St. John's College Revisited
"Try the chicken teriyaki spears. They're marvelous!" said the lady who greeted me at the door of McDowell Hall. An orange and black name badge was my ticket into that stately mansion, built in 1789.
I drifted into the Great Hall and ate a dozen of those chicken spears beneath the portrait of former president Richard Weigle. Dapper waiters circled the room carrying platters of fancy hors d'oeurvres and a bartender poured me a glass of dry, red cabernet.
I am thrilled to be a part of the 2010 St. John's College Homecoming celebrations in Annapolis, Maryland. Three decades have passed since I received my Bachelor of Liberal Arts degree and I am eager to join three days of carefully-planned activities.
I'm staying at the Charles Inn, a 100-year-old bed-and-breakfast located in the historic district, a half mile from the college. My $130-a-night room has a working fireplace and claw foot bathtub. The inn also has a peaceful back yard leading to a private dock on Spa Creek.
After my arrival at the inn from the Baltimore Washington International Airport I cranked up the room's air conditioner and took a nice, hot bath. I felt like a new man after washing a day of bus, plane and shuttle travel from my body. Then I walked to the college, registered for homecoming weekend, entered McDowell and ate those chicken teriyaki spears.
St. John's was born in 1696 as King Williams School and is the third oldest college in the US, after Harvard and William & Mary. Its popularity as "The Great Books School" led to the creation of a second campus in Santa Fe where I spent my sophomore, junior and senior years. Each campus has less than 500 students and both schools are governed by the same Board of Visitors and Governors.
St. John's has no departments or majors and is united by an all-required liberal arts program dedicated to discussion. The college also encourages students to get involved in intramural activities like fencing, sailing, skiing and swing dancing.
The St. John's curriculum is based on the 100 or so "Great Books" of Western Civilization that are studied in lieu of textbooks. Students and tutors address each other in the classroom as "Mister" "Miss," or "Mrs" and don't have to raise their hands when they want to talk.
Students are expected to write thoughtful essays and participate in class because conventional testing doesn't exist; Overall evaluation takes place in the "Don Rag" where the tutors (dons) "rag" on their students. The expression "Don Rag" came from Oxford University.
During the Don Rag the tutors talk about the student's performance in the third person, as if the student were not there. They then they give the student a chance to defend him or herself. It is considered bad form to ask about your grades but they are kept in your file for transcript purposes.
After wolfing down those chicken teriyaki spears in McDowell I walked to my old dormitory in Randall Hall. I climbed three flights of stairs, approached a familiar room and knocked on its door. When it opened I beheld a tiny space with a lovely view of the back campus.
I thought of Bruce, my sober and sensible roommate who was the perfect sounding board for my spiritual, academic and romantic dilemmas. He was a good friend who helped boost my self-confidence and he gave me a brand new Jim Croce record album as a present when I decided to transfer to the Santa Fe campus.
There was my neighbor Owen, a brilliant poet (and fellow member of the "tribe") who, like myself, was one of the few virgins on campus at the time. We often commiserated till the wee hours of the night listening to Tom Waits' "Heart of Saturday Night" on the record player. It is astounding how the wisdom of Jim Croce, Tom Waits and Pink Floyd can oftentimes surpass that of the great philosophers.
And there was the rest of "third floor Randall" who make the antics portrayed in "Animal House" with John Belushi seem tame.
Johnnies have a long tradition of playing hard and studying hard and it was not uncommon for us to have to read 200 pages of Plato or Aristotle before bedtime. But Lord knows one could only endure so much Aquinas before going crazy, so letting off steam was always an important part of the St. John's experience.
On-Nair Gu-nay Soph-ro-sunay ("Man-Woman-Temperance" in Ancient Greek) was our battle cry and Dionysus, our fearless leader.
After prowling a much reformed and rehabilitated Randall Hall I walked to the boat house in the back campus. I was jealous to see how sculling has now become the rage at St. John's and I enviously ran my fingertips along the smooth, sensuous surface of a one-man racing boat.
