I woke up early this morning and proceeded to take pictures of the sunlight creeping through the house. The kids were already up and getting ready for school, and I showed Jack the Dragonball Z Son Goku T-shirt I bought in Kyoto.
Kevin drove me to the airport to see if I could rent a car with my international driver’s license. It turned out I could, so I obtained a silver Honda Civic, got instructions, and set out for Lexington, Virginia.
It was good to be out on the road again, driving long distances alone through interesting scenery. The Civic wasn’t perfect ergonomically, as the side of the dask bit into my leg a bit, but it was generally up to the job of mountain driving via frequent downshifts.
There was quite a bit of roadwork, lanes cut off, and one toll section that you have to pay not only to get into, but to leave as well, $2 each time. Fortunately I had change. I stayed just a bit over the 70mph speed limit, running with traffic, which wasn’t heavy for most of the drive. Almost every radio station was country music, sprinkled with hateful radio hosts saying things like, “These…progressives…are anti-progress. These…people…should be silenced.” At least it kept me awake.
I had lunch at a truck stop; burger and fries accompanied by an incredibly sweet drink that caused me to hack and cough and spit sweet red goo into the landscaping. Nobody seemed to mind; perhaps they’re used to it.
I got into Lexington around 3 or 4pm, amidst a brilliant afternoon, the trees just starting to turn. I parked by the post office, where I dropped in to see my old PO box, and the interior was exactly the same. The whole town seemed exactly the same, I thought as I walked down to Main Street to find a place to stay. The first hotel I came across, the MacAdams Inn, had a room for a benjamin and change, so I got the car, parked it in back, tossed my stuff inside, and walked to my old campus.
My first stop was my freshman dorm, Gilliam Hall, which hasn’t changed at all except for the addition of an ineffective lock on the front door. I went down to the “dungeon” where I failed to get along with my roomie Todd, and found the formerly green walls now ainted pink.
When I rounded the corner of Gilliam, I found the neighboring buildings had been torn down, but the old International House was still there; it is now the Hill House (named after the late Professor Hill?) and houses the Gender Studies and LGBTQ group, which I find astonishing for this community. The door was locked, though, so I proceeded past the sagging rear balcony where George Chang used to park his new Saab, and over to Gaines Hall, which was brand new when I first lived there as a sophomore. All the trees have grown huge now, but it basically looks the same now as it did then, of course with door locks. I was gazing back up at the other side of Gilliam, lost in memories of happening to see one of my particularly attractive fellow students undressing in the window at night, when an Asian student walked up to me and asked if he could help. I couldn’t help but note the resemblance, but decided to keep this creepiness to myself; I thanked him and walked up to the campus proper, the famous colonade, which seems to be under repair, and the old red house where I spent so much time studying Chinese. It is still called the East Asian Language Building, but as far as I know the only East Asian Language taught at W&L today is Japanese. I think the Chinese program died with Dr. Hill.
I then proceeded through the late afternoon light to Reid Hall, aka the Journalism School, which has been completely remodeled. I looked for my old teacher, Professor de Maria, but he’d just left. Fortunately, one of the staff found him for me through his cell phone. “Prof de Maria always gets interesting visitors,” he explained. “You’ve got that vibe about you, so I knew I had to find him for you.”
Professor de Maria was down at the new co-op, or whatever they call it, eating some fruit before his singing class at the church. He seemed happy to see me, and we talked of what we’d both been doing, plans, thoughts on recent sociopolitial trends, etc. He had a lot of interesting observations on the state of things, not all of them entirely hopeful.
After I left Professor de Maria at the church, I walked back to the very nice, expansive university shop to buy some W&L sweatshirts before they closed. I’d been unable to buy them online because the website doesn’t accept foreign orders, which I find ludicrous as many of W&L’s alumni end up overseas. The woman managing the store was very nice and informative, and she told me of a way to use email order things and have them send the stuff by post, but I felt that this information really should be on the website.
