It was a night that quickly became an integral part of the college’s rich oral history, tales of past glorious deeds passed down from class to class over the years. Many of today’s incoming freshman dismiss it out hand, quickly discarding it into the abyss of the laughingly exaggerated, or even the impossible. But those who believe in the importance of tradition in our institutions will listen intently to their campus elders as they recount the stunning events of that crisp fall night in 1968 and will later revel in retelling the story themselves.
The event may never attain the stature of the Great Snowball Fight of 1935, the Tri-Dorm Water Bucket Battle of 1957 a/k/a “The Floods”, the Greek downing six beers in thirty seconds, even taking time to straighten his handlebar mustache at midpoint of the remarkable feat, a group of eager-to-please pledges cutting down the evergreen in the college President’s lawn to serve as their fraternity’s Christmas Tree, or the unfortunate dump truck crash that ended the annual Great Bike Race to the relief of the Administration and a number of small-town police departments. But those memorable moments experienced by a handful of dismayed students on the roof of Science Hall have secured a respectable place in the colorful history of the college. An astute Astronomy student from rural Iowa, peering through his mass produced, economy class telescope, had just discovered a planet size object hurtling through space on a collision course with Earth. Alcohol may have been a factor.
It may not have been what my parents had in mind when they shipped me off to a prestigious institution of a higher learning, but I feel blessed to have been part of this bit of my college’s history, albeit an alternative history not recognized in the school’s official promotional literature. It may have been only an incidental brush with someone else’s fifteen minutes of fame, but it does make me feel a little special, especially at reunions.
Like many other students seeking an easy glide path to graduation, I had pursued a degree in the social sciences, Political Science to be precise. The problem for me and many others so situated was the college’s across-the-board graduation requirement to have successfully completed three classes in Math and/or Science. I prided myself on the ability to find those classes that, shall we say, were the least challenging to be found in those disciplines. This was the thought process that landed me in a seat next to Roger, my fraternity brother and good friend, in the Astronomy class affectionately known as “Stars 2” to those who were averse to taking final exams which often required precise answers.
The “Stars 2” curriculum involved three hours of good old-fashioned book learning every week coupled with bi-weekly sessions of hands-on study of the wonders of the universe. These practical observations of sky borne objects, movements and distances, generally referred to as “star gazing” by the grateful scholars enrolled in this “bunny” of a course, took place on the roof of the building housing the relatively ill-equipped Science Department. Each student had the use of a very basic telescope, and the college’s small-town location afforded clear views of the night sky. The professor attended the first rooftop class to demonstrate the operation of the equipment and to offer guidance as to where items of interest might be found, but subsequent sessions were unsupervised. What could go wrong?
You need some background information in order to truly appreciate the causes and impact of this historic happening. Many of the guiderails and niceties of normal social existence had long been abandoned on this male-only campus. Unchecked, the precept “Boys will be boys” tends to lead to unintended, often regrettable consequences. Another widely accepted tenet of human behavior, “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop”, also plays a critical role here. The town literally had no establishments that would serve as an outlet for social interaction. The entire setting provided a veritable greenhouse for planting the seeds and promoting the growth of the unfettered, frequent, and irresponsible consumption of alcohol.
Those were the constants. A remarkable merger of contributing coincidences put the final touches on the formation of the perfect storm which would doom poor Roger, not to his fifteen minutes of fame, but rather his fifteen minutes of sheer, unmitigated, irreversible, infamy. Cruel fate is often the foundation of great moments in history.
The variables that miraculously met at the focal point of that small college that someone had inexplicably established in the midst of nowhere were: 1) A train wreck in upstate Vermont; 2) Kiley’s band practice; 3) The cancellation of the fraternity’s weekly Chapter meeting scheduled for the previous evening due to a power outage; 4) Roger’s birthday.
At first blush, such events may seem unrelated to you, but had any one of these elements been absent, it is likely that none of this would have happened. College historians have concluded that the probability of all these factors being present at the same time and in the same place was akin to winning the lottery. Such was the degree of Roger’s misfortune.
Let me put it all together for you.
The train wreck: Just days earlier, a train had derailed in a remote area just forty-five miles from the college. Among the commodities strewn along the tracks were thousands of cases of beer. Even back in those days, word spread quickly, and soon caravans of cars and trucks were speeding back and forth from the train wreck to the college in an event many compared to Biblical mana from heaven. The import of this event was that virtually every dorm and fraternity house on campus was well stocked with the fuel that might foster boisterous revelry should there be a spark to ignite it all.
Kiley’s trumpet: Kiley was in a makeshift band that had practiced that evening, and he went straight to his rooftop class when the jam session ended. This put Kiley’s trumpet on the rooftop of the Science Building at a most inopportune time.
Cancellation of the fraternity meeting: A quarter-barrel of beer grudgingly purchased at an exorbitant price from the town’s sole provider of such beverages was always on hand at the gathering. Without the meeting, the keg remained intact, and its contents were readily available for later consumption.
Rodger’s birthday: Self-explanatory. Our observation time slot was 10:00 PM to midnight; Roger started celebrating at five o’clock.
Events that were to unfold were foreshadowed by the difficulty we had getting Roger up on the roof. A wooden ladder led to an opening or hatch in the ceiling of a hallway on the third floor which accessed the roof. We employed the time honored “push-pull” method to get good old Roger onto the roof. Following close behind Roger was the keg of beer. I think you can see where this is going.
