Tuesday, January 1, 2008


RPI experienced the same post-War growth that every other college and university in the country experienced, as the GI Bill opened the spigots of pent-up demand for higher education in America. The “Korean Conflict,” which killed over 50,000 Americans without officially becoming a war, got its own GI Bill in 1952. Benefits became untethered to war as such with a further extension in 1966. The National Defense Student Loan Act also pumped money into the system as a response to Sputnik (Thank you, Comrade Khrushchev!), making up the difference for a lot of us.

The result of the influx was a lot of hasty construction. By the time I arrived, some more modern dorms had been constructed, primarily for upper classmen and graduate students, and the fraternity system had also risen to the challenge of providing housing for sophomores and above. So the post-War housing became the “Freshman Dorms” and all freshmen except women and students who lived locally was required to live there, and also to eat in the Frosh Dining Hall. Ostensibly this was for the purpose of “unifying the class,” but some suspicious souls thought it was to make sure that the resources were fully utilized (and reimbursed). The freshmen women, incidentally, wound up in the Freshman Dorms two years later, in the top two floors of Crockett Hall, but that’s another story.

If “The Graduate” had been made in the post-War period, it wouldn’t have been “plastics” that the guy said to the protagonist, it would have been “cinderblocks.” Everything seemed to have been built from them. My home in Donelson was made with the large sort; the RPI freshmen dorms used a narrower kind. The outside walls had a brick facing, but the main construction was cinderblock, as were all the interior walls, which were not load bearing. I know this because a reasonably large person could stand in the hallway and push on both walls, moving them by as much as an inch in some cases. People who pissed off their fellows sometimes found their rooms shrinking. Or it could have been just for laughs.

Another laff riot was to “penny” someone’s door shut. That involved two or three guys pushing against the dorm room door, creating a little space, and shoving pennies edgewise into that space. The resulting force on the door mechanism made it almost impossible to turn the doorknob. Absolutely the favorite thing to do to someone just before they had a date, though that required some stealth

The floors themselves were likewise thin, enough so that you could locate the ceiling light in the room below just by searching around for the warm spot on your floor. If the guys below got on your nerves too much, a dropped bowling ball would create enough of a shockwave to shatter the bulbs and sometimes the entire fixture. Ah, good times.

The rooms were steam heated; RPI had its own coal-fired steam plant at that time, and exploring the “steam tunnels,” the access tunnels for the steam heating system, was another rite of passage. The dorms rooms were alternately too hot or too cold and always too dry, at least from this southern boy’s perspective, and the windows seldom sealed properly. On really cold days, some enterprising freshmen would spray water on the windows, which froze, sealing them properly and also putting a bit of extra moisture into the air.

Over winter holiday breaks, ice hockey in the first floor hallways was the order of the day, at least in some dorms, and ours had a star goalie for the hockey team, the closest thing that RPI had to a celebrity athlete. Rags stuffed into the communal shower drains put water into the hallway, then opening up as many windows as there were unlocked doors and voila, improvised ice rink. The fact that the hallways were way too narrow probably helped the guys toughen up, and gave “bouncing off the walls,” an entirely new exemplar.

There was one guy in our dorm who was a climber; he headed to the mountains on weekends, but during the week he was perfectly happy to practice repelling down from the roof. I don’t think anyone ever tried to penny him in his room—that would be pointless—nor do I think he ever tried pennying anybody’s room shut from the inside, but it’s an interesting thought.

When I got to RPI, most of the dorms had been converted, “modernized,” or
Something like that. This meant thin wood paneling on the walls and covers over the bare radiators. I think the dressers/closets were better as well. One dorm, Nason, I think it was, hadn’t been upgraded, and visits to friends in Nason felt like a little trip to Sparta. Thin wood paneling doesn’t sound like much, but the difference felt huge.

A few friends of mine have, for years, made a point of getting a Frosh dorm room for reunions, putting all sorts of sixties stuff in it (blacklight with posters, lava lamp, stereo with period music) and basically having a weekend long dorm party. Beer would be available; I shan’t mention other possibilities. I considered it a nice service that they were doing for the rest of us alumni, few of whom retain the necessary hardware to run the software, as it were.

Reunions are held in early June, which isn’t quite the perfect time. The perfect time would be in mid-Fall or mid-Spring, when the temperatures are mild, but with just a hint of cool. In the early evening, after dinner, I could lay on my narrow bed with the window open, the wind rustling the leaves of the row of trees on the other side of the parking lot, and behind that, the ivy on the walls of the Troy Armory (okay, that's mostly gone now as well; modernization takes its toll). The light would slowly fade and someone would start up the music in some other dorm and the sounds would drift in and out of focus. Eventually I’d have to get up and either study, or read, or maybe I’d go down to the Student Union, or even just walk around the town. The possibilities seemed endless. I liked that feeling, though I don't get to feel it quite as often these days.

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