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Some Kind of Place: Middlebury, Vermont

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

MiddOn opposite walls in my room on the top floor of Gifford in the fall of 1991: a world map with National Geographic pastel borders and a somewhat pretentious Kandinsky poster.  Between them was a dormered window through which I could crawl out onto the building’s slate roof for a crystalline view of the Adirondacks. The mountains were visible from within the room, too, but I preferred sitting on the roof, sky overhead, feeling the wind move through the valley.

Other transformational places on campus: David Napier’s anthropology class, where we debated the authenticity of Carlos Castaneda’s vision quests, and John Bertolini’s Modern British Drama class, where we lurked at the edge of Beckett’s eternal abyss. Every Tuesday at 3 am I sequestered myself in the WRMC studios for a jazz show featuring Art Blakey, John Coltrane, and Thelonius Monk, deejaying for (at best) a handful of Addison County insomniacs.

At the top of our hill, with Rt. 125 ribboning off to the east and west, we had Kerouacian amounts of time and space for reflection and introspection. It was as though the breadth and serenity of the valley demanded it. You read To the Lighthouse, and you could linger within Woolf’s consciousness for as long as you wanted and needed—the purple mountains weren’t going to distract you. You read King Lear, and you lived with it in the quiet of those long pathways of the quad. It became harder and harder to hide from a book’s implications. Each book had room to breathe. Sometimes I’d take these ruminations to the Long Trail, whose lush leafiness was only a few miles away.

There were days when I would be walking alone up the hill from Twilight and the face of a classmate or teacher would pop into my mind. Seconds later, that very same person would emerge, in the flesh, from behind Warner or down the steps from the offices in Old Chapel. Initially I was alarmed by this. But then I realized that coincidences like this happen all the time amid the churnings of a small campus.

Mostly, I liked this coziness. For a while my girlfriend and I walked into town every Friday morning for breakfast at Steve’s Park Diner. Each week we invited a different guest. Many of our professors came. Even President McCardell came once, and he chronicled the history of Middlebury football for us.

What we didn’t seem to have, though, was a political culture. My older brother was at Wesleyan, where you couldn’t walk from the library to the dining hall without encountering a sit-in or picket line.
We at Middlebury, on the other hand, seemed mostly subdued and conflict-averse. At the outset of the Gulf War, I witnessed a few dozen students assemble outside Proctor in protest. They marched with banners until someone in Gifford pointed their three-foot Bose speakers out a window, anonymously blaring “Born in the USA.” The protest dwindled, and afterwards, campus was especially quiet.  We lived in such a beautiful, peaceful place, the problems of the world felt remote.

There came a point when I needed a break from this feeling of remove. David Napier had introduced me to an ambitious group of doctors in London who shared a flat and provided free medical care to homeless people throughout the city. I took a term off and lived with them, shadowing them in their clinics. When I returned to Middlebury, I was eager for one last round of intense academic rabbit-holing. This was the perfect time for Elizabeth Napier’s transcendent class on neoclassical and romantic poetry. It helped to have a somewhat more world-wise frame of reference. Exploring the mysteries of Pope and Wordsworth in a high-ceilinged Twilight classroom for 90 minutes felt both luxurious and, if I paid close attention, relevant and essential.

That fall, I lived in a Ripton farmhouse with four friends. The land was adjacent to Forest Service property connected to the Bread Loaf ski trails. There was a pond out back where we swam every day until it froze, and I only went to campus for class and work. Arriving at Middlebury four years earlier, I’d been wary of the school’s pastoral calm. I was worried I’d get bored. That winter, snowstorm after snowstorm, our top priority was to sit by the fire and write our theses, coffeemaker nearby. We shoveled off the roof when necessary. We cherished the quiet, hardly knowing it wouldn’t last.

Lewis Robinson ’93 is the author of the short story collection Officer Friendly, which won the PEN Oakland/Josephine Miles Literary Award, and the novel Water Dogs. He is a writer in residence at Phillips Academy in Andover.

