Sunday, January 11, 2009

Stepping Into the Same River Twice

Over the holiday, I had the opportunity to watch my alma mater, Rutgers University, play and defeat (that's the really important part of this sentence) North Carolina State in something called the Papajohns.com Bowl.

Yes, now it can be told, I am a Scarlet Knight, Class of '74 (and for my too clever by a half siblings, that's Nineteen, NOT Eighteen. And some of you may have been adopted.). "On the banks of the old Raritan, my friends, where old Rutgers ever more shall stand, For has she not stood since the time of the flood, On the banks of the old Raritan."

In a display of synchronicity that helps me believe, albeit vaguely, in Bacon's suggestion of the universe as a Great Clock which mandates the existence of a Great Watchmaker, on that same day in the mail, was a letter from the Organizing Committee for the Class of 1974's 35th Reunion.

Yipes. The people I went to Rutgers with are really old now. When I set foot on the New Brunswick campus in the fall of 1970, Dr. Mason W. Gross (a saint in many educational circles in New Jersey, as well as crop circles in The Pines at the shore) was retiring. Dr. Gross had led Rutgers from its days, lost in the mists of history, when there had been a Rutgers College (for men) and a 'sister school', Douglass College (for women) across town. Slowly, as part of the evolution from a land-grant college to the State University of the State of New Jersey, Rutgers became a federated campus whose population exploded.

In September 1970 there were about 4,000 of us in New Brunswick. By June 1974, there were over 40,000. When I arrived, not to suggest cause and effect, Rutgers played football against Colgate and Villanova in a stadium built during the first days of FDR's Public Works Administration. For basketball, we had a gym, nicknamed The Barn, on the main campus with an Olympic swimming pool built into one of the balconies, making the seating a cozy and somewhat snug fit for the three thousand or so folks as opposed to the gargantuan RAC of today.

In the Spring of 1971, succeeding Dr. Gross was Dr. Edward J. Blaustein-who had been lured away from Bennington College for Women in Vermont. Dr. Blaustein, I recall, had numerous and multiple doctorates and other advanced degrees at what, for a university president, was a stunningly young and tender age.

Dr. Blaustein met us, and we, him, at The Common behind Vorhees Hall near the statue of William of Orange (Willie the Silent, as all of us called him. Legend had it that Willie never spoke but would whistle as virgins walked past--thus accounting, went the legend, for his perpetual silence on campus) . He told us he was a 'degree bum' who was only very good at one thing, going to school.

I was to discover our bachelor was actually better than pretty good at something else, involving uninhibited and very emancipated young women. On more than one occasion, he and I would be chatting up the same smiler at Mosco's Bar (across the street from the Douglass campus) and well....I didn't have a university president's office to invite them to come back to see, if you follow my drift.

That morning, "Fast Eddie" (as he told us to call him; see above paragraph for a possible reason for his nickname) told all of us assembled that 'the purpose of an education is to learn the rules of the game better than anyone else, so that you can then change the rules.' Almost everything else I learned at Rutgers I have long since forgotten-but I shall always remember that.

Part of the "Fast Eddie" program was an upgrade to big time college sports. Farewell, traditional rival, Princeton. Hello, Penn State. There were years, actually decades if I am honest, where Rutgers football teams lost to Top Ten opponents by scores that saddened and (perhaps) sickened alumni, students and team members. I have a recollection of a radio broadcast I was trying to follow while stationed in Greenland where the score at halftime against JoPa and his Nittany Lions was on the order and magnitude of 72-0 (we may still owe them points from back then). I used to pray rather than for a win, more humbly and realistically, 'please don't let us be embarrassed, humiliated or injured too much.' More often than not, the Lord had other priorities and my prayers were burnt offerings. These days, fortune smiles regularly on our cleats and shoulder pads-you have to love progress, though I'm uneasy believing this is what it looks like.

As I type, I can see Tom R, John C and Patrice S (who got married and live with their children to this day not too far from Olde Queens, which seems to be now what it was then), Nat C, Ron L (who passed many years ago, sadly), Rich N (who worked at Mugrat, which was the campus daily newspaper's name, backwards; and no, I don't know why we did that, but we did).

There were Bob B (at WRSU before it actually had a transmitter), Ellen Jane O, Natalie R (who is a 'Doctor' now, says the alum directory), John B and Diane "Diesel" K, without forgetting Andy K (and his Claudia). All of them as they were then, not as we are now.

The aging and ancient man staring back at me in the mirror this morning cannot fathom where the years have gone and the youngster held hostage in the body on this side of the reflection is no help at all. I scanned the Reunion Committee's letterhead for familiar names and found none. When you're one of 40,000, the recognition possibilities decline precipitously, I guess. So many are often too many, "Feel Like a Number" indeed.

I smiled as I read the letter outlining all the activites planned and the paragraphs about the recommended contribution of a thousand dollars ('this is only a suggestion" it hastened to add, as if afraid I'd feel constrained. Yeah, right) for the Class Gift , because I know of all the places on Earth in June I will NOT be, New Brunswick, New Jersey, is at the very top of my list.

I am, if nothing else, consistent. Thirty-five years earlier I went to work on Graduation Day--no cap, no gown, no pomp, no circumstance and no regrets (well, maybe not, as it turns out). I read my name in the sprawling public notice published in the Daily Home News (I like the paper of my memory a lot better) and sure enough, the transcript and diploma, with my full name spelled correctly (yes, Nat, I mean you) came in the mail and the next chapter of my "I Sure Hope This Is a Neverending (but probably isn't) Story" began (and continues).

I was in a hurry to get through Rutgers and get on with my life--thinking, perhaps, I had another one in a spare trunk somewhere. The frantic, manic days are long gone now as I struggle to remember being that guy. I've returned less than a half dozen times to the campus in the decades that have followed. I used to look for the wide-eyed and wild-eyed boy with the shock of hair that no comb could tame--but without success, until I decided that I had dreamt him and the life I thought I remembered, making me wonder is a dream a lie if it don't come true, or is it something worse?

Come June, I will, however, pause, though both I and the Raritan have changed (maybe too much and maybe too little, but definitely much more than we had realized). "Then sing aloud to Alma Mater, And keep the scarlet in the van'; For with her motto high, Rutgers' name shall never die, On the banks of the old Raritan."
-bill kenny

No comments: