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Some Kind of Place: Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

Grovers
I’ve lived in Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, three times now, each occasion as Emily Webb, the protagonist of Thornton Wilder’s 1938 Pulitzer Prize-winning play Our Town.

The people who live in this fictional village are unsentimental, hard working, and full of love, though they don’t always have the tools to express it. As Wilder wrote in the preface to the 1957 collection Three Plays, Grover’s Corners is a lens in which “to find value above all price for the smallest events in our daily life.” The door is always open to visitors.

Grover’s Corners has been my benchmark to measure time and growth. I first played Emily at summer camp on Lake Champlain; it was my first big lead in a play, the role gave me the confidence to pursue my love for acting. Ten years later as a professional in a production in Baltimore, Maryland, I was made aware of the pressure of the iconic role and my own shortcomings as a developing actress. Now married, nearing 30, and revisiting the play this past summer in the acting ensemble at the Bread Loaf School of English, I found Grover’s Corners to be a new place, different from the one I knew as a teenager. It no longer felt like a physical location, but rather a fragile moment in time—our moment in time. It creates community by showing us community, and you don’t need to be from small-town New England to understand it.

Wilder wrote: “The climax of this play needs only five-square feet of boarding and the passion to know what life means to us.” What happens on those five-square feet is funny, awkward, brutal, optimistic, and forgiving. That world—Grover’s Corners—is home to me. It is a home created by the artists and the audiences who visit it. In this imagined world, I have been most fully myself. I find remnants of it in Brooklyn, exchanging smiles with a stranger, biking through the park, sharing dinner at home with my husband and friends. It’s a place that allows reflection and growth.
It can happen anywhere or anytime—as long as you leave room for hope.

Julia Proctor ’06 is an actress living in Brooklyn with her husband, Phil Aroneanu ’06. For more on Julia, visit www.juliaproctor.com.

Some Kind of Place: South Sudan/Congo Border

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

SouthSudanBorder
From above, this place is endlessly vast. We fly for hours and hours in planes and helicopters; then we walk by foot. From above, this place is smooth—a smooth, vast wilderness, beyond history, before people. But there are people here. Mothers and fathers, infants and babies, yearning youth, and ancient elders. They are connected by webs of motorcycle tracks held in place by mud huts and ancestor spirits. Yet one can still travel hundreds of miles through these jungles and not see a soul.

Here so many edges of Africa come together under impossibly thick, low-hanging canopy of brush and forest. The frontiers of South Sudan and Congo and Central African Republic. On these edges sits the center of Africa.

Such places are rare in the world. They exist at both the center and the end of things. Entire rebel groups can disappear in these lands. Massive cathedrals appear down tiny dusty tracks. Here, guns from nearby conflicts ebb and flow like tides until the neighboring conflicts become this place’s conflict.

It is a place where the notion of government is a faint one, a trickling stream that dries up in the dry season and sometimes doesn’t run all year long.

In the heat beneath the arc of the plane, the Earth sweats green. And the smoothness turns into reaching thorns and sharp grasses.

Then when I return months later, it has turned brown, and the crust of the Earth has cracked like soft-dried lava.

The sharp grasses have gone dull, and the thorns have grown smaller.

Trevor Snapp ’03 is a writer and photographer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, National Geographic Traveler, The Guardian (London), among other publications. He works globally, and for the past few years has been based out of Mexico and East Africa. His work can be found at www.trevorsnapp.com.

Some Kind of Place: Nuiqsut, Alaska

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

2013-08-03 The Storm

I. Path to the Sea
The blades of the fiberglass kayak paddles rise and fall to a rhythm as balanced as a pendulum’s. In the deafening Arctic quiet, they splash into the murky water with deep chops, the sound muffled only by the wind. Under cloudy skies, the river is a long, wide pane of gray, broken periodically by sandbars speckled with chalk-white caribou skulls. Steep banks rise on either side of the water, crowned at the top with tufts of grassy tundra. The cabins of a fish camp, where a family of Inupiat Eskimos likely spent the summer catching the year’s supply of char, burbot, and Dolly Varden trout, appear empty. Near one of the small, shingled buildings, what appears to be a small grizzly bear reveals itself as a musk ox when it raises its shaggy head to the sound of the boats, turns, and gallops out of sight.

