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An obtuse winter

Food for Thought

When I was in college in Iowa City, I had several art classes each week, from the usual 50-minute length to two-hour studio classes. Some perverse member of the art staff had decided that 7:30 a.m. was a good time for art history lectures. These were mostly slide shows of art works illustrating whatever topic our professor chose to lecture on that day. The lecture room was in the basement of the art building, windowless, dimly lit only by the slide projector, overheated, and stuffy. At that hour of the morning, considering the atmosphere of the room, the sometimes repetitive subject matter, and the monotonous drone of his voice, we had to struggle to stay awake and focused.
The effort of staying awake was further magnified during the cold winter months, when we had started out hardly past daybreak, walked the several windy blocks along the Iowa River, and scurried across the chilly footbridge that led from the Iowa Memorial Union to the art building. I might also add that, in those days, smoking was permitted in classrooms nearly everywhere on campus and the lecture hall was often clouded with the fumes from a dozen or more cigarettes– and sometimes a pipe or two– going at any given time.
Because there was only the one footbridge existing then, many students saved steps during winter by crossing the river on the ice. This dangerous practice was discouraged but if there was a law against it, it was not enforced, and the snow on the frozen river sported numerous trails crisscrossing between buildings and other destinations on opposite sides of the river.
One frigid morning, after a fresh snow, I was hastening toward my art history class, head down against a gusting wind, when I nearly ran into another student who had stopped in front of me and was staring and pointing over the railing at a point several hundred feet north of the bridge. I looked where he was pointing and made out several letters, approximately five feet tall, which spelled out the word “obtuse” in bold capitals. These had been either scooped out, or patiently trampled into the fresh snow until the dark ice showed through, making the word easily legible, even though it was at an odd angle from our point of view on the bridge.
Too chilled and nearly late for class, I was reluctant to waste my time contemplating the possible reason for that particular word’s appearance on the river’s surface. I hurried away and thought little about it for the rest of the day. On the following day, I had a painting studio which began at 10:30 a.m., a much more civilized hour, and again noticed the word emblazoned on the river’s surface. I began wondering why someone had chosen that particular word. Curious about its definition, I checked the dictionary to be sure there wasn’t some meaning other than the one I was familiar with– a sort of vague stupidity or insensitivity, or something to do with angles in geometry.
I had seen enough graffiti in my life to understand why some people are compelled to deface public places by writing on them– usually slogans, insults, boasts and other more or less anonymous messages, but that one word, that “obtuse” seemed a most peculiar choice. Sixty years later, it still bothers me, and I still wonder exactly what that person was trying to tell the world– or at least the University of Iowa students and others who walked near the Iowa River in the winter of 1954. I’m not real sure, but I’m beginning to think that the word itself is all the explanation needed.
In the 1950s, our semester break occurred in February and most students had time to leave Iowa City immediately after taking the last of their semester final exams. Most of us headed for home. My roommate Joby and I had been in high school together and we could usually manage to find a ride home for a weekend or holiday from among the four or five guys from home who had cars on campus. That February, a heavy snowfall had been topped with a thick crust of ice that left a shining surface I compared to porcelain. Because Joby had finished her exams a day early and already departed for home, I was the only passenger going in his car with Dave S.
Long before the days of I-80, we traveled at an angle down to what is now Highway 92, then straight west. There had been no snowplows clearing the roads yet, and it was sometimes impossible to tell exactly where the road was. Today, I would never attempt to venture out on roads in that condition, but like most young people, we thought we could do just about anything. Sometimes, I’m amazed at how much of our achievements were nothing but pure, dumb luck– you might even say obtuse.