For all of you who are somewhere warmer and drier, which is just about anywhere else, winter is a stone’s throw away up here on Potash Hill. I mean, the last apples are freezing on the trees, the days feel shorter than a feature-length movie and the fog is so thick it’s basically rain doing an interpretive dance of snow in slow motion. Here at Marlboro, that means it’s just the right time for building projects that we should have done last summer. I’m speaking, of course, about the Outdoor Program addition, affectionately known as the “barn,” slowly growing in the center of campus.
You might be wondering why a program called the Outdoor Program needs so much space indoors. Like, isn’t it supposed to be all outdoorsy and in the woods and crashing down whitewater streams and eating bark and stuff? Well, sure, but where do you think all the tents and kayaks and bark-boiling stoves are when they aren’t out on the trail? Think of the barn as a cozy home away from home for all this vital outdoor equipment, which up until now has been stashed in dark sheds and cellars and other places only fit for mushrooms, trolls and earwigs.
Never one to miss an opportunity for a teachable, group-building moment in the freezing cold, OP Director Randy Knaggs is out there pretty much every afternoon, banging away like Thor at the gates of Niflheim (“mist world” of Norse mythology, also known as hell). Randy has this irresistible Tom Sawyer-esque ability of making it look like he’s having a great time. I mean, he’s roping in all kinds of help from students, faculty and staff who just wander by, wondering what the heck all the noise is, like I did. The next thing I knew I had a nail apron around me and was swinging a hammer in my own un-Thor-like manner (more like Hodur, the Norse god of blindness, I think) until my fingers were about frozen off. But like any other Outdoor Program adventure, I felt strangely bonded to the many other innocent nail-pounders and gratified to be outdoors in the fresh air.
This year at Marlboro, in among the shuffling, bare-footed 19-year-olds and anarchistic, tattooed retro-punks and cigarette-smoking existentialists and plastic-weapon-wielding LARPers, there are also four veterans of the armed forces. Okay, this shouldn’t be surprising to anyone familiar with the amazing diversity of experiences among students found on this tiny campus. But it might surprise you to learn, and it sure as heck surprised me, that 35 of the first 50 students at Marlboro (pictured) were veterans. Yup, Marlboro was pioneered in 1947 by GIs, going to college on the “GI Bill,” sleeping in army surplus tents and starting a new life in a cluster of farms at the end of a dirt road. They were attracted here by ol’ Walter Hendricks, the English professor and Marlboro College founder who was inspired by a makeshift university for soldiers in Biarritz, France, at the end of World War II. Veterans literally helped build this place.
So Randy Morantes, Scott Weaver, Chuck Pillette and Brandon Willits are part of a new generation of veterans keeping this tradition alive at Marlboro. Like other students here, they are probably drawn to the freedom to chart their own course in a challenging but snug academic community, you know, where they can talk to students and faculty as individuals. But unlike many Marlboro students, they have had extraordinary life experiences in places like Iraq and Afghanistan and, even, in Chuck’s case, Vietnam. Year after year, Marlboro finds that students with some experience beyond high school, whether that’s doing a gap year on a farm or volunteering with AmeriCorps or gathering intelligence in Kandahar, tend to thrive like weeds here. I just wanted to thank these four students, on behalf of all of us at Marlboro and in observance of Veteran’s Day, for their service and for choosing to join our challenging but snug academic community. Yo, thanks guys!
I’d like to tell you that I know the college’s 17-odd miles of trails like the back of my hand, but that would be lying. Actually, it’s fair to say that I get a little bit lost out there on a fairly regular basis, but last Saturday was a different story: A couple dozen students, faculty, staff and other local community members noisily took to the trail together, breaking into small groups armed with loppers, chainsaws, shovels and other “implements of dee-struction” to get the trails in shape for winter. It was the annual community trails day, the inspiration of President Ellen’s husband Chris Lovell, an avid cross-country skier. I was grateful to travel with a small pack of lopper-snapping, chainsaw-revving, hoe-hacking trail hands, one of whom had a map. Between the four of us, we managed to open up a goodly section of Squirrel Loop and Old Oaks Trail, and even looped back without getting entirely lost.
Back at Chris and Ellen’s house, a banquet awaited us hungry trail hands with enough hearty chili to feed an army of Mexican federales. Speaking of old oaks, Chris took this chili-chomping occasion to initiate three well-aged veterans of Marlboro trails into what he called the “Old Oaks Society.” Of course you will probably recognize Tom Ragle (left), president emeritus and step-dad to Olympic skier Bill Koch, and Edmund Brelsford (right), professor emeritus of a thousand languages and 2010 national cross-country ski champion in the emeritus age bracket. Between them is John Caldwell—I’m not kidding—Olympic skier, coach and author of many of the books that made cross-country skiing more than just the pursuit of a few knee-sock-wearing Scando-philes. Apparently in his copious spare time John has also been a great friend to Marlboro College, and was instrumental in the design and establishment of the Old Oaks Trail. When Chris complimented him on the graceful, weaving turns of the venerable trail, John humbly recalled that a six-pack of beer had something to do with it. Okay, I’m waxing a bit sentimental here, but it felt like I was part of an honored historic legacy or something to have pushed a few fallen trees off the trail.
You know how there are certain people that you feel like you could say anything to? Like, “these carrots are way overcooked,” or “you have a penchant for picking your nose,” or “I have an irrational fear of men with mustaches?” Elizabeth Rosner is one of these people, and I felt so lucky this past Monday to have dinner with her and students from the World Studies Program Colloquium. Elizabeth was sponsored by the World Studies Program to do a reading of her bestselling novel Blue Nude, about an encounter between a German painter and an Israeli artist’s model, and how each grapples with their post-war identities. Of course the students were anticipating talking about reconciliation, one of the main themes of the book, but what they didn’t bank on is feeling like they could say anything. Okay, so most Marlboro students do feel like they can say anything almost all the time, but not necessarily over dinner with a complete stranger.
That feeling continued during Elizabeth’s reading, where members of the audience tearfully, I mean with tears gushing, shared their own World War II stories and family memories as well. I thought it was pretty gracious of the author to listen, and even thank them, considering it was her reading and all. But this was part of her nature, like I said, and totally in line with her mantra to “feel everything” she gushed a few tears of her own. Elizabeth introduced her reading by describing the Acts of Reconciliation project, which brought together second generation Germans and Jews to confront their shared legacy and helped inspire Blue Nude. One of her most amazing stories from that experience was learning that in every perpetrator there was a victim, and visa versa. Recognizing that dynamic is where reconciliation starts. I haven’t figured out yet how this will help me reconcile with overcooked carrots, but I do plan to seriously consider growing a mustache.
You can see a video of Elizabeth Rosner’s reading at our YouTube channel.