Is this exuberant college town, named for defying the trends of the Great Depression, a clue into American violence, grief, and longing?
This fall I moved to Happy Valley, Pennsylvania, so named during the Great Depression because it defied the national trend toward bankruptcy. Today it is better known as home to Penn State’s Nittany Lions of football—a team that always wins. In other words, this is by reputation and moniker an optimistic place.
Not long before I arrived, The Princeton Review named Penn State America’s top party school, which seemed to me further indication the setting was upbeat, life-affirming, and if nothing else, one enjoyed vigorously by its inhabitants. Having gone to a college with few frats, I wasn’t immediately clued in to the close association of partying and frats, nor was I aware of the trifecta status of sports in that frat-party equation. To me, “party” meant where I went to school, UC Santa Cruz, where we talked about chaos theory’s applicability to the arts —sometimes while on drugs—and took writing courses in which we performed creativity-enhancing exercises that involved lying on the floor in guided meditation. Therefore, when I arrived in Happy Valley, the local usage of the term “Greek” did not immediately make sense to me, not to mention such auxiliaries as “pledge,” “wrist band,” “badge,” “bid,” “hazing,” “binge,” “call,” “sign.”
We also didn’t have much for sports at Santa Cruz aside from Frisbee, so the term “Nittany” meant nothing to me: neither its association with glory nor its nomenclature—“game day,” “home weekend,” “roll ’em up towel,” “whiteout.”
“Nittany,” someone finally explained, was “a native American expression for ‘drunk frat boy falling off curb.’” Picking up meaning through context, I eventually pieced together that optimism in this valley meant frats, sports, and drinking.
Soon, I would learn how the extremes in this town—dark and light—seemed necessarily to recall their opposites. According to a basic formula of logic, there appeared an inherent, if oxymoronic, connection between the elements that made up the “happiness” factor in Happy Valley and its likelihood of being a site of tragedy. I discovered, for instance, that last time the town made national news for something other than science or sports, in 2007, was in an instance of partying gone awry: two Penn State students dressed up as victims of the Virginia Tech University massacre for Halloween. They got their photos plastered on Facebook, sparking national outrage.
Halloween is celebrated here like a national feast day. But alas, among this town’s other notorious recent incidents was a mishap after another Halloween party, in 2001: a university senior, an immigrant from Korea, disappeared from her apartment after hanging out with friends at a bar till late. She was last seen still dressed in her Halloween costume: white mini-skirt, knee-length boots, a red hooded jacket, and a white bunny tail (a.k.a., Playboy bunny). Episodes on Unsolved Mysteries, Without a Trace, and Psychic Detective left the impression she may have been a victim of a Pennsylvania serial killer named Hugo Selenski, who has been implicated in five murders. A more upbeat, alternate narrative of her disappearance speculates that the persona-freeing ethos of Halloween inspired Cindy Song to fabricate a new name and identity for herself and steal off to a new life in Philadelphia. Which is a much happier, if fantastical, way of thinking about it.
At the beginning of my first “home weekend” in town, I remained susceptible to this notion that a place could be defined by happiness, and that an attribute such as “party-ness” could inhere in that quality. I’d never experienced a home weekend and didn’t actually know what it was. There was a buzz and excitement. One of my students said he was driving several hours away Friday and then back the next day for “the game.” I smiled charitably and figured the significance of his words would come clear. Twenty-four hours in advance, people were postponing errands to avoid traffic. On game day Saturday, classes at the gym were canceled. The hipsters at the bike shop regarded me with distraction, fiddling with knobs on their radio. Walking down the central mall, I heard the mumbles of strollers punctuated by the phrase “the game… the game.” It was a low frequency gurgle, anticipation mixed with satisfaction. Virtually everyone was dressed in sweats, mostly Nittany’s, but if not those, collegiate gear from other campuses. Blue, blue, blue; the occasional red from Cornell, green from Michigan.
The whole scene threw me back to my first days in India when I moved there on a Fulbright and understood that it was an utterly alien culture, fascinating and dislocating, with its own codes and customs and dress, its language, its cues, its shared victories. Today, I wandered through the town in an ebullient daze, feeling the same thrilling disorientation as then, knowing I was set to learn a new place, to become different myself in the process. On the other hand, I was also reminded of certain large-scale yoga centers I’d visited in India and elsewhere. It was as if I’d encountered another cult, and I felt a wave of foreboding, a thin air current slip-streaming from the dark side.
In town, there seems to exist a kind of social contract long ago broken down in the cities. Big, football-shouldered guys hold doors for people. Clerks say “thank you” and customers say “excuse me.”
