Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Spirits of Lebanon, Part 2

Our school was isolated from the rest of the world. The buildings lined a dirt road that came up from the village of New Lebanon, wound up through the woods and across the state line, where it met up with Route 20, the main road for traffic to Pittsfield, Mass. Almost no one used this old Shaker road, and the upper part was rocky and deeply rutted. But every so often, a carload of teenagers would pass through the campus, yelling insults and obscenities and hurling empty beer cans from their windows.

One afternoon, a carload of boys came roaring down the road in a cloud of dust and slowed as it passed a group of boys coming back from the gym. "Darrow fairies!" someone yelled. The group quickly surmised that they were Pittsfield boys headed down to the village in New York state to buy beer. (The drinking age was 18 in New York then, and 21 in Massachusetts.) Word spread quickly that the car might be coming back through campus. When it did, 60 or 70 "Darrow fairies" streamed out of their dormitories, screaming at the top of their lungs and waving baseball bats and lacrosse sticks. I was up the road in front of my dorm, Ann Lee Cottage, and watched the road fill with students and saw the car come to a sliding stop, then move rapidly in reverse, fishtailing back toward the valley in a shower of stones.

Another time, on a warm, spring Sunday afternoon, a convertible came down the road, a young woman standing on the back seat with nothing on from the waist up. I was elsewhere when this happened, much to my disappointment. I peppered the witnesses with questions: "Who else was in the car? Did she say anything? How slow was the car going? Did you get a good look? Was she good-looking?"

On warm spring nights when no wind was blowing up from the valley and we had the windows at Ann Lee propped wide open, you could hear some of the traffic on Route 20. One night, just after lights out, we heard a crash - the sounds of snapping trees and twisting metal, and then an explosion - and then a wash of yellow light came through the back windows. We ran out the back door and beheld what was left of a fireball in the sky, now pierced by a tower of flames.

A few days later, we hiked up to the scorched scar in the woods. It had been a gasoline tanker, we were told. The driver had died. There was almost nothing left of the truck. The aluminum tank had melted and flowed like lava and hardened into rivulets that we snapped off and kept as souvenirs. This was near the old dump we had found. I imagined the aluminum flowing down into the pit and filling the old Shaker boot like a mold, creating a sculpted foot of the owner that might last for millennia. What would future archaeologists think?

The world intruded on us with violence and lust and fire and death on the mountain. We were isolated and protected, but we yearned for the world. We were well cared for, but we never stopped plotting our escape.

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