Spring came to Plymouth University, as it often does in the upper subarctic regions of New York State, like a Bangalore torpedo surreptitiously placed under the collective consciousness by God.
I. PRELUDE WITH SUNSET
One day it was Helsinki cold, wet, dumbfoundingly miserable, as it had been the day before that, and the month before that, and the one before that. And then, suddenly, one morning the first or second week of April — BOOM! The perma-leaden skies had turned cerulean, students were suddenly jumping about like springboks, the indigenous squirrels were acting as if they were on Dex and the birds were whistling “Plunge on Plymouth” and other old college fight songs. If you looked closely enough, you could literally see little iridescent shards of karma flying around, alighting, causing explosions of joy.
“That is some sunset,” Harold found himself saying aloud, along with hundreds of other Plymouthians, one evening during that first mind-bending stretch of fine weather, as he watched a Venus Paradise-caliber sunset from the ancient, moss-covered bench atop the Slope; the only thing missing were the words to describe the colors. There was a large ORANGE swath; and — look! — there was a streak of PURPLE; and above that, a patch of GREEN. WHIZ!
It was freaky. It was good. It was what Harold needed. One moment, Harold and legions of likewise oppressed frosh had been staggering around, unnoticed by the rest of the university, like so many wild bears — unwashed, unloved and tortured by the perennial preoccupations: pimples (should I squeeze or use Ther-a-blem?), roommates (to kill or not to kill?) and sex (dear God, when?).
In addition to such pressing concerns, Harold Rothman bore the additional burden of worrying about whether he’d made the right decision, at the end of the fall term, to transfer from the architecture division of the university into Arts and Sciences, a perilous process requiring the aspirant transferee to spend a probationary term in Plymouth’s version of Middle Earth, a weird space with the Orwellian name of the Division of Unclassified Students, wherein it was stipulated that if the “ghost” student did not achieve at least a 3.0 cumulative GPA, well, then, said student was suddenly — whoosh! — persona non grata. Gone. Kaput!
It was like fretting over getting into college again — with the additional anxiety that if he failed to achieve said average , he would automatically lost the 2S deferment bequeathed him by Uncle Sam, most likely be drafted, and very conceivably (if the still ominously weekly death counts announced each Friday on the CBS Evening News broadcasts that Rothman watched at the Best Student Center were to be believed), wind up becoming a real ghost over yonder in Vi-et-nam. (Hidden radio announcer, in unctuous voice: Ah yes… Vietnam. Lovely war, isn’t it? And not nearly as far away as you’d think…)
Combine all that with suffering through your first Lake Ayacaca winter with a bunch of other pimply, horny, miserable freshmen and… phew! Bad scene.
And then — WHAM! — spring came, and suddenly, all was well and Harold was kissing Elma, the dormitory maid, and someone down the hall was playing the soundtrack to Zorba the Greek, and people were dancing and even the crustiest septugenarian faculty who had been teaching since the Depression were seen to crack a smile. And then, as if on cue, the university chimemaster started bleating out an upbeat version of “Tiptoe Through the Tulips.” Dig it.
That was was spring was like at Plymouth.
“Wow, that is some sunset,” Harold said aloud again, as he continued to groove on the colors of the Gobelin tapestry-esque display unfolding over Easy Hill — the greens, the blues, the reds. Oh, those reds! But was there something different about this sunset? It was almost, like, too beautiful, the colors a bit too lush, too unreal. It occurred to Harold that he had seen that sunset before. But where?
Suddenly, he sat bolt upright in the bench. It reminded him of a painting he had seen somewhere — a painting, yes, but which painting? Furiously, he flipped through his mental History of Art until he came right to the page.
Of course: it was an Edvard Munch sunset. It was the sunset in “The Scream.”
II. I HEARD THE NEWS TODAY, OH BOY
“You said wha?” Harold said to Preczenski, who had shaken him awake.
“I told you. The blacks have seized the Bent.”
“Yeah, right,” Harold snorted, turning over.
“Okay, you don’t believe me?” Preczenski said, shoving the special edition of The Chronicle in Harold’s face.
BLACKS SIEZE BENT, the banner headline proclaimed. Then, in smaller type: “Campus Radio Station Taken Over, Parents Ejected.”