After the Storm

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

stormWhat does it take to rebuild from the largest Atlantic hurricane ever recorded?

Keelah and Harry Helwig lived on a dirt road in Far Rockaway, New York. When Hurricane Sandy struck, and their house broke away from its foundation, and the waters of Jamaica Bay sloshed against the living room windows, they decided they would have to swim. Harry’s mother, Dora, was in a two-story house nearby. The upper story was above the water. But then, fortunately, the boat in their driveway detached from its trailer and drifted close enough to their house that they could climb into the rocking hull. They survived the storm, but their home and all their belongings were destroyed.

“There’s our house,” Helwig said one evening in August. He was pointing at a square on a giant satellite map taped to a wall in a brightly lit school gymnasium. “Or what’s left of it.” The square was on a nub of land that stuck into Jamaica Bay, which separates the Rockaway Peninsula from the rest of the borough of Queens. “Now we’re waiting for demolition,” Helwig said. He and Keelah planned to rebuild, and they were hoping the city would help them.

The Helwigs had come to the gym for an information session about the city’s flood recovery program, run by Mayor Bloomberg’s Office of Housing Recovery Operations, which was established after Hurricane Sandy. Morgan Jones ’04 is the senior adviser for outreach for Housing Recovery in Queens and was one of the event’s organizers. He helped launch the program, Build It Back, on June 3. Its $648 million budget was allocated from the $61 billion federal Sandy recovery bill that Congress passed in January.

“The idea tonight is for people to meet with developers and find out their rebuild options,” Jones told me. A big part of Jones’s job is to make sure that people like the Helwigs apply to Build It Back. He publicizes the program citywide, mainly through social media, e-mail blasts, and events. More than 17,000 people have already applied. His work never ends. “I have a Blackberry that follows me everywhere I go,” he said. “And my wife loves that.”

Over the last year, Jones has helped hundreds of people navigate the aftermath of the violent flood. Immediately after the storm, 150,000 New Yorkers had to find temporary housing or get immediate home repairs. More than 20,000 households still need help—whether they need to rebuild entirely, make repairs, or get reimbursed for work already done. Some homeowners will be able to sell their property to the government, particularly those in the worst flood-hazard areas. So far, such buyouts have been sought only in Staten Island.

Recovery work is not for the one-dimensional. Jones became a mold expert. He learned how to start a generator. He arranged with a real-estate developer to move a wheelchair-bound boy trapped for months in his fourth-floor apartment (the elevator was broken) to a ground-floor unit. He read the fine print contained in flood insurance plans.

Sandy was the largest hurricane ever recorded over the Atlantic Ocean, with tropical storm-force winds spanning 1,100 miles, roughly the distance from Manhattan to Miami. It was the second costliest storm in American history, after Katrina. A storm of such magnitude has countless impacts and meanings. For Jones, its impact is redefined daily by its human toll. For many people, Sandy has become a historic event, a natural disaster, and a regional tragedy whose details slowly fade.

But for some people, Sandy has been a stark illustration of the changing climate and a call to arms. They believe there must be new coastal-development policies, new measures to slow greenhouse gas emissions, and adaptations to protect people from the next storm. Mark Mauriello ’79, the former commissioner of New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), is among those inspired to rethink priorities. He has been a vocal critic of Governor Chris Christie’s approach to Sandy recovery. “There are two sides to the Sandy story. One is technical, and the other is human,” Mauriello explained. “And the human side is always compelling. Listening to testimony of the trauma and misery that storm victims experienced really highlights the importance of considering the increasing coastal-hazard vulnerability that we face. Shame on us if we fail to learn the lessons of Sandy and repeat past mistakes as we rebuild.”

