Four years, when followed by twenty seven more years, leave certain memories, some crystal clear, some gently foggy, some just feelings and impressions. I'm fairly certain that all of those memories, from today through the rest of my life, have just been irreparably altered. And that makes me both incredibly sad, and really pissed off.
Dekalb, IL - August 1976: It stinks here. Not meta- phorically, but literally. I've just moved directly from my parent's house into one set of the "high rise" dorms here, Grant Towers, and I have a majestic view of corn fields. And post-harvested corn fields too, not the well ordered green and gold waves of corn stalks from middle Americana. For reasons that I've never found out (being agriculturally challenged), the barren, corn-less stalk fields all smell like fertilizer. I remember thinking "why don't they fertilize BEFORE they plant (as I later learned, they do, it smells like this for three seasons a year)?" For weeks, all I smell, morning, noon, and night, is manure. Probably a lot longer than weeks, but I'm betting I just got used to it. What you see in the picture above was taken from the field at the opposite end of my old dorm and campus. But you get the general idea. I've got my "Frampton Comes Alive" alternating with the Steve Miller Band's "Fly Like an Eagle" album (yes, Virginia, in vinyl), just newly released and wearing my record player needle to a nub.
The tallest building within 30 miles in any direction (besides the 4 high rise dorms, which towered to something like 10 stories) is the student union, at a whole 4 stories high. That's pretty much it til you get to Aurora, IL to the east, and probably until you get all the way to Rockford in the west.
Not that it was all Mayberrys and cream, mind you. There WAS the time that we had to scrounge up $300 at 3AM on a Saturday morning to bail my roommate out of the Sycamore County Jail for theft and vandalism. It seems that the previous morning he had broken the last of our alarm clocks (mine in fact) when he completed his daily wakeup ritual, which regularly included activating its snooze alarm by throwing it against the wall. The night in question, my roomie decided he liked the practicality of having a huge wall clock, just like the one that hung over the elevator on the other side of the towers. So he simply strolled over to the girl's side of the tower, stood on a chair, removed the clock, tucked it under his arm, and walked across to our side of the building (right in front of the lobby staff) to put it in our room. The lobby staff, being duly observant, if a bit non-plussed, called the cops, who visited my roommate within about 5 minutes. It was a slow night at the Sheriff's office. Oh, and did I mention, there were some illicit intoxicants involved here. Fast-forward a bit to:
Dekalb, IL - Winter, 1978: Just come back to school for what's euphemistically referred to as "Spring Semester" barely ahead of one of one of the worst snow storms in recorded Illinois history. Wasn't here a day before everything is shut down. There are literally 20 and 30 foot snow drifts across the huge open fields that lay between campus and the housing areas. By now I'm in a fraternity, living on Greek Row, which, by grace of God and probably architects, is about a half a block from a strip mall. This strip mall consists of my favorite bar, the Red Lion, my favorite pizza place, J.P. Hannigans, and a movie theatre. Nothing else there. And it was even legal. At the time, Dekalb was allowed something called "home rule", whereby a township could make the legal age for hard liquor 18. So while in most of the rest of Illinois you had to be 21 for hard liquor (18 for beer and wine), in Dekalb, freshmen of 18 just had to prove it to drink their favorite cocktail. Yeah, life is good. Of course, most people anywhere near campus didn't even have cars, or need them, because the buses were free, into and out of campus.
So anyways, the school is closed. There are pathways, most of them actually tunnels, through the drifts, from every doorway to the street, where they connected, like a giant ant farm, to the strip mall that had the bar, pizza place, and theatre. Did I mention life was good? It was more than a week before they opened the school again.
Dekalb, IL - February 14, 2008 - The parties, the relationships, the football games, and even the classes. These were the the things I remembered about Northern Illinois University. Until today. Today I saw the pictures. I heard the interviews. Squad cars lined up like some bizarre parade. Students milling about aimlessly in shock. Parents, students and faculty hugging and crying. It's 4:54 AM right now, and I haven't been to bed yet. Even though very few of the people in Cole Hall on Friday were even born the last time I was there (and in fact, the shooter was born the year I left Dekalb 27 years ago) , there will always be a link between what happened to them, and what I think about when I remember N.I.U.
I doubt I know anyone even near campus, much less anyone involved, but everyone there who was a part of it will be in my thoughts and prayers. We're linked, for better or worse, because their memories are now tainted the same way as mine. And always will be. I hope, for their sakes and mine, that some day BOTH sets of memories will be equally accessible.