The Brave, New World of Williams College
by Lloyd S. Thomas
In the late fall of 1963, a high school friend, who had gotten early acceptance at Yale, handed me a faded, well-thumbed, but still elegantly purple copy of the Williams College Bulletin that I still possess and treasure after more than 50 years; somehow the black and white photos lured me into the Purple Valley. I hopefully wrote to the Admissions Office, and they rewarded me with color brochures, folders, advice, forms, and most important of all, encouragement. I paid the fees to have my SAT scores and my transcript forwarded. Then, I mailed in my laboriously penned application. On April 15, a fat envelope arrived from Williamstown, and I was quickly able to forget about going to a California campus and start planning for Williams.
In my naive exultation at going east to college and leaving “the warm, California sun,” (as the “Rivieras” of the doo-wop era termed it) I did not experience even the slightest form of “culture shock.” My parents had been worried that since I had never been out of California, living in New England might be too big a contrast. But, I was undeterred. In fact, my cross-country journey became part of the excitement because I helped a friend of a friend drive his red Triumph TR3 across the country to Williamstown. Decades later, my mother revealed that when the sports car pulled away from the curb in front of our house, she broke down in tears from a mixture of joy that my own college dreams were starting to come true and her grief that I was now on my own.
Storage was minimal in the Triumph. The car’s owner rightfully claimed the entire trunk. My single suitcase was wrapped in canvas and strapped to a luggage rack mounted on top of the car’s snug trunk. The small Royal portable typewriter, in its case, upon which I was destined to create hundreds of pages of Williams essays, was nestled under my knees in the “shotgun” seat.”
I was accustomed to shifting a VW “beetle, with a synchromesh gearbox, and the TR3’s owner chaffed me about my inability to “double-clutch” its four speed manual transmission. When I took my first turn driving, somewhere near the Nevada border, he ironically dubbed me “Sterling”–after Sir Sterling Moss, the legendary British Formula One driving champion. My instructions were to keep the 100-horsepower engine purring between 3000 and 4500 rpm. I recall that we stayed in a motel somewhere outside Albuquerque, New Mexico, and then drove nonstop, following the often confusing and contradictory signs for Route 66 until we reached Chicago. From there, we motored through the interconnecting state toll roads and thruways that would eventually become Interstate 90, reaching Toledo, Cleveland, Buffalo, Syracuse, and finally crossing the Hudson River at Albany. Perhaps many returning and entering Ephs may have been following the same route at the same time. Exhausted, we arrived in Williamstown with the TR3’s gearbox still functioning, although, in my excitement, I did stall the car right in front of Williams Hall. Or maybe, this was the TR3’s curt farewell to me. For a sports car which has the reputation of being quirky and occasionally unreliable, the British roadster had behaved magnificently.
Upon clambering out of the car and looking around, I was immediately struck by the alien custom of other freshmen wearing brown loafers without socks. Back in good old Los Angeles, we wore low-cut Converse Chuck Taylor All Star basketball shoes with the thin red stripe circling the canvas top and the blue stripe parading around the plastic sides and back. Didn’t Boston Celtic star Bob Cousy wear Converse All Stars? Of course, it was de rigueur to protect these priceless “limousines for the feet” by wearing white socks. To be honest, for my entire freshman year at Williams, those low cut, Converse All Stars were my talisman, my magic connection back to the surf culture of Los Angeles. They got wet and soggy in the rain; they were suicidal on icy terrain. But they provided the psychic link with home that I needed. So, whom am I kidding when I say that I didn’t experience culture shock?
I did have another, perhaps equally magical, link to my home. Every Sunday afternoon, I would descend the stairs to the Junior Advisors’ room, write my name in the logbook, and make a collect, “station-to-station” long distance call to my family back in Los Angeles. I enjoyed these ten-minute calls, but they must have been very precious to my parents. Decades later, as a parent myself, I was overjoyed when my two daughters decided to attend college campuses no further away than University of California at Santa Barbara and Irvine. Every two or three weeks, my wife and I would ferry them back to our “nest” in West LA. I’m not sure we could have endured having them 3000 miles away.
So, thanks to my Converse All Stars and the “Ma Bell” monopoly, I made a smooth transition. I never felt anxious. I was never depressed. I was never lonely. I had plenty of Williams friends. The college employed me stacking books in the library and carrying dishes in the dining hall. Classes and homework filled up the rest of each day. At least once a week, I tried to visit the Impressionist paintings in the Clark Art Institute and then climb up Stone Hill.
In my freshman roommates, I had all the inspiration I needed. Jeff Williams played the guitar and taught me my first chords; Steve Essley was a skier, and, to whet my appetite, his family took me along on a winter trip to Stratton and Killington. My roommates’ familiarity with New England eased my transition from West coast surfer to East coast student. Of course, the Williams student body was much more cosmopolitan and diverse than my high school had been. And, it may be that a more sociologically astute observer could have diagnosed different economic and ethnic groupings. But I felt as if I fit right in.
