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My Ivy League Education, An Autobiography: 1967-71

by Wayne Taylor

I was seven years old, leaving what I thought was Eden for the north-eastern United States. The jungle , our backyard, a tangled and mysterious playground filled with loud birds, lizards, and an occasional snake, fell away in the noise and rush of Managua and the scream of propellers. Nicaragua slipped into memory: hunting iguana on hot Sunday afternoons, the warm chatter of rain on our tin roof, and volcanoes to the south and west, smoking redly through the nights. Left behind was the string hammock woven with bright red and green designs in which my sister and I had taken our afternoon naps, kicking and pushing each other to get better position while Mother read us Black Beauty, Tom Sawyer, or Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales, and where I often fell asleep, staring out screen windows at the smoking mountains, the vanguards of the Ring of Fire. Behind lay the Central American mining town where I had learned the rudiments of survival for a six-year-old boy-braggadocio or, failing that, singular accuracy with a rock-ahead were the echelons of the East, the Ivy League.

I arrived at Dartmouth, in the fall of 1967, an innocent. I did not know that Santa Claus was an illusion, where exactly babies came from, nor that the dramatic epigraph ” Live Free or Die!” emblazoned on the state’s license plates was the handiwork of New Hampshire’s convicted. In my eyes, the Apollo missions were fiery five-minute spectacles that faded into Walter Cronkite pontificating about this thing or that; Vietnam and Martin Luther King were only names on the nightly news. Of ivy I was skeptical, wondering how a plant could account for any academic prestige. If anything, I was disgruntled that the ivy was growing all over a college, not a university. And frankly, I thought my father could do better. But despite my misgivings (and probably ignoring them all together), he entered Dartmouth’s Department of Earth Sciences as a teaching fellow, master’s candidate, and father of three.

I entered the second grade.

School, up until then, had consisted of my mother trying to teach me to read on our back porch in Nicaragua. Somehow, between digging my bare feet into my sister’s back, while trying to get comfortable in the hammock or simply staring out the window, I had learned to read and-I think-to add. But because of my lack of formal schooling, the county required that I be tested before allowing me to enter the public school system. The Stanford-University-developed test did not overtax me; I don’t believe anyone would have been when the hardest question on the test was, “A ball rolls because it is-round, heavy, flat, moving?” After some deliberation, they put me in the second grade.

At school there were still windows to stare out of and things to fight with the other kids over while the teacher did her best to educate us from the front of the room. But in the afternoon, when she assigned us individual projects, I would finish as quickly as I could and then go to the school library. It was nothing more than a scrap of carpet, five or six pillows covered with something like burlap, and four half-filled shelves of books set against the back wall of the cafeteria. But I had never seen so many books in my life and, in a state of ecstacy, I would lie on a pillow in a pool oflndian Summer sun that shone through the window, reading a book until school let out. My first autumn in New Hampshire was an unparallelled event. It brought Halloween, Thanksgiving, and orange and red leaves that made the mountains look as if they had been draped with a large colorful quilt. It put the crew back on the Connecticut River, sweating themselves into shape; the lacrosse team back on the field, enthusiastically clubbing one another over the head for the possession of a hard rubber ball; and the incomparable excitement of a rugby game thirty yards from my back door.

The stadium on campus was exclusively reserved for that most sacred cowhide sport-football. But the rugby playing population of the student body was accommodated by the construction of a special playing field just behind the married-student housing. This grassy battlefield behind our house was the neighborhood playground during the week, but on Saturdays we would be chased off by men marking lines for the big home game. Half an hour before game time the students would begin arriving, laying down their blankets, setting up their kegs of beer, and generally preparing themselves for the serious business of having a good time . By half time there would be as much jostling off the field as on, and my friends and I could usually slip away with one or two unwatched boxes of doughnuts and an occasional plate of cookies; it was so easy that I sometimes wondered why the students bothered to come. By halftime there were at best only a dozen people who could even see the field , let alone cheer on the fifteen men in Dartmouth green who were out on the field, battling for the school’s fine athletic reputation. (Today I am convinced that this same dozen were the only ones there who understood the rules.) As for the rest, I wondered if they enjoyed the game; it seemed they came for a social respite , an intermission in their program of academics: every home-game Saturday, they would raise the banner of school spirit and take up the cause of rugby , shouting their unfailing support to the men who were out on the field taking the physical beating that the game exacts.

Eventually winter rolled in, covering the playing fields with snow and dropping the mercury down to single and oftentimes negative digits; an unpleasant change for me, especially because I had spent the last two years in Nicaragua eleven degrees below the tropic of Cancer-barefoot. My tennis shoes came off, and boots and a parka went on to protect me from the cold New England winter.