Well, I may not have sculled when I was a student at St. John's but I certainly did put out to sea in their 14-foot sailboats. That is, until I sank my boat in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay after losing its bailer plug. Clad only in a rubber wet suit, I yelled for help until my water-logged boat and I were rescued by a midshipman from the Naval Academy.
The thing I am looking forward to most of all during this homecoming weekend is the "Travesties" seminar to be held on Saturday morning. The Seminar is composed of students gathered around a large table whose leader raises an opening question and guides the class through a couple hours of lively discussion.
"Travesties" is a play by Tom Stoppard that takes place during World War I in Switzerland, referred to as "the still centre of the wheel of war." It is the story of Henry Carr, a fashion-obsessed aristocrat assigned to the English Consulate in Zurich after he received an injury on the front lines.
The play drifts between the 1917 and the present. Henry reflects upon a time in his of his life when he crossed paths with James Joyce, Vladimir Lenin and Tristan Tzara (the founder of the Dada movement).
This play is a character-driven history lesson, mercifully spiced with catchy lines, like the one Henry utters when he talks about life in the trenches: "Never in the whole history of human conflict was there anything to match the carnage --- God's blood!, the shot and shell! --- graveyard stench! --- Christ Jesu!"
It's fun to hear Henry fuss about his dinner clothes when he repeatedly tells Bennet, his butler, to " . . . get me out the straight cut trouser with the blue satin stripe and the silk cutaway. I'll wear the opal studs."
James Joyce thinks he can finagle some of Henry's money by offering him the lead role in Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest." Joyce is portrayed as an "Irish Nonsense" who speaks in limerick form and has a talent for getting people pissed off.
After a falling out over a pair of trousers Henry calls Joyce a "liar and a hypocrite, a tight-fisted, sponging fornicating drunk" while the kindest thing Tristan Tzara can call Joyce is a "supercilious streak of Irish puke!" and a "four-eyed, bog-ignorant, potato-eating ponce!"
For the most part, Henry Carr tries to say nice things about people, as in the case of Lenin: "And now they want to know what was he like? What was he like, Lenin, I am often asked . . . To those of us who knew him Lenin's greatness was never in doubt."
Tristan Tzara is charming when he says "All poetry is a reshuffling of a pack of picture cards, and all poets are cheats." He uses a scissors to cut up the words of Shakespeare's 18th sonnet ("shall I compare thee to a summer's day") and reassembles them into a risque poem recited by Henry's innocent, younger sister:
Shake thou thy gold buds
The untrimm'd but short fair shade Shines---
See, this lovely hot possession growest
By nature's course---
So . . . long ----heaven!"
Finally we meet Joseph Stalin who wants to find a way out of Zurich and into Russia where he can ignite the social revolution.
Henry has a delightful way of ridiculing the revolution when he describes "the masters" as the exploited class who are "above all goaded beyond endurance by the insolent rapacity of its servants."
"Travesties" finally started to make sense upon my fourth careful reading and by then I began to delight in every word and turn of phrase.
A party was held in the boat house this evening and I danced for an hour and a half once the DJ finally got around to spinning his classic collection of rock and roll.
I was the first person on the dance floor and the students exhibited their timeless timidity by sticking to the sidelines. I was content to dance by myself and didn't make an effort to find a partner because I was not in the mood for politics. Nevertheless, the place was rocking by midnight when I decided to leave.
I walked home through the hot and humid Annapolis night air (not at all what I expected for late September) and was relieved to return to the air conditioned comfort of the Charles Inn.
Now I'm writing these words atop my four poster bed, the room illuminated by soft electric lights that remind me of a gas lamp. For all I know this could be the year 1800. Delicate flowered linens hang from the carved posts of a bed I had to summit using a steep ladder. Having arrived at its plateau, I discovered an enormous, bulging, down mattress positioned right in its middle.
