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  • Pucker Factor
  • Mark Winegardner (bio)

Just before noon on a Friday that is, better late than never, the first perfect day of spring, a bell on the Commons starts to ring. For years this bell had been bolted inside an Erie & Lackawanna train engine, riding the rails along the Cuyahoga River, less than a mile to the west of here, saving daydreamers and fools from themselves. It was salvaged and installed on the Commons, a bowl-like valley surrounded by boxy institutional buildings, all sporting curve-free midcentury architecture that is as blandly suitable for a hospital, a courthouse annex, or a jail as it is for a state university. The bell is housed in a complementary brick structure, flanked by half-filled planters and hapless landscaping. It's waist-high. Anyone can ring it, though rarely does anyone do so just for the hell of it. People call it the Victory Bell. This is not ironic. This is Ohio, 1970. It's literal. The bell gets rung after football victories, which are infrequent, and, as now, to let students know there's something happening here.

Alice Graves rushes from class with a cheap, battered briefcase stuffed with ungraded freshmen themes. She's a tall, blond, braless grad student with rose-tinted sunglasses, and a vertical scar the length of the left side of her face that somehow only makes her more attractive. She's working on a PhD dissertation about covert radical politics in the novels of Jane Austen that even her students can tell she'll never finish.

Alice doesn't know who came up with the idea to bury the Constitution. Probably someone from the crowd at the Haunted House—a gothic monstrosity on Columbus Street that's become the town's semi-formal intellectual and cultural hub, a hangout for SDS leaders now that the group has been banned from campus, and a crash pad for like-minded out-of-towners. Alice has been spending more time there herself (whether as a means of not writing her dissertation or out of sincere affiliation, she'd rather not think about), but she'd found out about this particular rally this morning, from a leaflet on her windshield. Now, as forty or fifty people gather around the bell, Alice finds a good spot on Blanket Hill and sits down to watch and eat her lunch. [End Page 180]

On the periphery of the Commons, sorority girls chase frat boys wearing derby hats, trying to tackle and kiss them. This is a May 1 custom at Kent State. The Greeks, prosaically enough, call it Derby Day. It's also May Day, of course, which is of interest to the town's Commies, of whom there are exponentially fewer than would be imagined by the townspeople celebrating Law Day, a small-town Ohio May 1 tradition in which many businesses close shop to honor both the concept of law and order and the brave souls who risk their lives to make that cherished notion possible. America is a more peculiar land than even its most fervent celebrants and critics will ever know.

"Miss Graves?"

Alice squints up at a huge man with a jet-black Jew-fro, a full beard minus the chin hair, a backpack slung over his shoulder, and carrying a guitar case. He'd been a student in one of her classes that fall. It takes her a moment to remember his name. "Don Sokolove, right? You wrote that expository paper about Captain Beefheart."

"Right. On Trout Mask Replica," he says. "I can't believe you remember."

Neither can she. It must have been the topic. She'd asked the students to explicate the merits and/or appeal of a pop-culture text. Most picked popular Hollywood movies or the Beatles.

"I remember the good ones," Alice says, though she has no memory of the paper itself.

"Thanks," he says. He's older than most freshmen—thirty, she'd guess: a little older than she is. She's had several older students in her classes—for the most part, a consequence of layoffs at nearby steel mills, auto plants, and tire factories.

"Actually," he says. "I go...


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pp. 180-194
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