Citius, Altius, Fortius!
Every year during the winter holidays The History Channel and National Geographic aired their best work. If hunger is the best sauce, obscurity is the frame sublime. These masterpieces only ran around midnight on Christmas Eve and New Year’s, banished to a limited run for controversial content. By their junior year at Cornell, Randy and Steve were hooked. The drug documentaries had become a yearly tradition.
On Christmas Eve, 2003, people started trickling in around nine. By ten the cozy living room nestled high up in the landmark gothic tower rang with good cheer. Happiness was such a strange thing, Randy thought. He stretched out his legs in their retro jeans and brushed disarrayed black hair out of his eyes. Joy was simple. All it took was a few close friends, a favorite drink, and a locally-blown bubbler of sweet Ithaca weed.
“Shhh… it’s about to start!” Randy perked up. He had questions remaining from last year. His roommate Steve who was short and swarthy, in addition to being a stoner, carefully cleansed the bowl of the pipe with a toothpick, then reloaded it with sticky green flowers.
First up was the history of opium, a quaint drug that had a dark and murky history. After that were the psilocybes and later still alcohol and tobacco and cannabis.
Randy walked back from the dining hall after a late Christmas brunch – still feeling the effects from last night’s binge. Poison trapped in his system from the sleepless stomach-knotting of finals week added its own counterpoint to the symphony of pain in his head. Last night had been a combo of Stoli and sandwiches. He’d bought two loaves of pumpernickel sliced into tiny cocktail squares and the guests had brought deli meat, mustard, cheese, and jalapeno peppers – all the stuff that would go bad over a long break. Randy had eaten improbably overloaded miniature sandwiches until the wee hours, enthusiastically topped with salad dressing thriftily eked out from a whole bright sea of now-empty bottles bearing equally empty promises.
Even sober, the Opium Wars still made no sense. Did an evil corporation really start a war in order to push opium on the Chinese? What the hell kind of sense does that make?
This cold didn’t make sense either. It was bizarrely freezing out, worse than this morning when he’d awoken. He was walking between two dorms, his jacketed collar turned up against the frosty wind, when it happened.
All the lights flickered and dimmed, like a poorly wired house when someone turns on the washing machine. His senses sent conflicting messages – the brown brick walls of the dorms faded into blurred soap bubbles. He shut his eyes and opened them again. He took a long, slow look around – his warm brown intelligent eyes tracked the trees and hills. All around lay the cold, snowy, sleeping stone dorms, homely stairs, and familiar paths of West campus. He heard a hum, just for a second, like God’s own clothes dryer announcing the spin cycle. Nothing looked amiss.
No stranger to altered states, he paused to compose himself. Weird, is this a hangover? He took a deep breath, in and out, then another. The memory of the hum and the light faded, and he felt the winter’s bite anew. The wind picked up, catching the hood dangling from his new jacket. It was navy blue, from a cold-weather company called The North Face that he’d never heard of. He didn’t normally go in for name-brand stuff, preferring to shop at outlet stores for retro styles, but this had been a back-to-school gift from his parents. The winters here ruined clothes, magically leaving permanent white streaks. The old black London Fog peacoat he’d had since ninth grade was now retired to a quiet box in the attic.
Randy’s ground-eating stride ate up the steps to the front door of McFadden Hall as his long legs carried his six-foot tall frame. He marveled at the unrelenting nastiness of Ithaca winter. The best that could be said about it was that it built character and had an austere, if somewhat murderous, beauty all of its own.
As he stepped inside, the whole world turned into a hot-air balloon and his stomach protested this strange swooping sensation. The electric lights in the foyer dimmed, and a sharp ozone scent tickled his nose. Instinctively he headed up the stairs to the suite he shared with Steve. They were alone – the last of their friends had taken off for New York City early in the morning, hungover and clutching cups of coffee. He felt really glad, all of a sudden, that his roommate and best friend Steve had cheaped out on the road trip to the City and remained behind for the holidays.
Randy regarded himself in the hallway mirror for a second, struggling for composure. Slush melted off his boots, it was warmer in here than outside. His breath steamed up the mirror. Like any young man, he was arrested by his own reflection. His level brown eyes looked back from a face that looked deeply tanned but was actually courtesy of his Finno-Turkish mother and mutt father whose ancestry was even less clear. His parents were both engineers, smart as hell – his mother a strict practitioner of two religions while his dad was always smiling. His father had a fondness for practical jokes and Zen koans and always found time for weekend adventures with his son. Randy looked like him – just like the elder Shattenkirk, he had a slight curl to his raven-black hair that tended to fly free in the wind.
Mom and dad were off visiting the mutt side of the family in Saskatchewan. He would have liked to go with them, but space was tight this year. They offered to cram him into an attic room with his bratty young cousin, but that was a fate worse than death. Instead he’d enjoy three weeks in the dorm – free from classes and with Steve around. They could take a bus to Times Square or head for the Canadian border. Rumor had it that if you could sing ‘O Canada,’ they would look the other way if you tried to bring a few six packs back home. Randy always forgot what came after ‘True Patriot Love,’ but now he had time to learn the words.
