I expect only a minuscule fraction of the living who quote Thomas Wolfe’s pronouncement that “You can’t go home again” have ever read the actual novel. I haven’t. Probably should, given how often I haunt the places of my past. I find I do it with a mixed anticipation, unequal parts nostalgia and melancholy. The nostalgia is the understandable draw – but the melancholy often comes as a bitter aftertaste.
And I find the balance shifting as I age, as there is more distance between myself and the people who now occupy these spaces and call them their own. My old dorm still stands – one of the ugliest buildings ever to grace(?) the Dartmouth campus – and from the chipped asphalt footpath below I watch kids in the “Habitrails” negotiate that same dance of liminal adulthood that we danced over 40 years ago. Forty?!? How can it be? I recognize the body language as two of them lean against the glass, talking. The tilt of a head, the hand searching for a pocket with which to fidget saying more than their unheard words. I feel like a voyeur, a peeping Tom – I have stood right there, awkwardly chatting up a pretty girl. But this is now their world, not mine, and there is nothing to be gained by anyone with my presence. I wander on.
The scene repeats itself throughout campus – Fairchild Hall, where we chucked printouts of the code from our senior theses from the fourth floor to flutter down into the atrium. An earnest young man was declaiming the virtues of the physics department to a swarm of prospective students and their parents. The biggest part of my printout, which didn’t flutter quite the way I thought it should, would have squarely beaned him from above. Honest, a part of me wanted to interrupt his rote recitation – he clearly had no personal associations with this space – but again, this was no longer my place.
When I was young, on that crazy first visit – back then, admissions were sent by mail, and for some reason I was in Boston when they went out. I’d been rejected by damned near every college I’d applied to, with only Dartmouth and oh, maybe Reed left. I called the college – I remember it being from a payphone in Harvard Square, and got forwarded to Admissions. No, they were very sorry, I’d have to wait until I was back in Colorado to read the letter and find out. They passed me up the chain to Margaret Bonz, the Dean of Admissions (“The name is Bonz,” she would joke, “Dean Bonz.”) She said she was very sorry, but the rules prohibited disclosing admission information except by mail or in person. I explained again how I was just a couple of hours away by bus, but if Dartmouth hadn’t accepted me, it would be cruel to make me come all the way up just to learn that. There was a silence on the line that evoked a touch of mischief.
“How much longer are you in the Boston area?” she asked. I still had a few days before I had to fly west. There was more silence. “You know,” she finally said, “The weather up here is going to be gorgeous for the next couple of days.”
I caught the Vermont Transit bus up that afternoon, I think, scrambled up the steps of McNutt Hall and was led to her office. “Congratulations,” she said, said she hoped to see me in the class of 1985, and handed me off to some or another student to be shown around the campus.
Did these same ghosts watch me, back then, from the shadows and lament how far the river of time had carried them from their youth? I can’t help but see them shaking their heads, these ghosts whose ranks I’ve now joined, watching me, despairing at that slouching mop-headed boy who knew nothing of the grand and goofy traditions they had carried on (and improved!) in their years here. As some day, with luck, these kids I now watch will someday lament how little of a remembrance their years left on the place.
I’d failed to make any arrangements for that visit other than my bus ticket, and made my first mark on the college in the form of a drool stain from sleeping facedown on a desk in one of the side rooms of the (now long gone) Kiewit Computation Center.
There is one place where I can claim continuation of a still-standing tradition: just before turning to head south, I stopped by the basement of Robinson Hall, where crude wooden plaques hang to commemorate dubious accomplishments of Cabin and Trail members. Mine – oh mine is a glorious story for another time – but it still hangs, a bit worse for the wear, among those commemorating the legendary, the truly worthy: Scott McGee, Dave Hooke, Tim Burdick and others. But there it is, honestly one of the highest honors I’ve received (if you knew C&T, you’d understand).
I was down there, trying to remember the stories of some of the others when a student popped into the room, intent on setting in for some studying. He jumped a little to realize I was there, and asked if I needed the room for something. No, I assured him, I was just checking out the plaques. Cool, he said, and sat down to pull his laptop and accouterments out.
“Mine’s this one,” I said.
“Huh?” He’d thought the conversation was over.
“This one – that’s me.”
“Oh, cool.” He nodded, looking me in the eye, but not even glancing at the plaque before he swung around to his laptop and popped it open for whatever work lay at hand.
It was time to go.
Okay but… How did your award plaque come to be splintered?
I’m sure there’s another plaque there somewhere for that ..
I recall we first met in that top-floor suite of Brown dorm. Decades later, I helped my daughter move into that same dorm as a freshman. You’ll also be pleased to know the Choates cluster is next in line for renovation, as soon as we can build swing space.
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Oh – yes, you can go home again, but you will probably find that home is never the same. And maybe that’s for the best.