Back to school 1986-1989 meant the return to the Ohio hamlet of Wooster and the college that shares its name. By its very nature, the start of a school year is cyclic. An upperclassman’s confident return is mirrored by first year students’ fearful leap forward into the unknown. A casual observer would witness that awakened moment when the new student is all unpacked and all that is left is goodbye. The family vehicle is soon a speck merging into the horizon, followed by the realization that you’re on your own.
Sometimes I can parse the different years I returned, but I spent my first two and the final year in the same dorm. That coupled with the built in social rituals make it seems more holistic then disjointed. It is all a sensory snap shot now. The dorm still has that antiseptic smell that will soon be given up to stale smoke. My footsteps echo as I transverse a dormitory hallway, the only other sound is Cat Stevens’ greatest hits coming from a distant room. The freshmen will soon have parties, crowding sweaty bodies in numbers that would make a fire marshal apoplectic into their all-too-small rooms, “Black Dog” will spin on a turntable, reverberating at a volume much too loud, grain punch will be served from a fishbowl, and the next morning bare feet will squish on beer-soaked carpets.
This independent partying soon gives way to more organized revelry. There will be fraternity parties — one in particular always ended exuberantly with a singalong to Don McLean’s “American Pie.” Clad in flannel and Timberland boots, I partook of Bacchanalia, an event held outside of town in a field complete with a beer truck and hours of music by Grateful Dead cover bands. There was also the slightly more staid party on the green, which featured quirky acts like Buckwheat Zydeco. House parties were the norm, and I can picture myself in madras and khaki crossing the threshold as I hear the band strike up a familiar riff of Peace Frog and the lyrics, “There’s blood in the streets, it’s up to my ankles.”
Wednesday nights saw students swarm the local watering hole Leroy’s. I suspected that we were an inconvenience to the regulars, but we were tolerated en masse once a week, providing a bit of a windfall to the owner, who supplied what seemed like a nonstop stream of pitchers. I also adored Coccia House pizza, and swore it carried the psychic imprint of a previous generations of student employees in their big-buckled belts and cheesy mustaches working to the driving beat of Foghat.
Age dictates that I put out the disclaimer that it was not all about the parties. Yet the college community seemed to be a living organism. Dorms, dining halls, library and athletic fields — there was not a corner in which one’s social acumen was not tested. A place so small you greeted the president and his golden retrievers on the brick walk, dishelved clubby offices where you earnestly expressed an interest in one of your professor’s more esoteric ideas or vice versa, and peers who seemed forever coming up with madcap schemes you were sure would land them in jail. The cloistered time when one worked and studied was a balancing respite.
Back to school is to return physically and mentally. To reunite, readjusted, and embrace a routine. For myself, after routine came recognition. To be a part of something bigger then yourself is to be not all that big yourself. There were nights I found myself alone in Kauke Arch staring at the names on the wall. Students that came back to school 45 or more years before, not knowing they would graduate to glory in the forests of Belgium and on the atolls of the Pacific.
Return to campus? I cannot because I am already there. I left a part of myself at the school and carry a disproportional share of the place with me to this day. I would say I got the better of the deal, which would reaffirm the hopes of my educators. — CHRISTOPHER SHARP
Cat Stevens? Foghat? Grateful Dead? “American Pie” and “Black Dog”? Are you sure this wasn’t the ’70s?
Having attended a small college in western PA, I can attest to the fact that when you get into the interior of the country people hold onto things for much longer. I was in college from 2005-09, and peppered generously into the modern day hip hop music at all of our social events were plenty of the 80s greatest hits; enjoyed, in fact, with such enthusiasm by the student body that one might have had the impression they were contemporary releases.
The fact that Wooster might be remembered on a 70s soundtrack in the waning days of the 80s is no surprise to me whatever.
I liked the musical references, especially; stuff like that (along with describing the smell of the dorms) is the ‘mise en scene’ for pieces like this; I think it’s great.
Among all my other college memories I always remember that, when I started: the dining hall had china, glasses and actual silverware; and the machines in the computer lab (such as it was) all ran DOS. By the time I graduated, everything was served on styrofoam, with plastic cutlery, and everybody was amazed by Windows.
I feel like I’d been in school during a very unique window of time, but perhaps we all feel that way about our college years: “you can’t believe how much things changed between when I arrived, and when I left!”
After I graduated, I’d talk to older alums who’d ask if I did much eating/drinking at some place, and I’d ask “where?”. Then the same thing started happening to me as I talked to younger ones. Amazing the number of bars and cafes and coffee shops, etc. that had a life of less than 7-8 years, that we all assumed had been there “forever” and would so remain.
But they were there when we were, and even if there’s now a branch bank on the lot, or a parking deck, just going by can call back some powerful memories.
What a wonderful piece. I’m a COW alum from 93 and I long for the good ‘ole days. I can hear the Cat Stevens and smell the stale beer as I type.
I went to school in Kansas when it was legal for 18 year olds to drink 3.2 beer prior to liquor by the drink. Every Kansas college town had bars across the street from campus, 3.2 beer only. Kansas State had Aggieville, six square blocks of bars, it was like Vegas. At Kansas University, the main street of Lawrence was nothing but bars. The most famous bars have survived, they’ve been around for 60 to 80 years. Younger and older guys have drank at the same bars.
Late 60s and early 70s music is the best to rock on with regardless of age.