Harold stared at the paper. He still didn’t entirely believe it. Could be another of the paper’s joke issues, like that one a few months back about the return of compulsory military training. That was pretty cheeky. Got everyone on the floor going for a while. Cookingham, down the hall, started crying: “I don’t want to study war!”; the floor counselor had to calm him down. Maybe this was a joke, too. It sounded too crazy — and somehow, too smart — to be true.
“Parents’ Weekend began with a bang at 5 a.m. this morning when 80 members of the Plymouth Afro-American Society seized Florence Bent Student Center, forcibly ejecting a number of parents lodged in the center,” the lead article read. The invaders had also confiscated the student radio station, the paper continued, over which the occupiers had broadcast their demands, among them the rescinding of reprimands issued to PAS members over the December ‘toy gun’ incident…”
Had to be a joke.
No joke, as Harold and his floormates confirmed when they trudged up the Slope that rainy morning to check it out. The Bent really had been seized by the PAS. A group of hapless parents staying overnight upstairs had been ejected; the radio station had been seized. And now, as Harold and his amazed, angry, perplexed and just plain weirded-out neighbors could see, as they walked to the front of the Bent, there was a cordon of sympathetic white radical students marching around the building.
Reality, man. Harold, only subliminally aware of on-campus doing ever since entering the Unclassified Zone, was just as surprised as most. Vaguely, he recalled reading in The Chronicle about the aforementioned ‘toy gun’ incident involving the PAS, hearing how a group of black had held a noisy impromptu demonstration in the Collegiate Room of the Bent to publicize their demands for an autonomous black college.
Now it all came together; now it all made sense. So those dudes decided to seize the Bent on Parents’ Weekend. Wow! Like many Plymouth lib-rads, Harold was liberal enough to admire and appload the blacks’ sense of timing — if not radical enough to acutally join the shouting Bolsheviki marching around the Bent.
Obviously, there was a situation: the Bent had been seized. Definitely a shock. And suck an inconvenience. Where would all those poor Plymouthians get their cherished Bo burgers? Rothman chuckled to himself. And to think of those poor parents who had been kicked out of thier beds by those rampaging student Mau Maus.
Definitely cool. Something was definitely happening here. A major building, the very heart of the bustling Plymouth campus, had been taken over, confiscated, out of action. Kaput!
Still, it wasn’t the apocalypse — yet.
Harold would still monitor the situation. He would find another place to eat his Bo burger.
The sign on his mental marquee still read: SPRING.
And so, that afternoon, after the clouds had cleared and he had done his overdue Soc 101 reading, Harold kept the appointment he had made the day before with his friend, Max Blur, the cool steward of Sigma Sigma Chi, the fraternity at the bottom of the Slope where Harold had begun washing pots a few weeks prior. Good gig: two solids for 40 minutes. And afterwards he got to hang out with Max, a spacy-smart senior engineer from Missouri who looked like Richard Brautigan and spoke with a drawl and listened to Linda Rodstadt and had a little thing for Robitussin cough syrup. Most impressive of all, he was also the proud owner of an authentic, working 1929 Model-A Ford. Max had helped Harold keep sane as he went through his transfer process that spring. Yeah, Max was cool.
And girls liked him, especially local girls, although not too many Plymouth co-eds got Max — nor Harold, for that matter. The week before, Max and Harold had met some cute seniors, Rhoda and Brenda, from S.H.S. at the Seed Company bookstore in C-Town. They had made a date to meet that Saturday to cruise around in Max’s Model A.
And so the four of them went tooling around that afternoon, enjoying the moment. At one point, they stopped to toss a Frisbee. And then the frolicsome foursome got back in a nd Max started up his car. Golly-y! That had been fun. Have to do this again. (Smiles all around.)
Max turned on the static-y 40-year-old radio to listen for news of the takeover. The announcer’s voice was grave: minutes before, the PAS member who had been occupying the Bent had emerged from the student union after evidently reaching an agreement on their demands with the Plymouth administration officials. The announcer cleared his throat. “The heavily armed militants, some bearing shotguns, others with spears and bandoliers…”
Harold turned to Max. “Did I hear that right?”
What they didn’t know was that the previous day, a group of redneck students had broken into the Bent and tried to take the building back, prompting them to call in reinforcements. Rhoda and Brenda, who had been kidding a moment before, were paying attention now.
Wow, Harold thought, this is it. Camp was over. The Revolution was on. Now he understood what that otherworldly sunset had signified. The Fire Next Time was here. Camp Plymouth was about to blow. And Harold had a front row seat.