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Long Live Grover Cleveland
By Robert Klose
Medallion Press, Inc.Copyright © 2015 Robert Klose
All rights reserved.
One man's vision
Grover Cleveland College was dying. The faculty knew it, the staff knew it, and the students knew it. Only its president seemed oblivious to its impending evaporation.
Crisis was once again upon the school. This was an annual event. As Grover Cleveland College was almost exclusively tuition driven, faculty wouldn't know whether there'd be enough money for their paychecks until August, when registration numbers became better known. But this particular crisis had an unprecedented gloss to it: the end was indeed nearing.
And so coalesced, under emergency circumstances, a Convocation of Concerned Faculty—an attempt to divine a course of action from tea leaves: the perceived eccentricities and wrongheaded policies of the school's current president, Marcus Cleveland, the culprit who had, in the minds of many, brought the college to the brink of oblivion—and in record time.
While the faculty listened to Professor Brisco Quik, their self-appointed leader, rave about the sinking ship, President Marcus, a rotund man with a bushy mustache and wearing an old- fashioned suit, was trying to remove two bison from a glade in the campus forest. He pulled, pushed, and cajoled the mammals, fiddling while Rome burned, his tasseled loafers covered in mud.
In the meantime, amidst the hubbub and calamity, the doomsday clock—that grim sentinel hovering over the campus like the eye of a cyclops—ticked.
Grover Cleveland College had appeared, as if by Immaculate Conception, in the wilds of Maine just as Vietnam had begun to get on people's nerves. It had been the brainchild of Cyrus Cleveland, uncle of Marcus and first cousin once removed of the late president's nephew. Cyrus was a ferocious pacifist and wanted to create a haven for young men seeking coveted college deferments from the draft.
Cyrus was as surprised as anybody when a thousand men and a handful of women enrolled in Grover Cleveland College that first semester. The school, at that point, consisted of a large, Victorian-style house with sagging rooflines, a smaller frame structure, a few cabins, a pigsty, and an old barn with attached silo. Army-surplus Quonset huts had erupted over the years as additional classroom space. Students lived in the cabins, the basement of the Victorian, tents, and the pigsty, which also housed the student union. Some students boarded in private homes in the surrounding villages.
To meet demand, classes were held from sunup until late into the night. A small army of faculty members—many of them also seeking refuge from the draft—had been hired on the fly.
In short, Cyrus, with all the aplomb of a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat, had slapped together a college. The war that he so hated turned out to be the engine of Grover Cleveland College's success, and Cyrus found himself secretly rooting for the collapse of the Paris peace talks. He was eternally grateful for the tenacity of Ho Chi Minh and the determination of Lyndon Johnson—that randy bastard—to win an unwinnable war. Providentially, Johnson's mantle was later assumed by the sainted Richard Nixon, whose election and illusion of some variation on the theme of victory guaranteed a fight into the long, dark political night and a bright future for the college.
Those were the halcyon days. There was a certain romance about a college operating on a shoestring, with students sitting on lobster crates and hay bales as they listened, stoned to the gills, to similarly stoned faculty employing the poetry of Rod McKuen as a weapon of insurrection against the imperialist, hegemonic government of the United States, the instrument of Satan for those who believed God had a nemesis. Surrounded as they were by wilderness, black bears, moose, and communes dedicated to the production of dream catchers and dried fruits, it was easy for students and faculty to believe Grover Cleveland College was an island of truth, Eden, Atman, Brahman, Asgard, the cat's meow. And slowly but surely the world without, in a very real way, adjourned from heart and mind as Grover Clevelanders tucked ever more deeply into their books, theories, and cannabis and accustomed themselves to the austerities of paying handsome tuition to a school that heated its buildings with wood, drew its water from a well, and offered only one degree: the Bachelor of Human Experience.
Cyrus Cleveland, as gangly and disarticulated as Ichabod Crane, presided over this glorious conglomeration of decrepit buildings, wild-eyed faculty, outlandish courses (Christ as Communist, The Lighter Side of Mao), draft dodgers, and potheads. It didn't matter that Grover Cleveland College was not and had no illusions about being accredited. The students came. In droves. In beat-up Volkswagen Beetles, paislied minibuses and death-defying Corvairs. Some arrived on foot, others on bicycles. Some fell upon the college by accident while hiking in the woods and decided to stay.