Christopher, thanks for sharing, well done
How much college changed in just a few years: When I arrived as a college freshman in 1983, there were no computers in dorm rooms, only typewriters. All music was on either cassette or vinyl. By the time I graduated in 1987, there was at least one PC in every freshman dorm room, and the CD had arrived on campus. And we listened to music from the 1960s to new releases of the 1980s (the 1970s were definitely undersampled).
We stopped drinking beer in college precisely because of the squishy, beer-soaked carpets. Pot was a far better choice in that regard. Cat Stevens, Led Zeppelin, the Grateful Dead, and Don McLean were all current musicians and ‘au currant’ during my days. We didn’t listen to earlier music as that would have been Brenda Lee, Elvis, Paul Anka and Frankie Avalon — not that they were bad in any way, just didn’t fit at all in with the times.
Thanks everyone. I have been enjoying all the sharing of memories. @ Heidi thanks for confirming my memory. If you are Heidi M I am going to confess I went back and looked at the baby book for your year. May I say that picture is TCFW.
Blonde curly hair? Yes. I turned Crandall later that year and loved every Bacchanalia. Thank you so much for the memories. We all enjoyed your article. It is certainly making the rounds on Facebook! You are a wonderful writer.
I really enjoyed this piece, Chris. Keep them coming!
I enjoyed the piece as well and it brought back fond memories of college 87-91. I remember the smell of stale beer in the house the morning after a party as well as the sticky floors. My musical tastes ran more to new wave and remember listening to Echo and the Bunnymen and New Order cranking from the sound system while the DJ manned the turntable. I also remember the J. Crew, LL Bean, and Huntington catalogues as well as M Magazine which would come the the house and served as style guides. Hard to believe there was no email, mobile phones, or even computers in wide use by students. There is a tendency to romanticize the past and, while I appreciate technology life was certainly simpler.
Agree with all the musical references for COW 1979-1983. Great essay. Thanks for the memories, since some of mine are blurry!
@Christian I did notice that my sound track is different then if Hollywood was picking it. After you mentioned it was more 1970’s I went back and looked at both pop songs and albums that were best sellers 1986-1990. I recognized them all but very few really fit the scene as I remember it. I am also confident there were folks who knew some edgy cult bands alas I was not one of them. Trying to think of something that would fit that bill all I can come up with are old names like The Ramones, Sex Pistols, Velvet Underground and Elvis Costello. So I would have failed in that regard.
There was also an embrace of the eclectic, one small band would do a campy version of Prince’s “You Don’t Have To Be Beautiful” and follow it up with a misty eyed version of John Prine’s “Angel from Montgomery”.
I some time think we run into current perceptions and also competing musical memories. The best example I can think of is that people take Glenn Miller as shorthand for the music of the Greatest Generation. I have read two accounts of in the know soldiers preferring Artie Shaw. Which makes sense to me. Both have a vibrant validity to me.
Speaking of simplistic shorthand I think of Shaw as the Salinger of Swing.
@OCBD- Thanks maybe next time I will get around to talking clothes.
@ Heidi Thanks I think you made my week. Glad to hear it is making the rounds of Crandall House Alums.
Chris, I’m guessing it made the rounds all right: there are over 200 Facebook likes!
Talked to my dad today and even he mentioned your piece. You have many fans.
Off to school in a big city in the deep south, c1982. Soundtrack was a mix of 60’s-’80s. British Invasion, Woodstock Rock, 70’s Metal, late 70’s Punk, early 80’s New Wave. Taste does not move in lockstep with each passing year. Current taste tends to be a mixture of the present, and the recent past as experienced by the commentator. Beer soaked carpets (and beer floods on hardwood floors in our case) greeting the President at a band party, and having to hide a drink cup behind my back, all of our set taking over the same bar on the same night each week….yup.
I, too was a COW student. Crandall was my house of choice. Hell Week was fun. Left on the golf course at night and had to consume a keg before we could become members. Yay! Guess none of us could become Supreme Court Justices! Thank goodness no cell phones or computers in those wild and wonderful days! Fonganalia was a good time and remember good of Alferd E. Packer? 1978-1982!
PS. Anyone remember “Moonshine”?
I pledged the same in 89 and we were asked to drink a liter of cheap tequila and if wanted, smoke Marlboro reds without filters. We lucked out that it was unseasonably warm weather. By moonshine, did that require a trip to West Virginia? We made some Hairy Buffalo mixed in a trash barrel with a Scot Key as the secret ingredient. The best 4.5 years of my life- and still friends with them today. Nothing will ever come close to Bach.
Beautifully written, redolent of someone who was immersed in the place and time. It is of such experiences that memories are made of. Thanks for sharing them.
I’m COW ’95 graduate and surprised you didn’t note Matsos, another Wooster food institution. My memories are of Kitteridge dining hall during the week, Lowry on the weekends, and the little old ladies that would burn/singe a hole (quite by accident) in your dining hall card. I can still smell the little soldering iron as I actually waited to go in and eat the repetitive (albeit descent) food. I’m now sad they are remodeling Lowry though I think they are preserving the spiral staircase. I recall going to the occasional campus party but mostly hanging out with friends and we made our own fun. I also recall a few professors that I enjoyed while living in the middle of Ohio for four years.
I was at Woo 85 – 88. Crandall. Was searching for “Bacchenalia Wooster” and came upon your post.
Brought back great memories.
Had a son graduate two years ago from Woo and have another one who is a sophomore there. Crandalls are no more. OATs have apparently gone underground. Lowry in under major renovation.
Currently teaching half way round the world.