Monday, June 24, 2019

College Plus 40

By the time your 40th college reunion comes around, you’re old. The alma mater is eager for you to come back so that you’ll remember it when you’re at the lawyer’s office cutting a ne’er-do-well relative out of your will. When you finally find the invitation you received in the mail (“I had it when I walked into the room…”) you see that it’s sponsored by Lipitor and Depends and includes a coupon for the school’s official funeral home.

Since I started going to my college reunion at my 20th—lured by the promise of seeing Mary Wilson of the Supremes—I’ve always had a fantastic time. Gathered on the University of Virginia’s lovely Grounds (no, it’s not a campus) with other Wahoos, it’s a weekend of telling your friends that they haven’t changed a bit, rehashing old stories, enjoying plentiful food and drink, and attending a seminar or two. If that’s not enough, there are tours, music, dancing, and yes, sometimes hangovers.

This year, my coworkers were concerned that in my eagerness to relive my college days, history might repeat itself. That’s right…. that I might participate in, and then report on, reunion-related canoodling. While I was, in theory at least, open to the idea of a canoodle, their delicate sensibilities were safe: I have no canoodling to report on.

I drove to Charlottesville with my friend Di who was coming from upstate New York. We stopped at Virginia Farm Market in Winchester on they way. I'd show you a photo of their fantastic apple cider donuts, but I ate all of them before starting this blog.

We took a scenic detour near the little town of Crozet and were mightily amused by finding Dick Woods Road.

The moment I walked into Alumni Hall I had one of those “Toto I don’t think that we’re in Kansas anymore” moments. There was LOTS of blue and orange. And I do mean lots. Men and women were nattily dressed in blue blazers and orange neckties, blue and orange striped polo shirts, and anything else that might come in blue and orange.

Di and I presented ourselves at the appropriate registration desks and soon enough were outfitted in the official color-coded lanyard that served as our tickets for the weekend.  We each received an official UVa tie tack and even an official school pennant. Who knew pennants were coming back?!

After getting the lay of the land from the earnest young Wahoo at the check in table, he pointed me in the direction of another desk where someone would print my alumni association membership card entitling me to a 15% discount at the UVa bookstore. The merch didn’t even have to be blue and orange.

I told the man at the counter that my name was Rick Bryant.

The Rick Bryant…. from The Declaration?  

Uh no
, I said.

The Declaration (as in of Independence…clever, no?) was a weekly student tabloid.  My doppelg√§nger was a BMOG law student. He played racquetball. People would call me about scheduling games with him.

His given name is Frederick, I said, defending the good name of Richards everywhere.

With that conversational gambit shot down like a clay bird in a skeet shoot, the man behind the counter went to Plan B.

“So where are you from?” 


“State College, Pennsylvania. As in Penn State.” 


“Oh, do you know Tina Hay?”


I chuckled.

“Why yes, I do. She's great.”

The man handing out the membership cards turned out to be the editor of the UVa alumni mag. He'd met Tina after hearing her talk about crisis communications.  Small world. 

While I usually stay in on-Grounds housing (as in a dorm), I opted for the considerably less spartan Courtyard by Marriott near the UVa Medical Center. I thought it would be a better option if I were to have a canoodling-related heart attack or worse, a you-know-what lasting more than four hours.

That evening, Di and I and another friend walked down the street for dinner at Maya, a trendy Yelp-endorsed restaurant. I read later that the neighborhood is called Midtown. Back in the day it would have been called “Yeah, do you don’t wanna go there…” 

But that was a long time ago.

Maya is a trendy spot, welcoming both inked skinny-jeans-wearing regional cuisine aficionados and doofus hipster-wannabes.  The Yelp-ers are on to something: not only was the food good, but the historic cocktail of the month hit the spot too. However, our zaftig crimson-lipsticked waitress never really warmed to us. My guess is that she wouldn’t be caught dead in blue and orange.

NFL Man of the Year, owner of two Super Bowl rings, Wahoo, and C-ville local Chris Long came in for take-out and waited at the bar right by our booth. And to answer your first question, no, he was not wearing skinny jeans. Do they even make skinny jeans in sizes for NFL players? He was very polite and didn’t interrupt our dinner to ask to take a selfie with us. Had he asked, I would have said yes.

After dinner we still had time for a nightcap at The Virginian, a sort of diner/bar where you can get not only Maker’s Mark but tits too. My friend Margaret once found a cockroach in a farmer’s omelet there. Presumably in the intervening years the exterminator has come. I didn’t stay out late: my reunion-ing schedule started early the next day.  Yeah, I’m old.

