Getting Slapped Upside the Head by an 18-Year-Old

220px-UMD_McKeldin_long2Now, before you call the cops on anyone to report me as a victim of assault, domestic or otherwise, be aware that the 18-year-old in question is me. And to be absolutely accurate, he’s between 18 and 21, all those ages, all at the same time. He slapped me upside the head with memories of him… me… when I took a nostalgic trip to my alma mater this past weekend.

Warning. This blog is stupid self-indulgent. There is no benefit to you, the reader, intended herein. This is all about me, and I make no pretense to the contrary.

My son’s marching band was performing at halftime at College Park’s Byrd Stadium as the Terps played the Bowling Green Falcons in a game that was interrupted by a severe thunderstorm. In fact, the game itself was not interrupted. It was the band’s fourth number, “Rock Lobster,” which was cut short just seconds in.

But the game wasn’t where memories overtook me. I only went to two football games during my college career. I spent the first acting as a support piece to a drunken frat boy in plaid shorts. For over two hours, I kept my hand on his shoulder blades so that he didn’t wind up in my lap. I never learned his name, but his best friend’s name was “Schnipps” or something like that, and his drink of choice was Bacardi 151. Schnipps was responsible for keeping the pint bottle full. As the evening wore on, I doubt that was rum in that bottle. I don’t want to think about what it was. These were frat boys, after all.

I don’t remember the second game. Likely because I was forcing some poor slob to prop my shoulder blades to keep me out of his lap.

Anyway, Byrd Stadium today evokes no memories for me. When I knew it, it was one deck of seating, all below street level, which we could enter any time of day or night to go jogging on the track. It wasn’t the pro-stadium lookalike it is now, with tiers and private boxes. Though I admit I was happy to be able to buy a Blue Moon at the concession stand, knowing this time that I was drinking legally.

My memories hit me as, coming from the parking lot that hadn’t existed thirty years ago, I walked up the steps beside the Biology-Psychology building and saw the Hornbake Library. I thought of the hours I spent there, where I first watched the BBC Shakespeare series on their (then) high-tech video system. I discovered their library of old radio shows and listened to “The Green Hills of Earth” on X-Minus. I (furtively) read Fanny Hill for the first time, and watched Patrick Stewart (years before Captain Picard) in Hedda Gabler. Here I took Dr. Morris Friedman’s “The Current Scene” colloquium and listened to silly co-eds cry after a group viewing of The Day After. (To this day I pan that film. I love Nick Meyer, but that thing was a hack job. If you want to protest nuclear war through film, show Testament.) On the Hornbake Mall (or was it a Plaza?) I first heard the Reverend Tom Short spout his fire and brimstone theology. Later, I would write a piece for The Diamondback, the campus newspaper, defending even an extreme fundamentalist’s right to free speech. (And I was shot down by the Left. Here I learned that “liberal” is a brand name to many, not an adjective describing a consistent belief system.)

I was hit again as I entered the Adele H. Stamp Union, where I worked at Roy Rogers for pocket money, and couldn’t eat Roy Rogers food again for a good two years. I would vacuum the dining room every night, all the while carrying on an inner monologue against certain family members who said I had no work ethic. The Colony Ballroom, where I played bridge with my childhood friend Steve Kramer and his soon-to-be wife, and made many new friends, including the multi-talented Scott Grossman, with whom I’d write my first stage parody, was mysteriously dark now. Apparently they’ve painted the windows over. Ick. But still, the memories are brightly lit. We rehearsed some of our early plays there, even after I graduated. That building has a long history with Star Trek fandom, too. It was host to the early August Party conventions.

The McKeldin Mall, where Testudo the Terrapin was king of all he surveyed, was another favorite place. I would haunt the graduate library’s archives, pulling microfilm articles about Dark Shadows, with which I was obsessed at the time. It had just been pulled off the TV schedule mid-repeat, and I wanted to know how it ended. Also overlooking the Mall was the College of Journalism Building, where I spent most of my class time. It’s now Chincoteauge Hall. It stares out at the grassy lawn where I read on Spring days, listening on my Sony Walkman AM/FM/Cassette player to the Ladyhawke soundtrack by the amazing Andrew Powell. It was on that Mall, walking to class, that I first heard of the Challenger explosion.

