s1e4: Hours that Passed Like Dreams
at the Dartmouth ROTC winter formal
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I am running across the Green without a coat; flushed and sweaty from the glory of what I have just experienced. It is November in New England and though the really big snowfalls are still to come, the night is crisp—well below freezing. I Haven’t bothered to stop and put on a coat, but no matter: I don’t feel the cold.
I am running across the Green to the student center of my college because my boyfriend is the supervisor there, and I want to tell him all about this most amazing thing we—the singers in the Gospel Choir—have done, how we have raised the roof of the chapel with the most glorious music.
It was amazing, I will tell him, there were people from everywhere—states all over the US and from countries all over the world, non-Christians, Christians, everybody was praising and singing and clapping. The whole chapel was alive with the music. ‘Amazing’ is the word of the moment for me, I have said it so often during the first few months at college that my new friends call me ‘Courtney Amazing.’
My boyfriend is a senior—a fact which my friends from my freshman dorm group and I find to be incredibly amazing—and is at work managing an event, the dinner rush, and the usual facilities issues. But no matter. I have sat myself up on the counter outside his supervisor’s office and am retelling the concert, song by glorious song. I am wearing an ivory colored blouse with a giant, round collar which I ordered from a catalog that came to my college mailbox—my first time ordering from a catalog that is not J.C. Penney—and a black skirt. Our concert uniform was white shirts with black bottoms, and I think I look marvelous, though it is possible that I look like a pilgrim. As I finish telling my story, my boyfriend brings me a mug of hot chocolate. Other members of Gospel Choir push through the doors on their way to dinner, bringing the cold air with them. I hope they will see me, sitting with the student center supervisor, drinking hot chocolate. in Gospel Choir I am just a nobody—a starry-eyed freshman girl, and a white girl at that. But here in the student center with my boyfriend who is a senior, I feel like I belong.
Later, my boyfriend walks me back to my dorm. When I shiver in the cold air, he lends me his threadbare, cotton coat, a garment wholly inadequate for a New England winter, but the only one he has. As we walk back across the quad, the winter’s first flakes of snow begin to fall.
This is amazing, I think to myself.
And it is. Everything about this beautiful college with its hundred-year-old brick buildings flanked by lofty elms and stately oaks and its four thousand students from all over the world, gathered together to learn, talk, write, think, work, strive, laugh, play, fall in love and, indeed, sing, is amazing.
Seen from the west the Big Horn Mountains are striking, rising strong, brown and angled from the hundred mile flats between Yellowstone Park and Shell Canyon. Seen from the south or east the Big Horn’s rise is slower and sweeter. The mountain form first as a long, low shoulder that builds curvaceous layer over layer of sloped foothill and then suddenly—pop/wow—they are spectacularly tall, green-blue, and snow-capped. If you are driving this direction, the relief hits just past Buffalo, Wyoming. You are sheltered now: the Big Horns have delivered you from the 300 mile eye-ache that is a Wyoming horizon.
I was a sun-burnt little girl who kept her head in a book, but I knew how to fish, cook on a campfire, hike above the tree line, cross country ski, find my way in the woods, and ride an inner tube down the rapids of the Tongue River by the time I was 7. I went to sleep to the sound of the sage winds blowing down off the mountain on summer evenings, and woke most days to the song of the meadowlark in my neighborhood’s single cottonwood tree.
Back then, there were no red states and no blue states, but Dick Cheney was our representative in Congress and Alan Simpson was our Senator. Senator Simpson had gone to high school in the same town as my mom; I knew this because I’d heard my dad tell friends that my mom and Senator Simpson went way back and because when my family had visited the Senate dining room, Senator Simpson had introduced my sister and me to Bob Dole. We’d both just raided a bowl of candy covered mints at the hostess’s station, and when Senator Dole reached out his left hand to us, we’d had to hastily switch the chocolates to our right hands in order to shake with our left hands. Later, our father explained that Senator Dole had been injured in World War II and couldn’t use his right arm to shake hands. It was impressive enough that I never forgot the taste of the mints.