I guess I'm supposed to sleep on that tonight.
I slept like a baby in my four-poster bed and finally came to terms with that mountain of down by plunking myself right in its middle. Surrounded by a veritable ocean of pillows, my every move was met with soft yielding cushions and I was quickly transported to dreamland.
I arrived in the dining room at 8 a.m. for a magnificent breakfast prepared by innkeeper Paula Ginnetty and delivered to my little table by her partner John Hartman.
The meal began with cranberry and orange juice, served in multi-colored, tall stemmed crystal glassware. This was followed by a steaming cup of coffee and a bowl of fresh fruit. Next came a plateful of French toast made from fresh challa bread, smothered with maple syrup and a side of bacon.
John told me that I had slept on a featherbed last night and that most people have a hard time getting up in the morning after that experience.
I walked to St. John's following breakfast and attended an All Alumni Meeting in the Conversation Room of the Melon Hall where I witnessed awards being distributed and final reports being read. Although these are hard times the college is doing well.
At 10:30 a.m. the event I had been waiting for all summer finally arrived: Seminar!
I went to my assigned room where I found only one other person and we began to wonder if anybody else would appear. Then we heard a ruckus at the end of the hallway and 14 other people stampeded the room and it was show time!
The seminar was led by alumni Josh Kates who posed the opening question, "Do the artists in the play look at art the same way or differently? How do you see them interacting?"
Having read "Travesties" four times I jumped right in. The give-and-take ensued, much like a ball being passed around in a game of soccer. Every now and then somebody hit a grand slam home run, like when Charlotte said,
"Henry Carr brought up this notion that art is good for us and we need it around. I think that explains his attention to his clothing: It's the closest an Englishman can get to real art . . . You know, looking good."
And there were some lively exchanges as well, like:
Me: In the end, Henry Carr seems to be the victor because he outlived everybody. Now people are coming up to him, asking, "Well, what was this person like?"
Bonnie: But there has to be a certain sadness in people coming up to you and asking "what was James Joyce like, what was Lenin like . . . "
Charlotte: . . . And not "what are you like?"
Ben: Yeah, it's like coming to the homecoming weekend and people asking you all about your clever roommate and nothing about you.
My ideas were occasionally challenged, like in this exchange:
Me: . . . I got the impression that Henry Carr was one of the steadiest personalities in the play. Everybody else was all over the place.
Bonnie: But at the beginning of the play, in the descriptions, it says that most of the play takes place in Henry Carr's memory and I don't see him as steady at all! I feel like he's unglued. Everything is becoming so disorganized that, in fact, I felt very sympathetic towards him because I felt he had extreme memory loss: We think that memory is what makes up our personality and it's Henry's identity that's even becoming unhinged. I actually found it kind of sad.
Frank: I tried to visualize this play and when I read the scene directions I'm thinking, "How the hell are you going to communicate that to the audience?" You're not going to have somebody out there saying, "Most of this takes place in the character's memory." We're reading this play and we get that message but on the stage it's a different thing: That's a lot for an actor and a director to do . . . to make that happen.
Josh: That's exactly right, this whole play does take place in Carr's memory and it centers on one of his greatest triumph in the theater . . . when he acted in "The Importance of Being Earnest," how he wooed the crowd and how dashing he looked on stage and all of his great write-ups. We see his life through the prism of a play that was apparently well-received in his day.
The "Travesties" Seminar was a satisfying hour and a half of conversation that ended at noon. We headed out to the soccer field for a simple lunch consisting of sandwiches, soft drinks, potato salad and the usual side dishes.
The next event on the packed homecoming schedule was "Freshman Chorus Revisited," led by Peter Kalkavage. As freshman we were required to sing in the chorus every week and now we were going to relive that special moment as aging alumni. A couple dozen of us gathered in the Great Hall of McDowell like excited children.