And then, at the very height of this onrush, Cyrus had his greatest coup, a sort of ersatz for accreditation but much better, much more symbolic. Cyrus Cleveland, exploiting political connections that went back to the Depression-era days of his father, a notorious rum runner, got hold of the brain of Grover Cleveland, salvaged for posterity from the autopsy of the largely forgotten president. Once he had secured it, he slunk back to Grover Cleveland College like a thief in the night, in a pounding rainstorm, with thunder drumming the hills and lightning splitting the heavy summer air. A group of students seeking extra credit constructed a shrine for the relic, a lump of fat and connective tissue about the size of a cantaloupe. The ex-president's neurons lay in state in a glass jar, on a catafalque, in the pigsty. An eternal flame was ignited, and a student was assigned to solemn—if somnambulant—watch.
The late president's brain was a sort of punctuation mark on the college's growth and progress. It arrived just at the institution's high point, with classrooms bursting at the seams; a steady flow of tuition dollars, which made for a contented faculty; and alumni remitting cash to the alma mater that had kept them out of harm's way. The Brain also became a minor point of cultural interest, like the Corn Palace or the World's Largest Ball of Twine, attracting the curious, Cleveland biographers, the president's descendants, and native Hawaiian recidivists wishing to honor President Grover Cleveland for courageously opposing the annexation of their once-independent homeland.
But happiness is a vacuum inviting catastrophe. Just as things were going swimmingly for Grover Cleveland College, the draft ended. As if a button had been pushed, student enrollment collapsed. Not only did applications slow to a trickle, but many enrolled students packed their Beetles and left, sometimes without so much as formally dropping their courses. But this was only the beginning of hard times. Not long after the inactivation of the draft, the unthinkable happened: the war ended.
Cyrus was in his office at the top of the grain silo when he heard the grim news. Furiously winding his hand-cranked television, he watched as Richard Nixon, looking as if he'd just swallowed a particularly tasty canary, announced, "We have peace with honor."
"Peace?" screeched Cyrus. "Honor?" He threw himself into his swivel chair, his head dipping into his hands. "Half a million troops!" he hollered at the talking head in the boob tube. "We could have gone on forever."
And then he wandered to the window and surveyed his school, his creation, the fruit of his aspirational loins. Everything seemed so still. So quiet. A few barefoot students in ragged jeans shuffled across campus. One—the current sentinel of the Brain Shrine—was zonked on the threshold of the pigsty. Worse, the eternal flame had gone out because nobody had paid the gas bill. But the sight that made his heart sink was the small, dark line headed away from campus and down the road to town like marching ants. But they weren't ants. They were students. And they weren't coming back. The great rout was under way.
What could he do? Upgrade the facilities? Get another brain? Start another war? Hopeless, hopeless. Falling into one of the sloughs of despondency to which he was prone, Cyrus dragged his lanky frame down the winding stairs of the silo and over to the Brain Shrine. Except for the snoring student on watch, he was alone.
"What should I do?" he voiced, as if trying to communicate with the inert organ. "Tell me what to do."
But the noble presidential synapses had long since ceased to fire, and The Brain remained plump, pickled, and unresponsive.
Through sheer force of will, Cyrus girded himself and managed to keep the school on life support for ten more long years, during which student numbers, although trending steadily downward, achieved the occasional modest bump. Cyrus knew exactly how to get blood out of a stone. He took to shaking down alumni who'd met with success but conveniently forgotten the haven that helped them keep their heads down long enough to make that success possible. In a sort of protracted mania, Cyrus invaded boardrooms and family rooms of Grover Cleveland College graduates, ranting until they coughed up cash. Beyond this, he exhausted his own small fortune until the school seemed to be running on little more than the memory of adequate funding. Inevitably, though, having run the decade out, Cyrus collapsed from exhaustion, the pilot light of hope barely flickering in his rheumy eyes.
