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A voyage in time

Every September, as if drawn by some psychic gravity, my thoughts turn to school. It’s only reasonable since my whole life, man and boy, was spent as either a student or a teacher.

This week’s gravity drew me to my glorious student days at Potsdam State. I say “glorious” with a minimum of overstatement — I enjoyed my time there immensely, in all sorts of ways.

What I best remember about Old Siwash is how friendly everyone was. And when I say everyone, I mean it. Yeah, sure, there had to be some grumps and grouches, but I honestly can’t remember any.

Everyone said hi to everyone else, whether they knew them or not. Plus, there was no social stratification or snobbishness. It didn’t matter what your major or GPA was, whether you were a jock or a bohemian, if you were from “The Island” or the sticks.

As for my teachers? Almost all were skilled, caring and always available in their office for extra help or just to shoot the breeze. And the few who were too self-important to care about students simply added to that je ne sais quoi for which the Ivory Tower is so famous.

The staff were part of the “family” as well: We knew the janitors, cafeteria workers and the student union help by name, and many of them knew us by name, too.

Nowhere was the campus-wide inclusivity more apparent than with the fraternities. There were four fraternities, and clearly I was not a member of any of them. I had nothing against fraternities, per se; I just never wanted to join any formal group. Each has its special rituals and agreed-upon social mores, both of which always turned me off. So to liberally paraphrase Shakespeare, I would neither a pledge nor a brother be.

In most colleges, fraternities and sororities are a huge deal — especially to the people in them. They cultivate college’s Great Divide — the one between Us and Them. So, Deltas may party with the Pi Eps, but not with the Omegas, and especially not with the Gammas. Likewise, they’ll date gals from their sister sorority, but no other. And as far as having anything to do with the independents (known with divine condescension as GDIs), fergit it.

But none of that silliness and snottiness went on at Potsdam. In fact, the exact opposite was true. Sure, frat guys spent a lot of time with their bros, but they were also friends with independents as well, and I’m a perfect example of that.

My best friend at Potsdam (and, blessedly, still my best friend) was a frat guy named Will Kendrick. On a campus rife with friendly people, Willy was in a category all his own. And it wasn’t that he had an agenda or ulterior motive — he’s just one of those rare birds who is always unfailingly friendly to everyone. I don’t remember exactly how we met, but somewhere along the line we became inseparable. We always made sure to get together at least once a day, usually in the union over coffee but sometimes at my place, or downtown at one of the buckets of blood.

Gettin’ down with the bro

Willy was not only in a frat — he was its president. The house was Sigma Tau Psi but was only referred to as Sig Tau, and it was Potsdam’s animal house.

When I say animal house, I’m sure most people think of the movie of the same name, but that was hardly the case. Sig Tau was the jock house, and the guys were roundly disliked by the other intramural touch football teams for their hardcore — and successful — play, but off the gridiron I always found them a decent bunch.

As I said, Willy and I hung out every day, but there was one occasion when we were within feet of each other but didn’t even chat, because we couldn’t. It was the Sig Tau party he invited me to.

I’d never been to a frat party and had no idea what to expect. Using “Animal House” as your model, a frat party is of a bunch of drunken slobs in togas raving to the rafters, and seeing who can out-drink and out-puke whom. But the Sig Tau party was hardly like that. Matter of fact, all in all, it was pretty subdued. No togas, but sport coats and ties. Drinking, yes; but slop-gut stumbling, slurring and slobbering, not at all. Mostly, it was just a basement full of kids jammed cranks-to-flanks, dancing and having a fun time. Actually, if those parties reminded me of anything, it wasn’t “Animal House” so much as the Delhi train station during rush hour, since the population density, humidity and noise level were the same for both.

Given the jam of bodies, I could see Willy, but could only wave at him across the room and watch him wave back.

I lasted about an hour-and-a-half. For one thing, when it came to drinking, I was a flyweight among lightweights, so two beers was my limit. And for another, after 90 minutes of breathing nothing but everyone else’s cigarette smoke and sebaceous effluvia, it was time for me to put some good ole O2 in my lungs. And that was it for my fraternity party scene.

Second, and third, thoughts

Now we fast-forward 50 years, to last summer. Willy called and said in a few weeks there’d be a Sig Tau reunion in Potsdam, and did I want to meet him there? Of course I immediately agreed. He lives in Maine; I see him on and off, but never enough. And since all the Sig Tau guys I’d known would be there as well, it looked like a great get-together on the horizon.

Before I knew it, it was the night before the reunion. While I’d been thrilled at the prospect of seeing Willy and all those old friends, when I got in bed and turned off the lights, I found myself full of doubts.

Let’s get real: The last time I saw those guys, we were just kids, fuzzy-cheeked babes about to enter what adults were fond of calling The Real World. But now? I had no idea what we were. Self-pitying victims of life’s cruelties? Bitter cynics? Elitist snobs? All the above?

And why would they even remember me, much less give a tiddly-doo about my existence? This was especially true since I’d transferred into Potsdam as a second-semester junior. I was there only three semesters, so I didn’t have much time to form the friendships and share the common experiences of the others.

Besides, too often had I looked back at The Good Old Days through a rose-colored lens … with a soft-focus filter. It made me wonder if I’ve ever been right about anything in the past, let alone my Potsdam experience.

Finally, I decided to put my agonizing to rest. I’d go, I’d hang with Willy and his blush-proof bride Judy, and maybe I’d see a couple other guys and chat with them a bit. Ted Holynski, a friend, fellow history major and blues music aficionado, was going, and we always had stuff to talk about. Plus Jerry Wetherby, who by unanimous agreement between Willy and me was The Nicest Guy in the World, would also be there. So it shouldn’t be a total flop. But if it was, I’d just take my leave and chalk it all up to experience.

Into the breach!

I hadn’t been back in decades, and when I drove on campus, I barely recognized the place. The charming little campus I’d known was gone. Since the student population had doubled, the campus was huge, overbuilt and, frankly, pretty ugly. To me, it looked less like a college campus than an upscale minimum security slammer. I started to feel like a stranger in a strange land.

After parking, I went over to the meeting place and immediately spotted Willy and Judy. After our initial greetings and brief catch-up, we went to the meet the others. At that point, I felt so alienated and uncertain that if Willy and Judy hadn’t been there, I probably would’ve just left. But I didn’t. Instead, I drew a few deep breaths, steeled my nerves, and walked in.

So how was it?

The truth is, it was beyond my wildest expectations. The decades may have battered everyone’s exteriors, but they still looked pretty good. And best of all, the guys were the same as I’d remembered them.

They were, as Golden Years grandpas, as warm and friendly as they’d been as callow youths. I’d shake a hand, slap a back and swap lies about how great we both looked. And then, after a 50-Years-in-Five-Minutes Rap, it was on to the next guy.

It was a “Twilight Zone” idyll at its best — one of those rare times when the universe takes a break from its usual mischief and smiles upon you.

Since it was their reunion, I didn’t stay very long, nor did I have to. I’d found what I’d gone there for; I didn’t need to keep reassuring myself it was true.

Looking back on that reunion, an analogy sprang to mind: Best friends and family form the very foundations of our existence. But pals, buddies and fond acquaintances are its mortar.

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