But I let the ambient energy bear me along. Soon, the streets emptied, and an eerie quiet settled over the town. A white static could be heard emanating from the hilltop, where at Beaver Stadium a team from the university’s Applied Research Laboratory structural acoustics department recorded cheers at sound pressure levels of 122 decibels “loud enough to cause physical pain on the ear drum,” as one of the researchers later reported on Penn State Live. Sure enough, by nightfall, we (“we”) had a win: PSU, 31/Temple, 6.
Another thing I didn’t know when I came to Happy Valley was how well it lived up to its name, but it required only a glance at the environs to find out. It is picturesque, with rolling farmland, cornfields laid out in neat lines, farmhouses painted that deep Pennsylvania red—never too bright, never too dull—Amish people and Menonites smiling up at you past their vegetables at ubiquitous farmers markets, each item arranged according to category within reassuring grid-lines. Buried in the steep geography, there is Revolutionary War history, which gives a sense of importance and awe at the past. In late fall, the colors on leaves are still brilliant, whereas when I got here the green was almost tropical there was so much of it. Plants seem to thrive, as does life of all sorts. When I gaze out my window, I see cats and dogs and humans gamboling across the landscape. There are bunnies and possums and hedgehogs, golf courses and paved bicycle paths and unlocked doors. In town, there seems to exist a kind of social contract long ago broken down in the cities. Big, football-shouldered guys hold doors for people. Clerks say “thank you” and customers say “excuse me.” There are cute coffee shops and bookstores.
The place of happiness seems to be an American trope, making it all the more unsettling when unhappy things transpire there, undermining our innocence and belligerent mirth.
Happy Valley is wholesome according to press ratings: in 2008, the town was ranked the second safest metropolitan area in the country by one ratings group, and the safest small city by another. Over the last twenty years, arbiters ranging from Psychology Today to Forbes to CNN have also ranked it among America’s least stressful places, its smartest places and the best places to start a career or business. In 2007, it was named the number one “single” city based on its percentage of unmarried people, and Rolling Stone even gave its music scene honorable mention. Dominated by its university economy, it has always been more or less recession-proof, hence the actual origin of its name. Even the frats here sometimes extol things other than Animal House-style reckless living: Tau Phi Delta, a hunting and fishing frat; Alpha Epsilon Pi, a Jewish frat; Alpha Rho Chi, an architecture frat.
Of course, this is not the only Happy Valley in America, though perhaps not all of them claim such enviable statistics. There is a city in Oregon by the name, with many parks and trails. There is a region by the name in Washington State, and another in Tennessee. There are Happy Valleys in Utah and North Carolina, and at least four, by my count, in California, not to mention school districts or otherwise designated municipal entities in Colorado, Texas, Arizona, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts. If one expands the category to include “Pleasant Valleys,” the tally of places defined by ubiquitous good will lengthens to include parts of Illinois, Kansas, California, Massachusetts, Iowa, Missouri, and, once again, Pennsylvania. The place of happiness seems to be an American trope, making it all the more unsettling when unhappy things transpire there, undermining our innocence and belligerent mirth.
Perhaps this abundance of positive indicators explains why, on Saturday that home weekend, I found no particular reason for skepticism. The buoyant atmosphere of the game, that Penn State was top party school, even that frats and drinking implicitly might play a role in all that, seemed not necessarily to contradict the essential elements of Happiness. After all, Penn State won top party school because its students voted with their mouses. The ranking, like the one about bands and the one about safety, reflected a communitarian culture, the kind of regional pride that leads to people picking up their garbage and holding doors. Campus spirit won Penn State that poll, which reminded me of when I was in college and students irreverently voted the banana slug our new mascot at Santa Cruz.
After the game, around nine p.m., I waited for the bus at the supermarket, chatting with a grad student from India about vegetarian food. We boarded, exchanging pleasantries with the driver. I felt good, relaxed, to be out of my home in New York City. The spirit of “our” win seemed to propel the bus forward along its journey.
In a few stops, a gaggle of boys got on. When some of them started hooting (was this the infamous “call, ” I wondered?), the Indian grad student and I rolled our eyes. The campus’s population of forty thousand students includes a large international contingent, but this subset was all white, mostly male, dressed across the board in sweats. A set of twins wore matching, brightly colored sweatshirts with big felt Greek letters, retro-styled from the fifties. They had blank empty stares and bulbous eyes, like characters from a Breugel painting. But a lot of the other boys were animated and giggly, commenting about each girl as she got on, nudging each other—obnoxiously so, but after all, unremarkably enough.
At about ten, the bus dropped me off on campus. That was when I picked up on another mood in the air, something dangerous, not elated but reckless. Students traveled in packs, the boys often hooting, the girls glass-eyed.