It is a truism that state of mind influences state of body. As if having no choice, Cyrus crawled into his bed, intending to never rise again. Such was the fickle nature of his leadership. But he was not without sympathizers. Worn-out hippies from Khamigar, the local fruit-drying commune, tended him with dried figs and apricots—not with any hope of inducing a miraculous recovery but merely out of compassion and, yes, gratitude for keeping them alive during the conflict in Indochina when they had been Grover Cleveland students.
The scene was quite beautiful. There lay Cyrus, drawn and ashen, propped on multiple pillows, his long gray ponytail draped about his neck and flowing down the front of his dingy nightshirt. Despite his sunken cheeks and sallow countenance, an inner light still shone, as if he were able at this final juncture to savor all the good he had done.
And yet his head could not rest easy—literally, for under his pillows lay a toxic document that Cyrus had struggled to pretend didn't exist. It was, in fact, so radioactive with import that he'd not made its existence known to anyone. In tandem with the great student rout, it had been delivered by a special courier who then beat a manic retreat to his idling vehicle before roaring off whence he had come, as if he couldn't bear any proximity to the document's contents.
While the thing throbbed beneath his head, giving him not a moment's peace, the Khamigar hippies continued to minister to him, angel-like, while the faculty, staff, and a coterie of students formed a slow procession up the silo's spiral staircase. They, too, had reason for gratitude. Cyrus's vision had enabled them to carve out decent lives, to pursue their academic interests, to raise children with names like Butterfly and Hotep, who frolicked barefoot in the woods surrounding the campus and bathed naked in a nearby stream. Not a bad legacy for a man who was so thoroughly shunned by his colleagues at the accredited institutions.
What frustrated and disappointed the employees, however, was that Cyrus didn't seem to have anything to say to any of them. It was as though he'd lost the ability to speak.
But that wasn't it. The question was, what more could he say? Grover Cleveland College, by virtue of its existence, said it all.
It was at that very moment, when the throng hovered uneasily about the all-but-dead man, that a complete stranger appeared on the scene. He was portly, with a decent head of brown, pomaded hair brushed straight back, a prominent nose, and a bushy, overgrown mustache. This middle-aged man wore a baggy, pinstriped suit with stiff lapels, which he straightened as he huffed and puffed his way up the silo. He apologized as he pushed past faculty, staff, students, and alumni waiting to pay their respects. Sensing his right of way, everyone dutifully parted for him.
He finally arrived in the death room, where silence reigned. The visitor walked to the side of the bed, said, "Uncle," and laid a fleshy hand against the cheek of his fading relative. "Dear man," he said with a compassionate smile, "I'm here."
Cyrus opened his eyes and frowned. "It's about time. Lean in."
The visitor inclined an ear to the paper-thin lips that fluttered with every breath. The onlookers strained to hear the communication. All they were able to make out were the listener's periodic grunts of comprehension. But now and then an audible syllable bubbled up from Cyrus, and it wasn't long before everyone divined that the visitor was to be the new president of Grover Cleveland College. This took everyone by surprise. They'd assumed that Cyrus, in dying, was taking the school with him.
Finally, the large man stepped back and watched a white-robed woman from Khamigar administer one last, tentative bite of dried apricot to Cyrus, whereupon the old man closed his eyes and transitioned to spirit.
Many faculty and staff felt oddly cheated that Cyrus hadn't said good-bye. But his end was not bereft of drama. No sooner had Cyrus passed than their attention was drawn to the new president.
He pulled up a sleeve and slipped an arm under his uncle's pillows, where he fished around for a few moments before exhaling, "Ah!" He retrieved a thick gray envelope and, without a word, quickly deposited it in an inside pocket of his jacket. Then he turned and addressed the room for the first time. "Does anyone know where my office is?"
There was, then, reason for hope, and everyone began to unpack their bags. It seemed that a resurrection was afoot.
Excerpted from Long Live Grover Cleveland by Robert Klose. Copyright © 2015 Robert Klose. Excerpted by permission of Medallion Press, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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