Saturday, January 31, 2009

Lo! The conquering hero comes!

Fantasy versus reality

Last year I had occasion to travel to Pasadena for an education conference. Despite a busy schedule, I had a grace period after the Saturday afternoon sessions and made plans to stroll over to the Caltech campus. More than a decade had passed since my last visit to my alma mater. I was keenly anticipating the experience. Caltech is a curious mix of sights and structures: Millikan Library is a soaring city landmark; Beckman Auditorium is architect Edward Durrell Stone's fanciful Greek temple; the Olive Walk is the east-west axis of the campus, running from the Athenaeum faculty house to the old site of Throop Hall (demolished after incurring damage in the 1971 San Fernando Valley earthquake).

When I was originally at Caltech in the 1970s, the campus was split by San Pasqual Street and my classmates once amused themselves by painting an unauthorized crosswalk to make it more convenient to get to Booth, the computer science building. When I visited the school in the 1980s, the institution had succeeded in getting San Pasqual shut down between Holliston and Wilson Avenues, freeing the center of the campus from vehicular traffic. I knew from the alumni magazine that new buildings had continued to pop up as Caltech expanded its research programs and the facilities that housed them.

It was early in the winter quarter of 2008 when I arrived on the California Boulevard side of the campus, retracing a path I had often walked during my junior year. Some things never seem to change. As I strolled past Sloan Laboratory, where I had spent many happy (and unhappy) hours learning advanced calculus, abstract algebra, complex variables, and combinatorial analysis, I noticed that the old metal plate in the sidewalk was still there. I still don't know what is hidden underneath (which, I admit, shames me as a former Techer; perhaps it connects to the ancient and legendary steam tunnels), but I passed over it with the familiar clang I recalled from yesteryear and made my way to the student houses that flank the Olive Walk.

Suddenly things were different, but you had to get close enough to notice it. The student houses had undergone extensive renovation but the plans had called for preservation of the original architectural features. (The new fiber-optical cables and other technological enhancements were hidden and the building interiors had been restored after reconstruction and reinforcement.) In most respects, they looked the same. However, as one approached more closely, dramatic changes were revealed. It's the age of homeland security.

I was locked out. The big main doors were secure. I could not recall that they had ever been locked during my undergraduate years, but I was not certain. I was certain, however, that there had never been locked gates keeping one from the central courtyards. The formerly open archways were no longer open. The new gates were metal grills overlaying clear plastic panels. You couldn't even stick your hand between the bars. Electronic locks offered card-swipe access for those with appropriate IDs. I hovered tentatively, wondering what to do next.

The Fantasy

“May I help you, sir?”

I looked to see who had spoken. A young man with dark hair had come up behind me and asked the question.

“Hello,” I replied. “I was a member of this student house over thirty years ago and I'm a little surprised to see how everything is buttoned up these days.”

He favored me with a quizzical expression. It all seemed normal to him, of course.

“These gates are new,” I continued. “I wasn't expecting them.”

“I can let you in,” he offered. “Would you like to look around?”

He swiped his student ID card through the reader and held the gate open for me. I asked his name and learned he was Abih, a student from North Carolina. He escorted me into the lounge of the student house. The big fireplace and the old piano were still in place. The portrait of the house's namesake was sitting atop the mantle, awaiting the finishing touches of the remodeling that would rehang it in its customary place.

My presence attracted the curious attention of the resident students, who wondered what odd circumstance had caused them to be visited by a middle-aged man in coat and tie. My escort clarified matters: “We have a visiting alumnus. He was a member of this house.”

That piqued their interest a little, if only out of politeness.

“How long ago? What was going on at Tech back then?”

I played my best cards: “Well, when I was here they demolished Throop Hall, the cannon appeared on the Olive Walk, the ‘Impeach Nixon’ banner was unfurled on Millikan Library, and one of our alumni walked on the moon during finals week.”

Throop was not even a memory for the current crop of Techers and the Fleming House cannon was now a mundane and regular fixture of the Olive Walk, but the moon landing story was intriguing to this assembly of students for whom rocket science was simply another elective. They warmed to me.

“Why are you here today?”

“I'm in town for an education conference. I'm a math professor from up in northern California. Before that I used to work at the State Capitol as a legislative assistant.”

One of the Techers brightened: “There's a Tech graduate who blogs under the name of Zeno. Do you know him? He's a math prof and a former government worker, so you have a lot in common. Sometimes he mentions Caltech, which is why we know about him.”

“Yeah,” said another. “It pops up in my Google reader alerts whenever he does.”

I grinned. “I have to admit that I know him pretty well, since that's the name I use when blogging.”

By now the word had trickled out from the lounge and throughout the student house. They crowded in to check out the minor celebrity in their midst. A couple of hours later, my stock of ancient Caltech lore finally tapped out, I begged their indulgence and excused myself for the night. There was another conference session in the morning and it wouldn't do for me to stay up any later. Even as energized as I had become, all good things have their end. I thanked the current residents of my old student house for a delightful evening and faded away into the night.

The Reality

“May I help you, sir?”

I looked to see who had spoken. A young man with dark hair had come up behind me and asked the question.

“Hello,” I replied. “I was a member of this student house over thirty years ago. I'm a little surprised to see how everything is buttoned up these days.”

He favored me with a quizzical expression. It all seemed normal to him, of course.

“These gates are new,” I continued. “I wasn't expecting them.”

“I can let you in,” he offered. “Would you like to look around?”

He swiped his student ID card through the reader and held the gate open for me. I asked his name and learned he was Abih, a student from North Carolina. He escorted me to the lounge of the student house. The big fireplace and the old piano were still in place. The portrait of the house's namesake was sitting atop the mantle, awaiting the finishing touches of the remodeling that would rehang it in its customary place.

“Thanks for letting me in, Abih. It's nice to see the place again.”

“You're welcome. I'm on my way to meet friends, so I have to go, but you know your way around, right?”

“Sure. Thanks. I can let myself out.”

We shook hands and he hustled down the hallway. There was no one else around. I wandered about for a few minutes, taking in the familiar lounge, dining room, and courtyard. I had expected that at least a few students would be in residence even on a Saturday night, but perhaps the grinds were holed up in their rooms and the more sociable types had found activities to attend.

I decided to exit by the big wooden main doors, which swung ponderously open. The lock engaged noisily when I shut them behind me. My visit to my old student house had been very brief. I had plenty of time to roam the campus and take in some other sights. As I strolled down the Olive Walk, I considered how differently my visit might have turned out.

There were many possibilities.

4 comments:

Sili said...

Note to self: read the headings.

(Captcha: "husclord" - "Hus" is Danish for house, so I'll infer that "husclord" is the feeling you've just described, one gets when visiting one's old house only to be let down.)

Zeno said...

Yeah, the headings are kind of important in this post. ;-)

GOPnot4me said...

Dear Zeno,

Happy Blog Amnesty Day.

I picked you as one of my five.

GOPnot4me

You are a terrific writer and I visit every day.

Thanks for your efforts.

GOPnot4me (Mike)

Plumas said...

Damn! We missed you again. We always read this, hoping to get some caltech lore