And Then There Was Football

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

Middlebury-Vintage-Football-v2It’s not all in the history books, but 1936 was a year to remember. Germany occupied the Rhineland. Italy annexed Ethiopia. The Rome-Berlin Axis was proclaimed, and in Schenectady, New York, in ideal weather conditions, a Middlebury football team, in new Yale blue whipcord pants and navy blue jerseys, beat Union, 7 to 0. Captain Bill Craig blocked a fourth quarter kick, John Kirk, sophomore end, fell on it in the end zone, and George Anderson kicked the extra point. On the Middlebury sideline, Coach Ben Beck suppressed signs of satisfaction, while across the field, Union assistant coach Duke Nelson struggled with mixed emotions.

Leon Trotsky was exiled to Mexico. The Pulitzer Prize in drama was won by Robert L. Sherwood for Idiot’s Delight; in fiction for something titled Honey in the Horn. In the Berlin Olympics, Jesse Owens won four gold medals. In Waterville, Maine, early in the first quarter, Bud Seixas broke through right tackle to block a kick on the Colby 20-yard line and carry it in. Late in the third quarter, from his own 2-yard line, Craig punted 96 yards to the Colby 2, the ball traveling more than 70 yards in the air—this 21 years and one day before Sputnik—as Middlebury won, 6-0.

The Spanish Civil War began. Japan moved against China. Joe Louis was knocked out by Max Schmeling. In Middlebury’s home opener at Porter Field, Kirk caught a 40-yard pass from Bobby Boehm in the Coast Guard end zone, and John Van Doren capped a 60-yard drive with a delayed buck as the Panthers won, 12-0.

In Germany, work was started on the Siegfried Line. In the United States, Henry Luce started Life magazine. A fat fellow named Farouk became King of Egypt. The New York Yankees beat the New York Giants in the World Series, four games to two, and in Troy, New York, Kirk grabbed a 10-yard pass from Johnny Chalmers in the RPI end zone in the third period, and late in the last quarter scored again, intercepting an Engineer pass on the RPI 10-yard line as Middlebury won, 13-0.

In England, George V died, to be succeeded by his son, Edward VIII, who would soon trade a kingdom for the woman he loved and be replaced as monarch by his brother, George VI. Japan and Germany signed an anti-Commintern Pact. At Northfield, Vermont, Middlebury—not only undefeated and untied, but also unscored on—finally gave up points, 6 of them to Norwich following a fumble. Paul Guarnaccia and Boehm scored for the Panthers as they won, 13-6.

 In Germany, Hitler got 99 percent of the vote. In the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, confounding the Literary Digest pollsters, and helping to fold that magazine, won re-election by the largest popular victory ever. Of the two states to go for Alfred M. Landon, James A. Farley said: “As Maine goes, so goes Vermont.”

At Porter Field, Middlebury faced its toughest opponent in its sixth, and make-or-break, game of the season. St. Lawrence had lost, 26 to 6, to Colgate, one of the best of the big teams of the East, but it had rolled over Wagner, 82-0, and at halftime, it led the Panthers, 8 to 0. In the third quarter, a Chalmers to Craig pass put the ball at the 1-yard line, from where Guarnaccia took it in. After an exchange, a holding penalty again put the ball on the St. Lawrence 1, and Chalmers lofted a pass to Kirk in the end zone. Another Chalmers pass to Craig made it Middlebury 19, St. Lawrence 8.

In France, Dr. Alexis Carrel, assisted by Charles Lindbergh, developed a perfusion pump, or artificial heart. In the United States, Margaret Mitchell published a heart-throbber titled Gone With the Wind. Maxim Gorki died. So did Rudyard Kipling and G. K. Chesteron. In the mud at Porter Field, Guarnaccia scored two touchdowns; Connie Philipson and Craig scored one each as Middlebury beat Ithaca, 27 to 7.

Boulder Dam, to be renamed Hoover, was completed. Eugene O’Neill was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Americans were listening to, and sometimes dancing to, “Night and Day,” “Pennies from Heaven,” “Blue Moon,” “Heartaches,” and “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”—which, as the Surgeon General will point out, is the least of the problems.

