clays asked.
this God-forsaken geography. Then I am out of here," I said.
"Good for you. I only got one left, too. English."
mine was English. Christ -- I wish mine was in English."
There was a pause as I tried to cram a few more geographic morsels into my overstuffed
brain. Clays slurped down a huge glass of milk, then sighed loudly. "Tough
night last night, wasn't it?"
"Yeah, I felt like I was in that
library studying forever. I hate studying in the library."
"No," Clays said. "That's not what I meant."
What did you mean?"
"Well, Kennedy, of course. What's the latest?
You hear anything?"
"No," I said, "Not really. I was
booking all night. The last I heard, it sounded like he was winning."
"Yeah," I said. Clays looked at me like
I had just re-wired his favorite transformer. "The California primary? I
was in the library until about 2 a.m., but the last thing I heard, Kennedy had
won. Why?" Clays just stared at me. "What? What's with the look?"
I'd like to think that Bobby Kennedy would have gotten the nomination that summer,
balloons in the air and hopes high. I'd like to think that he'd have beaten whomever
the Republicans decided to run against him in November. I'd like to think that
a lot of those soldier boys could have stayed home to coach their sons' Little
League teams, or to see their daughters' smiles when those braces finally came
But as I returned to Cleveland and another summer of pushing 45s
at The Record Rendezvous, and The Electric Clays flew back to Long Island, he
and I and the rest of the Class of '71 grew up a little.
Ford would still be just a congressman from Michigan to me, co-host of the Ev
and Gerry Show, and Deep Throat simply what some of the guys sneaked out of
the video store one crazy Saturday night. Maybe The Watergate would still be just
another big hotel in Washington, and Kent State simply where my brother got his
bachelor's degree. And maybe Dick Nixon would still be just the guy whose upper
lip perspired so badly in those debates we watched in Cub Scouts back in 1960.
But as I sat in a cubicle in a library in southeastern Ohio, cramming my brain
with facts that would escape back into the ether before the next moonrise, part
of my future was being decided for me some 3,000 miles away. And I didn't even
know about it. The fact is, none of us will ever know about it. Not all of it,
anyway. All we'll ever know for sure was that a moment, an opportunity, a part
of our youth died that night in 1968 on the floor of a kitchen of a hotel in Los
Angeles, California, and there's no way we can ever get it back.
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