As they slowly navigate the river, the small, rugged, inflatable crafts—weighing five pounds and collapsible to the size of a sleeping bag—add bright yellow and red to the otherwise stark aesthetic. Chelsea Ward-Waller ’12, Brett Woelber ’09, and his brother Paxson ’08 are on the Colville River, less than two miles from the Arctic Ocean.

From the start of their journey in the sweeping mountain passes and sunlit canyons of Alaska’s Brooks Range, they have come 300 human-powered miles in a month. They’ve named their trek Expedition Arguk—arguk meaning to walk against the wind, in Alaskan Inupiat—and they didn’t embark without putting a lot of careful thought into what they planned to do and why they planned to do it. Brett is a hydrologist; Chelsea, a geologist; Paxson, a media producer. All have a powerful affinity for the outdoors, for nature’s wild frontiers. They saw in Arguk an opportunity to traverse one of this country’s most rugged, remote regions, and they wanted to do so before the landscape was forever altered by encroaching development; a bridge, soon to be built by ConocoPhillips, will span the Colville River, offering easy access to the energy company’s newest drill site. “Our trip is limited,” Paxson explains, “We aren’t experts. We’re not going to provide a dry environmental assessment [of what’s going on here], what we can provide, though, is what it’s like to be here.”

And what it’s like to be out here is a discordant mash of serene beauty and perpetual discomfort. Three weeks on two different rivers means being constantly wet; something as simple as slipping on dry, five-toed socks before curling up in a sleeping bag is nothing short of sacrosanct. Campsites are often buffeted by piercing winds and require an electric “bear-proof” to be erected each evening.
To the group’s surprise, they haven’t seen many grizzlies. Several days into their first stretch of paddling on the Anaktuvuk River in the Brooks Range, a grizzly swam across the river in front of them, climbed up on the bank, stared, then darted into thicket of small trees. Still, everyone keeps bear spray within reach at all times. In Fairbanks, before beginning the trip, and after much debate and consideration, they decided on an extra measure: Brett carries a .44 magnum on his hip that has yet to leave its leather holster. Still, they’re not mentally prepared for what they encounter as they near the ocean.

Chelsea is the first to see the enormous, lumbering form. White spots (seagulls, skulls, driftwood) on the horizon are plentiful, and the landscape’s flatness often makes size difficult to judge—but a polar bear seen from less than a half-mile off is unmistakable.

Paddling ceases.

The bear’s shoulder rotates almost mechanically, and its legs move in a slow, seemingly effortless plod, yet it covers ground quickly. Then, suddenly, it disappears into the river ahead. Paddling begins again, this time with hurried purpose. Polar bears are known to attack prey by swimming underneath it, so the packrafters retreat to a sandbar in the middle of the river and get out of their boats. For several minutes, the bear is nowhere to be seen. Brett brings the .44 out and holds it at his side. Finally, it reappears on the opposite bank and continues down the shore.

Once the bear is well out of sight, the group presses on toward the mouth of the river; within a few hours, they wade into the Arctic Ocean. When they turn and look back across the tundra, what seem like abbreviated skylines of miniature cities appear at different distances across the horizon—the derricks from the Colville River Unit Alpine Oil Pool.

II. From Beginning to End
Arguk began at the Atigun Pass in the Brooks Range, where Luke Douglas ’09, Brett, Paxson, and Chelsea hiked into the Arctic National Preserve: 13,000 square miles with few named landmarks or a single trail. Navigation involved topographic maps, compasses, landmarks, and a little guesswork. With the shadows of clouds moving along with them, they passed through valleys and over steep passes, crowned with ridgelines of striated rock. They followed braided rivers, at times walking through rushing water when it proved easier than hiking over tussocks, the hillocks of thick grass that make up the vast floor of the region.

