The third Monday of every April is Patriots’ Day in Massachusetts, commemorating the first battles of the Revolutionary War fought at Lexington and Concord. It is also known as Marathon Monday, when the Boston Marathon runners finish in Kenmore Square while the Red Sox play an 11 a.m. game.
But most notably, it’s a day off for most people. Including me.
Instead of watching a bunch of Kenyans run 26.2 miles in a ridiculously short amount of time, or taking in the game at Fenway, I decided to accompany my cousin to North Adams. What’s that? You have no idea where North Adams is or why it’s significant? I don’t blame you. But allow me to help you out.
North Adams is where I went to college. It used to be North Adams State College. Now it’s Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts. It’s a sleepy little city located in mountainous western Mass., in an area known as The Berkshires. Three hours away from where I grew up, it’s crammed in the upper left-hand corner of the state between New York and Vermont. My cousin, as a junior in high school, is looking at colleges and this one is on his list. Since MJ was working and I had Will all day, I decided to go with him to give him a behind-the-scenes peek at the place I called home for four whole years.
But even though it was my cousin’s trip, I couldn’t help but reflect on my own journey.
Driving through the mountains and the Mohawk Trail, I kept glancing at my cousin’s face. He looked puzzled. And slightly concerned. I recognized the sentiment.
It’s 1996 and I’m in the middle of my own college search. I don’t know where I want to go or what I want to study. All I know is I’m looking for a small school that’s not in the city. I chose to tour North Adams because it was the farthest away from home I could go while still paying in-state tuition rates.
But we’d been traveling for more than two hours and it didn’t look like there could possibly be a college anywhere in the area. We were deep in the mountains and there was NOTHING around. Then I saw my first “Bear Xing” sign. Don’t get me wrong, it’s beautiful country, but it was safe to say I began having second thoughts.
Up and up we climbed while my doubts also escalated. But just when I thought about telling my parents to turn the car around, we reached the summit and North Adams appeared in the valley below us.
I hadn’t even stepped on campus yet but I fell in love instantly. This was my college.
Yesterday, as we cruised down Church Street, I pointed out the Berkshire Towers, where all the freshman used to live. I’m not sure if there’s anything more daunting to an incoming freshman than housing. Will I like my roommate? How do I get along with my roommate if we don’t like each other? Who will I eat meals with? Are people going to like me? Am I going to like them? It’s a genuinely nerve-racking experience.
Fourteen years ago I entered the Towers a naive, scared kid. Unsure. Hesitant because I spent all of my high school years in the shadow of my friends who were all varsity athletes, honors students and did well with the ladies. I, on the other hand, was completely average at sports, wasn’t an Honor Society kid and had had one girlfriend. Most of my time was spent as a buddy to girls. A chum. A non-threatening, non-sexual eunuch if you will.
But on my way up to my room, I passed a cute girl. As per usual, I checked her out. But when she walked down the hall and turned around to check me out too, my heart soared. And in that moment I realized this was a fresh start. A new beginning. A chance to find myself and become my own person. Whoever that person might be.
Yesterday’s tour took us all around the postage stamp-sized campus, and finally down by the townhouses. The townhouses are basically like apartments, with four bedrooms that fit a maximum of six people. Although we didn’t go in them, the group of prospective students and their parents peppered the tour guide with questions. Who can live there? Are they co-ed? Is alcohol allowed? What kind of supervision is there?
Townhouse #69. Chosen because we were 19 years old and saying “we’re in a 69” made us chuckle. If freshman year was about feeling things out, sophomore year quickly became all about testing my limits. And exceeding them. I drank more beer than humanly possible. I fooled around with more women than I care to admit. And that meant I was going to fewer and fewer classes.
Straight Cs and a D. The worst grades of my life. While I had more fun than I might ever have in my life, I lost my scholarship. And for the first time in my life, my parents were disappointed with my grades. I knew what happened and so did they. My priorities were way out of whack, mainly because I never partied in high school and was literally overdosing on freedom and fun. I had to learn how to create a work/school/social life balance. And eventually I did.