My dad owned the town’s Ford dealership with my grandfather and though the ‘natural resource’ economy in Wyoming in the 80s was boom and bust, my dad’s biggest customer was always the Decker Coal Company who reliably bought a couple of dozen pickups at sticker price every year, effectively subsidizing the cut rate that he gave many of the town’s citizens whom he felt needed it, including teachers, preachers, and Indians (as we called them then) who came in off of the Crow Indian Reservation which was just up I-90 at the Montana border.
I can mark my childhood in generations of Fords: My grandma drove boxy, floaty Lincoln Town Cars with faux cherry finish dashboards and room for three in the front seat. My dad and my grandpa drove the big, boxy Broncos made famous by O.J. Simpson, great for pulling people out of snow banks. I learned to drive on a stripped down F150 with plastic seats, AM radio and manual everything–the ranchers who bought these rigs had no use for amenities. My dad put a Coke can on the dashboard; my job was to manipulate the long, crooked gear shaft without knocking the can off the dash.
Once I learned, I had my pick of loaners from the used car lot, whatever size I needed. I opted for big and became the designated driver for my group of friends, clocking in hundreds of miles in three states over three years of high school. We drove north and west across the Crow Reservation on the Montana ‘autobahn’ to ski at Red Lodge and Bridger Bowl and Big Sky, drove east to go camping in the Black Hills near Rapid City, South Dakota, and drove south out of the foothills and into the flat, arid center of Wyoming to the state basketball tournament in Casper. We didn’t use seatbelts or have cell phones and, for a year or so, we didn’t even have a speed limit. There was nothing to worry about and no way to get lost. There was only one road to take and the horizon was so vast that we always knew what kind of weather was coming.
On Sunday mornings my family drove twenty or so miles on I-90 and then rural route 14 to a town at the foothills of the Big Horns called Dayton. It had a population of 300 or so, and we were congregants in its lone white clapboard church. On the drive out and back my sister, mother, dad and I always sang songs: “Oh What a Beautiful Mornin’’’ from Oklahoma, “Doe a Deer” from The Sound of Music and folk songs like “Oh You Can’t Get to Heaven” and “Do Lord” were some of our favorites.
On Easter Sunday we made this drive well before sunrise, my sister and I dozing as my mom’s Fairmont station wagon left the interstate to travel up a narrow dirt road and then along the fence line of one of the big cattle ranches. Sleepy and shivering, we would walk with our parents and the other members of our church up a steep path until we summited a hill topped with a large cross, overlooking the ranch below us. There, on the muddy ground, standing close together in our winter coats, we sang “Jesus Christ is Risen Today” as the cold, bright, spring sunrise lit up the face of the mountain.
After worship, we walked down the hill and back to our cars. From there, we drove to the church in Dayton, where the moms and dads cooked up an Easter breakfast feast of pancakes, sausages and eggs for the whole congregation in the church kitchen, while we kids played games in the Sunday School classrooms.
When in the fall of 1989 I left Wyoming for Dartmouth College I’d visited the campus once for my Dad’s 15th College reunion. I was eight at the time, and what I remember about being on campus was that I was wearing the polka dot shorts outfit that my Mom made for me that I really liked.
When I returned at 18, I thought I was going to a school where the men wore white collared shirts and pressed trousers because that’s what my Dad looked like in the photos from his time there. I thought I would need dresses to wear for dinner like when my Mom was in college and that my pink quilted pillowcases were just the thing for a dorm room in the early 90s. I also thought I was going to a school near Boston. 110 miles in Wyoming is about an hour and change by car—something we did just to go shopping or to see a movie. I figured Boston was where students went in the evenings and on weekends.
As soon, as I could, I went looking for other Christians. It was easy enough to find them. There was the black-haired, freckled girl who sat across the big table at the Moosilauke Ravine Cabin during the big communal dinner at the end of our freshman trip. She had a sweetness about her that made her different from the rowdy, trail-dirty, first years who shoved in around her over our meal of toasted Brick Oven Bread and lentil soup. I recognized it as the love of Jesus.
There was the blonde, blue-eyed girl from Westchester County who lived down the hall on the fourth floor of Richardson and who got visibly nervous every time our UGA talked about how to have safe sex.