Randy, maybe courtesy of his mother, had a streak of spiritualism in him that verged on plain old superstition. Or maybe it was from the daily steeping in pot. He had the feeling now that something weird was going on – he didn’t know what – and that bad news might be around the corner. He shook his head and cracked his hairy knuckles. Fate deals our bodies at birth, or so it would seem. Blue eyes, cystic fibrosis, hitchhiker’s thumb – all cards in an infinite deck embossed with the initials G.A.T.C. But to Randy’s quiet and eternal joy in finding things out, learnt from his father – there was beautiful method to the madness, order to chaos. Above all the hand of Nature – meticulous, elegant and creative. Genetics was the study of Nature’s finest craft. There was no superstition to genetics, only numbers and odds, lanes and film and measures.
He mentally thanked his high school biology teachers at the end of each semester, when he got the envelope with his grades. Their humble stories had made it come alive – from Arabidopsis to Zooplankton. He thought his core major courses a beautiful dream that he zoomed through on a black motorcycle with purple trim. The engine bore the manufacturer’s mark, ‘Solid Fundamentals,’ and he kept the gas pedal pressed with every ounce of force he had in him. The speedometer read 3.9 GPA, the pre-med major at Cornell had a brutal reputation, but he was keeping pace with the leaders. Truth be told, he often felt bad for his classmates, those who excelled and struggled alike. The truth was, they were going about it all wrong. You had to love Nature’s beauty! Whether that was whales or green plants or puppies, whether it was ant herding, big cat breeding, orthopedic surgery, coating pollen grains in osmium and staring at them under an electron microscope – it had to fill your dreams!
Steve said something, interrupting Randy’s self-reflection. “What was that?” he asked.
“I said, do you wanna watch Dazed & Confused?” Steve called out through the door.
Randy hadn’t yet turned the knob, but Steve had still kenned his presence. It was old hat – this was Steve, after all, with his weird mind and preternatural awareness. Even less surprising was the question. They were so aligned in tastes they obsessed over the same movies. It sounded like a fine way to spend the next two hours.
Featuring budding stars who’d go on to glory as well as budget overwhelmingly spent on classic rock and classic cars, Dazed & Confused was two hours of fun. Wiley Wiggins served as the window into illusion, reality, and memories of director Richard Linklater’s Texas. At times beautiful, ugly or very very weird, the story’s pace and pattern matched to the rhythms of football, hazing, pool halls, and hippy love. For a second, strange contradictions, moments of outré debauchery and simple friendship all ran through Randy’s mind.
Steve was rummaging through the movie collection but paused when Randy entered. Randy regarded his best friend and roommate with affection. Steven P. Cheznuk was a strange cat hailing from Hoboken, New Jersey. Randy had met his partner in crime on move-in day, freshman year. Some strange quirk of Campus Housing had put the two of them together in the same cramped room – the tall, athletic pre-med from Maryland who took pains to keep his various worlds from colliding; and the short, buzz-cut paranoid Greek stoner who wore aviator shades at frat parties and tended to spray crumbs out of his mouth when he got a little too excited at the dining hall.
“Did you get a weird feeling, a minute back?” Steve asked. He sat up and put the video down. There were dark circles under his eyes from the night before.
Randy replied, “The lights flickered, but honestly the way my head feels? I’m getting nothing but weirdness.” He had fought down the urge to simply agree, yeah he had felt it too – but he second guessed himself. He didn’t want to get as paranoid as his best friend. It was warmer in here. He did not want to be stressed. Right now he didn’t even want to be bothered. Watching a movie was all he had energy for. The warmth of a heater soaked into his bones and he thought back to the soap-bubble moment outside. We’re both feeling a hangover, that has to be it. Through the window he saw snow-covered trees and the library’s amber and orangey yellow lights in the distance. They were the only color in a stark, white, ancient landscape.
The walls of their cramped but comfortable rooms had posters and all the Christmas lights that they could scrounge together from K-mart’s bargain bins and friendly graduating seniors: both important resources in a town stubbornly blocking “Evil Chain Stores” like Wal-mart. Of course, overcharging college students was the unofficial Ithaca Townie pastime, and being gouged on all sides just added to the daily strife.
Steve had found a few strings of black lights and splurged on a foot-long black light bulb mounted on a portable fluorescent fixture. They gave an otherworldly purple tinge to the suite’s pride and joy – a six-foot tall framed print of Salvador Dali’s Hallucinogenic Torreador. It brightened up the scuffed plaster covering the ancient stone walls and greeted visitors to the suite – two doubles and a living room, affectionately known as the McFadden Quad.