Murdock Hall is the oldest building on campus. It used to be an absolute pit of hell, but recent renovations have it looking spiffy and new. Top of the line computers and technology fill the sparkling new rooms now, but a decade ago things were different.
The basement of Murdock Hall is nearly windowless. It’s not pretty, but it’s where I’ve spent the majority of my time lately. I’m an editor on the newspaper’s staff and I’m really starting to like it. I’m a good news writer and it comes naturally to me. I’m interested in what makes a story worth telling. How do I hook the reader, keep him interested? What makes for a good headline? How do you design a paper so it jumps off the news stand?
My geeky, like-minded journalist friends spend these long hours with me. We pull overnighters and help each other put the paper together. When we take breaks, we play our own version of “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” Some of it is even funny.
To the untrained eye, we were a bunch of dorks in a basement. In hindsight, we were two award-winning journalists, a radio talk show host, a sports editor and a successful TV personality in training, having a great time. Looking back on it, it marked some of the happiest times at college. Not to mention the start of my passion and career.
Yesterday we walked past 60 Porter Street in North Adams. It’s a rundown pit of a house. A two-family, two-story home with eight total bedrooms, a dilapidated deck and a small yard just a stone’s throw off campus. My cousin and my aunt looked at it like they wouldn’t dare go near it without a haz-mat suit. I don’t blame them. If it’s anything like we left it 10 years ago, the Board of Health would have a field day. But even though it was a hellhole, it was also home.
My off-campus apartment on Porter Street. A “big boy” home. No longer on campus, this was an actual apartment. And although I wasn’t close with some of my actual roommates, the house was a central meeting point for all my friends to congregate.
It was located less than 100 yards from our favorite bar, the Pitcher’s Mound. Easily within drunken stumbling distance. If you wanted to find me between Wednesday night and Sunday, I was likely “Mound Bound.” Simply put, there should be a holocaust museum set up there to commemorate the inordinate number of brain cells that died there between 1999-2001.
When we weren’t at the bar we were at the house. Darts was our game of choice. Also, everyone had BB guns. I forget why. The upstairs window was nicknamed the “Sniper’s Perch.” If you didn’t take cover coming home from class, you were bound to be tagged with a one-pump pellet at some point. But when we weren’t opening fire on each other, we were having fun. Tons and tons of fun.
One sunny afternoon, after a few of my friends who had already graduated came back to campus, we were all relaxing on the front porch. The beers were flowing and, as usual, the stories were too. It was warm, and we were pre-gaming before the bar. Soon someone broke out a guitar. Then, as was the norm, the Irish songs started. Specifically, we sang “Share the Darkness” by the Saw Doctors.
Ah life’s too short for wasting
For ifs and might have been’s
Life’s too short for wondering if
You could have lived your dreams
And its way too short for loneliness
We don’t have to be
Now that we trust each other
Why don’t you stay with me?
Why don’t we share the darkness tonight
Make it warm and burning bright
I’ll not say nothing
I’ll be polite
Why don’t we share the darkness tonight
Most people are unaware when they’re in the middle of a defining moment. It’s only afterward, in hindsight, they realize how good they had it. How happy they were. How perfect and exquisite the circumstance. But in the middle of that song, I looked around and took stock. I saw every face and every smile. The future was wide open, nothing was decided yet and anything was possible. We’d all end up going on our separate ways, but we were together right then. And it was great.
A decade removed from graduation, the strains of that Saw Doctors song have long ago drifted off into the ether. But yesterday, as I brought Will around with me to see the campus, I realized it’s closer than I thought. I sing that song to Will every single night before he falls asleep. The sound of the past, very much present, echoing into the future.
I’m not sure it’s possible for my 16-year-old cousin to grasp the importance of the opportunities college presents, but I told him it’s just as much about what happens outside of the classroom as inside. Learning to live on your own, making friends that last for life and creating memories you’ll talk about forever are what made college college for me.
Even if some of those memories can’t quite be remembered!