That’s me, peeking out from the back row. The year was 1966, I was a freshman at Wesleyan University, and I had just pledged a fraternity. All those other guys in the photo were my new brothers.
That photograph was taken almost fifty-six years ago. I’m counting because recently my class celebrated its 50th reunion. For Covid reasons, that reunion had to be postponed twice so our 50th was actually our 52nd, but what’s the difference? Let’s just say my freshman year at college was a long time ago.
For a variety of reasons, I chose not to attend the reunion, whichever number it was. But some of my friends did and they all reported it was a very positive experience: the fickle New England weather cooperated, the campus was thriving, and it was fun and meaningful to reconnect with old friends. I was glad to hear their stories, but I didn’t regret my decision. It’s hard to go back in time.
Our college years weren’t easy. That’s an understatement. We might not have known it at the time, but we were a generation on the cusp of significant cultural change. The war in Viet Nam was always lurking in the background. (In my senior year, I vividly remember watching the first draft lottery on television, a life-defining moment for many of my friends and classmates.) At the same time, race relations were being radically redefined. Drugs, largely absent from the scene when we were freshmen, were everywhere by the time we were seniors. Wesleyan, an all-male institution, was about to admit its first co-educational class, another transformation with profound consequences. (For the record, I was delighted with the prospect of coeducation; I only wish it had come sooner!) All the elements of a revolutionary counter-culture were coming at us hard and fast, and I often felt unhinged by the all choices I had to make. Even now, fifty-six years later, I have no wish to relive even one moment of all that almost overwhelming angst.
After graduation, I fled. Within a few months, I was a Peace Corps Volunteer on my way to a village in Tunisia. I guess I needed to find a little breathing room, some space to regain my equilibrium. Seen in that light, my decision to join the Peace Corps was more selfish than altruistic, but I’ve made my peace with that. Perspective helps.
Now, when I look at the faces in the image that accompanies this Musing, I see a sea of innocent faces. If we had had the presence of mind to recreate that image four years later, I know I would see that innocence gone, lost forever. That’s not supposed to be the result of one’s college experience, but sadly for me, it was. Don’t get me wrong: I still cherish many of those fraternity brothers and friends, but nevertheless, I rue the things we lost along the way.
Youth, once lost, can never be found again. I think I’ve remained reasonably young at heart, and my educational choices and friendships have certainly informed the way I’ve lived, worked, and loved in the decades that have flowed under the bridge since that photo was snapped long ago. But, as in any black-and-white image, there are shadows, and sometimes, I still feel like I’m peeking out at this brave, new world from the back row.
I’ll be right back.
Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer who lives in Chestertown. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy Magazine.
Two collections of his essays (“Musing Right Along” and “I’ll Be Right Back”) are available on Amazon. Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.net.
Letters to Editor
Howard Freedlander says
As someone who has urged classmates to attend our 55th reunion, I found your column illuminating. When I graduated in 1967, the Vietnam War was beginning to heat up , but the campuses were still quiet. That changed dramatically in the late 60s and early 1970s. Internal stove and confrontation marked your years. For my classmates, we lost our innocence on November 22, 1963 when JFK was assassinated. Our dreams diminished. Assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy further vanquished our innocence.
Dan Watson says
In my head, the 1950’s extended to about 1965, even past Kennedy’s murder. The !960’s were ’66-’68. The 1970’s were “69-75….
Anyone else have that weird feeling?
William S Dudley says
My background is similar to yours, Jamie, at Williams College, class of 1958.The Korean War had made its impact on campus fashions. On a winter’s day, lines of students walking to class mostly wore olive green parkas and khaki trousers and looked like a company of Marines on the march going to class. World War II veterans arrived in the late 1940s and didn’t appreciate hazing and harassment dished out to freshman and fraternity pledges.
Although Life magazine called the 1950s students the “quiet generation” on the cover of one of its issues, all was not quiet. Fraternity life still dominated the campus – 90% of students belonged and 10% who didn’t were called “turkeys” and their one dorm was called the “turkey house.” I belonged to a fraternity but didn’t like it because my choices did not match the others during rush week. Mine was not the only case.
However, changes were in the wind, the move to abolish fraternities at the college boiled up as some fraternity pranks and inhumane pledging practices made them unwelcome on the campus. Four years after graduation, fraternities were abolished. A few years later, the college became co-ed and the student population doubled as a result. The college began to change its admissions policies, accepting fewer legacy applicants and more multi-ethnic applicants, a policy still in effect. Soon, the oft-ridiculed AFROTC program departed. The 50’s students, while perhaps quiet, were restive beneath the surface and made a difference.
Orrin Baird says
Jamie, I read your article with interest as I was one class ahead of you at Wesleyan and went through the same experiences you did — the Vietnam War, the integration of Wesleyan and the emergence of the drug culture. It was a time of great alienation and similarly I escape to VISTA after graduation. However, I did go back for my 50th and found it a great experience. I am a part time resident of Easton. We should get together sometime and share stories of our Wes experience.