Peter Kalkavage is a spirited tutor who knew how to pull harmony out of chaos. He broke our class into soprano, alto, tenor and bass sections and he spent 15 minutes warming us up with minor and major scales.
Within the space of an hour we had sung "Dona Nobis Pacem, "Flood of Babylon," and "Reaper Death" whose creepy lyrics read, "There is a reaper men call Death and God has given him pow'r. The blade he is whetting, sharper its growing soon will be mowing, all must fall before him. Beware o lovely flower."
We also sang "Pange lingua" (a Gregorian chant) and finished up with Beethoven's "Ode to Joy". We were singing our hearts out and it must have sounded like crap but Peter never let on. It was a cathartic, frenzied hour and we left the Great Hall glowing.
I moseyed on down to the planetarium and, in the company of a couple dozen other alumni, baked under its tiny metallic dome while a pretty, young student gave us a riveting demonstration of the college's new star projector. The computerized projection unit did all the usual things one expects to see at a planetarium and then some. For example, our clever teacher rearranged the heavens to look like they did during the days of Jesus and she also showed us what we would see if we were standing on a moon of Jupiter.
After the astronomy lesson I paid my respects to Iglehart Hall, the college gymnasium built in 1910. I used to run on the wooden track that is securely cantilevered along the walls of the building. On the wall beside the track hang brass plaques honoring the heroic Johnnies of days gone by. The gymnasium reeks of tradition and when the sunlight pours through its massive windows one understands why this place is often referred to as "The Temple." I laid down on one of the track's banked turns and rested for a while.
Next I checked out the recently remodeled Greenfield Library, the old Maryland Hall of Records, built in 1934. Its Georgian Revival Style exterior had not been altered but the interior was gutted: Three spacious, light-filled floors now occupy its original seven. Lots of exquisite colonial architectural details are preserved in the library's interior, making it a lovely place to hang out.
From 5:30 to 8 p.m. I attended the Alumni Awards Buffet dinner where I had a few lagers and enjoyed a buffet style supper of first class entrees. I mingled with other alumni and also had the pleasure of sitting at the same table as Curtis Wilson and his lovely wife, Becky. Curtis served as my dean when I was a freshman.
During our conversation Curtis recalled the inhabitants of third floor Randall Hall as being wild and unruly.
"Yes, we were a bit wild," I confessed, "but I assure you that we have all become pillars of our communities since then."
"That's good," he said, not entirely convinced.
I told Becky Wilson that I had always enjoyed the old "College" newspaper that was published under her editorial direction in a thrifty, broadsheet format on newsprint. That was before it morphed into the slick magazine it is today.
Becky was thrilled to hear my words and thanked me for the compliment. I encouraged her to find the person on campus who is preserving the college's archives and insist he digitize them for posterity.
Becky, in turn, told me to consider visiting the college again next year because it helped to create a sense of "continuity."
"I believe in continuity," Becky said emphatically.
Curtis looked at his wife curiously, raised an eyebrow beneath his shock of pure white hair and said, "I believe in discontinuity."
At 10 p.m. I headed to the Great Hall in McDowell for the Saturday night waltz party featuring a live band. The Great Hall was jammed with young people eager to dance and dressed to the nines, including one lanky student who was wearing a tuxedo.
Let me tell you: some of these kids can dance! And not just the wiggly, freeform stuff I was doing last night (any Deadhead can do that). I'm talking about one-on-one swing dance where couples engage in intricate, spontaneously-choreographed movements.
One freshman named Eric put most of us guys to shame with his effortless send-outs, sugar pushes, barrel rolls, whips, inside-, outside- and sweetheart turns. His eight and six count steps blended seamlessly into each other and every girl in the room was dying to dance with him.
