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The Yale of My Day
Young Lords and Lower Classes

There is always a revolution of some sort afoot at Yale, and the Class of 1936 found one in New Haven in the autumn of 1932, in the pit of the Great Depression. It was just a mite late for the Jazz Age of raccoon coats and Stutz Bearcats (we weren’t allowed to have cars anyway), and it was just before the New Deal. Prohibition was still on the books, although more sophisticated members of the class quickly discovered ways in which strong waters might be obtained at places with names like the “York A.C.” or “The Iron Gate.” There were no women undergraduates, of course, and should a passing young female take a short cut through Berkeley Oval (then in its final year of life and full of freshmen), it was customary for someone spotting her from his window to cry “Fieyrrrr!” and be joined by other wits in other windows until she broke into a run. President Hoover was running for a second term against Franklin Roosevelt and Norman Thomas, the gentlemanly socialist. A straw poll of the student body favored the Great Engineer over Roosevelt—by 1,416 to 370—and a surprising 347 for Thomas.

“Maids came in to clean and make beds after the young masters had gone to breakfast.”

The Old Campus was much as it is today, and so was the New Haven Green, save that big yellow trolley cars rumbled around it, radiating out on many streets to other parts of New Haven and surrounding towns. On football weekends they gave way to a huge fleet of yellow open cars, with transverse seats and full car-length folding steps from front to back, normally used by the conductor as he moved about collecting fares. But as the large crowds of students and their dates and whoever else jumped aboard platoons of these wonderful old contraptions on the way to football games at the Bowl, fare collecting became almost impossible. Swarms of seemingly poor children gathered along the tracks yelling “Scramble! Scramble!” while the young lords tossed pennies to be fought over by the lower classes. I miss those old open cars, sometimes called “breezers,” but not those screeching children. They made me morally uncomfortable. Some of them, I hope, grew up and went to Yale themselves.

Yet another revolution absorbed us in our sophomore year. The long-awaited College Plan went into effect with the completion of the first seven residential complexes. My roommate and I arrived in colonial (well, mostly) Davenport, in rooms never before occupied, a double suite with a large living room overlooking the green quadrangle, and two single bedrooms; each contained a desk to which one might retire to study. Maids came in to clean and make beds after the young masters had gone to breakfast in the beautiful dining hall amidst fine furniture, china, and silver. You had to pay for a minimum of 14 meals a week in the college, which wiped out most of the old fraternities and their grills. In intramural sports the colleges replaced the classes in creating teams; games were frequent, practice less so, which I think is a good thing, so that you can enjoy a sport without chaining your life to it. The College Plan, so-called, was an adaptation of that of Oxford and Cambridge; our studies and class work were not included as in England, although each of our colleges had a faculty member as resident Master. Other noted scholars served as resident or nonresident “Fellows,” with whom we might on occasion dine and talk. The seminar, or “group around a sofa,” was aborning. The College Plan generously bestowed on Yale is a splendid thing.

Our Yale was a lively place and intellectually demanding. Writers-to-become—like John Hersey, August Heckscher, Brendan Gill, John Crosby, and Stewart Alsop—were beginning to try their muscles. Jack Bingham led the News, and starred in the founding of the Political Union. Traditions were in safe hands, with our Merrill Knapp at the Glee Club. On the football field, if I recall correctly, Yale defeated Harvard three times in our four years.

“‘Is that a girl?’ I ask my wife. ‘So hard to tell these days.’”

Bigger problems, however, loomed before us, as the menace of another war in Europe began to appear. The courses of the hour were the political lectures of Professors Nicholas Spykman and Arnold Wolfers, which riveted my interest after a summer bicycle trip across Hitler’s Germany in 1935. Pacifism and isolationism also claimed adherents. Argument flourished, and we were the better for it. When war came, most of us served under arms, and 15 did not return.

My wife and I live in Old Saybrook, not far from New Haven, and go to Yale often for events, lectures, to see friends or the ever-more-wonderful museums and libraries. The one thing I can’t identify with any certainty is a student. Is this one, who is dressed like a construction worker, or perhaps a mill hand? Is this other one, wrapped in some undefinable materials, a woman student? “Is that a girl?” I ask my wife. “So hard to tell these days.” “Don’t be silly,” she answers, by way of clearing matters up. Women stick together. Then I clam up and remember the rule: that there is always a revolution going on at Yale. And there will be another and another, into the mists of time.  the end





The Yale of My Day

Distant Thunder

New Haven On Stage

From White Shoe to Combat Boot

Defying Dink

Harold Bloom and the “Orc Cycles”

Vietnam On Our Mind

Of Reading, and a Wink

A Confusion of Lures

Chronicling a Cauldron

Surviving “Grim Professionalism”

Diary Daze

A Not Unwelcome Senselessness

When the World Barged In


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