After the first week, they arrived at Anaktuvuk Pass, a small Nunamiut Eskimo village in the central Brooks Range. There, Jason Mercer, a biologist and the group’s fifth member, joined them. But they were not five for long. Luke arrived in Anaktuvuk with a badly sprained ankle and, after much deliberation, left on a flight back to Anchorage shortly after Jason arrived. The new group of four would use their packrafts to float down the Anaktuvuk River to its confluence with the Colville. Where its headwaters lay was a mystery, however, and no one in town seemed to know. After substantial wandering, they found a small, meandering channel through some grassland, began paddling and, soon enough, found themselves on a narrow river.

The landscape north of the Brooks Range changed drastically; they were suddenly surrounded by bright green, perfectly rounded hills. It looked “like you could walk blindfolded for a hundred miles without tripping,” Brett remembers, and though it seemed empty at first, more and more birds began to appear. Many were in molt and couldn’t fly, so as the boats approached, they ran down the riverbanks in large flocks, flapping their wings until just out of sight. When the boats came around the next river bend, the charade began anew and continued for miles and miles.

The packrafters then entered the National Petroleum Reserve (NPR-A), the largest single unit of public land in the United States (measuring slightly larger than the state of Maine), in Alaska’s North Slope. The region was opened for oil development in February, an event that garnered litle attention, even in Alaska.

After entering the NPR-A at the confluence of the Anaktuvuk and Colville Rivers, the packrafters spotted another boat filled with paleontologists who invited them to their camp at Ocean Point, where the saltwater from the Arctic Ocean begins to mix with the freshwater from the mountains. The next morning, they visited their dig site, where a group of duck-billed dinosaurs had been killed en masse millions of years ago. Thousands of bones spilled from the side of a bluff.

After leaving the paleontologists, the packrafters paddled through thick sea fog as they neared the ocean. Motorboats full of Inupiat Eskimos would pull alongside; a few of the natives would snap pictures of the visitors. There had been a celebration in the nearby village of Nuiqsut, population 400.  The people in Anaktuvuk Pass had warned the packrafters about Nuiqsut—an insular and protective community, they claimed.

The village’s power lines soon came into view, standing tall over the prefabricated houses arranged among a neat grid of gravel roads. When the packrafters arrived, they deflated their boats, walked past the graveyard on the edge of the village, and entered the town offices to introduce themselves.

2013-08-15 01 NuiqsutIII. The Village
Contrary to the opinion of those south of Nuiqsut, Expedition Arguk was welcomed warmly in the village. People in pickup trucks and four-wheelers waved when they passed by on the town’s gravel roads; some would stop to welcome them or ask where they’d come from and why.

Caribou and moose antlers lay unceremoniously on the tops of garages and the ice cellars outside homes. (The ice cellars are used to store whale skin and blubber after a hunt.) Subsistence hunting accounts for a large part of the diet in Nuiqsut, though there is a grocery store in town where a half gallon of Darigold two-percent milk runs for $9.99, a dozen grade AA eggs cost $6.99, and one and a half quarts of Dreyer’s Rich and Creamy Vanilla ice cream will run you $15.35.

The visitors attended Thursday night Bingo in the town hall, bringing their own sheets and markers and finding seats around one of the long wooden tables in a room full of Inupiat women and a few men. Chelsea won $100 in the first game, and she, like every subsequent winner, received the room’s applause. Several days later, representatives from ConocoPhillips held a meeting in the same room to discuss the construction of the CD-5 bridge across the Colville River to the new drill site. Door prize tickets were handed out before the meeting began, and someone translated the presentation from English to Inupiat. “There will be some blasting involved.” “The bridge will withstand flood conditions.”

The presentation ended with, “Does everyone have a door prize ticket?”

“760694.”

Clap. Clap.

A new first-aid kit.

“760675.”

Clap, clap.

A new set of kitchen knives.

Jason left Nuiqsut first, followed by Brett and Chelsea. Paxson was the last of Arguk to leave. He boarded a small prop plane, flying under the name Era Alaska. After bumping down the small airstrip, the plane lifted off the ground, slowly gained altitude, and disappeared into the fog, bound for Deadhorse, 60 miles away, where a larger plane awaited.