 At Porter Field, on November 14, after a scoreless first period and with a minute left in the first half, Boehm faded back to his own 28-yard line and threw one up for grabs. Kirk grabbed it out of the hands of three University of Vermont backs on the UVM 32-yard line and ran it in from there. At halftime, the visiting stands emptied onto the cinder track to break up the freshman “P-rade.” In the third quarter, Boehm, who did most of the carrying, scored through right guard from 27 yards out, and in the final period Chalmers, who had been returning punts like Albie Booth, ran through right tackle from the 7 to make the final score 20 to 0.

Larry Kelley, the Yale end, won the Heisman Trophy. The Green Bay Packers beat the Boston Redskins, who were on their way to Washington, D.C, 21 to 6, for the National Football League Championship. Jock Sutherland’s Pittsburgh Panthers would beat the Washington Huskies, 21 to 0, in the Rose Bowl on the first day of the new year, but who cared?

Outscoring opponents 117 to 21 in eight games, a Middlebury football team had gone undefeated for the first time. Kirk was the highest scoring end in the East and received All-American recognition from the Christy Walsh newspaper syndicate. Kirk, Jack Cridland, Randy Hoffmann, Seixas, Craig, Chalmers, Boehm, and Guarnaccia made the Campus All-State team. Anderson, John Golembeske, and Swede Liljenstein made the second team.

Those who also served were Stretch Winslow, Red Williams, Tom Murray, Sherb Lovell, Len Riccio, Ken Kingsley, Ray Stiles, Warren Rohrer, John Lonergan, Ron Meserve, Ken MacLeod, Frank Casey, and George Farrell. Never before had the Old Chapel bell rung as often, as long, or as loudly—not even when Middlebury had tied Harvard, 6 to 6, 13 years before.

W. C. Heinz ’37 wrote “And Then There Was Football” on the occasion of his class’s 50th reunion in 1987. It is printed here with permission from his daughter Gayl Heinz. Widely considered to be one of the greatest American sports journalists, Heinz died in 2008 at the age of 93. 

Pursuits: Stage of Life

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

SBOn an unseasonably hot September afternoon, Sheyenne Brown ’09 eats fried Oreos on the front deck of a Manhattan restaurant where she used to work. It’s right down the street from Columbia University, where she’s currently a third-year student in the graduate acting program.

She waves at a classmate who passes by and chats with a couple of the servers she hasn’t seen in a while. Except for her four years in Vermont, she’s always lived in New York; this is her turf.

“I entered the Columbia program thinking I wanted to do the classics, to do Shakespeare,” she says in her best, exaggerated Elizabethan accent. “But now I know I’m more drawn to projects where I interview people and tell their stories.”

Brown says she found her voice during her senior year at Middlebury in a winter-term solo-performance class taught by theater professor Dana Yeaton.

Yeaton recalls Brown as a generally quiet presence in his class, but that impression shifted when students were asked to prepare a three-minute piece showcasing a character of their choosing, a “what can you show me in three minutes?” type of thing.

Brown chose Oscar Grant, the young black man shot in the back by a police officer in Oakland, California, in 2009.

“She just walked out and dropped a bomb on the room,” remembers Yeaton. “She was Oscar Grant from the other side of the grave, all this male energy in a hoodie. She was big, and Sheyenne Brown is not big. Her character was enormous. She stunned us.”

Brown’s newfound comfort with solo material led her to explore an unorthodox theater-thesis project, A Colored Girl’s College Tour, which she performed not in one of the College’s theater spaces, but at 51 Main, the bar and restaurant on Main Street in town. The show took a hard, sometimes uncomfortable look at Brown’s experience as a black woman at Middlebury, mirrored with her much-different but equally significant semester at the historic black college Spelman, which turned out nothing like she expected. College Tour was something most in the community had never seen before.

“I was afraid to ask people for help. That’s why I did it at 51 Main,” Brown says. “I wanted people to just go down there, get their drinks, and there’s this one chair. Just me. A lot of that came out of fear. Fear that I couldn’t do what I wanted.”