Steve was into surrealism and piano-playing and thrashing his squat buzz cut head in time to grunge metal. He was the only Archaeology major Randy knew, but somehow, that too, fit. Steve was a naturally old soul, aboriginal, close to the land and operating in his own dimension. He had strange obsessions. Whatever bizarre upbringing he’d had in Hoboken, amidst his insane survivalist relatives, Steve was always ready for disaster. It was his favorite game. It harnessed his demons and put them to work.
Randy envied Steve his simple plan – a full speed blind charge to archaeology glory. Quite different from Randy’s conflict about med school. He worried that medicine was no different than being a high-paid plumber! But biology was endlessly fascinating, and he loved it.
Despite their differences the boys had become fast friends. They shared philosophy, senses of humor, and above all a love of outdoor adventures. Campus being deserted meant they could recharge their batteries, soak in cerulean frozen waterfalls and towering ice-canyons.
Randy’s own college story started with a six-hour odyssey from the gentle warmth of Germantown, Maryland to the frozen mountains and beautiful gorges of this little patch of upstate New York. He had soaked in the fall colors, the beauty of the leaves, the postcard-perfect sunsets over lonely turquoise waterfalls. But it was winter he had made his own. Freshmen got a few good months, before the harsh reality of winter set in. A few months of that and they were true Cornellians – noticeably hardier than casual visitors – cold adapted with steel bands for legs.
Nearby Cayuga Lake, one of the Finger Lakes, kept things interesting with lake-effect snow, ice storms, freezing rain, fog like he’d never seen in the relatively flat and nearly sea level fields of Germantown, torrential downpours, heavy winds and the occasional wet but freezing cold rain. All things considered, it was a good idea the University required all freshmen to pass a swimming test, just because it would be an awful shame for anyone to survive four brutal winters and then drown in a swimming pool in some far less fierce part of the world. Remarkably, only seven other universities followed suit.
From Steve’s geology and Randy’s evolutionary biology classes they knew the area was unique. They’d taken to finding fossils in creek beds and once in a while spotted one tucked into campus masonry. Tens of millions of years ago, in an age called the Late Devonian, the local quarries had once been below a warmly hospitable inland sea. A more poetic name for this era was “The Age of the Fishes.”
On the first day of Paleontology 300 Steve had been confronted with six huge boulders. They had all spent decades along the sides of highways. They also contained fossils which the caprice of lady luck exposed via fiery wreck or, more sedately, decades of weathering.
The lab was a barn-sized room tucked into a building that could have been a museum – the walls decorated with nightmarish T-rex jaws and the teeth of great monsters of the deep. Their task – crack open these giant, solid stones without breaking anything important!
Steve had placed his hand on each of the six massive stones. Number four tingled, distinctly, and he claimed it for himself.
Over the semester he drilled, chiseled, and brushed to expose fossils. The drill was much more useful than anything else. An entire day’s work might eke an ounce of powder, the removal of an inch of stone. Preserving delicate upteen-million year old fossil details while employing a bench-fixed power tool just seemed silly! He’d dug through the onion-like layers of stone, probing deeper and deeper by instinct.
One day he’d unearthed the tip of a tooth. Tooth turned to jaw as day turned to week. Late one night his chisel slipped, stabbed hard. A slab of shale fell away, the hand of chance doing the work of years. He beheld the leering, grinning face of a prehistoric snakefish, menace undisturbed across four hundred million years. He still saw that rictus grin in his dreams. There were yards left of unexplored boulder – a whole family of snakes could lay within!
Archaeology was frustrating, Steve thought, because it took absurd amounts of work to piece together ancient fragments. The answers to the biggest questions were maddeningly close; barely out of reach but always within spitting distance. Forget ancient clocks and statues and necklaces out of place – these days careers depended upon grains of pollen and piles of garbage. Modern scanners were disturbing the dreamless sleep of centuries, searching out Byzantine stone anchors with whiskers of sound. Perhaps some held fossils in their own turn? Atlantis!
Just then there was a knock. Randy, still standing by the door, opened it. It was the RA, the Residential Advisor in charge of the dorm.
“Hey Greg, Merry Christmas!”
Greg, tall thin and gangling, licked his lips and seemed off. “Hey Randy, hey Steve. Merry Christmas.” He said it with considerably less enthusiasm. “I got an alert from campus. Outside phone lines are down.”
“What?” Steve said. Randy didn’t panic, it happened from time to time, and he had stocked plenty of booze for the break.
Greg continued, “And so are cell phones.”
“WHAT?” the two of them yelled in unison.
Greg shrugged. “Local campus extensions still work and so does the email alert system. That’s how they got a hold of me. Sit tight, call or swing by my room if you have any issues.” He took off to knock on more doors, his patrician nose leading the way.
In typical Cornell fashion their largely absent RA had a spine of steel when something truly fucking screwy happened.
Steve was typing away at his computer. “Odd, we have weak Internet that still seems to be coming in, despite no cell signal. That’s a relief.”
“I can run a quick update before it goes away. Oh, er, I have a local copy of the internet on this,” he patted a large rubber case.