When the exhausted, sweaty boy took a break I complemented him on his moves and told him he was a natural. I asked him how many years he had studied swing dance and he told me that he had only just learned how to dance a month ago. He said weekly dance lessons were held in "Temple Iglehart" and that the college encouraged, nay practically insisted, that students learn how to swing. I could not believe my ears. I had been trying to learn how to "swing" for over 30 years with little success.
And it was at that moment of total and complete humiliation I swore (to paraphrase JFK) "pay any price, bear any burden and meet any hardship" to assure my success as a West Coast swing dancer.
No longer, I resolved, would I be a timid and awkward presence on the dance floor.
I slept on my feather bed at the Charles Inn like a baby, after my full day of homecoming activities, and made my appearance at 8 a.m. for Sunday breakfast. Paula had prepared crepes made from scratch, filled with mascarpone cheese and smothered with homemade boysenberry puree with blackberries the size of golf balls on the side.
Paula is 60 and spent 15 years of her life as a school teacher of special needs kids. John is 55 and has spent over 20 years running the place as an inn. "The first five years are the hardest because that is the time when you are doing the most restoration and you're serving guests," John said. "After that it gets easier . . . a lot easier."
A couple hours later I returned to the college for the last event of the homecoming reunion: An 11 a.m. brunch hosted by the college president. It was drizzling and cold and the meal was served beneath a large tent set up in the soccer field. Juice, coffee, scrambled eggs, potatoes and sausage were complemented by extraordinary gravy made with tender chunks of chicken.
I hung out with many of the alumni who attended the "Travesties" seminar and I was told that my comments of the previous day were "very insightful." That made my day because Johnnies, as a rule, are not always so generous with their compliments.
The weather finally cleared and it was time to bid farewell to my lush, green alma mater. I decided to spend the rest of the day playing tourist.
My first stop was the State House that served as the US Capitol for seven months after the American Revolution. A magnificent, imposing colonial structure, its enormous dome dominates the city skyline. I checked out the Senate and House chambers, got bored and left.
Next stop was the Naval Academy, a stone's throw from St. John's and accessible through a number of gates around its walled perimeter. A young man in fatigues checked my ID and said I could wander freely throughout the campus.
I was drawn to the chapel because it was the stateliest and most prominent building around. Since it was a Sunday and its doors were wide open, I wandered inside. I shut off the flash on my camera and took pictures of the chapel's immense inner space and exquisitely-detailed stained glass windows.
My next stop was the Annapolis harbor. A spacious parking lot had somehow materialized since I was a student, and now motorists had a convenient place to dock their car while shopping for some of the tackiest souvenirs I have ever seen. I spent the next half hour weaving in and out of stores, appalled and amused by all the clever bumper stickers and novelty signs.
As I was walking along the docks I saw a small white boat with an ornamental smoke stack. The boat had two levels that could fit at least a hundred people. Dubbed the Harbor Queen and piloted from a small booth on the second story, it looked like a perfect escape from the ever-rising heat and humidity of downtown Annapolis.
The boat was going to travel up the Severn River, view the Naval Academy, circle around and enter into the Chesapeake Bay. The price of the 40 minute cruise was only $12 and seemed like a bargain. Being the end of the tourist season, only about a dozen people were interested in the excursion so I gladly bought a ticket and climbed aboard.
The crew untied the ropes and muscled the metal gang plank off the dock. The captain blasted a long, deafening horn followed by three short bursts (much like the ritual blowing of a ram's horn, on steroids).
The Harbor Queen chugged out of the port and toward the Severn River while a crew member recited the safety procedures. Then a canned and surprisingly clear male voice was heard over the public address. This disembodied voice explained the significance of every buoy, monument and historic building that we passed, as well as every inlet, spit of land and sandbar.
There must have been a pause button attached to this public address system because the voice was perfectly synchronized with the sights. Such exact synchronization could not have occurred naturally when one considers the unpredictability of the sea, the weather and the heavy boat traffic.