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. 

Looking for America

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

Ryan Kim ’14 wanted to discover what it means to be an American.

So last summer, the California native hit the rails, traveling 15,348 miles during the course of seven weeks. Not surprisingly, this exploration of country also became an exploration of self.

LOOKING-FOR-AMERICA

New Orleans, Louisiana
My journey began in the Crescent City, where, two days into my trip, I began to feel as if I were in a foreign country. I was dazzled by the strangeness, the novelty of everything: brightly painted colonial French houses, jazz horns, dancing all night, bikini-clad greeters in the doorways of Bourbon Street cabarets, Mardi Gras beads and Spanish moss hanging from the trees, the steam of hot, powdered French beignets. On this second day, I took an eight-mile trek north of New Orleans into the city of Metairie in the thick midday humidity of the Southern summer. Seeking respite from the oppressive heat, I decided to stop at an unfamiliar supermarket called Dorignac’s.

Inside, I wandered around admiring some of the store’s unique features, like its aisles, which I learned were spaced 30 percent wider than the industry standard to accommodate elderly regulars. When I’d indulged my supermarket fascination and stopped sweating so profusely, I asked a passing employee for directions before leaving. I must not have enunciated clearly or spoken loudly enough, because he looked at me quizzically without response. But rather than recognize one of these obvious causes for his confused expression, I immediately leaned on my instinctual habit of noticing the exotic, and I asked him if he spoke English. Without waiting for his answer, I walked away quickly, cheeks still flushed, but now from embarrassment, leaving him both confused and affronted.

Yazoo City, Mississippi
In Yazoo City, Southern hospitality was in full effect. I met a local family, the Adamses, and they spent an entire Saturday touring me through their hometown.

We started at 9 am with a family breakfast of bacon, eggs, and buttery biscuits for a grand party of nine. Then we covered what seemed like every inch of town, including the federal prison, a catfish farm, lumberyards, neighborhoods of dingy and destitute government-built housing, and wide boulevards of fancy homes with well-kept lawns and gardens. They showed me devastation wrought by a recent tornado. And we concluded the tour by observing monster-truck mud races.

That night I had dinner with three of my guides, and I felt comfortable enough to bring up the subject of regional accents. “I consider you all to speak with a Southern accent,” I said. “What kind of accent would you say I speak with?”

D’Ann, one of my hosts, stunned me: “We speak with su-thern draw-ul, but you, you don’t have an accent. You speak like an educay-ted person.” D’Ann and her sister-in-law, Libby, are teachers, and the man who sat between them, Paul, is an accomplished businessman.
On the playground growing up, my friends and I used to ignorantly adopt Southern accents to caricaturize simplicity and stupidity. I’d never thought about how that was probably rooted in a stereotypical belief in the cultural superiority of the Northeast and the West.

Cadillac, Michigan
Hermann’s European Café and Hotel on the main street in downtown Cadillac is owned and operated by a world-renowned Austrian chef named Hermann Suhs. I’d walked into his establishment and proudly negotiated the nightly room fee down from $80 to $65 by taking Room 5, which had a broken air conditioner. I thought I’d simply open the window. Yet at 11:30 that evening, while I was brushing my teeth, I felt my room had become uncomfortably warm. I was dismayed to find a sign on the windowsill that read, “Do not open window.”

I disregarded the note and pulled up the shade, only to find another note taped to the glass, which read, “Seriously, do not open the window. The alarm will go off, and the police will have to come.”

Remembering that the hallway outside my room had been particularly cool, I decided to step out for a quick breather.  As I was standing there, in the upstairs hallway of the seven-room hotel, above the restaurant, I heard a quiet click behind me. I turned in horror to find myself locked out—wearing nothing but boxers, with my mouth full of toothpaste. I spit the foam out at the back door of the building, and then I began knocking on the doors of the other six rooms. Finally, I managed to rouse an elderly man, bleary-eyed and reasonably suspicious. He gave me a cup of water to rinse out my mouth and called Chef Hermann to come rescue me. I waited for 20 minutes, feeling hangdog in the hall, as Chef drove over from his house by the lake to come open my door. Grumpily, with his shoulders slumped by interrupted sleep, he let me into my room. “I told you not to take Room 5!”

