WM Winter 07: Voices
February 26, 2007
The Big Red "W"
"I remember the three of us taking our turns in the chair at Kurb Scraper’s Tattoo, getting the big red W’s permanently etched into our right arms."
—by Matthew Busse ’00
At the time, it just seemed like the thing to do.
I can’t remember who thought of doing it, or how long we thought about it. What I do remember is the three of us driving up to Lafayette on a balmy spring day, taking our turns in the chair at Kurb Scraper’s Tattoo, and getting big red W’s permanently etched into our right arms. Since then, I’ve thought about it a lot.
The main reason I think about the W is that people keep asking me what it means. Since I wound up in graduate school in biology at the University of California, San Diego, I’ve often found myself at beach parties with other grad students. Whenever I meet someone new in a situation like that, a natural first question is "What does the W stand for?"
The other major venue for that inevitable and recurring question is capoeira. Capoeira is often described as a Brazilian martial art; but it’s more like a game than a form of self-defense, and the uniform is usually a tank top. Our San Diego group often travels throughout the country, meaning I’m often meeting many new people when the W is prominently displayed.
I’ve become so used to hearing "What does the W stand for?" or "Did you go to Wisconsin?" that I’ve developed an automatic response: "Wabash College, it’s a tiny little school in Indiana."
After the questioner says "Oh," and gives me quizzical look that seems to say, "Why would you get that tattooed on your arm?" I usually add, "It was a youthful male-bonding experience." That comment usually generates a laugh, or an even more confused look, and the conversation shifts to a different topic.
At first, those looks caused a little part deep inside of me to feel some regret about getting that tattoo. But they’ve also caused me to think long and hard about the W, and about Wabash in general.
Most of the other grad students here are from big schools—Berkeley, Stanford, and MIT. Their college experiences—being one anonymous student out of a crowd of tens of thousands—have been very different from my own. Among those who went to smaller, liberal arts colleges, I did see some faint glimmerings of understanding. But none of them came close to being compelled to stain their skin in the name of their college.
Thanks to these interactions, I better appreciate what I used to take for granted: the unique character of Wabash. After doing my best to remain anonymous at the huge high school I attended, Wabash was the first place I felt accepted for who I was. With the friends I met at Wabash, I experienced my first sense of belonging. Something about Wabash fosters this sense of belonging. I’m not sure what causes it: the faculty, the administration, the students, or something in the air. Judging from the reminiscing I overheard at the Big Bash this past June from alumni back for their 50-year reunion, this cause has been around for a while. I guess it’s just one of the traditions at Wabash, a feeling of love for the school.
Now that I’ve really put some thought into it, I’m glad when someone asks me about the W—it gives me a chance to spread the name of Wabash. I take a small measure of pride in knowing that because of that big red W, there are people in California, Arizona, Utah, Philadelphia, and even Brazil who have heard about Wabash College who probably wouldn’t have otherwise. Even though I haven’t been able to fulfill the donation pledge I made during my senior year (since I’m a starving grad student living in an overpriced real estate market), at least I’m a walking advertisement for dear old Wabash.
Threshing days in Indiana brought farmers together and gave a boy the chance to work alongside the men.
—by Bob Quirk ’50
In the late 1930s near the farm where I was raised, we had eight neighbors who also grew wheat and oats. They were our threshing ring—a sort of cooperative that worked together until the wheat harvest for all eight farms was completed.
Leslie Mitchell owned and ran the threshing machine in our ring, and in the middle of those hot Indiana summers when the wheat had been made ready, he’d stop at each farm to separate the grain from the straw. The grain was loaded into wagons or trucks, the straw thrown into a steadily growing pile. I can still see Mr. Mitchell standing on top of his threshing machine, watching to make sure everything was running smoothly.
As a boy, my role in all of this was to make sure none of the threshers got thirsty. I used my dad’s horse and buggy, and jugs for the water, and I got paid $1 a day—good money for a boy back then. Best of all, I got to work with the men.
