Monday, October 17, 2011

Returning to campus after so many years

My wife had this wild idea: Why not sit in the Carolina Inn bar and watch a football game on the big-screen TV instead of sitting in Kenan Stadium on a too-warm afternoon to watch the game from afar (assuming we could find tickets). We tried her idea on Saturday, when Carolina was playing Miami and the streets and sidewalks of Chapel Hill were packed with thousands of extra cars and people. On a gloriously beautiful autumn day, we sat in the bar, ordered $11 hamburgers and delicious draft beer and watched as the Tar Heels looked disappointingly inept on their way to a 17-0 halftime deficit.

By then, having consumed a hamburger and a couple of beers each, we'd seen enough of disappointment and decided to stroll down to Franklin Street, where my wife wanted to cash in a coupon at a store. First, we took a detour through campus, along the brick walks of the oldest portions of the now-sprawling campus — Memorial Hall, South Building, the Old Well, Person Hall, BVP, the Davie Poplar and the rest. Although portions of the campus are barely recognizable because so many new structures have been squeezed into formerly wooded or pastoral slices of ground, this part of campus is little changed from its 1790s origins and is nearly identical to its mid-1960s appearance. The old buildings are freshly washed or painted; the creeping ivy is missing from several buildings that now glow in the sunlight. All four of us, all Carolina alumni, strolled slowly through our memories of this place, picking out favorite spots and keen recollections, opening doors left unlocked and standing back to admire improvements.

You can say it about any university campus, I suppose, that it is a "special place," where teenagers tasted freedom, tested independence and learned maturity. It's a place of ideas and concepts formerly unknown and of interests explored. It is as well a place of romance — each of us had met our spouse at this place — and a foundation for later life.

On football weekends when I was a student, I would see the returning alumni and feel more pity than envy for them. They turned out in university-emblazoned finery and drove big cars at a time when ragged jeans and sweatshirts were normative student attire. I interpreted their presence as an attempt to relive their youth. My youthful analysis was flawed. Now I realize that returning to this place is not an effort to relive one's youth; it is a way of saying thanks for the glories of youth and, also, for the blessings of maturing years.

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