Emotional Geography & the Power of Place

To help pay for school, I was a Resident Assistant, an RA my last two years of college in the mid 1980s’. I discovered my new dorm assignment over the summer and was happy to no longer have to climb the steep hills from East Green to most of my classes surrounding  College Green. Bryan Hall, built in 1948 as thousands of  former World War II soldiers headed to college on the GI Bill,  had been closed for a few years while the university bryanrenovated the oldest dorm on campus, adding in new features like high speed optic phone lines and common area air conditioning-State of the art at that point. Student-controlled heat and air, the internet, and cell phones were still a long way into the future. The basement rec. room even had a couple of ping pong tables and microwave oven, making the residents the envy of campus life.

The building, as our small staff of RA’s soon discovered was infamous for being haunted. We shared rumors that on old Athens and Ohio University maps, Bryan Hall was at the center of a pentagram of roads and landmarks. Southern Ohio was believed to have clandestine societies of devil-worshippers and witches it had been said. There were stories floating around about late night covens meeting in the countryside with bonfires and even hangings and sacrifices. In a small college town on the edge of Appalachia, kindled by late night beer and pizza, these stories fueled our youthful imaginations.

Days earlier, a few of us had explored the creepy tunnels in the basement connecting every corner of campus with plumbing, electrical lines, and the noisy steam heat pipes used in winter as we tried to dismiss the stories of the dark tunnels being  filled with rats, wandering vagrants, and the decaying bodies of missing co-eds. We didn’t venture far, realizing with the tight and low design, running away quickly would be impossible, but we made it far enough to clearly hear cars driving over manhole covers on the road above us. Ocassional light bulbs lit the way, and thankfully we found nothing other than signs our fellow students enjoyed ‘steam tunnel parties’ in years past.

The building had an attic that ran the entire length of the building and although it too was off limits to us, our Resident Director David, had a key to the padlocked door and we easily persuaded him to lead us on a tour.  The windowless attic was filled with old furniture, the mummified remains of a few dead birds, and decades of dust lit only by an occasional hanging bare bulb. Fourth floor Residents later that quarter reported strange noises from above including footsteps and what sounded like crying. One resident, so spooked,  reportedly kept a radio on at all hours to mask any strange sounds he might hear from the attic above his room. bryan-roofWe discovered the attic accessed a metal ladder that led onto the flat and massive asphalt roof. The roof featured the prominent faux bell tower that set the building apart from its fellow Colonial-themed neighbors. The tower seemed even larger up close and sadly unlike our previous explorations offered us no easy access inside the structure. Our inner Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys would have to wait.

One night we were all together having a late evening staff meeting in the lounge outside of my room on the 4th floor and in full view of the small elevator and adjoining staircase.The dorms did not open for a few more days, and there were lots of small details to accomplish before welcoming students to a new school year. Each of us had been given a small key to call the elevator as no one else but staff were allowed to use the antiquated machine in those days. Staff were welcome to plunge to their deaths, but not full-paying students. Those keys we would later discover led to occasional small favors, a complimentary pizza or a six pack of Genesee beer, especially on moving days. The keys were the only way the elevator could be operated and this gave us great dominion over our residents.

An hour into the meeting as we discussed roommate problems, leaking toilets, and how to handle the problem of sharing the one 19 inch community tv in the lobby,  we froze to the sound of the old elevator engine crank to life and a car moving. Everyone who had a key was in the same room, the entire building was locked tight, and none of us had been anywhere near the elevator. We all crept to the metal doors and listened to predict where it was going, counting floors as it made its journey the five levels down to the basement. By peering through the space between the floor and the metal doors, we could barely make out the elevator car light spilling out into the black basement fifty feet below.

We heard the doors close, saw the light fade away and the engine abruptly stop as suddenly as it started. We were quck to blame it on a mechanical fluke and went back to our pizza and adult beverages, laughing at ourselves for being so rattled by a wayward elevator car. It was late, the building locked tight from the inside, and sometimes machines misbehave on their own was our calming and collective explanation. Nothing to see here, folks.

Minutes later, however, the car started to move again and we heard it rising upward towards us. Within half a minute, the elevator car had traveled from the basement and past the fourth floor. We were stunned to hear the door open to entry of the locked attic just above us, not even realizing the elevator could travel to the attic. The door opened, paused for what seemed too long, closed again and again began to travel; this time returning to us. The doors opened in front of us, but there was nothing to see-Only five soon to be sleepless college students.

Whenever I am fortunate enough to visit Athens these days, I always take time to visit Bryan Hall and remember the epiphany-filled  year I spent both working and living in my favorite spot on campus. Geography has a powerful impact on how we gauge the world and all places that follow, especially those homes and experiences we had early in our lives. Good or bad, our childhood homes stay with us in more powerful ways than what comes later more often than not. I could walk around many of those places blindfolded and do pretty well and their images never too far from memory.

Our staff bonded that year as we took charge of a historic, if not spirited old building and shared the common problems of college, personal and work life together. I see less of that shared life with old and young people today and feel strongly it does not serve as well to be so disconnected; all the more made ironic by the sheer number of ways we are bound by electronic gadgets and means to connect. Even so, they don’t do a good of job of truly bringing us together in meaningful ways, no matter how many tweets and Facebook updates we make in a day. Their convenience and numbers have not made them anymore valuable to most people.

bryan-hallIf you ever visit Bryan Hall, look  in the lobby for a large framed picture I took that winter. You can see the building’s snow-covered bell tower and imagine the attic just below and the mysterious labyrinth of steam tunnels still connecting to dozens of other buildings miles away.  It’s an old picture now, but it captures that moment when the building was new again. Decades later, the world feels a lot less reasonable and safe, although this small corner of it is mostly the same where students still live in college dormitories, eat pizza, tell wild stories, and make life-long connections.

You can’t miss the photograph, it’s right across from the elevator.

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