Since threshing always took place in July and August, I had to keep the water as cold as possible. With no electricity to keep the water refrigerated, I wrapped the jugs in gunny sacks and soaked them to keep them wet and cool.
All the workers drank out of the same jug but one—the man who chewed tobacco. It wasn’t hard to tell who he was, as the evidence was easily visible on his face. No one wanted any part of drinking after him, so I kept a special jug which I’d hand to him as I made my rounds.
While the pay was good, the end of the day brought the greatest reward. I was allowed to eat those thresher dinners with the men at the different farms. Those dinners were a thing to behold, and every farm wife tried to outdo the other. It was like going to a home- cooked cafeteria every day of the threshing season.
The threshing rings came to an end after the combine was invented. An operation that took much of July and August and required a dozen men could now be done by one in a couple of days. But we lost the camaraderie of that work together, and boys lost a chance to work alongside the men.
But saddest of all? No more of those wonderful dinners!
Bob Quirk was born, raised, and still lives with his wife, Jeannine, on the family farm in Newtown, Indiana, and is a retired schoolteacher. "Water Boy" is excerpted from his book, Real American Stories.
What surprised us most about returning to New York was how strange it felt to be there.
—by Eric Farber ’65
By now, the title of Thomas Wolfe’s 1940 novel, You Can’t Go Home Again, has become a saying in everyday English, almost a truism. Its various implications include: Things change. We change.
And a home remembered exists only in the past.
My wife Kay and I have lately had occasion to ponder these meanings in a very personal context. For more than 25 years New York City was our home. Our apartment on West 29th Street was the only home we ever shared until we moved to Istanbul more than two years ago. Now, we’re back in Istanbul after almost two months in the U.S., much of it spent in New York City.
What surprised us most about returning to New York was how strange it felt to be there. After all, this is a city we knew and still know very well. Partly, this feeling of strangeness was due to the constant and rapid changes occurring around Manhattan, especially in our former neighborhood. For decades, the 6th Avenue corridor of North Chelsea between 23rd and 29th streets had remained unchanged. Large parking lots were home to weekend flea markets. Dilapidated buildings housed delis, currency exchanges, wholesale flower markets, adult video parlors, low-end Chinese takeouts, and wig shops. Not a pretty sight maybe, but we were used to it. It had a kind of smarmy charm.
Then, about four years ago, revised zoning laws and a changing real estate market began to transform the avenue. Developers began building on every available lot. Some older buildings were pulled down. Others remain, squashed between intimidating high-rise apartment complexes.
As the building juggernaut gained mass and momentum, redevelopment reached the crosstown blocks off 6th Avenue. Patterns of light and shade changed. People lost the views across the city they had once enjoyed. Directly behind our former terrace, replacing a century-old building whose ancient, red-brick wall once was the backdrop to our property, there is now a 23-story hotel under construction. Immediately to the west of our building, on what used to be a vest-pocket parking lot, another tall hotel is being built.
The noise and falling debris from these construction sites has become a major irritant to our former neighbors as it had been to the tenants who occupied our apartment until recently.
New York was always an expensive town, but during our two-year absence prices have skyrocketed. The cost of nearly everything—restaurants, groceries, taxis—seems to be about 20% more than when we left. We’ve read that the middle class is getting squeezed economically across America, and this is dramatically true in New York.
Perhaps the biggest jolt we got when we landed back in New York was just the feeling of being on the street. The underlying rhythms of Istanbul and New York are very different, and we’ve become used to Istanbul’s. Although Istanbul is a very large city—15 million, by most estimates—we live and roam in a relatively small part of it. Living in Moda is a bit like living in a small town. The apartment buildings are all five or six stories, the streets are narrow, people greet us in the stores and restaurants, and our street noise consists of children going and coming from school, the cries of itinerant vendors, and the occasional accordion music of an afternoon.
And we’ve decided to stay for a while.