In addition to my roommates, I made a lot of new friends among the other freshmen who had been offered jobs serving food in Baxter Hall. The diners at two tables of eight that I served all year became teammates. At first, I felt awkward and embarrassed bringing in their food on a large oval aluminum tray. But very soon, I realized that they relied on me to get them their food quickly and in abundance. Their trust transformed me from being a humble food “go-for” into a culinary quarterback, passing out the food and handing off the beverages. I wish I could remember their names and thank them for their friendship and patience. But I do recall their requests, “Please, bring us more milk!” “I can’t eat this lamb without some mint jelly!” “Are there any extra desserts?”
One happy, but real shock was the classroom. At my public high school in Los Angeles, there were 35 students in each class. At Williams, there were fewer than twenty. The lecture format predominated, but there were lots of probing questions. Professors seemed to expect a very high level of expertise. I’d gotten straight A’s in my senior year in high school. Now in my English class, the teacher seemed to delight in drawing a perfectly straight diagonal line across many of my long, enthusiastic paragraphs and neatly writing “crap!” in the margin. I inferred that I should write less like Thomas Wolfe, and more like T. S. Eliot.
So, I admit not getting A’s at first was a bit of a shock. But I’d gained entry into a world where the teachers were fearsomely intelligent and yet convivial. Like every other applicant to Williams, I’d been near the front of the pack in high school, but, at Williams, I now found a comfortable place in the middle of the academic peloton.
At Williams, I experienced my first New England fall, with trees erupting into autumn colors like varied sections of the orchestra in a Mahler symphony exploring the same complex melody at different times. Dogwood, maples, red oak, and sassafras shimmered into crimson and scarlet. Birch, elm, hickory, and poplar modulated into gold, then yellow. Sumac flared into purple. Red and sugar maples gushed yellow, orange, and red. Then, the next day, the same hills glowed in different and even more radiant colors.
After fall, came my first Winter, and I confess this was a climate shock, if not culture shock. As everyone knows from watching the Rose Bowl parade, January brings some of southern California’s most beautiful weather. Blue skies, yellow sun, temperate breezes. Temperatures in the mid-seventies. Consequently, when I returned to Williamstown after the Christmas break, I honestly expected winter to be over, and the beautiful weather to begin. Still wearing my precious Converse All Stars, and hatless, I trekked across the barren campus from class to class. Day by day the snow mounted. Someone explained to me that I could stay warmer by wearing my pajama bottoms underneath my jeans. So, I did that. I also remember that in order to have a pen that would work in class, I had to tuck my Bic pens inside my shirt, inside my sweater, inside the Navy Blue Peacoat that my father had brought back from WWII. Otherwise, the ballpoint pen ink seemed to freeze inside the plastic stylus.
If my two heroic Junior Advisors Bing Benson and Kent Titus (both ’66) had a single failing, it’s that they neglected to explain to me that I could stay a lot warmer wearing a hat. I had never yet gone skiing, so I didn’t see the appeal, or even necessity, of the brightly colored wool caps everyone else was wearing. Boy was I wrong.
To keep myself warm, or at least endure the bitter, chilling cold, I sang to myself a popular hit that included the verse, “New York’s a lonely town/ When you’re the only surfer boy around.” Written by the Trade Winds in 1965, the song was an obvious imitation of Beach Boys and Jan and Dean vocal styles. Still the chorus echoed in my mind during my first winter at Williams. On the cover of their hit song, the four despondent musicians with dark hair carried a useless surfboard across a snow-covered street in Manhattan–like rejected, exiled, ridiculous Beach Boys. Just like me.
One thing that I discovered that surfing and Williams had in common was that you could “wipe-out” when you least expected it. There always seemed to be a wickedly concealed patch of ice on the most innocent-looking paths around the campus.
Stormy January was awful. Then fickle February appeared with its abrupt thaws and freezes. And dear, deceptive March with its promises and delays of better weather. After several false cameo appearances, spring eventually arrived. I took my exams and arranged for a ride back to Los Angeles, where I worked my summer jobs and tried to surf on the weekends. But I couldn’t wait to return to my happy academic home at Williams.
At the end of my senior year, my parents, who’d been paying the bills for what my scholarship didn’t cover, drove out to see me walk in the graduation ceremony at Williams. The harsh world outside was about to engulf me and my classmates. Before we left town, my parents seemed to understand that I needed to climb Stone Hill one last time, and they sat in the car while I trekked up its grassy slopes, and looked across the Berkshire valley. Not knowing whether I’d ever return, I said a silent farewell to the Berkshire hills and valleys, and then climbed down, ready for the long ride back to my old home in Los Angeles.
I loved the brave, new world of Williams College. I don’t think I experienced any real “culture shock.” I would call it more of an awakening. I loved going to Williams, and I hated to leave.
However, by returning home, I was about to experience true culture shock. I was exiting with a B.A. from Williams and also with a 1A classification from the Draft Board. Draft Deferments for graduate school had been eliminated. Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King had been assassinated in the spring of 1968. The US had over 500,000 soldiers in Vietnam. Over 40,000 men received draft notices each month. Like all of us who graduated that year, I was emigrating from the brave, new world of Williams back into the tumultuous, tormented, real world.