The sun had set by this point, the old Doremus Gymnasium silhouetted by its light. I walked down the mall and over to the edge of the Virginia Military Institute’s parade grounds, wondering if I should go look up my old trumpet instructor, (then-)Captain Brodie. He’s probably at least a Colonel by now, if he’s still there. The evening formation was taking place, tiny uniformed figures assembling in front of the massive castle-like barracks in the dying light. I heard the band playing and figured that if Brodie was there, he was probably too busy for visitors. The bugle played, and the cannon boomed, and I thought of my many visits to the Taiwanese cadets there, as well as music lessons and even small musical group practices. Standing on the edge of W&L and VMI always made me feel discombobulated. It still does.
I walked back to Dupont Hall, where the music program was and still is located. Nothing has changed there I climbed the stairs to the attic rehearsal room to find it unchanged. So many rehearsals there under Professor Stewart, and later under Barry Kolman. Kolman’s still around, but he never liked me much.
I walked down past the old ROTC building, now something else, to Woods Creek, where I crossed the bridge, listening to the musical water, and then up past the apartments of the same name, where older students lived and still live; it could have been 1988 again. Climbing the stairs to the athletic field, I took some photos, realizing that W&L really is not conducive to interesting photography; the buildings are pretty but dull (as are the students for the most part). Soccer teams were practicing on Wilson Field as I turned back across the bridge, the new sorority houses lined up under the sliver of new moon in the fading sky.
I saw lights on in the lnternational House, so I went and asked a student who was entering if I could have a look inside. He shook his head. “I’m not supposed to let anyone in,” he said.
“But I was president of the International Club, I actually lived here,” I said.
“Ok, I’ll ask.” He disappeared upstairs, and I could envision him explaining how some strange mean-looking guy wanted inside, but soon enough he came down with a couple of other people, for safety perhaps, and they let me inside to look around.
The place has certainly been cleaned up; nice carpet and paint, the kitchen is an office, and the old living room where we used to hang out watching MTV is a meeting room. Upstairs, Victor Cheung’s old room was hosting a student meeting. I was introduced to the dozen-odd, very earnest-looking group, and felt I should say something: “We used to play strip poker in this very room,” I said helpfully.
Back at Gaines Hall, I could see into my old suite on the first floor, where a girl was playing music that was new in 1988. The same damn music! Some boys walked by, commenting, “That suite has some nice atmosphere.” I managed to find an open door and strolled the hallways again, noting the stairwells retained their rubbery odor even after two decades.
I walked up the alley towards Chavis House, where Boogie lived back then, a walk I used to make quite often, behind the dining hall, and then I visited the dining hall itself, the site of many a donut’s demise at my hands (and mouth). I’d forgotten all the little things like the steps, the stairs, the breezeway through Baker Hall where my friend and high-schoolmate Garrick lived.
I got some dinner in the same co-op Professor de Maria ate. I had a chicken sandwich that was nearly identical to the ones I had at the old co-op, which is now a nice, elegant building. Now they have cereal-in-a-cup, which I think is utter genius.
After dinner I visited the library, which also doesn’t seem to have changed. I’m sure they are all connected, Internet-wise, but the 70’s-era color schemes as well as the actual physical book collection seems exactly the same as the day I left. I jostled noisily by the little compartment where I penned some of my disastrous thesis, thumbed through some old anthropological volumes, and lamented the fact that I hadn’t exhausted the photography section at the time. My old ex-advisor, Dr. Jeans, though retired, was supposed to have a pseudo-office in one of the carrels down there, according to Professor de Maria. But I didn’t see him, though
It was late by this point, so I walked back off campus, though the completely empty town, wondering which of the shops was the old Sandwich Shop where Boogie and I played jazz sets, and back to my hotel room, which seems to be much higher at one end than the other; the building is lop-sided, kind of like that mystery spot outside of San Francisco. But it will do. At least until the drunken fratboys downstairs wake me up. I heard that things have improved on that front, in that the fraternity/sorority membership is only 86% now, as opposed to the 95% of my time here.
It’s odd, but coming back is bringing back not only the memories I thought would return but also reminders that I wasn’t really very happy here. I never belonged here, and I never will. It was the site of a time of my life, and over the years I suppose I have made it more than that in my mind, but sometimes it takes a trip like this to see things not only for what they are, but what they have always been, whether we know it or not.