I learned a lot about the history of Annapolis during this tour and if I had to do it again, I would have taken this boat ride before I decided to wander aimlessly through town. It was during this boat tour that I found out John Paul Jone's bones were buried at the Naval Academy chapel and that there was a synagogue at the Naval Academy with the façade of Thomas Jefferson's Monticello, both of which I missed on my earlier stroll.
But all I really wanted from this boat ride was some sunshine and fresh air. Perched near the bow of the mighty "Harbor Queen" and seated on a child's life preserver (to cushion my bony ass), I got plenty of sunshine. The air was cool, the water was calm, the sky was clear and the breezes, gentle.
It was a Sunday afternoon and many people were out sailing. The navy was holding a "regatta" and dozens of middies were tacking into the wind or heading out to sea on a broad reach.
Oh, how my heart went out to those midshipmen! How I longed to be out there with them!
But the Harbor Queen had to do for now and it turned out to be exactly what the doctor ordered.
After returning to port, I took a long walk into an old residential neighborhood and marveled at the tidy row houses lining the streets, herringbone cobblestone sidewalks, the ancient walls and the secret gardens. When the quarter-, half-, three-quarter and hour struck, the air was filled with the sound of bells from the many churches scattered throughout town, and these were real bells, not recordings of bells like the kind they play at the University of New Mexico.
The tolling of the bells brought back sweet memories of the night my schoolmates and I caroled through the streets of Annapolis before Christmas break. We were invited into some old homes and treated to cookies, cake and hot, spiced apple cider.
I eventually found myself back home at the Charles Inn and was exhausted, my feet were sore and I was thirsty. Paula treated me to a glass of Perrier and lime and we sat around for a while and chatted.
Afterwards I went to my room and filled the enormous bathtub with water, eased myself in and spent the next hour languishing in the tub's vast expanse. Then I dried myself, turned on the ice cold, remote-controlled Fujitsu air conditioner, pulled out a foot-long match and ignited some paper under a pile of kindling and logs in the fireplace and watched it grow into a roaring fire.
I climbed into my feather bed and spent the next hour writing about the day's events; and when I tired of doing that, I put aside my laptop, removed my Ray-Bans and fell asleep.
Next morning I awoke and made the "final push" to get everything packed. I checked, double-checked and triple-checked my room to see if I had forgotten anything. Then I went to the dining room where I enjoyed a large Dutch apple pancake, made with cinnamon-ginger-and-nutmeg batter, granny smith apples and smothered with fresh maple syrup.
Soon it was time to leave. The Super Shuttle arrived 15 minutes early and I asked the driver to wait while Paula and I walked through the back garden and stood at the water's edge of the little wooden pier.
The ride back to Baltimore-Washington International Airport was uneventful. The driver was a young man who came from the Philippines who was expecting his first baby. He got me to the airport in short order and I spent the next few hours engrossed in a fascinating exhibit on airplanes, located in the glass-enclosed observation deck. I got an education in airplane wings, landing gear, fuselage and the rudders of a modern, commercial airplane. I also learned about clouds, cold fronts, air streams, radar and aircraft controllers.
In fact, the airplane exhibit answered just about every question that has been baffling me about how these huge behemoths manage to get off the ground, fly and land safely. Also noteworthy was an adjoining exhibit dedicated to Baltimore's Thurgood Marshall, where I examined his robe, gavel, vintage photographs and other memorabilia.
What's noteworthy about the BWI observation deck is that, unlike the observation deck at the Albuquerque Sunport, you don't have to pass through security to enjoy it or its adjacent Subway Restaurant. This makes it a great place for airplane lovers to gather and hang out.
Now I'm flying at 30,000 feet somewhere over the midwest, making good time on a non-stop flight back to Albuquerque. The plane is packed and I have a window seat next to a very small child who, if my senses serve me correctly, has just pooped.
Thank you for visiting Chucksville.com. If you would like to read the play I wrote about my wild freshman year at St. John's, please click these words.