Astoria, Oregon
While jogging along the tracks of the waterfront trolley in Astoria, Oregon, I came across a conveyer belt lifting thousands of small fish into an industrial building covered in grey sheet metal. I’d found Bornstein Seafood, one of the few fish canneries still operating in this historically maritime town. After I snapped a couple of photos and asked the workers lingering outside a few questions, the plant’s mechanical engineer, Rick, offered to give me a tour.

Inside this noisy metal box of a building, Rick steered me through a fantastically complicated maze of conveyer belts staffed by dozens and dozens of workers spread out along the assembly line. He explained every step of the process: sorting for deformities; removing the head, tail, and guts; packing in equally weighted boxes; conducting random inspections for waste efficiency and quality control; adding unique labeling dependent on destination; and following the procedures for refrigeration and shipping. Approximately 130 workers are paid about $10 an hour, working in 12-hour shifts to process 20­–25 tons of fish every hour.

In about 45 minutes, I received a crash course in the vertical structure of the cannery business, from the way fishermen use phosphorus or plane-spotting to locate schools of fish to the fact that most of the sardines they process (the world’s largest sardine) are shipped to Asia and Australia for consumption, since Americans don’t have an appetite for sardines this size. At the end of the tour, I asked to capture Rick with a photo—wire rimmed glasses, Steve Jobs turtleneck, long grey ponytail, and encyclopedic brain of all things fish and machinery.

Trinidad, Colorado
Though I’d taken the train into this attractive town with red brick-laid streets, I left Trinidad on a Greyhound bus to Denver, where I could switch to a train line that would take me to Iowa.

Interestingly, though perhaps more common than I’d realized, the bus met its passengers at a gas station that doubled as a bus stop, where the attendant inside printed tickets behind the counter. With nowhere else to be, I patiently stood outside, sweating, with my bags on an unshaded curb under a cloudless summer sky.

A few other passengers restlessly paced and grumbled, seeking reprieve from the afternoon’s dry, blazing heat. They made repeated inquiries as to the whereabouts of our ride, but their agitation did nothing to truncate the delay.

Amidst this simmering, the door to the station swung open, jingling with greeting bells. A teenager of maybe 17 strode out, wearing dark jeans and an overstuffed camping backpack, all as dirty as his blond hair. Unabashedly, although there was plenty of space around, he squatted just a few short feet away from me. I tried to mind my own business, watching cars pass on the interstate.

He looked up at me over his left shoulder and asked, almost rhetorically, “Waitin’ on the bus?”

“Yeah.”

“Awesome.” With little pause, “Hot dog?”  He eagerly offered one of the steaming, plastic-wrapped purchases he cradled in each hand.

Fort Madison, Iowa
During a casual ramble through town on my first day, I found Fort Madison’s historical society museum, housed in the former train depot, wedged between a busy road and two heavily used train tracks. There was an old man in front wearing a red cap and denim overalls stretched over his T-shirt and enormous belly, watering a small garden of shrubs and flowers. His name was Andy Andrews.

When he saw me, he dropped his hose and invited me inside to guide me through the small exhibit that documented his town’s history, all the while incessantly chewing an unlit cigar that wobbled precariously on his lower lip.

Over the next couple of days, I ran into Andy a number of times—and some of his fellow retirees, who also volunteer to keep the museum open. Andy made a conscientious effort to help me with my principal traveling objective, to familiarize myself with each town to the greatest extent possible, by introducing me to residents and inviting me to community events. I only had three days in Fort Madison, but friendships form fast in small towns and kind men are easy to like.

At the end of my stay, I went back to the museum to say goodbye and to return a bike I’d borrowed. Andy looked at me wistfully and said,

“Maybe if you ever come back, I’ll still be alive.”