There were plenty of things on offer. There were uplifting seminars covering a wide variety of topics from UVa sports to retirement to nuclear energy to Walt Whitman. If you wanted to hang out with friends from the Honor Committee or the Veterans of the Old Dorms Panty Raids you could do that. If you care to go farther afield, there were tours of new buildings on Grounds and local hot spots, like wineries and Monticello. And if Bill was your friend, there were twelve step meetings.

I typically stick to the historic stuff and do a few tours of new and different parts of the Grounds. I wasn’t much of a joiner, wasn’t in student government, and even let my membership in the Old Dorm Panty Raid Association lapse a few years back.

My first seminar was called 1968: A Year Drenched in Blood, a perfect choice to shock the brain cells into something approaching thinking. The prof, Brian Balogh, whose podcast, Backstory, is a personal fave, used lot of video clips to talk about the fracturing America of 1968. He illustrated his points with everything from an ad from the Nixon presidential campaign to clips of the Chicago police beating the crap out of anti-war protesters at the Democratic convention.

During the Q&A, one member of the audience, from the class of ’64 or ‘69, talked about his experience returning from Viet Nam, when the manager of a swank hotel in San Francisco comped his room as a way of welcoming him back from the war.

At this, the older gentleman sitting by me became visibly distressed and tears started rolling down his cheeks. When I offered a tissue, his wife told me that he’d had the opposite experience returning from Viet Nam. He was called a baby killer, and that was just for starters.

Another audience member identified himself as one of the five African-American students of the 1200 men (as in no women) of the class of 1969. He talked about performing in the Glee Club’s spring concert when someone came into the auditorium and announced that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been killed. He said everyone in the hall turned and looked at him.

All three of these men were reminders that although there are lots of things we need to work on, America is a better place than it was in 1968.

When I was sufficiently depressed it was time for my second talk, Rum, Rummy, Rampaging, and Research: Life at Early UVA for Students, Faculty, and the Enslaved.
 
We learned that before the Civil War The University was a dangerous place. Students were often drunk and violent. Gunfire on Grounds was a frequent occurrence. Lots of the violence was intended by students to assert dominion over the enslaved community. The young men sent to UVa to learn leadership skills spent much of their time leading the way to local liquor and ammo stores.

Ante bellum UVa sounded like The Three Stooges Meet Jim Crow, only worse. In addition to the traditional Oh, a wise guy, eh? before some eye gouging and sucker punching, the fighting also included lots of nose biting. Yes, nose biting. It was a thing. It’s even documented in university records. Yikes.

And of course, there was wenching and whoring.  Those boys wenched and whored out the ying yang. Faculty members did a lot of hand wringing about the wenching and whoring. There's plenty of documentation of that, too.

Fortunately, I could only fit in two depressing seminars before lunch back at The Virginian, where one of my friends told me that his nonagenarian father was getting married the next day. Impressive! I didn’t ask if the bride were knocked up.
 
After lunch it was time for a tour. The architecture school's gravel parking lot has become a parking garage, band building, and a studio art building. The area now has a fancy name, The John and Betsy Casteen Arts Grounds, which presumably has replaced its former name, "You have classes way out there?". While there were bright spots, the tour was a bit like listening to someone you don’t know brag about their grandchildren.

At about 5:00 p.m. a thunderstorm of biblical proportions descended on Charlottesville. The lights in the hotel went out briefly, and the phone system was knocked out for the remainder of the weekend.  Fortunately the Alumni Association had announced earlier that evening activities would be at their inclement weather sites.
 
The evening's new location, the John Paul Jones Arena, was impressive even if it wasn't designed by Mr. Jefferson or Stanford White. The huge athletic complex was living proof that in the years since I was a student, UVa has embraced bigtime sports, to the detriment of time spent wenching, whoring, and nose-biting.

Saturday was a beautiful day so my friends and I got bagels from Bodo’s (a C-ville institution) so that we could have breakfast on The Rotunda steps while watching the morning’s academic procession. UVa is very big on academic processions. Mr. Jefferson’s Lawn, with its rows of columns leading from one focal point to another is the perfect spot for them.

When we arrived, cute Josh (even at my advanced age I still have the ability to read a nametag) and his cute and perky co-workers from Alumni Hall were there to carry the class banners.  Each time I see them I’m impressed with how handsome they are. The banners, I mean.

Soon enough a man in academic gown holding the university’s mace showed up, followed in short order by a guy in a kilt with bagpipes. The kilt wasn’t a blue and orange tartan, a clear branding goof by some junior development person attached to the events office. The new university President, Jim Ryan, arrived—easy to spot since he was the only man in a dark business suit.