Living in Istanbul has changed us; just how much it has changed us we learned from our recent return to New York. I think for us, home may be as much a state of mind as a place. As long as we have the space and amenities we’ve become accustomed to, friends to spend time with, good neighbors, delicious food, and weather that isn’t too unpleasant, we’re home.
In that sense, we can’t go home again—because we’ve never really left.
We do not yet have a great
poem that conveys it.
I don’t mean the plunge of
murder and flash of damnation.
I mean the imperceptible
crumbling of the temple steps.
—Donald W. Baker H’57
Burning of the phoenix
I saw the images of killed and mutilated children and wondered if we were really living in the 21st century.
—by Wassim Labaki ’08
I was a young boy when the bloody Lebanese civil war ended in 1990. I came of age in a rebuilt Lebanon, in which the capital Beirut was regaining its status as a commercial, tourist, and cultural centre of the region. Every summer, hundreds of thousands of tourists visit Lebanon taking advantage of its beautiful beaches on the Mediterranean Sea, its green mountains, its many archeological sites and its modern resorts.
In 2006, I, too, decided to return for awhile to my home country after a long spring semester and two months doing science research. The Lebanon I returned to was incredible. My friends and I would go to the beach in the morning, spend the afternoon in the mountains, and go out to a café at night to follow the World Cup games. Everything seemed so peaceful. Beirut was like a shining star on the Mediterranean.
Then on July 12, the Islamist militant organization Hezbollah killed eight Israeli soldiers and captured two others in a cross-border raid. In response Israel attacked the southern cities and villages of Lebanon, the southern suburbs of Beirut, and the major infrastructure of the country: the airport, all seaports, and the important roads and bridges. In a few hours, Lebanon became a symbol of destruction, and Beirut a ghost city.
At first many thought that the conflict would last only a few days, but it quickly became evident that the war would be a long one.
I live in the mountainous Christian region north of Beirut, a relatively safe area. Yet we constantly feared for lack of food, drugs, and medical supplies because the Israeli army had blocked all the ports. People were buying food in huge quantities. I was helping the elderly who needed assistance in storing the medicines they would need. We watched television broadcasts of the aftermath of Israeli attacks, including those on the United Nations post and an ambulance. I saw the images of killed and mutilated children and wondered if we were really living in the 21st century.
Israel has the right to defend itself against Hezbollah, but it is not acceptable that innocent civilians be targeted. I was saddened by the casualties among civilians on both sides of the conflict. With the situation deteriorating daily, I decided to leave the country earlier than planned. The airport had been attacked, so the only way to escape was to fly from Damascus in neighboring Syria. The road from Beirut to Damascus was not safe; the Israeli warplanes had already hit big trucks on this road believing they might be carrying arms coming from Iran through Syria to Hezbollah. Nevertheless, I decided to take the risk; no one could guarantee that this road would remain in operation in the days to come. In fact, the road between Beirut and Damascus was destroyed just two days after I left.
My father didn’t want me to make that trip alone. He insisted on accompanying me to Damascus. Our journey was marked by several scary moments, the sight of destroyed trucks on the road, and speeding to overtake and get clear of the trucks that were still running.
I returned safely to Crawfordsville, but my father had to go back to Beirut on the same road at night, when the Israeli air strikes are usually more violent and more frequent. It was only after I’d arrived in the States that I learned he had returned safely to my family in Beirut.
I wonder what will happen to my family in my absence? Was it fair to leave them while they were facing such horrible conditions?
Nothing but rubble remains in the southern suburbs of Beirut, rubble that returns the echo of crying women and children. Yet Beirut has been burned down and rebuilt several times through its long history. Lebanon is one of the oldest countries in the world, the country where the first alphabet was invented, where the first law school was built. Like the Phoenix, Lebanon will be resurrected once again.
Wassim Labaki is a junior chemistry major from Baabdate, Lebanon. Contact him at email@example.com