Niles Riddick: The Graduate Cabin: Memoir: May 2019
Southern Legitimacy Statement: Of course, it’s Southern and because I’ve been writing in the South and about the South for several decades, I think I’m a Southerner. Last year, I begged my wife to stop along I-75 in Southern Georgia, so I could pick up a prosthetic leg someone had thrown out. I know Flannery would be proud.
The Graduate Cabin
After I earned a Philosophy degree, I didn’t know what to do, and as a first generation college graduate, I often heard echoes from family who hadn’t gone to college: “What the hell is Philosophy?” or “What the hell can you do with that?” or “Sounds like a waste of time and money to me!” I hadn’t really thought about employment. Besides, I had a job working as a desk clerk in a hotel. When I thought about things I might enjoy, I had several ideas and applied for a variety of jobs: driving the Marta monorail in Atlanta, teaching in a private school out West for Native Americans, working for the federal government in an embassy overseas, to name a few. I spent a lot of time before the internet in the library searching for places to send my resume, spent a lot of time typing letters, and spent a lot of money at the post office sending my resume first class in nice cardboard envelopes to keep the resume from tearing or getting wrinkled. No one ever called. One of my professors suggested that if I couldn’t find a job, maybe I should go to Graduate school.
I had recently become interested in parapsychology after having some strange experiences during the night when I worked at a local Air Force base. I’d seen a UFO one night on my way to the base. It was round and lights were flashing. My camera wasn’t in my car, but I did pull over, stood outside, and hoped it might abduct me. Unfortunately, it took off quickly and with no sound, and I drove on to work. There hadn’t been any sort of lapse in time, so I couldn’t claim abduction. Military folks I knew said it wasn’t ours, but they told me confidentially we had some. I would assume they used them to spy or for some undercover operations.
I was fascinated with stories of ghosts ever since I’d seen one in our old house when I was a teenager, and I was interested in dreams and their potential meaning. I also believed I was intuitive and gifted, though I flunked the gifted exams in elementary school. I had a tough time having imaginary friends, too, telling my playmates it seemed like a dumb concept. My mother reinforced my interest in the paranormal: “Yes, I always thought you were different even as a baby in your crib when drawers from your chest-of-drawers were pulled out in your bedroom when I’d come in.” I was the oldest and only child for my first two years, so it couldn’t have been done by a sibling, but they could have easily been left open by my young stressed mother. I also believed in Bigfoot from personal experience. I had been home alone in our farm house one evening, and the wood-knock on the house brought me outside with a flashlight. I then saw something by the barn with red eyes that was about nine feet tall and covered in hair, and I jumped in my car and drove over to some friends’ house to spend the night. There had been screams and other sightings in our rural area along the tea-colored water of the Little River; the stories even made the newspaper and TV.
I finally made up my mind to go to a very unique Psychology Graduate program that offered courses in parapsychology in the mountains of Northern Georgia, and I rented a room in the Graduate cabin. I looked for the sign to the red clay-rock road named Jay Bird lane, which led to the Graduate cabin. I hadn’t met my four roommates, but they had all been accepted or were already enrolled in Graduate school and had rented rooms from Dr. Robert Thomas, a retired professor who’d built onto the original log structure with rock floors and rented rooms to supplement state retirement pay. He and his wife, who we never saw, lived a short distance from the Graduate cabin on Jay Bird. Dr. Thomas reassured there were no bears or snakes on this side of the mountain. He wore Jesus sandals, his toes curled, and his toenails were thick. His knees angled in when he walked, and while he talked, he smoothed wisps of hair.
I didn’t feel comfortable looking into the rooms of my cabin mates, but I looked around the kitchen, the back porch, and the great room. My room had a great view of the deep gulch below. The furnishings were sparse and looked like rejects from Goodwill. The styrofoam in the sofa cushions poked through rips like fat rolls squeezing out of tight clothes, and the whole house smelled musty and damp. I learned my first night darkness came early in the woods and seemed colder, particularly when there was rain and fog.
