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Travel / Adventure / Nonfiction
Wanderlusting: A Collection of Travel Stories by Gary McWilliams
ISBN number: 978-0-578-07507-5    LCCN: 2011924970

LOOKING OUT THE WINDOW
PART TWO

Some friends at Penn State came by one day and told me about a big rock-and-roll event due to take place somewhere in upstate New York. I passed up going with them because I had a seminar paper to write. So, I missed Woodstock because of some inane political science paper—that's content could I not recall today for a million dollars. I still had that much academic commitment, but it was fast waning. I did a second trip to Canada with another friend in 1969. This time, we went to the Maritime Provinces and to Quebec City. How I loved Quebec—the very Frenchness of the place. The next year, I spent a month-long Christmas vacation in New York City, where I had a girlfriend living in Manhattan. Needing money, I got a seasonal job at Macy's, selling shirts. I remember that the store had five thousand employees. As in Canada, I loved everything in New York that was foreign and exotic. My companion and I spent much of our time in ethnic neighborhoods. I remember watching the old Italian men playing bocce ball.

My old 56 Chevy got me everywhere. I bought it from Professor Serfranski, who had a three-hundred pound wife. The old Chevy had what I would later call, after boats came into my life, a "list," a ten degree lean to the passenger, or "starboard," side. This old rig got me to Canada twice and back home twice. It also took me all about Central Pennsylvania, which I started to avidly explore. Central Pennsylvania was full of little towns that time had pretty much forgotten—small places, not quite dead, that had come into being with old-time logging, coal mining, and the railroads. I enjoyed meeting the locals, imbibing in their cafes and bars, hearing their stories. And, there were Amish communities, whole valleys of spic-and-span farms with not a telephone line, fuel-driven conveyance, television antenna, or light bulb showing. I stopped at their farms to buy organic produce and eggs. One image stands out in my memory: the children at one farm all rolling and tumbling with same age farm animals: the two year olds with the two-year olds—calves, ponies, goslings, puppies, and kids. Growing up together, all would be buddies through life's later journeys.

The research for my Ph.D. dissertation gave me both the opportunity and the means for slightly broader travel. The dissertation topic had to do with the values and attitudes of local political party activists. It entailed my interviewing all county party chairmen, Republican and Democrat, in the State of Pennsylvania. I had a car provided by the university and a small grant to pay expenses. So, in the summer of 1970, I visited all sixty-seven counties of the state. Instead of encouraging me to finish my degree, these travels further charged my ever-growing restlessness, my want to get out and see the world. I do not remember much about what all the politicians had to say except for being struck at how development-oriented all seemed to be. Whatever their party affiliation, they wanted to bring more business and industry to their county, each chairman claiming that his or her party could do it better. I remember this so well because of my then nascent questioning of unfettered economic development as a desired societal goal.

I still enjoyed teaching. By then, I had had my own classes for several years and thought the course I designed worthwhile. Called "International Understanding," it dealt with ideologies, nationalism, world economic and political structures, and current contentious issues between nations. The feedback from students was positive and that, mainly, kept me at it. For one term, I also taught introductory political science in an experimental program at a nearby penitentiary. A magic-marker scrawled sweatshirt I had at the time said "Penn State" on one side and "State Pen" on the other. Certainly, I learned more real political science from the inmates than they learned from me—the real gut level politics of group interaction: the Machiavellian manipulations, the power struggles, the alliances made and broken. I had studied public administration as a student of political science; I watched here the Ph.D.s of working the system.

Teaching also deferred me from the draft. Vietnam was a wrenching issue for me, as it was for so many others at the time. I knew the war was a mistake, a totally foolish waste of peoples' lives, yet I felt a certain shame because all five of my brothers had served in the military and because a number of my friends were serving—were already there, ducking bullets. Ultimately, I disagreed so profoundly with the war that I could not go. I found shelter from the draft in teaching. That deferment was eventually taken but by then I was over age. I participated in anti-war protests throughout the war, once going with a many thousands others to demonstrate in Washington.

My interest in political science continued to wane. With Mr. Nixon and Vietnam at the forefront of real-life politics, with optimism replaced by the darkness of Dr. Kissinger's realpolitik, I became ever-more alienated and hostile to the American government I was supposed to be studying. I came to think that being a professor of political science, with its requisite immersion in the trough, might be the last thing I wanted to do. I did not want to think about those people. Again in the classroom—now my own—I found myself unattached, not there, looking out the window.

At this time, I started reading more outside the field of political science. I was particularly influenced by the writings of Herman Hesse, whose philosophy of distain for staid bourgeois values—the hunger for money and petty social accolade—resonated so well with the counter-culture ideology of the times. Sensing that the opportunity may never come again, I also took courses outside the discipline. One in particular, film making, greatly interested me. For this introductory class, I made one short movie, about ghosts. I loved the whole process of story telling via film: directing the actors, scripting the story, editing and pasting. I even considered beginning a second university career—studying cinema.

The Ph.D. in political science was close. I had done all the requisite course work and had passed the oral and written comprehensive exams. The research was in hand for the dissertation. All that remained for me was to collate the interview data, crunch the numbers, write-up the results. But, I could not do it. At that time, Penn State had a computer building, the size of a warehouse, full of old IBMs the size of trailer trucks. It had not a single window. Spending the requisite weeks, if not months, inside such an airless place to do the statistical analysis of my data did not appeal. Instead, I found a job at a small sawmill located fifteen miles—and light years—away from the university. With a crew as back-woods and Appalachian as can get, I sawed whiskey barrel staves out of white oak. It was the first time, at least as an adult, I worked with my hands. I discovered that I enjoyed it.

To get me back on track, to check my obvious drift, my Ph.D. adviser suggested that I apply for a teaching opening known to her at a Catholic women's college in Boston. I considered it. But, by then, it was too late. I had simply lost interest in political science. I would not spend the next year, or years, of my life writing a dissertation that held no interest for me. And I knew that after that I would be pressured to write even more such stuff—to publish or to perish. So, after attending all those classes, after writing a stack of term papers a foot high, after getting so close to the doctorate, I chose to—in the argot of the day—"drop out." No academic position, no ivory tower could satisfy what burned inside me. I was tired of looking at the world through an academic window, through any window. From Hesse, I wanted the vagabond Goldmund, not the cloistered, man-of-the-mind Narcissus. Life, real life, was not to study but to live. I wanted to get out there and roll in it, put my tongue in it, taste it all.

Note: Well, my friends, Wanderlusting picks up here.

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Copyright © 2011 by Gary McWilliams
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