I noticed sirens lowing in the background, sirens that didn’t stop all night. I heard their growl as I fitfully slept. Several times I woke and heard their nauseous keening. Even in that unconscious sleep state, I knew something was wrong. In the morning, still sleeping, I vaguely took note the sky was shaking. Helicopters flew near the treeline all afternoon. The buzz made it hard for me to work. I felt my heartbeat speeding up to keep time with the whirring. Agitation was in the air, literally. The kids in the student housing across my lawn were kicking around a volleyball; I heard some of them commenting they had hangovers. When the ball got kicked to my yard, a girl and a guy chased it over and I saw the guy double over and gag. “You okay?” the girl asked. “Yeah, just queasy.”
Over the next twenty-four hours, Happy Valley became one of those other storied valleys of the American cliché: Death Valley, Dread Valley, Valley of the Dolls. On campus, there was a missing person sign: a roundfaced boy with a small nose and eyes. He looked to me about twelve, but the sign said he was eighteen. I felt a pang. That afternoon, there was a spot marked out with white votives and slips of paper; there had been a vigil. Helicopters were still searching.
They found him that Monday night behind a building next to where I teach one of my classes. By then, there had been enough time to piece together what happened. He’d been a frat pledge, drank too much that Saturday game night, wandered off, tumbled down a concrete stairwell, and died of a head injury. In spite of a full-scale campus search, he’d been found by maintenance workers on routine rounds. His blood-alcohol level was .169—double the legal limit for driving, and around half that of two college students who died in high-profile episodes of alcohol-poisoning in 2004.
Life’s heightened moments are when we take notice—when we are disoriented or angry or feel betrayed or believe we are in the chrysalis, about to become someone new.
I experienced his absence like a physical blow, though of course I didn’t know him. I felt betrayed, angry with the world, impatient with myself for my easy affection for this philosophy of “party” and “happy.” The death of Joe Dado was the talk on campus that week. Some of my students had remarkable insights about how to reconcile such a disturbing incident, so close to home, through writing about it. No one wanted to exploit the event. The mood, a pall, was thick, and I felt it myself, felt as if I was pushing against unyielding air when I tried to move. Happy Valley’s crisp cool skies framed in crystalline clarity the beautiful Allegheny mountain-scape; they seemed to be mocking us. A student in my fiction workshop said, “I’d pretend I was someone close to the event, his sister, and imagine how I’d feel. Then, I’d write from that feeling. It might have nothing to do with what actually happened.” We had lively discussion about social novels, and the responsibilities inherent in the act of writing.
There’s no easy moral. The next weekend, I saw an article in a paper in California about multiple lawsuits that spun out after, sure enough, a kid died in a fraternity-related binge-drinking incident at California Polytechnic State University. Joe Dado was just another casualty of a mundane and widespread American problem. My students who are in frats—one is in TPD, the hunting and fishing frat—insist the frats are not to blame, and I believe that student that after twenty years of focused reform, frats are indeed a force imposing order on a culture gone wild with the weekend roil. Joe Dado’s death does not merely provide an object lesson in the need to crack down on frats. Its meaning is more complicated than calls or game days or rounds of Beer Pong or why to wear tie-dye to which particular game at Beaver. Perhaps its meaning lies somewhere in the insurmountable gap between the light side and the dark side in America, the happy and the tragic.
That week on campus, I think most of us learned something about the value of intense experience, aggrieved or elated. Life’s heightened moments are when we take notice—when we are disoriented or angry or feel betrayed or believe we are in the chrysalis, about to become someone new. As the young woman in my class said, that feeling—that intensity—you experience only when life is lived in its most charged moments. This was one of them. That’s where writing comes from, and maybe where deep, engaged living comes from, too.
Right now, it is Saturday night; today, the Lions played a home game for the last time this season. In a few weeks, the Bowl Season will be upon us, and all its attendant revelry. Tonight, the hoots of boys are rising from a row of frats on College Avenue. The sounds are echoing between the walls of our protected valley, a landscape bathed in a brilliant, full-moon glow. Maybe boys will always hoot, I think. Maybe there is something to embrace in their inchoate braying—at what we don’t understand, at what makes us want to rage aloud in our exuberance and in our bewilderment, in our grief and in our longing.
Elizabeth Kadetsky’s fiction can be found in current issues of Antioch Review and TriQuarterly, while her personal essays have appeared in recent months in the New York Times’ Happy Days blog. She is the author of First There Is a Mountain, a memoir set in India (Little Brown, 2004) and short stories in the Pushcart Prize—Best of the Small Presses and Best New American Voices. A one-time Fulbright to India, she is now visiting writer in Penn State’s MFA program in creative writing.