I made some chicory coffee, sipped it, and smoked cigarettes on the porch until dusk. I came in and closed the door that didn’t lock, a perfect target for a mountain man ax murderer. I felt better that my bedroom door locked, and I even put a straight chair under the knob for added security. I had a radio to tune out any screams from a Bigfoot roaming the woods. My NPR classic station combined with a ceiling fan on high kept me sleeping through the night and I woke early to a seemingly empty house. I took a quick shower and made coffee downstairs. I noted a car in the yard from the kitchen window. I had no idea which roommate it was until about lunch when a woman with frizzed red hair wearing a long nightgown and terry cloth robe with Barbie bedroom slippers shuffled into the kitchen. She came from the only downstairs bedroom on the back of the house.
“Call me Roz. This is my second year. I work as a counselor in the afternoon and evening at the youth hospital here. I do art therapy.”
“Cool,” I said. “Where’re you from? Obviously not the South.”
“Right. I’m from Massachusetts. I’m a witch.”
“Oh, I don’t think so. You seem extremely nice.”
“No, I’m Wiccan.”
“I practice Wicca. Witchcraft. Want a Tarot card reading?”
“Sure. What’s a Tarot card reading?” I was still trying to recover from the witch comments and visualized a young Endora character from Bewitched. I also wondered what the rest of these Graduate students were going to be like and if I’d made a mistake renting a room at the Graduate cabin.
“Where are you from, Kyle?”
“Small, farming town in middle Tennessee.”
“Ah, a Southern boy. I do declare,” she said in a fake Southern accent, flipping her hair. “I’ll get the cards. You’ll love it.” As she moved toward her bedroom, she yelled back over her shoulder, “Oh, and I’m a lesbian now, so don’t get any ideas.”
“Okay,” I said. I had never known a lesbian either. I hadn’t even started the program and I had already experienced at least three new things.
When Roz returned, she shuffled the cards and placed three face down. When she turned them face up, they were the Queen of Cups, Queen of Wands, and Five of Coins.
“Oh, this is special, Kyle. The Queen of Cups has never turned up in a reading I’ve done. This is a powerful, caring, and nurturing sign. The Queen of Wands is also a powerful sign—fertile, feminine, and representing positive energy. The Five of Coins is a less positive card, but it can mean financial strain, insecurity, and trepidation. In your new situation, you probably feel these things, but your overall spirit of power is going to carry you through. This is an excellent sign for you, Kyle”
“Great. I think I’ll be fine, too. I appreciate your doing a reading, Roz.” I didn’t want to tell her, but it didn’t seem much different than the horoscope in the newspaper–general and not specific at all. It seemed to me that people often needed to hear meaning when, in fact, they could find the meaning themselves without a Tarot reading or horoscope. I didn’t think it was necessarily evil or that Roz was going to hell as I had heard preached while growing up in the rural Pentecostal church, but I also understood the caution of relying on others and gimmicks to find happiness or solve problems.
When the door opened and the fellow walked through in fatigues, with a rifle across one shoulder and an Army green duffle bag across his other shoulder, I thought about paying Dr. Thomas a visit to demand a lock, but Roz said, “Hey, Doug”.
Doug responded, “Roz, how you been?”
“You been hunting?”
“No, just carry it for protection.”
Roz went on to introduce us, and I noted Doug sounded a bit like Jack Nicholson and had a little crazy in his eyes, too. I learned Doug had been in the Army, had been stationed in the South Korean demilitarized zone (DMZ) for several years, and was taking advantage of the free educational benefits from the federal government. I offered to give him a hand and took his duffle up to his room, where he had an arsenal of knives, other guns, cans of food, and books all stacked neatly. Part of me was glad to have him in the Graduate cabin without a lock and especially next to my room. Prior to going into the Army and coming to the university, Doug had been a plumber in New York. I shook his hand and turned to go out, and he farted. I turned back and he said, “Sorry, the cabbage in kimchi gives me gas, but the shit is good. You eat it?”
“Never had it”
“I’ll cook us some soon.”
“Okay,” I said. “Good to meet you, Doug.” I headed back down to get my coffee and sit outside. Roz had apparently gone back to her room to cast spells or something. Later, another vehicle pulled into the yard. The couple who exited seemed like they had just come from a medieval movie set. Tristan was dressed in armor, a sword at his side, and a helmet under an arm while Elizabeth wore a long dress, tight in the abdomen and adorned with beads, with flowing see-through material from the shoulders. Both spoke in accents that reminded me of faraway lands in the British Isles. In reality, they both hailed from the Pocono region of Pennsylvania. The Graduate cabin seemed complete and contrary to society, the minority in society had become the majority at the cabin, and I felt like a minority for the first time in my life—a loner and odd man out. I already wondered if I would make it through a graduate program that I felt had far more flavor than my vanilla life.