There was also that green-eyed senior who worked at the student center who showed up late to Campus Crusade for Christ events—late enough to show he was chill, but not so late that it wasn’t clear that he was one of us.
It was that way of carrying ourselves we all had—a self-conscious state of alertness that had to do with knowing the Truth about Jesus and being ready to share it at a moment’s notice. Everything depended on being able to spread the message that God loved us and that He’d forgiven our sins, and that all we had to do was confess them and ask Him and he would usher us into the kingdom of Heaven. Some Christians were hard core about it. It was Jesus or Hell and if we truly loved others we had to save them quickly. I’m Joe. Nice to meet you. You, too. Hey have you got a minute to talk about Jesus? The rest of us settled for something more subtle. We aspired to offer a Christlike goodness to our friends whenever it was appropriate. After a break-up or some bad news, or even just a bad grade on a test. I’ll pray for you. Hesitantly. Sincerely. We really did want to comfort and help.
Of course we leaned right politically. Reaganomics was why we all lived in such nice, big houses and had stay-at-home moms. When we finally left those houses and went to Ivy League schools, there were business and law schools waiting with open arms when we graduated, and law, consulting, and banking firms waiting to hire us on graduation from those schools, too. There was no reason to question what we had been taught. Ralph Reed, George Bush the elder, and JP Morgan were of God, and Ralph Nader, Ms Magazine, and that sexual sinner, Bill Clinton, clearly were not. We were anti-abortion and against gay rights and feminism. We didn’t believe in reproductive education and did believe in abstinence. Divorce was not an option. All of this was our birthright.
But even at my father’s ivy-green Dartmouth, where co-education had not happened until the mid-1970s and where you could still buy a t-shirt with the forbidden Indian mascot, the wall was starting to come down. By the time I arrived in the autumn of 1989, the school’s mainstream culture had assimilated to the causes that we would today refer to as gender politics. From orientation week forward, we freshmen (no, wait –first years) went to big group seminars and small group discussions to learn about the new (to me) push button topics. We learned that the opening words to the Alma Mater were Dear Old Dartmouth Give a Rouse and not Men of Dartmouth Give a Rouse, and that my friend from Oklahoma was a Native American and not an Indian. We role-played the right way to handle and report sexual harassment if it happened, how to not get AIDS, and were taught it was fine to be bi-sexual, gay, lesbian, trans-gendered, or some combination, and how to be sensitive about it. The Dartmouth Review and its committee to pull down the anti-apartheid shantytowns on the Green were not cool. The Dartmouth and the College’s decision to divest in South Africa were.
I was fascinated by all of it, even if I still thought some of it was sinful and of the world and not God. I could not get enough of the new vocabulary and the isms. Even if I was skeptical about the values, I thrilled to the opportunity to think about something—anything—differently. Nothing in my very small town had prepared me for the kaleidoscopic multiplicity that was suddenly right in front of me. There was so much to think about and learn. It was amazing.
My freshman seminar Professor was the great Americanist Lou Renza and whether he was raving about phallic imagery in Poe, or leading us through a post-colonial interpretation of Life on the Mississippi, it didn’t matter. I was hooked. The idea of a fixed literal meaning about about anything seemed suddenly very dull. I learned that John Donne’s Holy Sonnets had sexual metaphors. King David’s Psalms, I soon realized, had sex in them, too. Wonder of wonders. I couldn’t believe no one had pointed these things out to me. I already knew about logos. I already knew about truth. Now, I could fracture these things into a thousand interesting literary fragments that would add up to something much bigger and, to paraphrase Ezra Pound, much more new.
I took up residence with the other English majors in Sanborn library, Baker’s tiny literature reading room, settling into its overstuffed chairs and perfectly sized butternut paneled study alcoves, and watching the livid oak leaves turn.
Then, the fat white snowflakes fell, exactly as if Robert Frost himself had told them to.
“I’m pretty sure the only Mustang you’ve been on is a car.”
