Spaceships Spotted in Montpelier? Reflections on Close Encounters at VCFA.
By Richard Farrell
In Steven Spielberg’s 1977 blockbuster Close Encounters of the Third Kind, an alien spaceship scorches half of Roy Neary’s face as it flies over his truck. (Richard Dreyfus plays Neary.) Like anyone shaken by such a sublime and weird experience, Roy becomes obsessed with finding the source of those lights. (Call to Adventure.)
The Winooski River wraps around downtown Montpelier like an untied blue ribbon and drains mountain ranges to the northeast of town. The river then meanders northwest toward Burlington, before it empties into Lake Champlain. The word Winooski comes from the Abenaki language. It means “wild onion.”
I walked in the door of Dewey Hall on that first day of grad school, collected a plastic bag filled with paper-thin sheets, and felt certain that I was more talented, more dedicated, more well-read and more likely to succeed in this program than anyone else. I thought I had travelled further, worked harder, and understood the world better than most. I believed my talent would be quickly rewarded.
Roy is the quintessential everyman: he has a wife, three kids, a dog, a modest brick house in Indiana, and a steady job. Until baked by the alien lights, there is nothing unique or particularly interesting about his life.
Dewey Hall, the dormitory on campus, appears to be named for Admiral George Dewey. Admiral Dewey commanded the U.S. Navy ships at the Battle of Manila Bay during the Spanish-American War, and issued the famous order, “You may fire when ready, Gridley.” (Well, it’s famous to Annapolis alums who spent 4 years learning naval lore.) George Dewey was born in Montpelier in 1837 and once attended Norwich University before heading off to the Naval Academy. VCFA merged with Norwich from 1972 until 1993.
On that first night of my first residency, I ate dinner across a table from Douglas Glover in Dewey Hall cafeteria. He tried to explain image patterning to me. I didn’t get it. Fortunately, I had read Elle before coming to Vermont, so I managed to stumble through my half of the conversation by talking about his book. I feigned intelligence and somehow choked down a few bites of whatever root-vegetable medley was on my plate.
After seeing the lights, Roy becomes obsessed by a strange shape. The form mysteriously keeps appearing: in his pillow, his shaving cream, in the mud castle of a little boy, and in mashed potatoes. He can’t identify the source of the shape, but it begins to occupy more and more of his waking thoughts. He believes the shape holds the key to his understanding, but he vacillates, trying to decide if he should pursue this obsession or return to his normal life. (Refusal of the call.)
Completed in 1872, College Hall rises atop Seminary Hill. The venerable building originally served as a theological seminary and was constructed on the remains of a Civil War hospital for chronically ill vets. College Green once served as a racetrack and fairgrounds. I found no mention of ice rinks or July 4th softball games. The pipe organ was installed in 1884.
DG writes this: “Of course, what drives from a writer’s hand always remains secret, sometimes even from himself. We surge toward the shapes we love without knowing why we love them.” (from his essay “Reading a Mark Jarman Story” in The New Quarterly) From dinner, I walked across the snowy sidewalks to College Hall.
Roy loses his job, trashes his house, becomes obsessed by these lights and shapes, loses his family, and builds a fifteen foot mud sculpture in his living room which approximates the shape he’s seeking. Only after he gives up his quest, on the verge of madness, does he discover the source of the shape. (The Crossing of the First Threshold)
Admiral Dewey’s father, Julius Yemans Dewey, was a doctor in Montpelier. He founded Christ Episcopal Church of Montpelier as well as the National Life Insurance Company. He served on the board of regents at Norwich University. It’s entirely possible that Dewey Hall is named after the father instead of the son. It’s entirely possible (perhaps even likely) that Dr. Julius Yemans Dewey rounded on patients at the Civil War veterans’ hospital, the current site of College Hall.
That first residency humbled me more than any singular experience in my life, and I survived Plebe Year at Annapolis. I learned to stop making assumptions, about anything. I learned that others desire this just as much as I do. I walked in the door with my chest puffed out, and went home full of wonder at how much I did not know. Where else can you study for two years, spend $35,000 and walk out the door feeling good about knowing how much you don’t know?
When Roy discovers the object he’s obsessed with—Devil’s Tower, a 1200 foot monolith in Wyoming’s Black Hills—he abandons his normal life completely. He drives west, to seek out the source of his obsession. He has no idea what he will find when he arrives. (The Road of Trials)
During the Spanish-American War, Teddy Roosevelt was the de-facto Secretary of the Navy while Dewey launched the attack in Manila Bay. In 1900, George Dewey entered the race for president before withdrawing in May. Dewey, a democrat, then threw his support to McKinley, a republican. McKinley won. When an anarchist assassinated McKinley in 1901, Teddy Roosevelt became president. Roosevelt declared Devil’s Tower a National Monument in 1906.
What little I know of a writing life feels very much like falling in love. And who doesn’t want to fall in love? The best part of falling in love, and often the worst part too, derails you from any semblance of normalcy. Egos collapse. The beloved takes over your brain. Even when you are not physically with the other person, your mind keeps locking on to them. Everything in life takes on a patina of love.
Roy arrives in Wyoming, where the government reports that a deadly nerve agent has been spilled. Dead cows and sheep line the roads. Roy crashes his car through concertina wire. He drives into the quarantine zone around Devi’s Tower and is arrested. At the last moment, just as he is about to be removed from the site, Roy abandons his fear, removes his gas-mask and runs into the foothills of Devils Tower. (The Belly of the Whale)
Devils Tower and Montpelier both sit just north of the 44th parallel, almost exactly 2000 miles apart. (I google-mapped it: 1,987 miles, point to point.)
When I was ten years old, I became obsessed with flying. The relationship lasted thirteen years and eclipsed everything else in my life. In 1993, after being told I would never fly again because I had epilepsy, I went on a three-week hiking trip to Canada with an older, wiser friend. Tom and I passed within 80 miles of Devil’s Tower on our return trip, but we didn’t take the detour.
Love and heartbreak go hand in hand. To fall in love, to allow passion to consume you, you risk the sheer hell of loss.
At the end of the movie, Roy enters the space craft and is carried off. (The Ultimate Boon)
One source says there are 20 people left in the world who speak Abenaki. They live in Quebec. The exact number, according to other sources, remains in doubt, but it is undeniably low. The language verges on extinction.
I remember this: Itslk describing the difficulties of seal hunting. Seals love to bask on the ice next to their breathing holes. Killing them is tricky because their bodies often fall through the holes and disappear. The hunter must sneak as close as possible to the seal so that he can race forward and catch it before it is lost. But this is also difficult because seals sleep in catnaps, nodding off for a few seconds, then staring awake and peering around for signs of danger. A good hunter copies the seals habits, keeping his head down, then popping up and scurrying forward. When hunting a seal, Itslk said, it is necessary to imitate the seal precisely, to become a seal. (-from Elle, by Douglas Glover)
I too want to find the source of the lights and shapes which haunt me. I, too, want to hunt seals.
I looked around but the stranger and the shoemaker’s son had disappeared. We shouted for them. But no one answered. The wind scoured away their tracks. I heard the words: Time eats her children. (-Elle)
We trample ghosts as we cross the snowy quad from Dewey to College Hall. Abenaki echoes float down the river of wild onions then disappear. Who can explain any of this?
—By Richard Farrell
(Author’s note: Quotations from Elle, by Douglas Glover, published by Goose Lane, Fredericton, NB, CAN, 2007. Parenthetical notes on Close Encounters sections are from Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero’s Journey,” widely available.)