Steve: ‘Good old days’ hold both good and bad

My alma mater, West Virginia University, has regained the title of Playboy magazine’s top party school. I greet this news with a mix of gladness and despair.

Being a graduate of a party school sounds like a great thing, unless someone reminds you of it in a job interview and you have to say, “Yes, alas, it was a great party school (sigh) for everyone but me. On the bright side, there was always room in the library…”

I confess I did my share of partying as a loyal Mountaineer. In recent years, I was amused to note there was shock and dismay that binge drinking occurs at colleges, as if it were something new. I think binge drinking among college students has been a rite of passage since Socrates guzzled wine with admiring young Atheneans while drilling them with Socratic method. Even in the 19th Century, I understand, doctoral students did their oral exams surrounded by faculty in the local pub. Successful students earned both a degree and whopping hangover.

In my last two years as an undergraduate, I had the privilege of indulging to excess with my truly intellectual roommates and their circle of equally powerful minds, who all tolerated me for some reason.

I learned far more from their reflections on serious study, loosened through fermented beverages, than I did from cracking the books myself. In my defense, I did crack more books more productively in the last two years than in the previous three, but not enough to come close to matching the academic performance of the people I partied with. We worked hard, too.

Attending a party school was quite valuable to me, because even the serious students, for the most part, indulged, and I was thus able to capitalize on their reflections about their accumulated wisdom.

When I get sentimental for the good old days, it is those last two years I remember most fondly. Many of my classmates and acquaintances from those years became attorneys and scholars.

One was Mark Winchell, who earned deep respect  among his peers as a professor of American literature, a tireless scholar and prolific writer at Clemson University. Sadly, Mark died of cancer a few years ago. Another is George Somerville, who has developed a national reputation as an attorney with a prestigious firm in Richmond, Va.

I got started on this line of thinking when I learned that another acquaintance of ours, but not on our walking tours of the pubs in Morgantown, W.Va., had passed away. That led me to make contact with some others in our old group, which triggered the memories in full strength.

As with all “good old days,” these weren’t always good for everybody. It was the late 1960s and early 1970s, which were also a time for experimenting with other drugs. I saw too many promising, talented friends and acquaintances dose themselves into shells that only looked like the people I used to know. And then, they’d disappear—flunked out, dropped out or jailed. I cut my own experimentation short when I saw these promises shatter.

Still, however, I am baffled that the members of my time’s free-wheeling student body have been the first to express shock and dismay that binge drinking occurs on campus, as if it were news. My own tolerance for drunk drivers and drug addicts, however, has disappeared as well. (We walked!)

Two years ago, I was teaching classes in the prison at Santa Rosa and was appalled anew at the cost young people pay when they become their drug habits instead of the people they could have aspired to be. Drugs sealed the lid on their emotional and intellectual development and sucked all other purpose from their lives, trapping them into cycles of selling, buying and prison terms.

Many of us despair when we see young people doing what we did because we remember. We wonder how we survived. And we, like our mothers and fathers before us, try again to teach the young from our own painful experience and shake our heads when we see that too often, they only learn from repeating our pain.

But we still remember how much fun it was when it didn’t hurt.

Steve Hansen is the managing editor at the Quay County Sun. He can be reached at shansen@qcsunonline.com

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