Did you read Chapter 5: I See the Light?
So, at this point, I’d made some alliances that did not guarantee, but made it far more likely I would emerge successfully from the academic process. My grades improved, but more importantly, my comprehension and confidence grew and I rose to the median which doesn’t seem like a lofty goal in retrospect, but was a major accomplishment at the time.
As is typical for college students, the instant before the start of my senior year is the first time I had the conscious thought that I needed to figure out what I was going to do with the rest of my life. I didn’t realize that I’d still be trying to figure it out thirty years later.
To set the scene, the job market for chemical engineers in the middle eighties wasn’t exactly booming. For those of us graduating with bachelor’s degrees, there were basically two choices; technical services or process engineering.
Technical services required a bubbly, gregarious personality, some sense of professional style, and a conservative demeanor appealing to the chemical industry clientele. I possess none of these qualities.
Process engineering did not require highly developed social skills, but instead, required the ability to endure long periods of unimaginable monotony overseeing an established industrial facility with the ability to spring into action when the inevitable, but unpredictable crisis occurred. During said crisis, seconds of lost production would be equivalent to hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost revenue with the expectation that there should be no justifiable reprieve until the situation returned to ‘normal’ (meh, tough for me to get excited about).
Nevertheless, I accepted my lot and set about signing up for interviews with the various chemical and petroleum company representatives that visited the campus. I must have been interviewed thirty or forty times, but always with the same outcome; thanks, but no thanks. As I think back on it now, I surely wasn’t as enthusiastic about the prospect of working for these companies as their representatives would have liked. I was as naïve about selling myself as I had been about how to be a successful university student.
Four of the songs I wrote during the 1985-1986 academic term were about the lackluster reception I received from the hiring community and the uncertainty of what I was going to do at the end of the term.
“Carousel” expresses my feelings of being awash in a world I didn’t really understand and being overwhelmed by the enormity of life and seemingly endless cycles around me. The lyric uses the concepts of infinity and the struggle to lock step with my environment without being able to identify any reference points.
It’s probably no coincidence that I was in the middle of my third semester of differential calculus at the time. (Warning: Math Ahead) There’s a story about the opening and ending ‘bouncing guitar’ bit: The timing and amplitude of the bounces is a natural expression of an exponential decay. It is exactly the same as the hang-time and height you’d see from a bouncing ball (lower and faster until it finally stops bouncing). To end of the song, I reversed the sound.
“Steel Wheel” is about being a misfit and a failure. For every job interview, I received a rejection letter. There were so many letters, I papered the living room wall of our house on Semple Street. It became a joke (a sick joke, but a joke nonetheless). I couldn’t even get a second interview from my father’s workplace even after I’d interned there three consecutive summers. To add insult to injury, this particular rejection letter was (I shit you not) signed by someone I’d never met.
As best I remember, I wrote “Souvenirs” late one night in the spring of 1986 while worrying about an upcoming exam. I was unable to sleep and unable to study any longer, but had something I needed to get off my chest. As I was writing, I had a fleeting thought that someone could read the lyric and conclude that I was dangerously unstable, but (as the closing line explains) the need to express myself outweighed any potential embarrassment or concerns about my current mental state.
“Something I Can’t Find” is the darkest of these songs. It’s an expression of the absolute despair I felt as I approached the end of my senior year without a plan and feeling as though I’d never be able to achieve anything worthwhile.
As for the other songs written that term, they are divided between the recurring theme of loneliness (“Anthem”), a co-written instrumental (“Youngstown Jam”) and an untitled classical piece for guitar.
“Anthem” is a tidy little ballad with a vaguely sarcastic lyric. The opening line declares the song is “an anthem for those who remain alone”.
I can only take a small portion of the credit for composing “Youngstown Jam”. In fact, it’s more Jack Chamberlin’s song than mine and he has a different name for it. I just took the liberty of submitting the recording to the copyright office back in the nineties and registering it under our names. It is (I think) an accurate reflection of the two of us with me playing the 12-string guitar and Jack playing the electric. Jack and I recently talked about re-recording this song and I think we should.
I wrote a classical piece for guitar in the winter, but couldn’t think of an appropriate title for the song, never put it on an album and never registered it with the copyright office so it’s just “Etude in E” for now. I’ve misplaced the original recording, but still play it from time to time and plan to re-record a better version than the one from the eighties anyway (Look for it to get posted soon.)
As the spring semester wound to a close and my chances of finding a job went from ‘slim’ to ‘none’, I realized my only chance of getting into R&D was to continue on and get a graduate degree. Carnegie Mellon does not allow its chemical engineering undergraduates to stay for graduate degrees (at least that’s what they told me) so I had to go somewhere else.
In something of a panic, I hastily applied to the chemical engineering departments of Michigan Tech and WVU. I’d like to say I’d carefully screened and chosen these universities, but that would be untrue.
I applied to MTU because my father had a friend and colleague in the Material Science department and he encouraged me to apply (I applied to Chemical Engineering so we kind of got our signals crossed). I did get accepted, but it was months later.
I applied to WVU because my advisor at CMU had a friend (former CMU graduate student) on the faculty so he thought that might help me get in. I did get accepted (in fact, I was accepted to both universities), but it was pretty late and the program didn’t have the best reputation. On the other hand, I had a place to go, was guaranteed a livable stipend, and could run home in about ninety minutes if necessary.
My friend Janice and her older sister June both graduated from Bethany College in West Virginia. It was Janice who taught me the term “Hoopies” as a euphemism for West Virginians. Once I knew I was going to become a Mountaineer myself, I wrote a goofy (and unflattering) song about what I expected to encounter in Morgantown called “Hoopieland“. I imagine I will one day regret publishing this song, but it is a fact that, despite being less than fifty miles from where I grew up, Morgantown is a very different place.
Next time: A hovel in Hoopieland, broken bones in Pocahontas County, and the start of something wonderful.
I actually forgot one song. It’s an originally untitled jazz piece for 12-string guitar that I still play as a warm-up. When I registered it with the copyright office, I had to give it a name so I called it “What’s…the Name of This Tune?” 🙂
Don’t miss Chapter 7: Mo’Town and My First Crush