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Adam Smeltz: At Penn State, Walking for Answers in Darkness

on November 22, 2011 10:26 AM

If only for an evening, the live-TV satellite trucks had left East College Avenue late Sunday.

Their low, mechanical rumble vanished. Their lights, dimmed, left darkness behind. Their satellite dishes, once aimed skyward, folded and rolled away to leave State College with its thoughts.

It was, at last, a night begging for a long walk.

My family -- this is what we do. When answers and clarity are elusive, when the world is incomprehensible, we walk.

Through campuses and forests, quiet neighborhoods and city street-scapes, we walk. In summer and winter, solo and in groups, with dogs and without, we walk.

For wisdom and insight -- we hope -- we walk.

So I walked Sunday night: through downtown State College, onto campus and around Old Main. Splotches of candle wax -- some red, most a shade of yellow or white -- still adhered to the sidewalks, the steps, the patio outside the stone administration building, thanks to the Nov. 11 candlelight vigil.

Didn't look like anyone had tried to scrub away those waxy splotches just yet, and thank God for that. We need every vestige of human good we can muster.

Outside the Nittany Lion Inn, few people stirred. Inside sits the basement where the university trustees meet often. Fewer than three months ago, then-President Graham Spanier told the board that athletics -- more than any other single thing -- have the potential to embarrass a university.

Those words ring differently now. So do Spanier's public remarks recorded a few months earlier, when he spoke about sports integrity during a conference at the inn.

He said then: If athletics are "done well -- and I don't mean that if you're always winning everything, but if you have some reasonable degree of success competitively, (and) you operate the program with a lot of integrity, there are few things that are better for a university as a platform for doing good things and getting your messages out and having people feel pride in your institutions."

Still chewing on that memory, I turned east. Walked past the recently vandalized Gary Schultz Child Care Center, on North Allen. Jogged north to Park Avenue, then east again -- past McKee Street, past Schreyer House, past Beaver Stadium and up to the Joe Paterno statue.

Yes, it was still there: dripping with rainwater and bathed by the usual spotlights, silent and alone as midnight neared.

From there, the quickening rain sped up my pace. Trotting past the football complex -- the site of an alleged child rape -- I didn't linger as I descended to the downtown, back to where the satellite trucks, predictably, have since returned.

National reporters -- some of them "reporters" -- keep asking local reporters what it's like here right now, how it feels, the mood, the tone. What are people thinking? Saying?

The truth is, we are enveloped. Physically, we remain surrounded by an empire we thought we knew, the countless tangible symbols, landmarks and intangible memories forever changed in meaning.

The truth is, more than two weeks after the horrific and credible allegations were laid bare, words continue to fail us. We live in a constant state of mourning. We mourn perpetually the immeasurable innocence lost, the lives irreparably broken, the trust once held.

The truth is, we blame ourselves. The truth is, we don't understand. The truth is, no matter what we say, no matter what we write, no matter what we express, no matter how we respond and react, it all feels woefully -- unspeakably -- inadequate.

The truth is, we clamor for ways to make it better, to figure out how we might try to right the incalculable, unimaginable wrongs. We give money; we gather; we plan.

But we're often quiet, still lost and bewildered. We find ourselves splintered and polarized, forming closer personal bonds with those who share our deepest thoughts -- and distancing ourselves from those who don't.

Try though we do, we don't have all the answers. And the truth is, some may elude us forever.

That won't stop us from searching -- or walking -- for them.

Note: Adam Smeltz is a third-generation Penn Stater who graduated from the university in 2005. He has been covering the ongoing criminal allegations and investigations surrounding Penn State.

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