In the fall of 1973, I left for college. Like my three older brothers, I entered Purdue University, in West Lafayette, Indiana. Looking back on it now, it seems like I didn’t have a choice in the matter. My father just expected it and I don’t remember applying to any other school. I believe I might have suggested Indiana University, which had a better liberal arts program, but it was also known as a “party” school and my parents wouldn’t entertain the idea of me going there.
My major also seems to have been predetermined for me–computer science. My best friend, Gary Endicott, was transferring from the local community college to Purdue and that was what he chose. Plus my father kept saying to me that “computers are the wave of the future.” I felt a bit like Benjamin in the movie The Graduate when Mrs. Robinson’s husband says to him: “I’ve got just one word to say to you: Plastics. ”
To compound matters, it was also decided that I would live in a place called Gemini House. Purdue had dormitories, fraternities, and then this third category called co-op houses, of which Gemini was one. Fraternities were where the rich kids went. Co-op houses were kind of a low-cost alternative. Most of the guys in the house were the sons of farmers and majored in veterinary science, agriculture, chemistry or biology. You can image we had a lot to talk about!
The worst thing about the house is that it pretended it was a fraternity, and you had to pledge it. That meant being rousted out of bed in the middle of the night and being forced to do humiliating things like stand at attention, shine people’s shoes, and clean toilets. My brother, Ken, was a senior in the house, and I felt a bit estranged from him. How could he have gone through this and not told me about it, I thought.
Let’s see, what were some of the other charms of Gemini House? Everyone, had to sleep in a “dorm,” which was the a large room with bunk beds. Because of state fire laws, the windows had to remain open at all times-rain or snow, hot or cold, fall, spring, or winter. This is really the way to sleep-in a sub-arctic room full of snoring men.
This was the early 1970s remember, and some of the guys were busy burning their minds out on drugs. One aeronautical engineering student named Scott, who had long hair and talked like a Hippie, often used to fall into bed in a stupor. His bed was right under one of the windows, and I remember waking up one morning to find that it had snowed, because about an inch of snow had massed on his chest over night.
We “pledges” also had the honor of taking it in turn to wake the upper classmen in the morning. That meant we had to get up before everyone else, read the list of who wanted to get up when, then sneak in, and wake those people without disturbing anyone else. Most of the time, that wasn’t too bad, but there was one guy, who slept like the dead. It was bad enough that you had to yell in his ear, shake him vigorously, and throw off his blankets. But the worst thing was that when he finally did regain consciousness, he would leap up screaming, arms a-flailing! Nowadays and having learned about things like PTSD caused by child sexual abuse, I wonder if his violence arose out of some horrible incident in his childhood.
The one bit of privacy we had–sorry the toilets were communal troughs–was our study room. You couldn’t sleep in it, but you could put your own stamp on it. There I hung my Picasso and Renoir posters, carefully arranged my classical music collection on my book case, and tinkered with my stereo. To ensure that my time in Gemini house was even more pleasant, the powers that be gave me a roommate who was in ROTC. He was one of the most narrowly focused, emotionally shut-down, conservative geeks I’d ever met, and he drove me to desperation. Once his family visited and I was horrified to see he had a twin brother!
The computer science program had a set course of studies that emphasized the hard sciences. I had to take calculus, chemistry, biology, and of course a programming class. The day I went to chemistry, it became apparent I didn’t belong there. The room was an amphitheater-style lecture hall that seated about 700 students. You needed binoculars just to see the instructor. The first homework assignment saw us trying to calculate the surface area of a one centimeter cube that had been broken down into one Angstrom cubes! I was so disheartened that I went to the guidance counselor and switched my major from Computer Science to English. I took psychology, speech, English composition, ethics, biology, and French–a total of about 22 hours! It was wonderful–I felt my mind opening up and expanding into new directions. I especially liked the ethics course since we read Plato’s Symposium and Kant’s Introduction to the Critique of Pure Reason. That was where I wanted to be.
And of course, classical music also helped me cope with what I perceived as a hostile environment. I had bought a copy of a collection of famous Russian pieces to have a copy of The 1812 Overture. The same album also had a recording of Borodin’s Polvetsian Dances, Moussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain, and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Russian Easter Overture. This was a great album, and I particularly liked the Russian Easter Overture. It is one of those pieces that takes you on a roller coaster ride and just when you think it’s over, it launches off into the melody again, maybe this time in a different key. It starts out in with a huge majestic blast of brass, which states the theme. A violin comes in, so light and angelic by comparison and weaves a beautiful melody out of the them, embellishing it. It’s almost spiritual. Then the piece takes off sounding so Russian, with that characteristic hint of orientalism, sleigh bells and the driving rhythm of a troika. Perhaps a bit of a cliché, but mind you this was the model for what someone else later turned into clichés.
It always puzzled me why someone would write an overture to Easter. But I think I read somewhere that Rimsky-Korsakov was trying to capture the pomp and ceremony of the Easter celebration in the Russian Orthodox Church. Having been to an Orthodox wedding years later, I could see what all the fuss was about. Unlike the Catholics, which I was raised as, who after Vatican II let many of the mysterious traditions fall by the way side, the Orthodox held onto and focused on the magic and wonder of Christ’s coming back from the dead. And since I was spending a fair amount of time in Purgatory at this time of my life, the cliché of The Russian Easter Overture must have just resonated with me.
Buy CD or Download MP3 of the Overture on Amazon