The “talkbacks” with the audience following the show ended up being as long as the show itself, with President Liebowitz requesting an encore performance after the brief run sold out.
Yet after this success, Brown wasn’t sure what she wanted to do next. She was hired by Teach for America and placed at a public school in Newark, but she missed performing.When her contract was up, she enrolled at Columbia, one of only 18 students accepted into the acting program. Now in her third year, Brown has a second thesis production coming up, another solo performance—exploring her pending motherhood.

Seven months pregnant with a son due in early December, Brown says that “being a mother has always been [her] one dream. That’s why I work so hard. This is the primary dream right here, so I get to live my dream.”

She’ll perform Shower Me—what she calls her imagined baby-shower show—as a series of character monologues in November, right before her due date. “This is the solution to the fact that I’ll be nine-months pregnant when the thesis goes up,” Brown joked.

And her own mother will likely make an appearance, via projection, telling the story of her daughter’s birth. It will serve, Brown says, as a sort of abatement to her own fears about being a mother, proof that everything will work out well.

Coop Dreams

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

chickensI grew up a Southern city boy.

But when I had my own two boys, I began to feel that the city was no place for small children. What to do with them? There were museums, but three-year-old boys did not care too much for Southern vernacular art. It was hotter than hell in the summer. And then there was the Atlanta traffic, which, with a three-year-old and his nine-month-old brother in car seats, was truly my idea of hell on earth.

So we moved to Vermont, to New Haven, a few miles north of Middlebury—dairy country, rolling hills, dirt roads, mountains rising in the distance. Maybe it was the fact that an Atlanta neighbor had been held up at gunpoint around the block. Or maybe I held a buried ancestral memory, now rising up, of a mythic, rural childhood. Of farms and tree forts and catching monarch caterpillars, of seeing the stars at night and eating fried dough at country fairs.

As an eager stay-at-home dad, I moved into high gear. Nearly every day, we visited the Elgin Spring Farm to pet the newborn calves; we collected arrowheads in cornfields and tracked wild turkeys. We gardened and planted flowers. We built dams in creeks and collected balsam sprigs from the woods in winter.

On a summer evening, we drove to the Addison County Fair in a 1979 Ford truck I had purchased for $700. With the windows rolled down and the smell of summer silage blowing through, a dad and his sons followed the siren call of fried dough.

But the greatest adventure was to come: chicken farming. I started us on a dozen chicks, purchased for $1.29 apiece from Paris Farm Supply. Housed in a cardboard box in the kitchen, the chickens were given names, JoJo and Sam, Striper and Ajax. A neighbor brought us an old coop—gray clapboard with a cedar-shingled roof—with his tractor. We insulated it and hung up a sign: Quarry Road Chicken Operation.

We entered our two prize chickens in the Addison County Fair. Our fledgling enterprise was rewarded with a pink participant ribbon, which we proudly hung next to the hens’ laying box.

They ranged freely and had a high time under neighbors’ bird feeders cleaning up the spillage. Every few years, we got new spring chickens to replace those that had stopped laying or had fallen ill. We moved to Ripton, and the chickens moved with us. We built a palatial coop with a standing-seam metal roof, and we continued to collect our eggs.

But my boys were growing up. The miracle of a brown, still-warm egg no longer held mystery. They were off, playing soccer, playing guitar, playing hockey, going to school.

The chickens became my job, which I carried out as steadfastly as ever, talking to them in the morning, kicking the ice out of their water bowls in winter, occasionally losing one to a fox, repairing the coop in spring. I kept the chicken dream alive.

And then came the weasel. In the night, through the smallest of openings, a crack in the door or a tear in the fence. On a hot July morning, I found one of the hens, beheaded and eviscerated, flies flitting on her dirty wings.