We fell into a ragtag procession by class, behind the guy with the mace, the bagpiper, university President, and the cute banner folks from Alumni Hall.  Classmate Katie Couric stepped out of the procession to capture the scene on her phone, our very own Abraham Zapruder.  I hope I was smiling.

When the procession neared its end, we all clapped for those who’d graduated fifty years ago.

Josh took a photo of Di, Pete, and me with our class banner.

After the procession, there’s an assembly where people from the alumni association and the development office act as the de facto opening acts for the University president. They pass out awards to the classes that did the best with fundraising and attendance.

Before the speakers started, my friends and I talked about what a terrible job someone did hanging the screen over the stage.  How could they not align it with the room’s cornice? Architects notice these things.

President Ryan was impressive; the university seems to be in good hands.  As the Q&A from the audience wound down, in an amusing bit of theatre, the last questioner randomly chosen from the audience was Katie Couric. She asked about the college admissions scandal. President Ryan them answered her like the skilled politician a university president needs to be these days.

After the President’s address, I hit a seminar on Mr. Jefferson before going to the Architecture School luncheon in the garden of Pavilion VI. The Dean’s wife turned out to be the woman who did the architecture school portion of the arts grounds tour the day before. She was very nice though I couldn’t help but notice that she was wearing the same black dress as the day before. She did, however, change her shoes.

Saturday afternoon I took a friend to the airport, went to the university bookstore to see if my math skills could calculate a 15% discount.

Afterward, I took in an exhibit on Walt Whitman. 

 
 
Leaves of Grass had some terrible reviews. Yikes!

After Walt it was time to return to the hotel to shower, shave, and Aqua Velva before our big class finale in McIntire Amphitheater.

I could barely fit into my pink Ralph Lauren party trousers that I wore to the same event five years previously, but as long as I didn’t plan on inhaling, exhaling, eating, drinking, or moving, I figured I’d be ok.

It was a beautiful night for a party, in a beautiful setting, surrounded by historic white columned buildings that are part of the UVa brand. It was the like the best wedding ever except without annoying relatives, the possibility of children in attendance, and having to wait forever for the bride and groom to cut the cake so that you can leave.

 My friends and I laughed and laughed and laughed some more.

Dessert was the C-ville delicacy, the Grillswith. It's a grilled glazed donut topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. It wouldn't be a UVa reunion without them. 

Around 9:00 p.m., Atlanta’s Perfect 10 Band started to play. They’re a horn band fronted by three women—one with a baby bump--in sequined jumpsuits and one guy in the tightest pants ever. They are fantastic entertainers.

In about a half a second there were lots of aged and not quite infirm Wahoos on the dance floor gyrating as if they once knew how to dance. At some point the guy in the tightest pants ever led a conga line around the dance floor. I can't tell you the last time that I was in a conga line.

The Perfect 10 band was the opening act for Skip Castro, the band that’s played at all of our reunions. Sure, they’re long in the tooth, but they’ve still got what it takes.

On our way out of the party we met some younger Wahoos who had scored some lanyards and were on their way in. I think they’d been partying all evening, but hey, it was Reunions Weekend, I could hardly blame them.  In the course of chatting, he told me that he was looking for $450,000 venture capital for his startup. He's got gizmo (or maybe it was a process) that turns kombucha into rolling papers. I told him I was in for $50,000. Fortunately, he was more interested in running to the bar than running my credit card.

Di and I took a selfie with Mr. Jefferson and then sat down on the Rotunda steps to chat with some friends of hers.

Three twenty somethings appeared out of the dark and were horsing around on the grass in front of us. Someone—I think it was Di—yelled to them that they should streak.

Soon enough, there were piles of clothes in front of us and they ran down Lawn together in the altogether. On the return trip, they ran right up the steps of the Rotunda. That was when I noticed that they knew that a Brazilian is not just a citizen of that really big country in South America. 

 

The final thing on the schedule was the traditional Sunday morning going away breakfast at the aquatic center. It's headlined by the droll politics commentator Larry Sabato, the head of UVa's Center for Politics and a member of the class of '74. He spends an hour or so politically prognosticating while bleary-eyed alums munch on breakfast food.

Unfortunately the end of his talk signaled that another reunions weekend was coming to a close. As he finished talking, Frank and Heidi and Guy and Melinda and Pete and Laura and Bob and Ted and Carol and Alice and anyone else I might have laid eyes on said our goodbyes and promised that we wouldn’t wait 5 years to get together again.

This time we really mean it.