Jewish World Review Oct. 28, 2002 / 22 Mar-Cheshvan 5763

Paul Greenberg

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Crossing the line

http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | STATE COLLEGE, Pa. After changing planes in St. Louis and Pittsburgh, each flight a little more wobbly and a little more cramped than the last, terra firma feels good, and the unconditioned air natural. It's a nice change after being cooped up in a small container and shot through the skies for a day.

Outside the empty little airport, the rolling green hills of central Pennsylvania rise up on the horizon under a warm, overcast day, the kind that brings out the greens and blues. It looks like what they call it: Happy Valley.

But it doesn't feel happy. There is a stillness in the air. The guy who said he'd meet my flight, somebody from the university, isn't anywhere in sight. I wait.

The brooding hills creep closer every time I turn my back. I wait.

How long before I ought to phone? This is State College, Pennsylvania, isn't it? Home of Penn State, Joe Paterno and the Nittany Lions? Yes, I'm sure. That's what it still says on my airline ticket.

I settle on an empty bench, briefcase and overnighter jumbled on the ground. After the roar of the plane all day, the air is still. The parking lot is full of motionless cars; other passengers are scarce.

I'm starting to feel like Cary Grant at that dusty intersection where he's dropped off in "North by Northwest." I catch myself peering up for the little innocent-looking crop duster that's going to materialize in the distance at any moment, and then slowly circle as it comes closer and closer before it starts strafing. Air travel overexcites the imagination.

The scene could be a painting, one with an Edward Hopper edge. But it isn't. The feeling isn't really ominous. It's something else, as if the crisis had been resolved long ago. I ought to be glad to be here at the invitation of an old friend. Instead, looking at the serene blues and greens, I am unaccountably depressed.

There is something else in the air besides stillness: danger, defeat, destruction. But it's all long ago, like an echo that has faded, a scream that has died away, the forgotten thunder of a horse bolting, of caissons rolling. Do they even make caissons anymore? Now all seems peaceful, pointless. A few clouds drift slowly across the sky, like suspended bursts of artillery.

Then it hits me. I've crossed the line. Mason-Dixon is behind me now. Gettysburg must be only a couple of hours from here, maybe down that highway right out front. Yes, that's it. Gettysburg looks much the same: the rolling green hills, the verdant fields, the stillness, the heaviness of History, the almost palpable feeling of what might have been. Puzzle solved.

That's when the van pulls up to take me to the Nittany Lion Inn. At the wheel is Young America, a graduating senior in business management. I tell him it's a prudent choice, unlike journalism. He tells me that, yes, Gettysburg is a hundred or so miles away. He says the name as he would Scranton or Wilkes-Barre, just another town.

He's young and from around here. And free of the past. The vanquished always remember longer than the victors. He'd been at the airport a few minutes ago, he explains, but he'd missed seeing me. As if I'd vanished. No problem, I tell him. The faculty reception isn't due to start for another couple of hours.

I'm here to talk about writing opinion, and the first thing I mention is the disappearing boundary between news and opinion. A sad reversal has taken place. The news is increasingly contaminated by opinion, while editorials are reduced to an unobjectionable recitation of the news. These days I can't read The New York Times' strong opinions without shaking my head sadly. Then I turn to its editorials.

In the lecture hall, the students are great. They follow with their eyes -- assenting, dissenting, laughing, groaning, nodding in agreement, shaking their heads dubiously, responding .

One asks me why I stay in Arkansas. I start to explain about the South -- the language, the sense of place and of the past, the terrible, saving symbiosis of race, and how I've never flourished above a certain degree of latitude, how being an American may be a nationality but being a Southerner is an ethnicity, and the eerie feeling I'd got outside the airport when I saw those rolling green hills but I could see I'd lost them. A stranger in a strange land, I'd lost myself in some faulknerian jungle.

The students sit there uncomprehending -- uninterested, really. They're looking for something from me they can use, something practical. They come from the other side of the line.

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