No. 5: Epiphany with Irish Setter

“I entered the university expecting the Ivy Tower on the Hill, a place where committed scholars would search for truth. Instead I found a huge corporation that made money from real estate and government research contracts, where teachers cared only for the advancement in their narrow areas of study, and worst of all, an institution hopelessly mired in the society’s racism and militarism.”

– Mark Rudd, chair of Columbia University SDS (Students for a Democratic Society)

“Many of them are fools, and most will be sell outs, but they are a better generation than we were.”

– Lillian Hellman, playwright (1968)

To be sure, Harold Rothman Plymouth ’72 was not the first person to realize that the current captain of the university, Harold Rankin, the well-meaning, wishy-washy liberal who had been in charge since 1963, might not be the man to hold the good ship Plymouth together as it ploughed uneasily ahead through the gathering storm of Student Unrest.

Though relatively quiescent compared to other campuses where lightning had already struck, like Columbia, or Berkeley or the Sorbonne — for the student revolution was a worldwide phenomenon now — Plymouth had in fact already experienced scattered outbreaks of Unrest. The most notable of these took place 10 years before, during the administration of generalissimo-like predecessor, Marlon Magott, when his determination to stamp out the pestilence of unchaperoned parties in that off campus den of iniquity known as Collegetown had caused riots amongst the otherwise pliable plebes of Plymouth. This was the same man, whose equally out-of-it wife, campus legend had it, upon seeing the mob of students approach the presidential mansion, putatively said to her husband, in reference to the university’s newest athletic facility, “Look Donald, they’ve come to thank us for the boathouse.”

In contrast to his Captain Queeg-like predecessor, Rankin was a patently nice man who liked to wear seersucker suits, didn’t take his authority too seriously, and could be counted on to make the occasional appearance in the Temple of Hades, the sculpture-lined coffeehouse in the basement of the College of Arts and Sciences. Yet, fundamentally, he had little more respect for or understanding of student sensibilities than his paramilitary predecessor had, as Rankin revealed in l966 when in his speech to the incoming members of the class of 1970 he listed undergraduate education as the fifth and last of the university’s priorities — after more research, better research, advanced research, and social improvement–drawing boos from the audience. Fifth? Wow, I guess he really cares about us, doesn’t he?

No, Rankin clearly had little better of an idea than Magott had had of which way the undergraduate wind was blowing. However, even if he had, and even if had the respect of all officers and ranks on the top-heavy, anomie-infested, supercarrier that was Plymouth University during that power-to-the-people-freaky-wow fall — the same fall that Rothman and his fellow 2,500 bewildered freshmen had had the arguable fortune of coming aboard; even if Rankin had been a Theodore Hesburgh, or a Bull Halsey, it would still have been hard for him to hold the ship together.

As it was, with the Milquetoast-like Rankin at the helm, it seemed to an increasing number of campus observers that no one was in charge of the ship.

“Who runs Plymouth?” one faculty member had written to the president just a few months before, after a confrontation between the constable-like campus police and a group of angry Plymouthians, after the student humor magazine, The Onyx had been seized after being deemed obscene by the Comstockian district attorney, Richard T. Baler.

“Who runs this place?” Harold also wondered as he lay there, splayed on the ground beneath the paw of the giant Irish setter, one of the hundreds of dogs who ran free around the campus, like something out of Jack London’s Call of the Wild. But, of course, the dogs were in charge!

“Okay,” Harold said to the setter as a group of students played Frisbee near by, trying to co-opt Red with canine-friendly thoughts. He tried to get up. Nothing doing. Red, still looking at some invisible point in the distance, wasn’t playing along. This dog was in charge, and he knew it.

Harold laughed to himself and decided to go with the flow for a bit. He laid back and looked at the sky and spaced out (he was very good at that, had been ever since they used to call him absent-minded professor at P.S. 132)and saw the vapor trails across the sky, and it reminded him of the streaking Allied fighters over the Ardennes in the crinkled-up photo his father had taken during the Battle of the Bulge that he kept in his wallet for inspiration. He pretended that that plane up there really was a bomber and he tried to imagine what the Plymouth campus would like through a Norden bombsight. He thought about the war — the current one, that is. And he thought about his pimples …

Harold stop going with the flow and tried to get up again. This time, Red let out a warning bark, sort of the equivalent of a shot across the bow. Stay where you are, buddy, it seemed to say. “Okay, okay,” Rothman said, and flopped back on the ground.

Near by a jock in chinos was serenading a co-ed by lip-synching the insipid lyrics to “Cherish” that were wafting out of his Zenith transistor radio.

Rothman waved to the couple, but they ignored him. Other students walked by, equally oblivious to his dilemma. Here, Harold thought, was the perfect metaphor for the Plymouth undergraduate experience.

He remembered thinking about the terrible case of that woman in New York City who had murdered in full view of dozens of people, but no one had come to her aid. Kitty Genovese, yes, Kitty Genovese. He could already see the headlines in The Daily Clarion: “FRESHMAN MAULED TO DEATH ON QUAD.”

Harold tried to get up again. Nope; Red wasn’t buying it. He waved at the couple near by, but if they saw him they didn’t acknowledge it. Harold continued to free associate. He was The Invisible Student. No, he was in The Twilight Zone! Those other people passing him, ignoring him, they were actually in another dimension. Time passed. He fell asleep.

When he awoke, Red was gone and the Quad was deserted.

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