During the summer of 1970, I was a member of the construction crew that built the Physical Education Complex, or PEC. It was a hot job during a hot summer during a hot time. As I watched the building come down during 2010–11 while visiting my son C.J. Erickson ’11, I began to remember.
A bit of perspective is in order. Spring 1970 was tumultuous in America. Between April 13 and May 13, 1970:
- Apollo 13 miraculously returned.
- The Beatles’ “Let it Be” and The Jackson 5’s “ABC” topped the pop charts.
- The first Earth Day was celebrated.
- U.S. forces invaded Cambodia, followed by protests in the United States. Nixon was less popular than ever.
- Four student protesters were killed and 9 wounded by the Ohio National Guard at Kent State University, where students were protesting the U.S. invasion in Vietnam.
- Two student protesters were killed and 12 wounded when police opened fire on a protest at Jackson State College.
Meanwhile, in Grinnell:
- The College’s buildings and grounds workers went on strike. Students and faculty were mostly supportive.
- Some Grinnell students walked to Des Moines, Iowa, to protest the Vietnam War and Vice President Spiro Agnew’s appearance at a Republican fundraiser. Phil Sasich ’72 achieved celebrity status when he was kicked out of the Agnew dinner for protesting.
- A dozen students “returned” thousands of cans to beverage distributors, declaring “disposable cans and bottles are an ecological disaster.” Not only did they somehow escape arrest, the story made the Des Moines Register!
- The College celebrated Earth Day with an environmental teach-in, trash pickup, a research project on solid waste volume and an organic picnic in central campus.
- Crosses appeared on the central campus lawn; the ROTC was occupied; classes were suspended.
- There were ongoing protests, meetings, angst, and fasting.
- Grinnell officially closed for the spring semester without finals and without graduation for the Class of ’70; Freedom School classes continued throughout the summer.
After the College closed, I cast around for summer employment. My parents were in Topeka, Kan., an inhospitable place, so I decided not to go home for a summer job. I got along fine with my family and was not avoiding them, but I had grown away from high school friends and Topeka was just too Bob Dole-ish. I walked over to the PEC construction site, asked for a job, and was told when to start.
I had worked construction in prior summers, so I knew the drill: hard work, hot days, rednecks, colorful language, and limited achievement goals. Gilbert Construction, the low bidder, was really too small and too inexperienced for the job. They struggled with the complexities of the project. Before it was torn down, I could point to walls where we had not poured concrete properly, leaving voids that needed to be patched.
I could also point to the ramp that came up from the locker-room area toward Mac Field. When you pour concrete, you float the surface to make it smooth. For small surfaces, you use a hand float. Larger surfaces demand bigger tools, including a rotary float that looked something like a floor waxer. The wavy concrete on that ramp was caused by the assistant foreman, who had a big ego and thus had to do this plum job himself, even though he lacked the experience and skills to operate the rotary float on a slope. The best concrete finisher was black, but he was muscled aside for this key job. Once concrete sets, you get what you get. For 40 years, the waves were a reminder to me (and probably nobody else on earth) of hubris, racism, and incompetence.
The big event of the summer was setting the big, laminated wood beams over the pool. (Grinnell should have exploited “Largest Laminated Beams West of the Mississippi.”) Setting them on the concrete pillars required two cranes and steady nerves. The foreman and other skilled senior guys perched high on the pillars to seat the beams and bolt them in place. We laborers mostly observed. Somehow the beams got where they belonged and nobody got hurt.
The assistant foreman mentioned above did have one “skill” that I observed with bemusement. Clearly, he had taken Slacker 101 and always looked busy. He had a fast gait and would go around the site clockwise carrying a two-by-four, then come counterclockwise with a saw, then go clockwise with a level. He was always going from here to there, but never actually doing anything. It takes a lot of energy to not do any work!
I cut my hair for the job, but it was still longer than the crew cuts of the rest of the crew, who hailed from Searsboro, Lynnville, Sully, Montezuma, and other nearby towns. So, I became “Gorgeous George” (after a flamboyant professional wrestler whose signature was his long blonde hair) or just “George” for the summer. It was a form of endearment as we all tried to figure each other out and reconcile hippie/straight prejudices with the face of the likeable co-worker in front of you who pulled his weight in spite of his hairstyle.