As the seasons passed, classes and reading seemed to absorb most of my time. There were student activities such as mock therapy sessions, past life regression hypnosis sessions, barbecues by the river, and cookouts at an eccentric faculty member’s house on July 4th when to celebrate freedom, he’d shoot fireworks at the university president’s house across the street, but the one I enjoyed most was a concert with the Indigo Girls. At the concert in the gym, I sat on a bench by an exit and a middle aged lady who looked familiar walked in, said hello, and asked if I was enjoying the concert. I assured her I was and figured she might be a faculty member. We made small talk for a few minutes. Turned out, it was Joan Baez and she did a guest appearance with the Indigo Girls. It was a moment I never forgot and I listened to their cassettes until they broke several years later.
I was fascinated with my faculty members: former students of Carl Jung, Abraham Maslow, and other trail blazers; best-selling authors who were often on popular television shows such as Unsolved Mysteries; faculty who had investigated hauntings and odd occurrences such as the Amityville case, the ship Queen Mary, and possession cases; Buddhist, Consciousness, and Phenomenology experts; and even editors of international journals, where I served as an editorial assistant. The department was a smorgasbord of exotic courses I enjoyed sampling. It also attracted the fringes of society: students in search of leprechauns and fairies; students who believed they’d led previous lives of fame and acted out those roles in their current lives; and even students who believed they had psychic powers. In sum, many of them weren’t much different than my childhood friends and their imaginary playmates; they had simply grown up and taken their imaginations to new levels.
Whether it was giggling downstairs from Roz’ room, the clicking of guns from Doug’s room (I had watched him from my window shoot a stray dog for sport and take him by the back legs and sling him into the gulch below), the scraping of swords in Tristan and Elizabeth’s room, or my deviating even more from my Southern conservative upbringing, I often had trouble sleeping. Like Huck Finn, I enjoyed my freedom while in my own river of thought, but each time I had to deal with others in the Graduate Cabin, life seemed more stressful.
When a famous French psychic came to guest lecture, we formed a circle and she walked around “reading” each of us Graduate students. I wondered what I had gotten myself into. A tarot card reading for fun was one thing, but integrating psychic readings into a Graduate curriculum seemed a bit much. It wasn’t that I didn’t believe such was possible; it was that if there were some sort of magic, power, or secrets out there, then someone should have “fixed” the world with that knowledge. I wondered why people continued to display evil to each other, why people continued to suffer from disease and die, and why humanity didn’t use new technology to advance more rather than control or profit.
With my 4.0 grade point average, I landed an assistantship and moved out of the Graduate cabin and into a garage apartment behind the dumpster at the A&P just down from the college’s entrance. I realized that most of the Graduate students I had known were there for themselves. They were trying to find answers to life’s puzzles they would not find, trying to heal from evil done to them, or trying to understand their own difference. Some wanted to help others. In order to help, though, there had to be a desire to be helped, and if that was absent, then help often couldn’t be obtained. What I needed was to live alone, so I could focus on learning as much as I could with the least amount of distractions.
I never knew what happened to Tristan and Elizabeth, but I heard their romance had not lasted after they completed the program. Doug, unfortunately, blew his brains out in his second year. He got off several automatic rounds before he lost muscle control in his arm. The bullet spray went through the wall into my vacant room and I had to wonder if I would have been killed if I had stayed on at the Graduate cabin. His body was shipped to New York for burial, but I don’t think anyone from our program could afford the trip to attend. When I got his home address, I sent his parents a card. Last I heard, Roz hiked South America with her giggling friend, worked with shamans, and had drug-induced visions.
After graduation, I began to work with the state in social services. It seemed to me as the years passed that the Graduate cabin and program were some of the best experiences of my life. The experiences taught me to be less judgmental and to appreciate and look past difference and to our shared humanity. I grew to appreciate and love my faculty who had really helped me to peer into doors I might have simply passed by in a hallway. Finally, all of the searching allowed me to come back home, to my own place in the world, and work to make it just a little better.