Hypocritical heterogeneous lovable sprawling mass of traditions. Jefferson’s University dozing in the lazy shade of the peaceful Piedmont. Rolling hills and the distant blue of the Blue Ridge and ivied walls and white columns glinting in the sun. Never-hurrying students, age-worn walks, the hourly half-hearted clang of the chapel bell. Unbelievably red leaves in autumn, snow on the cornices of the Rotunda, ice on the reflection pool in winter, pink of apple blossoms cloying bitter-sweet odor of locust and wisteria in spring, a blanket of honeysuckle in June. That is Virginia.
School of long week-ends, poor heating plants, hard seats, bankrupt fraternities and ugly co-eds. School of antiquated educational systems. School of Honor. School that somehow has no sense of humor. School that looks down on Princeton, Ohio State, Washington and Lee, Bridgewater and Oxford. School that looks down on everything. School collectively too lazy to become really great. School trying so hard to be individual that its component parts are as much alike as so many little tin soldiers. To it come boys from Idaho, Mexico, Jericho, and Hoboken. From Tarrytown and Talladega and Roanoke and Clarinda, Ioway they come and try to fit within the great top-heavy institution that is Virginia. Sons of millionaires, sons of tenant farmers, sons of F.F.V.’s, sons of Jewish immigrants come to the Lawn and become Virginia. Many go away cursing her, saying the school is snobbish, unfriendly, aloof. But others stay a year and learn to love the place. They see her faults but cannot help her or themselves. They are under the subtle spell of Virginia.
What is this thing? The school is a scheming goddess irresistible drawing men toward her. Why are those that leave Virginia seldom happy at other and better schools? Is it the magic of the moon on the Lawn in the spring? Is it the lazy curve of the Serpentine Wall? Is it the distant music and laughter and smells and sounds of the Albemarle night? Or is it … Virginia?
Are you broke? Are you busting out? Has your girl married a Midshipman? Did your best friend break the Honor Code? What the hell? Take a drink. Take a drink and watch the sun sink into Kearney’s Mountain and forget. Forget … Bite into the lotus and live today. That, too, is Virginia.
I see Virginia in September: Trunk and window washers and bustle at the Corner. Long bored line of would-be students impatiently inching closer to Cabell Hall. Timid First Year men in ill fitting suits from country high school and polished earth-owning individuals from the Hill and Andover. Movement and false hilarity at night in fraternity houses. Old Men being elaborately polite to New Men. “How do you like it here? Are you through registering? Oh, you’re from Wilkes-Barre. Do you know … ?” Old and new alike are formal, ill at ease, bored stiff. And Pledge Day: Handshakes and silence and frantic consultations as men come in.
And I see Virginia in November: Weather as uncertain as a spoiled woman: linen suits on Wednesday, mufflers on Thursday. Streams of cars, brining throngs which, despite an inauspicious dedication of a new stadium, yell and dance and have a good time anyway.
And I see Virginia in January: Crowds in front of the board by the Dean’s office. Apprehensive lines waiting on the committee. “My God, our house lost six men.” School settling down to the humdrum of rain and mud and dreary classes.
Then there is Easter Week. Spring is in the air. Classes and troubles are shoveled away. Four days of music, women, mason jars, wild rides, impromptu parties, sunrises and purple haze. Kaleidoscopic days, topsy-turvy as a ferris wheel. unreal days, magic as a wisp of dream. But there is solid earth on Monday morning. And Monday morning slips easily to another Monday and another. And soon it is May and inertia and politics and Finals are at the cycle’s end. That is Virginia.
But what of these things? Other schools have their rushing and their football and their Dean’s office. Other schools have their Easter Weeks, too, and their politics and their Finals. Who is this goddess that is Virginia?
Throw away your fine talk of democracy and personal freedom and ideals of Virginia gentlemen. Destroy all your great names, rich in heritage or gold. Wilson, McIntyre, Powell, Fawcett, Cabell, Poe, Scott, Cobb, McConnell and legions more. Rend, tear, annihilate your sacred traditions and your noble customs and your Honor system. Dynamite your degrees and your learned professors and your scholastic excellence. Ruin you athletic teams and you gymnasium and your dances. Kill the social graces of your student and their capacity for holding liquor and their silly fraternities and their sillier societies. Murder everything that foolish men call a college and that more foolish men call an individual college. And there is something left …
There is the cold hard steel of a railroad track at night. Rails converging toward a massive green eye in the distance. And smaller satellitic closer to the earth. Crisp air and soft coal smoke and a freight chuffing far away. guardian mountains somewhere and blinking lights.
There is absolute peace of the hills on winter afternoons. Two miles from school yet unmolested by any student. Hard firm furrows and needle carpets and shifting leaves underfoot. Wood skeletons and solid grey above. Other beckoning hills on the horizon and silence. And solitude.
There is the Lawn in a thunderstorm. Cabell Hall a grey silhouette against blackness. A crinkly talon darts out of the sky toward old Homer, brave upon his pedestal, and there is a massive rumble down the skyline toward the east. Trees shake and totter to the blast and their leaves lunge and blanch in the whipping rain. A solid writhing auger twists snake-like about the Rotunda, strives to squeeze it with its coils, then lapses into defeat. Mutterings, rustlings, drippings.
There is a sunrise from the tower atop Swannanoa. All the world and there is not a living thing. The Valley of the Shenandoah to the west. Rolling hills drifting off to wraith-like mountains. The Piedmont to the east and the mists which are pink and grey and green and purple, and yet none of those colors—which hide somewhere within them the old Atlantic. And the sun appears within the fog, a giant blood-red orb. You can reach out and touch its glossy surface. And there is fire-red on the mountains to the north and south. And there is fire-red on little Afton far below. And there is blood-red on your bare arm. For just and instant you are king.
There is utter pluperfect darkness in Cabell Hall. Darkness broken by the pin pricks of two cigarettes. You lie on a battered red carpet and some strange being does things to a piano that somehow never seem to have been done before.
And there are other things. Roads that glitter and unfold in the moonlight like massive oily waves. The McConnell statue, seen from below, lifting its wings in sharp relief against the twilight sky. The roar of a waterfall and the smell of creosote and moldering timbers. Charlottesville viewed from a housetop. The great searchlight and the colored lights of advertising signs transformed by distance into marvels of unreality. White columns and catalpa trees and moaning fire sirens. Silence and a lonesome whip-poor-will.
These things are Virginia.
But, you say, other schools have these things also. They have their railroads and their rain and their sunrises and their whip-poor-wills. Perhaps they have.
Corks and Curls