Construction workers have a certain camaraderie — there are jokes, pranks, and tall stories over lunch. On payday, everyone tossed a dollar into a pot. The winner was the best poker hand you could make out of the last 5 digits of the check number on your paycheck. Pretty silly, but a little team-builder. I remember one particularly hot day when the temperature peaked at 103 degrees. We were all suffering and woozy, so the foreman knocked off work. As we were leaving the site, the big-boss superintendent drove in and started to get irate. The foreman simply said: “Sorry, boss, too f***in’ hot to work.” I just kept walking.
I made $1,156 that summer, or $6,495 in today’s dollars.
Summer 1970 in Grinnell
After work, I walked back to 1227 Park St., where I was living with Jim Dix ’71, Roger Franz ’71, and Shri Venkatesan ’74 and flipped over to the Grinnell hippie life. We were four guys house-sitting for a professor’s family. We cooked together — my first experience with keeping my own house. I laundered dirty construction clothes. We partied at our place and at other student apartments. We sat on the front porch during the “thunderstorm of the millennium” and enjoyed the show. We shopped at McNally’s. A woman visitor to our house critiqued our housekeeping because a picture was askew. We responded by putting every picture in the place catawampus. Hippies crashed with us for a night on their way from here to there. I had a bicycle and got all over town faster than those with cars.
That summer’s student community was definitely colored by the tumultuous spring events. Among other things, the Freedom School continued into the summer and I went to several classes/meetings at a house on Broad Street. While my friends did research or formed a commune, I was a proletarian worker. But we all converged on various partying opportunities, such as a Saturday at Rock Creek State Park, several miles west of campus.
On Memorial Day weekend, Dix, Franz, and I among others drove over to join 60,000 hippies at the Kickapoo Creek Rock Festival in central Illinois to hear 30 rock, blues, and folk bands. We camped out, which meant sleeping on the hillside, periodically waking up to hear bits of an act before crashing again. I remember the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Canned Heat, B.B. King, and Country Joe and the Fish (“Gimme an F!”) It was a mini-Woodstock: “Cornstock.”
One party we missed that summer was “The Animals at Merrill Park.” Eric Burdon and The Animals” were a British psychedelic rock band best known for such hits as “The House of the Rising Sun,” “We Gotta Get Out of this Place,” and “Don’t Let Me Be Mistunderstood.” We saw the poster in town and dismissed it as some sort of poseur group. Later we heard that it had been the real thing. Bummer.
As classes started in the fall of 1970, we went back to our student routines. But the hulking construction zone just invited late-night exploration. We sat in the stands of the swimming pool and had bottle-rocket fights across the abyss. I had the insider knowledge of the place, having seen every inch of it as a construction worker.
In November, 1971, the PEC opened. We had had a long tradition of late-night swims in the old pool — four 20-yard lanes and a single one-meter diving board — and quickly transferred the party to the new, deluxe accommodations. We swam, we used the sauna, we used the steam room. This lasted for a couple months or so until the College’s buildings and grounds department, now known as facilities management, found out and re-engineered the doors so we could not open them with a coat hanger. It sure was fun while it lasted.
By 1971–72, my senior year, Grinnell had eliminated distribution requirements, so I no longer had to take physical education. Yet, I signed up for squash and swam in “my” pool regularly.
The PEC was designed and built before Title IX, so the focus was on athletics for men. As Title IX (passed in June, 1972) was implemented, the women’s side of the PEC rapidly grew busier and then overcrowded. The poured-concrete walls did not lend themselves to rearrangement, so the next four decades saw gross inequity in the accommodations for women. Further, the explosion of exercise and fitness among the students, faculty, staff, and townspeople further stressed the facility.
At reunions and other visits to campus, I have walked the halls of the Physical Education Complex, flashing back to memories of the summer of 1970 and my little contribution to Grinnell’s infrastructure.
The PEC is all memories, now. Good memories.
Mitchell D. Erickson ’72 is a chemist by training. He’s currently a senior advisor, Northeast regions, for the Department of Homeland Security in New York City.