This very rude phrase was coming from a voice from behind me, a deep rich tenor with just a hint of the South. I turned. It was a green-eyed guy with built arms and nice-fitting, worn-out jeans. “But I’m guessing it is actually true that your high school boyfriend drove a pick-up truck.”
“As a matter of fact…” I stuttered
“And maybe raised a pig for the 4-H fair.”
We were at a “Fifth Quarter” event, hosted by Campus Crusade for Christ. My accuser was the chilled out senior who was always late to weekly meetings and worked in the student center. And now, here he was, mocking me for playing up my Wyoming upbringing. True, he was doing it with a wink. Equally true, he was right. My high school boyfriend had driven a pick-up; that’s what kids drive to school in Wyoming. And, I was no good at riding any kind of horse, especially not a mustang. The thing about the pig for the 4_H fair was also true—my best friend used to walk her pig up and down the driveway before school.
Also, only Westerners know about 4-H pigs. You and me, he was saying, we know what it’s like out there. They don’t. You don’t have to bullshit me.
I don’t remember what else we talked about that day, only that I liked him.
He was part of all of it—the whole college love affair.—a Government major who had played football. He was Christian, but he had an edge to him: he’d studied a couple of terms in Mexico and lived in an off-campus apartment called the Rat Hole.
Everything kept turning into quintessential moments right out of the movie, “Dead Poet’s Society. Even the campus a capela group, the Aires, kept showing up and singing in picturesque campus locations right on cue. They’d do their set—their rendition of Salt-n-Pepa’s “Let’s Talk about Sex” was . . . amazing—and then close with the already familiar, hauntingly, beautiful “Dartmouth Undying.” After a few months, I reliably teared up when they got to the chorus:
Who can forget her soft September sunsets
Who can forget those hours that passed like dreams?
The long cool shadows floating on the campus
The drifting beauty where the twilight streams?
I already knew exactly what those “sharp and misty mornings” were like. Every day of that first term, I walked through the mist that came off of the Connecticut River on my way to class.
Now it is the winter ROTC formal at the stately Dartmouth Outing Club House with its stone balconies overlooking the shining, moonlit, ice of Occom Pond. In memory, it is as though we arrived in sleighs—I can almost hear the sound of bells, it’s that magical. The men—we called them men even though now, from the vantage of history, I would call them college boys—are wearing their military dress blues. They are behaving like we are at a ball. Everyone is stately, strolling around the twinkling interior in slow motion, like it is a Jane Austen novel.
It is nothing like the low sweaty bump and grind of Dartmouth fraternity formals; the only difference between those parties and the regular weekend frat parties is that people wore nicer clothes. Tonight is different. The men are carrying themselves with swagger befitting their uniforms. We, their dates, are attired like princesses. They are making toasts from a large, crystal bowl of punch and asking us, formally, if we want to dance. There are even people who know how to dance in ways other than that of George Michael. It is, we all agree, a very grown-up event.
Now we are on the balcony under black-feathered conifers, where the moonlight on the frozen pond is making fog out of the night air. Our arms are around each other. Our shared breath swirls. Then, the night is quiet.
Now we are walking down the street lined with stately, sprawling houses—the homes of doctors and professors, we believe. We are walking past Dick’s House, the College’s lovely, Georgian infirmary, and then past the medical school, every step toward campus is enchanted—I am floating through the cold in my borrowed dress and pink lipstick.
Now, we are sitting on a bench on the Green, holding hands under the deep cobalt winter sky, too lit up with love to feel the cold.
My boyfriend will tell me he loves me that night, and the moonlight on the snow-covered quad will underscore a beautiful solemnity.
I will tell my roommates about it later, embroidering details as if it’s a scene from a movie without even noticing. I will tell this version of the story so many times—to friends and to myself—that I will forget which details are true and which are from the movie set that I cast and costumed in my mind.
A year later, when my world has changed irrevocably, I will comfort myself by playing the memories from this night and these months on a movie screen in my mind. What will matter to me then—what will make it possible for me to stop grieving and go to sleep, night after night—is that I know that nothing can take away the drifting beauty of those moments.
That for a brief moment they were mine even if, all too soon, they passed like dreams.