Ladyhawke, by the way, was advance-screened at the Hoff Theatre, which is little changed. I can’t count the number of films I discovered there. I think I truly became a movie lover in that place. Sadly, Turner Labs, where my Mother took me when she was a student for ice cream, was closed this past Saturday. It was my favorite lunch spot, although I usually ate lunch at the dining hall on South Hill.

Before we left and after the game, I insisted on walking through my quad. On the way, we passed Elkton Hall, the girls-only dorm where my girlfriend lived. How many boys spent the night there regularly I don’t know, but I was one. In my quad was Ellicott Hall, where I first had an address and phone number that didn’t belong to my parents, where I laid on the bed studying, reading Star Trek and Heinlein novels, wolfing down strawberry licorice and listening to music. It was there that I cried for the first time over failing a midterm, and there that I had to get used to sharing a bedroom with someone I didn’t know. Ron. Nice guy. Great roommate.

Next door was Hagerstown Hall, where I lived for two years. That dorm had the honors floor, though I was never honorable enough to get on it. There I made friends who were not merely holdovers from high school. Not that there was anything wrong with my high school friends. Jeff and Martin and Danny and Joe eased that first-year transition. And Steve stayed with me all the way through. But in Hagerstown I met Brent and Bob and Dave and Bart and countless others who were like me in many ways, and fun to be around. We watched bad porn films and drank, we had parties that were wild by the definitions of honor student geeks. Late one December evening, after a party in Hagerstown, I lost my, um… car keys. Yes my car keys. Wait, I didn’t own a car. Well, I lost something important, although not anything I needed to find again like my car keys. I lived in that dorm when I met the love of my life, after having posted photos of Robin Curtis all over my door and announcing I was done with real women. A real woman had other ideas, and I stood no chance.

Cambridge Hall was nearby. I went there once that I remember. It was October, and my friend Danny, his roommate Steve and I had all survived the Calculus mid-term. We celebrated by playing quarters at 3:30 in the afternoon. By 5:00, Danny and I were in the bathroom. We spent the next three hours (or was it years?) alternating between throwing up in the toilets and taking showers to try to feel human again. I lay on the floor of a shower stall… Stall? Who gave them stalls? In Ellicott, we took showers in a room together! Ugly sight.

I lay on the floor of a shower stall, trying to remember what my mother’s voice sounded like. (I had it back the next morning… probably because she called me to ask how the Calc mid-term went. That may have been the morning I smashed the phone.) Round about six or so, the all-boys dorm of Cambridge opened its door so girls could come and party. As Danny and I knelt before the porcelain idols, one girl threw open the door to yell, “Okay, y’all, clear out, I gotta pee!” Did I mention showers? Danny and I had been naked since about 5:15. When our unseen female friend opened the door, she saw, beneath the toilet stalls, the forms of two naked young men (each in our own stall, thank you very much!) She screamed and we never saw her again. Well, we never saw her at all.

I miss Danny. He died about ten years ago. He was a great friend, and that certainly wasn’t the high point of our relationship, only the funniest and most embarrassing moment. I wish I’d kept up with him. We hadn’t seen each other in years when his life ended.

Just South of Cambridge is the Computer Sciences building, where this young math major was forced to take “The Calculus of Computer Science,” a weed-out course designed to discourage a glut of CS and Engineering students, whose high school guidance counselors had subjected them to a four-year mantra of “Computers, Engineering, R-O-T-C. Computers, Engineering, R-O-T-C.” Mine did it. Any kid who had an IQ over 100 and a math aptitude heard it regularly. I just wanted to be a math teacher, but they sent me to this miserable, designed-for-failure class. I gave up and went into Journalism, but not before an outgoing young woman named Jamie began a life-long friendship by saying something like, “You look really lonely.” I think that was it. Can you blame her for approaching me? I was sad and pale, with serious Heathcliff (the literary figure, not the cat) action going. I had striking dark eyes, way-too-tight jeans, and a fake Members Only jacket. I was adorable. Who could ignore me?

Everybody except Jamie, it turns out. But we became friends for life, and that’s what counts.

Okay, so here we have a soon-to-be-old man rambling, confronted by memories of his young self, trying on senility for size. I’m looking at the past through rose-colored glasses, right?