Malvern, Arkansas
I walked into the Hot Spring County Building looking for someone who could tell me about Malvern’s economic history. I was in the right place. County Judge Bill Scrimshire (“Call me Judge Bill”) and his pals were seated around the foyer of his office shooting the breeze about times present and past. They had me take a seat, offered me some coffee, and continued meandering their way through the last half-century, letting me interject with intermittent questions. I had a wonderful time listening as they remembered, misremembered, recounted, clarified, and verified facts and anecdotes against each other’s memories. I stayed on until the workday ended and the men stood up to go home.

The next day was my last in town. I swung back by Judge Bill’s office for yet another “farewell forever.” After he and I posed for a photo, his honor reached into his pocket and pulled out a fistful of change, which he dropped into my hand.

“You must be hungry as a traveling student.  Get yourself some lunch!  Here, is that enough?”

He turned around and marched into his office. I followed him in and found him digging through unruly piles of paper. He located his wallet, pulled out a five-dollar bill, and pushed it into my hand.

Wells, Maine
A fleet of trolleys runs a continuous circuit through town, offering cheap rides to the tens of thousands of visitors who flood Wells every summer. After hopping off one of these trolleys to get some saltwater taffy at a beachside confectionary, I boarded another one on the other side of the parking lot. Not knowing that this wasn’t an official stop, I hopped up the stairs and was immediately berated by the driver. Though she shouted at me quite aggressively, she took no action to kick me off. I quickly sat down, but then found myself on the first bench directly behind her, in clear view of her rearview mirror in the otherwise empty car.

At this point, I felt pretty irritable myself, feeling unnecessarily reprimanded for a harmless and honest mistake. I stewed for a minute, wondering if I should make a retributive, sarcastic remark and return the negativity she’d given me. After all, I was 20, tired, and lonely after seven weeks on the train, and someone had to get it! I paused for a minute longer, just long enough to notice the warm breeze washing through the windowless cabin. I extended the pause and wordlessly acknowledged that most disagreements are rooted in misunderstanding.

I apologized. Perhaps the silence had cooled her down, as well. Unsolicited, she started to tell me about the town, and for several minutes we carried on a great conversation about Wells, about my travels, about her job.

When I disembarked, she didn’t punch my ride card, giving me the lift for free.

Somewhere in the middle of America
I was aboard Amtrak’s Empire Builder on a 46-hour journey from Chicago to Portland, Oregon, seated at a table in the lounge car to kill time watching cornfields.

A chubby preteen entered through the sliding doors ahead of me, clutching a deck of cards. I realized, as he did, that all the tables were full, so I invited him to join me at mine. We introduced ourselves, then I taught this 12-year-old Kentuckian named Cameron how to play War.

We flipped cards mindlessly, pushing them back and forth across the table, chitchatting. Cameron uncorked with little prompting, telling me a series of unconnected and delightfully earnest anecdotes.

I listened, amused and content, as he opined about anything that came to mind, from his disgust for Kentucky Fried Chicken to his distaste towards reading. “I’d rather eat a dog crap than read a . . . ” He couldn’t finish. But then, Cameron talked about his love for writing: “When we write at school, I just write . . . I just write paragraphs.”

It was peaceful; it was late afternoon, and we were chug-chugging our way across southern Wisconsin. Suddenly, Cameron stopped. He slowly cocked his head and stared at me with a suspicious squint.

For a moment, neither he nor I said anything. Then he asked, “So . . . do you wake up every day at six in the morning and go running or something?”

I laughed.

Though I’d felt relaxed throughout our conversation, Cameron had still seen me for who I was: a high-energy, intense person, the type who rose early each morning and “went running or something.” He revealed what I’d find all summer. I thought I was out studying strangers, when in fact I, too, was being dissected, inspected. I was meeting other Americans; they, too, were meeting me. And as they met me, I met me. It was easy to feel like a wallflower in unfamiliar moments, when I was watching the world operate as if I weren’t there.

But my presence was actually an intrinsic part of the novelty; I discovered myself as I discovered America. A foreign man in his native land.

Ryan Kim blogged extensively about his travels at ryankim.blog.com. This story arose from a spring-term independent writing course with Jay Parini.