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Russell Frank: Journey to the Middle of Nowhere

by on April 27, 2012 6:00 AM

The journey to Penn State University is challenging even when the weather is ideal. The drive from Philadelphia, two hundred miles to the east, or from Pittsburgh, a hundred fifty miles west, takes three hours and requires the crossing of mountain ridges and rivers to reach a campus situated in the middle of the state and seemingly in the middle of nowhere.

-- Prologue to “Game Over: Jerry Sandusky, Penn State, and the Culture of Silence,” by Bill Moushey and Robert Dvorchak

It was the longest three hours of my life. The first leg was easy enough: good, straight road with a service plaza where I could get an espresso shot to keep me alert for the hardships ahead. From Philadelphia to Harrisburg, my trusty sedan barely broke a sweat.

Then, the road veered north, bypassing the capital and sidling up to the river around Rockville. My heart sank. O the stories I had heard about travelers who had made this journey before me.

Some had misjudged the river’s depth and tried to ford at Duncannon. Well could I imagine the moment when their tires floated free of solid ground and they felt, fleetingly, like astronauts sprung from Earth’s gravitational pull – and then the awful realization that they were drifting on the river current to founder on the rocks north of the city, or else to wash into Chesapeake Bay and out into the Atlantic, mistaking, at the end, the roar of the sea for the sound of the crowd at Beaver Stadium when Coach Paterno led his troops out of the tunnel and into the glorious green world that they would never see again.

Then there were the ones who had stayed on the east bank through Halifax and Millersburg, up to Dalmatia and Herndon, hoping for low water at Sunbury, but continuing ever northward and eastward, through Faulknerian towns, Catawissa and Wapwallopen, and north again toward Shickshinny and Nanticoke, to Tunkhannock and Meshoppen, past the cruelly named Asylum, past Towanda and up across the border into New York State while their heroes tackled, the band tootled, the shadows lengthened and the cheers, finally, died away as the travelers rolled into Binghamton, knelt on the riverbank, and wept.

No, there were but two ways to ford the Susquehanna in time for kickoff. One was to construct pontoons of beer coolers filled with Natty Light. These I lacked, so I chose the way of the ferryman. His shack, painted blue and white, stood on a bluff above the river, an enormous satellite dish dwarfing its tarpaper roof. I knocked.

“It’s open.” The voice sounded like a cheese grater on a two-by-four. Inside this tiny structure was an enormous flat-screen TV, tuned to a pregame show. “Going to the game?” the ferryman asked without turning his head.

“Trying to,” I said.

“You know,” he said, rising from his recliner, “you can see it a lot better on TV.”

He was right, of course. But I had a date with a hot bratwurst in the parking lot that I was not going to miss.

I recognized the ferryman’s hideous face from somewhere. Then it hit me. This was the Big Ugly, in the flesh.

“Yep, I was the model for those football player masks you see at the games. Used the money to start this ferry operation, in fact.”

Big Ugly’s ferry was essentially a floating dock like the kind you see in the swimming area of a lake. He guided me into the middle of the raft, the way a mechanic does when positioning your car onto the lift for a drive-through oil change. I was uneasy. The river current was swift and Big Ugly intended to pole us across.

He was strong though, and as he punted he sang Penn State’s alma mater like a Venetian gondolier. When we were safely on the west bank I put a couple of ten-spots in his gnarly paw and as I drove away I could hear his grater-on-wood voice, oddly haunting in the light mist rising from the river. Ahead lay the dreaded mountain ridges.

At the Red Rabbit, where I stopped to fortify myself for the climb, I came upon three bare-chested lads, painted blue, sticking out their thumbs. They would add weight, but I thought they might be of use.

The one with the U on his chest spoke for the other two. “Patroclus,” he said, indicating the P on his comrade’s chest. “Stentor, who cheers louder than anyone in the stadium. And I’m Ulysses, though my real name is Odysseus. We’re Greeks.”

Natch. The mettle of these garrulous Greeks was soon tested. For when we came to the Seven Mountains they gamely pushed my tired car up and over the ridge. Soon, we were rolling onto the campus in the middle of nowhere, just in time for my date with that hot little brat.

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Russell Frank worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania for 13 years before joining the journalism faculty at Penn State in 1998. He roots for the Yankees, plays blues guitar and harmonica (badly), bikes and hikes for physical exercise and does The New York Times crossword puzzle for mental exercise. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away all the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. He is the author of "Newslore: Contemporary Folklore on the Internet." His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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