For as I saw the McKeldin Mall and remembered the Challenger, I also remembered being confronted by people, mostly girls, crying. These were girls I knew. They were not nice people. They were not kind people. They were not charitable people. I remember being shocked by the fact that seven deaths would make them cry, because I didn’t think they actually had any sympathy. I concluded that they did not have sympathy, because they’d never displayed it to those immediately around them. So they must feel sympathy only for big tragedies. That felt fake to me, and I was turned off. It made the events of the following days feel fake to me.

When my playwriting professor asked us to write monologues based on the disaster, as if we had taken up the profession we wanted when we were six years old, my assignment seemed easy. I had wanted to be an astronaut when I was six. Shoe-in, right? Not quite. That ambition didn’t last long, and I didn’t know much about astronauts. So I interviewed my dad, a combat flight engineer who was once in line to command Mission Control in Houston. His was a pilot’s response to the tragedy: Pilots know they have a dangerous job, and they accept the risk, test pilots especially. All astronauts were essentially test pilots. Yes, their deaths were sad and shocking, but so were the deaths of all test pilots. My dad had buried a lot of friends over the years, friends whose lives were spent advancing the frontiers of aviation and science. They didn’t get the honors going to the Challenger crew, so his feelings were to let this disaster cast light on the risks being taken every day by brave people.

I wrote my monologue with those sentiments. We took turns reading our monologues in class. Right before I was to read, a classmate read his, and disclaimed up front that it was based on the views of someone else, not himself. His monologue was almost identical to mine. When it was done, one of those girls of the many tears put up her hand and called out, “Can I just say? I hate that person. That person should not be allowed to live.”

I crumpled my paper and told the professor I’d forgotten to do it.

That memory summarizes a lot of the alienation I felt through those years. I often felt like the odd man out, like the person whose feelings others didn’t understand. Coincidentally, I felt like the “feelings” a lot of others claimed were nothing of the kind, but were, in fact, scripts they’d been handed and were acting out.

Not pleasant memories.

My Junior year, blowing off some steam about the way the honors students in my dorm were being treated by fraternity members who lived with us because they couldn’t find slots on Fraternity Row, I wrote an essay, a mean joke. I won’t repeat it. It wasn’t funny. I wrote it to test a friend’s new Apple printer. When we’d tested a page of text, I deleted the file and tore up the paper. I knew it was mean. My friend, I still feel quite naively, not maliciously, retrieved my joke from the trash can I didn’t know Macs had, printed out dozens of copies, and distributed it. That hurt a lot of people. I hurt a lot of people. I lost friends. Some of them will never forgive me. That’s my fault. I wouldn’t re-write history to make them my friends again, because we have to own our mistakes. I missed their friendship though. And if I could re-write that piece of history, I’d write away their pain, because they didn’t deserve to be hurt.

Lessons learned, I guess.

No, there are no rose-colored glasses screening all that out. And those memories are as alive as all the others, and that same young boy I feel so much affection for starred in those dramas too. I look back at him and think, “You know, you spent a lot of your time being unhappy. Why? You were making friends, you were falling in love, you were learning and had the resources of the world at your fingertips, even before the Internet was a word in anyone’s lexicon. Why were you ever unhappy, or at least why did you let it overwhelm you sometimes? Why did you feel alienated?”

Because I was so impatient to have the perfect life. To know perfect people. To be perfect. Now I know that those fake emotions people show are not because they’re not sympathetic, but because they’ve been taught not to show weakness. So they hide their feelings until it’s socially acceptable to let go. I know that the judgmental statements of hate from them are, like the ones I wrote on that damned Apple printer, born of pain. I know that life doesn’t have to be perfect to be good.

So I accept all those memories. I own them. I like who I was. I like who I am. I’m happy they’re a part of me, even the painful ones.

So, like the song in Avenue Q says, do I wish I could go back to college? Or would I “Walk through the quad, and think, ‘Oh my God! These kids are so much younger than me.'”

No to both questions. I don’t want to go back. I’m just glad I was there. And those kids are not so much younger than me, because, well, I’m still there. I’m still that age. In part, anyway.

I’m still that kid. And I like that.

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