I can’t think of a place in the Pioneer Valley that evokes more memories than the Mount Holyoke College campus.
The half-day afternoons that my friends and I spent in middle and early high school at the Blanchard Campus Center while so many of our classmates were jammed into booths at the Newton Street Friendly’s. The ice hockey games and illicit fishing trips and the dares to dive from the docks at the upper pond.
The long, angsty and aimless late-night walks around the campus that I spent trying to figure things out, and the nights lying out in the mattress-soft grass of the athletic fields, staring at the stars and thinking maybe I already had.
Those fields — the ones outside Kendall Hall — are the place where I first gathered the nerve to ask a girl out on a date. She was lobbing a lacrosse ball against a brick wall. I was a freshman. She was a junior from Amherst. She had a car. We went on a single date, and the relationship fizzled when it occurred to me that I had absolutely no idea what to do next.
The campus library — the Whiting Alcove, to be exact — is where I spent countless hours with guys like Mark Fitzpatrick and Judge Bean and Mike Dowd, talking about music and literature and our utter lack of success with the opposite sex.
It’s also where I tutored a classmate whose only wish was to score a high enough grade in algebra to be eligible to play baseball. We worked at it from the late fall through late winter and his grades went from Fs and Ds to Bs. He was eligible to try out.
And then he got cut from the team anyway.
But here’s the thing: Even though he didn’t get to play baseball that year, he went on to college and eventually landed a job with a professional, AA baseball team and worked his way up to an executive position in the front office. The last time I visited him I got a full tour of his ballpark, and watched him lead a group of kids through some ground-ball fielding drills near the first base line before the game started.
Few people have impressed or inspired me so much.
A bus outside Blanchard is where 16-year-old me met Jane Sanctuary, an elderly woman from Amherst who was writing a poem about leaves falling on the lower pond. I named a band after her and spent years trying to wring life lessons from our encounter. For a long time I thought the significance was this: that coincidence delivers most of the beauty in our lives, and that the random nature of the world is actually what makes things meaningful.
It took me a long time to realize that the fact that we spoke wasn’t really the product of coincidence or random chance. I rode the bus all the time specifically because I liked being around other people, and when I saw and older woman writing in a notebook I was curious and bold enough to ask what she was writing about. I could’ve just as easily sat and stared out the window.
That was October, 1994. A month later, another memory from the campus: my first kiss, on the bridge over the waterfall at the lower pond. A girl I’d had a crush on for nearly a year. We’d just seen Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein — part of a pattern, it occurs to me now, of me choosing kind of awful date movies. (We later went on a date, at my suggestion, to see Kids. I’d just discovered Pleasant Street Theatre. I thought it’d be cool to see something “indie”. A silent drive home ensued.)
The college’s Gettell Amphitheater: site of my high school graduation, where I delivered a hopelessly florid speech to my class — a long, kind of prose, kind of poem thing that read like someone fell down a flight of stairs while carrying two pails filled with metaphors. I’d discovered my parents’ copy of Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet about a month earlier. These things happen.
Mark Fitzpatrick — Mark from the Whiting Alcove, originally from Cork, Ireland, and now of Paris — had a favorite tree on campus, a giant copper beech. He’d stop to visit it on his morning walks to the school bus. Years later, under those sprawling branches, I asked a woman to marry me.
That was a long time before I learned that growing up is as much about learning to manage disappointment as it is about celebrating success; as much about losing things as it is about gaining them.
* * * * *
I took a walk around the campus this morning and all of these things came flooding back. And now I have a new memory to add to the index: standing on the bridge over the waterfall, I saw a Cooper’s Hawk take a low sweep across the pond and land in a tree all dressed in red and gold.
I followed the hawk as it hopped over to a pine tree and chased a squirrel in circles around the trunk. I wouldn’t have known it, but few slapstick scenes can match the sight of a hawk chasing a squirrel around the trunk of a tree.
This is how the Cooper’s Hawk hunts, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology explains: “Among the bird world’s most skillful fliers, Cooper’s Hawks are common woodland hawks that tear through cluttered tree canopies in high speed pursuit of other birds.”
The hawk soon gave up on the squirrel, though, and it flew out of sight.
I started looking for the next thing to remember.