It was during this first biting chill of December that I discovered the Hanover Public Library and Dartmouth’s nine-story Holy of Holies, Baker Library. They were quiet, warm buildings, filled with dust and the smell of paper, comfonable worlds whose walls were insulated from floor to ceiling with stack after stack of books. Here I was delivered out of the dead-zero temperatures of winter and into the life and fire of reading. These libraries were the midwives to my first ideas, sentinels that allowed me to return and enter the untroubled garden of imagination that flourished in spite of the cold outside . And there I would sit, immersed in a book, until the librarians closed up.

Occasionally I would walk across the campus, past the old buildings tangled in leafless ivy, to my father’s office on the third floor of Silsby Hall, the classroom/warehouse/offices of the Geology Department. Silsby was an old brick building that smelled of a thousand rocks that, piled on desks and stacked in hallways, fathered dust with every half-tick of the atomic clock, and everywhere students pried the entrails of their prisoners from the earth.

Outside my father’s office sat a seismograph, a large, metal machine whose sole function seemed restricted to scratching random zig-zags between two narrow squares of unrolling graph paper. Supposedly, when the stalemate between straining tectonic plates broke, and the earth slipped and buckled in some faraway place, the machine would pick up the vibrations and send the needle scrambling across the paper. Doubting anything could be that sensitive , I was completely unimpressed.

But I was hypnotized by the machine that sat down the hall in a convened broom closet, a machine that would seduce me for my next four under-graduate years. In 1967 the dream of the “popular computer” was being realized as Dartmouth engineers knocked the last bugs out of a prototype time-sharing system. With the right password (oftentimes stolen) I could make a telephone call and turn the gray, oversized electric typewriter into a writhing tentacle of the electronic leviathan housed across the street in the Kewitt Computer Building. A savant-mathematico I never became, being too absorbed in the intricacies of HRACE, CRAPS, and FTBALL to worry about the mathematics of the thing, and I spent euphoric hours playing these simulated games on the clattering, plastic-encased, TIY-33 until some angry graduate student kicked me off. Then I would sulk back to my father’s office, carrying my reams of printout.

My remaining studies at Dartmouth were spent in the embrace of these nourishing mothers: the library, the computer, and the monotonous seismo- graph. Consequently, I left Hanover nearsighted and slightly hard of hearing; my father left with his Ph.D.

It rained on the day he graduated, a drizzling spring day that left everything cold and soggy. The weather dampened my father’s enthusiasm, and he went back to his office. Unfortunately, I was with my mother, who, not knowing my father was truant and being more into the spirit of the occasion, sat us through two hours of uneventful formality before adjourning to the fieldhouse for the rest of the ceremonies.

Somewhere during that interminable business, I remember a man getting up to speak. As he stood and walked toward the microphone, several students rose and turned their backs on him. I sat up and paid attention. There was a moment of embarrassed silence before the man began to speak. I don’t remember what he said, but I do remember looking at the faces of fifteen angry graduates who were glaring at the back wall. Years later I found out that the man speaking was Nelson Rockefeller.

Afterwards, my mother took us up to my father’s office. There he showed us a strip of graph paper from the seismograph. The night before, a volcano had erupted in Central America, and the needle had jumped several times across the page. As I looked at the lines that represented the colossal pressures and forces that boiled within the earth, the thought that this machine could be sensitive enough to pick up those tremors startled me. The proportions of a volcanic blast that could be recorded so graphically 3,000 miles away were beyond comprehension, and even more frightening, beyond control.

If a culminating moment must be assigned to my studies at Dartmouth, a commencement of sorts, it would undoubtedly be this moment-unat- tended though it was with any of the pomp and circumstance that had marked my father’s graduation. I like to think this moment was the keynote of my ivy league experience, although I didn’t come to that decision until much later.

The computer, I have come to realize, is nothing more than a random access sliver of silicon that turns on and off a thousand times each millisecond at the command of the programmer. And yet my exposure to the computer, housed as it was in the basement of Kewitt like an untamed animal, continues to prove itself one of the most valuable aspects of my education to date. Likewise, my hours spent in the libraries still prove to be my happiest, providing me with entertainment as well as a wide exposure to a variety of subjects.

But the seismograph on the fourth floor of Silsby Hall still haunts me , and frustrates my attempts to impose unity upon the past, as if it were somehow impossible to combine the three separate buildings-the three aspects of my ivy league education- into the same edifice. It is even more disturbing to see these three subjects becoming even more disparate, defined almost invariably as separate disciplines and requiring vastly different courses of study. They have always seemed to belong together: the building that houses a valuable repository of knowledge and wisdom, the machine that has proven itself to be an invaluable extension of the human intellect, and the slowly unrolling machine of terrific sensitivity. And they are fated, it seems, to remain apart.

Years later I wondered again about that day, about the men who stood defiantly at their graduation . I wondered how many of them were later absorbed into the system that they had resented, how many of them went on to program the chips of silicon that lubricate the clattering wheels of the establishment they protested against. And I wondered, in the after-shock of that irony, if the ivy on the walls isn’t there to hide decaying, dirty brick.