There were thirteen of us up on the roof that night. We took turns looking through the six rudimentary telescopes, and I made sure that one of us was always assigned the task of making sure Rodger didn’t wander away and fall off the roof. Even though his recollection of events was hazy to say the least, Roger would later thank me.
We took notes on the tiny dots of light in the sky without really gaining much of an understanding of what we were looking for, while enjoying the cool evening, the comradery, and the beer. Toward the end of the session, I was on Roger-watch as he took his turn at one of the telescopes. Suddenly, without warning, it all unraveled.
“Jesus Christ! There’s a planet, or a comet or meteor, or something really big coming right at us! We’re all going to die!”
I think it was the “We’re all going to die!” that caught everyone’s attention. We, of course, laughed at the outburst, but I quicky recognized Roger’s distraught condition. Whatever he saw, Roger’s alcohol-induced, distorted perception of reality had persuaded his barely functioning brain to conclude that we were doomed. As Roger’s primary caretaker at the time, I intervened and tried to calm him down and convince him that it was unlikely we were on the brink of extinction. Roger would here none of it.
“It’s a planet out of control! Or a meteor or something! It’s a big thing on fire! It’s coming right at us!”
We will never know what Rodger saw. Post-event analysis has suggested it may have been an airplane, the moon, car headlights, the stoplight at the corner, light from a window in the library, or possibly a streetlamp. The theory that has garnered the most support was that a firefly that had landed on the lens of his telescope. It was all conjecture for those who were present, and it is unlikely that Roger will ever be able to add to our understanding.
“We’ve got to warn everybody!”
At this point, fate intervened in the form of Kiley’s trumpet. Roger saw it glistening in the moonlight, grabbed hold of it, and owing to a brief stint with his high school band, he knew how to blow the damn thing. And blow his brains out he did.
There was no recognizable tune, but it was loud. The cacophony echoed across the campus and through the town. The responsible of the group, of which there were few, tried to wrestle the trumpet away from Roger. The others egged him on.
I had already deemed it remarkable that Roger could remain vertical, so it was a complete shock when he bolted for the entrance to the roof. I was paralyzed by utter amazement tinged with a touch of fear as Rodger stopped, reached for the ladder, and then dropped dead weight straight to the floor below without ever touching a single rung. He landed with a thud.
Oh, my God. Roger could be dead. What will I tell his parents? And it happened on my watch! I raced to the opening. I was afraid to look, but I figured I had to. I saw nothing below. Rodger was gone! He had survived the fall, and the sound of his trumpet fading in the distance told me he was relatively unscathed.
I chose to climb down the ladder rather than leap to the floor below, so Roger had a pretty good lead on me. He was bouncing off the walls as he stumbled down the first-floor hallway and somehow managed to pull the fire alarm. Oh my God, this could be a serious problem for the entire class, although in my heart I knew there would be no Spartacus moment but rather a race to throw Roger under the bus. With the fire alarm reverberating throughout the building, those remaining on the roof made a hasty exit, so hasty in fact that they left the quarter barrel and its precious contents behind.
Roger was on the college track team, and even in his inebriated condition, he maintained a sizable lead on me as I attempted to prevent him from wreaking further havoc on the sleeping community. With me in hot pursuit, he gave a nice rendition of Paul Revere and went from dorm to dorm blowing his trumpet and shouting out his warnings of impending doom. “End of the World” parties spontaneously sprang up throughout the campus. It was of enormous benefit that the dorms and fraternities were well stocked with “train beers”.
The revelers soon poured out of the dorms and fraternity houses and amassed on the campus Green. The freshmen class had already begun to stockpile kindling wood and timbers on the Green for an upcoming football weekend. The highly combustible material was appropriated by the unruly crowd, and soon a huge bonfire lit up the scene.
I cringed when I heard the sirens. Three fire trucks! It was all getting worse. I briefly considered approaching one of the firemen to tell them it was a false alarm but having a strong attachment to the principle of self-preservation, the idea was quickly abandoned.
Local merchants were alerted to the chaos and requested a police presence to protect the downtown area and keep the celebration confined to the campus. Upon seeing thousands of students running around hooting and hollering after midnight for no apparent reason, the first officers on the scene called for backup. At the peak of the fracas, I counted nine police cars. My heart sunk even further when I saw the Dean of Students and a befuddled college President, still in his pajama bottoms, trying to grasp the events unfolding before them. My thoughts briefly turned inward as I contemplated what I might tell my father when my entire Stars 2 study group was suspended or put on some kind of oppressive probation.
I finally found Roger in the crowd. Throughout the entire affair, he continued to blow his trumpet while intermittently searching the night sky for the object of total destruction. Restraining Roger in his efforts to warn the populace was no longer a concern, and I only sought to make certain Roger didn’t stumble into the roaring fire.
After realizing there was no serious threat to life or property, the police only employed gentle measures of persuasion to disperse the crowd. By 3:00 AM, only Roger and I remained on the campus Green. As the fire died down to glowing embers, I tried to convince Roger that he had done his job and should go to bed. He stumbled around a bit, gave a barely audible toot on his trumpet, and collapsed to the ground, much in the mold of Pheidippides after delivering the message of victory to the Athenians.
I was now alone with Roger who seemed to be resting comfortably on the grass. I was in a difficult predicament as I knew I couldn’t carry him back to the fraternity house. After briefly considering my options, and in a noble gesture of friendship and humanity, I went back to the fraternity house, pulled a blanket off his bed, returned to the scene and covered him up. The memory of Roger lying on the campus Green, covered with his blanket and clutching his trumpet, still brings a tear to my eye. I feel privileged to have been a part of it.