My boys were no longer here to see me defend our birds, but it didn’t matter. After dark, under a full moon rising over the Green Mountains, I carried our last two chickens up to the pond and set them adrift in our little fishing boat, safe from the weasel. There in the dark, they sat in the bow, as still as herons. The boat was anchored and swung lightly on the line, the moonlight reflecting on the surface of the pond among the black shadows of trees, with the frogs croaking and a lone bat hissing at the edge of the woods.

In the morning, as the sun rose, I heard a splashing. Our chickens were hungry and now, apparently, they were swimming ashore.
I went to say morning salutations. There, before the chicken coop door, were the rested survivors pecking at the dewy grass, water dripping off their beaks, feathers soaked up to their plump breasts, waiting for the man.

Yes, my boys had flown the coop, but Sam and JoJo were still coming home to roost.

Archive: Blue Ribbon Days

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

Pins-sizedAside from the Language Schools pins that students afix proudly to their shirts each summer, signifying their chosen language of study, the days of sporting school ribbons or buttons on one’s lapel are as long gone as the late 19th/early 20th century. Fortunately, the items on this page are “typical of the treasure trove of bits and pieces of Middlebury history” that get donated to the College, offering an intriguing glimpse into past students’ lives, explains Andrew Wentink ’70, curator of Middlebury’s Special Collections.

Charles Leffingwell Ross, Class of 1895, donated the smallest of the three, the blue-and-white enamel stickpin in the shape of a maple leaf, and he may have worn it on his jacket lapel.

“At conferences with other schools, at meetings involving other colleges, Middlebury students from that era would have been anxious to show their loyalty,” Wentink says. And with the word “MIDD” emblazoned diagonally and no class year on it, this was the type of item a Middlebury delegate would have worn to a significant off-campus event.

The Markolf-Wheatley button is a reunion keepsake. Formerly the property of Mary Emma Markolf, Class of 1908, of Rutland, who later married Ernest Wheatley, it may have been distributed to members of her class at their 25th reunion or possibly later. Originally beige in color, it reveals its age, but it also shows the clear hand that penned the names of class members returning to campus.

The 1866 pin (donor unknown) with its three silk ribbons is a fascinating bit of “realia” created for a class reunion. Long before the College had a centralized alumni office, members of each class would plan every detail pertaining to their reunions and “classmates were always looking for ways to revisit and reinforce the special identity of their class,” Wentink notes. The colored ribbons may have represented something distinctive about the class, or they could have been a flourish added to make the Class of 1866, which had only 16 members, stand out from others at a reunion.

Editor’s Note: Full Fare

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

skinny_pancakeTraveling through the Burlington airport just got a whole lot more pleasant. I discovered this in May after passing through security in the airport’s north terminal and, with 30 minutes to spare before boarding my flight, went to grab something quick to eat. Anticipating the purchase of a hopefully not-so-stale bagel, I turned the corner and stopped in my tracks at the sight of a line of customers 10 deep at a bustling counter, above which read a sign heralding the arrival of Skinny Pancake to BTV.

The story behind Skinny Pancake is one of those tales made possible by a couple of tireless young men with a bold, quirky idea and just enough naiveté not to question their venture’s long odds.

Just a few days after graduating from Middlebury in 2003, Benjy Adler and his brother, Jonny, served their first crepe to a hungry customer from the siblings’ cobbled-together food cart on Burlington’s Church Street. Their idea was simple: local ingredients, food prepared before your eyes, and a product that you wouldn’t find around the corner.

During the past decade, Skinny Pancake has evolved from a food cart with a cult following to a flagship eatery on the Burlington Waterfront, a café in Montpelier, a spin-off Burlington pastry shop (Chubby Muffin), a catering business, and now the airport restaurants (one in each terminal, as well as a Chubby Muffin kiosk near the check-in counters).

The brothers say that the airport deal is an attempt “to create the most local airport eatery in modern history.” To me, it is yet another example of Midd folk doing ambitious things in the food world. On that day in May, I found myself regretting just one thing—that I didn’t have more time to sit and stay a while.