The ghosts of Whitman past
By John Moe ’90
You checked the alumni notes. You rooted through the information about classmates’ new jobs, big promotions, exciting moves. You were, by turns, jealous (“Should I have gone to law school like that guy?”), terrified (“I remember that guy from that one party freshman year and now he’s a SURGEON?!”), and confused (“Is my memory fading? Because I have no idea who that guy is.”).
If you’re like me, you kind of wish at least one person had sent in an update based on ordinary life. Something like, “Bob Smith reports that he got up, had breakfast, went to work, came home, had dinner, watched a little TV and went to bed, just like every night he can remember.”
You probably also did a quick buzz through marriages, births and deaths, the order of those three varying somewhat according to how long ago you graduated. Only after you’ve virtually revisited an assortment of classmates did you comb through the rest of the magazine. And eventually that brought you here.
And it’s OK. I’m not offended. That’s the way Whitman works. Even after you leave the school, the Whitman you experience is contextualized by the people you went there with. You read about them in these pages, you get calls and letters from them asking for donations to the school, you show up for reunions and, while you are physically inside the present-day Whitman sitting on Ankeny eating hot dogs on paper plates, you are with the people from your dorm. It’s comfortable.
If you want to preserve that sense of comfort, don’t do what I did a few months ago. I was asked to come back to campus to give a talk to the Whitman community about some of the ideas in my book, “Conservatize Me,” which had recently been released in paperback. A quick Horizon Air flight from Seattle, back home the next day. It seemed simple enough. I didn’t know about the parallel-universe crisis I would face.
I flew into town and checked into the Baker Faculty Center, felt briefly distinguished for being put up in that building and then freaked out because I was certain the place was haunted and I would be visited by various actually distinguished alumni ghosts, all calling me an impostor. William O. Douglas (1920), Walter Brattain (1924), wearing chains, moaning, the whole bit.
I calmed down, swiped a cookie from downstairs, and, with a couple hours to kill, set out to revisit the campus.
Have you ever had a dream where you’re in your house but it’s not your house? Like your kitchen is normal but there’s a bear cave where your dining room should be? Well, that’s Whitman. There were buildings I had never seen before (an entire building just for tennis! a gym that wasn’t subterranean!) and buildings I could no longer find that I’m pretty sure used to be there. So I just stood there, staring at structures both tangible and imaginary. The campus and surrounding area existed in two forms: reality and memory. You have to be careful not to get hit by cars in a situation like that.
Sensing that a guy staring slack-jawed at invisible buildings might not be a welcome sight for the Whitman community, I hunted down and photographed some of the houses where I lived in my school days as well as the houses of friends with whom I keep in touch. It was only on about house No. 5 when it occurred to me that I was once again engaging in what could charitably be called socially questionable behavior. Who wanders about on foot photographing houses they don’t live in? Cops and crazy people. And I sure wasn’t carrying a badge. Again, I was stuck in this real world that had a kind of ghost- world overlay.
Avoiding possible arrest, I decided to make my way to where I was to give my talk. It was in a building I always called the Old Music Building. I believe it has another name now, but for the life of me I don’t know what it is. I understood why the students in the auditorium had showed up to hear me. The event was free, the building was near several dorms, and the advertisements indicated there would be jokes.
What really freaked me out hard-core was the presence of several of my former professors. Here I had written something, and I was presenting it to these academic authority figures. On an intellectual level I knew they would not be grading me, at least not officially or in writing, but I was more than a bit flummoxed. There they sat, watching, casting judgment. Oh sure they were smiling, laughing, nodding their heads, APPEARING to be enjoying themselves. But what if that was just the gentle prelude to a vicious evaluation session that was to come? Once more, here was the overlay of my memory of the profs versus the reality of them just being regular guys coming to hear an author they know and perhaps even like.
I had been given a ticket to the opening night of Harper Joy Theatre’s One-Act Play Festival and so I went. As a theater major in college, I spent more hours in the theater than in any of the (later photographed) rental houses and apartments. Seeing the students on stage and milling about after the show, I was again unable to shake the image of all the people I had acted with and milled about with back in my day. I have great memories of those years — memories that produced a dopey smile as I stared at these modern students going about their business. I quickly realized it was time to leave the theater. No one wants to have a creepy old dude staring at them grinning like an idiot. Not even theater majors want that.
I guess the whole experience of going back to Whitman would have been more comfortable had I been surrounded by the phalanx of cohorts one can find at the reunions. Or if I had chosen the frequently traveled economy-fare trip and just sat around remembering Whitman. But maybe, when it came to Whitman College, I had once again simply blown off studying. The trip I was taking was to not one but two Whitmans (which means, I suppose, that I was in Walla Walla Walla Walla). The trick, I guess, is to recognize the two worlds, synthesize them as best you can and just try to enjoy yourself.
I walked back to Baker Faculty Center. I never did see any ghosts that night. Perhaps they don’t exist. Or perhaps they recognize me as one of them, a memory from a distant time in the school’s history. Or maybe they just figured I had dealt with enough that day.
John Moe is a senior reporter for “Weekend America,” a national radio program produced by American Public Media. He also writes regular humor pieces for McSweeney’s Internet Tendency.