Sunday, January 6, 2013

Eden's Womb: How it all began

When I was a first-term freshman at Penn State in 1966, away from home for the first time in my life, I used to spend way too much time sitting and writing in the downstairs common area of the “FUB” – the old Findlay Union Building at the center of the East Halls freshman dormitory complex. 

This was a cold, Spartan place as I recall it – colorless and rather dimly lit, faux marble floors of speckled black, gray, and white with narrow aluminum spacers separating the big square slabs.  In the middle of the space, splitting it lengthwise, was a ten-foot-high black divider protecting a row of vending machines: offering cigarettes and Coke and candy bars.  The cigarette machine presented three choices of unfiltered cigs--the only kind I smoked:  Camels, Lucky Strike, and my hands-down personal favorite:  Chesterfield Kings.

And there was a jukebox, too, set along the row with the vending machines and wired into the speaker system.

On the back side of the black divider, hidden from all those mid-twentieth-century mechanical temptations, and set against the high, aluminum-framed wall of windows that faced out over the grassy courtyard between Stuart and Brumbaugh Halls, was a row of small, lonely, white Formica tables, each with two black plastic form-fitting chairs on chrome-steel frames.

I would sit there by the windows writing for hours, with no-one else in sight, gazing out to the dreary late-autumn clouds that loomed over a world that was totally beyond my reach: the wistful hills and farms of Happy Valley.

The FUB was a place that few people visited during the middle of the day back in 1966.  East Halls had been just recently built and was set far out in a field nearly a mile from most of the classrooms, actually closer to Beaver Stadium than to any other campus building.  So it was a great retreat for a writer.

Though I rarely saw another person in there, I know somebody else liked the solitude too, and was often there when I was—somebody who kept feeding the jukebox with nickels, kept playing ‘Gimme Some Lovin’’ by the Spencer Davis Group over and over and over.  I never met that silent benefactor.  But even today that famous song gives me goose bumps, evoking fond memories of my quiet mid-morning reveries, sitting, poring over my poetry, and formulating an outline for my first novel.

The story was going to be about me in the near future – a kid just out of college, embarking on a cross-country tour with my fast high-school friends Rog and Wilson, and getting stranded when a major socio-economic collapse destabilized the world.  It was a more-or-less typical apocalyptic theme at the time, and something I was truly hoping would actually happen.  I don’t even remember the resolution of the plot – don’t think I actually ever worked it through to a conclusion – because my interest was not in the resolution, but in the journey—the dynamic experience.  I’m still that way.

What I do know is that the book centered around a grueling quest to make it back home (or to a safe, Hanalei-like communal retreat away from the strife and complications of the wider world).  And to get there I would have to run the gauntlet of the madness, coping with change while at the same time embracing its cleansing effect on an ugly, polluting, uncaring industrial establishment.

Yes, this was so typical of the 60’s.  Rebellion and social revolution were brewing everywhere among my generation, bubbling just beneath a thin, decaying veneer of the old order. And like so many of my friends I could feel it coming, deep in my soul.  And I would participate -- I would make it happen.

Now, with the benefit of 45+ years of hindsight, I have to say that it turned out to be a fantastic journey, and, to quote Steve Winwood from the lyrics of the song: "I'm so glad we made it."

That first cut of the novel that was to become ‘Eden's Womb’ set the tone for the final product—it would be about a long, difficult physical and personal journey with an apocalyptic backdrop.  But that first draft never even got beyond the outline stage.  I was more interested in poetry at the time, and was to go on to write a deeply personal poem that won an award in 1969 and would add yet another layer to the ultimate plot.

Stay tuned for the next chapter in this ‘tale behind the tale’.


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