I've had a life-long history of serious depressions, fortunately periodic rather than constant. I'm sure it's in part genetically conditioned, as my parents and sibs all exhibited the problem. It was at the University of Illinois, at age 18, that I got hit by this full-force for the first time.
In 1977 I made a nostalgic trip back to Urbana, my first visit since leaving there in 1956. I parked my car at the Illini Union, had some lunch, and walked up the quad to the old Music School, a building called Smith Hall. It was August and summer session had ended, so the place was deserted. I then had the most Proustian experience of my life.
Smith Hall has real cork flooring. I walked up and down the halls, flooded with memories of many kinds, and noticed that the wax used to maintain this warm and luxurious floor still had the same unique odor it had had the year I was first there, 1953. In an instant, everything associated with that year came alive again, as real as it had been the first time around. From the remove of nearly a quarter-century, I could feel that year as a complete entity: I had been truly, deeply miserable.
I couldn't bear it. I walked quickly back down to the Union, got in my car, and drove away from Urbana-Champaign, just like that.
But when I was there as a student, the misery was more diffuse, and relieved by many wonderful times as well. I've been back in Urbana quite a bit since, with much less dramatic effects. Through the internet I got to know a delightful person named Bill Hsu, who was finishing up his PhD in Computer Sciences there. Visits to Bill or stopovers at his place on my way farther south did a lot of remove the patina of unhappiness formerly shrouding my impressions of the town.
When you're from Peoria, and already chafing at the provinciality and cultural aridness of that town, moving to a place like Urbana-Champaign is virtually certain to heighten your sense of estrangement and alienation. It did mine, though it's certainly true that being in college, meeting a lot of people, being exposed to many new influences and so forth provided a fair amount of diversion as well.
For all that I felt suffocated in the place, it was the beginning of much that would later prove to be momentous and important to my life, so one should probably not look the gift horse too closely in the mouth. These currents proved to be key in my subsequent love life, creative life, intellectual life, and professional life.
Academically, I left Urbana somewhat under a cloud. Even before that it hadn't been what I would call easy. I had to work rather a lot to support myself. I had to spend long hours practicing the piano and the harpsichord. Where books are concerned, I'm good reader, but not a fast one. The time commitments were staggering.
My life as a budding musician was a shambles, my social life was a chaos of competing influences, I was in the grip of severe depression, and under such conditions it was not surprising that my studies suffered. Indeed, I was glad to be able to manage as well as I did, getting mostly A's and B's with a few C's (I don't recall getting D's or F's until I reached Wisconsin).
Well, I did get one D, a five-credit course in physics. It was quite typical of my academic performance, I guess: I had finished the three-hour final exam in only 20 minutes (it was startlingly easy; I had crammed like mad for the two days before) and got 98% on it. But I had never gone to class, and especially not to labs or quizzes, which were part of the grade. I disdained it then and still would, but I took my lumps and went on despite all that.
Military science (talk about oxymorons!) was what did me in. Land-grant schools like the University of Illinois had an inflexible requirement that freshman and sophomore men must take ROTC. I managed to persuade an assistant dean to let me skip it one semester, but eventually someone noticed I had failed to attend the following term as well. There was a so-called disciplinary hearing, the end result of which was my being expelled from the University mid-way through my junior year. Economically this proved a boon, since I could then go to work full time. But there was no way I would be readmitted to UIUC (as it has since become known) without taking ROTC. And I would not likely be admitted anywhere else unless I was eligible to attend UIUC.
The whole situation struck me as a classical double-bind and made me angry. It would not be resolved until I had been in Madison for a year.